It Is Time to Talk, Part 3: How Adventist Conferences Became Segregated

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It Is Time to Talk, Part 3: How Adventist Conferences Became Segregated

7-17-2020 Editorial Note: This series was originally published in January 2016 to address the issue of segregated conferences. Within the North American Division (NAD) of Seventh-day Adventists, a parallel structure of both local state and regional conferences exists which are largely divided along racial lines. This article is part of a series entitled It Is Time to Talk, by David Penno, PhD (Leadership). Penno highlights the need for careful dialogue on the subject of segregated conferences within Adventism towards fostering more cooperation and collaboration between state and regional conferences and their respective constituencies. Given the continued call for racial and organizational unity within the NAD, The Compass Magazine provides this series as a helpful guide to this ongoing conversation. 

In the previous two articles we have discussed some theological and psychological/sociological issues as they relate to organizational segregation in the Seventh-day Church. Our purpose in these articles is not to cover each area exhaustively, but rather to pique an interest is designing a venue, a safe “container,” where an honest, open, and serious dialogue might allow us to explore the relevance of organizational segregation in the Adventist Church today. Rather than promoting a particular direction we should go, I hope to help spark the discussion that would lead us collectively, under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, to make decisions about how to proceed as a united body.

In this article we will briefly review the history that led to the creation of regional conferences. This review is not intended to assign blame or give a value judgment concerning the establishment of regional conferences. Rather, we need to understand the events and dynamics that brought us to where we are before we can plan to move ahead into the future in an intentional and proactive way. In addition, at some point in the proposed dialogue, we will need to process this history and the damaged relationships that it has created. Understanding what happened is a vital first step in that process.[1]

Early Challenges with Racial Tensions in the Adventist Church

The Seventh-day Adventist Church was organized in the year 1863,[2] the same year that President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that freed all slaves in the southern United States. Two years later the Civil War ended and the enforcement of that document began for the African-Americans living in the South. But freedom could not immediately undo the damage that decades of slavery had inflicted on its victims. Poverty, illiteracy, and White prejudice continued to plague Blacks in the South. Immediately after the war there was a dire need for help and a great opportunity for evangelism among the former slaves.

As early as 1861, Ellen White prophesied that God would punish the United States for “the high crime of slavery.”[3] She also counseled Adventists to ignore the fugitive slave laws and help runaway slaves to reach freedom. Despite urgings from Ellen White, the Adventist Church made little organized effort to minister to Blacks in the South during the three decades following the end of the war.[4]

In 1891 Ellen White delivered “a historic presentation” to the General Conference Session in Battle Creek entitled “Our Duty to the Colored People.” This “first major appeal to the SDA Church on behalf of developing a systematic work for Black people in the South” precipitated a major move into the South spearheaded by her son Edson.[5]

Ellen White continued to press for missionary work to be done for Southern Blacks. In 1895 and into 1896 she published a series of articles in the Review calling for action. In early January of 1895, Edson White and his team aboard the Morning Star docked in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to begin health, educational, and evangelistic work for African-Americans.[6]

Theologically, Ellen White taught that all are equal in God’s church and should be treated accordingly. “Those who slight a brother because of his color are slighting Christ.”[7] She consistently uplifted the Black man as the brother and fellow believer of the White man. “You have no license from God to exclude the colored people from your places of worship. . . . They should hold membership in the church with the white brethren.”[8]

But the practical situation in the South meant that the threat of physical harm to both the White missionaries and the Black Adventists was very real. Evidences of these dangers include the threat to dynamite the Morning Star and the offer of one Chris Dose to hold Edson White at gunpoint “while you-all fetch the rope.”[9]

Ellen White saw that addressing prejudice directly in the South would hinder the progress of preaching the Three Angels’ Messages. She foresaw “barriers like mountains” hindering the work if the segregation issue were addressed at that time.[10] However, Ellen White also predicted the time when prejudice would dissipate and integration would be possible.[11] In 1909 she wrote:

Let the colored believers be provided with neat, tasteful houses of worship. Let them be shown that this is done not to exclude them from worshiping with white people, because they are black, but in order that the progress of the truth may be advanced. Let them understand that this plan is to be followed until the Lord shows us a better way.[12]

Apparently this segregation was intended to be temporary, until the severe racial prejudice abated.

