Builders of Black Adventism

Builders of Black Adventism

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Published:
February 26, 2020

Photo caption (left to right): G. E. Peters, M. G. Nunes, A. N. Durrant, J. W. Allison, R. L. Bradford, Etta Littlejohn Bradford, U. S. Willis, P. G. Rodgers, C. S. Lightner, J. K. Humphrey, W. H. Green, T. B. Buckner, W. D. Forde, J. M. Campbell, M. C. Strachan, Maude E. Strachan, F. H. Seeney, T. H. Branch, J. H. Lawrence, J. G. Dasent. (Right click and open the image in a new tab to view at full size.)

This photograph of black Seventh-day Adventist ministers at the 1918 General Conference in San Francisco has fascinated me ever since I first saw it about 15 years ago. The labors of these ministers accounted for a majority of the 3,500 African American believers in the ranks of Adventism in 1918 and a large proportion of the approximately 14,000 that would be added by the time black conferences began in 1944. The meaning this photo holds for me has deepened as I have learned bits and pieces of the stories of the men in it — how they built strong and lasting foundations for a thriving black Adventist presence in city after city throughout the nation, preaching a demanding, unpopular message under extremely adverse circumstances.

It is the men, the preachers, who dominate the photo and one of them — Peter Gustavus Rodgers (8th from left) — is the principal subject of this essay. Yet the two women who appear represent the predominance of women in building the congregations to which the preachers preached — a subject that cries out for intensive research and analysis. For the moment, though, consider briefly the Ephesus church (today Dupont Park) in Washington, D.C. that Rodgers was called to pastor just before the 1918 General Conference. When the congregation was organized about a year prior to his arrival, 33 of its 37 members were women.[1] More men joined through his evangelistic endeavors, which brought the membership to an estimated 300 by the time he left in 1923. One of them, Joseph Dodson, was ordained as an elder in 1929. Until then, the growing congregation functioned without a local elder, though not without local leadership, female and strong.[2]

The influence of two builders of black Adventism who are not in the photograph pervaded the ministries of those who are in it. Rodgers’ work in Washington, D.C. came directly in the wake of one of them — Lewis C. Sheafe, about whom I wrote a biography published in 2010. Sheafe would have been in the 1918 photo had his reconciliation with denominational leadership at the 1913 General Conference not fallen apart two years later. During the early years of the twentieth century, Sheafe had raised up in the nation’s capital Adventism’s first black urban church, called the People’s church. But Sheafe’s Adventism was not the kind that could long tolerate a system that required sacrificial financial support from black believers while sharply limiting their access to the denomination’s educational and medical missionary resources, except when denying it altogether.

In 1916 Sheafe had briefly allied with the second unseen influencer, John W. Manns, based in Savannah, Georgia, to form the Free Seventh Day Adventists, the first experiment in black Adventism separate from and independent of the General Conference. But in 1918, Sheafe, having split with Manns, returned to Washington, D.C. to pastor the People’s church as an unaffiliated Adventist congregation. That was right around the time that Rodgers arrived to pastor the Ephesus church, which was comprised of those who broke away from the People’s church in order to maintain connection with Seventh-day Adventist organization.

The specter of Sheafe and Manns — charismatic, eloquent, dangerous — loomed over virtually every interaction that the builders of black Adventism had with white denominational leaders. The ministers in the 1918 photo had made their choice for denominational loyalty — a defining choice given the turmoil of the immediately preceding years. “[W]e have placed our hands to the plow, this time, never to look back,” Rodgers proclaimed not long after the 1918 session.[3] But for this energetic, 32-year-old pastor who likewise had large dreams and multiple skills with which to realize them, the choice between the racial high ground claimed by Sheafe and Manns, on the one hand, and loyalty to “the organized work” under white leadership, on the other, could not have been easy or automatic.

