Adventist History

Elephants in the Room: The Regional Conference Debate pt 1

February 17, 2014

I think it’s pretty safe to say that an elephant is hard to miss in a room. I mean, they’re huge animals.  My wife, Sarah, and I go on weekly walks for a few miles on a trail that happens to overlook part of the elephant exhibit at the Greenville Zoo.  We can see those huge creatures and we can testify to this fact.  So, if an elephant were to casually walk into our living room, it would be impossible for either of us to overlook; we would have to consciously choose to ignore it.  Thus the idiom “the elephant in the room” has been used to describe an obvious truth that is being ignored or unaddressed.

Well, it is time to address one of the the “elephants in the room” within the Adventist Church in North America… the existence of institutionally segregated conferences.  While we as a denomination are currently discussing the issue of ordination (a very important topic in its own right), you would figure that in 2014 when we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of many events in the civil rights movement, and in a world where we already have the first biracial American president, we as a church would reflect the rest of the nation. However, the sad reality is that this issue has been kicked down the road as long as the issue itself has been on the table.

This post strikes a very personal chord for me for reasons that I’ll discuss later on in this series, but for now, I want to give you the backstory to why we find ourselves here today. The majority of the evidence is cited from other published works and I’d especially like to thank my friend Kessia Reyne Bennett for her study on this issue.  I remember us talking in seminary about her Master’s thesis on this subject and it is an extraordinary work.  I will be highlighting some of her work.  If you’d like a link to her entire thesis, you can check it out here.

If you were like I was up until the age of 18 and have no idea what I’m talking about, let me spell it out for you: in several unions in the Seventh-day Adventist Church within North America, there are administrative divisions in the church divided primarily based on race.  There are “state conferences,” which cover one or more states, and “regional conferences,” which cover the the same area, but usually also larger territories than the state conferences (hence the difference between “regional” and “state”).  However, among some circles, the former have been referred to as “white conferences” while the latter known as “black conferences.”

If you were as shocked as I was to realize this difference, understand that at their inception, they were the best option at the time.  Without going into too much detail (we’ll get into specifics next post), the Southern part of the United States was a pretty racist place to live in before, during, and after the civil war while in the Reconstruction era… and pretty much up till the 60’s (at least publicly).  Missionaries who tried to reach out to black people during this time were frequently the targets of death threats and violence because of the prejudice that existed during this time.

For Southerners, the integration of blacks and whites was an attack on their way of life and faith.  For instance, take this quote published in a newspaper defending segregation as the order of the natural world and obedience to God’s will:

“This rule of color and law of race has always been preserved in the South.  We have treated the Negro always kindly and considerately, but always with a firmness that could not be misunderstood.  We have built him a home, but have not permitted him the liberties of our own; we have built him a church, but have not allowed him to mingle with us in worship; we have built him a schoolhouse, and taxed ourselves to support it, but we have seen to it that his children have not mingled with our children in the study hall, on the playground, or elsewhere.  We have treated him justly; but in doing so, we have also been just to ourselves.  In doing this we have simply enforced natures law, and obeyed the will of that Being who created a superior and inferior race.”

“Seventh-day Adventists,” Yazoo Sentinel (07 June 1900), quoted in J. E. White, “The Southern Field Closing to the Message,” 86.

Somehow, Adventist missionaries had to fight against this wave of animosity in order to reach this group.  So, when the SDA church began formally organizing in the South in order to better minister to the growing number of churches in 1895, they took up the name of the Southern Missionary Society or SMS in order to legitimize themselves as a group.  In 1901, the General Conference decided to establish Unions in order to better service the areas where work was growing and the SMC became the Southern Union Conference.

However, in 1908, the Southern Union Conference became two entities, one bearing the original name and the other called the Southeastern Union Conference.  Accordingly, in 1909, the SMS was renamed the Southern Union Mission in the new, smaller Southern Union conference: the correlating department in the new Southeastern Union conference was named the Negro Mission department (better explained in the following diagram).

photo

According to the aforementioned study, this change was part of a larger movement within the denomination to “make a more noticeable impact on the growing Negro population.”  This department was designated to oversee the evangelization of blacks, including all matters relating to educational institutions connected with this work and the publishing ministry in this line.  However, looking at the historical context, it seems like this move was done in order to distance the two groups out of fear of violence.

I believe this theory to have merit because of many turbulent events ranging from 1898 through 1899.  One example is the removal of F. R. Rogers, a white missionary, from teaching in classrooms of black students.  At first, the Adventist missionaries resisted local cultural custom by having white teachers in black classrooms.  Then, late in 1898, Rogers received an in-person threat at Yazoo City regarding the destruction of the boat Morning Star and was told that the missionary work must stop. When the work didn’t stop, half a year later, a mob looted the Adventist facilities there, breaking their materials, forced at least one Adventist into an outbound train, and physically attacked a black Adventist with a whip and shot his wife in the leg.1

The troubles for Rogers were not of a general nature only.  This same source records that when Rogers walked down the main street of Yazoo city, a choir of boys would chant and hang onto his coattails, shouting: “Nigger lover! Nigger lover!”  On other occasions, his hat was once shot off, and he was pelted with brickbats.2

This example is but a drop in the bucket of many similar stories which could be brought up to point out that the initial divide was based on fear rather than an intentional initiative to reach black people.  The Adventist church was slow to act in any radical, counter-cultural way.  However, the Negro department was relabeled the “colored department” in 1942 because it somehow seemed “less harsh, less divisive.”  Yes… that actually happened.  Unfortunately, it would be long before the constituency of the church would demand more than a name change. Dr. Delbert Baker, former President of Oakwood University mentions that, “in 1940 a vote was taken at the Spring Council to establish regional conferences, and between 1945 and 1947 seven such conferences were created in six of the nine unions; there are nine operating today.”3

It all seems pretty harmless and straightforward right?  This week, I’m really oversimplifying the issue and only providing you with on side of the story. Next week, we will look deeper at why I call this issue the “elephant in the room” of the SDA church.  It may be somewhat uncomfortable to read, but unless we take an honest, brutal look at the past, we won’t be able to see how we can really move forward.

Spoiler: The church was just as racist as the culture.

So, if you’d like to see how deep the rabbit hole goes, subscribe and be the first to catch next week’s post!

1-J. E. White to Ellen G White, 25 May 1899, quoted in Grayville, E. G. White and church race relations, page 56 through 57.
2-Kessia Reyne Bennett, Resistance and Accomodation to Racism Among Early Seventh-day Adventist Missionaries in the American South, (Andrews Univeristy Press, Berring Springs, MI), p. 56.
3- Delbert W. Baker, “Regional Conferences: Fifty Years of Progress,” Adventist Review 172, no. 49 (November 1995): 12-14.
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