n December 1930 Mattie Brooks lay in a hospital bed in Greensboro, North Carolina. Married, with 11 children, Mattie was the daughter of a Methodist minister. That December evening doctors told her family to prepare for the worst.
Later a bright light filled the hospital room and a Voice said, “Mattie, I want you to keep My commandments.”
“Which one am I not keeping?” she asked.
Suddenly she realized that the fourth commandment required observance of the seventh day of the week as a day of worship. So she prayed, “Lord, let me leave this as a testimony [before I die] so people will believe it.”
And the Voice replied, “I want living sacrifices.”
Mattie survived; and that experience not only changed the course of Mattie Brooks’ life, but has had a direct effect on countless individuals on six continents. Mattie’s youngest son, Charles, would grow up first as a Sabbath-keeper, then as a Seventh-day Adventist, and then as one of the foremost Adventist evangelists of the twentieth century.
Transformed by the Truth
Charles D. Brooks was just 6 months old when his mother lay ill in that hospital room, too young to know why she risked the ire of family and friends to begin worshipping on the seventh day of the week. But he grew up in a home where his mother would cook and clean late each Friday night so she could be ready for the Sabbath when it began at midnight (as she then believed).
Even though Mattie Brooks spent Saturdays reading the Bible and praying, and stopped attending the Methodist church on Sundays, she still sent her children to Sunday school for religious instruction.
Eventually, a small group from the church came to reason with her. The leader, a deacon named Walter Holt, tried to persuade her that it was no longer necessary to keep the seventh-day Sabbath. They maintained that it, along with the rest of the law, had been done away with at the cross.
“Mr. Holt,” Mattie said, “would you explain this text: ‘Where there is no law, there is no transgression.’ And 1 John says, ‘Sin is the transgression of the law.’ Now Mr. Holt, you know that lamp I admire so much in your home? One day while you’re gone, I’ll come over there and steal it. And if there’s no law, I have not done wrong.”
“Well,” said Holt in frustration, “we didn’t think we could help you. But since you believe what you do, we brought you this,” and he handed her a package wrapped in brown paper.
Charles Brooks, then 6 years old, remembers the incident vividly: “She handed me a pair of scissors and said, ‘Son, open that package and see what it is.’ I opened the package and inside was a great big illustrated copy of [Ellen White’s book] The Great Controversy.”
That wasn’t the only time the literature ministry of the Adventist Church influenced the Brooks family. Brooks remembers a colporteur named Willie White who called on one of his sisters. As he was making his canvass, Brooks’ sister said, “Sir, I don’t want to embarrass you in my house, but I don’t care to listen any further.”
“Why? Did I say something wrong?”
“No, it isn’t that,” she said. “The thing that bothers me is that we do a lot of talking about Jesus and His will, but we’re not obeying it.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well, case in point,” she said, “we go traipsing off to church on Sunday; and Sunday’s not the
“Which day is?” he asked, baiting her.
“The seventh day is the Sabbath.”
“Which day is that?” he persisted.
“My sister,” he replied, “how would you like to go to a church where everybody believes that?” After keeping the seventh-day Sabbath for several years in their own home, that was the Brooks’ introduction to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
A Growing Conviction
Brooks remembers the first day he stepped into the African-American Seventh-day Adventist church in Greensboro. “It was just a simple frame church. There was a potbellied stove in the middle of it, and there were no rugs, no padded benches.” Most Adventist preachers of that era used prophetic banners in their preaching. And the banner that hung in front of the little chapel had a picture of the Ten Commandments on it.
“I don’t hear voices,” says Brooks, “never have. But God has dealt with me kindly with impressions that were so strong, so vivid, that it was almost as if I heard them. That’s how I was called to ministry. It was as if a Voice said, ‘This is it.’ And 60-plus years later I haven’t changed my mind one iota.”
That, and other incidents, seemed to be pulling Brooks toward the ministry. “I had a pretty fair brain,” he remembers, “but I was not going to be a preacher.” Instead, he and three of his friends who graduated from high school together decided to take dentistry at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro.
But that summer E. E. Cleveland happened to be holding evangelistic meetings in Greensboro. And one Sabbath, between the morning worship service and the evening service, Brooks was sitting in the tent all alone. “And I was sitting there, just contemplating the power of the previous meeting, when I heard that Voice that wasn’t really audible. And specifically it said, “Charles, this is what I want you to do; I will help you make truth clear.”
A couple of days later Brooks spoke to his mother about what had been going through his mind. “Mother looked at me and said, ‘Son, when you were born, I gave you to the Lord.’”
Then he had to talk to his dad, Marvin Brooks, who was not yet an Adventist, and who was cool to the idea of Charles leaving Greensboro and attending Oakwood College, some 500 miles away. His dad had insisted that Charles shouldn’t expect any financial support from him.
But the Sabbath before he was to leave for Oakwood, Charles came downstairs and found his mother in her “prayer room.” “Have you seen your dad?” she asked. “Go back.”
“I went into his room and he had on a blue suit, white shirt, tie, and [he was carrying] a baptismal bundle. Cleveland was baptizing about 120 that day, and when my dad started into that water I got up to watch every bit of it.”
