Slouching Towards a Halt

Slouching Towards a Halt

Written by: 
Published:
October 27, 2020

In the United States, the growth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church looks as if it's approaching a halt. Our young men and women increasingly turn their backs on the Church. Besides our children, the number of persons asking for baptism dwindles. Our evangelistic efforts draw diminishing returns. And our message no longer pulls on the attention of our culture.

Adventist growth arises, many Church members believe, from evangelistic meetings, Revelation Seminars, Bible studies, and prominent preachers who deliver powerful sermons. Every year most Adventist Churches devote time and resources to evangelistic pursuits maintaining an evangelism line item in their budget. In our Nation, the Church spends millions of dollars on seminars, radio programs, television productions, YouTube, and Facebook to promote evangelistic endeavors. As a theology major in college and the seminary, I remember the stories of our great evangelists, their evangelistic meetings, and how they brought countless numbers into the Church. When evangelists visited campus and preached, we assumed that Evangelism sat at the cornerstone of Church growth. Is this a sound hypothesis? Or is it time to revisit the assumption?

The word “Evangelism” suggests the spreading of the Christian Gospel by public preaching or personal witness. Apocalyptic Evangelism powered growth in the early years of Adventism, the 1840s–1860s. At the core of the message sat the Second Coming of Jesus and the end of the world. Our sermons, literature, and activities pointed to the immediacy of the Second Coming. By the time of the Civil War, apocalyptic-style evangelism made room for Health Evangelism, focused on living healthier lives. This two-pronged message facilitated the founding of sanitariums, clinics, city missions, dispensaries, and churches in the Industrial Cities of the North. During these years, the 1860s–1890s, the Adventist movement grew from 3,000 to almost 30,000.[1]

Throughout this period, growth flourished in communities of uprooted people, arriving in the "Old West," currently called the Middle West, in an immigration torrent from East Coast farms or European Nations. Apocalyptic Evangelism and Health Evangelism reached dozens of these communities, birthing several hundred Adventist churches. For example, in Michigan, Adventism attracted the largest number of new members at over 5,000, Wisconsin at 3,000, Iowa more than 3,500, and Kansas at 3,000.[2] In the Midwest, Apocalyptic and Health Evangelism triggered steady growth.

In contrast, in the Southern States, the Church grew sluggishly. Only two conferences functioned in the Southern District. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Church in North America divided its territory into six districts. District Two, the South, grew at a trickle, mostly in the two conferences in the District, Florida and the Tennessee River Conference, with a membership of less than 2,000 in the entire ten-state District.[3] Most of the Southern States held less than two hundred Adventist members; South Carolina had 35 members. Louisiana crept along with one pastor.[4]

Then, in the 1890s, a new branch of Evangelism joined the other two and flowered in the South. A unique style appeared, giving rise to accelerated growth, a growth which in a few decades spread across the planet like wildfire. Apocalyptic and Health Evangelism welcomed the third branch. While Apocalyptic and Health Evangelism both relied on preaching as their forte, the new style, which identified with the downtrodden, relied on the personal witness. This innovative Evangelism appeared in 1897 when a group of laypersons, working in the Yazoo Mississippi Delta, stumbled onto the unique approach. The Southern-style Evangelism focused on birthing schools — not schools for Adventist children, but rather schools for the oppressed, called Manual Training Schools.

This new Evangelism grew the Church so quickly that by the early years of the twentieth century, dozens of Adventist communities appeared in the South. By 1901, in Mississippi and surrounding states, almost 30 African American workers managed dozens of schools and churches. In Yazoo City, more African American Adventists worshiped in a couple of churches than in all of the rest of Adventism in 1894. From the Delta, the new Evangelism spread into the larger cities of the Deep South: Atlanta, Georgia, Birmingham and Mobile, Alabama, Pensacola, Florida, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee.[5]

The growth erupting in the South eventually poured into the cities of the Northeast, extending as far as California, founding schools and churches along the way. Expansion soared so rapidly that by the middle of the twentieth century, on April 7, 1944, Adventist administrators voted to create a new kind of conference, a conferenced based on skin color. African American laymen loathing segregated hospitals, schools, and youth camps had sought to abolish the Adventist color line. For several decades, Black Adventists wanted integration. But instead, Adventist leaders gave them Black administrators in segregated conferences, called Regional Conferences, commonly known as Black Conferences.[6] The new evangelistic style flowed into the Black Conferences, in time, spilling over into other conferences, spreading like wildfire across the globe.

