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Adventism and America's Original Sin (Part 2)

During an era in which race relations worsened to their lowest point in post-civil war American history, the first Adventist church planted in the nation’s capital was an interracial fellowship, described in 1899 as a “living miracle of the power of God” that surprised outside observers. The church was central to a saga played out on the stage of Washington, D.C., introduced in Part 1, that challenges us to re-think Adventism’s racial past and how it has shaped the present.

Despite her melancholy over the absence of the man who had captured her heart, Georgia Harper dutifully went about her work for the Lord—selling Adventist literature, giving Bible studies, and seeking to interest others in receiving them. Trudging street after street and climbing steep stairs to row house after row house added physical exhaustion to her heaviness of heart.

She and Will Spicer had talked about marriage. But in 1887 the future world church leader felt called to join a mission to England. Meanwhile, Georgia and five other young people joined the city mission that the Adventists had recently set up in Washington, D.C. It was one of about twenty-five missions the church had launched in urban America during the 1880s—a frontier that the movement had as yet barely touched.

The few who responded positively no doubt lifted Georgia’s spirits. Yet she could not have imagined the far-reaching consequences when an exceptionally genial, professionally attired young black man responded positively to the literature she offered.1 When James H. Howard embraced the message of “present truth,” he opened a large portal to a population segment that the Adventist mission initiative had not particularly targeted—the growing black communities of urban America.

Though the “Great Migration”—the boom in black migration from the South to the cities of the North—lay nearly thirty years ahead, Washington, D.C. already had the largest black population of any city in the world, approaching 100,000 by 1900. It was in many respects a Southern city, with hardening lines of racial segregation in education, housing, restaurants, and theaters. Yet, strong black educational institutions and prestigious churches thrived along with the arts and entertainment, making Washington the cultural center of black America before Harlem came into vogue in the 1920s. Employment opportunities in government and education undergirded a strong black middle class, well-informed, culturally alive, and progressive in outlook.2

It is difficult to imagine Adventism finding a more winsome and well-positioned ambassador to black Washington than James H. Howard. He was born in 1861, during the Civil War, in an historic, free black community near Sandy Spring, Maryland, north of Washington, D.C. He graduated from Howard University in Washington as class valedictorian and did so at age 18, the youngest person to earn a bachelor’s degree from the university for many decades to come. He went on to earn an M.D. at Howard Medical School in 1883, again at the top of his class. Years later he would be father-figure and mentor to his better-known niece, Eva B. Dykes, who in 1921 became the first African American female to complete requirements for a PhD.3

Instead of practicing medicine, Dr. Howard entered the Pensions Office of the Department of War—a coveted “desk job” in the higher echelons of the federal government positions that were open to black Americans. At the point when young James Howard encountered Georgia Harper and Adventism in 1887, he had just stepped into a future bright with promise for success, financial comfort, and prestige among the black elite of Washington society.

His embrace of Adventism thus “created a sensation among the [Howard University] faculty, student body and alumni…Dr. Howard became a marked man among his erstwhile friends and admirers who shook their heads at what they regarded as the folly of so promising a young man needlessly throwing away his career.” But to Kelly Miller, the author of these words, it was to Dr. Howard’s credit that, Moses-like, he preferred this course to enjoying “the social frivolities of Washington for one season.” Miller, a long-time professor and dean at Howard University, was also a public intellectual of a stature roughly on par with that of a Cornel West or a Henry Louis Gates today.4

The Adventist mission in Washington gradually gained momentum and in 1888 began meeting for Sabbath and evangelistic services in space rented at Claybaugh Hall on 14th Street, Northwest. The new group of believers was interracial from the start. Alonzo T. Jones, who worshiped with the embryonic congregation when he came to Washington late in 1888 to advocate for religious liberty in congressional committee hearings, recalled that about half of the group was “colored.” He had been “pleased to see how freely and brotherly they met and conducted their services simply as Christian brethren.”5

Other evidence suggests the proportion of black members was not as high among the 26 charter members when the congregation was formally organized in March 1889. Still, the church grew to an estimated total membership of 150 by 1900, about 50 of whom were black people. James Howard led the way in fervent witness to the gospel message of “present truth” in Washington.6

In a tribute published decades later in his nationally-syndicated newspaper column, Kelly Miller wrote that Dr. Howard “carried the gospel with him wherever he went,” always armed with “circulars and literature.” In fact, said Miller, “I never met him on the street but that he essayed to persuade me to become an Adventist just as he was.” While, on the one hand, Dr. Howard indeed had “the enthusiasm of a religious zealot,” on the other hand, Miller observed, “he always maintained the approach of the scholar and the never failing courtesy of the true gentleman that he was.”7

