Thomas Murphy, the Deep South, and the Flow of the Diasporas

Thomas Murphy, the Deep South, and the Flow of the Diasporas

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Published:
April 24, 2022

Thomas Murphy, the first Seventh-day Adventist ordained minister trained at what is now Oakwood University, heard about the Seventh-day Adventists in 1895, at the barbershop he owned in Vicksburg, Mississippi. A client triggered an uproar in the barbershop when he reported that singing arose from a tiny steamship docked at Centennial Lake in the evenings. Several patrons, musicians decided to pay a visit. After several visits, Murphy felt welcomed, joined the singing, took his cornet, and accompanied the song service. After the lively song service, the Morning Star steamship operated as a literacy school every evening. The crew of Caucasian Seventh-day Adventists, who taught African Americans how to read and write, captured Murphy’s curiosity.[1]

Before the Morning Star, Murphy planned to enter a seminary in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to train for the ministry. However, the Adventists altered his plans. Observing the spiritual bent of the crew, Murphy found the evening meetings novel and fascinating. Edson White, the vessel captain, and other crew members befriended the men from the barbershop.[2] In time Murphy asked White to study the Bible with them. At 7:30, after the literacy school, Murphy and his friends dove into the Scriptures from that day on.[3]

This bond between White Adventist laypersons and African Americans in Vicksburg, Mississippi, opened a new episode in the history of the Adventist Church. Up until that date, the Adventist Church navigated in the waters of the European diaspora.[4] The early Adventist founders and converts floated in a current, which started in the European Nations and the farms of the Northeast. They settled on the southern edges of the Great Lakes, the Old West. African Americans, however, rarely came in contact with the northern currents. Instead, they lived, by and large, in the Deep South, below the Mason-Dickson Line flowing in a different diaspora. However, by the 1890s, these two diasporas began to merge as African Americans and poor Whites started to abandon the Deep South’s cotton fields.

After the Civil War, Murphy’s family settled in Vicksburg and many other emerging Southern cities, as did thousands. The Southern diaspora, from the cotton fields, flowed to Vicksburg, Mississippi; Birmingham, Mobile, and Huntsville, Alabama; New Orleans, Louisiana; Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; and Atlanta, Georgia, among many other smaller towns. During and after the Civil War, formerly enslaved people and poor Whites evacuated the broken South, looking for a better life by the tens of thousands. By 1910 the human flow grew into a torrential river headed northward. Within a century, millions of men, women, and children, both Black and poor Whites, flowed northward and westward, producing new communities, frequently called ghettos, in the shadows of the northern industrial factories or western agricultural fields.

Adventist historians pay little interest to the diasporas, which birthed Adventism and impacted Adventist ethos. Instead, they focused on the Pilgrim Mayflower Myth and its extension into the nineteenth century as a way to explain the birth and growth of Adventism. Without a superficial grasp of the diasporas, which crisscross the Nation and the Planet, Adventists hold an impoverished view of their place in world history. Like mammals, birds, and fish drifting across the globe, economic, political, social, and natural forces constantly push and pull humans communities across the planet. Understanding this process exposes a much richer history of Adventism.

Christianity has always spread in the currents of the diasporas. In the first century, Christian Jews, pushed and pulled by the Roman Empire, migrated across the Mediterranean, planting churches in the cities that networked the silk roads of the Ancient World; Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Corinth, and Rome, among others. Likewise, European Empires pushed peasants across the Atlantic and North America in the nineteenth century, allowing Adventists to plant churches in the northern states of the nation. The life of Thomas Murphy contributes to a healthier understanding of how African Americans and poor Whites from the Deep South and the Far West birthed and spread Adventism in the twentieth century.

A few months after the first Bible reading on the Morning Star, Murphy sold his barbershop and began working for the Morning Star, fixated on further studies. In 1896, when the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventists founded the Oakwood Manual Training School for African Americans in Huntsville, Alabama, Murphy walked onto the former slave plantation in Huntsville, along with 16 students, who made up the founding class of the institution. Six of the 16 called the Yazoo Mississippi Delta home.[5] Murphy’s career illustrates how he and thousands of African Americans and poor Whites transformed Adventism in the twentieth century.

Diasporas generally surface on the darker side of empires, spawning uprooted and broken people. Empires create great wealth and higher living standards. Poverty, suffering, pushing, and pulling people into wars, misery, and deprivation also follow the trail of empires. Victims flee looking for a better life and seeking to understand the world around them. To illustrate, the revolutions in Germany and the Great Potato Famine in Ireland pushed millions of peasants out of Europe. Similarly, American industrialization and slavery moved millions out of the cotton fields into the cities.

