August 2011

The Woman Who wouldn't Be Quiet

I stared at him questioningly.  "What was that?" I asked.

"I said that Ellen White was racist." His voice grew in boldness, as if his assurance validated his assertion.

At the time I was nonpluzzed by the pronouncement, but as time passed I realized that the person conversing with me was by no means alone in his sentiments. Because of certain statements she made, many question if Ellen White's views on race and race relations were unprejudiced. This essay is intended to shed light on this often-misunderstood topic.

To grasp this subject, one must first understand the times Ellen Gould White lived in. She was born in 1827 during a time period when the practice of slavery was at its zenith and black people were considered products rather than humans. They were considered property in the Southern United States where chattel slavery was a way of life; and in the Northern United States even free blacks enjoyed few rights and were often subjects of terrorism.

Further into the nineteenth century, more voices increasingly rose in protest against the slave institution, both nationally and internationally. Legendary individuals such as William Wilberforce, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimké, along with countless lesser knowns, comprised the ranks of those dedicated to abolishing the hideous system.  Concurrently, numerous insurrections took place, from the successful Haitian Revolution at the turn of the century to Nathaniel Turner’s famous rebellion to John Brown’s heroic assault at Harper’s Ferry.

As the issue of slavery reached a boiling point, the North and South became locked into opposing positions, escalating into the Civil War. Through the conflicted, yet ultimately triumphant, leadership of Abraham Lincoln, superior resources and military, and divine intervention, the Union prevailed and slavery was abolished. Though the war ended, however, literally decades passed before African Americans reaped the true benefits of freedom. Just as voices were lifted to force the eradication of American captivity, so in the condemning of post-War treatment of blacks, now in the form of the unjust policies of Jim Crow.

Ellen White was one such person who spoke on behalf of black rights. She saw injustice and oppression and in the late 1880s began to articulate to Seventh-day Adventists the needs of blacks in fresh and innovative ways. The Lord had freed the slaves; now more than ever the gospel could and should be preached to them. Now was the time African Americas could better hear the truth, live the truth, and join God's special movement.

Around this time during the late 1880s the Seventh-day Adventist Church was still a burgeoning organization. Its members were fairly progressive thinkers, yet many were still deeply influenced by the erroneous belief that Jesus’ second advent would address racial problems and thus they did not need to do anything in that regard and, among just as many, an intellectual concern for blacks but not a practical and activating one.

During this same time, when calling for positive action on behalf of Black people, Ellen White cautioned care in how blacks related to whites, and how they displayed social interaction before society. In general, Mrs. White advocated great wisdom and balance in race relations.

It was these statements and similar ones that caused my friend so many problems, believing Ellen White was a racist. He, like other more modern readers, needed to (1) understand the context for Mrs. White's statements; (2) realize that Ellen White was willing to make temporal concessions in how blacks mingled with whites for the greater good of safety in the proclamation of the gospel; and (3) factor into their thinking that these race relation approaches were only advised until the Lord showed the church a better way.

Initially Adventist leaders paid little attention to White, ignoring or dismissing her increasingly insistent appeals. Perhaps this was just a prophetic trend in her mind that would soon go away, they reasons. But she wouldn't let up. She once declared, “I know that which I now speak will bring me into conflict. This I do not covet, for the conflict has seemed to be continuous of late years; but I do not mean to live a coward or die a coward, leaving my work undone…Sin rests upon us as a church because we have not made greater effort for the salvation of souls among the colored people."

Adventist leaders and laity largely ignored Ellen White's appeals on behalf of black people. Yet ignoring Ellen White only made her more determined to have her counsel heeded. Persistent and unrelenting, she simply would not be overlooked or deterred. The Lord had shown her in no uncertain terms that the blacks in the South must be given the gospel and a fighting chance to make it in society, and the Seventh-day Adventist movement was to bring those things about.  America owed a great debt to African Americans, and SDAs were to make good on that debt.

Remarkably, Ellen White did more than mention the divine counsel on the Black race in her talks. She donated funds; got into debt; raised funds; personally held church leaders accountable; leveled charges of fraud; devised strategies; related scores of visions; rebuked and cajoled; penned hundreds of pages in letters; published front page articles in church periodicals; all on behalf of the black cause. Her passion even touched her family: Edson, as he and his wife, Emma, risked their lives teaching and sharing the gospel with blacks in the heart of the South, and Emma eventually died from malaria complications that she developed in Mississippi.

The effect of Ellen White’s efforts on behalf of black people are evident not only in the United States but internationally.  Her legacy includes millions of ethnic Seventh-day Adventists worldwide—far surpassing the original predominately white demographic of the church—who have impacted the world and the kingdom of God immeasurably. The charge of racism is made without considering the bulk of her words and the aims and achievements of her life, but instead myopically zeroing in on isolated statements fully understandable in their context. In the words of the late E.E. Cleveland, “One thing is certain, Ellen White was one of the best friends Black America has ever known.”

-Benjamin J. Baker