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‘Our Firm Foundation’ and Black People

At the height of the historic Civil Rights Movement which revolutionized the United States of America in the legal and extra-legal treatment of its citizens, Hope International was founded by one Lloyd Silver and four couples in July 1964. These charter members were laypeople of modest means residing in the Seattle metropolitan area. The organization’s express raison d’etre was to address perceived denominational apostasy stemming from the Martin-Barnhouse dialogue of the 1950s and its controversial literary product, the 1957 Questions on Doctrine. Hope’s goals were expanded in Article II of its constitution and bylaws in seven “purposes for which this Corporation is formed.” The final item is of particular interest to the inquiry of this piece: “To conduct research and develop projects in the areas of interest to the Corporation.” The charter members also spoke less formally but with more passion of “start[ing] a grassroots revival in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (1).”

Shortly after the group’s incorporation, a 165-acre ranch near Eatonville, Washington, was purchased, and the foundation would remain at that location for nearly four decades, relocating to Knoxville, Illinois, in 2002. Hope’s name; date of establishment; independence from the denomination; aim to research and develop projects in areas of interest; initiate a grassroots revival; and promise to rebuke the sins of the church seemed to bode well for a respectable record in addressing the previously ill-addressed issues of race in the Seventh-day Adventist church.

Hope International really entered into the Adventist consciousness in the mid-1980s through the considerable efforts of one man. In the spring of 1984 longtime church worker Ronald David Spear was allowed to speak in a barn on the Eatonville property. Beth Jennings, one of Hope’s charter members present at Spear’s talk, reported that she was “thrilled” at Spear’s “straight as an arrow” theology and thought “this was the man we had been waiting for all these years.” Jennings aggressively recruited Spear to join the staff, and after a brief period of wooing and courting, the sexagenarian Spear accepted the leadership of Hope International (2).

Ron Spear was born in Longpine, California, on February 11, 1924, and spent his formative years on the family ranch in a small northern California town called Carlotta. Spear served in the medical corp during World War II, and afterword attended Pacific Union College where he earned a degree in theology. In 1947 he married Betty Mink and the couple had two children, one of whom was killed in Vietnam in 1969. The Spears did missionary work in Tanzania, Africa, for parts of three decades—provocatively Africa’s era of struggle for independence from British colonization—garnering missiological strategies from ministerial labor there as did counterparts Robert Wieland and Donald Short. The ordained and credentialed Spear held a prominent pastorate and several positions at the General Conference before he opted for independent work—Spear prefers the term “self-supporting work”—after assessing the condition of the church as not good (3). Spear’s witnessing of African independence movements of the 1950s, 60s and 70s also boded well for a Hope International active in reforming Adventism race relations.

Ron Spear’s ultraconservative charisma—perhaps a phenomenon solely restricted to Adventism—put Hope International on the proverbial map. In October 1985 he debuted Our Firm Foundation (OFF), a monthly periodical whose “theme” was to “prepare our people for the great crisis” and to spur “a revival of true godliness”. Spear occupied the editorship, and was later joined by other veteran church workers including the brothers Standish and Ralph Larson. Initially the magazine was carried by carefully selected reprints from the writings of Ellen G. White, but soon articles with more specific and contemporary agendas were featured.

OFF became known to larger Adventism as a publication obsessed with the issues of the human nature of Christ; perfection; the delayed advent of Jesus; Questions on Doctrine and the subsequent doctrinal confusion; various lifestyle practices seen as discarded by Adventists; and the spiritual malaise of the church. OFF peaked in the early 1990s when the church’s official organ, Adventist Review, featured an insert in its November 2, 1992, edition entitled “Issues: The Seventh-day Adventist Church and Certain Private Organizations (4).” An exchange between the General Conference and Hope International garnered a notoriety within Adventism that the independent organization probably couldn’t have attained on its own. OFF’s decline paralleled the rise of the Internet in the late 1990s, and with Ron Spear’s resignation under contentious circumstances in 2006, the magazine and its parent entity Hope International are currently struggling for relevance. OFF, however, does boast millions of dispersed copies in its nearly thirty year history and translation in ten languages (5).

