IN SEARCH OF UTOPIA: JAMES K. HUMPHREY AND THE SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTISTS
R. Clifford Jones
During the hundred years or so that spanned the start of the Millerite Movement to James Kemuel Humphrey’s break with the Seventh-day Adventist church, the African American  experience in the Advent movement and Seventh-day Adventist church was a saga of paradox, ambiguity and ambivalence. Born in the midst of the Second Awakening, the Adventist movement, and later the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, demonstrated uncertainty in dealing with the blacks who filtered into their ranks. Early Adventists lacked a coherent, strategic plan to evangelize blacks, hedged on declaring their position on the race issue shortly after their official organization at the height of the American Civil War, and only moved to intentionally minister to people of African descent in America after being reprimanded by Adventist pioneer, Ellen Gould White, in the last decade of the nineteenth century.
Illustrative of the paradox and ambiguity with which Seventh-day Adventism dealt with people of color during the 19th and early 20th century is the Utopia Park affair, which in 1930 resulted in the expulsion of First Harlem Seventh-day Adventist Church from the sisterhood of churches of the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and the revocation of the ministerial credentials of its pastor, James Kemuel Humphrey. At the time of its expulsion, First Harlem was the largest church in the Conference, and James Humphrey was a respected leader whose influence transcended the black community.
The events and issues surrounding
In this paper, the
The Seventh-day Adventist Ministerial Tenure of James Kemuel Humphrey
James Kemuel Humphrey was born in
In 1903, Humphrey was chosen to lead the small group of 10 Adventists that had grown out of Carroll’s labors. The following year he began to function as a licensed missionary with the Greater New York Conference, and he was ordained as a Seventh-day Adventist minister in 1907. That year, he was invited to serve on the executive committee of the Atlantic Union Conference, and when the North American Negro Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists was established in 1909, Humphrey was appointed as one of the members of its executive committee. 
A leader of uncommon skill and boundless charisma, Humphrey quickly
rose through the ranks of the ministry during the 1910s and 1920s. He was chosen as a delegate from the Atlantic
Union to the General Conference Session of 1913, and the gifted evangelist
and preacher held several tent revivals in
In spite of Humphrey’s success as an Adventist pastor, it appears
that his ministerial tenure in the denomination was marked by stress. As Humphrey tendered his report of Adventist
ministry in the African American community to the delegates at the Eighteenth
Session of the Greater New York Conference, he lamented his physical
condition, which he claimed had curtailed his evangelistic activities
It is apparent that Humphrey wanted to leave
Humphrey chose to share this information at the General Conference Session of 1922, at which he had been asked to preach. The pastor of Harlem Number One chose suffering as his theme and “The Divine Program” as the title of his sermon, which was based on 1 Pet. 5:10. More personal testimony than the exposition of the biblical passage, the sermon reveals a man with a heavy heart and a mind struggling to come to grips with unresolved issues. Humphrey claimed that independent churches, like the one the brother wanted him to start, only appealed to recalcitrants and individuals who had grown lukewarm in their commitment to the denomination. He argued that those who love the truth as it is found in Jesus Christ do not lower the bar. His intention was to remain in the Word, and Humphrey asserted that “the cause of Jesus Christ is greater than men, greater than plans, greater than organization.” Of supreme importance to him were the salvation of his own soul, the glorification of God, and the salvation of all whom God had entrusted to his care. 
Throughout the 1920s, James K. Humphrey served the Seventh-day
Adventist denomination with vision and distinction, leading Harlem Number
One to a position of primacy and prominence in the Greater New York
Conference. Between 1920 and 1927, he baptized over 300
persons, although in 1925,
Part of the reason for Humphrey’s success as a minister was that
he was both available and approachable.
Often, Humphrey opened up his home to his members, welcoming
them there for fun, food and fellowship with his family.
These social engagements had the additional value of fostering
the faith of the members, who generally were on the lookout for environments
beyond the church’s precincts that were conducive to the strengthening
of their faith. With most of
Humphrey’s membership having migrated to
For almost his entire tenure as a Seventh-day Adventist minister, James K. Humphrey had kept the race issue before the denomination’s leadership, agitating for change that would result in greater self-determination for African Americans, and patiently waiting for the denomination to match its words of inclusion with corresponding actions. As the 1920s drew to a close, Humphrey’s patience began to wear thin. Humphrey began to think that the denomination was not anxious to bring about substantive changes in the conditions faced by African Americans in the church.
