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The Problem with Adventist Heritage: Re-Discovering Our True Selves

Phillip Warfield - Historian

We are constantly bombarded with verbiage urging us to recall who we are. Some of us remember the emphatic words of Queen Ramonda, played by Angela Bassett in Black Panther (2018): “Remember who you are!” 

This theme is often repeated in African American literature. African-American self discovery shines in Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The works of James Weldon Johnson, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison provide further examples.

For so many of us, the call to remembrance of self and remembrance of struggle galvanizes us to action. To remember oneself—to know oneself—is an act of revolution. That simple, powerful act, prevents anyone telling us who we are when confronted with our past. As Seventh-day Adventists, how do we honor the denomination’s abolitionist past while making sense of its long, painful chapters of racial segregation and contested citizenship?

Earlier this month, I accepted the invitation of a medium-sized church near Tampa, Florida to give a series of presentations about the Black Adventist past. Especially in the last few years, Florida has received national scrutiny for the actions of governor Ron DeSantis, whose quest to limit race-inclusive state education culminated in his Stop WOKE Act and the Florida Department of Education’s rejection of an Advanced Placement African American studies course for high school students. 

When Florida’s leaders view the very dissemination of African American history as harmful indoctrination, my entering the state as an African American doctoral candidate in U. S. History at a historically Black university is an admittedly risky act. 

Knowingly or not, Seventh-day Adventist higher education has missed the mark when teaching “Adventist Heritage”. Southern Adventist University’s RELT 138, for example, limits inquiry to “a study of the Second Advent Awakening in the nineteenth century and the subsequent development of the Seventh-day Adventist Church” with “special emphasis” on the life and ministry of Ellen G. White. 

Similar courses like Southwestern Adventist University’s RELH 230: History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Union College’s RELH 310: History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and Oakwood University’s HI 314: History of the SDA Church, provide similarly narrow explorations. 

Walla Walla University’s History of Adventism does incorporate Adventist fundamentalism, race relations, and women, and La Sierra University’s RELH 506: History of Seventh-day Adventists includes a study of the development of the church into the 1960s.

Courses like these often omit the voices of African Americans who struggled to achieve full parity and inclusion in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, reducing those stories to footnotes. 

Additionally, such courses often conclude with the end of Ellen G. White’s life in 1915—over 109 years ago. There is no mention of stories many Black Adventists might be familiar with: the abolitionist legacies of the church’s founders, Black Millerites, The Morning Star boat, the ministry of Charles M. Kinny, the revolutionary life of Lewis C. Sheafe, or a critical understanding of how Adventist fundamentalism shaped the social and racial structures of the church, to name a few.

When professors discuss learning outcomes, they often leave out desire for students to demonstrate understanding of the developmental role that nonwhite people played in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, especially after the death of Ellen G. White. Instead, I have witnessed the same played out questions: “When will we rid ourselves of regional conferences?” Or “why do we segregate ourselves?” 

While historians have done an exceptional job of telling these stories (Benjamin Baker’s provides an excellent starting point), I believe Adventist education has failed to help students develop a true understanding of Adventist heritage regarding Black Adventists.

In a cultural landscape that often sanitizes Black history, Pastor Jonathan Peinado, senior pastor of the New Port Richey Seventh-day Adventist Church in Florida, took a risk when he invited me to speak about our shared Adventist heritage. The New Port Richey church, following the lead of its Florida counterparts, offered me a chance to reflect on Black Adventist history and what Adventists might do to remember their true selves.

Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai suggests that culture could be a basis of strength, an idea she calls “kwimenya”. For example, while admitting that no one’s heritage is perfect, acknowledging African roots and precolonial ideas on community can be deeply transformative. Maathai argues that African culture based on collectivity, harmony, interdependency, and spirituality, contrasts with western society, which places heavy emphasis on the individual. 

