Bound for Glory!
Black Americans received hope from the Millerite movement and gave voice to the cry: "The Bridegroom is coming!"
The one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the "Great Advent Awakening" of 1844 has provided an opportunity for thoughtful examination of the events that culminated in the birth of the Seventh day Adventist Church. The evidences of divine leadership throughout our history are unmistakable.
|This exercise can increase
fervor, bolster courage, and strengthen our conviction that we are here by divine
appointment.Reviewing our past also provides a basis for focusing on multicultural
harmony. For history shows clearly that people of African ancestry were among the earliest
Adventists. Books and articles have demonstrated that they not only embraced this biblical
truth but pioneered its proclamation.
Highlighting this aspect of our past confirms that the history of the Seventh day Adventist Church belongs to everyone. The fact that Blacks are identified among early Adventists, Millerites, and Seventh day Adventists--given the sociopolitical forces at work in nineteenth century America--indicates that the Advent movement was designed to include all. Additionally, the environment generated by the Holy Spirit to facilitate the advancement of the message within two very different communities should have positive contemporary implications. The story certainly merits another look.
A Hope Deferred
Liberty seemed to be the theme of every conversation among American Blacks prior to the Revolutionary War. Their hopes were briefly lifted when the Colonies broke away from English domination, but it did little to improve their plight. This liberty spoke of by the Colonists obviously did not include everybody.
Black people were constantly searching for some way to escape slavery, cruelty, and injustice. Thomas Jefferson reportedly estimated that 30,000 slaves served in the British Army in response to an offer of freedom by the British. American colonists also promised freedom to slaves who served in the Continental Army for at least three years. It is estimated that as many as 5,000 slaves accepted this offer--~f they received permission from their masters. Later, Blacks looked to the Jeffersonian proposal to completely outlaw slavery as an end to their living nightmare. It didn't.
Some slaves fled oppression in disguise. Some simply walked away or organized insurrections despite the risk of severe punishment or death. A disheartened, neglected people desperately searched for an island of hope in a sea of broken promises. It was into this vacuum of hope that the thrilling message of Jesus' soon coming came to American Black people. [Ref 1]
Millerite preaching struck a responsive chord within the hearts of Blacks not only because of their religious inclinations. but because at the bottom line the theme of this preaching was freedom!
The Millerite movement attracted hundreds of Blacks.[Ref 2] If Miller's description of the imminent prospect of discarding earthly cares and experiencing heavenly joy in God's presence enthralled Whites, imagine how mistreated Blacks were affected. What Miller may have lacked in terms of vocabulary and elocution was more than compensated by the melodious tones and sincere manner that captivated his listeners.[Ref 3]
In many churches of the day, slaves might have listened to this good news from the periphery of a crowd or sitting in some church balcony that was reserved for them and others of their race. But surely their hearts leaped with hope as they contemplated the possibilities. Any illusion that they might be treated with a small portion of human dignity in this prevent world was constantly squelched by the cruel realities of slavery.
Consequently, what much of society might embrace because of its surface appeal became that much more appealing for people who were routinely treated as something less than human. On the loom of affliction, Blacks wove a seamless religious faith that included strands of social struggle and personal piety.
Millerites were clearly amenable to the inclusion of Blacks in the Second Advent movement. They evidently demonstrated cordiality sufficient to overcome society's barriers between those of different races.
But Millerites were preoccupied with the shortness of time on earth. Their logical response to people seeking an end to injustice might have been indifference. After all, those who awaited the soon return of the Saviour could rationally conclude that any societal shortcoming would evaporate in the glory of the kingdom that was about to be given to the saints.[Ref 4] Miraculously, the focus on an immediate departure from this world seemed to have underscored the inclination to share the message with Blacks, as well as to work for an improvement of their condition. Perhaps their aspirations were so centered in the City of God that they began to behave as its citizens.
Initially Black people might have been attracted by the hope of freedom from inhumane treatment. But they soon joined others who were genuinely convinced that a loving Saviour would return to earth to reclaim a prepared people.
Considering that the overwhelming majority of Blacks were in the South during this period, and that believers preparing to leave the earth would have kept few records, the relatively few Blacks affiliated with the Millerite movement seem to have made an astonishing impact.