James K. Humphrey was not the first African American pastor with
whom the Seventh-day Adventist church had experienced difficulty over
the treatment of blacks in the denomination.
That distinction belonged to Lewis Sheafe, who from 1903 pastored
the First Church of Seventh-day Adventists, and later the People’s
The departure of the People’s Church may have contributed to the establishment of the North American Negro Department of the General Conference, created in 1909 to foster and promote the spread of the gospel among African Americans. At the time of the creation of the Negro Department, the denomination had already instituted ethnic entities to facilitate the grafting of European immigrant groups into American and Adventist culture. Yet the North American Negro Department differed from the departments that catered to the needs of German-Americans, Danish-Americans, and other ethnic groups in that the integration of blacks into the life and mission of the church was not one of its paramount objectives. Furthermore, the Department was not run by blacks for the first ten years of its existence. Blacks were a minority in the department, serving mostly on its Advisory Committee and leaving most of the formulation and execution of the Department’s plans and activities to whites. 
Accepting neither the way the Negro Department was constituted
nor the way it was operated, African Americans continued to agitate
for change, arguing among other things that only one of their own could
run the department with the sensitivity to their unique needs for which
conditions in society called. As long as whites continued to control the
department, blacks believed, their cause would be hurt. In 1918, their lobbying efforts paid off
with the appointment of William H. Green, a brilliant attorney who had
argued cases before the United States Supreme Court,
as the first African American director of the department. Yet the appointment of Green did little to
acquit the denomination of the charges of racism leveled against it. On the contrary, Green’s appointment appeared
to provide evidence to sustain the charge, because in spite of the fact
that his three white predecessors had maintained and worked out of offices
at the denomination’s world headquarters in
In 1920, as James K. Humphrey was expanding his efforts in
A collection of Ellen White’s counsels on the race issue, published some ten years earlier, came into the hands of Seventh-day Adventist blacks around the time Manns and his congregation opted to part with the Seventh-day Adventist church. The “discovery” of White’s book could not have occurred at a less convenient time. In it, White advises against the erection and perpetuation of barriers between American Adventists and their newly-arrived European cousins, asserting that the unity of a Christian body provided convincing proof that the Godhead is one, and reminding her readers that the principle of heaven is oneness.  Yet Ellen White admonished African Americans to refrain from agitating for change for fear of stirring up ill-will among whites, to labor for and among their own race, and to seek separate church facilities since it was not in the best interests of whites and blacks to worship together. 
African Americans received White’s counsel with a mixture of reservation and bewilderment. Given their subordinate status in the American society, they had hoped to find spiritual and social salvation in the Seventh-day Adventist church, which wore its uniqueness as God’s special end-time people as a badge of honor. At a loss to comprehend White’s statements, many black Adventists rejected them outright.
Issue may have been made about White’s counsel but hardly with
the everyday treatment of blacks within the
The denomination’s attitude and policies toward educating blacks
in its educational institutions did not change much between 1919 and
1929, the year a member of First Harlem applied for admission to the
nursing program of the denomination’s only institution for medical training
Still, the Seventh-day Adventist church was not blind to the
plight of blacks. At the 1929 Autumn Council of the General
Conference Committee, much time was spent in studying the needs of the
“good and growing work” executed by blacks in
Earlier that year, at the spring meeting of the world church, the Black Caucus had passed a resolution calling for the creation of regional conferences to replace the nebulous, ineffective Negro Department.  Stressing that regional conferences would relate to the General Conference in much the same way as other conferences did, the resolution nonetheless stated that with regional conferences African Americans would control and administer their own funds, hire and terminate their own workers, negotiate for the acquisition and disposal of real estate property, and cast and pursue the vision for the black work. In sum, the regional conference idea was an attempt on the part of blacks in the Seventh-day Adventist church for self-determination. The request of black church leaders, as they saw it, would bring concretization and legitimization to the “separate but equal” condition that existed in the Seventh-day Adventist church. 
The General Conference leaders responded to the request for regional conferences by empaneling a committee to study the issue. The committee consisted of eighteen individuals, eleven of whom were white, and J. K. Humphrey was one of the six blacks asked to serve on the committee. Outnumbered three to one, the blacks on the committee were powerless to stop the body from “emphatically and absolutely” voting down the idea of regional conferences, and were particularly distressed with the committee’s statement that “Black Conferences are out of the question. Don’t ever ask for a Black Conference again.” 