Our Firm Foundation, to my knowledge, has to date not been evaluated for its record on speaking out on issues of race. As a Seventh-day Adventist historian and sometimes idealist, I subscribe to the pronouncement of Jesus Christ that “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another (6).”  From this and other like declarations, I maintain that the Adventist church is only viable as the members love each other and love the people of the larger world. Therefore, I unapologetically see how the races—particularly whites and blacks in the United States—treat each other as a litmus test for the Christian-ness of our church. If we discriminate on the basis of race, no matter the correctness of our doctrines, we are not Christian, not followers of Jesus Christ. This is a non-negotiable in my thinking, and supported, I believe, in the life and teachings of Jesus and the overarching notion of community and charity (koinonia and agape) in the Pauline epistles.

Hope International has been the leading entity in employing the moniker “Historic Adventist” to describe itself. Therefore, because this is a self-identification, I have always judged them according to it. Other than the deep historical inaccuracies the term “Historical Adventist” presupposes—there was never one single Adventism; “historical” is by necessity selective and subjective—the 1950s were “historical; according to Ellen White and other SDA pioneers the church was rarely unified; White often identified the Adventism of her day as in rebellion against God; and the church was dead-set against the adoption of any creeds for starters—my biggest problem with the term is the actions, better non-actions, of those who employ it.  Historically, Adventists (that is, the “pioneers”) spoke out against racial injustice in the American republic.  Ellen White, whose articles dominate OFF, not only spoke out against national racial injustice, but denominational racial injustice.  Therefore, Hope, claiming fidelity to “Historical Adventism,” would go and do likewise.

My recently completed PhD dissertation is an 800 page examination of Ellen White’s lifelong relation to black people.  In the course of my research I compiled some 700 pages of White quotes touching on blacks.  What I discovered, for the purposes of this piece, was that White was preoccupied with denouncing racial injustice in the nation and the church and improving the lot of African Americans. Anyone doubting this may examine a representative sampling of her myriad statements on slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, race wars; and her indictment of the church for their failure to aid blacks after the Civil War and obstinacy to support the evangelistic program of the Southern Missionary Society at the turn of the century at this site. Space does not permit here to note several other relevant historical items: briefly that the basis of Seventh-day Adventist’s conclusion of the United States’ malevolent role in the eschaton that OFF delights in highlighting was largely arrived at by the pioneers in their observance of the beastlike way the nation enslaved black people; and the incarnation of Jesus, in which God took man’s nature—a point on which Hope harps on and hinges—was the exemplary motivator in the thinking of Ellen White for urging white Northern Adventists to go South and work to uplift blacks.

But the “historic” Ellen White of course was not alone in her concern for blacks. Aside from Adventist Review writers’ ubiquitous denouncing of slavery and the South (Confederacy) in the 1850s and 60s, one of OFF’s and “Historical Adventism’s” greatest heroes, A.T. Jones, was a tireless activist for the equal rights of black people. In short, as the most sophisticated Adventist critic of American politics and legislation, Jones condemned the nation’s treatment of blacks as a grave violation of the claims of the Constitution. To hear the most complete exposition of Jones’ racial activism, see my video “1888 and Black People”.

Has Hope International, founded when Martin Luther King was talking about his dream and when the U.S. government was finally giving in and passing laws of racial equality; with a goal of effecting a grassroots movement of revival in Adventism; eventually run by a minister who served in Africa for more a decade and a half; and with the express purpose of “crying aloud and spar[ing] not,” (7) faithfully denouncing the sins of the church, been “historic” in speaking out on issues of race in the Seventh-day Adventist church? In its almost three decade history has Our Firm Foundation unflinchingly demanded that blacks be represented in church leadership; be treated equally at denominational churches, schools, conferences, cafeterias and hospitals; and that racial division and separatism be eliminated post haste in Adventism?