What provoked this style of Evangelism? What transpired in the last years of the nineteenth century, in the South, stirring its growth? Why did large numbers of African Americans, like dolphins, leap into the Adventist fold? The development gushed so fast that by the second half of the twentieth century, Black Adventists outnumbered white Adventists in most of the large cities of the Nation despite the fact African Americans remained only 11% of the population. Black conferences outgrew white conferences so rapidly that in some Unions, Black membership equaled or surpassed the white membership of all of the conferences in the entire Union. What led this transformation?

In 1899, three young African Americans, a couple in their early twenties, Matthew and Maude Strachan, and W. H. Sebastian, boarded a train in Battle Creek, Michigan, en route to Yazoo City, Mississippi. All three, graduates of the Battle Creek Training School for Christian Workers,[7] accepted positions in the South.[8] Bubbling with excitement, they chatted and speculated about the new venture as the train crossed the Mason Dixon Line. Matthew, who transferred from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, a couple of years before graduation, married Maud, who trained at the Battle Creek Medical College for Nurses.[9] The graduates accepted positions in the suburbs of Yazoo City. Matthew taught in one school, Sebastian, in the other school, and Maud took on medical missionary work.[10] The three joined three African American couples already running schools in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. According to F. L. Peterson, by 1894, five years before Strachan, his wife, and Sebastian arrived in the Delta, the Adventist Church, nationwide, held only 50 African American members.[11]

Founding schools, for the children of the poor, in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, rested at the core of the new evangelistic style. Up until this time, Adventist schools enrolled mostly Adventist children. The Schools in the Delta, in contrast, enrolled the children of tenant farmers barred, for generations, from getting an education. Plantation owners would not allow anyone with Black skin to learn how to read or write. At the forefront of this evangelistic thrust sat a team of African Americans teachers, not preachers. Strachan, Maud, and Sebastian joined the first wave of African Americans spearheading Adventist growth in the South. In the Delta, the Black teachers crafted a new methodology. By 1901, the year of its founding, the Mississippi Conference granted Missionary Certificates to Minnie Rogers, Mary Mitchell, George Crawford, F. G. Warnick, Mrs. F. G. Warnick, W. H. Sebastian, M. C. Strachan, Maud Strachan, J. W. Dancer, and Mrs. J. W. Dancer, most of whom were from African American descent.[12]

In 1903 Ellen G. White, who followed closely the work evolving in the Delta, penned a description of what took place in Mississippi in the last years of the nineteenth century:

The Southern Missionary Society has been operating in this field for several years. What 'fruit' has it to show? Does it bear out the statement that this is a 'fruitful field'? What has the society to show for its work, and the means it has used?

At the start, it is only fair to state that those who pioneered this work were beginners. They were not workers in the cause in any capacity. They came to the South to engage in this special work, and developed in the work on the ground.

Never since this beginning has any regular worker of the denomination connected with the society in its work. All the workers have been developed in the work and by the work.

At the present time there are twenty-seven workers in the different departments of the society.

Five ordained ministers have been developed in the work of the Southern Missionary Society. None of these were workers for any conference when they were taken up by the society. And in the work of the society they became so well fitted for their work that they were ordained as ministers, two of them by the General Conference and three by the Southern Union Conference. All these ministers are now doing efficient ministerial work in the South.

Two public speakers are also doing good work, and it is expected they will soon be ready for ordination.

Thirteen school-teachers have in different ways been fitted for their work. Some have been brought from the North; some who were qualified have been converted to the truth; and some have been educated to work, beginning in the mission schools and finishing in the Huntsville Training School. Some of these are holding positions as principals of our important mission schools, and some are filling positions as inter-mediate and primary teachers. Several teachers of special ability and sterling worth are among this number.[13]

The work of African American teachers, nurses, and preachers, detailed by Ellen G. White, inspired dozens to join the Adventist Movement. For example, in March of 1898, Miss Nellie Patcher and Mrs. Annie Crawford, both African American teachers motivated by what they read in the Gospel Herald (the Adventist journal chronicling the movement in the Delta), founded a small school in Sylacauga, Alabama. They bought 15 acres of land, cleared it with the help of students, and erected a house that served as the school. The school opened with twelve students who worked the land to finance their education.

