Seventh-day Rebels: Harlem’s Black Sabbath-keepers—Book Review

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Published:
February 22, 2022

Seventh-day Rebels: Harlem’s Black Sabbath-keepers by George F. Bailey (Independently published, 2018).


Recently my friend and fellow historian Benjamin Baker, curator of blacksdahistory.org, brought to my attention this intriguingly-titled book. Neither of us had previously known about it, though it was published in 2018. Seventh-day Rebels by George F. Bailey is an important contribution to the historiography of Seventh-day Adventism and the somewhat broader Sabbath-keeping Adventist stream of Christianity, and I am confident that many Spectrum readers will find it enlightening and enjoyable. It brings both new information and fresh clarity to the saga of James K. Humphrey (1877-1952) and Black Adventism in New York City, a storyline that illuminates Adventism’s racial history as much or more than any other.

Bailey’s work complements R. Clifford Jones’s comprehensive study James K. Humphrey and the Sabbath-Day Adventists (University Press of Mississippi, 2006). Jones provided a richly-contextualized analysis of how Humphrey, after starting almost from scratch in 1903, raised up the 600-member First Harlem Church and several other congregations in greater New York City by the 1920s. Humphrey vigorously advocated for Black-administered conferences that would empower the Black Adventist work with a substantial measure of self-determination within the denomination, but by 1928 he concluded the proposal stood no chance of acceptance. Then, in 1929, he was expelled from Seventh-day Adventist ministry for refusing to submit his ambitious project for Black social and cultural development, the Utopia Park Benevolent Association, to the oversight of the white-administered Greater New York Conference. Supported by a large majority of his First Harlem congregation, Humphrey organized the United Sabbath-Day Adventist (USDA) denomination, quickly joined by congregations in several other American cities and in Jamaica.

Seventh-day Rebels takes the story further by giving a fuller account of the schism that thwarted the momentum of the USDA in the mid-1930s and gave rise to the Seventh-Day Christian Conference (SDC). The author, George F. Bailey, is the son of Philip Bailey, SDC founder and pastor of its flagship congregation, Victory Tabernacle. Bailey draws on a rich collection of documents he has preserved as well as his personal connections in presenting an engaging portrayal of this third body of New York-based Black Sabbath-keepers. In setting forth the history of a group heretofore little known in the larger Adventist community, Bailey’s account at the same time enriches our understanding of Humphrey and the USDA and Seventh-day Adventists—the full range of Harlem’s Black Sabbath-keepers in the Adventist tradition.

Retired after an accomplished career in aviation, Bailey quickly overcame this reviewer’s prejudices against self-published works by authors without formal credentials in the historical discipline. He provides a well-structured, thoroughly documented narrative in a clear and elegant style. The first four chapters portray the contexts in which the “Seventh-day rebels” story plays out: Harlem (Chapter 1), West Indian migration to New York (Chapter 2), Seventh-day Adventism (Chapter 3), and the African American Adventist experience (Chapter 4).

Bailey is rigorous yet fair-minded and empathic in his critical analysis of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. He also brings the same critical perspective to his treatment of the leaders and churches that broke away from it. This approach enhances the value of the more distinctive content presented in the second half of the book. In Chapters 5 and 6, Bailey provides the first account from within the “Seventh-day rebel” community of J. K. Humphrey and the USDA movement. It’s not that those who have written previously on the topic—primarily R. C. Jones but also Joe Mesar and Tom Dybdahl in a groundbreaking article[1]—were apologists for the Seventh-day Adventist leadership in analyzing the Humphrey schism of 1929. But they did write from a Seventh-day Adventist perspective. It is of great value to not only have the story told from the other side of the schism but also that it is told in the mode of evidenced-based history rather than of (justifiably) angry polemics.

