The Unknown Prophet

Almost twenty-five years have passed since the Review and Herald published The Unknown Prophet by Delbert W. Baker.  The 160 page volume ushered in a denominational enlightenment, as it were, concerning long-held notions about a trilogy of prophetic choices in the heat of Millerism.  What led to The Unknown Prophet’s conception? How was it received by the denomination? And 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.  The Lord gave him three visions, and Foy spoke on them wherever he was invited, donned in a clergyman’s robe.  Loughborough recounts the themes of Foy’s visions, and writes that “Having a good command of language, with fine descriptive powers, he [Foy] created a sensation wherever he went.” 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."  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 heard about William Foy.  A third-generation Adventist, Baker had earned a degree in Theology from Oakwood College.  He was nonplussed by the scant material on William Foy, and what he read raised more questions than answers.  The accounts to him seemed conflicted and spotty.

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 Magazine and completed his research shortly thereafter.

Baker writes of his quest to discover the truth about Foy: “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.”  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.”  Graybill, author of two well-known books on Adventist race relations, fully supported Baker’s research and whetted his readership’s appetites for the groundbreaking study.

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.  Poirier wrote with the authority of the Ellen G. White Estate, then serving as its assistant secretary: “Recent research demands a revision of the traditional Adventist view of William Foy.  In the past Foy has been linked to Hazen Foss as one whom the Lord called to be a prophet but who refused the gift but refused the gift, giving God no alternative but to turn to “the weakest of the weak,” Ellen Harmon.  But Foy’s career is badly distorted by the link to Foss.  Unlike Foss, who refused to relate his visions, Foy, in sermons and tracts, shared what he had seen.”  Baker successfully cast Foy as a “John-the-Baptist figure who was given a limited assignment that he faithfully completed.”

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.  The article is essentially an interview of its editor, Delbert Baker, on Message’s history, current stature, and future strategies.  In a highlight box introducing the Message staff, Baker’s upcoming book on Foy is mentioned.

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

The Unknown Prophet is essentially a biography of William Foy.  Baker works his five years of unearthing research in New England into a flowing narrative of a conflicted light–skinned black preacher of a bygone era.  The volume is divided 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 we see Foy converted and grappling 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 startling 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 C.C. Crisler and Doris Robinson had with Ellen G. White on October 13, 1906.  In the interview a mature White stated that Foy had four visions, and at one time she actually witnessed him in a prophetic trance.  She possessed the pamphlet Foy had published of his visions, and even had a discussion (“interview”) with him.  She stated that she and her family attended his lectures at Beethoven Hall and Cape Elizabeth.  She even knew where his family lived.  Her most famous statement on Foy is: “But it was remarkable testimonies [that] he bore.”

Part II coming tomorrow. . .

Here is a 72 slide presentation on William Foy, created by Delbert Baker, PhD.

William Ellis Foy, The Unknown Prophet





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Sat, 10/25/2014 | Los Angeles Adventist Forum
October Adventist Forum
Ronald E. Osborn, Ph.D., A 2014-2016 Mellon Postdoctoral Fell ow in the Peace and Justice Program at Wellesley College (Boston), and a 2 015 Fullbright Scholar to Burma/Myanmar, Formerly an Adjunct Faculty Membe r in the Dept. of International Relations at USC, and in the Honors Progra m at UCLA. Topic: "Death Before the Fall?: A Conversation with Ronald Osbor n."

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