blacksdahistory.org

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March 2011

The Career of The Unknown Prophet



Almost twenty five years have elapsed since the debut of The Unknown Prophet by Delbert W. Baker.  The 160 page volume ushered in a denominational enlightenment, as it were, about long-held notions concerning William Ellis Foy, the first in the trio of prophetic candidates in the heat of Millerism.  Within that time Foy was transformed from a stark corrective to those thinking about ignoring God’s call, to a sterling exemplar of faithfulness amidst hostility.  What led to The Unknown Prophet’s conception? How was it received by the denomination?  How did it upend engrained assumptions? And finally, what has been its influence on Seventh-day Adventism in the intervening decades?

Seventh-day Adventists have historically held that God gave three individuals visions in the early 1840s: William Foy, Hazen Foss, and Ellen Harmon.  William Foy, a black Baptist minister then in his 20s, rejected God’s command to share the visions, Adventists maintained, and so God moved on to the white Hazen Foss.  Foss also declined God’s call to relate the visions he received, and Foss was said to have never had peace again.  Finally, God settled on a teenaged girl named Ellen Harmon, who proved to be a willing vessel.

The main source from which the Foy-rejection belief seemed to have sprung is J.N. Loughborough’s book Rise and Progress of the Seventh-day Adventists.  Loughborough states that Foy was an educated Mulatto from Massachusetts who was a Baptist minister soon to be ordained an Episcopal minister.[i]  The Lord gave him three visions, and Foy spoke on them wherever he was invited, donned in a clergyman’s robe.  Recounting the themes of Foy’s visions, he writes that “Having a good command of language, with fine descriptive powers, he [Foy] created a sensation wherever he went.”[ii]  Foy didn’t understand every part of his visions, but he still related them, going as far as publishing them in a pamphlet.  But alas, Loughborough writes, “He finally became exalted over the revelation, and thus lost his simplicity, hence the manifestation of this gift to him ceased, and soon after he sickened and died."[iii]  From this account and the subsequent reworking of it in numerous Adventist books, including the SDA Encyclopedia, and from the reasoning that if Foy had been faithful then God wouldn’t have given the same visions to Hazen Foss and Ellen White, Adventists concluded that William Foy rejected God’s prophetic call.

Delbert W. Baker was a graduate student at Andrews University Seminary when he first began to seriously question the negative things he had heard about William Foy.[iv]  A third-generation Adventist, Baker had earned a degree in Theology from Oakwood College.  Nonplussed by the scant material on William Foy, what he read raised more questions than answers.

Curious, in 1978 Baker began to study Foy’s life in earnest.  Although a pastor in the Midwest, Baker took time to travel to various New England locales, following in Foy’s footsteps.  In 1985 Baker became editor of Message and completed his research shortly thereafter.  Reflecting on his quest to discover the truth about Foy, he writes: “I have researched and analyzed all the known materials on Foy’s life.  My search has led me to archives, courthouses, libraries, and graveyards, to encounters with people in large cities and in obscure, out-of-the-way places.  I visited places where Foy lived and worked throughout New England.  My travels climaxed in Ellsworth, Maine, where Foy’s tombstone is to this day.”[v]  That tombstone, like many other revelations in Baker’s book, would alter Adventist assumptions.

Several articles preceded The Unknown Prophet’s publication, readying the public, as it were, for what was to come.  In 1985 Ronald Graybill, editor of the Columbia Union Visitor and former Ellen G. White Estate research assistant, highlighted Delbert Baker’s completed manuscript on William Foy in the February 15th issue in an article entitled “William Ellis Foy: A Black Adventist Prophet Rediscovered.”[vi]  In Spectrum’s August 1987 issue Tim Poirier’s “Black Forerunner to Ellen White: William E. Foy” summarized Baker’s research and included an interview with him on the subject.[vii] In the May 1, 1986, edition of Adventist Review, the Church’s official organ, James Coffin, the magazine’s news editor, did an upbeat write-up on Message and featured the forthcoming book in the highlight box.[viii]

And so in late 1987, The Unknown Prophet was printed at Seventh-day Adventism’s premier press, Review and Herald, as part of the 1888 Centennial Series, three books treating aspects of Adventist history commemorating the legendary Minneapolis General Conference.  The other two volumes are also now Adventist classics: George Knight’s A.T. Jones: From 1888 to Apostasy and Gary Land’s The World of Ellen G. White.

