Sisters in Service
Ellen White's influence on selected Black female contemporaries
By: Rosa Taylor Banks
Ellen Gould Harmon White lived in a man's world. Yet from her first vision in 1844 to her death in 1915, she ministered to both men and women of all races, encouraging them to invest their talents in gospel service.
While thousands of women must have been influenced by the prophet, the names of only 323 surface in the church's major biographies and indexes. All but three were Caucasian.
But Ellen White inspired Black women too. She saw in them a reservoir of talent and ability needed to round out the church's employment and volunteer service forces. To pave the way for greater consideration of Black workers, she exhorted Adventists to their duty to the "colored people." Her efforts and writings inspired a widespread mission enterprise in the South, resulting in the development of Black male and later female, involvement in the spreading of the Advent message.
Sadly, most of their involvement was not recorded. From the album of history we see only a few snapshots of Black women achievers.
Perhaps the most popular Black woman of all time was Sojourner Truth. Born as Isabella Van Wagener around 1797 in Ulster County, New York, she was the first woman of African ancestry to see and know the prophet up close.
Though Truth was more than 30 years older than White, the two had much in common. Both spoke out about temperance, abolition, and equal rights. Both were leading dress reformers (though Truth's focus in regard to fashionable dress was not the same as Ellen White's). [Ref 1]
Both were sought-after speakers in church and in public settings. Truth spoke at least twice at the 1843 Millerite camp meeting in New England, a year before Ellen White had her first vision. Twelve years later both were frequent speakers at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, the 4,000-seat Dime Tabernacle, and Battle Creek College. Truth visited and spoke so often at the Tabernacle that some associated her attendance with membership. Both moved to Michigan within months of each other. Ellen and James White moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, in November 1855. In 1856 Sojourner Truth moved to Harmonia, Michigan, and later relocated to nearby Battle Creek.
Truth and Ellen White had common friends: John Byington, Uriah Smith, Dr. J. H. Kellogg, and other prominent SDAs. [Ref 2] After Sojourner Truth's death on November 26, 1883, in Battle Creek, one of several memorial services was held at the Battle Creek Tabernacle. After Ellen White's death on July 16, 1915, the last of her three funeral services was held at the Tabernacle. Both women were laid to rest in the Oak Hill Cemetery of Battle Creek, though some 32 years apart.
Jennie B. Allison
Jennie B. Allison was also a friend of Ellen White's. Born in 1858 near Edgefield Junction, Tennessee, Jennie is documented as the first Black woman to join the Seventh-day Adventist Church. A member of a Black company of believers organized in 1886 in Edgefield Junction, she attended church with Caucasians as early as 1883.
Ellen White occasionally visited the Allison home,[Ref 3] where they discussed personal and private matters. Following one of those counseling occasions, Allison took the prophet's advice and encouraged her son to move from Chicago to Tennessee. Later, after leaving the glamour and glitter of big-city life, her son became an Adventist minister. Though Allison was never a church employee, she was a faithful volunteer in the local church.
A convert of Edson White's Morning Star boat mission and one of the first 16 students to enroll in 1896 at Oakwood Industrial School (now Oakwood College), Etta Littlejohn was Ellen White's caregiver. According to Dr. Mervyn Warren, Etta became one of the sanitarium students assigned to care for Ellen White. The fledgling nursing student felt privileged to care for her church's prophetess, and Sister White must have been pleased to see evidence that the inspired counsel she shared on working for Blacks was bearing excellent results. [Ref 4] Etta later married a Seventh-day Adventist minister, Robert Lee Bradford, and used her talents to instill Christian principles in her children while serving the church any way she could.
Lottie Isabell Blake
Another friend of Ellen White's was Lottie Isabell Blake, M.D., the first Black Adventist physician. Born on June 10, 1876, in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, Dr. Blake labored as the director of Rock City Sanitarium in Nashville, Tennessee, the forerunner of Riverside Sanitarium and Hospital.
According to her grandson, Paul Brantley, a professor of education at Andrews University, Dr. Blake's treatments involved natural remedies patterned after those used by Dr. J. Harvey Kellogg. The sanitarium became so widely respected that Ellen White came there for treatment of a knee problem.
Among her many other contributions to the church, Dr. Lottie Blake organized the first nurse's training program at Oakwood College in 1903.
Three other Black women achievers are believed to have known or been influenced by Ellen White. The first is Anna Knight, the first Black female missionary to India (1901), the first Black female employee of the church (1909), and one of the champions of Christian education.
The second is Rosetta Douglass Sprague, daughter of the prominent emancipator Frederick Douglass, with whom Sojourner Truth occasionally shared the platform. Baptized in 1883, Sprague held membership in Washington, D.C., and is reported to be among the first Black female converts to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The third is Mary Britton, a classmate of Dr. Lottie Blake's at the College of Medical Evangelists (now Loma Linda University). Britton was editor of a newspaper, The Standard, which promoted vegetarianism and health care.
These contemporaries of Ellen White's represent the many unsung Black heroes of the nineteenth century. We may never be able to document their contributions to the church, but we take comfort in knowing that in the kingdom of heaven the full story will be told.
1. Carleton Mabee, Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend (New York: New York University Press, 1993), p. 192.
2. Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1976), p. 1503.
3. Louis B. Reynolds, We Have Tomorrow (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1984), p. 110.4 Mervyn Warren, The Legacy of Etta Littlejohn, Adventist Review, May 24, 1990, p. 15.
(This article appears in the May 30, 1996, issue of the Adventist Review and is copyrighted material)
Rosa Taylor Banks is the associate secretary and director of the Office of Human Relations for the North American Division.