Adventism appeared amid the European Diaspora and continued expanding in the flow of the Southern Diaspora. In the flow of the diasporas, Adventists founded clinics, orphanages, schools, publishing houses, city missions, dispensaries, and more to serve the victims. Their services expanded with literacy and manual education for the children of formerly enslaved people. Murphy, who understood the importance of education, partnered with Seventh-day Adventist laypeople in the Deep South.

In 1900 Edson White opened a letter from Murphy who asked, “Have you a place for me after I finish here?”[6] By 1898 the Adventist work in the Mississippi Delta had become a school planting enterprise, schools which turned into churches on the weekend. The schools multiplied so quickly that by 1900 several schools needed teachers/pastors. Murphy and his wife Cornelia got their first job in the Yazoo Mississippi Delta. Cornelia, a nurse trained at Battle Creek College, did medical missionary work, and taught school. Murphy taught and pastored. Most of the teachers, pastors, and nurses hired by the Adventist Church in Mississippi were African Americans.[7]

The Murphys blaze a unique path across the Deep South. Up until the 1880s, very few Adventists ventured into the Southern States. From 1863 to the last decades of the nineteenth century, Adventist itinerants spread in all directions from Battle Creek, Michigan, the Church’s headquarters. After that, however, few itinerants headed for the Deep South. Even westward expansion to California spread much faster. As a result, by 1885, the number of Adventist living in the South remained meager; 300 members in Texas, 119 in Tennessee, 113 in Kentucky, 105 in Virginia, and 205 in the General Southern Mission, an administrative unit which encompassed the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, North and South Carolina.[8]

Beginning in the 1860s, Ellen G. White asked Adventists to work in the South. Her appeals went largely ignored. Then the 1890s, a group of young Adventist laypersons started a campaign in Michigan to build a steamship that would navigate the Mississippi River and teach African Americans how to read and write. Not pleased with the self-supporting venture, the General Conference ordered them to go to Vicksburg, Mississippi, because Vicksburg did not fall into territory monitored by Adventist Conferences or Missions.[9]

Amid the Deep South Diaspora, Caucasian Adventists, and Blacks like Thomas Murphy, found common cause. After getting an education, Thomas and his wife began their task of making men whole. They dedicated the rest of their lives to introducing hundreds of men, women, and children to Adventism. During their lifetime, Thomas and Cornelia worked in most of the large cities of the Deep South. In many, he founded schools. After six years of running or establishing schools and churches, the Murphys lived in Greenville, Mississippi, where the couple ran one of the largest schools and churches in the Delta. In 1907 the Mississippi Conference ordained Murphy and asked him to supervise the African American workers of the Conference. Murphy led three ordained pastors, two licentiates, and 11 teachers as field secretaries.[10]

By 1907, Murphy and his wife lived in Vicksburg; she taught school while he visited churches. The need for trained ministers and teachers pushed the workers in Mississippi to estabilsh the Colored Missionary Training School for Workers.[11] During these years, Cornelia experienced health issues, but continued teaching.[12] From Vicksburg, Murphy traveled in all directions extending the growth of Adventism like the sun’s rays. On September 16, for example, he reported from Ellisville, Mississippi, on the eastern piney hills of the state; a Baptist preacher accepted the teachings of the Church, threw away his tobacco, renounced pork and catfish in keeping with the principles of healthful living. Murphy reported in the Gospel Herald[13] that Ellisville needed a schoolteacher and also volunteers.[14] In October, he thanked the White brothers and sisters in the North who sent food and money to help the children of the Delta. He wrote.

“There are many poor naked children here whom you have clothed, many children with their bare feet on the ground, for whom you have furnished shoes. No doubt this was often at great sacrifice on your part, but remember, dear friends, Jesus has every garment and every shoe recorded in heaven.”[15]

 

A month later, in December of 1907, Murphy headed in the other direction and visited the homes of the Adventist members in Memphis, Tennessee, to strengthen the small Adventist congregation. From Memphis, he reported the need of a preacher, underscoring, “Now there will not be any trouble at all in building up a strong church here if you give these people a good colored worker, one who has had a good experience in the field…,”[16]

The following summer, 1908, Murphy moved and spent five weeks in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, preaching, teaching, canvassing, visiting, playing the cornet, and running a tent meeting. When he arrived in Hattiesburg, he found six Sabbath-keepers. Through his work, three more joined the group. He considered the baptism a great success since the city of Hattiesburg had a population of 4,000. At the end of the summer, he rented a house to use as a church and school, expecting 25 children to enroll. During the meeting, Murphy’s wife and two girls sold 7,000 pages of the Watchman.[17]

