How Pioneering Black Adventists Helped Shape the Columbia Union
Douglas Morgan and Emory Tolbert wrote this article, published in the February 2007 Columbia Union Visitor.
When Adventism took root in Washington, D.C., in the late 1800s, the capital city had the largest concentration of blacks of any American city. Howard University, outstanding public high schools, and federal government jobs made Washington a place of opportunity and high achievement for black Americans.
The first sizable group of black Adventist believers, in what would become Columbia Union territory, worked and worshiped in full fellowship with white believers in the Seventh-day Adventist Church of Washington, D.C.
"This church is a living miracle of the power of God, composed as it is of the two races, wrote revivalist A.F. Ballenger about the congregation in 1899. That year there were around 150 members. "The harmony which prevails is a great surprise to the members of other churches, the preacher added.
When the Bethel Literary and Historical Society, which exemplified this spirit of excellence, announced its 1899-1900 lecture series, scheduled speakers included the preeminent Booker T. Washington and several other well-known figures. Also among the invited speakers were two charter members of the city's original Adventist church, James and Isabella Howard. The participation of these believers in what historian Jacqueline Moore identifies as "the center of black intellectual life in the capital, is but one of many indicators that Adventism was gaining a favorable hearing among the nation's leading black citizens. In fact, through the witness of the Howards, Rosetta Douglass Sprague, daughter of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, became an Adventist.
Lewis C. Sheafe, another leader who made a major impact in Washington during the early years of the 20th century, had been a highly regarded Baptist minister before joining the Adventist movement in 1896. He stirred widespread interest in the Adventist message in the summer of 1902 with an evangelistic campaign that, according to the Washington Post, attracted overflow crowds as large as 2,000 to an 800-seat tent.
These successes sometimes led to conflicts over race relations that would keep Adventism, in Washington, in an unsettled state for more than 15 years. With the segregation system rapidly spreading in the South and racial antagonism reaching its bitterest level in American history, General Conference leaders determined that the rapidly growing Washington believers should be divided into two churches-one "white" and the other "colored."
Despite poignant and eloquent pleas by the aforementioned Howard against such compromise with sinful worldly policy, a traumatic separation ensued in September 1902. However, the original congregation, which took the name First Seventh-day Adventist Church, did remain racially integrated for a few years. One Sabbath morning in April 1904, Ellen White preached at First church, taking as her text the prayer of Christ recorded in John 17, "that they may all be one.” She recorded favor-able impressions about her experience at the mixed-race church.
Meanwhile, Sheafe, who had become pastor of First church, started the People's church in 1903. Most, but not all, of the members were black. Sheafe was eager to bring to black Americans the advantages of health reform and education that Adventism offered. As it became clear that blacks would not be welcomed at the college and sanitarium being established in Takoma Park, Md., the evangelist and his church members pied for funding and financial policies that would make possible the timely establishment of separate institutions for blacks in the city.
In 1907, the same year in which the Columbia Union organized, the People's church-the major black congregation in the territory-withdrew from the Adventist denominational organization due to disputes over these matters and became an independent Adventist congregation. Speculation spread that First church would do likewise.
In a meeting at First church on March 30, 1907, Howard, the most influential member, took a decisive stand: "No condition brought about by the errors of our conference brethren would justify brother Sheafe in taking the extreme position that he did ... Don't let us move one peg from the organized work." Had Howard made a different choice at this juncture, the history of Adventism among the black population of the Columbia Union territory might have turned out very differently.
After a brief period of reconciliation from 1913 to 1916, the People's church once again severed its denominational affiliation. Members who wished to remain connected with the denomination started the Ephesus church in 1917. The race-related issues at the heart of this saga did not go away, but, after the dust settled, there were two solidly established, energetic black congregations in the District of Columbia Conference (renamed Potomac in 1924).
Persevering Against Enormous Odds
The pioneering endeavors of these early years in Washington, while tumultuous, generated a momentum that helped power much of the work that would subsequently develop throughout the Columbia Union. Among those converted to Adventism through Sheafe's evangelistic efforts was a young attorney, William Hawkins (W.H.) Green, who also had taken some theological training at Shaw University in North Carolina. With encouragement and guidance from Sheafe, the talented young convert, who had argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, entered the Adventist ministry. Green's first assignment was in Pittsburgh, Pa., where from 1905 to 1909 he built a small fellowship that was called the "Pittsburgh No. 2" church.
