Adventism & America’s Original Sin (Part 7)

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Published:
August 14, 2019

In Part 6, the stunning success of Lewis Sheafe’s evangelism during the summer of 1902 meant that Adventism’s first major racial crisis would come at the very moment of amazing opportunity in which the church’s message and its potential for healing racial antagonism was garnering extraordinary attention in the nation’s capital and beyond.

“Color Line Drawn Between Adventists, The Church in Washington to Be Divided.” This headline from the September 2, 1902 edition of the Washington Evening Star still feels like a sock in the gut to me, even though I am now very familiar with it, and even though I already knew before I saw it the first time that it all too truly represented a historical pattern. But if it strikes you anything like it strikes me, brace yourself.


Not only did all the Washington, D.C. papers cover the story, it was picked up nationwide. In Little Rock, the headline in the white supremacist Arkansas Democrat seems to celebrate: “To Exclude Negroes, Seventh Day Adventists Have Drawn a Color Line.”[1] The New York Times also paid attention. Its brief article, “Seventh-day Adventists Split, White and Colored Members of Washington Church Finally Separate,” reflected the less blatant racism of the North. It reported as fact the explanation that the practice of white and colored members worshipping together simply “has not worked well,” and that the separation was merely a long overdue correction.[2]

Though I cannot fully succeed, I try to imagine how such news reports affected the black Americans who first read them, be they Adventists, or those who had heard something about Adventism and were curious to find out more, or those who simply liked to stay informed about what was going on in society. Calvin Chase, the black attorney who edited and published the Washington Bee, likely expressed the feelings of many. Chase had given Sheafe favorable coverage. For just a moment it seems he entertained the possibility that maybe, just maybe, this new force on the religious scene, this “American original” would strike at the root of America’s original sin. But the division of the Washington church along racial lines put a quick end to that notion.

It was time now for the Bee editor to sting the Adventists. He pointed to the perpetuation of the “spirit of caste” even in an upstart new movement like Adventism as evidence that “every offshoot of American christianity partakes of the venom of the parent tree, race prejudice.”[3] Chalk up another one for Afro-pessimism.

But the failure is not the end of the story. The countercultural, anti-racist witness of the Washington Adventist church was down but not out. Yet, if we care about our movement today, we must face the failure and the pain. We cannot deal with its long-lingering, accumulating consequences by cheerily pretending it did not happen. The wound festers with ever more toxic consequences unless and until it is exposed to the light. Only then can the cleansing and healing begin.

During a six-hour meeting on Saturday evening, September 20, 1902, the disputants thrashed through the future of the Washington church. People from the community gathered beneath open windows and leaned on nearby fences to listen in on the proceedings held in the modest church building on Eighth Street, Northeast, between F and G streets, that the Adventists had acquired in 1893. The Sheafe phenomenon was not the only factor driving the remarkable degree of public interest in the affairs of this rather small congregation. Word was that some influential people in the community were determined “to hinder the property becoming a colored church.”

Approximately 35-40 of the white members of the church stood to declare their desire to form a separate congregation, with J.S. Washburn as pastor. Around 25 other white members pledged “to remain together on gospel principles,”[4] united in congregational fellowship with the black majority, pastored by L.C. Sheafe.

The profound consequences of the division of the church that was then executed cannot be minimized. Yet, it is worth noting that the outcome could have been much more thoroughly disastrous if the opposing sides had refused to budge from their hardest lines. The most contentious matter had to do with plans for the white congregation to retain possession of the church building, thereby casting the colored believers out of their church home. The delegation of conference officials sent to carry out the split indeed came to town intending to gain legal control of the property. Doubling down on that misguided plan would have made the Arkansas Democrat headline, “To Exclude Negroes,” precisely true.

Two factors helped convince the church leaders to avoid that disaster and yield the point. First, Elder Sheafe had vowed that the black membership would not leave the church building unless removed by force. Second, they did some research while in town and discovered that the law was on the side of the local congregation retaining the title to the property. The black members’ relief that the anticipated eviction would not be attempted and that their right to remain in their sanctuary would be recognized defused the most volatile source of tension.[5]

Judson S. Washburn, not at all happy about his “Second Church” being “exiled” to worship in a tent and then a rented hall, kicked his promotional skills into high gear. When a desirable church building in the northwest sector of the city became available, Washburn, with authorization from no one, scraped together $500 earnest money to secure the property on November 1. That transaction came with an obligation to put down another $2,500 by the end of January, 1903. With lengthy and frequent letters to A.G. Daniells, Ellen G. White, W.C. White, and other prominent figures, Washburn persuaded the General Conference to take on the obligation created by his unilateral action. They endorsed his plan for meeting it with a denomination-wide campaign to raise $10,000 to pay off the entire debt.

In his letters and in articles published in the Review and Herald, Washburn presented the work he was leading at the Second, or Memorial Church, as it was re-named, as the truly essential and significant work that was needed to advance the Adventist cause in Washington, D.C., with its unique importance as a center of both national and international influence. In his inspiring presentations, Washburn kept the first and larger Adventist congregation in Washington, and the evangelistic feats of L.C. Sheafe that had far outstripped his own the previous summer, entirely out of the picture. Worse still, his letters to church leaders included a sustained campaign of character assassination and invective against Sheafe, Kalstrom, Howard, and the First Church generally.

