Since February is Black History Month in the United States and Canada, we are going to look at how issues of race, slavery and ministry were addressed by the early Seventh-day Adventist church, as well as how they are discussed in the Bible.
Of all possible topics to be discussed, race, religion and politics are perhaps the most polarizing. Yet they cannot and should not be ignored, as they have a profound impact on society and the church. Even in 2012, there is still a vital need to cover race relations and religion in the context of the Bible and the counsel of Ellen G. White to the church. 1
In response to a recent article here on SSNET, some readers expressed concerns regarding Sis White’s counsel for dealing with evangelism in the southern US states in the time immediately after the Civil War. This counsel was captured in the 96-page pamphlet entitled “The Southern Work,” written in 1898 and updated in 1901. Before we get into a discussion of the statements that are found in that booklet, let’s look at some background on the issue of slavery in the United States. I don’t intend to get into every particular but to help set the context for the counsel of the Lord to the church as given through Sis White.
A Brief Overview of Slavery in the United States
According to “The Shaping of Black America,” slavery in the United States began more than a century before the founding of the USA in 1776, and continued as an official institution up through 1865. The impact of this slavery was even more extensive and long-lasting than that. Note the following:
- An estimated 645,000 Africans were brought to the US from the 16th through 19th centuries
- By 1860, the US slave population had grown to approximately 4 million slaves.
- The anti-literacy laws of 1831, following the Nat Turner rebellion, led to severe punishments for teaching slaves, free blacks and the mixed offspring of black and white to read and write
Throughout history, many people have used the Bible to justify the enslaving of other people, by pointing to the following texts:
“Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.” (1 Peter 2:18-19 KJV)
“Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men:” (Ephesians 6:5-7 KJV)
Of course, while eagerly adapting these verses to their own agenda, such people never looked at the corresponding verses that speak to how those in authority should behave, such as Ephesians 6:9, Colossians 4:1, and especially the book of Philemon. As a result, many of the slaves in this country experienced some of the worst recorded treatment over an astounding period of 300-400 years.
This period of slavery has most often been compared to the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt, and while there are many similarities, there are also some key differences relative to the duration, scope and conclusion of the enslavement.
Comparative Period of Bondage
The period of slavery in the English colonies of the United States ranges from about 1619 until 1865 in an official capacity. Even after slavery was officially abolished, however, the plight of the former slaves did not substantially improve, as evidenced by the Civil Rights movement a hundred years later. This gives us a range of approximately 250-350 years of outright oppression, discrimination and abuse for African-Americans.
A period of 430 years is generally given for the period of Israelite bondage, based upon Genesis 15:13, which is quoted again in Acts 7:6, but there are several indications that the actual time of bondage was a subset of the full 430 years.
And He said unto Abram, “Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance.” (Genesis 15:13-14 KJV)
The above statement of God to Abram covers not just bondage, but also being strangers and sojourners. In Galatians 3:16-17, Paul indicates that the fulfillment of the promise given to Abram in Genesis 15 occurred 430 years later, which would include the lives of Isaac and Jacob outside of Egypt, in addition to some period of bondage within that. Likewise, the genealogy given for Moses and his siblings in Exodus 6:14-20, when combined with Exodus 1:6-9, shows that they could not have stayed much more than 200 years in Egypt in total. And in some of these years they experienced peace and tranquility.
Lastly, the four generations of Jacob to Levi to Kohath to Moses, Aaron and Miriam that spent time in Egypt, align directly with the description given in Genesis 15:16.
Scope of Oppression and Bondage
Outside of the edict to kill the baby boys, from which Moses is famously rescued, there is no indication in the Bible that there was any policy by the Egyptians to separate the Israelite families in any way. The acts of brutality that were carried out against the slaves in America have been extensively recorded elsewhere, and include torture, murder, rape and decimation of families. This left many American slaves with the lack of any identity, in contrast to the Israelites who were still able to hang on to their cultural and national identity after being freed from bondage.
