By Colleen Tinker
The horrifying chain of events last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, has prompted the Adventist organization to issue another official statement. Ironically, this latest statement belies the organization’s embarrassing heritage which is seldom acknowledged publicly.
The events began on Friday, August 11, when “white nationalists” demonstrated at the University of Virginia carrying torches and yelling racist slogans. On Saturday, during a counter-demonstration in the streets of Charlottesville, a 20-year-old with “white nationalist” sympathies suddenly drove his car into the demonstrating crowds, killing one, wounding several, and hitting a car from the rear before fleeing the scene.
On Monday, August 14, “Daniel R. Jackson and G. Alexander Bryant, the president and executive secretary of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America, issued the following joint statement:”
“We are deeply disturbed by the violence and hate that descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend. We are heartbroken by the tragic death of Heather Heyer, who was standing up against bigotry and hate when her life was senselessly cut short. We pray for Heather’s family, the community of Charlottesville, and all of those who were injured by the attack on those who rose up in solidarity against evil. As Christians and followers of Jesus we stand with Him against the white supremacist groups that spread racism and violence. We pray for the day when all of God’s children, of all races, treat each other with love and respect rather than bias and hate.”
The Adventist News Network (ANN) reports that “the local Adventist churches are working together to help with the healing process. The Allegheny West church in Charlottesville, Bethany Seventh-day Adventist Church and members of the Potomac Conference’s Charlottesville church have banded together in prayer.”
A fact which is not immediately obvious to the uninitiated reader is this: the two churches named as banding together to help with the healing process are congregations which are part of two separate local Adventist conferences: the Potomac Conference, and the Allegheny West Conference. The Allegheny West Conference is a member of what are known as the “regional conferences” in North America. The truth is that the regional conferences are organizations for black (and sometimes Hispanic) Adventist churches which retain their own subcultural identities.
What are Regional Conferences?
There are nine regional conferences in the United States; furthermore, in the parts of the country where no separate regional conferences operate, many local conference offices have departments of regional affairs which oversee the concerns of the black Adventist churches.
The nine regional conferences are: Allegheny East Conference, Allegheny West Conference, Central States Conference, Lake Region Conference, Northeastern Conference, South Atlantic Conference, South Central Conference, Southeastern Conference, and Southwestern Conference. The head Office for Regional Conferences is located on the campus of Oakwood University, the Adventists’ black university located in Huntsville, Alabama.
The Adventist News Network reported on November 18, 2015, that General Conference president Ted Wilson met with the presidents of the nine regional conferences “to explore ways to step up evangelism and outreach” in their districts. The report says the regional conferences “were established in the mid-1940s to accomplish a stronger work for African Americans and to provide leadership opportunities that would benefit the work of God.”
This quote affirms a telephone conversation I had in the mid-90s with the director of regional affairs for the Southeastern California Conference. I asked the director why they had separate regional conferences and directors, and his response was that the African-Amercan Adventists wanted the distinct conferences because they created more leadership opportunities for African-American Adventists. It is true that, historically, Black Adventists would have had limited opportunities for advancement in the otherwise mostly-white Adventist organization.
While this discrimination—albeit discrimination that is desired on the part of the regional conference members—is not well-known to many Adventists, especially in the western part of the United States, and certainly even less to people outside of the Adventist organization, it is, nonetheless, a recognized substructure within Adventism. In his 2015 meeting with the regional conference presidents, Ted Wilson “discussed evangelism and outreach activities”, especially the General Conference’s Mission to the Cities initiative which was designed “to reach people in the large cities of the world through plans outlined in the Bible and the writings of church cofounder Ellen G. White.”
ANN acknowledges that “historically, regional conferences have done much to evangelize large cities and are active in evangelism and reaching out to inner-city residents through community services.”
“Black Adventism” and Ellen White
Benjamin Baker is a historian who is currently an assistant archivist at the General Conference. He has created a website, BlackSDAHistory.org, which details the history of blacks in Adventism including information about the regional conferences, famous black Adventists, photographs, and more.
Significantly, Baker’s website is clear that the term “Black Adventism” is a recognized—if unofficial—classification. One of his web pages is entitled, “101 Interesting Facts about Black Adventism”, and his homepage states that his website provides “free information on African American Seventh-day Adventist history”.
In other words, Black Adventism is not a pejorative term; on the contrary, it is honored as a distinct subset of North American Adventism that exists within the General Conference structure.
Ironically, however, Black Adventism has grown out of a distinctly racist root: the counsels of the Adventist prophetess Ellen White. Ellen White lived through the Civil War, and although she aligned herself with the North, her counsels on the “Southern Work” betrayed her belief that blacks were not of the same class as whites. In classic double speak she attempted to demand compassionate ministry to the underprivileged freed slaves, but she also denied that they could work side-by-side with whites. Following are some of her statements revealing what she believed about blacks and their relationships to whites (emphases ours):
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 yourselves. 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. At the same time we must not carry things to extremes and run into fanaticism on this question. Some would think it right to throw down every partition wall and intermarry with the colored people, but this is not the right thing to teach or to practice.
Let us do what we can to send to this class laborers who will work in Christ’s name, who will not fail nor be discouraged. We should educate colored men to be missionaries among their own people. We should recognize talent where it exists among the people, and those who have ability should be placed where they may receive an education.
