A History Lesson

(Spectrumbot) #1

In 1905 the Spanish philosopher George Santayana published Reason in Common Sense, in which he penned the often quoted (and misquoted) phrase, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It seems we have the same problem in the Adventist Church. One of the great travesties of Adventism is that the church in America is still structurally segregated. While anyone can attend any church they want, regional conferences were specifically created for Black Adventists, and it remains so to this day. There have been several calls to change this structure over the years, the latest being a sermon by Dwight Nelson, the pastor of Pioneer Memorial Church at Andrews University. (Andrews University is considered the flagship school of Adventist higher education.) On January 17th Pastor Nelson preached a sermon entitled “Why I Believein the 1000 Man March After Ferguson,”in which he called for the end of the segregated conference structure. This is not the first time he has done this. In 2010, Pastor Nelson presented a similar sermon – “The Truth in Black and White.”In the interest of full disclosure, I was attending the Seminary at Andrews and publicly disagreed with elements of Pastor’s Nelson’s sermon. He is making the same mistakes now as he did then.

First, Pastor Nelson seems to have a whitewashed understanding of why and how regional conferences came into existence. Here’s how Pastor Nelson described the reason why regional conferences came to exist. “Accommodations were made…To allow Black leadership to flourish without overweening, overpowering superintendence by white leadership.” This is all he says in the sermon about the creation of regional conferences. If you totally trusted Pastor Nelson’s description, you might believe that the church created regional conferences for benevolent reasons. Pastor Nelson makes it sound like there weren’t enough opportunities for leadership and the church decided to create regional conferences so that Black people could have a chance. You’d almost think that regional conferences weren’t created in response to the fact that a White Adventist Hospital allowed a woman to die because they refused to attend to Black people. Pastor Nelson doesn’t mention that the General Conference decided to allow Black people to form regional conferences despite the fact that the contingent that came to petition the church asked for integration and equality within the structure of that time. Neither does he mention that members of the General Conference at the time did not believe that Black people could be successful in operating their own churches and conferences. I found it interesting that Pastor Nelson never once says the word racism in this sermon, certainly not in relation to why these conferences exist. Maybe he doesn’t need to say it, but if we are not even willing to admit the real cause of the status quo, I don’t think we have any real chance to change it.

Second, Pastor Nelson inordinately focuses on the next generation in his sermons on this subject. Here is how Pastor Nelson describes this new generation – “There is a new generation in this church today that is no longer interested in the retelling and rehashing of the stories of the past. It’s no good to keep telling the next generation the stories to fan what could be left behind.” There are two problems with this description. The first problem is the one that Santayana raises. If we are not willing to retell the stories of the past we cannot learn lessons from those stories. Despite Pastor Nelson’s reticence (and legitimate fears that it might stoke the racism that he refuses to name), it is important to continue to tell that history so that we can continue to point out how wrong we were, how far we have come, and how far we still have to go. The second problem is that the past isn’t as past as Pastor Nelson would have us believe. In turning a blind eye to history, Pastor Nelson doesn’t mention the inequities in the church’s pension plan that caused Black clergy in the church to establish their own fund in the late 1990s. Or how a White pastor at the seminary attempted to argue that slavery was good for Black people because it introduced them to Christ while I was in attendance there less than ten years ago. Any move to change and integrate our conference structure has to take into account not only the mistakes and sins of the past, but also the sins of the present. To focus on this coming generation excuses this current generation from doing anything to leave this church better than when they found it. Moreover, it excuses this generation from the ways that they have perpetuated the very system that Pastor Nelson is saying should be changed.

Finally, Pastor Nelson tells the story of a Black Adventist from New Jersey who did not know that White Adventists existed until she went to an Adventist boarding school because of separate conferences. In response Pastor Nelson says, “"Guys, somebody is keeping a story going that needs to stop! Stop that story! It's time to write a new one." The problem with telling this story is that it gives the impression that Black people are the ones who are keeping this story going. I have often found in my own experience that Black Adventists are willing to extend themselves and work on interracial projects, and it is often White Adventists who do not seem share that same desire. Others may have different experience but at the very least both Black and White Adventists share blame for the current circumstances. And even if that it true it does not wash away the stain of White racism from the history of the Adventist Church.

