Book Review: Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America

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Book Review: Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America

Apostle or Apostate?

Douglas Morgan’s biography thoroughly covers the life of a powerful preacher who pastored in four different denominations over the course of his career.

Lewis Sheafe’s life, which is relatively unknown in most Adventist circles, takes many twists and turns. In 1916 a newspaper editor calls him, “One of the greatest Bible scholars in the United States” (p. 371). And the next year Adventist church leaders call him, “An apostate of the most dangerous sort” (p. 371).

Sheafe’s biography provides an insightful look at a man who was converted to Adventism after being a Baptist pastor for eight years. He would go on to leave the church ten years later, then come back into fellowship six years later, then leave for good two years later. While chronicling the life of Sheafe, Douglass Morgan simultaneously and thoughtfully covers the church’s struggle to handle racial tensions during the years 1890 to 1920.

Structure of the Book

Morgan organizes Lewis Sheafe’s life into six sections:

  1. “Go Preach to Your People”
  2. “Eminent Baptist Divine”: The Ohio Years
  3. “This Message for All My People”
  4. “Noted Apostle of Seventh-day Adventism”
  5. “The Separation was a Sad Mistake”
  6. “One Minister Who Thinks for Himself”

“Go Preach to Your People”

Sheafe’s biography starts with him leaving his farm in the free state of Massachusetts in his 20s after feeling called to become a preacher. He went through theological training at Wayland Seminary in Washington, D. C., and became a pastor of the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Minnesota.

Sheafe immediately delved into social issues in his early years as a pastor. He saw himself as a leader in the fight to promote racial justice for his fellow black Americans. Morgan brings out the fact that “He viewed the churches as the most powerful agency available for racial advance… the churches’ power in the cause of the race depended upon a renewal of genuine Christianity within their own ranks” (p. 61). Social justice would always be a prominent part of the gospel that Sheafe preached.

“Eminent Baptist Divine”: The Ohio Years

Troubles between the Minnesota congregation and Sheafe caused him and his family to seek another pastorate, which led them to Ohio in 1892. For the next four years, Sheafe established himself as a powerful preacher and got more involved as a social activist. “Sheafe took it as his calling not only to preach to his people, but to speak out for them” (p. 97).

Lewis Sheafe came off as quite radical to some. He refused to play the patient game of meekly waiting for things to get better for black people; instead, he advocated for immediate action. A newspaper quotes him as saying, “What the Negro needs is simply to demand his own, and cease to be a tail for any political kite. Demand proper protection and recognition, and if these are not forthcoming make the party that receives his support feel the weight of that demand, when made by the 27,000 Negro voters of Ohio” (p. 107).

In his Ohio years, Sheafe developed a confrontational stance toward the racial inequality that was ever-present in his society. This aggressive style would later turn into a major conflict.

“This Message for All My People” 

Health complications in 1896 led Sheafe to seek treatment at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan. Here he was exposed to health education he believed could help black people and a prophetic message that he wanted to give to every one of his race.

Shortly after Lewis Sheafe was converted to Adventism, John Harvey Kellogg says of him in a letter to Ellen White: “He is an orator, a wonderfully able man. He is more liberally educated and cultivated man and can deliver a more forcible address than any other Seventh-day Adventist minister. We have not a White minister that can begin to stand beside him. He commands the respect of everybody wherever he goes” (p. 114).

In this section, Douglass Morgan shows the early stance of Ellen White when it came to the “color line” issue in the church. He quotes her saying in 1889, “You have no license from God to exclude the colored people from your places of worship… They should hold membership in the church with the white brethren.” And in 1891, “Those who claim to be Christians have a work to do in teaching them to read and to follow various trades and engage in different business enterprises… If they had an opportunity to develop, they would stand upon an equality with the whites” (p. 118-119).

Lewis Sheafe came into Adventism hopeful that this type of stance was held by all. But Ellen White’s ideal vision in these quotes would prove difficult to achieve in practical life, and would lead to contention. Sheafe would go on to become frustrated that racial equality was not implemented as he thought it should be in the church.

“Noted Apostle of Seventh-day Adventism”

Despite Sheafe’s misgivings about how his people were being treated in the Adventist church, he was chosen to preach an evangelistic series in the nation’s capital. General Conference President A. G. Daniells wanted the best “colored” preacher he could find to help establish a strong black congregation in Washington D. C., just before the General Conference headquarters would move into the city.

Lewis Sheafe went along with the plan, and his evangelism won many, both white and black, to the Adventist church. His efforts led to the establishment of the first black Adventist congregation, called People’s Church. This was exactly what the General Conference wanted, as Washington D. C. then had the largest population of educated African Americans in the country.

The church’s plan to segregate the churches, health institutions, and training schools in the capital rubbed Sheafe the wrong way, though. Many Adventists at the time thought it would be better for the whites to work for whites, and the blacks to work for blacks. Racism however was not the sole reason for this; evangelistic efficiency (especially for A. G. Daniells) was also a priority for the General Conference.[1]

“The Separation was a Sad Mistake”

Lewis Sheafe eventually led his People’s church to declare independence and leave the Adventist denomination in 1907. Lack of equal funding for the black church, and failure to provide a promised training school for the colored people in Washington D. C. were the main reasons cited for the church’s decision to separate.

