The Meeting at the Eighth Street Church: How Whiteness Oozed into Adventist Culture

The Meeting at the Eighth Street Church: How Whiteness Oozed into Adventist Culture

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May 12, 2021

On the 20th of September 1902, Sabbath morning, the President of the Atlantic Union,[1] H. W. Cottrell, the President of the Chesapeake Conference, E. W. Farnsworth, and the second in command at the General Conference, W. A. Spicer, walked into the Church on Eighth Street, the only Seventh-day Adventist Church in Washington D.C. They arrived on a mission, commissioned by the President of the General Conference, Arthur G. Daniells. The trio bore a colossal task. Upon entering the church, they immediately encountered opposition from church members.[2] Although this meeting may be one of the most consequential in Adventist history, it lingers ignored or unnoticed by most Adventist historians and church members.

The Eighth Street Church, at the beginning of the twentieth century, seized the attention of the powerful men in the Adventist Church because it sat in the Nation’s Capital. The administrators felt the Congregation needed to be exemplary. The Church in the Capital should be, they believed, a centerpiece of Adventist distinctiveness. The three men entered the building that morning, thinking that the congregation needed to become respectable and well-considered by the larger society. The core problem stemmed from the fact that the Eighth Street Church attracted both white and Black members. President Cottrell explained that the white members of the Congregation had friends who would not attend because Black congregants sat in the pews.[3]

For almost twenty years, the Eighth Street Church attracted Black and white Adventists. In 1886, the Church surfaced when Brothers Saxby and Parmelee, two literature evangelists, arrived in the city, finding four Sabbath-keeping Adventists. The group founded a city mission.[4] Three years later, Ellen G. White visited and stayed a week, when the Congregation numbered 24 Black and white members.[5] A decade later, in December of 1890, Ellen White spent another week with the congregation, during a week of prayer, indicating no discomfort with the integrated congregation. By that date, the church held over 100 members.[6] In the summer of 1902, the 150-member congregation, two-thirds white and one-third Black, sponsored an evangelistic series under a tent in the city center, which attracted, nightly, over 2,000 attendants. By September, the Church, under the leadership of a dynamic Black preacher, Lewis C. Sheafe, continued its growth.[7]

Up until the twentieth century, no one objected to the integrated status of the Eighth Street Church. However, Adventist administrators, with offices in Battle Creek, Michigan, decided the church needed restructuring, hence the September meeting. During the first hour of the meeting, the three administrators focused on the ownership of the church. If the General Conference owned the building, they felt that the congregation’s cooperation would come easier. After losing the struggle to secure the title, they focused on the main goal: dividing the church into two congregations, one white and the other Black.

Many generations before the meeting at the Eighth Street Church, during the seventeenth century, segregation surfaced in American Christianity alongside slavery.[8] Although Southern slaveholders constituted only a minority in the South, “they established the tone and style” of Southern culture,[9] including a novel narrative that championed the importance of whiteness as a justification for the enslavement of Black bodies. In time, a novel story that endorsed segregation crept into the Southern Christian community. Most Christians in the Nation believed God created all humans with equal status. In other words, humans were all brothers and sisters.

The novel narrative blossomed in the worship services of the Southern Christian community. During worship services, slave owners and family sat on the front row. White servants and help sat behind the family, with Black slaves segregated in the back of the church. By being in the front row, the owner of the slaves monitored the words of the preacher. In time, Southern preachers, who chose success in ministry, learned to manipulate the Bible, assigning African enslavement divine sanction.[10]

An excellent example of the process appeared with the story of Cain’s curse and mark, found in Genesis 4:11–16. In the story, Cain received a curse and mark from God after killing his brother and lying about it.[11] The plantation narrative claimed that God punished Cain by darkening his skin and that of his offspring. This reading sanctioned the idea that men and women with white skin gained a special blessing from the Almighty, unlike the curse received by the Black slaves.

The idea of whiteness led to a caste system that placed all persons of color on the bottom layer. In a couple of generations, the concept, which drew the support of primarily white males who happened to sit on the caste system’s peak, included venerated university professors who broadened whiteness by arguing that skin color defined brain size and brainpower. In time, the story granted most Southerners, who were also white Protestants, an assortment of privileges. Unlike Black slaves, whites could walk through the front door of a dry goods store, they could vote, they could demand respect or the tip of a hat on the road to town. The system’s social layers segregated white farmers from white peasants, white business owners from white workers, and even house slaves from field slaves.

