The story of African-Americans in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America is one of drama, confrontation, and danger. When slavery officially ended, there was major work to be done in the South. Yet evil powers conspired to stop the advance of any work that might have improved life for a people deprived of basic rights for so long. One of the most successful methods was the stirring up of racial antagonism.
But in spite of the obstacles, church work among Black people flourished. African-American Adventists now represent one of the fastest-growing segments in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Many Adventists have never had the opportunity to become culturally literate about Black Adventist history. This series may help fill that need. The following vignettes provide a window of light on the significant developments in Black history. The themes that follow will help us put in proper perspective these vignettes.
Black History Vignettes
In 1891 Ellen White delivered a historic presentation entitled "Our Duty to the Colored People." This watershed message to the General Conference session in Battle Creek was the first major appeal to the SDA Church on behalf of developing a systematic work for Black people in the South. Her words were instrumental in influencing her son James Edson White to dedicate his efforts to the work among Black people in the South.
James Edson White and the Morning Star steamboat. This Mississippi River steamboat steamed up and down the Mississippi waterways for close to a decade. The boat was privately owned by Edson White and began operating in 1894. Initially the Adorning Star served as the headquarters of the Southern Missionary Society (c. 1895), an organization established by Edson White for the development of church work among Blacks in the South. Leaders later accepted the society as a branch of the new Southern Union Conference. The Morning Star represents the first serious organized effort by Adventists for Black people.
The Gospel Herald, predecessor to Message magazine, was first printed aboard the Morning Star. Edited by Edson White, the Gospel Herald (1898-1923) chose as its objective the "reporting and promoting [of] the work among the Colored people in the South." This magazine now provides one of the most complete and reliable resources available on the early Adventist work among Blacks in the South.
The Morning Star riverboat was the center of church work for Blacks. Here it is (c. 1905) docked on the Yazoo River in Mississippi (from Gospel Herald, May 1905).
Oakwood Industrial School (later Oakwood College, 1943) was established in 1896. This institution began in response to the appeals of Ellen White to develop a training center in the South for Black leaders. General Conference leadership purchased a 360-acre farm (the property later included 1,000 acres) about five miles north of Huntsville, Alabama. It was named Oakwood because of its 65 oaks.
Underground Railroad stations were run by early Adventist leaders. Church pioneers John Byington (later the first General Conference president) and John P. Kellogg (father of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg) are both believed to have operated stations for runaway slaves from their farms in New York and Michigan, respectively. They symbolize the strong antislavery activism of many early Adventists.
Sojourner Truth (Isabella Van Wagener), the famous abolitionist, was believed to be a Seventh-day Adventist - through the efforts of Uriah Smith.