With reference to his enthusiasm for sharing the Adventist message, Dr. Howard noted, “One of the first questions asked me when I try to tell of the truth and our denomination, is, ‘Are your people as hypocritical as the rest of the churches on the race question.’” And he reported that he had been able give an emphatic response to the negative because “I have had so much confidence in our church and their faithfulness to the principles of Christ.”8

One way the story of Dr. James H. Howard and the Washington church (to be continued!) can help heal our historical memory is by broadening our conception of how Adventism took hold among Americans of African descent. For several reasons, mostly good, that conception has been dominated by the courageous and innovative mission to the Deep South led by J. Edson White, utilizing the legendary steamship, “The Morning Star.” The importance of that mission, conducted against great odds posed by resistance both inside and outside of the church, in stimulating a long-delayed concentrated effort to reach the vast majority of the black population who still lived in the South, is unshakably established.9

Edson White and his Caucasian colleagues braved a violent backlash from white supremacists, then adapted in the interests of self-preservation, but did not run away. Between 1894 and 1909, the Southern Missionary Society spearheaded by White established churches, schools, and even some small clinics throughout the South, and saw the southern black Adventist membership grow from around 50 to nearly 1,000.

Yet this legacy of faith and courage can be distorted and demeaned if seen through the prism of the “white savior” motif. That is, if a selective account of this story so dominates our historical consciousness that we regard the transmission of Adventism to African Americans as handed down by benevolently superior whites to poor, ignorant, depraved, and virtually helpless blacks.

Alongside the grand story of “the southern work,” we need the stories of brilliant, progressive, competent, and determined black people who discovered Adventism for themselves through means not especially directed to a particular racial group. Some are relatively well-known: the former slave Charles Kinny wandered into an evangelistic tent in Reno, Nevada; a precocious Anna Knight requested Adventist literature because she wanted to read anything she could get her hands on. Others, like Dr. James H. Howard, remain virtually unknown.

When we pick up the story in Part 3, we will find Dr. Howard and his wife Belle sharing the good news of Adventism in the home of Rosetta Douglass Sprague, daughter of the great Frederick Douglass. But we will also see that within a few months of the organization of the Washington church in 1889, perplexities arose to cloud Dr. Howard’s enthusiasm for his new-found faith. He finds that now both his “heart and his lips hesitate” when he is asked if Adventists were consistent Christians when it came to race relations. He had hoped that Adventism might succeed where American Christendom had largely failed in bringing the gospel to bear on the nation’s original sin. But he will begin to wonder if he would have even joined the church in the first place had he known what was now becoming apparent.

 

Notes & References:

[1] Daniel A. Ochs and Grace Lillian Ochs, The Past and the Presidents: Biographies of the General Conference Presidents. Nashville: Southern Publishing Association, 1974), 132-133.

[2] Constance McLaughlin Green, The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967), 119-154; Jacqueline M.Moore, Leading the Race: The Transformation of the Black Elite in the Nation’s Capital, 1880-1920 (Charlottesville and London: The University Press of Virginia, 1999), 4-8.

[3] DeWitt S. Williams, She Fulfilled the Impossible Dream: The Story of Eva B. Dykes (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1985).

[4] Kelly Miller, “Howard of Howard.” Atlanta Daily World, 27 Jan. 1936: 4. Also appears in variously edited forms in Miller’s column “Kelly Miller Says,” syndicated in black newspapers throughout the nation.

[5] A.T. Jones to unidentified General Conference official, 3 July 1907. A.G. Daniells presidential correspondence files, General Conference Archives.

[6] Douglas Morgan, Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America (Hagerstown, MD: Review & Herald Publishing Association, 2010), 179-181.

[7] Miller, “Howard of Howard.”

[8] J.H. Howard to O.A. Olsen, 3 Nov. 1889, General Conference Archives.

[9] Ronald D. Graybill, Mission to Black America: The True Story of  J. Edson White and the Riverboat Morning Star, rev. ed. (Published by the author, 2013).

 

Douglas Morgan is a graduate of Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the University of Chicago (PhD, History of Christianity with an emphasis in American religious and social movements). Since 1994 he has served on the faculty of Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland. His publications include Adventism and the American Republic (University of Tennessee Press, 2001) and Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America (Review and Herald, 2010).

This article was originally published on Against the Wall. It is reprinted here with permission.

Image: Dr. James H. Howard / blacksdahistory.org

 

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