The Unknown Prophet had an initial print run of 5,000 copies.  It was a handsome book: a brown 6x9 with a thumbnail picture of a distinguished-looking black man with a shock of gray hair sitting in a Victorian decorated office, feather pen poised in hand, and The Unknown Prophet written in large letters three lines long.  It was dedicated to “Calvin B. Rock and Oakwood College,” Baker’s alma mater and president throughout his matriculation.  Rock, then Vice President of the General Conference, wrote one preface; the second was by the Secretary (Director) of the Ellen G. White Estate, Robert W. Olsen.  Two more trustworthy men in Adventism could hardly have been chosen to introduce the volume.

The Unknown Prophet is essentially a biography of William Foy.  Baker works his five years of research into a flowing narrative of a conflicted light–skinned black preacher of a bygone era into five sections: Context, Conversion, Connections, Commission and Conclusion.

Context provides the milieu of Foy’s life, which without one cannot understand the man.  Baker provides impressive material on Foy’s family and background, underscoring the unique struggle of free Northern blacks.  In Section Two Foy is converted yet grapples with a call to the ministry.  Connections has to do with Foy’s preaching career, first as a Baptist and Episcopalian minister then as a Millerite.  In Section Four Baker spends a chapter on each of Foy’s four visions, respectively titling them “Victory,” “Judgment,” “Providence,” and “Unknown.”  The fourteenth chapter is the triumphant centerpiece of the work, in which Foy’s internal struggle to relate the visions he received in a racist and violent America turns to willingness and then obedience. 

The Unknown Prophet’s final section is a direct challenge to Adventist’s long-held assumptions, covering old ground in a totally new way.  Hazen Foss is reviewed in the light of Foy. “The Baton is Passed” is a succinct three page chapter on Ellen White’s contact with William Foy.  Probably the strongest evidence that Baker provided of Foy’s prophetic veracity were quotes and exposition from an interview Dores Robinson had with Ellen G. White on October 13, 1906.  In the interview a mature White recalled that Foy had four visions, and at one time she actually witnessed him in a prophetic trance.  She possessed the pamphlet Foy published of his visions, and had a discussion (“interview”) with him.  She and her family attended his lectures at Beethoven Hall and Cape Elizabeth and she knew where the Foys lived.  Her most memorable statement on Foy is: “But it was remarkable testimonies [that] he bore.”[ix]

Baker’s final chapter compares the two prophets, contending that Foy was called to a different ministry than White: his was “measured” and “brief”; hers “prolific” and “three quarters of a century.”  Yet they both were faithful.  Baker winds down by debunking Loughborough’s aforementioned statement and one of Adventism’s inveterate rumors, that soon after the Great Disappointment Foy died.  His tombstone records his death date as November 9, 1893.  Baker concludes, “All Adventists may join in the hope that one day, when heaven’s record is complete, they will meet William Foy in Paradise, the earth made new, which meant so much to him.”[x]

The Review and Herald conducted an extensive marketing plan for the 1888 Centennial Series, advertisements for the three books appearing consistently in Adventist periodicals.  Baker himself, still editor of Message, traveled frequently, preaching, promoting Message, and lecturing on William Foy and other black Adventist history topics.

The Unknown Prophet sold well, so well in fact, that the Review and Herald did a second print run of 3,100 copies in the spring of 1988 to meet consumer demands.  A flurry of articles broadcasting the new book appeared.  In its second issue of 1988, the Adventist Review displayed Foy’s tombstone on the cover, with a full length-article by Baker inside.[xi]  With solid backing from the highest church leaders, Adventism’s official magazine, and Baker’s durable research, the tide was turning, the true story of Foy making its way into the Adventist consciousness. 