 By the early decades of the nineteenth century, the narrative’s influence spread from the plantations into the larger society, triggering segregated congregations, cemeteries, restrooms, water fountains, schools, and a growing number of organizations. The system gave poor white Protestants dominance over Black slaves. By 1843, 1,200 Methodist ministers owned 1,500 slaves, and 25,000 Methodist Church members kept 208,000 slaves.[12] The new theology of whiteness granted honor and pride to whites and dishonor and shame to Blacks. It also broke in half the largest Protestant denominations in the United States, starting with the Southern Baptists, in 1845. Southern Baptists broke ties with the National Denomination because the Northern Baptists would not allow their clergy to own slaves. The Southern Methodist and Presbyterians followed their lead.[13]

Adventists Migrate South

In the early days of the Adventist Church, founded in 1863, most members, largely Northerners, opposed slavery and the theology of whiteness. Before the Civil War, many Adventists participated in the Underground Railroad, helping runaway slaves flee their plantations and masters. By the 1870s, many Seventh-day Adventist laypeople, inspired by the call of Ellen G. White to work the Southern field, traveled into the Southern States to help freedmen. C. O. Taylor sold his farm in New York in 1876 and headed to Georgia. In 1877 he reported in the Review and Herald that he was getting a warm reception from the residents of Quitman, Brooks County, Georgia, where hundreds were attending his presentations. He wrote, “Last Sunday one-third of the Congregation were colored persons. They gave good attention, as did all present.”[14]

In January 1877, A. G. Rust reported from Texas that there were 34 Adventists in the area.[15] By the spring, an Ohio Adventist couple, Joe Clarke and his wife, both teachers, took the train to Dallas, Texas, where A. B. Rust, who owned a small parcel of land, donated a portion of it for a school for the freedmen. Upon arrival, Clarke found two African American Adventists, Parsons G. M., and F. Jordan, working on building a school. While they worked on the building, Joe Clarke’s wife set up a tent and started teaching. The Clarkes taught in the new school when the building came up. Later, Rust and Clarke wrote to the General Conference requesting a permanent minister.[16] It appears that Adventist laypersons eagerly sought out Black people and wanted to lend a helping hand.

The first Adventist paid minister to cross the Mason Dixon Line, Elbert B. Lane, crossed into Kentucky and Tennessee in 1871. At Edgefield Junction, one of the train stations on the mainline into the South, just north of Nashville, TN, Lane held evangelistic meetings with whites and Blacks sitting in separate rooms as he spoke. According to Arthur W. Spalding, Lane found that the Southern man was a “friend to the Negro if he will keep his place.”[17]

Robert Kilgore became one of the first Adventist ministers to argue that the evangelization of whites required segregation. Born in Ohio and raised in Washington, Iowa, Kilgore joined the Adventist Church after returning home from the Civil War. During the War, he attained the rank of Captain in the Union Army. In 1877, Kilgore accepted a call from the General Conference to begin work in the South, in Northern Texas. He enjoyed great success evangelizing cotton farmers in and around Dallas. A young self-supporting evangelist, Arthur G. Daniells, became Kilgore’s tent master and mentee. They held meetings in several farming towns and planted small Adventist churches in the region. Although they worked for years in an area where freedmen lived, there is no record Kilgore or Daniells planted a “colored” congregation or supported the school planted months before his arrival.[18]

Up until 1889, most Adventist ministers believed the Adventist Church should not practice segregation. A report from the Tennessee campmeeting that summer revealed an apparent shift.[19] Kilgore, who flowered into an influential Adventist who consistently got appointed to the General Conference Committee, reported the presence of “colored” brothers and sisters at the campmeeting. He also explained the meetings received poor attendance. He implied that whites did not attend because they somehow knew that Blacks would be present. From this day forward, Kilgore’s stand began to blossom in Southern Adventism. He turned into the spokesperson for the leading white ministers in the South, championing segregation.[20]

Although most ministers in the Adventist Church in the last few decades of the nineteenth century did not agree with Kilgore, he continued to press his position while holding District Two’s Superintendency. Kilgore’s most ardent opposition came from the prophet of the movement, Ellen G. White. She moved to Australia in 1891, but stated in no uncertain terms her dislike for segregation before she left. In a sermon to the leaders of the Church at the General Conference Session that year, she said (as Kilgore and other Southern ministers more than likely sat in the audience):[21]

“You have no license from God to exclude the colored people from your places of worship. Treat them as Christ's property, which they are just as much as yourself. They should hold membership in the Church with the white brethren. Every effort should be made to wipe out the terrible wrong which has been done them.”[22]

White’s words had little impact on the Southern Adventist clergy and a growing number of administrators in Battle Creek. Segregationists continued to find open doors into Adventist culture during the 1890s. In Australia, White heard how segregation continued to gain acceptance in the United States. Once again, she picked up her pen in opposition. In 1895, in a letter to the Adventist Church leaders in the United States, she penned the following words:

“In the past, some attempts have been made to present the truth to the colored people, but those among the white people who claim to believe the truth have wanted to build a high partition between themselves and the colored race...

