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Adventism & America’s Original Sin (Part 6)


Developments seen in Part 5 placed the “living miracle” of interracial fellowship at the Adventist church in Washington, D.C. in serious jeopardy by 1901. Yet, core members of both races determined not to yield their gospel-based principles to powerful pressures both from society and within the denomination. Plans for a major evangelistic thrust in 1902 proceeded amidst two sharply contrasting visions about how the campaign would configure the church’s witness with regard to the nation’s original sin of racism.

Despite anxieties about what a protracted coal miners’ strike would mean for the colder months that lay ahead, a generally festive atmosphere seemed to prevail in the nation’s capital on Sunday evening, August 31, 1902. Working people could enjoy the evening’s activities in a more relaxed way than usual because tomorrow would be the Labor Day holiday.

Among the happenings in the city on that pleasantly warm late summer evening, something unusual was happening about two miles from the White House, and the Washington Post sent a reporter to cover it. Here is what he witnessed:

In a tent at Thirteenth and T streets northwest thousands of people, many of them white, are nightly hearing a negro preacher expound the Gospel. From a rude platform, behind a simple pulpit, the old Bible truths come each evening in sermon and song, so treated as to appear new again.

The man whom these people are flocking to hear is Rev. Lewis C. Sheafe, pastor of the Seven-day Adventist Church on Eighth street….

Two thousand persons heard him last night, when his subject was “The Marriage Supper of the Lamb.” While he talked a score of little children sat upon the platform about his feet. Over one-half of his audience stood throughout the sermon, the seating capacity of the tent being 800.[1]

In his six years as an Adventist minister, Lewis Sheafe (see Part 5) had become widely known in the denomination for his powerful preaching. He had been invited to preach evening sermons at the General Conferences of 1899 and 1901. According to Dr. Lottie Blake, a 1902 graduate of the American Medical Missionary College in Battle Creek, Michigan, an empty seat could not be found in the Battle Creek Tabernacle when Sheafe was preaching.[2]

His evangelistic efforts, particularly in Kentucky and South Carolina, had borne fruit against enormous odds. But in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1902 — this was a breakthrough to an entirely new level. It was the beginning, the preacher later said, of “a movement…with a spirit and power that only the Lord can give.”[3] The Colored American, a weekly black-owned newspaper, trumpeted “A New Faith Comes” in a first-page feature article reporting that Sheafe’s meetings “are nightly crowded by the best citizens of the District of every faith and of both races, who flock to hear his convincing, logical, and matchless eloquence…and who return to their homes refreshed in spirit and elevated and consecrated to higher living and nobler thoughts.”[4]

Somehow this evangelist connected with Washington, D.C. both as the cultural capital of black America and as the national capital for all Americans. Somehow his preaching compelled an interest that, at least for a moment, dissolved the color line. Jacob Justiss would later write that the “best citizens” mentioned in the newspaper account included members of Congress who hurried down from Capitol Hill to catch the evening meetings.[5]

The intrepid witness of James H. Howard (see Parts 2 and 3) and the first Adventist congregation in Washington had pried open a door that Sheafe’s evangelism now blasted off its hinges. A breath-taking opportunity lay wide open for Adventists to make known, in this venue of unparalleled influence, their message about the culmination of God’s plan to restore lost humanity and to demonstrate the power of that restoration to overcome the sin of racism so deeply embedded in both individual hearts and in the fabric of society.

In March, three months before the meetings began, Dr. Howard, without any knowledge of what lay ahead, could already confidently state that the attention of forward thinking people of both races in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and beyond, was being drawn to see where Adventists would stand on the race question. Now, Sheafe’s stunning evangelistic success had raised that attention to an order of magnitude beyond what even Dr. Howard anticipated.

In so doing, Sheafe had blown up the General Conference president’s carefully designed plan for reaching both races (see Part 5). It’s not that he set out with that intention. Since becoming an Adventist, he had at times stirred controversy with his outspokenness on race matters.[6] But he had by consensus become the informal leader and spokesman for the small but growing ranks of black Adventist ministers. Though still viewed with suspicion by some Adventist leaders, he was quite cognizant of the increasingly open and violent imposition of segregation in much of the South and the existential threat faced by those who defied the system. He also valued the unity of the Adventist movement. The evidence is too sparse to be certain about all the factors that went into his calculation. Yet while he never embraced nor advocated racially separatist policies, he was willing to refrain from challenging them openly where the majority deemed them a pragmatic necessity, provided the principle of equality was upheld.