There are able colored ministers who have embraced the truth. Some of these feel unwilling to devote themselves to work for their own race; they wish to preach to the white people. These men are making a great mistake. They should seek most earnestly to save their own race, and they will not by any means be excluded from the gatherings of the white people…
God has children among the colored people all over the land. They need to be enlightened. There are unpromising ones, it is true, but you will find similar degradation among the white people; but even among the lower classes there are souls who will embrace the truth… Should it not be the work of the white people to elevate the standard of character among the colored race, to teach them how Christians should live, by exemplifying the Spirit of Christ, showing that we are one brotherhood? (The Southern Work, p. 15-16, from a letter by EGW, March 20, 1891).
The colored people, though emancipated from physical slavery, are still in the slavery of ignorance. They are led to believe that they should do just what their ministers tell them to do. Unless their minds are enlightened so that they may understand the scripture for themselves, and know that God has spoken to their souls, they will not be benefited by the preaching of the truth; for they are in a condition to be deceived easily by false teachers. In reaching the colored people, it is best to seek to educate them before presenting the pointed truths of the third angel’s message (The Review and Herald, p. 48, Jan. 21, 1896).
The whole system of slavery was originated by Satan, who delights in tyrannizing over human beings. Though he has been successful in degrading and corrupting the black race, many are possessed of decided ability, and if they were blessed with opportunities, they would show more intelligence than do many of their more favored brethren among the white people. Thousands may now be uplifted, and may become agents by which to help those of their own race (The Review and Herald, p. 61, Jan. 28, 1896).
There is need of level-headed men and women who love the Lord Jesus, and who will love the colored people for Christ’s sake, who have the deepest pity for them. But the methods of Sister S_____ are not the methods that will be wise to practice. They cannot be petted and treated just as if they were on a level with the whites without ruining them for all missionary work in the Southern field. There is a difference among the blacks as there is among the whites. Some possess keen and superior talents, that if the possessor is not made too much of, and is treated from a Bible standpoint, as humble men to do a Christlike missionary work, not exalting them, but teaching them religious love, and Christlike love for the souls of their own colored race, and keep before them that they are not called into the field to labor for the whites, but to learn to labor in the love of God to restore the moral image of God in those of their own race, then a good work can be done.
There is a work to be done in opening schools to teach the colored people alone, unmixed with whites, and there will be a successful work done in this way (The Southern Work, p. 73: Letter 73, 1895).
The breaking down of distinctions between the white and the colored races unfits the blacks to work for their own class, and exerts a wrong influence upon the whites (The Southern Work p. 96: Manuscript 90, 1899).
While on the one hand Ellen White advocated for the education of the freed slaves and urged Adventists to evangelize them, she nevertheless left clear instructions that blacks and whites were not to be considered equal. She was unequivocal that blacks had been degraded and corrupted by Satan and needed rehabilitation. Their minds needed enlightening in order to understand Scripture, and white people were to elevate the standard of character among the blacks.
She allowed, however, that some of them did posses “keen and superior talents” and could be trained so that, if they were not “made too much of”, could learn to be humble men who could do “Christlike missionary work”. Nevertheless, blacks were never to be allowed to think that they could teach white people. If they desired to teach, they were to teach their own kind, learning “to labor in the love of God to restore the moral image of God in those of their own race.” In fact, Ellen White declared that “breaking down” the distinction between whites and blacks and allowing them to work as equals side by side “unfits the blacks to work for their own class, and exerts a wrong influence upon the whites.”
In fact, Ellen White revealed her true convictions when she said:
Every species of animals which God had created was preserved in the ark. The confused species which God did not create, which were the result of amalgamation, were destroyed by the flood. Since the flood, there has been amalgamation of man and beast, as may be seen in the almost endless varieties of species of animals, and in certain races of men (The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 1, p. 78.2).
The seedbed of the regional conferences developed from the post-Civil War counsels of a false prophet who condescendingly allowed her white followers to make Adventists out of the freed slaves. Nevertheless, the teaching was always to be done with a clear sense of separation. In fact, Oakwood University, which Ellen White endorsed and helped to found, remains a strong bastion of Black Adventism, and the regional conferences remain separate.
Ellen White’s instructions about racial interactions overwhelmingly reveal one thing: she did not understand the gospel or know the Bible. Paul is unequivocal in his explanation of the body of Christ when he writes:
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:27-28).
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Col. 3:5-11).
Perhaps it is not a surprise that Adventism can accommodate a subculture of regional conferences and Black Adventism without seeing itself as discriminating according to race. After all, the cognitive dissonance one must accept in order to claim the Bible as one’s authority while also retaining loyalty to the authority of an unbiblical prophet requires that “truth” be relative.
The rationalization of remaining loyal to an organization whose prophet stated that blacks must be subordinate to whites and must never teach them requires that one redefine biblical truth. Furthermore, might it be that the only way one can live with the reality of Adventism’s foundational racism while proclaiming equality is to be intellectually dishonest?
If one trusts in the blood of Jesus that paid for all our sin, if one is born again into eternal life through the resurrection life of the Lord Jesus—then one cannot remain loyal to an organization that accepts the authority of a racist prophet while publicly posturing as being opposed to “white supremacist groups that spread racism and violence,” as stated in the Adventists’ response to Charlottesville.
Ultimately, we are called to truth and integrity. Our beliefs must match our behaviors, and our decisions must be evaluated not by political or social expediency but by the reality of the gospel.
Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes (1 Jn. 2:9-11).