The USDA had a promising start, with six congregations and two missions in the United States and Jamaica joining the New York United “Mother” church, a high-quality periodical—the Messenger, edited by George Bailey’s father, Philip K. Bailey—and the beginnings of a distinctive theology of history in which primary agency for the final gospel proclamation is conferred upon Christians of African heritage. In the final third of the book (Chapters 7-9), Bailey gives the fullest account yet of the developments that thwarted the progress of the USDA and in so doing brings to light a further chapter in the story unknown to most readers of Seventh-day Adventist history, even those familiarized with Humphrey through the work of Jones, Mesar, and Dybdahl.

While the fact of further schism within the USDA in 1934 is mentioned in previous accounts, Bailey provides a much more extensive explanation of the circumstances that caused USDA leaders R. L. Soaries, E. L. Warren, P. J. Bailey, and H. A. Gauntlett to repudiate Humphrey’s leadership. I will leave the details for readers of the book, but after losing a legal battle for control of the USDA and its church property, these ministers organized the Seventh-Day Christian (SDC) Conference in 1937. In addition to its flagship church, Victory Tabernacle in Harlem, the SDC began with congregations in Brooklyn, Newark, Philadelphia, Boston, and St. Louis in the United States; and in Kingston, Jamaica, and Panama City, Panama.

Victory Tabernacle Seventh-day Christian Church, 252 W. 138th St., New York.


The USDA continued into the twenty-first century mainly as the single New York United congregation, while the SDC showed greater vitality as a conference comprising several congregations, with a reinvigorated growth in Jamaica during the 1950s. Musical excellence at Victory Tabernacle was a means for evangelism and engagement with the surrounding community. The experiences of two high-achieving individuals also demonstrate something of both the strengths and weaknesses of the SDC. One was Dr. Vincent Harding (1931-2014), advisor and speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr., first director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center in Atlanta, highly regarded scholar-activist, and author of numerous works, including There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America. As pastor of Victory Tabernacle, Philip Bailey fostered the youthful Harding’s educational achievements and gave him leadership responsibilities at the church. While Harding was earning a doctorate in history at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, he pastored a small SDC congregation in that city. He parted, amicably, with the SDC and joined the Mennonite Church on his journey to prominence in the civil rights movement.

Even more illustrative is the career of DeForest (Buster) Soaries Jr., grandson of SDC founder Raynes Leo Soaries. In 1973, Soaries Jr. became assistant pastor of the St. Paul SDC Church in Montclair, New Jersey, and then in 1975, following the death of his father, senior pastor. Soaries Jr.’s effectiveness as a community activist led to an infusion of young people into the church, but that in turn led to conflicts with older members over such matters as traditional standards of adornment. Though controversial, Soaries became president of the SDC and as such sought alliances, first with New York United and then with the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. But opposition from longtime members doomed both efforts. Soaries finally resigned from the SDC in 1985 and later became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey, which grew by several thousand members under his leadership. He eventually entered public service, becoming New Jersey Secretary of State (1999–2002) and chair of the US Election Assistance Commission in 2004.

By the time Seventh-day Rebels was written, New York United was nearing extinction. The SDC congregations in the United States have withered away except for Victory Tabernacle. However, the SDC also has six congregations in Jamaica, and immigrants have in recent years established small affiliated groups meeting in Stamford, Connecticut, and Toronto, Canada. Traditionalism on matters arguably of secondary significance comes through as one reason for the attrition. Bailey points out that adamant opposition to “Jim Crow” in the church as well as society was the one advantage that the USDA and SDC churches had in competing with Seventh-day Adventists for the loyalties of Black Sabbath-keepers. Already in the 1930s, though, Humphrey’s travails and the resulting division, along with the effective leadership of G. E. Peters at Ephesus Church in Harlem, resulted in substantial returns from the USDA to the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.