So, Arthur G. Daniells, the General Conference president, came away from a face-to-face meeting with Sheafe in April at Des Moines, Iowa, confidently asserting that the evangelist had agreed to his plan for Washington. Sheafe would conduct his tent effort for black Washingtonians while a white evangelist, Judson Sylvanus Washburn, would simultaneously run meetings in a separate tent to reach the white population. At the conclusion of the summer campaigns the white members of the Washington church would join the new believers from Washburn’s effort in one congregation, while the black members of the original church would join those won through Sheafe’s meetings to form a second and separate black congregation.

Sheafe came away from the same Des Moines meeting with a quite different perspective. He had indeed agreed not to oppose a division of the Washington church. But Daniells had agreed that Sheafe would not be expected to be the one to lead out in implementing the division. As Sheafe saw it, all he had agreed to do was not stand in the way if the white people felt it necessary to separate from the church and form their own congregation.

Daniells recognized that Andrew Kalstrom (see Part 5), the strong-willed Swedish American who was the elder of the Washington church, would pose an obstacle to the separation. But he seems to have underestimated the extent of such opposition among the church members as a whole and the intensity of the gospel idealism that fueled it.

And nobody anticipated that Sheafe’s meetings would so dramatically overshadow Washburn’s, that the number of white people alone attending the black preacher’s meetings at times surpassed that of the whites-only meetings held across town. Or that Sheafe, as a result of the summer meetings and follow-up endeavors over the next few months, would baptize approximately twenty white people (out of a total of 75) whereas Washburn never reported any specific numbers.

The frustrated Washburn began bitterly complaining to Elder Daniells that Sheafe was violating his agreement to abide by the plan agreed upon in the spring. At the same time, when Sheafe saw how committed a sizable contingent of the white membership was to remaining in the racially-integrated congregation, and that without any specially-directed effort on his part, additional white people were won to faith through his evangelism, he was not about to tell them they must leave his congregation. Quite the contrary, he began to use his considerable rhetorical skills in favor of building a church dedicated to racial unity and equality in Christ.

As the dual summer tent efforts moved toward their conclusion in mid-September, tension mounted. The inspiring story of dramatic advance for the Adventist movement in the nation’s capital became bound together with a building drama over just where the Adventist church would stand on the race question.

The stakes were high. All involved believed that what prevailed in Washington would set the template for Adventist practice throughout the nation, even though at that point none could foresee how a move of denominational headquarters less than a year later would make that even more true. Would Adventism follow the predictable pattern of conformity to prevailing American norms? Or would the opportunities opened by the summer’s unexpected providences prompt fresh, Spirit-guided thinking?

Competing narratives emerged and made their way into the secular press: On September 6, 1902, the Washington Evening Star reported: “Arrangements are being made to divide the Seventh Day Adventist Church of this city into two congregations, one composed of the colored and the other composed of the white members of that sect in Washington. This action was decided upon by the general conference of the church, with headquarters in Battle Creek, Mich.”[7] Similar reports appeared in other, white-owned newspapers.

But the Colored American insisted on September 13 that recent press statements “to the effect that an effort will be made this fall to divide the Seventh Day Adventists on race lines is utterly without foundation…” Claiming the permission of Mr. Sheafe, the paper quoted resolutions passed by the Washington Seventh-day Adventist Church on June 7, 1902, including:

That hereby the church expresses itself before God and man, and says that the principles to which it has been committed since its organization will be followed in the future; that hence there will be no distinction, nor discrimination on account of race, and consequently that different services for the different races will not be held, nor will attempts be made to regulate seating according to race, hereafter.[8]

In fact, the General Conference secretary, the president of the Chesapeake Conference (which then included Washington, D.C.), and the president of the Atlantic Union Conference (of which the Chesapeake Conference was then a part) were on their way to Washington with a mandate from A.G. Daniells to “Take hold of this matter with a strong hand, and carry it through.”[9] When they arrived, they would face opposition equally if not more determined.


Notes & References:

[1] “Thousands Hear Him, Negro Minister Draws Large Crowds to His Tent,” Washington Post (1 Sep. 1902): 2.

[2] Journalist Mylas Martin reported to the author hearing this anecdote from Dr. Blake (d. 1976).

[3] Lewis C. Sheafe, “People’s Seventh-day Adventist Church of Washington, D.C.,” Review and Herald (24 Aug. 1905): 15.

[4] “A New Faith Comes, Thrilling Success of a Seventh Day Adventist,” Colored American (13 Sep. 1902): 1-2.

[5] Jacob Justiss, Angels in Ebony (Holland, Ohio: published by author, 1975), 109.

[6] “Labors of Elder L.C. Sheafe,” General Conference Committee minutes, October 27, 1901.

[7] “The Churches,” Washington Evening Star (6 Sep. 1902).

[8] “A New Faith Comes,” 2.

[9] A.G. Daniells to H.W. Cottrell, 18 Sep. 1902. General Conference Archives.


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.

Images courtesy of the author.


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