It is important that the counsel of Ellen White regarding segregation of the black and the white races be understood within the context of the time and the situation. Slavery had not too long been abolished when she wrote her counsel. See, we must go retrospectively to Mrs. White’s time, and consider the fact that this was a very unpleasant situation for both black people and white people. When she made certain statements under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they were for that time. They were not for all time. Slavery was still deeply rooted in the hearts of the greater number of white people, unrestrained by civil laws that are in effect today.
It was God’s intent that, with the passing of time, the misunderstandings and the negative attitudes and behaviors would be dissolved, and both blacks and whites would live, work, worship, and play together in love, unity, and peace. It was God’s intention that the church, and I am most specifically referring to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, would be the entity that would be the paradigm for such a revival and reformation. Dr. Ciro Sepulveda, in his book Ellen White on the Color Line: Race in a Christian Community (Biblos Press, Leominster, MA, November 1997), highlights that in the 1870s several Adventists were actively advocating putting an end to segregation by starting a model colony where black and white Adventists would live together.
No Visible Color Line
It was reported in the February 1877 issue of the Review and Herald that a white lady in Missouri had a school for Negro children. The students, most of whom were orphans, ranged from 6–24 years of age. Ten of her pupils could read and write. John Harvey Kellogg raised several orphans in his home—African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, and others. A young Negro man accepted the Seventh-day Adventist message in Reno, Nevada, where Ellen White spoke. He went on to attend what is now known as Pacific Union College in Angwin, California, and became the first black pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. All of this would seem to indicate that the color line was certainly not as visible in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the 1870s and the 1880s as it was in the larger society where white and black students were unable to mingle.
Segregation Came Into the SDA Church
With the passage of time, however, the color line, which Ellen White referred to in her sermon in 1891, had clearly entered the Seventh-day Adventist community. After the death of Mrs. White in 1915, the Seventh-day Adventist Church slowly put on the trappings of a segregated institution. As early as the 1920s, blacks were not permitted to intermingle with whites in many of the institutions run by the church. Black young people from New York City could not go to the Greater New York Conference campgrounds for recreation because of their skin color. At the Review and Herald cafeteria in the General Conference, the skin color of black ministers barred them from walking in the front door. In 1943, the Washington Sanitarium admitted a light-skinned African-American woman as a patient, but when they discovered her identity, she was wheeled out of the hospital—shortly afterward she died of pneumonia.
Not only had the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the United States become segregated, but also, Ellen White’s counsel was now being used to justify segregation. In his book, Dr. Sepulveda quoted a contemporary of Ellen White, Lewis H. Christian, author of The Fruitage of Spiritual Gifts (Review and Herald Publishing Association, Washington, DC, 1947), as saying that Ellen White did not teach the ideas so common today in what is sometimes called “Race Equality.” He said she taught that there should be opportunity for all to advance, but she did not teach that there should be a mingling of the races. He said that she stated very clearly that the colored people should have their own church organization (that has not yet happened) and church buildings. (That also has not yet happened. The buildings in which the black people worship belong to the organization.) Mr. Lewis further stated that some, at first, were opposed to the idea, but experiments have proven that the Spirit of Prophecy was from the Lord. He added that she condemned the idea that there should be mixed marriages between the colored and the whites.
Did Ellen White Change?
Dr. Sepulveda asks the question, “How then do we understand the transformation of Ellen White? How did she go from ardent abolitionist, who opposed the values of the leadership of the country, to a defender of the culture?” He shows that the process that transformed Ellen White did not start with L. H. Christian. In fact, many years before her death, the leaders of the church were becoming more and more unhappy with her Testimonies. Many felt uncomfortable with the pressure that Ellen White was exerting on them. Although a few leaders were willing to challenge her on her position, many were clearly irritated with her. They did not want to hear it.
He goes further to show that it was not only the liberal branch of the church that developed distaste for Ellen White but also the conservative side. So on both sides she was not accepted. She had no friends on either side anymore, because she was dealing with a delicate issue, something that no one wanted to stir up.
Light From Heaven
As early as 1868, Ellen White had written, “From what has been shown me . . . .” No one can dispute that when she says, “I have been shown.” “From what has been shown me, Sabbathkeepers are growing more selfish as they increase in riches. Their love for Christ and His people is decreasing. They do not see the wants of the needy, nor feel their suffering and sorrow. They do not realize that in neglecting the poor and the suffering they neglect Christ, and that in relieving the wants and suffering of the poor as far as possible, they minister to Jesus.” Testimonies, vol. 2, 24.
