The debate in the United States over reparations to African Americans, for their enslavement for some 200 years and subsequent civic repression to the present in this country, has been percolating since emancipation in 1865 and the broken promise of “40 acres and a mule” for newly freed people. Indeed, one may say that America has been battling over the idea of reparations in the half-century long struggle over affirmative action, which is embedded in the question of reparations.
Currently, among the 25 candidates vying for the Democratic candidacy for the 2020 U.S. presidential election, reparations has again become a hot issue, as ADOS (African Descendants of Slavery) demand to know the candidates’ agenda for black people, arguing that the candidates have agendas for other constituencies, so they should have one for blacks, as well. The agenda that many from ADOS are calling for is one of reparations. One candidate, Marianne Williamson, has promised a monetary figure for black reparations: $200-$500 billion.
Ellen G. White, cofounder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and one who holds a prophetic capacity for the church’s 22 million members, had a lot to say about reparations to African Americans. This is fitting, for her life (1827-1915) spanned from slavery, to the Civil War, to emancipation, to Reconstruction, to Radical Reconstruction, and then to Jim and Jane Crow. Therefore, anything she wrote about reparations would be much closer to, and during, the time of the injury to blacks for which we are now debating if they should be remunerated.
Below is a sampling of White’s statements on reparations for black Americans. Let it be acknowledged up front that the quotations are at a significant remove from today, 2019. Further, White wrote to fellow Adventists about their personal responsibility to blacks; as a spiritual leader, White was mostly concerned with what would be called missional repayment for the wrongs of slavery. But it would be a narrow reading to surmise that White was only supportive of a missional repayment on a national level. Whatever the case, is it not a good practice to see what Ellen White said about such a vital issue, whatever her immediate context? Can larger principles be gleaned?
This article is meant to start a conversation about what Ellen White meant by her statements on reparations and how we, as Seventh-day Adventists, and as a nation, should respond to the issue today. If these quotations have been selected in bias, I invite the reader to share other selections in the comment section of this article or on social media.
Disclaimer: Unfortunately, this article cannot include the full letter, article, manuscript, testimony, or sermon from which the excerpts came. The full context of these passages can be studied here (https://egwwritings.org/). Simply copy and paste a few of the words in the search box and you should be able to select the quote. I have resisted putting headings above the quotes for fear of personal bias.
“The Sins of Babylon” (1858)
“All heaven beholds with indignation, human beings, the workmanship of God, reduced to the lowest depths of degradation, and placed on a level with the brute creation by their fellow men. And professed followers of that dear Saviour whose compassion was ever moved as he witnessed human woe, heartily engage in this enormous and grievous sin, and deal in slaves and souls of men. Angels have recorded it all. It is written in the book. The tears of the pious bond-men and bond-women, of fathers, mothers and children, brothers and sisters, are all bottled up in heaven. Agony, human agony, is carried from place to place, and bought and sold. God will restrain his anger but a little longer. His anger burns against this nation, and especially against the religious bodies who have sanctioned, and have themselves engaged in this terrible merchandise. Such injustice, such oppression, such sufferings, many professed followers of the meek and lowly Jesus can witness with heartless indifference. And many of them can inflict with hateful satisfaction, all this indescribable agony themselves, and yet dare to worship God. It is solemn mockery, and Satan exults over it, and reproaches Jesus and his angels with such inconsistency, saying, with hellish triumph, Such are Christ's followers!
“These professed christians read of the sufferings of the martyrs, and tears course down their cheeks. They wonder that men could ever possess hearts so hardened as to practice such inhuman cruelties towards their fellow-men, while at the same time they hold their fellow-men in slavery. And this is not all. They sever the ties of nature, and cruelly oppress from day to day their fellow-men. They can inflict most inhuman tortures with relentless cruelty, which would well compare with the cruelty papists and heathens exercised towards Christ's followers. Said the angel, It will be more tolerable for the heathen and for papists in the day of the execution of God's judgment than for such men. The cries and sufferings of the oppressed have reached unto heaven, and angels stand amazed at the hard-hearted, untold, agonizing, suffering, man in the image of his Maker, causes his fellow-man. Said the angel, The names of such are written in blood, crossed with stripes, and flooded with agonizing, burning tears of suffering. God's anger will not cease until he has caused the land of light to drink the dregs of the cup of his fury, and until he has rewarded unto Babylon double. Reward her even as she rewarded you, double unto her double according to her works: in the cup which she hath filled, fill to her double.