The next day Charles saw his dad coming from the neighbor’s house carrying a large trunk on his shoulder. After he cleaned it up he opened it and told his daughters, “Fill it up; Charles hasn’t planned to go anywhere, so you gotta do it.”
Before Charles loaded the trunk into the car to head to the train station for his trip to Oakwood College, his dad opened his wallet. “During the Depression,” Brooks remembers, “I didn’t know a single neighbor who had a bank account. You didn’t make that much; you earned it, you spent it. They had a saying, ‘They carried it on their hip.’ So he pulled out his wallet and he handed me every folding bill he had—$310; that was like $3,000. I was shocked. He said, ‘Son, I wish I had more. You take care of it.’”
In the Lord’s Vineyard
After four years at Oakwood College (now University), Brooks was hired by the Allegheny Conference and assigned to the Wilmington, Delaware, district. He worked as a tentmaster for J. Dasent, a former conference president, who was serving as an evangelist.
“One day he said to me, ‘Pastor, I want you to preach Sunday night. The subject is “The Battering Ram and the Charging He-Goat.”’ I wondered, Why did he give me that? I think it was a test. But the Lord blessed, and when we concluded the campaign and were returning to headquarters, Dasent was kind enough to give me the highest recommendation.”
The next summer several pastors in the conference were assigned to work with E. E. Cleveland. “My name wasn’t posted,” says Brooks. “So I knocked on the president’s door. He said, ‘No, son, we want you to run your own campaign.’ So I started my own tent [campaign] in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1952.
“I had a great, exciting summer. We had a little church there, 22 members. I love telling young guys, ‘First campaign we doubled the membership.’ They look at me in awe, then I tell them, ‘We had only 22 members.’ One of them, an alcoholic gambler, became treasurer of the church for the rest of his life. We had a good meeting.”
Brooks describes himself as a “pastor/evangelist.” Throughout his early career evangelistic meetings would last 8, 9, or 10 weeks. “An evangelist,” he says, “is always somebody’s ‘guest’; he has to hit the ground running. But if you’re in your own church and there’s no preparation, you can’t blame anybody but yourself.”
In a 10-week evangelistic campaign Brooks could present Adventists’ testing truths several times. And after the series was over, as pastor he could lead out in meetings on Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings, as well as a pastor’s class on Sabbath mornings.
After a dozen years, serving communities in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ohio, Brooks was asked to join the Columbia Union Conference as a general field secretary. In addition to his administrative responsibilities, he continued to conduct evangelistic campaigns, pitching large tents in prominent locations in cities such as Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
In 1971 he accepted an invitation to become a general field secretary of the General Conference, where he continued to conduct series of evangelistic meetings, eventually preaching on six continents. “I didn’t want to go to Antarctica,” he says with a smile, “because there was no one to preach to.”
In 1974 Brooks was tapped to be speaker for a television ministry being developed for African-American viewers, Breath of Life. In that role Brooks conducted three or four evangelistic campaigns a year, raising up 13 congregations that now have the name “Breath of Life Seventh-day Adventist Church,” plus two more congregations that had to choose other names so as not to be confused with other Breath of Life churches in their conferences.
Brooks retired from active ministry in 1996 because of health issues. But he still keeps office hours at the General Conference and takes speaking appointments that don’t require air travel.
At the 2005 General Conference session in St. Louis, Brooks was approached about lending his name to the Bradford-Cleveland Leadership Center being developed at Oakwood University that would recognize the contributions of Charles Bradford, former president of the North American Division, and Earl E. Cleveland, one of the church’s preeminent twentieth-century evangelists and the man who had played such a formative role in his own life. In 2007 the Bradford-Cleveland-Brooks Leadership Center was dedicated at Oakwood University.
In a career as a pastor, evangelist, administrator, and television evangelist, Brooks sees as his greatest accomplishment the people won to Christ’s kingdom. The many evangelistic campaigns he’s led over the years have taken him to some of the roughest places in cities throughout the country. But the joy of seeing lives transformed is something he’ll never forget.
Brooks likes to tell about a man who came to some meetings in Columbus, Ohio. “Everybody called him ‘Little Willie.’ He was a grown man, but he was very slight.” Little Willie would come to the meetings every night, and every night as he lingered afterward to greet Brooks, the smell of alcohol surrounded him.
Brooks went to where Little Willie lived and went through the “prohibitive doctrines.” And when Willie showed up to be baptized, Brooks addressed those in the congregation: “I want you to pray for this man.” Without going into detail he shared with the people Willie’s desire to be an overcomer. But when Little Willie was baptized, Brooks admits thinking, Here goes nothing.
Then according to his custom, Brooks set up follow-up meetings at the church Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday nights. “One Sunday night Little Willie showed up wearing a tie. The knot wasn’t very close to his collar, but he was wearing a tie. Then one night he showed up wearing a starched collar, then a suit.”
One of the church members was able to get Willie a job at Channel 6 in Columbus. “This is the first job I’ve had in 20 years,” said Willie. A few years later, when Brooks and his wife were invited back to Columbus for a weekend appointment, Willie Webster was a Sabbath school teacher and presiding elder.
“My ministry has never been about numbers,” says Brooks. “It’s always been about people whose lives are changed by the power of the gospel.”
Stephen Chavez is managing editor of the Adventist Review.