Adventism & America’s Original Sin (Part 8 — Conclusion)

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Published:
August 21, 2019

Dr. Howard was there on the speakers’ platform with A.G. Daniells, W.W. Prescott, and other General Conference leaders. So was Andrew Kalstrom. Altogether about fifty people assembled on August 24, 1903, for a simple service to dedicate the new, temporary headquarters of the General Conference and the Review and Herald Publishing Association, located a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol building.

Dr. John H. Neall was also among those who gave short speeches for the occasion. He was prominent among the white believers who had left the original, racially-integrated Washington, D.C. church a year before to form a second congregation that became known as the Memorial Church. That event (see Part 7) had embroiled the platform participants in this the August 24th dedicatory service in deep and sometimes bitter controversy. Yet, here they were, celebrating together despite, or more likely, because of the fact that during the intervening year, events had not conformed to any of their agendas.

Daniells, the General Conference president, wanted to see two strong churches — one white and one black — emerge out of the General Conference-funded, dual evangelistic campaign of 1902. The outcome instead was one white congregation and one, much larger “mixed race” congregation whose adamant opposition to the imposition of a color line in the church was rooted in their Adventist faith.

Dr. Howard and Elder Kalstrom, leaders of the integrated First church, passionately pled for a new evangelistic approach in 1903. They believed that it was indeed necessary to bring in a white evangelist to work in tandem with Lewis C. Sheafe in order to overcome the barriers of racial prejudices that would prevent many white people from even taking the first step toward hearing the Adventist message if presented by a black preacher. But then as new believers opened their hearts to the transforming power of the gospel, they would be taught that racial prejudice is surrendered and no racial barriers are recognized in the fellowship of those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus Christ in preparation for the Savior’s return.

But their plan was not followed. Instead, the pattern of 1902 was repeated: two separate, uncoordinated efforts with Sheafe’s evangelism again greatly overshadowing that of Washburn, whose main pre-occupation was convincing church leaders to move the denominational headquarters to Washington, D.C. rather than New York City.

Furthermore, the pragmatic Daniells, impressed with the results of Sheafe’s labors, soon got over his irritation with the preacher for opposing the division of the Washington church. Daniells reached out to Sheafe on friendlier terms and convinced him that he should plant a new congregation with those won as a result of the 1903 tent meetings, rather than add them to the First church. The new congregation would be organized a few months later as the People’s Church — the name signaling intentional inclusion of all people regardless of race or social class, but in reality predominantly black in membership. All of this created a temporary rift between Sheafe and the First church leaders, who saw it as capitulation to the world’s unholy pattern of racial separatism.

The church president also shifted out of the attack mode in his dealings with the First church. He did not endorse the way that they directed gospel idealism against the color line. But he stopped arguing with them about it.

Sufficient space had been created for Dr. Howard to join the dedicatory proceedings on August 24 in good conscience. He did so not to celebrate, as did some of the other speakers, how recent events had led to this moment, but rather to look forward with renewed hope, believing that “the work is not to be as it has been in the past, but greater…”

Although  most of the far-flung readers of the Review likely saw only commonplace if truthful generalities in his remarks, many of those present at the service then, and careful readers of this series now, know the story behind his words and can thus feel the poignancy between the lines:

I believe that out of the darkness and trial and discouragement and the blight, yea, and the broken, pained hearts that have come to many, the Lord will yet give balm and healing and blessing and life, and his Spirit in such measure as shall restore to us the years that have been lost to us, or at least that have been to a large degree blighted, and we shall go forward with blessing and success, and also with joy.[1]

Despite the crushed dreams, betrayed ideals, craven compromises and blown opportunities, a demonstration of the power of present truth to heal the antagonism and make a meaningful start at reversing the consequences of America’s original sin remained possible. In Washington, D.C. Through an “outpouring of the Spirit of the Lord in full measure.”

The General Conference president seemed open, and Ellen G. White brought encouragement during an extended visit to Takoma Park during the Spring and Summer of 1904. After meeting with Elder Sheafe, the prophet wrote with warm enthusiasm to one of her assistants about the evidences of God’s Spirit working through his evangelism:

Yesterday I had a visit from Elder Sheafe, who has charge of the church here in which both white and colored people assemble. He came to ask me to speak in this church next Sabbath. He will invite the members of the colored church to be present. Some little difficulty in regard to the color line exists here, but we hope that by the grace of God things will be kept in peace. Under the labors of Elder Sheafe, many colored people in this city have accepted the truth. Sixteen were baptized the Sabbath before last, and seven last Sabbath. I was only too glad to promise that I would speak in the church next Sabbath.[2]

At the mixed-race church, she spoke on Christ’s prayer for the unity of his followers in John 17, and had nothing but good things to say about her visit.[3]

Though the leading lights at the First church maintained an outspoken witness against the color line — in word and deed — they seemed willing to allow the denomination’s white leadership some space for their “expediency” policy of separating the church’s work along racial lines. Racial injustice or inequality they would firmly oppose. At the same time, this anti-racist Adventist vanguard was willing to countenance the possibility of, or agree to disagree about, racial separation as a temporary bridge to a greater good. Especially when the leaders whom, despite disagreements, they regarded as duly ordained and appointed to lead God’s last-day prophetic movement, could see no other way to sustain a viable mission among white people.