The Colored people have been neglected because the vexed question of how to build a wall of distinction between the whites and the blacks has been in agitation. Some have thought it the best way to reach the white people first, for if we should labor for the colored people we would do nothing for the white population. This is not the right position to assume.”[23]

Notwithstanding, by the end of the nineteenth century, a growing number of Adventist ministers believed that only segregated churches could draw Caucasians into Adventism. During the 1890s, several decisions made at the General Conference level supported a segregated worldview. For example, in 1894, Edson White and Will Palmer received ministerial licenses to work in the South. The General Conference Committee stipulated the assignment included Blacks only; they assigned territory with no white Adventists, the Mississippi Delta.[24] Additionally, in 1901, Kilgore’s mentee, Arthur G. Daniells, became President of the General Conference.

According to Douglas Morgan, by January of 1902, the ranking administrators of the Church, who met in Nashville, TN, decided to segregate the Eighth Street Church. This clandestine agreement — Morgan calls it the Nashville Agreement — never got published in any official publication, but surfaced in a private letter found by Morgan. Several white administrators, including Ellen White’s two sons, endorsed the Nashville Agreement.[25]

The three administrators who argued all morning and for over six hours in the afternoon at the Eighth Street Church repeatedly tried to sway the church members into accepting segregation. The most influential leaders of the Eighth Street Church, including the most prominent elders, both white and Black, fought against and opposed the proposal from the three administrators. They knew partitioning the congregation would leave a stain on the whole of Adventism. In the end, they lost. The administrators persuaded forty white members of the congregation to depart and start an all-white church. In the following weeks and months, the white church got the General Conference’s full support, including a broad appeal in the Review and Herald for financial help.[26]

The consequences of this meeting advocating whiteness left a profound mark on Adventism. The decision bore fruit almost immediately. Though not the fruit the administrators envisioned. The white church struggled to attract more members, while the integrated church continued to grow, attracting both white and Black members. In 1904, the General Conference, which moved to Washington D.C. in 1903, decided to erect a school in the Nation’s Capital. They called the school The Washington Training School, stipulating that Black young men and women could not enroll in the new school because of skin color. In 1907, the General Conference founded the Washington Sanitarium and Hospital, specifying that Blacks were not allowed. With these actions, the General Conference launched a policy that spread quickly across the United States.[27]

In the coming years, a minority of white males in leadership positions quickly pushed segregation into Unions, Conferences, Churches, and schools. Whiteness spread across the nation with little opposition. Only African Americans dared voice their displeasure. The promoters of segregation even got Ellen White to make statements on the topic, published in Volume Nine of Testimonies for the Church in 1909; statements that often get construed as supportive of the unpublished policy.

In the 1940s, decades after the meeting at the Eighth Street Church, when African American Adventist laypersons continued to press for integration, the white leaders (the Presidents of all the Unions and Conferences of the North American Division) voted once again to segregate the Adventist structure. They formed Black Conferences, boosting segregation into the heart of Adventism.

However, Ellen G. White never fully joined the cause of the segregationists. In the spring of 1904, she visited Washington D.C. and challenged the policy by preaching at the Eighth Street Church, which continued to be an integrated congregation. She preached from John 17, which focuses on what Jesus considered the central pillar of his ministry, that all men become of “one heart and one mind.” In her diary, she recounts that both Black and white members rushed her carriage to shake her hand after her sermon. She enjoyed the visit and later wrote, “Other noble-looking men and women crowded to the carriage, but I did not get their names. The colored came as well as the white; I shook hands with them heartily, and then we had to leave.”[28]

Four years later, in 1908, when Ellen White neared her 81st birthday, she wrote a letter to the churches in Washington D.C. stating that Adventists must take much care in the American South. Abundantly aware of Plantation Theology’s power, she counseled that Adventists should not get caught up in partisan conspiracies to reform human behavior and should not be in the business of advancing personal agendas, especially when it comes to the questions of skin color. White knew that many General Conference Committee leaders, including President Daniells, her two sons, and her assistant, Elder Crisler, supported segregation. But she never wavered on her stance.