Lingering Oppression and Discrimination
The lingering oppression and discrimination should be self-evident. But just in education, the 1831 anti-literacy laws created a severe hardship for African-Americans – even for those who were able to obtain freedom. They essentially lost an entire generation after slavery that grew up without any form of useful education. In contrast, we have evidence that the Israelites were not deprived of their family-based education, because even the Egyptian princess allowed Moses to be brought up in his own home until he was 12, which would have made absolutely no sense if he wasn’t able to learn anything there.
The following is probably the most overlooked aspect of the contrast between the two situations: The children of Israel were led out of bondage as a nation, and were completely removed from dependence or interaction with their former masters. The plight of the African-American was not nearly so fortunate. The mere changing of laws does not immediately undo the damage of several hundred years of racism, violence and discrimination, and does little to restore the oppressed to some level of useful existence.
Given this backdrop, let’s take a look at some of the statements found in “The Southern Work” which have been a source of consternation to many over the years.
Quotation #1 – Educating the former slave
Why should not Seventh-day Adventists become true laborers together with God in seeking to save the souls of the colored race? Instead of a few, why should not many go forth to labor in this long-neglected field? Where are the families who will become missionaries and who will engage in labor in this field? Where are the men who have means and experience so that they can go forth to these people and work for them just where they are? There are men who can educate them in agricultural lines, who can teach the colored people to sow seed and plant orchards. There are others who can teach them to read, and can give them an object lesson from their own life and example. Show them what you yourself can do to gain a livelihood, and it will be an education to them. Are we not called upon to do this very work? Are there not many who need to learn to love God supremely and their fellow men as themselves? In the Southern field are many thousands of people who have souls to save or to lose. Are there not many among those who claim to believe the truth who will go forth into this field to do the work for which Christ gave up His ease, His riches, and His life? (The Southern Work, pg 27.1)
Sis White called on the church to send men (and families) out to teach the African-Americans in lines of agriculture and literacy to aid them in becoming self-sufficient. This is not because she somehow felt that the former slaves were beneath her, but because she recognized that the extreme cruelty of slavery had significantly robbed many slaves of their self-respect and self-reliance and that they were now in no position to fend for themselves.
She makes a similar point about the Israelites about the time of their deliverance, despite their bondage being somewhat less severe and extensive than that which was practiced in the United States of America.
In their bondage the Israelites had to some extent lost the knowledge of God’s law, and they had departed from its precepts. The Sabbath had been generally disregarded, and the exactions of their taskmasters made its observance apparently impossible. But Moses had shown his people that obedience to God was the first condition of deliverance; and the efforts made to restore the observance of the Sabbath had come to the notice of their oppressors. (Patriarchs and Prophets, pg 258.1)
When the Hebrew people were suffering cruel oppression under the hand of their taskmasters, the Lord looked upon them, and He called Israel His son. He bade Moses go to Pharaoh with the message, “Israel is my son, even my firstborn. And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me.” The Lord did not wait until His people went forth and stood in triumph on the shores of the Red Sea before He called Israel His son, but while they were under oppression, degraded, downtrodden, suffering all that the power and the invention of the Egyptians could impose to make their lives bitter and to destroy them, then God undertakes their cause and declares to Pharaoh, “Israel is my son, even my firstborn.” (The Southern Work, pg 14.2)
Imagine how much worse it must have been for those taken from Africa and largely deprived of education over the course of several generations!
