This article is the first of several perspectives on regional conferences that The Compass Magazine plans to publish. Please see our introduction to the topic by Senior Editor Michael Younker.
On April 10, 1944, The General Conference Committee held its Spring Meeting in the convention room of the Hotel Stevens in Chicago, IL. Gathered along with the committee were the North American Division’s local conference presidents, union treasurers and auditors, college presidents, and “colored representatives who were members of a large committee appointed to study the question of our colored work.”
GC President Elder J.L. McElhany gave the devotional thought that day. He read several passages from Testimonies to the Church, Volume 8, written by E.G. White, on “The Power Promised.” Here are some of the passages that he read:
God does not ask us to do in our strength the work before us. He has provided divine assistance for all the emergencies to which our human resources are unequal. He gives the Holy Spirit to help in every strait, to strengthen our hope and assurance, to illuminate our minds and purify our hearts. . . .
“With great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus; and great grace was upon them.” Acts 4:33. Under their labors there were added to the church chosen men, who, receiving the word of life, consecrated their lives to the work of giving to others the hope that had filled their hearts with peace and joy. . . .
To us today, as verily as to the first disciples, the promise of the Spirit belongs. God will today endow men and women with power from above, as He endowed those who on the day of Pentecost heard the word of salvation. At this very hour His Spirit and His grace are for all who need them and will take Him at His word.
Notice that it was after the disciples had come into perfect unity, when they were no longer striving for the highest place, that the Spirit was poured out. They were of one accord. All differences had been put away. . . .
So it may be now. Let Christians put away all dissension, and give themselves to God for the saving of the lost. Let them ask in faith for the promised blessing, and it will come. The outpouring of the Spirit in the days of the apostles was “the former rain,” and glorious was the result. But the latter rain will be more abundant. . . .
The presence of the Spirit with God’s workers will give the presentation of the truth a power that not all the honor or glory of the world could give. (p. 19-22)*
Elder McElhany added a short statement before praying to open the meeting: “As we take up the work of this council,” he said, “as we consider the matters that are to come before us, let us make the things of first importance first in our thinking and in our praying. May we be led and guided by the Spirit of God.”
As I finished reading these words, I was left with a mixture of emotions. I was moved to go back and read the Testimonies passage again, along with the biblical references behind its inspiration, which stirred up a longing within me for that latter rain. Then, like an audience member watching a movie based on a familiar true story, my heart sank. All the hope and inspiration that was stirred up within me after reading this powerful passage was sucked out of me when I reminded myself of the facts: this was the date that the General Conference decided to recommend that “colored conferences be organized.”
After the prayer in the spirit of unity was given and a preliminary matter was voted on, the second order of business that day, entitled “Colored Work in North America,” was dealt with. Here are several of the measures that the committee recommended and virtually unanimously approved:
- “that a school be established in the North where advanced training can be given to our colored youth.”
- that a commission be appointed to study ways to provide medical and nursing education for “our colored constituency in the North.”
- “that the Southern Publishing Association secure a colored editor for the Message Magazine.” (Message Magazine was the only Adventist publication “geared towards colored people,” yet it had not up to that point employed an African-American editor.)
- that a small publication be created for the “colored constituency” that was “somewhat comparable to the Union Conference papers in size and style” and would give them church news and promotional information.
Then, in the spirit of the church’s “soul-winning endeavors,” the following measure was recommended:
WHEREAS, The present development of the work among the colored people in North America has resulted, under the signal blessing of God, in the establishment of some 233 churches with some 17,000 members: and
WHEREAS, It appears that a different plan of organization for our colored membership would bring further great advance in soul-winning endeavors; therefore
WE RECOMMEND, 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.
This measure also included the following:
- Colored conferences would be administered by colored officers/committees.
- Colored conferences would have the “same relation to their respective union as do the white conferences.”
- Another committee would figure out how soon before or after the 1944 Autumn Council it would be possible to implement colored conferences.
- “The 1930 plan of colored organization for the Southern States” would “be adopted for all territories in North America with sufficient members, but where the constituency is not sufficiently large to warrant the organization of colored conferences.”
