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Great Prudence Through Critical Years

Late in 1900 Ellen G. White returned from her sojourn of nine years in Australia, and took up residence at Elmshaven, in northern California. She lived there until her death in 1915. On arrival in the United States she was eager to visit the Deep South where the work was now well under way. When invited to attend the General Conference session to be held in April, 1901, she planned her journey to Battle Creek by the Southern route so she might see for herself the fruitage of six years of earnest labor among the areas colored population. Further trips through the South in the ensuing eight years kept her in touch with endeavors close to her heart.

Personal contact with the Southern field revealed substantial numbers of Negroes joining the ranks of the Adventist Movement. There were schools in operation and churches established. This personal contact led her to reiterate the principles of the brotherhood of mankind and at the same time it substantiated all that she had written concerning the cautions which Seventh-day Adventists must exercise if they were to succeed in proclaiming the third angels message in areas made sensitive by race antagonism.

One of the most widely read statements on race relationships presented in the setting of the ministry of Christ she published in 1905. It reads: Christ recognized no distinction of nationality or rank or creed. . . . Christ came to break down every wall of partition. He came to show that His gift of mercy and love is as unconfined as the air, the light, or the showers of rain that refresh the earth.

The life of Christ established a religion in which there is no caste, a religion by which Jew and Gentile, free and bond, are linked in a common brotherhood, equal before God. No question of policy influenced His movements. He made no difference between neighbors and strangers, friends and enemies. That which appealed to His heart was a soul thirsting for the waters of life.

He sought to inspire with hope the roughest and most unpromising, setting before them the assurance that they might become blameless and harmless, attaining such a character as would make them manifest as the children of God--The Ministry of Healing. pp. 25, 26.

The Course of Expediency

But Ellen White recognized that the prospect of a fruitful work among both the colored and white peoples of the South as she had personally seen it could easily be changed by ill-advised moves, and she was led to declare: The time has not come for us to work as if there were no prejudice. Christ said: "Be ye therefore wise as serpents~ and harmless as doves." Matthew 10:16. If you see that by doing certain things which you have a perfect right to do, you hinder the advancement of Gods work, refrain from doing those things. Do nothing that will close the minds of others against the truth. There is a world to save, and we shall gain nothing by cutting loose from those we are trying to help. All things may be lawful, but all things are not expedient --Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 215. (Italics supplied.)

With no denial of the often enumerated principles of the brotherhood of mankind and ever calling upon the church for the most earnest endeavors for the neglected colored people, Ellen White, under the direction of the Spirit of God and in the phraseology of Holy Writ (I Cor. 6:12), led the church into a course of expediency. Anything short of this would at the time have led to disaster and the loss of many souls.

This guidance, calling for an expedient course, that the cause of God be not hindered, she set forth in several articles, and embodied them in Testimonies, volume nine, published in the year 1909 in the section entitled "Among the Colored People." As these counsels are readily available to all they need not be quoted here at length. Some reference to their historical setting is in place, and a few key statements will be given: Ellen White repeatedly referred to the racial prejudice which existed in the South and she reminded the church that "circumstances warn us that discretion is the better part of valor" (page 205). And she warned: The powers of hell are working with all their ingenuity to prevent the proclamation of the last message of mercy among the colored people. Satan is working to make it most difficult for the gospel minister and teacher to ignore the prejudice that exists between the white and the colored people.--Page 208.

Then in words which surprised some who had not seen the instruction to workers laboring in the South but remembered her early counsel that or colored believers should hold membership in the church with the white brethren, she set before the church the only course which could be followed and keep doors open for the spread of the third angel's message.

Let us follow the course of wisdom. Let us do nothing that will unnecessarily arouse opposition - nothing that will hinder the proclamation of the gospel message. Where demanded by custom or where greater efficiency is to be gained, let the white believers and the colored believers assemble in separate places of worship.-Ibid.

At the same time Ellen White made it clear that in that critical period no universal or timeless rules could be laid down. As we should forge ahead with the work of proclaiming the third angel's message and were confronted with the color line question, two points must be kept in mind: In different places and under varying circumstances, the subject will need to be handled differently.-Page 213.  We are not to be in haste to define the exact course to be pursued in the future.-Page209.

With tenderness and concern Ellen White recognized the difficult position in which the colored believer would at times be placed in accepting the prudent course into which God was guiding us and she urged that the matter is to be presented in such a way that the truly converted colored people will cling to the truth for Christ's sake, refusing to renounce one principle of sound Bible doctrine because they may think that the very best course is not being pursued toward the Negro race.-Page 215.

