Messenger of the Lord


Setting the Tone on Race Relations

As with many other major denominational issues, Ellen White was foremost in charting the moral dimensions involved in race relations as well as in suggesting pragmatic approaches to resolving problems during difficult times. Richard Schwarz wrote that it “took an earnest admonition from Ellen White to jolt Adventists into realizing their duty to share their faith with Afro-Americans.” 54 MOL 214.4

Prior to leaving for Australia, at the 1891 General Conference session in Battle Creek, Mrs. White made her first major public appeal for evangelistic work among American Blacks. 55 Understanding the growing restrictions being applied to Blacks throughout the southern states, she recognized that she was plunging into an explosive topic, “but I do not mean to live a coward or die a coward.” 56 MOL 214.5

She pointed out that “the black man’s name is written in the book of life beside the white man’s.... Birth, station, nationality, or color cannot elevate or degrade men.” Further, those who “slight a brother because of his color are slighting Christ.” MOL 214.6

Then she turned to the church’s neglect, acknowledging with regret that “we have not made a greater effort for the salvation of souls among the colored people.” She recognized that she was referring to “perplexing questions,” that both White and Black Adventists were needed to educate millions who had been “downtrodden” for so long, and that church workers in the South “must not carry things to extremes and run into fanaticism on this question.” 57 MOL 214.7

One of the first to sense the challenge was James Edson White, Ellen White’s son. 58 Creative, energetic, a trained printer and songwriter, Edson joined with Will Palmer in producing The Gospel Primer, which they used (1) to raise funds, (2) to teach illiterates how to read, and (3) to teach Bible truths in simple language. MOL 214.8

Knowing that they would not be welcome among Southern Whites, especially if they lived with Blacks, they had a river steamboat built (named the Morning Star), which for several years became their housing, printing plant, and chapel. This concerted effort to help fulfill the goals of Ellen White’s 1891 appeal moved forward with little support from denominational sources. But Edson’s tenacity, coupled with his mother’s encouragement, paid off with the establishment of a Seventh-day Adventist presence along the Yazoo River, at Nashville, Tennessee, and Vicksburg, Mississippi. 59 MOL 214.9

Mrs. White saw the color-line issue in broader dimensions than most of her contemporaries. In a series of ten articles in the Review and Herald, 60 after Edson had begun his work, she appealed to church members: “No human mind should seek to draw the line between the colored and the white people. Let circumstances indicate what shall be done, for the Lord has His hand on the lever of circumstances. As the truth is brought to bear upon the minds of both colored and white people, as souls are thoroughly converted, they will become new men and women.... Those who are converted among the white people will experience a change in their sentiments. The prejudice which they have inherited and cultivated toward the colored race will die away.” 61 MOL 215.1

Ellen White closed the first of the ten-article series with an appeal and caution: “As a people we should do more for the colored race in America than we have yet done. In the work we shall need to move with carefulness, being endowed with wisdom from above.” 62 The remaining nine articles reemphasized the general concepts of the first article with several suggestions as to how White families should move to the southern states to share with the Blacks their knowledge of agriculture and other trades. The goal was to lead Blacks into their own self-help programs. MOL 215.2

But time and circumstances soon changed. The closing years of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth saw whatever gains the Blacks enjoyed since emancipation reversed with a vengeance. The shameful, rigid, system of segregation emerged during this period, beginning what has been called the “betrayal of the Negro.” Some refer to this period as “the long dark night,” lasting to 1923. 63 In 1913, the President of the United States was still segregating federal office buildings in the nation’s capital. In 1890 Mississippi led the way in eliminating the Blacks’ right to vote; seven states soon followed. Lynching became a Southern racial phenomenon; some Blacks were burned at the stake. Major race riots occurred in both North and South. MOL 215.3

Did Ellen White contradict herself? Did she set her sails depending on how the wind was blowing when she told church members, White and Black, in 1908 that Blacks should not expect or demand social equality and that Blacks and Whites should worship in segregated buildings? That surely sounds like a different Ellen White from the bold, clear-eyed leader in the first-half of the 1890s! MOL 215.4

The answer to such criticism of Ellen White lies in observing several facts: MOL 215.5

1. Her son, Edson, during this period, was demonstrating the principles that his mother had encouraged. He and his associates were working during the darkening shadows when “Jim Crow” racial segregation was sweeping the South. Edson’s mother kept close contact with him and from this correspondence we can understand where her heart was. Almost singlehandedly, mother and son, during the most difficult times showed the Adventist Church how to begin work in the southern states. MOL 215.6

2. The rapidly changing circumstances in the southern states required timely, unambiguous counsel from the messenger of God who was able to see the big picture developing. Ellen White never advocated inviting the time of trouble before its time. 64 She recognized that the dawn of a better day would eventually brighten that dark night of shameful Black oppression but that “for this time” they must be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.’” The cautionary measures Ellen White advocated were “to be followed until the Lord shows us a better way.” 65 She proclaimed courage because “God is laying bare His arm to do a mighty work in this mission field within the borders of our own land.” 66 MOL 215.7

3. Ellen White’s counsel during this appalling period in the history of the United States reflects more than human wisdom. Flexibility is a mark of wisdom when time and circumstances change. Living in Australia prevented her from reading the daily newspapers of that period. Yet, she saw clearly the implications of the new oppression of Blacks. Evangelistic work for Whites was in jeopardy if “wrong” moves in working for the Blacks were adversely interpreted by the Whites. And Blacks would be in greater jeopardy if unsympathetic Whites thought Blacks were stepping “outside” of their social sphere in responding to White evangelists. 67 The larger picture that Ellen White always kept before the church was to honor God by steady progress in reaching honest seekers, White or Black, even though the pace, at times, slowed to allow for immediate circumstances. Her prediction that times would change certainly gave hope to those struggling during the dark night. MOL 216.1

4. Ellen White’s instruction to the church, by counsel and example, paved the way for Adventists to work in the southern states when circumstances would change: (a) She believed in the equality of all races; (b) She clearly did not foster the prevailing belief on the part of many in her day that the Black race was genetically inferior. Often she would point out: “You will meet with deplorable ignorance. Why? Because the souls that were kept in bondage were taught to do exactly the will of those who call them their property, and held them as slaves.... Now, there are those who are intelligent. Many have had no chance who might have manifested decided ability if they had been blessed with opportunities such as their more favored brethren, the White people, have had.” 68 In other words, remove the bondage and inevitable results of slavery, give Blacks the same opportunities as Whites, and so-called ignorance would vanish as a consequence. MOL 216.2

Ellen White would have been better understood on race relations through the years if the totality of her statements had been studied in the context of their time. Adventist racial tensions would have been greatly reduced if her lucid principles had molded personal and organizational decisions. Otis B. Edwards, a long-time Black educator, may have said it best: “Perhaps the greatest stimulus to missionary efforts for the Negro came ... from Mrs. Ellen G. White.” 69 MOL 216.3