In 1909, when the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventists founded the North American Negro Department, Murphy’s conference nominated him to be one of the African American members of the steering committee.[18] But the good news came with bad news. Cornelia, Murphy’s wife, who had been ill and receiving surgical procedures in Battle Creek, was forced to stop teaching. On April 19 she took her last breath. It may be because of her loss that Murphy moved to New Orleans. The head of the Negro Department, A. J. Haysmer visited New Orleans in the summer of 1909 and found Murphy holding Bible readings and preparing for a ‘vigorous’ tent meeting as soon as the weather permitted. He also reported that Murphy played a crucial role in supporting the small school run by Sister Glasco.[19]

Murphy, along with the teachers and pastors of the Delta, played a central role in aiding men and women victimized by the culture of the Nation. By January 1909, Murphy was one of eight ordained African American ministers in the South.[20] The Delta had become a training ground for Black Adventist workers. During the Southern Union Session of 1909, four more Black ministers were ordained, including George E. Peters, who in the 1920s became secretary of the North American Negro Department. The union also granted missionary credentials to 31 African American workers, many of them female Bible workers.[21]

From New Orleans, Murphy continued planting schools and churches. During the Spring of 1910, he visited the church in Pensacola, Florida, under the direction of Sister G. Hurley, where he found a group of 50 Adventists. Murphy baptized five new congregants in Pensacola Bay. He visited the Mobile, Alabama, church members and placed in The Gospel Herald an appeal for a Bible worker for Mobile on his way home.[22] On June 1, 1910, Elder Murphy married Miss Elizabeth Gammon, a committed teacher.[23]

By 1911 Adventists in the South, like Murphy, dramatically increased the numbers of men and women joining the church, pressing for the division of the Southern Union into two unions, the Southeastern Union and the Southern Union. Most of the workers received their training in the Delta or Oakwood. However, they spread in all directions, including northern cities like Chicago, Pittsburg, Detroit, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City. Likewise, many of the churches of the North, planted by laypeople from the South, spread quickly, planting smaller congregations in Black and poor White communities.

Murphy continued to travel to conduct meetings, found schools, and baptize new members in the coming years. In January of 1911, he visited the group of members in Mobile, Alabama. From Mobile he continued to Pensacola for another series of meetings. He reported in The Gospel Herald, “As there are no electric lights in the colored settlement of the city, the Lord greatly favored us by giving beautiful moonlight nights to lighten the pathway of all interested in our meetings.”[24]

In 1911, the two Southern Unions decided to have a ministerial institute for all African American workers at the Oakwood Training School. Eleven workers from the Southeastern Union, and 16 workers, including Murphy, from the Southern Union, attended. The ministers and Bible workers found a school full of eager students, the sons and daughters of men and women they had baptized. They sat together with the faculty during most of the presentations.[25]

An invitation in 1916, moved Murphy to Texas to serve as the leader of the African American churches in Northern Texas. He settled in Waco, the site of the most prominent African American congregation in the conference, taking the place of M.G. Nunes, a graduate of the Oakwood Training School. Nunes had worked his way through Oakwood in the print shop. When Nunes moved to Oklahoma, Murphy inherited the work in Texas.[26] In the summer of 1916, Murphy ran a tent meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, where, as yet there were no Adventists. After the tent meetings, they held a camp meeting for the African American community in the state.[27] For the next four years, Murphy worked out of Waco, starting several churches and schools in Northern Texas.[28]

Up until the 1920s, it was reasonably easy to track Elder Murphy because The Gospel Herald described the progress and movement of the African American workers and allowed them to report their activities for the larger Adventist Church. But in the 1920s, The Gospel Herald stopped publication as the color line became increasingly divisive. So, from that date onward, the sparse information on Murphy comes from the Adventist Yearbook.

In 1920, Murphy served in the Arkansas Conference, where he lived for several years. His wife taught.[29]  In 1926, He moved to Springfield, Illinois, and worked until 1929. Then, he returned to the South, working in Mobile, Alabama, for two years till 1931. From 1932 to 1936, he worked in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1937 he worked in Lexington, Kentucky. In 1938 and 1939, Murphy moved to the churches in Denver, Colorado. Then, he returned to Texas, working in Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Waco. Finally, he moved to Little Rock in 1945. He retired in 1946 and returned home to Vicksburg, Mississippi, fifty-two years after he met the Adventists on the Morning Star.

In 1947, Murphy attended the South Central Conference Camp Meeting held at Oakwood College. During the camp meeting, he served in the baptismal and prayer committee.[30] He passed in January of 1948.[31]

The task of making men whole consumed Murphy’s life from 1900 to 1948. The Deep South Diaspora, which produced Murphy and dozens of other pastors, teachers, nurses, and tens of thousands of Adventist laypeople, shaped the Adventist Church in the twentieth century. Additionally, Murphy illustrates that the growth of the church lays closely linked to men and women pushed and pulled by the diasporas that cut across the globe. His experiences highlight the Mayan and the Caribbean Diasporas streaming into the United States, the Philippine Diasporas flowing into the Middle East, Africa, and North America. The Ghanaian Diaspora into Europe and the United States. The Nigerian Diaspora into Germany. The Haitian Diaspora into Paris, Miami, South America, and the Texas border. The life of Thomas Murphy, ignored by Adventist historians, enriches the history of Adventism, helping clarify the value of the diasporas continuously flowing across our globe.