This wasn’t the first and certainly wasn’t the last of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s “do as I say, not as I do” moments. There was glowing talk of unity in the Spirit and oneness among brethren who share this common faith. Ultimately, in response to this picture of unity, we chose division. In the face of oneness we chose none-ness. We talked the talk, but we didn’t . . . you can finish the saying yourself.
How did we get there? How did we miss the clear message of unity that was and is supposed to drive our church when it was staring us right in the face? The inconvenient truth is that, instead of doing the hard work of dealing with the race problem in our church, we took the easy way out under the guise of a “great advance in soul-winning endeavors.” We appeared to be so laser-focused on saving/cleansing the souls of the world whom we were supposedly trying to reach (emphasis on appeared) that we neglected to seek the cleansing of our own souls and the cleaning of our own house.
In order to understand where, by God’s grace, we need to go as a church, it is critical for us to analyze and understand where we were, where we are, and how and why we got here.
Most point to statements made by Elder Charles M. Kinney at the Southern Conference Campground in 1889 (where he became the first black ordained minister in the Adventist Church) as the first to broach the idea of colored (later regional) conferences. The camp meeting did not attract its usual white crowd to the Nashville, TN, campground in response to the mere presence of black members, and many in attendance began to grapple with this issue of race for the first time.
Elder Kinney made his comments in response to questions by Robert M. Kilgore, leader of the Adventist work in the South. While Elder Kinney did eventually propose the idea of separate conferences, he first made this appeal for unity:
It is probable that my ideas may be a little different from what has been expressed by some…. In the first place, a separation of the colored people from the white people is a great sacrifice upon our part: we lose the blessing of learning the truth…. I refer to the separation in the general meeting; that is, for them [colored people] to have a different camp meeting. It would be a great sacrifice upon the part of my people to miss the information that these general meetings would give them; and another thing, it seems to me that a separation in the general meetings would have a tendency to destroy the unity of the Third Angel’s Message. Now, then this question to me is one of great embarrassment and humiliation, not only to me, but to my people also.
Elder Kinney then proposed four thoughts to be considered while finding a solution:
- “The course that shall be taken shall be pleasing to God;
- “A position will be taken that will not compromise the denomination;
- “The position that is to be taken will be to the best interest of the cause; and
- “A position will be taken that will commend itself to the good judgment of the colored people, that they may not be driven from the truth by our position on this question.”
After providing those considerations, he gave the following first solution to the matter:
I am glad to state first that the Third Angel’s message has the power in it to eliminate or remove this race prejudice upon the part of those who get hold of the truth. Second, that the Third Angel’s message is to go to all nations of people; that it cannot take hold of them if there is some obstacle in the way, and that the truth of the Third Angel’s message will enable us to remove that obstacle. The colored-line question is an obstacle…. The very presence of the colored people in church relations and in our general meetings is an obstacle, is a barrier that hinders the progress of the Third Angel’s message from reaching many of the white people.
That last sentence foreshadowed every meaningful action taken on the topic after it was made. Church leadership developed a line of thinking that said it was too hard to do the work of coming together in unity. Not even the power of the Holy Spirit and the motivation of the Third Angel’s Message could overcome the reality that worshipping together would hinder the church’s ability to reach White people, and that was too high a price to pay.
The rest of Kinney’s remarks included the various ways that those in the “colored work” would try to not interfere with those laboring in the white conferences, due in large part to the fact that there were not any meaningful voices screaming for unity from the “other side.” Toward the end of his remarks he said:
[I]n view of the outside feeling on the race question, and the hindrance it makes in accomplishing the work desired among the whites, the attendance of the colored brethren at the general meetings should not be encouraged, yet not positively forbidden…. I would say in this connection that in my judgment a separate meeting for the colored people to be held in connection with the general meetings, or a clear-cut distinction, by having them occupy the back seats…would not meet with as much favor from my people as a total separation. I am willing, however, to abide by whatever the General Conference may recommend in the matter, and advise my people to do the same…. Christian feeling between the two races [should be] zealously inculcated everywhere, so that the cause of separation may not be because of the existence of prejudice within, but because of those on the outside whom you hope to reach.