“They preach a political gospel,” he complained to Ellen White. The church had become filled with “colored people” whose outlook was like that of Dr. Howard, he said. In order to help the prophet understand that this was not a good thing, he passed on to her how the daughter of Frederick Douglass (Rosetta Douglass Sprague), whom he described as “a prominent colored member of the church,” had criticized her counsel against “intermarriage,” calling it a “wicked catering to southern prejudice.” He acknowledged that the church was “growing wonderfully.” But further success on their part would actually be damaging to the Adventist cause, he insisted, because their radical nonconformity on race was placing the “wrong mold” on the church’s work.[6]

As Dr. Howard saw it, on the other hand, the determination on the part of “the brethren” to impose the “policy of making a race line in the churches” was “producing a woeful effect upon members of both races who are outside the truth.” Without rapid, remedial action, the mistake of dividing the Washington church “will surely spoil the pattern for the future.” Is this really “the stamp that [the leaders] are to place on the cause of truth?,” he asked Mrs. White.[7]

To church president A.G. Daniells, Dr. Howard reported that the evangelistic endeavors led by Elder Sheafe in 1902 had resulted in a remarkable and unprecedented interest in the Adventist message: “Whereas there has been a hard indifference or prejudice heretofore with reference to the truths we believe, now there is a deep and persistent interest to inquire into these subjects, a general call for information about them, and a healthy and very positive demand that they be presented.”[8] But when the church was divided, said Dr. Howard, many who had been on the verge of making decisions for Adventism had drawn back. The action had created doubt “as to the real value of the truth and its genuine effect upon those who profess to believe in the near advent.”[9]

What the doctor pled for had nothing to do with partisan politics. It was about nothing other than being true to the gospel. Yet, there is a sense in which Washburn was right without realizing it. The issue indeed was inescapably political: would Adventism’s gospel witness entail conformity to or dissent from the world’s politics of racial segregation and white supremacy?

The gospel fidelity that Dr. Howard and the First church sought was also profoundly political because it was not about somehow achieving pristine, self-righteous sanctity in splendid isolation. It was for the sake of the world. Dr. Howard broke it down this way for Elder Daniells:

I tell you plainly, Brother Daniells, with all respect, that you and your committee are grievously wrong in your course and policy on the race question. And you are wrong at a time when the world is growing worse in this respect and so much needs your wise and corrective influence….[This] necessitates a righteous, careful, pronounced course of action that will have a morally helpful influence upon men, will be distinct in principle and practice from their wicked tendencies, and will call attention to the difference between righteousness and their policies and methods….It would seem that while the people of the world will disregard each other more and more because of national differences, the people of the Savior would be all the more careful not to seem to justify the others in their wicked discriminations. If Seventh Day Adventists with their high profession can go as far as may seem disposed to go, it can only be expected that the world will carry the same principles further and commit all the horrors they will.[10]

The doctor put it this way to Ellen White: The “people of this country and the world, especially at this capital and in this region, need to have a pure example set before them, such as all the other churches have failed to present.” Adventists still had a chance to provide it, he insisted, if church leaders would “do the right thing.”[11]

The “right thing” that both he and Kalstrom pled for was that an effective white evangelist be sent to join Sheafe, this time for a truly coordinated evangelistic effort in the summer of 1903. The purpose would not be to build up a separate white congregation, but to help make known “the true principle involved as to the relation of the races in the church” and win those of both races “willing to have part in such a gospel exemplification.”[12]

Despite past action, the question was still in play in the summer of 1903: what mold or pattern for race relations would the Seventh-day Adventist Church set at the outset of the twentieth century? Andrew Kalstrom summed the case for reconsideration of the First church response to the fundamental and inescapable moral question that every American must face:

Our church consists of forty-six white and one hundred and twenty-two colored members, and we are fully convinced that God’s people should stand united before the world so as to show by actual facts and real lives that God has real power to convert men and women wherever they are born or to whatever position in society they have attained, from any wrong thing – yes, even race prejudices which are lodged deeper than some other evil habits.[13]

Washington, D.C., already crucial as an arena for deciding whether this, or some other response would prevail in Adventism, was about to shoot to a still higher level of importance. A decision had finally been made and was announced without much fanfare: in August, 1903, the General Conference headquarters would move from Battle Creek, Michigan to Washington, D.C.

 

Notes & References:

[1] Arkansas Democrat (5 Sep.1902): 6. In the previous day’s issue, the paper endorsed a proposal to revive vagrancy laws to deal with “idle negroes.” See “Anti-Vagrancy Law” (4 September 1902): 8.

[2] New York Times (22 Sep. 1902): 8.

[3]Untitled editorial comment, Washington Bee (6 September 1902): 4.

[4] J.H. Howard to Ellen G. White, 10 July 1903. Incoming Correspondence, Ellen G. White Estate, http://ellenwhite.org/resources/correspondence/incoming-correspondence

[5] A thorough narrative of the proceedings in dividing the Washington church are included in W.A. Spicer to A.G. Daniells, 25 Sep. 1902, General Conference Archives.

[6] .J. S. Washburn to Ellen G. White, 24 Nov. 1902 and 5 June 1903. Incoming Correspondence, Ellen G. White Estate, http://ellenwhite.org/resources/correspondence/incoming-correspondence.

[7] J.H. Howard to E.G. White, 17 July 1903.

[8] J.H. Howard to A.G. Daniells, 15 Feb. 1903.

[9] Ibid.

[10] J.H. Howard to A.G. Daniells, 10 July 1903.

[11] Howard to E.G. White, 10 July 1903.

[12] J.H. Howard to E.G. White, 10 July 1903, Ellen G. White Estate Incoming Correspondence, http://ellenwhite.org/content/correspondence/incoming/41301-opdf

[13] A. Kalstrom to A.G. Daniells, 30 March 1903, General Conference Archives.

 

Douglas Morgan is a graduate of Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the University of Chicago (PhD, History of Christianity with an emphasis in American religious and social movements). Since 1994 he has served on the faculty of Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland. His publications include Adventism and the American Republic (University of Tennessee Press, 2001) and Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America (Review and Herald, 2010).

This article was originally published on Against the Wall. It is reprinted here with permission.

Images courtesy of the author.

 

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