The church was counseled to provide the colored people who accept the truth, with places of worship of their own, in which they can carry on their services by themselves. This is particularly necessary in the South in order that the work for the white people may be carried on without serious hindrance.

Let the colored believers be provided with neat, tasteful houses of worship. Let them be shown that this is done not to exclude them from worshiping with white people, because they are black, but in order that the progress of truth may be advanced. Let them understand that this plan is to be followed until the Lord shows us a better way.-Pages 206, 207.

The messenger of the Lord envisioned arising rom the ranks of the colored people men and women of ability who would serve the church as capable evangelists, pastors, teachers, colporteurs, Bible instructors, etcetera, and she declared that "their voices are to be heard in the representative assemblies" of the church (page 207).

And she wrote: Our colored ministers are to be treated with consideration. ... These men are to be encouraged to obtain a thorough knowledge of the truth. They are to learn how to be efficient in teaching the truth to others.-Page 223.  Near the close of the series of articles on the colored work in volume 9 Ellen White restated the paramount truth which all must ever keep in mind: The religion of the Bible recognizes no caste or color. It ignores rank, wealth, worldly honor. God estimates men as men. With Him, character decides their worth. And we are to recognize the Spirit of Christ in whomsoever it is revealed.-Ibid.

And she counseled: No one need be ashamed to speak with an honest black man in any place or to shake him by the hand. He who is living in the atmosphere in which Christ lives will be taught of God and will learn to put His estimate on men.-Ibid.

One point gave Ellen White deep concern. That was the matter of controversy among brethren. She foresaw the possibility of difficulties arising that would consume much precious time to adjust (page 213). Agitation would not solve, but would intensify, these problems. And she urged: Let every believer do his best to prepare the way for gospel missionary work that is to be done. But let no one enter into controversy. It is Satan's object to keep Christians occupied in controversies among themselves. He knows that if they do not watch, the day of the Lord will come on them as a thief in the night. We have not time now to give place to the spirit of the enemy and to cherish prejudices that confuse the judgment and lead us away from Christ.

It will take money and earnest, persevering effort to do that which needs to be done among the colored people. Every man needs now to stand in his lot and place, confessing and forsaking his sins, and working in harmony with his brethren. Gods workers are to be of one mind and one heart, praying for the impartation of the Spirit and believing that God will fulfill His word.--Page 216.

Thus Ellen White set before the church certain great principles and lines of counsel. She made clear the brotherhood of man. She made clear the responsibility of carrying the third angels message to the growing population of colored Americans. From time to time, she set before us in words of caution the dangers which we faced and the course of action which, in expediency, we should pursue so as to accomplish the work which must be done. She recognized that Seventh-day Adventists were in a very sensitive position. To sum up her counsel: As we go forth proclaiming the Sabbath truth, we are being closely watched by white and colored. This should ever lead us to exceptional caution, for ill-advised moves would lead to persecution and the Sunday issue.

The genuinely high regard she had for colored people she ever made clear in her statements, and constantly reminded the church of its responsibility.

Counsel Results in Strong Work

Following these counsels, a strong work in the South was developed. Inspired expediency--great prudence-- was the watchword. There were large accessions to the church. Institutions of learning and for the care of the sick were developed, and are in good running order. Regional conferences were formed, providing maximum opportunities for numerous men and women from the rank and file of our colored congregations to fill responsible positions. Under this leadership growth has been very rapid so that at present the ratio of Seventh-day Adventist believers to population in the United Sates is greater among the colored constituency than among the whites. God indeed has blessed as men and women with confidence and with restraint, ever putting the interest of Gods cause first, have walked in the light God has given to guide safely in this very sensitive area of race relations.

The heart of the counsels of volume 9 is the phrase, "until the Lord shows us a better way" (page 207). Coupled with this is the oft-repeated thought that though all things may be lawful, all things are not expedient. We are to go forward in a way to accomplish the greatest good with the least controversy, tumult, or opposition. It is evident that Sister White did not give rigid, timeless specifications for carrying on the work for the nations largest ethnic minority. As she so wisely counseled, in another connection, time and circumstances must be taken into account in interpreting certain specific counsels. This we must ever keep in mind.

As always, the Spirit of Prophecy counsels give sound and constructive guidance. There is to be a readiness on the part of Seventh-day Adventists to move into new opportunities, to face new challenges, to move forward with new and better plans as the way opens, and indeed we as a church are so doing.