 

Notes & References:

[2] Edson White, the oldest son of Ellen G. White, with the help of the Adventist community in Battle Creek, Michigan built the steam ship and launched a self-supporting ministry in Mississippi.

[4] The term diaspora is used in this context as the movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland

[5] Mervyn Warren, A Vision Splendid 1896 2010 Oakwood University Huntsville, Alabama. 17–18. Murphy was ordained by the Mississippi Conference in 1906 or 1907. Before these dates he appears in the Adventist Yearbook as a ministerial licentiate.

[6] Edson White. “Letter from Thomas Murphy” The Gospel Herald, Volume 3, Number 1, January 1900. 6.

[7] See the first issue of The Gospel Herald which documents the activities of the schools and churches in the Yazoo Mississippi Delta.

[8] Emmett K VandeVere. “Years of Expansion 1865–1885” found in Gary Land, Adventism in America. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1986. 76.

[9] Ciro Sepulveda. On the Margins of Empires: A History of Seventh-day Adventist. Huntsville, Alabama. Oakwood University Press 2007. 163–170.

[10] Edson White. “An Encouraging Look.” The Gospel Herald, Volume 3, Number 9, September 1906.  33.

[11] Adventist Yearbook. 1906 and 1908

[13] The Gospel Herald began publication in Yazoo City in the Delta in 1897 and for almost 20 years chronicled the work of African American Adventists in the Delta, the South and in time, all of the United States.

[14] Report on a letter written by Thomas Murphy to the Southern Missionary Society found in The Gospel Herald, Volume 4, Number 10, October 1907. elrald38

[15] Thomas Murphy. “A Card of Thanks”. The Gospel Herald, Volume 4, Number 10, October 1907. elrald39

[16] Thomas Murphy. “From Memphis, Tennessee” The Gospel Herald, Volume 4, Number 12, December 1907. 46

[17] Thomas Murphy. “The Work at Hattiesburg, Miss.” The Gospel Herald, Volume 5, Number 7, July 1908. 25–26.

[18] “Organization of the Work for the Colored, in the Southern Union Conference.” The Gospel Herald, Volume 6, Number 6, June 1909. 27

[19] A. J. Haysmer. “Among the Schools” The Gospel Herald, Volume 6, Number 12, December 1909. 49.

[20] The other seven ministers were A. Barry, C.M. Kinney, W.H. Sebastian, T.B. Buckner, S.A. Jordan, A.C. Chatman, and N.B. King.

[21] “Partial Proceedings of the Southern Union Conference.” The Gospel Herald, Volume 7, Number 2, February 1910. 6.

[22] Thomas Murphy. “New Orleans, Louisiana” The Gospel Herald, Volume 7,  Number 6, June 1910. 34.

[24] Thomas Murphy. “Pensacola, Florida.” The Gospel Herald, Volume 7, Number 2, February 1911. 12

[25] C. F. McVaugh.  “The Institute.” The Gospel Herald, Volume 7, Number 4, April 1911.  28–29.

[26] M.G. Nunes.  “Leaving North Texas.” The Gospel Herald, Volume 10, Number 3, March 1916. 21.

[27] David Voth. “Our Workers” Southwestern Union Record, Volume 15, Number 35, September 1916. 3. See also E.M. Gates.  “The Colored Work in North Texas.” Southwestern Union Record, Volume 15, Number 41, October 24, 1916. 5.

[28] See the issues of the Southwestern Union Record between 1916 and 1920.

[29] J. I Taylor. “Thirty First Session of the Arkansas Conference July 30-August 5, 1920.” Southwestern Union Record,  Volume 19, Number 46, October 19, 1920. 1–3.

[30] H. H. Murphy. “Report on the South-Central Conference Camp Meeting.” The North American Informant, Volume 1, Number 7, August and September 1947.

[31] See the Adventist Yearbook 1920-1946. Also, Thomas Murphy. “Lexington” The Southern Tidings, Volume 28, Number 20, May 13, 1936. 6. J. Gersihom Dasent. “Visiting Our Colored Churches” Southwestern Union Record, Volume 40, Number 51,  December 24, 1941. 2–3.

 


Ciro Sepulveda, a retired historian (Ph.D. Notre Dame University, 1976), lives Colton, California. His latest book A Path Out: Educating the Children of Poverty, traces the birth and spread of Adventist Manual Training Schools, which became the motor behind the growth of the Adventist Church. Before his retirement, he chaired the History Department at Oakwood University for twelve years.

 

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