Book Review: Seventh-day Adventists and the Civil Rights Movement by Samuel London, Jr.

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Book Review: Seventh-day Adventists and the Civil Rights Movement by Samuel London, Jr.

Samuel London’s book is a historical analysis of the Adventist church’s stance towards social activism and the resulting effects of both decentralized attempts at promoting civil rights for African-Americans and the general tendency to refuse involvement in social justice.

 

The first part documents the “Origins and Development of Nonparticipatory Politics” in early Adventism. In doing so, London opens the book with a fairly comprehensive introduction to the beginnings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, going all the back to William Miller. As such, the reader will find in his description of early Adventism well-written narratives of significant biblical discoveries on the Second Coming of Christ, the Sanctuary, Jesus’ ministry as High Priest, the Sabbath, the Investigative Judgment, and the state of the dead. As he shares the story of Adventism’s formative years, the author highlights the stance of some pioneers on the social issue of race. For example, he notes that William Miller, like most Northerners, was anti-slavery and participated in the freeing of slaves via the Underground Railroad. Along these lines, he also brings important clarifications to a quote by Ellen White that has been grossly misunderstood and misused. Her words read:

 

“The colored people should not urge that they be placed on equality with white people.”[i]

 

Taken at face value, White’s statement appears to endorse racism. Yet read in the context of her writing, the words reveal her burden for the case of blacks in America. The context was one of declining race relations, sometimes referred to as the “Crisis of the Nineties,” – a deterioration partly influenced by the negative interpretation of disorder and corruption in social and political issues of the day including the perceived inability of blacks to assimilate, the influx of immigrants in the North which bred empathy with the South’s in-house “foreign” presence of blacks, social Darwinism’s emphasis on the survival of the fittest, along with the resulting “laissez-faire socioeconomics,”[ii] a growing culture of American imperialism nurtured by the annexation of new territories and the Spanish-American War, and the scientific racism (“so-called evidence of innate black inferiority”[iii]) promoted by some Northerners. During this crisis violence against blacks increased in the South. It was in this period that James Edson White, Ellen White’s son, built a riverboat and traveled to Mississippi to help the cause of the black population. His mission in Mississippi and Alabama was centered on education and evangelism and was successful enough to bring about indignation from both white Southerners and black leaders of other denominations. This led to violent mob actions, including the burning of an Adventist school established by Edson White and brutal attacks on a sharecropper and his wife who were prominent participants in evangelism. In such a context of local religious intolerance, and given the racial bigotry prevalent in the country, Ellen White advised against desegregation for the sake of the safety of both blacks and whites. Along these lines, White wrote:

 

“As time advances and race prejudices increase, it will become almost impossible, in many places, for white workers to labor for the colored people. Sometimes the white people who are not in sympathy with our work will unite with colored people to oppose it, over the Sabbath question. White ministers and colored ministers will make false statements, arousing in the minds of the people such a feeling of antagonism that they will be ready to destroy and kill.”[iv]

 

She also stated:

 

“We are not to agitate the color line question and thus arouse prejudice and bring about a crisis.”[v]

 

Far from betraying a racist stance, White’s advice that education and evangelism be conducted along racial lines was intended to safeguard the lives of both blacks and whites and the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist church. This interpretation is also in harmony with White’s overall ministry, her clear actions in helping and encouraging the church to actively participate in elevating the long-subjugated black population through education and sharing of the Gospel message, and quotes where she clearly supports racial equality radically condemns slavery and the attitude of white superiority and even suggests that reparations are owed to the descendants of African-American slaves. While White’s proposed solution was meant to be temporary and beneficial, it was used to nourish racial bigotry and segregation, with sad consequences at the levels of both individual membership and church organization.