Unfortunately, this advancement of work in the South did not eliminate prejudice in the North among Adventists. For example, when the General Conference moved from Battle Creek, Michigan, to Washington, DC, in 1903, it actually precipitated a move toward segregation. According to Dudley, Pastor L.C. Sheafe had organized a church in the nation’s capital, and services were attended by members of several ethnic groups. But when the world church headquarters was established in Washington, “the White members withdrew from the church and organized a segregated congregation.”[13] Rock reminds us that “Black people could not eat at the Review and Herald cafeteria until the early 1950s nor stay in the main units of the Florida Sanitarium or the Hialeah Hospital until the early 1960s.”[14] Blacks and Whites could not room together on our academy and college campuses until the 1960s as well.

The Move Toward Organizational Segregation

The first move toward structural segregation above the local church level in the Adventist Church came in 1909, when the “North American Negro Department” was established to organize the Black work. In 1942 the name was changed to the “Colored Department.”[15] In 1954, the title “Colored Department” was changed to the “Regional Department.”[16]

During the first half of the 20th century, several prominent Black Adventist pastors left the denomination over issues of prejudice in the church, including Louis Sheafe, John Manns, and J. K. Humphrey, often taking a number of members with them.[17] Finally, in 1929, “Adventist pastors, greatly influenced by J. K. Humphrey, petitioned the General Conference for authorization to organize ‘Colored Conferences.’”[18] After a vigorous debate (some Black leaders opposed the idea, as did Whites), the request was denied.

But ethnic tension in the Adventist Church in North American continued, and finally it reached a zenith in 1943, when Lucille Byard, a Black Adventist, died after she was refused treatment in an Adventist hospital in Washington, DC. Her “race” was the only reason she was refused admission. This incident was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. Many similar events over the years leading up to this incident created a critical mass for change.

The Byard tragedy compelled Black Adventists, during the Spring Council the following year, to demand full integration of all Adventist institutions. Rather than accede to this demand, the General Conference Committee voted to establish “colored conferences” with Blacks serving as leaders.[19] The organizational segregation thus created was purposely based on ethnic lines; the Committee action that created the regional conferences used the terms “colored conferences” and “white conferences.”[20] Official church policy states that the original action creating regional conferences called for “the organization of black-administered conferences where membership, finances, and territory warranted.”[21]

In rapid succession, regional conferences were born: the Lake Region Conference was created on January 1, 1945, and by 1946 there were five such conferences (Lake Region, Northeastern, Allegheny, South Atlantic, and South Central). Two others followed soon thereafter (Central States and Southwestern).[22]

Many in the African-American community felt that “Black conferences were only suggested with the conviction that Blacks would not be able to run them successfully” and with the expectation that their failure would end the cry for integration.[23] Of course history has proved this prediction inaccurate. In 2005 the nine regional conferences held the membership of over a quarter of all Seventh-day Adventist members in the North American Division,[24] and today it is about 33%.

Some have referred to the regional conference system as the “second best plan.” These people feel that the best plan would have been full integration of the church in the fifth decade of the 20th century, but because of the attitudes of White leaders and members at the time, the church settled for “second best.”

Subsequent Attempts at Integration in the Church

In response to the Civil Rights Movement and several discrimination lawsuits against the church, official actions by the General Conference Committee in 1965 and 1970[25] belatedly institutionalized the integration that Blacks had sought 30-plus years earlier. But by then the regional conferences were firmly established, and neither Black nor White leaders were disposed to attempt any change concerning the organizational segregation that now existed. Though theoretically a person of any ethnic background could hold any office in any conference, the practical reality was that only Blacks served in regional conferences and predominantly Whites served in the others.