Our Firm Foundation has never printed a word about race. Not one word.

In my examination of the online archives of Our Firm Foundation, I discovered not one single article on race, race relations, racial equality, racial unity, or black people in the issues from 1985 to 2011.  In my opinion, this oversight would be forgivable if the periodical featured a representative amount of black authors. It fails on this score, however, too.  I only discovered one black author from 1985-2001, the Jamaican David Mould (8). I lighted upon three pictures of blacks, all in an article on an OFF’s writer’s prison visit; the blacks captured in the photos had been captured (9).

When the magazine switched to full color in 1999 I was naïve to think that there would be articles about or by people of color. From 2001 to the present I located five black authors—all African—who wrote a total of 9 articles—three from Samuel Koranteng-Pipim (10),—each adhering to Hope’s myopic doctrinal message. Also of note is the paucity of writers of other ethnicities—I located three reprints of the same article from the legendary Adventist Jew F.C. Gilbert and an article by Steve Wohlberg; articles from a couple of Asian writers; and pieces from Hispanics Fernando Chaij and Jim Arrabito—and women authors.

Further, in OFF’s heyday, the drawings of Bob Bresnahan portrayed embarrassing anachronistic caricatures of Victorian Anglos from a bygone era and flat out white supremacist sketches of a lily white Christ—the Jesus whom ironically the publishers attempted to present as fully identifying with fallen humanity. All in all, there are no articles by African Americans and no articles addressing race. My measured and protracted conclusion is that Hope International is a white man’s thing. Racial unity (human unity) is not at all important to them or even on their radar. Doctrine is more important than people. Being right trumps being loving.

When I emailed OFF’s editor Heidi Heiks (a white male) concerning a multi-error about a black Millerite named William Foy—a rare mention of man of color for OFF—in January 2008’s “Jonah: A Type of Remnant” (11) (“Like some who, in the early days of Adventism, were bidden to give a message but who ran from God’s call, there is a price for disobedience.  We think of William Foss [sic] and Hazen Foy [sic], both given a vision to relate to God’s people; both ran from the call. Neither had peace again. Instead, the call was given to the weakest of the weak, Ellen Harmon, who tremblingly accepted”), Heiks did not cite Ellen White’s affirmation of Foy’s prophetic ministry in Manuscript 131, 1906—a strange and suspicious deviation from OFF’s protocol of citing Ellen White for validation—but J.N. Loughborough’s Rise and Progress of the Seventh-day Adventists as proof of the validity of the Foy error (12). I reluctantly concluded that not only is Hope unmindful of blacks, but dismissive of them.

I want to begin here—unfortunately in perhaps the last place a supporter of Hope would deign to go—a public dialogue with the editors and writers of Our Firm Foundation, not as a Spectrumite—trying to have a steady hand, I examined Spectrum’s articles, printed since 1969, concerning race, and there are myriad—but as a sincere black Seventh-day Adventist who is seeking answers. Did I miss something in my analysis of OFF? Have there been articles on race or improving the racial divide in the church? Has OFF denounced the sins of racism in Adventism and I have overlooked these articles?  Allow me to pose one last question: Will Hope International work this year to live up to its title, “Historic Adventist,” by featuring pieces in Our Firm Foundation on healing racial rifts and racist attitudes in the Seventh-day Adventist church?*

*Several punctuation and wording changes were suggested by the author. Alterations were made to the essay on January 29. 

—Benjamin Baker, Ph.D., teaches history at Washington Adventist University.

  6. John 13:35, KJV.
  7. This text is ironically from Isaiah 58, whose concern is treating the oppressed justly.
  12. Email reply from Heidi Heiks to Benjamin Baker, January 16, 2008.
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