 

Following this depiction of Adventist beginnings and ventures into social activism, London moves into a discussion on “Theology, Politics, and the Retreat from Social Activism.” In this chapter, he notes that the Adventist church’s focus on the Second Coming has fueled an attitude of neglect towards socio-political activism aimed at bringing about justice and socio-economic improvements for blacks. This neglect was also fed by general support for the separation between church and state that often drew a clear line of demarcation between the life of the church and the political arena – an approach supported by key editorial figures with vast influence given their line of work. London also underlines the effect of a “radical deterministic doctrine of God, [–] the belief that the divine takes a proactive approach in human history [that ultimately] … transfers the responsibility of challenging injustice … from human beings to God.”[vi]

 

On the theological level, the author credits the Social Gospel movement by providing Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi with a theological basis for their social activism. Since Christian fundamentalists associate the Social Gospel with liberalism, however, and Adventists have had an enduring romance with fundamentalism, the Social Gospel was largely rejected in Adventism. The solution to racial injustice, insisted by some influential voices in our church, does not consist in improving the here-and-now, but in preaching the everlasting Gospel and thus hastening the kingdom of God. Other factors that contributed to Adventism’s retreat from social activism were:

  • Adventism’s refusal to participate in ecumenical movements and consequently share in the civil rights movement’s ecumenical efforts,
  • a growing stress on individualism and self-reliance – partly a heritage of the Protestant Reformation, which fit well with the emphasis on individual salvation,
  • the propagation of the idea that a lack of progress is a sign of insufficient effort on the part of the black population rather than an outcome of systemic injustice,
  • a misplaced emphasis on Christian forbearance on the part of some leaders in order to effectively resist integration, and
  • a misinterpretation of “the curse of Ham,” (Genesis 9:20-27) which became grounds for discrimination in Adventist institutions and churches in which blacks were deemed ineligible to hold positions of authority based on their Hamitic lineage.

 

Notwithstanding relentless strands of opposition, black Adventists believed that the Bible offers evidence of racial equality and a resulting struggle for civil rights as a major component of the overall moral outlook of Scripture.

 

The second part of the book contours “The Emergence of Afro-American Activism” in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and is structured in four chapters dealing with the “Afro-Adventist Activism in the 1930s and 1940s,” “Lay Activism,” “Ministerial Activism in the South Central Conference,” and “Ministerial Activism in the South Atlantic and General Conference.” This section adds relevant information about the progress of desegregation in the Adventist church – a winding road with both celebrated advances and painful setbacks, and sometimes painful progress that, sadly, cost even human lives. As such, the reader will learn, for example, about the works of Matthew Strachan, Irene Morgan, Alfonzo Greene, Frank Hale, Charles Dudley, Earl Moore, Warren S. Banfield, and Edward Earl Cleveland (among others) in fighting social injustice both inside the church and in the society, and in gaining more voice and autonomy to determine management and resources within black Adventist communities. The impulse for desegregation and equal rights was fueled partly by the attitude of returning soldiers from World War I, whose fight for foreign freedom sparked a renewed impulse to gain freedom in their homeland, as well as the Great Depression’s devastating effect on the already impoverished black communities. The slow progress revealed deep-seated discrimination within the predominantly white-led church, particularly in some communities – both local and institutional.

 

To be sure, some episodes recounted in this book are truly disturbing, yet the history needs to be told and heard. In hearing the story as penned by London, the reader will be sensitized to the plight of a group of people with heartbreaking beginnings here in America and a difficult road out of societal and ecclesiastical abuse. It is crucially important that our church members are aware of this road, and this book will offer a helpful glimpse from the perspective of someone who has both accessed relevant documentation and resonates with the plight of the black community. I believe that honest individuals who possess: the love of God in their hearts, a respect for the Bible, and a sincere desire to see “the other” as God sees them, will find a renewed impulse to grasp the inherent social justice aspect of the Gospel and contribute to the ongoing need and struggle for racial equality our church is still facing.

______

Notes.

[i] P. 39.

[ii] P. 42.

[iii] Ellen White, cited on p. 42.

[iv] Ellen White, cited on p. 53.

[v] Ellen White, cited on p. 53.

[vi] P. 70.

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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.