Going forward from 1918, Rodgers and the other builders of black Adventism had to navigate multiple tensions. They had to win and hold the high-minded black Americans drawn by the shining promise of their rigorous message while constantly pushing back against — controlling the damage from — the failures of the white majority to see and do what the ideals of their faith required in race relations. The Sheafe-Manns specter could help them with this: it could remind white leaders of what might happen if black believers were pushed to the point of despair, and of the necessity of rewarding loyalty. But if they pushed too hard, they risked retribution as “trouble-makers,” disadvantaged in favor of colleagues who took a less confrontational approach. All of this on top of the struggle to hold body and soul together in a nation still mired in its deepest post-emancipation descent into racism.

Such was the context in which P. G. Rodgers spearheaded development of a thriving African American Adventist presence in three of the nation’s largest city’s during the first half of the twentieth century. Born in Philadelphia in 1886, Rodgers was the sole convert from meetings conducted in Wilmington, Delaware by Fred H. Seeney[4] — the Teddy Roosevelt look-alike (sort of, at least?) in the photo, fourth from the right. They were both part of a Delaware-based community of mixed racial descent who were called “Moors.”[5]

In 1911, when Rodgers arrived in Baltimore, the city with the second-highest black population in America, for his first major pastoral assignment, he found a dispirited and scattered group of 11 black Adventists who could not get along with each other. When he left for Washington, D.C. in 1918, the Baltimore Third Church had 300 members, an air-conditioned church building with the mortgage 75% paid, and a thriving ten-grade school.[6] After five years in the nation’s capital he left a black Adventist community once again thriving, and with a ten-grade school. In Los Angeles in 1923, he took leadership of the Furlong Tract church, already historic as the first black Adventist congregation organized west of the Missouri river, but stalled at around 100 members for some time. When his pastorate there concluded in 1940, it was a congregation of more than 500 worshiping in a first-rate house of worship on Wadsworth Avenue and, oh yes, a ten-grade school.[7]

How did he do it? Evangelism — relentless, powerful, and contextualized — drove his success. Rodgers conducted tent efforts with nightly meetings lasting two or three months every summer for thirty years, with Sunday night evangelistic services standard throughout the year. He made skillful use of the standard tools of the trade: powerful (and entertaining) sermons, great music (in southern California his choirs sang for the meetings of other leading evangelists such as H. M. S. Richards, Sr. and Philip Knox, as well as his own),[8] the latest media technology, and a mobilized laity.

More distinctive was his effectiveness in adapting presentation of the Adventist message to the African American experience. He gained speaking opportunities in Baltimore’s A.M.E. churches in this way. Near the outset of his ministry in Washington, D.C. he spoke at black America’s leading cultural and intellectual forum, the Bethel Literary and Historical Society, where he spoke on November 26, 1918, on “The Black Man as God Sees Him, or the Inspired History of the Negro.” A glance at some of the other lecturers during Bethel Literary’s 1918–1919 season illumines the significance of Rodgers’ appearance there: Reverdy C. Ransom of Chicago, one of the era’s most influential black ministers at the national level; two of the greatest leaders in all of African American history, A. Philip Randolph and W. E. B. Du Bois; and Rodgers’ estranged cross-town colleague, Lewis C. Sheafe.[9]

An example from July 1936 in Los Angeles, where Rodgers’ 1,000-seat “Big Gospel Tent” became a fixture on Central Avenue every summer, brings the picture together. With European dictators stirring widespread anxieties about another world war and Italian aggression in Ethiopia arousing particularly concerned interest from African Americans, a large headline in the California Eagle, southern California’s leading black newspaper, announced, “Elder Ro[d]gers to Discuss Ethiopian Situation.” That discussion apparently was to be part of a broader presentation advertised under the title announced for the July 28 meeting, “Can Just Four Angels Hold in Check the Hatred of the Nations?” The ad promised that “four score marvelous and beautiful pictures will be thrown on the big screen.” As for music, those in attendance on July 28 could look forward to the Strickland sacred orchestra rendering several special numbers during “the big song service.”[10]

Another element in Rodgers’ success was his ability to combine hard-hitting Adventist doctrinal sermons with positive interdenominational relationships within the black community. He cultivated friendly, co-operative relationships with community leaders such as the influential publisher and editor of the California Eagle, Charlotta Bass, and NAACP activists.[11] Other builders of black Adventism also managed this feat, but it did not come easily or automatically, and Rodgers was especially effective at it.

