Book Review: Protest and Progress: Black Seventh-day Adventist Leadership and the Push for Parity

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Book Review: Protest and Progress: Black Seventh-day Adventist Leadership and the Push for Parity

Calvin B. Rock structures his book in three parts: The Protest Movements, The Challenge Ahead, and Appendices.

 

The first part discusses four phases of the push towards racial parity in the Seventh-day Adventist Church: social and administrative participation (1889—1928), the creation of colored conferences (1929—1944), the creation of black unions (1969–1980), and equitable retirement security (1998—2000).

 

The Push for Social and Administrative Participation

The exposition of the push for parity in social and administrative administration is built around several key figures whose work has been instrumental in this regard, including:

  • Charles Marshal Kinney, an emancipated slave who became Adventist and spearheaded ministry among the Black population in the South, contributed to desegregation despite prejudices within the church and from other Black Protestant ministers and sought to counteract the negative effect of racism by calling publicly for “an end of second-class status for Blacks in church assemblies [and] a separate meeting structure in cases in which the two races could not assemble together ‘without limitation’” (p. 15), as well as for education of “worthy Colored individuals” p. 15).
  • Lewis C. Sheafe, a Baptist pastor converted to Adventism, who fought for inclusion and further challenged the racial practices within the church, and
  • James H. Howard, who continued to fight for inclusion and Black representation in the church structure.

During this time the church leadership approved a request to create a “North American Negro Department of the General Conference,” which, despite helping make progress towards parity, was short of accomplishing the goal and was moved to Washington only after the premature demise of W. H. Green, a leader of the Negro Department who worked himself to death out of his office in Detroit.

 

The Push for Colored Conferences

The Push for Colored Conferences began around 1929 and spanned some fifteen years. Formal addresses from Black leaders towards the White leadership were brought to the General Conference’s discussion table in 1929 but the recommendation of the study committee appointed by the GC, while providing some steps towards achieving greater inclusion and representation, did not mention anything in reference to Black Conferences. Since then several individuals and events contributed significantly to the ongoing push for Colored Conferences, including: Claude Barnett, the founder of the Associated Negro Press, who, aware of racial inequities in the church (including segregated dining and limited education opportunities for Black students), put pressure on the church by bringing these issues into the public eye; Lucille Byard’s discriminated treatment at an Adventist Hospital and her subsequent death, which heightened the sensitivities of Black lay members and leaders to the degree of threatening the GC president with a lawsuit; and the work of the Committee for the Advancement of World-Wide Work among Seventh-day Adventists.

 

As a result of continued efforts, in 1944, the church leadership recommended, among other things: “1. That in unions where the colored constituency is considered by the Union Conference Committee to be sufficiently large, and where the financial income and territory warrant, colored conferences be organized. 2. That these conferences be administered by colored officers and committees.” (p. 54) The same year, Lake Region Conference was organized within the Lake Union as the first Black Conference in the Adventist church, followed by the North Eastern Conference in the Atlantic Union and the Allegheny Conference in Columbia Union. Opinions within the Black community varied, with some believing that separate conferences were the most effective way to minister to the Black population, and others advocating for integration instead. The context in the West Coast of the United States leaned more towards integration, and the leadership in the area influenced the process of integration as opposed to separation, including via formal statements on the equality and brotherhood of all believers. While attempts for the formation of Black conferences have been made, they were defeated.

 

The Push for Colored Unions 

Some twenty-five years after the establishment of Colored Conferences, Black leadership began to formulate requests for Black Unions. In the North American Division, the Black population increased from 17,891 to 75,000 during this time. The effort to create Black Unions began in 1969 and spanned eleven years. In presenting this journey, Rock highlights the significant role of the Laymen’s Leadership Conference (LLC) in continuing to address the racial inequities in the church and in advocating for greater representation of Blacks at the decision-making levels of the church. Partly as a result of these efforts, the church elected its first Black general vice president of the General Conference in the person of F. L. Peterson. In 1969 the request for Black unions was formalized and brought before the General Conference committee but was defeated. A renewed proposal was presented in 1977 but was defeated again. Neal Wilson, then president of the General Conference, read a document prepared by the President’s Executive Group on Administration (PREXAD) which expressed concern about the wisdom of organizing black unions and the adverse effects fragmentation would have against fostering unity within the church.

 

The request for Black Unions was again brought to the GC Annual Council the following year, but was defeated once again, largely as a result of Neal Wilson advocating for inclusiveness and integration and publicly encouraging the electorate to vote it down. Having been directly involved in these events, the author comments: “He [Neal Wilson] was … a truly exceptional leader. That his strong courage sometimes expressed itself as arbitrariness was a characteristic that I tried not to model, but which I later came to appreciate and, to a degree, emulate when convinced that an issue would have lasting negative consequences for the world church” (p. 109). The efforts of integration resulted in the election of a first Black president of a Division (North American), which posed further challenges to the request for Black Unions.

 

As with Colored Conferences, the opinion on whether the creation of Black Unions was the best way forward varied, with key Black leaders advocating on both sides of this issue. The Integrationist Position, supported by figures such as Banfield, Canson, and Hale) saw the formation of Black Unions as a “form of reverse segregation” (p. 130) that was “contrary to the principle of unity mandated in the Bible and the writings of Ellen White” (p. 130), and which would leave the impression of “the inability of the races to live in harmony in the Seventh-day Adventist Church” (p. 130). The Self-Determinationist Position (advocated by E. Cleveland, C. Bradford, and C. Dudley) advocated on practical reasons such as “increased mobility, better planning, and the consolidation of talent and resources” (p. 134-135), “racial pride and group solidarity” (p. 135), and “freedom [for] the oppressed but loyal minority to chart its own destiny within the broad tent of unity in diversity” (p. 135). The following chart illustrates more in detail the diversity of opinion and rationale on his matter.

The Push for Equitable Retirement Security

Rock documents in a similar manner the Push for Equitable Retirement Security, which took place during 1998-2000 and resulted in the creation of a separate and more equitable retirement plan for Black ministers.

 

The exposition offered in the first part of the book is followed by a second part, entitled The Challenge Ahead, in which the author discusses theoretical and practical ways to consider the way forward for ministry among the Black population in the Seventh-day Adventist church given the ongoing societal changes. The considerations offered are very helpful not only in and of themselves, but also, perhaps primarily so, because they raise questions relevant to the current situation in our church and in the broader context in which our church exists and functions today.

 

Protest and Progress offers a helpful and well-structured perspective on the long and often painful journey towards parity of the Black membership in the Adventist church – a perspective that we all need to be aware of. It is instrumental not only at the level of information, but at the personal level of education and of understanding the movements within the church on crucial matters, a level which translates itself into the way we relate to each other on a day-by-day basis and in the decision-making processes. Readers will truly benefit from familiarity with the content of this book and be better equipped to deal with the ongoing struggles towards equity and equality in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

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Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.