Adventists and Activism: A Religion Initiated Out of a Thirst for Social Change

“I am burdened, heavily burdened, for the work among the colored people…For many years I have borne a heavy burden in behalf of the Negro race. My heart has ached as I have seen the feeling against this race growing stronger and still stronger, and as I have seen that many Seventh-day Adventists are apparently unable to understand the necessity for an earnest work being done quickly. Years are passing into eternity with apparently little done to help those who were recently a race of slaves.”

Ellen G. White, “Proclaiming the Truth Where There is Race Antagonism.”  Testimonies for the Church vol.9 p. 204

On September 22, 1862 the 16th President of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln, signed the Emancipation Proclamation releasing African Americans from the chains of slavery and granting them nominal freedom. Almost eight months later on May 21, 1863 the Christian denomination known as The Seventh-day Adventist Church was officially organized with its chief spokeswoman and co-founder being Ellen G. White.

Ellen White felt strongly about the condition of African Americans post-Civil War. So much so that two years after the church’s official initiation Ellen White communicated a strong passion to “evangelize Blacks in the South, and called for Seventh-day Adventists to join in the great work being done for Blacks” (Norman 2). It was with the sparks of this passion that her son Edson White felt compelled to respond. He and his wife Emma, joined by William O. Palmer and his wife and Captain A. T. Orton, built a steamboat they called “The Morning Star.” Completed in July of 1894 The White’s and Palmer’s sailed the Centennial Lake at Vicksburg where they brought over 1,000 books and by winter had over 150 students accounted for in enrollment. By 1908, because of the work of Edson White, the Southern Missionary Society was formulated and,

“controlled 28 mission schools with an enrollment of nearly a thousand pupils. The SMS became a branch of the Southern Union in 1901 and after the organization of the North American Negro Department in 1909 it served a function that made it the forerunner of the South Central Conference [of Seventh-day Adventists]” (Norman 3).

It was in seeing the ignorance and violence enacted on the African American body and mind that many within the Seventh-day Adventist Church felt compelled to action and thus helped to educate and later legitimately employ thousands of African Americans into the Seventh-day Adventist Ministry. But, there was a tag to it. Because of the prevailing prejudice and racism of the South there remained a need for the separation of whites and blacks. Thus, they did not worship together and many whites would not hear the truth or gospel message as presented by Adventists if blacks were in any way affiliated. For this reason Ellen White writes in her book Testimonies for the Church vol. 9 in her chapter entitled, “Proclaiming the Truth Where There is Race Antagonism” that whites should establish adequate houses of worship for Black laborers that they may continue to win souls within the Black community for the Kingdom. She states,

“Let them be shown that this is done not to exclude them from worshiping with white people, because they are black, but in order that the progress of the truth may be advanced. Let them understand that this plan is to be followed until the Lord shows us a better way” (White 206).

Realistically, White also understood that race and racism was a sin of the heart and that it would take diligence and intentionality on the parts of ministers to work to eradicate their destructive tendencies.

With this historical framework in mind it is my opinion that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has become lackadaisical in its work to remove racism and prejudice from its congregations. Although White gave admonishing for segregation it was under the conviction that the people of God would be ever diligent in their attempts to rectify this issue. Unfortunately, rather than seeking to, with much prayer and wisdom, teaching white congregants to see the humanity of the African American both congregations have become conditioned to worshiping separately, even presently. It is due to this psychological conditioning of “separate but equal” that I believe we as a denomination have lost our sense of urgency as relates to matters of injustice within various minority groups.

Most recently, the world is in an uproar about the consistent mistreatment of African Americans and those of Hispanic or Latino origin by various Police forces through physical violence. Many young men and women are consistently losing their lives by strangling, taser, and gun shot all at the hands of men and women who claim to “serve and protect.” It is with such loss of bloodshed that I share in the sentiments of the founding woman of my faith and “I [too] am burdened, heavily burdened, for the work among the colored people.”

We as people of all races, nationalities, colors, languages, religions, and classes, have a responsibility to work to address the injustices of our world. This is especially true for those of the Christian faith.

How can we call ourselves followers of Christ yet we find ourselves unwilling to walk in His footsteps and bring change and relief to the people we have been called to serve?

German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of the Roman mistreatment of the Jews of Israel in his book The Cost of Discipleship stating,

There were no longer any shepherds in Israel…The Good Shepherd (speaking of God in whom we are to reflect) protects his sheep against the wolf, and instead of fleeing he gives his life for the sheep. He knows them all by name and loves them. He knows their distress and their weakness. He heals the wounded, gives drink to the thirsty, sets upright the falling, and leads them gently, not sternly, to pasture. He leads them on the right way…Jesus is looking for good shepherds, and there are none to be found (Bonhoeffer 202).

It is with this in mind that I charge all people, especially minsters of the Christian gospel, to take up the mantel the Lord Jesus Christ has given you in His Holy Bible and through the admonitions of many of His disciples like Ellen White and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Do not seclude yourself in your respective religious affiliations, races, nationalities, and class standings. The work for the Kingdom must be done, and part of that work is meeting the physical, legislative, emotional, social, AND spiritual needs of people. We cannot continue to only seek to, in essence, forgive people of their sins but refuse to heal them of their blindness; we cannot continue to “forgive sins” but refuse to cloth their nakedness; we cannot continue to “forgive sins” but refuse to feed their hunger; we cannot continue to “forgive sins” but refuse to restore their bodies of illness; and we cannot continue to “forgive sins” but refuse to help mediate their social, physical, and legal mistreatment.

We have a work to do! What are you willing to do? What will you now do differently to help save the lives of black and brown people on this earth both physically and spiritually?

First things first! Sign this petition! Let’s get Congress to see that what is happening within our communities is not only ungodly, but also unconstitutional.

Sign Here!

https://www.change.org/p/u-s-house-of-representatives-implement-federal-policy-to-safeguard-the-civil-rights-of-citizens-from-law-enforcement-officials

“We are moved and our sympathies are stirred by the Macedonian cries for help in foreign fields, and our hearts are especially touched by the plaintive pleas for light we hear from those in heathen darkness. But what have we to say, and what are we doing to answer the imperative demands made upon us from the destitute mission fields within our own borders-the loud calls at our doors? Can we excuse ourselves if we permit these appeals, which are echoed and re-echoed, in our ears year after year from the millions in our own land, to go unheeded without more active and aggressive work on our part? The Lord has spoken to us in regard to this field, and especially concerning our duty to the colored people. God makes no distinction between the North and the South…Are we not under even greater obligation to labor for the colored people than for those who have been highly favored? Is there not much more due them from the white people? After so great a wrong has been done them, should not an earnest effort be made to lift them up?”

Ellen G. White, General Conference Daily Bulletin, Vol. 5 – Battle Creek, MI. – No. 13

 

References:

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “The Harvest.” The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Touchstone, 1959. Print. Trans. of Chr. Kaiser Verlag Munchen. German Nachfolge, 1937.

Norman II, R. Steven. “Edson White’s Southern Work Remembered.” Southern Tidings 89.10 (1995): 2-3. Adventist Archives. Web. 17 Aug. 2014.

White, Ellen G., R. M. Kilmore, General Conference Daily Bulletin, February 21, 1893: General Conference Proceedings: Third Meeting. 311. Battle Creek. White Estate. Web. 17 Aug. 2014.

—        “Proclaiming the Truth Where There is Race Antagonism.” Testimonies for the Church. 1909. White Estate. Web. 17 Aug. 2014.

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