An attempt was made in October of 1999 in the North American Division to foster ethnic harmony. That year the division hosted a 3½-day Race Relations Summit. The published goals of the Summit can be summarized as a desire to identify racism and racial barriers in the division and to recommend methods and strategies to address these issues. The hope was that an ongoing effort could be sustained that would reach down to the local congregations in the division to bring about racial harmony and unity.[26]

A highlight of the Summit was when then president of the North American Division Al McClure apologized to the African-American members “for the way you’ve been treated by our church, almost from the time of its birth.”[27] In particular, he apologized for the failure of church leaders in response to the death of Lucille Byard.

The delegates to the Race Relations Summit approved certain recommendations for the North American Division that included the planning of a second Summit in 2001, the creation of a vision for the church of integration and harmony, and the creation of a strategic plan to implement the vision, based on the moral imperative of Jesus for unity.[28] Unfortunately, as of this writing, it seems that a second Summit has never been scheduled, nor have the vision and implementation strategy been born.

Organizational Segregation in American Christianity

The development of organizational segregation in Christian churches in the West is not unique to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. DeYoung et al. surveyed segregation in the Christian church in the United States from 1600 to 1940. What they found was that “periodically the spirit of the first-century church broke through the confines of the dominant white racism to produce seasons of reconciliation.”[29] But these seasons were short-lived.

For example, in colonial America, Blacks and Whites worshiped together and were members of the same congregations. But during the 1660s the increase in slave ownership among Whites, including the pastors of the churches, led to segregation, first in the pews and finally in congregations. Biracial congregations re-emerged during the First Great Awakening but soon fell victim to the pressure of Whites in the South. The pattern usually was separate seating, then separate entrances, distinction during the taking of communion, next separate services, and finally separate congregations.[30]

The 19th and early 20th centuries saw the creation of race-specific denominations, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1820, and the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845.[31] During the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction, the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) emerged as an integrated denomination, but by 1909 all its congregations were segregated. In 1920 the National Association of the Church of God was born to meet the needs of African-Americans. The rise of the Pentecostal movement in 1906 created a brief time of integration of all ethnic groups, “yet all the denominations split by race within a few years.”[32]

As denominations split by race, congregations followed suit, and thus “segregation in the United States and in local congregations was fully entrenched by the second quarter of the twentieth century.”[33] It was in this milieu that the regional conferences in the Seventh-day Adventist Church were born.

Following Other Christians’ Example—With a Twist

Writing in 1957, Pope stated that “the church is the most segregated major institution in American society.”[34] He then referred to a study by Dr. Frank Loescher, who used data from 1943 and 1944 to describe the ethnic composition of Protestant churches in the United States. His conclusions are interesting because he described the situation among Protestants during the period when regional conferences were created in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America.

Loescher found that of the 8 million Black members in the various Protestant denominations, only about 500,000 were in predominantly White denominations. The balance, seven and a half million (94%), were in Black denominations. Even those Blacks whose membership was in White denominations were generally segregated at the local church level.[35] Also, both in the North and the South, denominations, with few exceptions, “adopted the regional pattern for their organizational structure.”[36]

Thus, it would appear that the Adventist Church was greatly affected by the social dynamics of Protestant denominations in general during this time. Rather than creating a model of integration for the Christian world, it would seem that the Adventist Church followed the lead of others. However, it is significant that Black Adventists did not choose to create their own denomination. Rather, they chose to remain in the Seventh-day Adventist Church despite the ethnic struggles and disparities. Indeed, according to Bradford, “the establishment of a separate denomination by African-American Adventists has never been seriously considered.”[37]

In his dissertation on the theology of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his confrontation with apartheid in South Africa, Ndlovu describes the creation of new churches for various ethnic groups in that country in the 1880s. He notes that this dynamic was “in keeping with popular mission theory of the times.”[38] He goes on to say that in South Africa,

[the] divisions within the Christian church mirrored the basic divisions in society, which would influence the inception and the course of the apartheid era. The churches were part of the fray in society and did not seem to see their role as that of reconciling the diverging forces of social fraction.[39]

So Adventists are not unique in the history of Christianity in creating organizational segregation. It is sad that we apparently followed the pattern of other Christians, who were following the social dynamics of the secular society, rather than seeking a biblical model of organization that would reflect the inclusiveness and unity of the gospel.