In the summer of 1898, two white public school teachers, F. R. Rogers and his wife living in Washington State, read in the Gospel Herald, crossed the country, arrived in Vicksburg, Mississippi, ready to assist in any way possible. That same month The Dixie Food Company, a health food industry, launched with the help of a volunteer from Iowa, Isaiah Moore. Moore also ran a store with products produced by the company, which employed older students.[14]

Strachan and his wife started one of the three schools in Yazoo City, and enrolled 90 students by the end of the first year. The following year he became the principle and W. H. Sebastian, his assistant. Many students dropped out of school during the cotton-picking season to help their parents in the fields, so Strachan and Sebastian founded a bakery. The bakery provided work for the children by assisting students to work part of the day to supplement the parents’ income. The industrial part of the curriculum, modeled after the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, also part of the curriculum in the reformed College in Battle Creek, allowed the children to work and complete their education.[15] The dedication and empathy shown to the children of men and women shackled to a lifecycle of oppression spurred growth. In a short time, whole families joined the worship services on the weekends. The school buildings used as classrooms during the week veered into churches on Saturday.[16]

Maud Strachan played a crucial role by winning the respect of the community with her healing skills, visiting private homes to care for the sick. A nurse making house calls in the homes of tenant farmers was unheard of before her arrival. On one occasion, a woman who had given trouble to the Seventh-day Adventists in the past was discharged by Dr. Miller, who was unable to heal her. Miller was the only Black physician in Yazoo City. A friend told the woman about Maude Strachan. The ill lady replied, "She is nothing more than one of the Adventists." When the patient asked Dr. Miller what to do, he advised her to see Mrs. Strachan. Mrs. Strachan saw her and performed several simple treatments, talked to her about her diet, and impressed on her the need for exercise. In time the woman recovered, becoming a superb recruiter for the school. Maud Strachan also taught cooking classes to the parents during the week. Strachan's empathy for the community enhanced the standing of the school, encouraging parents to make sure children attended regularly.[17]

 The Strachans exemplified the unique style of Evangelism emerging in the Delta, which allowed African American teachers, nurses, and pastors to plant schools and birth churches with remarkable speed and success. After birthing a church and school in Litonia in 1901, the Strachans moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where they practiced the same methodology. In Jackson, they started a school from scratch by renting a small house. Maude ran a clinic, and Matthew a one-room kindergarten. The kindergarten flowered into a school, which led to establishing the first Seventh-day Adventist Church in Jackson, Mississippi. Reporting in the Advocate (the journal of the Training School in Battle Creek), Strachan shows a clear understanding of the groundbreaking work they spearheaded. He wrote:

Ours may be regarded as pioneer mission work. It was begun a little over a year ago. Before opening the school, we spent a month in canvassing the town, thus becoming acquainted with the people. Our school is conducted in one room of our own house. Our quarters are limited, and we have all the children that we can accommodate. With an enrollment of thirty, we have an average attendance of twenty-five. Comparing our work with that of the secular schools, we carry about the first four grades. We make use of many of the kindergarten methods. Each week we conduct a mission Sunday school in which the lessons are illustrated. Several evenings in the week are spent in giving Bible readings. In this way we endeavor to reach the parents with the truth.[18]

The growth of schools in Mississippi forced the Southern Missionary Society to hire additional teachers to keep up.[19] Nowhere else was Adventism multiplying so rapidly. Central New England Conference, founded in 1871, and the New York Conference, founded in 1862, provide an excellent contrast to the activities Mississippi. The two Northeastern conferences functioned for more than forty years before the appearance of the Church in the Delta, yet they had no budgets for teachers or schools.[20] Unlike the Church in Mississippi, they spent most of their resources financing apocalyptic and health-oriented Evangelism, which by 1900 generated scant growth.