One reason for the few references to Blacks among the Millerites was their concern that the information might implicate them for teaching religion to Blacks. Whites were especially wary of the liberating effect of preaching the Second Advent5 But the power of the gospel was intensified by the urgency of a soon coming Christ.
The historical record clearly shows that several outstanding ministers of African descent were Millerite preachers. One of them, Charles Bowles, responded to the call to ministry late in life and was referred to as "Father Bowles." His ministry under the Millerite banner met with success as he proclaimed the soon coming of Christ He addressed large crowds of Whites as well as Blacks and played a pivotal role in the establishment of several churches.[Ref 6]
Folklore about Bowles includes a report that detractors once threatened to throw him into a pond during a baptism. But the power of his relentless preaching turned the tables and converted even some of his tormentors.[Ref 7]
John W. Lewis, another Black Millerite preacher, was commissioned in response to a successful motion by Charles Fitch (who also collected more than $20 to finance his ministry).[Ref 8] Among other notable accomplishments, Lewis was the author of a biography of Charles Bowles.[Ref 9]
William Ellis Foy, a Baptist training for the ministry in Boston, was an eloquent speaker with an impressive command of the language. He was arguably the most controversial of Black Millerite preachers because he received visions during the two years just preceding the Great Disappointment.
We know that Foy hesitated to relate what he had seen, as had others, including Ellen White. In addition to the ridicule that one would experience just for being a Millerite, he no doubt felt he would suffer additionally because of being a Black man during that time.[Ref 10]
Information about Foy was scant or confusing until the book The Unknown Prophet was written by Delbert Baker. Now we know that he joined other Black preachers of that period in successfully communicating the Advent message to both Black and White audiences." His visions bore the stamp of divine origin.
Years later Ellen White related a conversation with Foy during which she concluded that they were both shown substantively identical versions of the same vision. She commented on Foy's prophetic ministry with the words "[the] remarkable testimonies that he bore."[Ref 12]
Early in 1844 William Miller and Joshua V. Himes encountered a notable blessing both for the movement and for the advancement of the message among Black people. A prominent Black minister in the city of Baltimore, Maryland, identified with the Millerites and declared his intention to establish an "Adventist" congregation.'[Ref 13] This development reinforced the startling impact of God's power through an important--albeit neglected--minority.
Blacks were counted both with those who scattered and those who remained faithful after the great disappointment of 1844. And Black believers were also among those who formed the first Adventist groups after the disappointment of October 22, 1844.[Ref 14]
Our Advent progenitors, stirred by prophecies of Christ's soon coming, were not so narrow in their thinking as some might think. They were often identified as abolitionists as well as crusaders for temperance. They apparently viewed solutions to society's problems as some might think. They were often identified as abolitionists as well as crusaders for temperance. They apparently viewed solutions to societys problems as nearly as important as telling of Jesus soon return.
William Foy testified that no one seemed to mind the color of his skin when he first met with early Advent believers.[Ref 15]
Charles Fitch, one of the prominent Advent pioneers, was awakened to his activist role by reading a pamphlet against slavery.[Ref 16]
John Byington (first president of the General Conference) and J. P. Kellogg (father of J. H. Kellogg) apparently maintained stations for the Underground Railroad on their property.[Ref 17]
In his autobiography, Joseph Bates admitted that he was also an abolitionist. The book contains an anecdote that occurred as he lingered following one of his lectures. In it, he spoke with the slaves who had stood, listening attentively, at the rear of the auditorium as he preached. He offered them pamphlets. Though they had not yet learned to read, they assured Bates they would have their masters children read the truth to them.[Ref 18]
Our pioneers had no reason to imagine that we would still be on earth at the close of the twentieth century. They probably struggled to grasp the realities of life on earth after 1844.
If they had been able to witness the phenomenal explosion of Seventhday Adventism into all the world; if they could have witnessed the acceptance of the Seventhday Adventist message by peoples of every nation, kindred, and tongue, joy might have filled their hearts at the marvelous possibilities for us as future citizens of heaven. If, in a time far less enlightened, their personal prejudices could be suppressed for the advancement of Gods cause, what might they dream for us!
1. See Louis B. Reynolds. We Have Tomorrow (Washington. D.C.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn.1984), pp. 1728; Delbert W. Baker. The Unknown Prophet (Washington. D.C.: Review and
Herald Pub. Assn.. 1987), pp. 24. 25.