In 1909 the General Conference session voted to form the North American Negro Department (later known as the North American Regional Department). This was the first of two major organizational milestones for the Adventist cause among black Americans. However, white leaders headed the department until W.H. Green was appointed director in 1918. With tireless zeal and systematic efficiency, Green oversaw a period of dramatic expansion of Adventism among African-Americans in the Columbia Union and throughout North America, earning the nickname "cross-country" Green.
The small Pittsburgh No. 2 church that Green had nurtured in his early ministry had no building of its own, and, after Green left in 1909, no pastor for three years. Its numbers dwindled toward the single digits, but members held on. The West Pennsylvania Conference was finally able to send a minister in 1912, a young, energetic Jamaican-Adam Nicholas Durrant. In January 1916, Pittsburgh No. 2 members began worshipping in their own building. By 1918 the congregation had grown to 130, overcrowding the new building.
Other stalwarts of this era included Robert L. Bradford, who, while Durrant was in Pittsburgh, was leading scores of new believers into what later became the Ebenezer church in Philadelphia. Both Bradford and Durrant would spearhead similar churches in Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. And then there was Peter Gustavus Rodgers. Under his dynamic leadership, the Third Baltimore church (today's Berea Temple) grew from a handful in 1911 to over 300 in 1918, and the fledgling Ephesus church in Washington grew from 60 in 1918 to close to 300 in 1923. In both places he oversaw the establishment of strong church schools.
The contributions of John Henry Wagner are also significant. Baptized as a youth by Lewis Sheafe in Washington, D.C., the promising young man went to Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala., and entered the ministry. Like Sheafe, Wagner enjoyed much success as a singing evangelist. He led a campaign in Newark, N.J., that is said to have resulted in the most baptisms of any northern evangelistic effort prior to the era of E.E. Cleveland.
Colored Conferences Wagner's career intersected with the formation of regional conferences, which was the second major organizational milestone to emerge in response to the still-unresolved dilemmas raised in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1928, after the death of W. H. Green, the first "colored secretary" of the General
Conference, a group of black ministers sought "to organize Negro conferences that would function in the same relation to the General Conference as the "white" conferences." Rejection of this proposal contributed to the departure of J .K. Humphrey and his large congregation in Harlem, N.Y., from the denomination, and left feelings of frustration on the part of many who remained.
Another unfortunate event occurred in October 1943 when gravely ill Lucy Byard was admitted to Washington Sanitarium and Hospital in Takoma Park. When it was discovered that she was a "Negro," she was refused treatment. Byard died after being transported by taxi to Freedmen's Hospital in D.C.
This spurred a group of Ephesus members to organize the National Association for the Advancement of Worldwide Work Among Colored Seventh-day Adventists. Wagner, who was then secretary of the Colored Department of the Columbia Union, agreed to act as advisor. Much of their first meeting was spent on the telephone, contacting black Adventist leaders around the nation. The Byard tragedy was the most recent event in a long history of injustice. G. E. Peters, then head of the General Conference's Colored Department, had long protested the discrimination that he and other blacks suffered at the hands of fellow church members. Peters, for example, could not join his white colleagues for meals in the cafeteria used by other General Conference workers.
At a General Conference meeting in 1944, president J. Lamar McElhany offered two alternatives: integrate blacks into the total structure of the church organization, or move toward organizing black conferences. Peters had already spoken with McElhany, and both had a good idea of the resistance that complete integration would face from members accustomed to segregation and certain privileges. During the meeting, McElhany supported the black conferences idea, noting that some large black churches had more members than some conferences. He reasoned that ministers who could serve large congregations could also run conferences.
Six African-American "regional" conferences and one mission that would soon develop into a conference, covered the same territories as seven of the nine North American unions. In the Columbia Union's deliberations, approval was voted for the formation of a regional conference to be called the Susquehanna Conference. Peters felt the name would be too difficult to spell. When the floor was re-opened, the name "Allegheny Conference" was voted.