A contextual point frames the possibilities for racial breakthrough that remained open to the Adventist church: The Washington, D.C. public school system was one of the few instances where the “equal” part of the “separate but equal” doctrine affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1896 was at least approximated. Difficult as it may be to imagine given the glaring disparities of more recent times, the D.C. public school system provided high quality education for black children and youth in the early twentieth century. So much so that none other than W.E.B DuBois, black America’s foremost intellectual and activist for equality eagerly sought appointment as the assistant superintendent of Colored schools in the District of Columbia when the position became open in 1906. His aspiration was thwarted by the machinations of his rival for national black leadership, Booker T. Washington, resulting in the appointment of a Washington loyalist.[4]

What if the Adventist church, at that moment, the moment of finalizing its reorganization and relocation, had included in its reconstitution of an institutional center in Washington, D.C., a bold initiative to create an oasis of equality amidst the deprivation that typically prevailed under the segregation regime? The denomination heavily promoted a major campaign in 1903-1905 to raise the funds necessary for new headquarters, the Review and Herald Publishing Association, and a new higher training school (college, eventually) and sanitarium in Takoma Park. What if the campaign had included funding for institutions in Washington, D.C. offering black Americans high quality if separate education and health care, equipping them to go wherever there was need to help their people rise above and confront their oppressive circumstances?

In that time and place, that would have been an awesome witness. Though realized within an un-chosen framework short of the divine ideal, such endeavors would have drawn a national spotlight revealing an Adventist movement on the front lines of creative, practical application of gospel remedies to America’s original sin. Despite past missteps and failures, as of 1904, it was possible.  

And, what if the church had at least taken seriously Dr. Howard’s warnings about the inherent dangers of accommodating racial segregation with the standard disclaimer that it was necessary only as an evangelistic expedient because no genuine Adventist could harbor racial prejudice? The doctor explained to A.G. Daniells that such a line of thought enabled white believers to “justify themselves in a mere theoretical profession with an erroneous practice” and that “the power of a mere theoretical example to save from error and lead out of it is nil.”[5]

The Howard-Kalstrom biracial evangelism plus anti-racist discipleship training proposal of 1903 had been an attempt to structure a way out of this trap. What if, where the expediency policy seemed unavoidable, it had been accompanied by genuine attempts to implement ways of moving toward the same goal even if the details differed? What if we had at least done our utmost to inculcate the truth that giving up racial prejudice was even more important than, say, giving up ham sandwiches or dancing, and gave guidance and encouragement for all believers to take every possible action, short of getting themselves killed, to push back against racial injustice and alienation?

Something like that, too, was still possible going forward from 1904. The struggle over its realization would be filled with turmoil, sudden lurches, reversals, and general upheaval enough to rival the French Revolution. The years from 1903 to 1908 would be especially intense, but it would take an additional decade of convulsions coming at a somewhat slower rate before anything like a resolution occurred. That complex episode still needs fuller telling, though much of value about it and its ramifications can be gained from the suggested reading list below.

It is not likely to surprise anyone that the outcome once again would be tragic loss of a monumental opportunity. But it was not inevitable. Not long before General Conference President W.H. Branson’s open acknowledgement in 1954 that the Adventist church had fallen behind other religious bodies on race relations (see Part 1), the prominent African American author Arna Bontemps made a similar assessment: “In race relations Adventists are retarded,” he stated bluntly to an editor of Ebony magazine in 1950. But, Bontemps, who had been an Adventist educator at the same time he was making literary contributions to the Harlem Renaissance, went on to add something equally significant: “In their early years, Adventists were solid on the race question.” Their present backward condition, he said, resulted from “compromise to appease the South.”[6]

Though less well-known than some later events, the denomination’s first major racial crisis was embedded in the new chapter in Adventist history represented by the move to new headquarters and establishment of requisite new institutions during the first decade of the twentieth century. The new beginning was also the decisive moment for Adventism’s fall from its “solid” start into systemic racism, and the crippling of its capacity to bear witness to the power of the gospel to overcome the nation’s original sin. Yet the witness of James H. Howard, Ellen G. White, Rosetta Douglass Sprague, Andrew Kalstrom, Lewis C. Sheafe, among others, helps us to see that the “solid start” was just as much a part of the Adventist heritage.

Working through pain and the complexity of the past is the price of clearer insight on the dimensions and character of our movement’s failure. But we have tried to do that in this series because it also pays off with expanded awareness of the range of resources in our heritage that can be drawn upon to bring about needed change in the present. Failure at Canaan’s edge, need not determine our future, endlessly repeated. The truth can move us forward toward freedom.

 

Suggested for Further Reading:

Fordham, W.W. Righteous Rebel: An Autobiography. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1990.

Jones, R. Clifford. James K. Humphrey and the Sabbath-day Adventists. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006.

Morgan, Douglas. Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2010.

Rock, Calvin B. Protest and Progress: Black Seventh-day Adventist Leadership and the Push for Parity. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2018.

 

Notes & References:

[1] “Dedication of the New Headquarters in Washington,” Review and Herald (3 September 1903), 10-12.

[2] Ellen G. White to Mrs. M.J. Nelson, April 28, 1904, in Manuscript Releases, Vol. 4, 24.

[3] Ellen G. White, “May 15, 1904, Meeting with the Churches in Washington, D.C., Manuscript 45, 1904, https://egwwritings.org/?ref=en_Ms45-1904.3&para=9381.10.

[4] 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), 86-106.

[5] J.H. Howard to A.G. Daniells, 10 July 1903.

[6]Arna Bontemps to Herb Nipson, 27 Nov. 1950, Arna Bontemps Papers, Special Collections, Syracuse University Library.

 

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 courtesy of the author.

 

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