Quotation #2 – The Issue of Interracial Marriages
Sin rests upon us as a church because we have not made greater effort for the salvation of souls among the colored people. It will always be a difficult matter to deal with the prejudices of the white people in the south and do missionary work for the colored race. But the way this matter has been treated by some is an offense to God. We need not expect that all will be accomplished in the south that God would do until in our missionary efforts we place this question on the ground of principle, and let those who accept the truth be educated to be Bible Christians, working according to Christ’s order. You have no license from God to exclude the colored people from your places of worship. Treat them as Christ’s property, which they are, just as much as yourselves. They should hold membership in the church with the white brethren. Every effort should be made to wipe out the terrible wrong which has been done them. At the same time we must not carry things to extremes and run into fanaticism on this question. Some would think it right to throw down every partition wall and intermarry with the colored people, but this is not the right thing to teach or to practice. (The Southern Work, pg 15.2)
Intermarriage has always been a controversial issue. As recently as the 1960’s, interracial marriages in some states of the US could quickly result in injury or death or, at the very least, threats of the former. Even when I was in high school, the children of interracial marriages did not fare so well in their social activities depending on which parent they looked like. Even today, in our allegedly enlightened age, you will still see more heads turn for an interracial couple, even though such couples are far more prevalent than in previous times.
What Sis White said here can be considered nothing more than wise practical advice, especially for the 19th century. However, just in case there is any doubt, Sis White makes it clear elsewhere that this counsel is directly of the Lord.
In reply to inquiries regarding the advisability of intermarriage between Christian young people of the white and black races, I will say that in my earlier experience this question was brought before me, and the light given me of the Lord was that this step should not be taken; for it is sure to create controversy and confusion. I have always had the same counsel to give. No encouragement to marriages of this character should be given among our people. Let the colored brother enter into marriage with a colored sister who is worthy, one who loves God, and keeps His commandments. Let the white sister who contemplates uniting in marriage with the colored brother refuse to take this step, for the Lord is not leading in this direction. (Selected Messages Book 2, pg 344.1)
Time is too precious to be lost in controversy that will arise over this matter. Let not questions of this kind be permitted to call our ministers from their work. The taking of such a step will create confusion and hindrance. It will not be for the advancement of the work or for the glory of God.–Letter 36, 1912.
(Selected Messages Book 2, pg 344.2)
The Lord looks upon the creatures He has made with compassion, no matter to what race they may belong. God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.”… Speaking to His disciples the Saviour said, “All ye are brethren.” God is our common Father, and each one of us is our brother’s keeper.–The Review and Herald, Jan. 21, 1896.
(Selected Messages Book 2, pg 344.3)
Quotation #3 – Educating the Ignorant and Downtrodden
White men and white women should be qualifying themselves to work among the colored people. There is a large work to be done in educating this ignorant and downtrodden class. We must do more unselfish missionary work than we have done in the Southern States, not picking out merely the most favorable fields. God has children among the colored people all over the land. They need to be enlightened. There are unpromising ones, it is true, but you will find similar degradation among the white people; but even among the lower classes there are souls who will embrace the truth. Some will not be steadfast. Feelings and habits that have been confirmed by lifelong practices will be hard to correct; it will not be easy to implant ideas of purity and holiness, refinement and elevation. But God regards the capacity of every man, He marks the surroundings, and sees how these have formed the character, and He pities these souls. (The Southern Work, pg 16.1)
As noted earlier, Sis White saw that a great injustice had been done to the Africans who had been brought over to this country, enslaved and largely stripped of their identity, dignity and culture. She strenuously advocated that the church – or, more accurately, men and women of the church – was responsible for setting those wrongs right. At the same time, she counseled against making the path harder by needlessly stirring the prejudices of the people on both sides of the issue.
God cares no less for the souls of the African race that might be won to serve Him than He cared for Israel. He requires far more of His people than they have given Him in missionary work among the people of the South of all classes, and especially among the colored race. Are we not under even greater obligation to labor for the colored people than for those who have been more highly favored? Who is it that held these people in servitude? Who kept them in ignorance, and pursued a course to debase and brutalize them, forcing them to disregard the law of marriage, breaking up the family relation, tearing wife from husband, and husband from wife? If the race is degraded, if they are repulsive in habits and manners, who made them so? Is there not much due to them from the white people? After so great a wrong has been done them, should not an earnest effort be made to lift them up? The truth must be carried to them. They have souls to save as well as we. (The Southern Work, pg 14.4)
As Christians, we are called to preach the good news of the gospel to a dying, sin-sick world. Some of what we do has practical, humanitarian implications, including the opposition to social injustice. But, it requires considerable wisdom to pursue that balance between standing up for those who are downtrodden and attempting to undermine the entire social structures that are in place in one fell swoop.