Sometime after the Spring meeting of Adventist world church leaders,
Humphrey began to promote among his members the idea of an all-black
commune. The project was called
Humphrey’s dream of establishing a commune where blacks could achieve and experience a measure of self-reliance and independence in their social, economic and political lives through a program of education, training and practical experience mirrored the utopian communities of pre-Civil War North America. In those societies, leadership was derived from within and was almost always black. Governing bodies were self-contained, and rules and regulations, which were strict, covered all facets of life in the community. The utopian communities were communitarian in structure, philosophy, and mission, providing a context of permanence for those who desired it. As training and support devices, their utility and purpose cannot be overstated. 
On August 13, 1929, Louis K. Dickson, president of the Greater
New York Conference, dispatched a letter to James K. Humphrey, asserting
he had received word that Humphrey and his members were about to establish
a “colored colony, sanitarium, and old people’s home.” Dickson claimed he was “totally in the dark
regarding the facts” about the project, and requested that Humphrey
provide him with information that would set him “straight on the matter.”
One week later, Humphrey responded, informing
the president that what he had heard was substantially true, but adding
that the project was not a denominational initiative. Humphrey thanked Dickson for his “expression
of kind interest” in the project and his “desire to cooperate in this
good work,” but told the president that
Yet Humphrey would not be forthcoming, forcing Dickson to place
the matter on the agenda of the
Humphrey did not attend that historic meeting, during which “careful
and sympathetic study” that took “all angles into consideration” was
given to Humphrey and the
The Greater New York Conference gave Humphrey another opportunity to enter into dialogue. On October 31, its Executive Committee, with Humphrey in attendance, convened. Also present was E. K. Slade, Atlantic Union Conference president. The strong pleas of the group “to help Elder Humphrey to see his mistakes” failed to move Humphrey, forcing the body to vote to revoke Humphrey’s credentials. Humphrey was informed that he could no longer serve as pastor of First Harlem or represent the denomination, and that he was no more a member of either the local conference or union executive committees. 
Alleging that the meeting had been requested by Humphrey, Greater
New York Conference president Louis K. Dickson, reading from a prepared
statement, stated that church leaders were there to “talk over” with
the congregation a matter of great importance to the church, the denomination,
and the “cause of God.” He regretted
the “much-to-be-deplored crisis” to which they had been brought by the
actions and attitude of Humphrey, going to great lengths to assure the
church that church leaders had an abiding interest in its welfare and
the future of Adventist efforts in the African American community in
Dickson informed the members of First Harlem that their pastor, contrary to his claims that the denomination had failed to demonstrate care and concern for African Americans in general and himself in particular, had spurned the efforts of church leader’s to resolve some black-white issues in a collaborative way. Specifically, Humphrey, who had been appointed to a special committee impaneled at the 1929 Spring Council of world church leaders to study the feasibility of black conferences, had failed to attend any of the meetings called by the group, on one occasion saying he was too sick to attend. The Conference president appealed to church members to “take their stand as loyal supporters of order and organization in the church in Christ,” reminding them that their allegiance was “to God and to His church, and not to any individual.” 
The November 2, 1929, meeting lasted five stormy hours, during
which the First Harlem congregation, standing in almost unanimous solidarity
with its pastor as demonstrated by their 695 to 5 vote to side with
him, demanded from the Conference the return of the deed to its property. Later, Dickson characterized the actions
of First Harlem on the night of
On January 14, 1930, the executive committee
of the Greater New York Conference adopted two resolutions concerning
First Harlem on the basis that the congregation had acted inconsistently
with the teachings of the Adventist denomination and had failed to live
up to its obligations to the Greater New York Conference. The first resolution called for First Harlem
to be dropped from the sisterhood of churches of the Conference, and
the second called for an arrangement to be made for the organization
of the few members still loyal to the denomination into a new church. Another resolution was adopted inviting First
Harlem to send delegates to the upcoming biennial session of the Conference
for the purpose of presenting facts in its defense. First
and Implications of
The expulsion of First Harlem from the Greater New York Conference
and the revocation of the ministerial credentials of James K. Humphrey
were unfortunate occurrences bemoaned by all involved. Humphrey and his loyalists would have preferred
to remain a part of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination in spite
of their feelings and accusations.