In 1890 the Adventist Church began operating under the policy proposed to the General Conference by Kilgore, in which he said that the work in the South for the white population could not succeed unless Adventists set up separate congregations for whites and blacks. Previous attempts to ratify such policies had always been shot down because they were seen to be out of line with Scripture. But the General Conference voted to adopt this policy, stating that it was the most expedient thing to do.
Nothing substantive was done on the issue of separate conferences until 1929, when the General Conference appointed a commission of 16 constituents (11 white, 5 black) to discuss the issue of what should be done with the colored members of the Adventist Church in North America. Much had been said by African-American ministers and lay members in the lead-up to this moment. The majority of what they said focused on how the leadership of the GC and North American Division (NAD) could help facilitate better relations between black and white membership inside as well as outside of the church.
J.K. Humphrey, an African-American minister serving a prominent role in New York, was one of the constituents invited to serve on the commission. After the meeting concluded, Humphrey stated that the white members of the commission met separately and asked the black members of the commission to rubber-stamp their decision that establishing black conferences was not appropriate. Black leaders were told not to bring up the subject again.
Sadly, after years of resisting the urgings of former black Adventist ministers, Humphrey decided to leave the Seventh-day Adventist Church due to the lack of movement on this as well as other issues. This sad event brought back memories of Kinney’s 1889 plea that the church’s position on this issue would not drive colored people from the truth.
In 1943 Lucy Byard, an African-American lay member of the Adventist Church, died of pneumonia as a result of being refused treatment at the Washington Sanitarium (Adventist hospital). In response to this and other inhumane and heinous racial practices of the church, a group of Washington, D.C., laypersons formed “the National Association for the Advancement of Worldwide Work Among Seventh-Day Adventists” geared toward addressing the racial wrongs in the church and making a call for equality.
In 1944, these laypersons penned a protest document entitled: “Shall the Four Freedoms Function among Seventh-Day Adventists?” In outlining the purposes and goals for their document, they stated that it was written in hopes that colored people would be estimated as:
- individuals just as “capable of attaining eternal life as the white man;
- “travelers to the same heaven to sit down at the same table as the whites”;
- “worshipers of the same God” as the whites;
- people with talent, ability, quick perception, bright minds, and reasoning power.
They felt that the duty of the white Adventists in helping to achieve reconciliation was:
- “to repair as far as in their power past injury done to the colored people”;
- “to show ‘exact and impartial’ justice to the Negro race”;
- “to increase the force of colored workers”;
- “to throw their influence against the customs and practices of the world.”
The document then listed several of the injustices being conducted by the church, including the following:
- Colored people were not generally admitted to Adventist institutions/sanitariums as patients/students/nurses. (In contrast, they mentioned that an Adventist “colored girl” was pursuing nursing at Bellevue in New York City; Catholic University was accepting colored students; City College of New York, Hunter College, the University of Chicago, Harvard, Northwestern, DePaul, and Toledo all employed African-American professors; Johns Hopkins Hospital and Sandy Spring Hospital were accepting African-American patients; etc.)
- There was no “standard satisfactory creditable academy” for colored youth.
- Emmanuel Missionary College (later my alma mater Andrews University) assigned colored students to sit in the rear during worship at chapel and made them wait for their meals until there was a “quota” of colored students to fill a table.
- Among other differences in treatment, the Secretary of the Colored Department at the GC did not have enough administrative authority (in other words, none). In addition, the Secretary was segregated for his meals. (At this time in Washington, D.C., the document noted, white and colored people ate together daily without friction in the cafeterias of the Library of Congress, Union Station, the National Art Gallery, etc.)
The document listed several different organizational solutions for these problems (none of which included racially segregated conferences), but what stood out most to me were the spiritual solutions that they offered to solve this difficult problem:
There [should] be no intimidation of our colored clergymen and workers supported by the conferences when they attempt to better the conditions of their brethren…. Campaigns for colored work [should] be given the prominence and dignity that are given to all other phases of the work.
We have discussed what came next. The Spring Council of 1944 led to the formation of colored conferences. Many of the first presidents of those colored conferences were told that they would come crawling back. In the face of that adversity, these conferences all pressed on, persevered, and have grown into an essential part of not just the North American Division but the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a whole.
In spite of our lack of unity as a church, the Lord has used us across the world in mighty ways. But the painful reality is that the call to unity made by Kinney in 1889 and the D.C. laypeople in 1944 has remained unanswered.
