Skeletons from the Past

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Skeletons from the Past

This article is part of The Compass Magazine’s series on regional conferences and race relations in the Adventist Church. Past articles include “What of Our Future? Contemporary Perspectives on the Role of Regional Conferences” and “…Not As I Do.”

Seventh-day Adventism in visible origin is a white, Anglo church. We see this by looking at its founders and early leaders. However, the theological foundation upon which the church was built is anything but Anglo; truth by nature is culturally blind. As this truth spread across cultural boundaries, the diversity of its believers increased.

In response, the church set up different institutions to handle this diversity. Broadview Swedish Seminary was founded in 1909, Clinton German Seminary in 1910, and Danish-Norwegian Seminary in 1911.[1] The purpose of the seminaries was not to separate immigrants from American-born church members or to single out ethnic groups, but to accelerate the immigrants’ assimilation into English-speaking America. By the 1920s these institutions had served their purpose and were each closed or merged.[2] The result was an increase of ethnic diversity in the early, nonsegregated Seventh-day Adventist Church.

We can see today that the Adventist Church has taken the gospel commission to heart, because no other denomination, except for Jehovah’s Witnesses, can match Adventism’s degree of inclusion. The church can claim a presence in practically every country of the world. Jesus Himself envisioned a church that was multiracial. He gave us the great gospel commission of Matthew 28:19 to “teach all nations, baptizing them.” The result of fulfilling His commission is a church made up of all ethnicities.

With men and women of more cultures joining the incipient Adventist church, however, a new problem manifested itself—racism. Unfortunately, during the early years of Adventism, racism was not just a sociopolitical problem. It was also rooted in the hearts of church members. Divisions over color have proven to be one of the greatest obstacles this church has ever faced.

For example, in 1906 a group of black students from Oakwood College, a denominational school for blacks, was invited to a small Adventist church in Alabama to share a Sabbath program with the predominantly white congregation. The students arrived at the church and found a roped-off section where they were to sit. But the section couldn’t hold them all, so some found seats among the white members of the church. This mingling created a major problem for the deacons, who tried to usher the students out. When the students refused to leave the church, an elder pulled out a gun. The minister’s wife tearfully proclaimed that despite the church members’ love for the black students, “we just don’t want you to sit with us.”[3]

By 1944, the African-American Adventist population stood at nearly 18,000[4] but was still virtually unrepresented in the administration and institutions of the church. Around this time, Lucy Byard, an African-American Adventist from New York, became ill. The Washington Sanitarium refused to admit her because she was black, and the delay in treatment led to her unnecessary death. Adventist hospitals were not the only discriminatory institutions, however; many Adventist schools segregated blacks, and others barred black students completely.

Demands for integration in Adventist medical, educational, and administrative institutions were not met. Instead, the General Conference offered a conference structure exclusively for blacks.[5] As a result, nine regional conferences now exist around the United States.

Not Just an American Problem

The American Seventh-day Adventist Church is not alone in suffering the effects of racism. Adventists in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Croatia have struggled with strong feelings of prejudice and racial and national pride and have bought into the solution of segregated conferences and churches so people of one race or color do not worship with their brethren of another.

South Africa after 1994 ended its segregation policy that had thrived under apartheid and merged its unions, conferences, and churches. Still, the old attitudes crop up at times.

In 2009, a group of black Adventist students attending a secular, predominantly Afrikaans university in South Africa were asked by their white counterparts to help run an evangelistic literature store near the institution. However, the white organizers never allowed the two races to work together but gave the black students different working days and hours. When the black students invited the same white students to their outreach activities on campus, the white students declined. As one student commented, “It seems the legacy [of apartheid] far exceeds the love of Christ.”[6] Now non-Adventists on the campus are noticing and asking questions about the Adventist Church’s practice of segregation. Racism and segregation are impeding the Adventist ministry at the university.

Today, American society has largely recovered from, though not eradicated, the problems of inequality confronted in the Civil Rights era. But what about the church? Are we working toward racial integration? Or do we continue to faithfully, unquestioningly separate ourselves in matters of worship? Is racism still a problem demanding separate conferences, or are we just clinging to the skeletons of past generations’ mistakes?

Yes, racism is a problem, but segregation has not solved it. Separate conferences and churches that segregate worshippers based on the color of their skin are counterproductive to the gospel. Separate conferences do not exist because of differences in musical tastes, preaching methods, or worship styles. They exist because of the inequality and injustice in which the church passively took part.

