Posted October 11, 2013
o one could have predicted it at the time, but the 1888 General Conference session was to be a turning point in the history of black Adventism.
The impact of Alonzo Jones’ and Ellet Waggoner’s “most precious message” of righteousness by faith in Jesus Christ was clearly not lost on one particular attendee. Ellen White, although traumatized by the rancor at the session, came away with a renewed focus on Christ, evidenced by the list of her publications in the years following: Steps to Christ
(1892), Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing
(1896), The Desire of Ages
(1898), Christ’s Object Lessons
(1900), and The Ministry of Healing
(1905). But just as significant is the way in which the message revolutionized her missiology.
Ellen White’s Sea Change
Prior to 1888 Ellen White had been rather quiet on the church’s halting efforts on behalf of African Americans in the southern United States, then in dire need. The dynamic of emancipation at the close of the Civil War left some three million people bound one day, and free the next, with no place to go, no jobs, no money, no shelter, no food, and no education. To make matters worse, new varieties of slavery quickly emerged, lynching was common, and other kinds of terrorism haunted the everyday lives of blacks. Largely illiterate and uneducated as well as being psychologically ravaged by slavery, this was a crisis period for African Americans. The need was tremendous. Some historians posit that it was unprecedented in history on such a large scale.
But after 1888 there was something like a sea-change in the emphasis of Ellen White’s communications, the senior citizen prophet writing some 400 pages and delivering dozens of talks urging her church to 1) do all they could to reach blacks with the message of salvation, and 2) to help with their pressing temporal needs. This focus emerges before publication of any of the many titles listed above that so well define her uplifting of Jesus in the years after 1888. What is most interesting about this development is the reason
White provided for the church’s need to evangelize blacks. Her address to a special delegation at the General Conference just three years after Minneapolis in 1891 entitled “Our Duty to the Colored People” encapsulates the reason for her urgency. A hint: in her talk “Christ” is mentioned 36 times; “Jesus” 21; “Lord” 14; “Christian” 8; and “Savior” 3.
The motivation for evangelizing African Americans was to be the incarnation and sacrificial death of Christ. White says: “There has been much perplexity as to how our laborers in the South shall deal with the ‘color line….’ The Lord has given us light concerning all such matters….The Lord Jesus came to our world to save men and women of all nationalities. He died just as much for the colored people as for the white race.1
While on earth, Jesus’ status was much like that of blacks in the post-emancipation South: “The Redeemer of the world was of humble parentage. He, the Majesty of heaven, the King of glory, humbled Himself to accept humanity, and then He chose a life of poverty and toil…. He dwelt among the lowly of the earth. To all appearances he was merely a humble man, with few friends.2
To Ellen White, the only real Christology was an inclusive Christology. Adventists were to consider blacks in the same social stratum as Jesus, to seek them out as Jesus sought out the socially unpromising, and to “open their hearts” for Jesus to reproduce his earthly life in them. “If Jesus is abiding in our hearts we cannot despise the colored man who has the same Savior abiding in his heart. When these unchristian prejudices are broken down, more earnest effort will be put forth to do missionary work among the colored race.”3
The message of the incarnation of Christ was a message of identification with marginalized humanity. One could not accept “Christ our Righteousness” while ignoring the suffering of others. The two were inextricably linked. To ignore those in need was to reject Christ Himself.
Her 1891 speech reflected the Adventist understanding of salvation that emerged most clearly after 1888: “The Lord Jesus came to our world to save men and women of all nationalities. He died just as much for the colored people as for the white race…. The ignorant and the wise, the rich and the poor, the heathen and the slave, white or black--Jesus paid the purchase money for their souls. If they believe on Him, His cleansing blood is applied to them. The black man’s name is written in the book of life beside the white man's. All are one in Christ.”4
Salvation was full and free, irrespective of the human constructions of race, nationality, class and education.
Undaunted by Challenges
As with the emphasis of Christ Our Righteousness in 1888, White feared that her message on meeting blacks where they were would result in the same ostracism and division that occurred at the session: “I know that which I now speak will bring me into conflict. This I do not covet, for the conflict has seemed to be continuous of late years; but I do not mean to live a coward or die a coward, leaving my work undone. I must follow in my Master’s footsteps....”5
The year that White delivered “Our Duty” she was sent by the church to Australia. However, instead of ceasing to talk about blacks, she ramped up her statements and activism and did not desist until her death, even then providing for the black work in her will. The twin messages of 1888 and 1891, Christ our Righteousness and mission to blacks, were the defining messages of Ellen White’s later years—and the messages were one and the same.
Admittedly, the church was still slow to venture south after 1891. Endless appeals and prodding were required to spur even cursory efforts. But things did begin to pick up when Ellen White’s son, Edson, discovered her 1891 talk in a pamphlet and formed the Southern Missionary Society several years later. In 1892, James Patterson left for Jamaica, the church’s first black missionary. Oakwood, the denomination’s school of higher learning for blacks, was founded in 1896. Other educational enterprises followed. Gospel Herald
) appeared in 1898, one of the oldest religious periodicals for African Americans. In 1901 the first black camp meeting took place in Edgefield Junction, Tennessee. That same year Anna Knight became the first black woman to serve as a missionary in India. Adventist churches began dotting the South in the 1890s and early 1900s. Fundraising campaigns for the program in the South were undertaken by the General Conference. The Negro Department of the General Conference was organized in 1909. Adventist families relocating to the South steadily increased in number. Perhaps most importantly, the black work in the South helped lay the foundation for Adventist mission to people of color around the globe. Concomitant with the growing work in the southern United States was the beginning of efforts for blacks in South Africa. Today, the majority of Seventh-day Adventists are people of color, and nearly a third of the membership resides on continental Africa.
The pivotal years of 1888 and 1891 will forever be joined by an uncomfortable and life-altering confrontation with Christ—in 1888 through the acceptance of His righteousness, and in 1891 through the new relationship to humanity that His righteousness inspires. The message of those two sessions is that righteousness by faith is not merely a doctrine. It is a transformation in our hearts which profoundly affects how we relate to the person of Jesus in the least of these.
1.Ellen G. White, The Southern Work (Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald, 1898), 9.
2. Ibid, 10.
3. Ibid, 14.
4. Ibid, 12.
5. Ibid, 10.
Benjamin Baker, PhD, is the assistant archivist at the General Conference.