For Christians, the act of self-discovery and remembrance is a spiritual affair, reinforced by biblical texts. At Passover, Jesus asked his disciples remember his act of sacrifice, which they did not yet comprehend (see Luke 22:19). Throughout the Old Testament, festivals and monuments reminded the Israelites of what God had done for them in the past and who they were to him.

In the same way, I believe Seventh-day Adventists need kwimenya—thier own “self-knowledge”. They need to remember their radical values and encourage the “acting out” of those revolutionary ideas. They need to place far more emphasis on the collective struggle of people within the church who sacrificed to help Black Adventists and other minorities achieve parity, full citizenship, and representation in the Adventist community. 

The prophetic voice of Seventh-day Adventism’s true heritage is inherent in the third angel’s message in Revelation 14:9 (and following)—preaching the gospel throughout the world and preparing for Christ’s imminent return. Kevin Burton notes that Adventists were at one time surveilled for their radical outlook on American society, threatening to disfellowship church members who held enslaved people.

As I prepared to deliver my final presentation at the New Port Richey church, I suffered anaphylactic shock and went to the emergency room after something I accidentally ingested at potluck caused a severe reaction. The next 24 hours passed in a blur, but I felt thankful to the church for enacting values I hope every church incorporates. I was treated like a valued member of the community and reminded that my work matters. I felt encouraged by church members who said my presentation prompted a Q & A session not only about my remarks, but also asking how they could care for those who may not look like them. 

As we seek kwimenya, we must ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Now, more than ever, it is essential for Adventists to recover our radical, abolitionist past and to reclaim that heritage in a world seeking to reduce minority histories to historical footnotes. 

The center of Black Adventist experience is a story of hope. While the United States engages with the enduring legacies of slavery, the Adventist message offers rest as a reprieve for all people; the Adventist historical legacy emphasizes the liberation of all people; the Adventist religious structure preaches a savior for all people; and the Adventist lifestyle promotes healthy living and high educational standards to all people.

Adventism’s high educational standards must start with recognition of its shared heritage, creating courses that reflect the nonwhite Adventist experience. It should not be left only to Oakwood University and regional conferences to acknowledge Black Adventist history. Adventist educators—Black and white—should be stewards of Adventism’s full history. They should take it upon themselves to learn and embrace the less-known stories. Local churches need to enlist historians to help them tell unfamiliar Adventist stories . 

The territorial overlap between most regional and state conferences makes essential collaborative efforts between neighboring congregations to commemorate Adventist heritage locally. Consider the many ways Adventists have been active anti-racists in their communities. How might churches find space and time to celebrate contemporary history makers? 

No longer should Adventists silo themselves. Adventist education and Adventist communities depend on the church’s ability to critically engage in the hard work of remembering and commemorating. Will the Adventist Church be left behind and simply celebrate centuries-old legacies, or will the denomination take the best parts of its legacy and allow its liberating message to flourish into the 21st century? Worse, will the church completely forget its mission and seek to join the fundamentalist evangelical project?

I hope a prophetic proclamation of the Three Angels’ Message will prompt Adventists to be better stewards of the church’s past, and encourage future changemakers and liberators to upset traditional ways of shaping and sharing Adventist history. Adventism’s best 19th-century values and legacies must bring renaissance and re-discovery of its true heritage in the 21st century.

Let us take a page out of the New Port Richey church handbook. Are we willing to challenge ourselves to remember our true selves, even amid opposition to our radical past? As public schools buckle under legislative restrictions on teaching race, may Adventists in their own prominent place as the second largest education system in the world be encouraged to embody a simple yet familiar, revolutionary message: “God made you special, and he loves you very much.” 

This is true self-knowledge.

Phillip M. Warfield

About the author

Phillip M. Warfield is a doctoral student studying U. S. History with a minor in Public History at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He graduated from Southern Adventist University with a bachelor’s degree in History and served as student association president. He is the recipient of the inaugural Spectrum Distinguished Graduate Fellowship for 2024. More from Phillip Warfield.
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