As we all know, once the years start going by, the history starts getting revised and the story begins to change. Why is it important for us to discuss this? Is reconciliation even necessary?
The conclusion of this article will not amount to another criticism of the recent sermon preached by Pastor Dwight Nelson. His January 17, 2015, sermon at Pioneer Memorial Church, as well as the related petition, has revived the never-ending debate on state and regional conferences. Some felt that the sermon and petition were merely a call to shut down regional conferences so that they can “come back home.” Others felt that there is really no need to tackle this issue since everyone seems to be doing fine (not sure what definition of fine is being used).
The issue at hand is much deeper and more significant than the perceived shortcomings or overstatements found in one sermon. While I did not agree with everything that Pastor Nelson said, I know for a fact that his heart is in the right place. He showed a lot of courage by saying what he said, where he said it (I lived in Berrien Springs from 1998 to 2013, so I do not say that lightly). All in all, we miss the potential in this moment if our discussion and thought stops there.
The solution that we need to this problem was presented in 1889 by Kinney, in 1944 by the D.C. lay members and even during the decision on April 10, 1944, to racially segregate the NAD: Jesus! The Spirit of God infiltrating our entire being is the only remedy to this problem. What we need to remember is that the Spirit of God will guide us into all truth (John 16:13). If we are not interested in dealing with this issue with honesty and full transparency, the Spirit of God will not come. He will have no part in half measures, half surrenders, half truths, and shaky commitment. God wants our all, not just in our doctrine, evangelism, and diets, but also in our love—His love.
There is freedom in truth. April 10 of this year will mark 71 years since we made an official acknowledgment of our division, but in truth the division among racial lines in our church predated that acknowledgement. If we don’t do the work—the hard, sobering work—of reconciliation to each other in Christ, we will gradually fade into irrelevance. We can make a symbolic move to join together under the umbrella of our choosing, but if we do not commit to and accomplish the real work, the only difference that will exist will be ceremonial. The youth in our church will grow tired of looking past the glaring holes and contradictions in our message as compared to who we are as people. They will either find Christ elsewhere or reject Him altogether.
The GC formally instituted the division because they did not want to do the work necessary to find a way to worship as a unified body while still reaching all of the different demographics of people in our world. Since we know now, and have always known, that Christ is the only solution, why don’t we take Him up on this offer: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32, ESV).
Everyone is so worried about how a unified church structure will look and the logistics of how things should happen. We need to focus on allowing Christ to heal and reconcile us, and then trust in His Spirit to lead us into the future that He has in store for the Seventh-day Adventist mission.
And He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, He has now reconciled in His body of flesh by His death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before Him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.” (Colossians 1:18-23, ESV)
The words of Paul to the Colossians are calling out to us for such a time as this. We are united not just by our day of worship, our doctrines, and our customs, but primarily by our Christ. He will reconcile us to Himself and make peace among us by the blood of His cross. If we come together and consider what Christ has done for all of us as members of His body, we will start to see how much more complete His body looks when it works and functions together.
I call out to each and every member of this body: Let God examine your heart. Let Him reveal the dark places to you, and allow Him to replace them with His light. Before we can “continue in the faith” as Paul declares, we “who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds” must be “reconciled in His body of flesh by His death” so that we may be presented “holy and blameless and above reproach before Him.” After this we will become “stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that [we] heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven”!
Do you believe that racial reconciliation is needed in the Adventist Church? What can you personally do to facilitate it? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.
God’s word has made things clear. We will not be able to proclaim the Third Angel’s Message to “all creation under heaven” until we submit ourselves to His reconciliation. It has not happened yet, and it will not happen until we are serious about being obedient to His Word.
We have a beautiful message and picture of Christ that this world needs to hear and see. If what we say does not align with what we do, we are no better than the members of the GC committees that have gone before us—people from whom we strive to distance ourselves while standing silently on the foundation that they built. If we decide it is best to continue in that way, we’d better hope that foundation isn’t sinking sand.
This article was originally published at http://michaeltnixon.kinja.com/not-as-i-do-1684061680
* Emphasis in all quotations is supplied by the author.