Since Adventists are people of the book, the extent of one’s research can probably best be measured by the number and frequency of publications it is cited in.  The Unknown Prophet certainly fared well in this regard.  In 1989, James Nix, founder of Adventist Heritage Ministries, used The Unknown Prophet as a source for his book Memorable Dates From Our Adventist Past.  Nix, once perhaps trepid about lauding Foy as an Adventist hero as is evidenced in his article in the Review and Herald entitled “The Third Prophet Spoke Forth,” cites Foy’s first vision in January 18, 1842, as an important date in Adventism.[xii]

The Unknown Prophet’s influence is seen in SDA encyclopedias and histories.  Roger Coon, then associate director of the White Estate, used Baker’s research in his popular The Great Visions of Ellen G. White.[xiii]  George Knight, Adventism’s most prolific author and scholar, and one of the authors in the 1888 Centennial Series, cites Baker as Foy authority and relays his research to his readers in Millennial Fever and the End of the World.[xiv]  Gary Land, Baker’s other fellow author in the 1888 Centennial Series, includes a positive entry on Foy in his Historical Dictionary of Seventh-day Adventists.[xv] Richard Schwarz and Floyd Greenleaf, prominent Adventist historians, cited The Unknown Prophet in the revised edition of Light Bearers, but failed to alter the text about Foy significantly.[xvi]  The most recent authoritative study on Ellen White, Messenger of the Lord by Herbert E. Douglass, beloved SDA author and administrator, treats Foy fairly, dedicating several paragraphs to him and confirming his faithfulness, relying on The Unknown Prophet.[xvii]  Denis Fortin, Dean of Andrews Theological Seminary, asked Baker to contribute a Foy entry in his upcoming Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, co-edited with Jerry Moon.[xviii]

A myriad of African American authors, Adventist and non-Adventist, utilized Baker’s research.  Dr. Charles Dudley, Adventist minister and administrator of over 50 years, discusses Foy in his two volume history of black Adventism, Thou Who Hast Brought Us.[xix]  R. Clifford Jones touches on Foy in the first full-length biography of James K. Humphrey.[xx]  Benjamin J. Baker considered William Foy’s experience to be one of the critical episode in African American Seventh-day Adventist history, and features a chapter on him in Crucial Moments: Twelve Defining Events in Black Adventist History.[xxi]  H.H. Price and Gerald E. Talbot mention Foy in their book Maine’s Visible Black History: The First Chronicle of Its People.[xxii]

A myriad of other books and articles highlight William Foy, this time not as a reprobate but as a spiritual hero.[xxiii]  Foy is especially considered a hero in black Adventism, a true pioneer chosen by God even before the revered Ellen G. White.[xxiv]

As the Internet age began in the late 1990s, information on Foy began to appear on the World Wide Web.  Soon The Unknown Prophet could be found for sale on dozens of online book stores.  Naturally, websites sprung up that went to extremes.  Baker’s book developed a sort of cult following, often cited to disprove Ellen White, maintaining she shamelessly appropriated Foy’s visionary content.[xxv]  Other sites, appreciating the spiritual richness of Foy’s revelations, reproduced his pamphlet with no apparent polemical agenda.[xxvi]

In the first decade of the 21st century perhaps the greatest nods to Baker’s scholarship occurred.  In 2002 The General Conference Youth Department published a Church Heritage Manual, “A course in Church History highlighting significant details of interest to the youth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”  In the traditional Adventist practice, a section on the spirit of prophecy was included with the requisite Revelation 12:17 and 19:10 as signs of the true remnant church.  But instead of starting off with Ellen White, William Foy is first featured.  The account sticks to the facts and never reports an ill word about Foy.  The Unknown Prophet is the source.[xxvii]

In 2005 the Center for Adventist Research at Andrews University republished William Foy’s Christian Experience.  The pamphlet was originally published in 1845 by J. and C.H. Pearson, two brothers residing in Portland, Maine, who believed in Foy’s ministry. On the 160th anniversary, it appeared again in the Heritage Treasures Series, the first in the set with an introduction by Baker.”[xxviii]

Misinformation on Foy still lingers, however, despite the decades since The Unknown Prophet, although not in any Seventh-day Adventist magazine in good and regular standing.  The January 2008 edition of Our Firm Foundation (OFF) had this to say about Foy in an article entitled “Jonah: A Type of Remnant”: “Like some who, in the early days of Adventism, were bidden to give a message but who ran from God’s call, there is a price for disobedience.  We think of William Foss [sic] and Hazen Foy [sic], both given a vision to relate to God’s people; both ran from the call.  Neither had peace again.  Instead, the call was given to the weakest of the weak, Ellen Harmon, who tremblingly accepted.”[xxix]  When this author wrote OFF concerning the Foy reference, the editor cited J.N. Loughborough’s Rise and Progress of the Seventh-day Adventists as proof of the validity of the Foy statement.[xxx]  And the occasional sermon from an Adventist pulpit contains a woebegone aside about the tragedy that was Foy’s disobedience.