The tears that seasoned Humphrey’s sermon on
There is no evidence that officials of the Greater New York Conference responded in any coherent, meaningful way to the five members of First Harlem who visited their offices in the summer of 1929 to explain the reasons for the noticeable drop in the church’s financial remittances to the Conference. Additionally, it appears that Humphrey’s broad and deep support at the church, as starkly evident by the vote of November 2, had little impact on Conference leadership. The only time denominational leadership visited First Harlem for sure was on the evening of November 2 to inform church members that their beloved pastor of over twenty years had been defrocked for promoting a project that, as far as the church members were concerned, would benefit them. It is not certain that denominational leaders were at First Harlem for the worship service of November 2, though it appears that they were not. One wonders how events would have played out that night had the members of First Harlem seen church leaders worshiping in their midst that day. Possibly, had the two groups interacted in the context of worship, their encounter that evening may have been stripped of the suspicion, anger, and hurt that characterized the historic event.
Church leaders informed the members of First Harlem on November 2 that they had come to the church at the invitation of the church “to talk over with you as brethren” a matter of great importance. Yet they quickly revealed the reason for their being at First Harlem that night. Humphrey’s recalcitrant attitude toward “supremely important and vital principles” of church organization and leadership had driven them to take “decided action” which they were there “to announce” to the church. Thus, church leadership was not at First Harlem to dialogue or listen, but to announce a decision that had already been made without the input of church members. 
One reason the
Adventist leaders also misread the social and political dynamics
at play in the African American community during the 1920s.
The era was fraught with vestiges of Pan-Africanism and Ethiopianism,
two elements of black nationalism that dominated African American life
from 1850 to 1925,
Humphrey’s drive for self-determination for blacks was not based
on a Messiah complex or Moses syndrome, but anchored in the broader
African American community’s quest for increased autonomy and power
during the 1920s. While it is uncertain whether Humphrey ever
personally met Garvey, it is sure that he exhibited many of Garvey’s
black nationalist tendencies. Like
Garvey, Humphrey wanted people of color to rise up and fulfill their
true destinies and to throw off the yoke of oppression that slowed their
drive toward self-determination. Moreover,
Humphrey envisioned his church’s struggle with the Greater New York
Conference as part of a larger crusade, namely the black struggle against
So sure of this was Humphrey, that in the
promotional material for
In spite of the fact that Adventist leaders may have misread crucial social and political phenomena permeating the African American community during the 1920s, and may have displayed an insensitivity toward First Harlem’s perspectives on its pastor and his activities, church leaders did try to resolve their differences with Humphrey in a collaborative fashion. To be sure, meetings were convened in quick succession, leading some to question if due process was extended to Humphrey. Yet the conflict management measures church leaders utilized indicate attempts on their part to enter into dialogue with Humphrey.
Did friction or rivalry between James K. Humphrey and Louis K. Dickson, president of the Greater New York Conference, contribute to the controversy? Dickson was Humphrey’s junior in many respects, including length of service in the Greater New York Conference. Humphrey had almost twenty years of service to his credit when Dickson joined the Conference in 1923, and when Dickson was elected president of the Conference in 1927, Dickson had been an ordained Seventh-day Adventist minister for only ten years. That Dickson shot past Humphrey to the presidency in such a short time may have troubled Humphrey, who was always acutely and painfully aware of the dearth of leadership opportunities available to people of color in the organization. Yet there is no hard evidence that a rivalry between Dickson and Humphrey contributed in substantive ways to the dramatic events of 1929 and 1930.
To what extent did Humphrey fail to provide his congregation with information and counsel that would have prevented the congregation from being voted out of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination in January 1930? Did Humphrey put self before others? Did he allow resentment and anger to fester within him until they fomented into rebellion? How did Humphrey get to the point in1929 where he could consciously facilitate and promulgate a break with the established church when less than a year earlier he had declared that nothing could drive a wedge between him and the Adventist church? Was Humphrey a person who played to the masses, and did he lack moral underpinnings on which to base his decisions and actions?
The answers to these questions are not easily forthcoming, and
assessing Humphrey’s actions and personality is difficult. That Humphrey was part of a generation of
West Indians who rose to leadership in
Humphrey’s culpability in the events that led to the revocation of his ministerial credentials include his refusal to attend some of the meetings called by the denomination to deliberate, his disregard for clearly outlined denominational policies and procedures, and his refusal to communicate substantively with denominational leadership when requested to do so. These actions of his have left him open to charges of recalcitrance and the exploitation of his power and influence.