In the letter, White warned the segregationists that if they felt the Church could only grow by creating a color line, they needed to be careful. She also warned integrationists that they also need to be careful. Best practices, White stressed, do not appear when advancing personal points of view. She understood that proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus needed to be the central concern.

In her letter, she addressed the divisive wall of segregation by asking a question:

“But who will press the question of entire exclusion? Both white and colored people have the same Creator and are saved by the redeeming grace of the same Saviour. Christ gave His life for all. He says to all, “Ye are bought with a price” [1 Corinthians 6:20]. God has marked out no color line, and men should move very guardedly, lest we offend God. The Lord has not made two heavens, one for white people and one for colored people. There is but one heaven for the saved.”[29]

 

Notes & References:

[1] In 1902, the territory of Atlantic Union covered from Maine to Washington D.C.

[2] H. W. Cottrell. Washington. Review and Herald. October 9, 1902 17

[3] Ibid.

[4] City Mission in Washington D.C. Review and Herald August 31, 1886 559

[5] J. O. Corliss. At the National Capital. Review and Herald March 12 1889 169

[6] “Meetings in Washington D.C.; The Need of the Holy Spirit: Final Events.” Manuscript Release 1121

[7] City Mission in Washington D.C. Review and Herald August 31, 1886 Vol 66 Number 35 p 559, L. C. Sheafe and F. H. Seeney. Washington. Atlantic Union Gleaner July 9, 1902 301

[8] Slavery had been practiced throughout human history. However, in the British Colonies in North America, a new feature appeared: slavery became perpetual. Black children were born slaves and would continue to be slaves the rest of their lives. Not only would they be slaves, but also their children and grandchildren would share the same fate. Unlike the slavery of the ancient world where laws allowed persons so sell themselves into slavery, for a time, with the intent of paying off debt. Slaves continued to be human in antiquity; in the American Colonies they became work animals.

[9] Page Smith. A New Age Now Begins. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company. 1976 83

[10] Jon Butler. Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press 1990 130-142.

[11] See Josiah Priest. Bible Defense of Slavery and Origin Fortunes and History of the Negro Race. New York; Wentworth Press 2019

[12] Sydney E. Ahlstrom. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1972. 661-668.

[13] See Christine Leigh Heyrman. Southern Cross: The Beginning of the Bible Belt. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press. 1989

[14] C. O. Taylor. Georgia. Review and Herald. January 4, 1877 7

[15] A. B. Rust. Texas. Review and Herald. March 29, 1877

[16] Joe Clark. Texas. Review and Herald Feb 22, 1877, March 8, 1877, and May 24, 1877

[17] R. K. McCune. “From Brethren in Tennessee.” Review and Herald 63 and Arthur Whitefield Spalding Origins and History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Washington D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association. Volume Two 1962 72

[18] See Review and Herald. June 21, 1878 196, July 18, 1878 30, July 25, 1878 38, October 17, 1878. Also, Dennis Pettibone. “An Adventist Apostle to Dixie.” Adventist Heritage. Volume 14, Number2, Fall, 1991 4-11.

[19] Some, if not all, of the ministers who attended this campmeeting appeared to support segregation. Elder Kilgore, who had been President of the Texas Conference and the Illinois Conference, took the Superintendency of District Two in the last decade of the nineteenth century. District Two covered all the Southern States.

[20] R. M. Kilgore. Tennessee Campmeeting and Nashville Institute. Review and Herald October 29, 1889 683

[21] See the General Conference Daily Bulletin March 6, 1891. Volume 4 Number 1 page 3. Kilgore was a delegate at large at the Session.

[22] Ellen G. White. Our Duty to the Colored People. Sermon Battle Creek Michigan, March 20, 1891.

[23] Ellen G. White. Letter 5, 1895 to “My Brethren in Responsible positions in America.”

[24] Ciro Sepulveda. On the Margins of Empires: A History of Seventh-day Adventists. Huntsville, Alabama. Oakwood College Press. 207 163-166.

[25] Douglas Morgan. Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America. Hagerstown MD. Review and Herald Publishing Association. 2010 185-191.

[26] Ibid. 208-225.

[27] See the Washington Training School and the Adventist Sanitarium and Hospital entrees in The Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia. Washington D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association. 1963., Also see the Arthur Grosvenor Daniells entry in the Electronic Adventist Encyclopedia found at AdventistArchives.org.  

[28] Ellen G. White. Manuscript 45. May 15, 1904

[29] Ellen G. White Letter 304 “Our Churches in Washington D.C.” October 19, 1908

 

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 Unseen Histories on Unsplash

 

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