But despite the truth about William Foy coming to light, more questions about the now-known prophet have yet to be explored: Do the divine choices of prophets in the 1840s reveal anything new about the manner the gift may appear in the future?  What does the fact that Foy never became a Seventh-day Adventist tell us?  Has the revised knowledge of Foy had any affect on SDA race relations?  How should Foy’s experienced be used in Adventism today?  Finally, what other parts of SDA history need revising? 

May God bless us as we seek to be faithful to Him as was William Foy.

-Benjamin Baker



[i] Loughborough spells the name Foye.

[ii] John Loughborough, Rise and Progress of the Seventh-day Adventists (Battle Creek, MI: General Conference Association), 71.

[iii] Ibid, 71.

[iv]Delbert Baker, The Unknown Prophet (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald), 15.

[v] Ibid, 15.

[vi] Ronald D. Graybill, “William Ellis Foy: A Black Prophet Rediscovered” (Columbia Union Visitor, February 15, 1985), 4-6.

[vii] Tim Poirier, “Black Forerunner to Ellen White: William E. Foy” (Spectrum, August 1987), 23-28.

[viii] James Coffin, “Message Sharpens Image, Seeks New Readers” (Adventist Review, May 1, 1986), 20-22.

[ix] Ms 131, 1906, pp. 1, 4-6

[x] Ibid, 159.

[xi] Delbert W. Baker, “William Foy: Messenger to the Advent Believers” (Adventist Review, January 14, 1988), 8-10.

[xii] James R. Nix, “The Third Prophet Spoke Forth” (Adventist Review, December 4, 1986), 22; James R. Nix, Memorable Dates From Our Adventist Past (North American Division Office of Education, 1989), 13-14.

[xiii] Roger Coon, The Great Visions of Ellen G. White (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald), 33, 38, 151.

[xiv] George R. Knight, Millennial Fever and the End of the World (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press), 118, 119, 355.

[xv]Gary Land, Historical Dictionary of Seventh-day Adventists (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2005), 104, 365.

[xvi] Richard W. Schwartz and Floyd Greenleaf, Light Bearers (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press), 62, 660.

[xvii] Herbert E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press), 1998.

[xviii] Denis Fortin and Jerry Moon, eds.  Ellen G. White Encyclopedia (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, forthcoming), William Foy.

[xix] Charles E. Dudley, Thou Who Hast Brought Us… (Brushton, NY: TEACH Services, Inc), 58, 77.

[xx] R. Clifford Jones, James K. Humphrey and the Sabbath-day Adventists (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi).

[xxi] Benjamin J. Baker, Crucial Moments (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association), 26.

[xxii] H.H. Price and Gerald E. Talbot, Maine’s Visible Black History: The First Chronicle of Its People (Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House Publishers, 2006), 385.

[xxiii] See the following articles in Youth Ministry Accent: Gregory Allen, “William Foy: God’s Bold Messenger” (April-June 2000), 10-12; and Richard G. Edison, “William Foy: I Will Go” (April-June 2000), 34-35.

[xxiv] See Gary Burns, “William Foy: A Message for Today” (Lake Union Herald, February 2005), 11; and Kate Simmons, “Pioneering Heroes of Black Adventism” (Outlook (Mid-American Union), February 2006), 10-11.

[xxv] See for instance, D. Anderson, “Visions Copied From Foy?” (http://www.ellenwhiteexposed.com/refute9a.htm) and Robert K. Sanders, ed., “William Ellis Foy’s Visions” (http://www.truthorfables.com/Foy.htm).  

[xxvi] See http://www.greatcontroversy.org/pioneer/foy-vis.html for such a page.

[xxvii] Church Heritage Manual (General Conference Youth Department, 2002), 25,

[xxviii] William E. Foy, Christian Experience (Merlin D. Burt, series editor, Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press), Introduction.

[xxix] Ralph Moss, “Jonah: A Type of Remnant” (Our Firm Foundation, January 2008), 12.

[xxx] Email reply from Heidi Heiks, editorial@hopeint.org, January 16, 2008.