Today the issue is perpetuated not only by the racism and prejudice of unconverted hearts but also by the organizational structure set up after 1944. Separate conferences have provided blacks with pastoral and evangelistic vocational opportunities that for many years had not been available. In addition, separate conferences have given them new opportunities for training and experience in ministry, leadership, service, and church governance and have afforded them eligibility for elected offices and ex-officio representation on boards, councils, and committees.[7]

Regional conferences have also experienced tremendous success and growth since their inception and contributed unprecedented financial support to the world church. Some in the past have pointed to this as evidence of God’s providential leading and as a reason to continue the current structure.[8]

But are these pragmatic reasons enough to justify a system built on the foundation of sin? Is it possible that the church could have seen even more success and growth had we not been disunified in the first place? Dr. David Williams asks poignantly,“Is it ever right to sacrifice the truth of the gospel for the expediency of efficient evangelism? If we win persons by distorting and compromising the gospel, what have we won them to? Christians must move beyond that which is expedient to that which is morally right. Racially oriented evangelism can produce racially insensitive and even racially prejudiced congregations.”[9]

Small Steps Toward Unity

So how can we help address this issue and bring about change within Adventism? How can we achieve racial unity and inclusiveness?

Adventism has a history of inclusion dating back to the early 1900s when American immigrants first accepted the Three Angels’ Messages and joined the church. Why should the church accept anything less than the Biblical ideal now? When Christ prayed in John 17, He asked God to unify His followers. The phrase that is repeated five times in these verses is “that they may be one” (John 17:11, 21-23).[10]

Some churches have been involved in “unity Sabbaths,” during which black and white congregations join together for worship. Change will not occur overnight, but when churches participate in these special Sabbaths, they help to facilitate an environment for change to take place. Ask your pastor if your church can be involved in a “unity Sabbath.”

Some have suggested writing letters to our leadership, asking them to reevaluate segregation in the church. The sacrifice and commitment of our church leaders, combined with support from the laity, are the fundamental forces that will bring about true racial inclusion.

Most importantly, it is time for church members to earnestly begin praying for the church. There is still much pain and sensitivity over this issue, and many do not know exactly what steps to take to unite racially divided conferences. Only by the direction of the Holy Spirit can we ever expect to achieve true reconciliation within Adventism. Prayer is the most instrumental tool in accomplishing any goal.

Have you participated in a cross-cultural worship experience? What did you learn from it? Please comment below.

Prejudice is a contradiction to everything for which the gospel stands; this is why the church must revisit the issue of segregation and facilitate racial healing among members of the body of Christ. Only then can we see Christ’s prayer for unity answered to its full extent. “Unity is a convincing proof that God sent His Son into the world to save sinners” (18MR 190). True Christian unity will tell in a powerful way “that those who possess it are children of God” (ST Feb. 7, 1900).

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[1] Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, vol. 10, 251, 383, 730.

[2] Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 275.

[3] Lee Mellinger, “Racism? Not Here! Not Now!” Campus Chronicle (Pacific Union College student newspaper), February 18, 1982.

[4] Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sihle Khanyile, email correspondence, May 11, 2009.

[7] See the SDA Encyclopedia, 1192; Delbert W. Baker, “Regional Conferences: 50 Years of Progress,” Adventist Review, November 1995, 11; cf. Helvius L. Thompson, “Do We Still Need Regional (Black) Conferences [in 1995]?” in Delbert W. Baker, ed., Telling the Story, 2/49-2/56; Louis Reynold’s We Have Tomorrow (1984), 365-366.

[8]See “Actions of the Regional Advisory Committee in Miami, April 7-9, 1969,” reproduced as Appendix B in We Have Tomorrow, 365-366; cf. “Do We Still Need Regional (Black) Conferences?”

[9] David R. Williams, “The Right Thing to Do,” Adventist Review, February 20, 1997, 25.

[10] Verse 23 uses the wording “that they may be made perfect in one” (NKJV).

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Daniel McGrath lives in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where he serves as pastor for the Marquette, Houghton, and L'Anse Seventh-day Adventist churches. He is passionate about public campus ministry and discipleship. Daniel and his wife, Isai, enjoy the outdoors, sailing, scuba diving, cinematography, and music.