Summary and Conclusions
The revocation of Humphrey’s ministerial credentials and the
expulsion of First Harlem from the Greater New York Conference did not
slow or quiet Humphrey’s call for more autonomy for blacks within the
Adventist church. Humphrey’s experience galvanized Seventh-day
Adventist African Americans, providing them with a tangible issue around
which they could focus their energies in their struggle for greater
self-determination in the organization.
One year after Humphrey’s expulsion, students
In this paper/lecture, I use the terms African American(s) and black(s) interchangeably.
The General Conference Bulletin, 6/16, Thirty-Seventh Session (Washington, DC: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1909), 243.
New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Minutes of the Seventeenth
Session of the Greater
New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Minutes of the Eighteenth
Session of the Greater
See Jacob Justiss, Angels in Ebony (Toledo: Jet Printing, 1975), 45.
Conference Bulletin, Fortieth Session, 9/11,
New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Minutes of the Eighteenth
Session of the Greater
L. Vanterpool, “A Study of Events Concerning the
Alven Makapela, The Problem with Africanity in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter: The Edwin Mellon Press, 1996), 210-218.
Review and Sabbath Herald, Vol. 86, No. 23,
Yearbook of the Seventh-day Adventist Denomination (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1922), 263.
Testimonies to the Church, 9:195-198
of the three individuals who authored the obituary of W. H. Green, who died on
of the Autumn Council of the General Conference Committee,” The Advent
Review and Sabbath Herald, Vol. 106, No. 46,
The concept of regional conferences had been mentioned as early as the late 19th century by Charles Kinney, “the father of black Adventism.”
Makapela, 231. See also W. W. Fordham, Righteous Rebel (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1990), 79.
H. Pease and Jane H. Pease, Black Utopia: Negro Communal Experiments in
Letter, Louis K. Dickson to Elder J. K. Humphrey, August 13, 1929, in Statement Regarding the Present Standing of Elder J. K. Humphrey, ed. James Lamar McElhany (Washington, D. C.: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1930), 6.
Letter, J. K. Humphrey to Elder Louis K. Dickson, August 20, 1929, in Statement Regarding the Present Standing of Elder J. K. Humphrey, ed. James Lamar McElhany (Washington, D. C.: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1930), 7.
Letter, Louis K. Dickson to Elder J. K. Humphrey, August 26, 1929, Statement Regarding the Present Standing of Elder J. K. Humphrey, ed. James Lamar McElhany (Washington, D. C.: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1930), 7, 8.
McElhany, Statement Regarding the Present Standing of Elder J. K. Humphrey, 8, 9.
Ibid., 44, 11-13.
21-22. At the 21st Session
of the Greater New York Conference, three members from First Harlem did show up
and were promptly seated as delegates-at-large. The trio later became the nucleus of the
See R. Clifford Jones, “James Kemuel Humphrey and the Emergence of the United Sabbath Day Adventists,” AUSS 41 (2003):255-273.
Maurice Roy Jordine, Reflections on J. K. Humphrey and the First Harlem Church, Unpublished Term Paper, James White Library, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Mich., Spring 1978, 12. For an enlightening account of the historic role of African American clergy in the Black community, see Charles V. Hamilton, The Black Preacher in America (New York: William Morrow and Co. Inc., 1972).
Trenchant treatment of the subject may be found in Wilson Jeremiah Moses, The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988). See also Kevin Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966).
For excellent analyses of Harlem in its heyday, dubbed the “Roaring Twenties,” see Jervis Anderson, This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950 (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1981), John Henrik Clarke, ed., Harlem: A Community in Transition (New York: Citadel, 1963); David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981); Mark Irving Helbling, The Harlem Renaissance: The One and the Many (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999); Gilbert Osofky, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto (New York: Harper and Row, 1963).
are divided as to whether Garveyism was a religion or not. See, for example, Randall K. Burnett, who examines
Garvey as a black theologian, (Garveyism as a Religious Movement: The
Institutionalization of a Black Civil Religion [Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow,
1978]); (Black Redemption: Churchmen Speak for the Garvey Movement
[Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978]). Gayraud Wilmore argues that Garveyism was
in the “best tradition of the
Mesar and Tom Dybdahl, “The
Claude McKay, “Like a Strong Tree,” in “?,” 22.
Mesar and Dybdahl, 53.