Wagner was elected as the first president of the new conference, which had about 4,000 members. The conference office opened in a bookstore, owned by Ephesus member Joseph L. Dodson, on Georgia Avenue in Washington, D.C., in 1945. Its resources were so meager that Wagner's desk was a sink with a board across it. While the union had appropriated a small fund for the start-up of the regional conference, most of that was absorbed in bad debts and colporteur and Book and Bible House charges, etc.
Wagner seized the initiative in acquiring land near Pottstown, Pa., on which Pine Forge Academy was established. It was an opportunity to fulfill a long-held desire, similar to that of Sheafe's decades before, that black young people in the north not be forced to attend Oakwood, in the deep South, or miss out on a distinctively Adventist education. Located on historic property once owned by a Sabbath-observing Quaker in the 18th century, and known as an Underground Railroad station in the 19th century, Pine Forge Academy has persevered for 60 years as a mighty bulwark of Adventist education.
Allegheny East and West Conferences
In 1966 the Allegheny Conference had nearly tripled in membership, prompting its 74 churches and 11,084 members to be divided into two conferences: Allegheny East and Allegheny West. An emphasis on evangelism, especially in the large cities where blacks resided, produced phenomenal growth over the years. The Seventh-day
Adventist Online Yearbook reports the current Allegheny East Conference (AEC) membership at about 31,000 in 96 churches. The Allegheny West Conference (AWC) has over 12,000 in 49 churches.
Including Allegheny East and West, there are now a total of nine regional conferences throughout North America. Their presidents serve on what is known as the Regional Conference Presidents Council, currently chaired by AEC president Charles L. Cheatham. Through this association, they also serve on the Oakwood College Board, sponsor large-scale youth events, and promote various African-American ministries, including Message magazine. Originally known as the Gospel Herald, it was founded by James Edson White in 1898 as an outreach tool. Today, over 100 years later, Message is still the only black religious and international journal focusing on Christian lifestyle, positive role models, and social-moral issues.
In addition to nurturing and representing their members, and furthering the Adventist work in urban areas, regional conferences were created to serve as a training ground for leadership among African-Americans, and other conference workers of color, who might not have received leadership opportunities under the previous system. Those they mentored broke down barriers in the larger church system. Notables include Washington-born Charles E. Bradford and West Virginian Harold L. Lee. Bradford became a regional conference president and, ultimately, president of the North American Division, while the recently retired Lee became the first African-American to serve as president of the Columbia Union.
Today regional conferences serve as vital headquarters for ministries among urban populations, including immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, Latin nations, and beyond. While the focus is on African-Americans, these conferences and their churches continue to cast a wide net for Christ in many diverse communities.
Douglas Morgan, PhD, was professor of history and political studies at Columbia Union College in Takoma Part Md., when this article was written.
Emory F. Tolbert; PhD is professor of history at Howard University in Washington, D. C.
SOURCES:* GENERAL CONFERENCE ARCHIVES & STATISTICS; ELLEN G. WHITE Estate MOORLAND-SPJNGARN Research CENTER, HOWARD UNIVERSITY; LEADING THE RACE: THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE BLACK ELITE IN THE NATI0N's CAPITOL, 1880-1920, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA PRESS, 1999); WE HAVE TOMORROW.· THE STORY OF AMERICAN SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTISTS WITH AN AFRICAN Heritage, REVIEW & HERALD PUB. ASSN. 1984; WASHINGTON POST, 1902; Visitor 1916, 1918, 1919, 1922; NORTH AMERICAN Informant; 1957; ELLEN G. WHITE, MANUSCRIPT 45, 1904; LIGHT BEARERJ:· A HISTORY OF THE SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST CHURCH, PACIFIC PRESS PUB. Assn., 2000; ORGANIZING TO BEAT THE DEVIL: THE DEVELOPMENT OF ADVEN77ST CHURCH
STRUCTURE, REVIEW & HERALD PUB. ASSN., 2001; REVIEW AND HERALD, 1919, 1928; NORTH AMERICAN REGIONAL Vo1c 1980, 1985