Rodgers’ unyielding advocacy for black Adventists within the denomination also contributed to his ability to win and retain dedicated and active church members. He was particularly passionate about equal opportunity in Adventist education — the ten-grade schools did not come out of nowhere. His agitation repeatedly pushed at the boundaries of denominational loyalty as construed by the white leadership. As one of his colleagues later put it, he “balled up the Chesapeake Conference” while he was in Baltimore.[12]

Rodgers’ loyalty again was questioned when yet another traumatic conflict divided black Adventism in 1929. The photo taken in 1918 came at a relatively hopeful moment. After nearly a decade under white leadership, the North American Negro Department, was, at the urging of the black ministers, placed under the leadership of a black man, W. H. Green (middle, 11th from the left in photo).[13] It had taken the Sheafe-Manns blow-up of 1915-1916 to make the white leaders receptive to that radical notion.

During the 1920s, however, a succession of setbacks and frustrations pushed James K. Humphrey (10th from the left) beyond the ability to envision a viable future for black Adventism under white leadership. Despite repeated pressure over more than two decades, Humphrey had remained loyal to the denomination while building up a large body of black Adventist believers in New York City. Read R. Clifford Jones for the full story,[14] but when Humphrey was expelled from the ministry in 1929 for refusing to submit ambitious plans to make the benefits of Adventism’s holistic message a reality for black Americans, his 600-member First Harlem congregation left with him. Several congregations in other cities joined in forming the United Sabbath Day Adventist denomination that now vied for the support of African American believers in the Adventist message.

The ever-present loyalty question now came to bear in a particularly close way on Rodgers, an outspoken and charismatic leader held in high regard by large congregations filled with people he had won to the faith. However, the Southern California conference administration supported him through most of the 1930s. “Brother Rodgers, to all appearances, is giving most loyal support to our work,” conference president P. E. Brodersen wrote in 1931 to J. L. McElhany, then General Conference vice president for North America. “It does seem strange, Brother McElhany, that the Wadsworth church should be so liberal with its funds, if they have in mind any disloyalty to the cause,” Brodersen added.[15]

Still, Rodgers could not shake suspicions that, in the words of one General Conference official, “he was a man who has drawn very strongly to himself.” In other words, they feared he could be another Sheafe or Humphrey and use his considerable personal influence to lead his large congregation out of the denomination.[16] In 1940, those suspicions, along with a complex set of circumstances that included a breakdown in health — both his and that of his wife, Alverta, and accusations, apparently unfounded, that the chiropractor practice he had developed in the 1930s interfered with his gospel work, brought his ministry to a premature end at age 55.[17]

It was a bitter experience that brought him to the brink of breaking ranks with the denomination at last. But he pulled back. The provision of early sustentation in view of his health problems no doubt softened the blow. But that modest compensation could not have been what counted most.

What drove the builders of black Adventism to the extraordinary, self-sacrificial lengths they went to evangelize black America? What made their loyalty to the organized work so tenacious, especially in the 1918 to 1944 era when they not only failed to attain the equal treatment and empowerment for ministry that they sought but saw church race relations worsen instead?

Those are questions that need much further study and reflection. The forthcoming Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, its introductory online launch set for July 2020, will bring an opportunity to learn more about P. G. Rodgers among other builders of black Adventism.