Mississippi not only witnessed the birth of many schools and the training of many teachers but also generated future leaders of the African American Adventist Church. Strachan led the way. In 1905 he held evangelistic meetings in Nashville, Tennessee, where a tent filled every night, drawing hundreds of people.[21] Most of the attendees were the parents of the school he founded in the Nashville Adventist Church building. Also, Strachan organized the first Black Camp Meeting in Tennessee, which became so popular that it turned into an annual event for the local conference. By 1905 even the President of the Southern Union, Elder G. Butler, former General Conference President, reported:

It may be truthfully said that about as much has been accomplished under the auspices of the Southern Missionary Society in the Southern Union Conference in missionary efforts for the colored race and in gaining numbers of that race to the cause of truth as by all other agencies put together.[22]

Adventists in the South created and exported their style of Evangelism throughout the United States. For example, Thomas Murphy, who joined the Church in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1895, got more training at the Oakwood Industrial School, and became the first teacher-pastor employed by the Church in Mississippi. From the school and Church in the Delta, he moved to the Mississippi Conference office, and in time birthed churches and schools in New Orleans, Louisiana, Lexington, Kentucky, Little Rock, Arkansas, Dallas, Texas, and Denver, Colorado. Elder Sebastian founded a school and Church in Atlanta. Annie Knight, who trained as a nurse in Battle Creek, founded two schools in Eastern Mississippi and became a Missionary to India.[23] M. Strachan and his wife move to Nashville, then Washington D.C., New York City, and Tampa, Florida. As the newly trained teachers and workers moved out of the Delta, new teachers replaced them and learned the unique evangelistic style. Eventually, this outflow merged with the Great Migration that streamed millions of persons to the Northern Industrial cities of the Nation.

In the Spring of 1907, M. C. Strachan received a call to pastor churches in Washington, D.C. While there, he advocated for the establishment of schools and a sanitarium for Blacks in the city. Strachan's influence also led to the establishment of the Negro Department in the General Conference in 1909.[24]

In New York City, in 1924, Strachan put to work the evangelistic style of the Delta. At the core of this style stood empathy for those at the bottom of the social ladder. As Douglas Morgan states, Strachan identified with the oppressed of the city, leading him "into the thick of the struggle for black equality and political representation." He became a social worker in the municipal court system, and a Chaplain for the Black inmates in the Women's Prison on Roosevelt Island. He joined the Urban League. In 1929 he founded the Girls and Boys Rescue League at his Harlem Church, which worked with the juvenile courts to save teenagers from reformatories and workhouses. This empathy for the oppressed consumed his time and energized his work.[25]

During the years that he pastored the Church in Harlem, the Harlem Academy became a twelve-grade institution. Many of the young boys and girls from his church flowed into the first school in New York City for African American scholars. With his support, Principal J. L. Moran, later to become President of Oakwood College, grew the academy to a twelve-grade institution. Furthermore, Arna Bontemps, who became a well-known poet and a noted member of the Harlem Renaissance,[26] became one of the instructors.

The evangelistic style birthed in the Delta shaped the work of Mathew Strachan till his last years of ministry. In the 1930s, he moved to Tampa, where he took on the cigar making industry, which he had faced down in 1915, during an evangelistic meeting.[27] In Tampa, he worked as a pastor in the local church and became the President of the Tampa Negro Voter's League. From 1940–1947 he became the President of the Tampa branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Not only did he shepherd his Church, but he also spearheaded efforts fighting racial discrimination.[28]

The schools birthed by the Adventist Church in the twentieth century, outside of the United States, yoked the three styles of Evangelism and provoked ongoing growth all over the planet. Families who had no money understood the importance of education, flocking to Adventist educational institutions. Millions of children sat in Adventist classrooms. Today, the largest Adventist universities in the world, in Jamaica, Bolivia, Korea, Kenya, The Philippines, Brazil, and Mexico, began as manual training schools where the three-pronged evangelistic focus spearheaded growth.[29] In time, the schools produced thousands of teachers, nurses, pastors, and doctors who, like a snowball rolling downhill, grew Adventism explosively.

Lamentably, in the United States, we ignore the lessons of history. The three-arm Evangelistic tradition, which exploded our growth, has been slowly shedding its style. We no longer practice the Evangelism that identifies with the oppressed, and we have allowed our Health Evangelism to be highjacked by large corporations, leaving only one active arm to draw members into the Church. Apocalyptic Evangelism in the United States draws most of our attention, consuming most of the Church's evangelism resources. We funnel millions of dollars into Apocalyptic Evangelism, which triggers meager growth.