In the final article of this series, I will share a portion of the data that I collected on this issue by surveying Adventist laypeople and clergy. We will see how it may inform us as we journey toward an honest dialogue on organizational segregation in the church today.

For discussion: On issues of race and unity, how should the Seventh-day Adventist Church be different from other churches and society around us? Should we be on the forefront of addressing societal issues such as racism?



[1] The content of this series of articles has been adapted from David Penno, An Investigation of the Perceptions of Clergy and Laity Concerning Race-based Organizational Segregation in the Southern Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (Doctoral dissertation, Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 2009).

[2] D. F. Neufeld (Ed.), Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (Second Revised ed. Vol. 11), (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1996), 262.

[3] Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, Volume 1 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1948), 264.

[4]Ron D. Graybill, Mission to Black America: The Story of James Edson White and the Riverboat Morning Star (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1971), 9.

[5] Delbert W. Baker, “In Search of Roots-1: Exploring the History of Adventist African-Americans in the United States,” Adventist Review 170 (1993): 12-14.

[6] Ron D. Graybill, 1971, 39.

[7] Ellen G. White, The Southern Work (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1898), 13.

[8] Ibid., 15.

[9] Ron D. Graybill, 1971, 86.

[10] Ellen G. White, The Southern Work, 214.

[11] Ibid, 22.

[12] Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, Volume 9 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1948), 206, 207.

[13] C. E. Dudley Sr., Thou Who Hast Brought Us Thus Far on Our Way: The Development of the Seventh-day Adventist Denomination Among African-Americans (Nashville, TN: Dudley Publications, 2000), 2.

[14] Calvin B. Rock, “A Better Way,” Spectrum 2 (Spring 1970): 21-30.

[15] D. F. Neufeld (Ed.), Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (Second Revised ed. Vol. 10), (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1996a), 724.

[16] D. F. Neufeld (Ed.), Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (Revised ed.), (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1976), 1196.

[17] Calvin B. Rock (Ed.), Perspectives: Black Seventh-day Adventists Face the Twenty-first Century (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1996), 16.

[18] Calvin B. Rock (Ed.), 1996, 17.

[19] Ibid., 135, 136.

[20] D. F. Neufeld, 1996a, 725.

[21] Working Policy: North American Division of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (2006-2007 ed.) (Hagerstown MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2006), 50.

[22] D. F. Neufeld, 1996a, 725.

[23] S. P. Ruff, “Fredrick N. Crowe Regional Pioneer,” Regional Voice (2005): 10.

[24] Office for Regional Conference Ministry in North America: The Black SDA ‘United Nations’ at a Glance, Regional Voice (Commemorative) (2005): 24, 25.

[25]D. F. Neufeld, 1996a, 725.

[26] William G. Johnsson, “Adventists Confront Racial Issues,” Adventist Review 176 (1999): 8, 9.

[27] Al C. McClure, “An Expression of Sorrow and Apology,” Adventist Review 176 (1999): 12.

[28] R. Osborn, “’Floppy disk’ event or revolutionary summit?” Adventist Review 176 (1999): 10-11.

[29] C. P. DeYoung, M. O. Emerson, G. Yancey, & K. C. Kim, United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race (England: Oxford University Press, 2003), 42, 43.

[30] Ibid., 49.

[31] Ibid., 52.

[32] Ibid., 59.

[33] Ibid., 61.

[34] Liston Pope, The Kingdom Beyond Caste (New York, NY: Friendship Press, 1957), 105.

[35] Ibid., 106-108.

[36] Ibid., 108.

[37] Calvin B. Rock (Ed.), 1996, 14.

[38] T. J. Ndlovu, The Church as an Agent of Reconciliation in the Thought of Desmond Tutu (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI, 1999), 21.

[39]Ibid., 22, 23.

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About the author


David Penno, Ph.D., is associate professor of Christian ministry at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and serves as project coach for the Doctor of Ministry program. He previously spent 25 years in pastoral ministry and served as evangelism coordinator in the Georgia-Cumberland Conference. He holds a doctorate in leadership from Andrews University.