But somewhere at the heart of the matter it must have simply been a love for the Adventist message and the conviction that the supreme dignity that Adventist identity conferred, the sure hope for the future and help for uplift in the present that it promised, could only really be experienced in connection with the organized work. The value Adventism offered made the struggle to make their full and equal share in it a reality worthwhile. It was a struggle that they could not and would not give up.

What made “jim-crowism” at Adventist institutions so tragic, Rodgers wrote to a General Conference leader in 1939, was what it revealed about the influence of “the spirit of a doomed world” on “this people to whom God has given a beautiful message of love and brotherly union.”[18]

 

Notes & References:

[1] People’s/Ephesus/Dupont Park Seventh-day Adventist Church Homecoming program, 1998, 23.

[2] Home Coming and Memorial Day program, Dupont Park Seventh-day Adventist Church, 1963, 2-3, 8-22; Willie Anna Dodson, Riding on the High Places of the Earth (New York: Carlton Books, Inc., 1981), 27.

[3] Gustavus P. Rodgers, “The Colored Work in Washington, D.C.,” Columbia Union Visitor, September 12, 1918, 4-5.

[4] Louis B. Reynolds, We Have Tomorrow: The Story of American Seventh-day Adventists with an African Heritage (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1984), 177.

[5] “The Moors of Delaware,” compiled by Joseph A. Romeo, http://www.moors-delaware.com/gendat/moors.aspx?Mode=Member&MemberID=R326W1834

[6] Gustavus P. Rodgers, “The Work Among the Colored People in the Chesapeake Conference,” Review and Herald, February 21, 1918, 17.

[7] W.E. Howell, “Our Colored Church in Los Angeles,” Review and Herald, July 25, 1935, 19; “Wadsworth School,” Pacific Union Recorder, December 2, 1936, 4-5; David Voth, “Wadsworth Junior Academy,” Pacific Union Recorder, September 14, 1938, 3.

[8] Reynolds, 178; “Los Angeles Tabernacle Announcements,” Pacific Union Recorder, May 5, 1927, 5; Advertisement, Riverside Daily Press, January 25, 1930, 3.

[9] “Bethel Literary,” Washington Bee, November 23, 1918, 5.

[10] “Elder Ro[d]gers to Discuss Ethiopian Situation,” California Eagle, July 18, 1936, 10.

[11] “Seventh Day Adventist Church Fetes Pastor and Wife on the Occasion of the Couple’s Silver Wedding Anniversary,” California Eagle, January 9, 1931, 1, 3.

[12] M.C. Strachan to Arna Bontemps, Dec. 3, 1943, Arna Wendell Bontemps Papers, Syracuse University Library.

[13] W.H. Green, “A Word Regarding the North American Negro Department,” n.d., GCA

[14] R. Clifford Jones, James K. Humphrey and the Sabbath-day Adventists (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006); “Utopia Park, Utopian Church: A Critical Examination of James K. Humphrey and the United Sabbath Day Adventists, 1930-2000,” Andrews University Seminary Studies (AUSS) 43.1 (2005), https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/auss/vol43/iss1/5; “James Kemuel Humphrey and the Emergence of the United Sabbath-Day Adventists,” Andrews University Seminary Studies (AUSS) 41.2 (2003), https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/auss/vol41/iss2/7.

[15] P.E. Brodersen to J.L. McElhany, August 30, 1931, General Conference Archives, RG 11, Box 3920.

[16] H.T. Elliott to W.G. Turner, June 9, 1040, GCA, Sustentation Files, RG 33, Box 9774, P. Gustavus Rodgers.

[17] Reynolds, 178; Sustentation Files, RG 33, Box 9774, P. Gustavus Rodgers.

[18] P.G. Rodgers to W.E. Nelson, January 6, 1939, General Conference Archives, RG 11, Box 3957.

 

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).

Image: Black ministers at the 39th GC Session San Francisco, California, March 29-April 14, 1918. Courtesy of Oakwood University and blacksdahistory.org

 

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