Gradual change in Seventh-day Adventist racial polity also eroded the competitive advantage of the breakaways. When the General Conference Committee approved the organization of Black-administered (regional) conferences in 1944, Humphrey, according to the New York Amsterdam News, stated this was “the same thing that I advocated in 1928.” He added: “If they are right now, I must have been right then.”[2] Bailey drives home the bitter irony: “It appears that James K. Humphrey and the members of the First Harlem Seventh-day Adventist church found the correct answer and proposed the right policy for their era. They were not ahead of their time, they were on time. Eventually, the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church accepted the same answer and adopted the same policy solution advocated by Humphrey and his allies fifteen years earlier.” Alluding to Ellen White’s counsel that where racial prejudice is strong, separate churches would be best “until the Lord shows us a better way,” Bailey observes that the Seventh-day Adventist leaders, despite having White’s writings to guide them, “were quite late to realize that the Lord, through J. K. Humphrey, had already shown them a better way.”[3]

In 1947, soon after regional conferences were organized, one SDC congregation, Christian Fellowship in Brooklyn, returned to the Seventh-day Adventist denomination by affiliating with the Northeastern Conference. Bailey cites two obstacles that stood in the way of more doing so. For members with a vivid consciousness of the reason for their separate existence, both the Seventh-day Adventist policy that church property must be held by the conference, not the local congregation, and belief in the inspiration of Ellen White’s writings were unacceptable. Once lost, trust can be exceedingly difficult to regain.

In the course of research for my biography of Lewis C. Sheafe (published in 2010), the first major Black Adventist minister to break with the denomination, and in subsequent explorations, my respect has grown not only for him and those who did likewise but also for leaders who came down on the other side of a difficult choice and remained loyal to the denomination, such as W. H. Green, G. E. Peters, F. L. Peterson, P. G. Rodgers, M. C. Strachan, and J. H. Wagner. Reading Bailey, though, has sharpened my conviction that it is long past time to stop dismissing those who chose the path of independence from the Seventh-day Adventist authority structure because of racial injustice as “apostates” or “schismatics.” God alone can judge the motives, character, and circumstances of those on all sides of Adventism’s racial upheavals. Presuming that the choice for independence is indicative of some deep moral or spiritual flaw not found on the other side seems like dangerous spiritual arrogance. For one thing, it can be used to shroud the paternalistic policies and accommodations to racism on the part of white leaders in an aura of sanctity.

Unambiguous acknowledgment that white Adventists and the leaders they supported must bear the overwhelming weight of responsibility for the circumstances that made separate governance seem the only viable option for dedicated ministers like Humphrey and Sheafe is essential, I would argue, to the ongoing racial reckoning necessary for Seventh-day Adventists to move forward as one church. White leaders had their own set of influences and circumstances with which to contend. Most probably did the best they knew how. Yet it was their collective actions that thrust upon Black Adventists a painful dilemma, adding unnecessary obstacles that hindered the mission of the denominationally-loyal and caused the pain and spiritual disorientation that those who joined the USDA and SDC churches did their best to deal with.

Bailey initially intended Seventh-day Rebels as a gift to an extensive network of friends and family rooted in the SDC, “so that we can remember who we are and how we came to be.”[4] Yet as he pursued the project, he came to realize that he was filling lacunae in the historiographies of Sabbath-observant Adventism and race relations in Adventism and American Christianity, as well as religion in Harlem and the African Diaspora. It is a gift for which Seventh-day Adventists should be profoundly grateful. I recommend it to anyone interested in Adventist history. It is an essential acquisition for all libraries and research centers connected with Adventist institutions.

 

Notes & References:

[1] Joe Mesar and Tom Dybdahl, “The Utopia Park Affair and the Rise of Northern Black Adventists,” Adventist Heritage, Vol. 1, No. 1 (January 1974): 34-41.

[2] “Adventism Among Negroes; Its Origin and Development,” New York Amsterdam News (May 13, 1944), 12A.

[3] Seventh-day Rebels, 123.

[4] Seventh-day Rebels, 1.

 


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). His current projects include serving as an assistant editor of the Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists and his recently published book from Oak & Acorn Publishing, Change Agents: The Lay Movement that Challenged the System and Turned Adventism Toward Racial Justice

Title image: Seventh-day Rebels: Harlem’s Black Sabbath-keepers by George F. Bailey 

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