Does anyone think it prudent that in addition to going into Islamic countries to preach the gospel, we should also add the attempt to openly advance a position of women’s rights and equality in the government and society? Is there anyone who would conclude that our not doing so is an indication that we desire the status quo, or that God is opposed to the freedom of women in those countries?
From my reading of “The Southern Work” over the past week, I have come to the following conclusions:
- The language and descriptions used by Ellen White in this work are consistent with her use of language for similar situations not relating to the African-American community.
- The overriding theme of this work is the unity of the brethren as God’s children, the importance of salvation for all, whether black or white, and the responsibility of those whom God gave the privilege to take care of those who have not.
- The descriptions of slaves as “ignorant,” “degraded” or “downtrodden” is entirely reflective of their actual condition – a mere 25-30 years after slavery had been officially abolished as an institution, yet not removed from an operational mindset by the vast majority of people. Such descriptions are representative of what was done to the slaves, as opposed to any inherent characteristics of the slaves as individuals. Descriptions of a person’s condition should be viewed as independent from descriptions of the person directly.
- It should be noted that not all slaves endured exactly the same degree of brutality and oppression. Thus the descriptions only apply to those slaves that endured a level of repression and brutality that prevented them from maintaining even basic human dignity. Slaves in the South had a far more difficult time than those in the North, and this can easily be discerned from history, and it explains why these counsels are centered on former slaves from the South, rather than upon all African-Americans in the United States.
- God provides clear and direct guidance for His people even in the most difficult times and situations. There is ample evidence throughout this work that Sis White was providing a “Thus saith the LORD” rather than any personal view of the matter. Beyond that, her personal view was one of kinship and brotherhood with the believers.
Although outright racism has slipped out of sight in these United States, there is still an undercurrent of subtle discrimination that is in some ways worse psychologically, if not physically. And we see it even in our churches. It is not limited to white vs black, either. It extends to many races and in many directions. Just as Paul had to point out that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile as it pertains to salvation, so we need to remember that we are all covered by the same blood of Jesus, and that it cleanses us the same way.
While we cannot pretend that race is a non-issue in our daily lives and in the lives of those we might interact with, we need to avoid making race the overriding concern. God has given His people counsel and instruction to help navigate this very delicate subject. Just as Jesus worked diligently during His earthly ministry to overcome the prevailing societal barriers that had been erected over the years, so must we seek to view all nations, colors, cultures and genders as God’s children – each one worthy of His love, His hope and His salvation. The only solution to the race issue is complete surrender to God by believers of all races. We must be thoroughly converted, and then we can strengthen our brethren of every race and kindred and tongue and people.
Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate the true and total freedom that is found in Christ Jesus – freedom from every form of slavery, including slavery to self. Human role models and accomplishments have their place, but as Christians, our focus is on the one true Pattern, and our destiny is intertwined with His. Not only has Jesus saved us from slavery, but He has adopted us into His family. Although slavery may have eradicated all traces of our human lineage, we have been grafted into a new lineage by our Redeemer.
Like the Israelites, we can celebrate our deliverance from slavery while recognizing that we are still journeying on to the Heavenly Canaan. It’s not about our past, but our future. Just as the Passover celebration was both a memorial of the past (deliverance from Egyptian bondage) and a foreshadowing of the future (true deliverance by the Lamb of God), so too, we can celebrate Black History by recognizing and appreciating our earthly deliverance from physical and spiritual bondage, while looking forward to our final restoration when all tears, pain and sadness is forever removed, and where we can see our great Deliverer face to face.
For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:27-29 KJV)
Let us celebrate our freedom and unity in Christ Jesus. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28 KJV)