I refuse to impugn Pastor Nelson’s motives. I am sure he means well. I agree with his ultimate goal. I believe, like he does, that this church cannot have the societal impact that it wants to have as long as the vestiges of racism exist in the very structure of the church. However, the ultimate failing of Pastor Nelson’s sermons on this subject is that he attempts to change a situation without addressing the root cause. Until the church is able to admit its history to itself by wrestling with and atoning for its past, there is no way it can truly accomplish the difficult but necessary goal of racial unity.[1]

[1] This isn’t to say that apologies have not been given. In 1999, the President of the North American Division apologized for the racial sins of the church. While this is a step to be applauded, the racial sins of the church were perpetuated by the General Conference, which has never made such a statement. Thanks to Dr. Keith Burton for pointing me to this statement.

Jason Hines is an attorney and doctoral student in Religion, Politics, and Society at the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at http://thehinesight.blogspot.com.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6602

(Kim Green) #2

Yes, and the SDA church has been as good as other denominations in “white-washing” and not “owning” the sins which must be forgiven by God and those affected so that there is not a repeat of this history in any aspect.

Again, yes…it is good not to “shoot the messenger” for though the message was not perfect, Pastor Nelson’s message was timely and on target for the world in which we live today. It takes guts and courage to do what he did and he should be commended for it. Change desperately needs to happen.

Thank-you, Jason, for a well-written article.

(Frankmer7) #3

Thank you, Jason, for a balanced account of the issues, and of Dwight Nelson’s message. Change needs to happen if we’re going to be serious about making a difference for Christ in the wider world. But, it will never happen until we truly own the past, go through the work of honest admission, forgiveness, and real repentance wherever needed, from the pews to the presidency. Not an easy road…but necessary. Because, it is only through this process that we could then see ways to move forward on new paths… together.



(Warren Ruf) #4

As I understand your reaction to the sermon, DN made the following “mistakes.” (1) He was more concerned about the present and the future than the past. So, because he didn’t give the history lessons that you felt were required means he deserves the label, “whitewash,” which has its own racial overtones. (This was a sermon, not a lecture.) (2) His directed his vision concept towards a new generation thus overlooking the hardship stories of the past and present. I’ve read your remarks several times, and this doesn’t seem to be a second point. Only a repetition of the first mistake. However, I would be interested in the details behind the separation of the Regional Conference retirement program, although there are probably several sides to that story. And history always tells multiple stories, depending on the storyteller. In short, If MLK could be allowed to dream, why not Dwight? (3) DN embarrassed all black Adventists from New Jersey because one of their young girls confessed that at one time in her life she thought all Adventists were black. I agree with you, he should not mentioned and thus offended the frequently maligned people of New Jersey. But if you refuse to impugn DN’s motives, and if you agree with his ultimate goal, I really don’t understand the negative tone of your essay. But maybe it didn’t sound negative to you.

(Elaine Nelson) #5

There is more than one situation which the church continues to repeat and simply paves over. We need to know more about the unequal pension plan of white and regional conferences. Who determined those inequities that made it necessary for the regional conferences to institute their own separate plan? Are the current employment rates for the two separate conferences equal today? Who can answer these questions?

(Floyd) #6

One of the most effective healing methods used after apartheid in S. Africa was the ‘truth and reconciliation commissions’ where those who had been hurt had opportunities to explain their pain and experiences publicly in front of those who had hurt them as the world watched and listened. These were not for the purpose of blame or retribution, which never brings healing but only perpetuates the cycle of revenge and violence. These had tremendous power to bring healing between the races, subdue the tendencies spawned by outrage and empower the country to move forward on a completely new footing.
When I read the stories of Dwight’s sermon and having some personal acquaintance with him myself, I sense that he is genuine in wanting a completely new foundation to build on, not simply disassembling black conferences and pushing them into the white ones. I wonder if simply lobbing articles back and forth in public forums will have anywhere near the effect on the broader picture that having public reconciliation planned meetings could have as it has elsewhere. Articles and sermons may have some influence but can also serve as biased counterattacks instead of honest open dialog, confession and healing opportunities. But to arrive at that point maybe it is necessary to keep writing and agitating, but hopefully in positive ways, until enough discomfort with the status quo is aroused to want something better.