So what we are dealing with here, my brothers and my sisters, is an attitude problem. People will accept Ellen White’s counsel when it suits them. But when it goes up against their preconceived opinions, they question her credibility and reject the counsel.
Personal Judgment vs. God’s Instruction
She recognized this would happen, and in 1888, she wrote: “You have talked over matters as you viewed them, that the communications from Sister White are not all from the Lord, but a portion is her own mind, her own judgment, which is no better than anybody else’s judgment and ideas. This is one of Satan’s hooks to hang your doubts upon to deceive your soul and the souls of others who will dare to draw the line in this matter and say, this portion which pleases me is from God, but that portion which points out and condemns my course of conduct is from Sister White alone, and bears not the holy signet. You have in this way virtually rejected the whole of the messages, which God in His tender, pitying love has sent to you to save you from moral ruin. . . .
“There is One back of me which is the Lord, who has prompted the message which you now reject and disregard and dishonor. By tempting God you have unnerved yourselves, and confusion and blindness of mind has been the result.” Selected Messages, Book 3, 68, 69.
I would like to share with you several Ellen White quotations on the brotherhood of mankind. She wrote: “Whoever of the human family give themselves to Christ, whoever hear the truth and obey it, become children of one family. The ignorant and the wise, the rich and the poor, the heathen and the slave, white or black,—Jesus paid the purchase money for their souls. If they believe on Him, His cleansing blood is applied to them. The black man’s name is written in the book of life beside the white man’s. All are one in Christ. Birth, station, nationality, or color cannot elevate or degrade man. The character makes the man. If a red man [American Indian], a Chinese, or an African gives his heart to God, in obedience and faith, Jesus loves him none the less for his color. He calls him His well-beloved brother.” Ibid., Book 2, 342.
“We are one brotherhood. No matter what the gain or the loss, we must act nobly and courageously in the sight of God and our Saviour. Let us as Christians who accept the principle that all men, white and black, are free and equal, adhere to this principle, and not be cowards in the face of the world, and in the face of the heavenly intelligences. We should treat the colored man just as respectfully as we would treat the white man. And we can now, by precept and example, win others to this course.” Ibid., 343.
All Men are Equal Before God
“Christ recognized no distinction of nationality or rank or creed. . . . Christ came to break down every wall of partition. He came to show that His gift of mercy and love is as unconfined as the air, the light, or the showers of rain that refresh the earth.
“The life of Christ established a religion in which there is no caste, a religion by which Jew and Gentile, free and bond, are linked in a common brotherhood, equal before God. No question of policy influenced His movements. He made no difference between neighbors and strangers, friends and enemies. That which appealed to His heart was a soul thirsting for the waters of life. . . .” Ibid., 485.
“When the Holy Spirit moves upon human minds, all petty complaints and accusations between man and his fellow man will be put away. The bright beams of the Sun of Righteousness will shine into the chambers of the mind and heart. In our worship of God there will be no distinction between rich and poor, white and black. All prejudice will be melted away. When we approach God, it will be as one brotherhood. We are pilgrims and strangers, bound for a better country, even a heavenly. There all pride, all accusation, all self-deception, will forever have an end. Every mask will be laid aside, and we shall ‘see him as he is.’ [1 John 3:2.] There our songs will catch the inspiring theme, and praise and thanksgiving will go up to God.” Review and Herald, October 24, 1899.
Jesus says, “By this shall all [men] know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” John 13:35.
The Larger Prayer
By Edna D. Cheney
At first I prayed for Light:
Could I but see the way,
How gladly, swiftly would I walk
To everlasting day!
And next I prayed for Strength:
That I might tread the road
With firm, unfaltering feet, and win
The Heaven’s serene abode.
And then I asked for Faith:
Could I but trust my God,
I’d live enfolded in His peace
Though foes were all abroad.
But now I pray for Love:
Deep love to God and man,
A living love that will not fail,
However dark His plan.
And Light and Strength and Faith
Are opening everywhere;
God only waited for me, till
I prayed the larger prayer.
http://www.angelfire.com, cited October 2, 2003.
Pastor Ivan Plummer ministers through the Emmanuel Seventh Day Church Ministries in Bronx, New York. He may be contacted by telephone at 718-882-3900.