In the last few decades, the North American Division seems to be slouching towards a standstill. Between 2010 and 2020, the Church in the South Africa-Indian Ocean Division grew from about 2.5 million to over 4 million. The South American Division added almost 500,000 new members. However, the North American Division, which includes Canada, attracted less than 150,000 new members.[30] If we consider growth an essential component of the Adventist Church, is it time to revisit how we allocate evangelistic resources?

 

Notes & References:

[1] General Conference Bulletin 1890.

[2] General Conference Bulletin 1899.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] For a more detailed description of this process see the Gospel Herald published between 1897–1920s. Found digitized in the Adventist Online Archives.

[6] Ciro Sepulveda. On the Margins of Empires: A History of Seventh-day Adventist. Huntsville, Alabama: Oakwood College Press, 2007 358-361.

[7] Battle Creek College adopted this name in 1897 when a new president, Edward Alexander Southerland and his team took the helm and reformed the College.

[8] See The Training School Advocate December. Battle Creek, Michigan. December 1898 1 a digital copy is available in the Journals Section of the Adventist Archives. The Southern Missionary Society had been created by Edson White in Yazoo City in an attempt to help finance the work of African American teaches in the Delta.

[9] Douglas Morgan. Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America. Hagerstown, Maryland. Review and Herald Publishing Association 2010 335

[10] Edson White. “Our Schools in Mississippi” The Gospel Herald Volume II Number 11 1899 6.

[11] F. L. Peterson. “The North American Negro Department” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald Vol. 115 No. 51 Anniversary Issue for 1938 53.

[12] See Edson White, “Our Schools in Mississippi,” Gospel Herald II, no. 11 (1899).See also news Item on page 347 of The Advocate Volume II Number 11.

[13] Quoted in J. E. White. “Report of the Southern Missionary Society” General Conference Bulletin Volume 5 Number 13, April 14, 1903 199.

[14] Details of this work is found in the December issue of the Gospel Herald. 1898.

[15] White, “Our Schools in Mississippi,” 96.

[16] See this article and several of the early issues of the Gospel Herald for a fuller descriptions of the work in the Delta. Douglas Morgan, “Proclaiming the Gospel and Changing Society,” Ministry Magazine, April 2011, http://ministrymagazine.org/archive/2011/04/proclaiming-the-gospel-and-changing-society; F. R. Rogers, “The School Work,” Gospel Herald VII, no. 11 (November 1910).

[17] M. C. Strachan, “Yazoo City, Mississippi,” Gospel Herald III, no. 1 (January 1901).7

[18] M. C. Strachan “Yazoo City Mississippi.”

[19] The State of Mississippi was established as a Conference of the Adventist Church in 1901.

[20] “Statistical Report of the Seventh-day Adventist Denomination for 1903” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald August 18, 1903 9

[21] Edson White. “Colored Tent Meeting.” Gospel Herald. Volume II Issue 8 August 1905.

[22] George I. Butler. “To Our Brethren in the North Who are Sending Funds for Our Southern Work.”

[23] See Anna Knight. Mississippi Girl. Washington D.C. Review and Herald Publishing Association 1952.

[24] Morgan, “Proclaiming the Gospel and Changing Society.”

[25] See Douglas Morgan, Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America (Review & Herald Publishing Association, 2013).

[26] Arna Bontemps wrote several novels and plays and many children’s books which were widely accepted. He joined The Harlem Academy during the time Strachan pastored the Church in Harlem in New York City.

[27] M. May Clark. Florida, The Gospel Herald Volume XI Number 8 August 1915 58.

[28] Samuel G. London, Seventh-Day Adventists and the Civil Rights Movement (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009), 102.

[29] See Ciro Sepulveda. A Path Out: Educating the Children of the Poor. Biblos Press: Pulaski, TN 2020.

[30] See The Annual Statistical Report Volume 2 for 2020 and the Annual Statistical Report for 2010.

 

Ciro Sepulveda, a retired historian (Ph.D. Notre Dame University, 1976), lives with his wife on a farm in Southern Tennessee. 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.

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

 

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