(Steve Mga) #7

I think the 1st thing we have to work on is the Pastorates. Geographic locations of the North American Division need to be divided into small pods of churches, I would suggest perhaps 4 to 10 to begin with, where ALL the pastors in those individual geographic locations HAD to meet together at least Monthly for fellowship of some type.

  1. To become friendly with each other and to know each other by face and voice.
  2. To be able to discuss mutual problems of being a pastor, to encourage each other in their personal lives, to plan the advancement of the Gospel in their geographic location.
  3. To formulate ways in which the members of the individual congregations can meet each other and continue this activity a number of times a year.
  4. In order to promote attendance of the Pastors at the Pod Meetings, there should be a record of the meeting, one kept in a central location, and another sent to a “home office”. If it is Voluntary, it wont work as “business” will interfere with attendance to the monthly get-togethers.
    We sing the song Onward Christian Soldiers [hymnal #612]. But we dont believe the words and thus dont live the words in our personal Denominational Lives. Vs #2…We are not divided, ALL one body we, one in hope and doctrine, one in charity.
    The way we DO CHURCH, we are divided, we are not one body, all we have in common is the FB28s, and being divided there is no way we can be one in LOVE – “charity”.
    Read the WHOLE poem. This is NOT Adventism in North America as it works now.

PS: This plan can either keep Regional Conferences or change them and “White” Conferences into something else.

(Elaine Nelson) #8

There is also a wonderful hymn: “In Christ there is no east nor west, no north or south…”

(efcee) #9

Here is an interesting and on-topic 2009 doctoral dissertation by Alphonso Greene Jr. (professor of history at Oakwood University) detailing the history of regional conferences in the SDA church and comparing that with the history of Black Conferences in the Methodist church:


Especially interesting is his conclusion that the SDA pluralistic (i.e., “regional conferences”) approach proved to be superior (citing church growth statistics and financial issues) than the Methodist approach which was more of an “assimilation” concept.

(Geoffrey Marshall) #10

I endorse this article 100%.

(Elmer Cupino) #11

Among many other things.

And the GC will have to have strong leadership to owe up to their responsibilities. I don’t see that happening with the current GC officers we have right now, whose agenda includes “spiritual polarization,” for lack of better words.

(Bille) #12

Fantastic document, efcee. Thank you so much for posting the link to it. Obviously I haven’t read the whole thing in this short time, but I did read quickly through the sections on retirement plans. He answered a LOT of questions I had had ever since the historical change in Regional retirement plans was made… and it answers a lot of questions that have come up here as well.

Thanks again.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #13

those who don’t know history are bound to repeat it now knowing the history, how shall we then plan our future. It seems this essay suggests, and I agree. the first step would be to consult the aggrieved party if such is the case. certainly egregious in the case of the Methodists. More patronizing in the case of Adventism. A mind set that seems to persist. Seems the invitation should be in the tone of --“Come let us reason together!” here is a case where the sins of the fathers has set the children’s teeth on edge. Tom Z


That change is spiritual. It is in the renewed mind. Not a union.

(Jesse Andrews) #15

Dr. Hines, as a researcher, do you know of recent polls of members of Black conferences that provide data on how this community feels now with breakdown stratification for demographics?

(2nd Opinion) #17

Jason, thank you for this article–it’s spot on. The fact that a White, senior leader in our church has so greatly misunderstood and misjudged the history and present circumstances of Black Adventism tells me that–on the whole–we continue to have a deep-seated problem among White Adventists. Quite simply, we don’t see the racial problem as a White problem. The segregation in the North American church falls squarely on White shoulders, yet we have refused to own that legacy. When Whites do address it (as Pastor Nelson has done twice now) it is often with overtones of placing responsibility on those we have marginalized and oppressed. As a White person, I say that this has to end. It is time for White leaders in this church to educate themselves on their own whiteness, to understand it as the social and hegemonic construct that it is, and to undertake a work to overcome it through humility, repentance and sacrifice. And, yes, I have used the word “White” frequently in this post, as I think you have, unwittingly, said very little about it in your article. And that is the exactly the problem with whiteness. It has become naturalized to the extent that it is invisible and therefore unimpeachable in the eyes of those who share its privileges.