Douglass Morgan does a great job of bringing out how much of a struggle it must have been for the black churches to remain patient in those days. There was evidence that the white churches were considered the priority. An Adventist sanitarium was built that only serviced whites in the capital. And money was raised by the General Conference and given to the white church to get them a building, while the People’s church was left to raise funds themselves for their building.

Sheafe was also good friends with John Harvey Kellogg and A. T. Jones, both of whom had just separated from the denomination as well. All these factors swirled into a tornado of conflict that kept the People’s church and Sheafe separated from the conference for the next six years.

Lewis Sheafe and his congregation didn’t experience a high amount of success in their endeavors as an independent church. After a long reconciliation process, they were welcomed back to the denomination in 1913. A new pastor was set over the People’s church, and Sheafe was sent to Southern California.

“One Minister Who Thinks for Himself”

Lewis Sheafe found success with his evangelism in California as he had everywhere else, and started up the Berean Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Los Angeles area.

Troubles with racial issues were soon aroused again in 1915, though. This time it was over Ellen White’s writings in Testimonies to the Churches, Volume 9. Sheafe and his second wife found statements such as, “The colored people should not urge that they be placed on an equality with white people,” (p. 379) and others like it as racist, and questioned whether the prophet had even written them herself.

This was the last straw for conference officials in the church, and it led to Lewis Sheafe’s permanent exit from the Adventist denomination.

Final Discussion of Ellen White’s Volume 9 Statements

My favorite part of Douglass Morgan’s book is a chapter toward the end where he gives a very helpful breakdown of how to interpret the statements about race found in Ellen White’s writings.

Morgan shows how verbal inspiration was still a strongly held belief amongst many church officials in Sheafe’s day, which led to a heavy-handed aggressive reaction to Sheafe’s rejection of White’s statements in volume 9. Unfortunately, the nuances of Ellen White’s inspiration were not widely understood, thus Sheafe’s questioning of the statements in volume 9 were interpreted by church administrators as a rejection of White’s inspiration altogether. Faced with an ultimatum of being effectively defrocked or accepting the counsel in volume 9 as authentic and authoritative, Sheafe and his wife chose to leave the denomination. Sheafe, who also appears to have held a rigid, verbal-inspiration, understanding of the Spirit of Prophecy, was not able to reconcile what appeared to him as a contradiction in White’s latter volume 9 statements with her earlier statements. Furthermore, Sheafe perceived a conflict between White’s statements in volume 9 and his understanding of Scripture. Nevertheless, and unlike many prominent Adventist ministers who left the denomination around the same period, Sheafe appears to have never ceased believing that Ellen White was a prophet, but since he could not reconcile what appeared to be a contradiction with Scripture in her writings, Sheafe chose to deny the authenticity of the origins of the statements in volume 9 that conflicted with his beliefs. Though it is difficult to determine with certainty, perhaps the talented preacher would have remained with the denomination if a more balanced understanding of Ellen White’s inspiration, including a general recognition of when she describes the ideal versus the real or practical. In short, what was lacking on both sides of the Sheafe controversy was an understanding of the principle that “Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relations of things.”[2]

Morgan demonstrates this operative principle in the practicality of Ellen White, and why she seemingly changed her position when it came to how to handle the race issue in the church. Her focus was evangelistic, and her statements were meant to lead to the least confrontational mode of preaching the Adventist message to every race until a better way could be established. Her ideal statements earlier in her ministry, about how whites and blacks needed to worship together as equals, had to be tempered due to the real-life and often dangerous, life-threatening, work of doing missionary work in the segregated South.

Overall, Morgan does an excellent job of chronicling the life of Sheafe including both his successes and his mistakes. He also provides a comprehensive overview of the mistakes made on both sides when it came to the confrontation between the General Conference and Lewis Sheafe and his ultimate departure for the denomination. Anyone who wants an in-depth look at the Adventist struggle to preach the 3 Angels’ Messages during the racially turbulent times of the 1890s-1920s will find Morgan’s volume insightful.

______

Notes.

[1] In some instances, racism exhibited within the Adventist Church was overt, but in other cases, it could be viewed as an unfortunate capitulation with the prevailing culture which some white Adventist were all too eager to accommodate in the name of “evangelism.” To learn more about this period and race relations within the church see Rock, Calvin B. Protest & Progress: Black Seventh-day Adventist Leadership and the Push for Parity. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2018. See also episodes 43-45 The Color Line. (Episode 43 – The Color Line, part 3; Episode 44 – The Color Line, part 4; Episode 45 – The Color Line, part 5).

[2] White, E. G. (1980) Selected Messages Book 3. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association. 217.

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About the author

Tony Dennis

Tony Dennis is from Sacramento, California, and spent most of his life as an atheist. He was converted to Seventh-day Adventism when he was 21 years old by reading the book Steps to Christ. He has served as a teacher of Daniel, Revelation, and Sanctuary classes at the evangelism school Souls West. His passions are education and history.