(Phillip Brantley) #18

As a young boy in the 1970s, I listened to C Raymond Holmes preach every Sabbath in the white church my family attended that is located in the black slums of Benton Harbor, Michigan. I did not know at the time that he was and is one of the greatest homilists in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, although I did notice the non-SDAs who attended church just to hear him preach. It is not an exaggeration to say that the members of that church were in a mostly-benign way racists. I can understand why of the few snippets from the sermons of Dr. Holmes that I still remember, the most vivid are the words of praise he offered one Sabbath morning for Martin Luther King, Jr. Until then, I never knew that Dr. King could be praised in that way in such a setting. Those words of praise for Dr. King helped facilitate my reception of what the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart.

What most people do not understand is that the great goal of a preacher, as the homilist that he or she should be, is to speak words that best facilitate what the congregant needs to hear from the Holy Spirit. The most important message is not what the preacher says but what the Holy Spirit communicates to each of us. What the Holy Spirit says to you may be entirely different from what He says to me. There have been occasions when I have felt convicted of a message that does not seem to be related in any way to what the preacher said!

I think that this heartfelt critique penned by Jason Hines suffers from a fundamental misunderstanding of what a sermon is supposed to be. A regaling of the racial sins of the past may not move me to action if I am not responsible for those sins. A regaling of present social injustices may not move me to action if I am not responsible for those social injustices. Instead, I may actually feel pretty good about myself. Dr. Nelson preached his sermon to a modern, highly-educated congregation at one of the most internationally-diverse universities in the world. What better way could there possibly be to prick the conscience and impress upon everyone that we are not what we think we are than to shine a spotlight on the corporate guilt and shame we all bear as members of a racially-segregated church? I understand that Mr. Hines would have rather heard a different sermon. I suggest that the best sermon is not the sermon that we want to hear but the sermon that we need to hear. It is incumbent upon Mr. Hines and the rest of us to figure out a way to abolish racial segregation in the Church.


Hello Phillip, I highly enjoyed reading your comment, as with a few others here. I wanted to upload Pr. Dwight’s sermon on YouTube; it doesn’t seem to exist there, no one, so far, seems to believe it should be put up, or cares to put it up. And after reading this article and a few comments I wasn’t sure if I should upload it either. However, after reading your comment that has now changed. Thank you.

(Harry Allen) #20

Thanks, Jason Hines.

Very well said. Better said than any other response on this issue, here, thus far.

The discussion the good-intentioned Pastor Nelson is, again, trying to engender is absurd, at its basis.

Certain white Adventists are, now, ashamed of regional conferences, because, in this “post-racial” era, they hang there, embarrassingly, like an extra nipple.

Meanwhile, we live in a time when “the lamb with two horns” can elect a Black president, but The Remnant Church®, one made mostly of non-white people—albeit with white power concentrated at the top—can’t.

Regional conferences were created because white and Black Adventists had separate needs. White people needed to preserve white supremacy. Black people sought to eliminate it. Those needs still exist. This is clear to Black people, but, it seems, it is less clear to white Adventists.

If Pastor Nelson wants regional conferences to end, he should act to make sure that white conferences offer Black Adventists “a better deal” than they would get in the regional context. Do so, and these aberrations would cease to exist like colored bathrooms.

Anything short of this is mere artifice. Mere artifice, as opposed to mere Christianity, is what got us here in the first place.


(Harry Allen) #21

Thanks, phil.

However, given the mysterious way that the Holy Spirit operates, and that you so carefully outline, above, doesn’t that mean:

a) The Spirit is not dependent, in any way, on homily, or homilists, and

b) The Spirit could, very well, move a pastor to give exactly the sermon that Jason Hines describes, for the purposes He deems, or for other ones?