“I saw that the slave-master would have to answer for the soul of his slave whom he has kept in ignorance; and all the sins of the slave will be visited upon the master. God cannot take the slave to heaven, who has been kept in ignorance and degradation, knowing nothing of God, or the Bible, fearing nothing but his master's lash, and not holding so elevated a position as his master's brute beasts. But he does the best thing for him that a compassionate God can do. He lets him be as though he had not been; while the master has to suffer the seven last plagues, and then come up in the second resurrection, and suffer the second, most awful death. Then the wrath of God will be appeased.”
-Spiritual Gifts, vol. 1, 189-193
“Our Duty to the Colored People” (1891)
“God cares no less for the souls of the African race that might be won to serve Him than He cared for Israel. He requires far more of His people than they have given Him in missionary work among the people of the South of all classes, and especially among the colored race. Are we not under even greater obligation to labor for the colored people than for those who have been more highly favored? Who is it that held these people in servitude? Who kept them in ignorance, and pursued a course to debase and brutalize them, forcing them to disregard the laws of marriage, breaking up the family relation, tearing wife from husband and husband from wife? If the race is degraded, if they are repulsive in habits and manners, who made them so? Is there not much due to them from the white people? After so great a wrong has been done them, should not an earnest effort be made to lift them up. The truth must be carried to them. They have souls to save as well as we.”
-Manuscript 6, 1891
“An Example in History” (1895)
“The neglect of the colored race by the American nation is charged against them. Those who claim to be Christians have a work to do in teaching them to read, and to follow various trades and engage in different business enterprises. Many among this race have noble traits of character and keen perception of mind. If they had an opportunity to develop, they would stand upon an equality with the whites.”
-Adventist Review, December 17, 1895
“An Example in History” (1895)
“The land of Egypt was nearly desolated to bring freedom to the children of Israel; the Southern States were nearly ruined to bring freedom to the colored race. For three years war was carried on, and many lives were sacrificed, and there is mourning today because of broken family circles. Unspeakable outrages have been committed against the colored race. They had lived on through years of bondage with no hope of deliverance, and there stretched out before them a dark and dismal future. They thought that it was their lot to live on under cruel oppression, to yield their bodies and souls to the dominance of man. After their deliverance from captivity, how earnestly should every Christian have co-operated with heavenly intelligences who were working for the deliverance of the downtrodden race. We should have sent missionaries into this field to teach the ignorant. We should have issued books in so simple a style that a child might have understood them, for many of them are only children in understanding. Pictures and object lessons should have been used to present to the mind valuable ideas. Children and youth should have been educated in such a way that they could have been instructors and missionaries to their parents.”
-Adventist Review, December 17, 1895
“Spirit and Life for the Colored People” (1896)
“Those who love Christ will do the works of Christ. They will go forth to seek and to save that which was lost. They will not shun those who are despised, and turn aside from the colored race. They will teach them how to read and how to perform manual labor, educating them to till the soil and to follow trades of various kinds. They will put forth painstaking efforts to develop the capabilities of the people. The cotton field will not be the only resource for a livelihood to the colored people. There will be awakened in them the thought that they are of value with God, and that they are esteemed as his property. The work pointed out is a most needful missionary enterprise. It is the best restitution that can be made to those who have been robbed of their time and deprived of their education.”
-Adventist Review, January 14, 1896
“Am I My Brother’s Keeper” (1896)
“The law of God contained in the ten commandments reveals to man his duty to love God supremely and his neighbor as himself. The American nation owes a debt of love to the colored race, and God has ordained that they should make restitution for the wrong they have done them in the past. Those who have taken no active part in enforcing slavery upon the colored people are not relieved from the responsibility of making special efforts to remove, as far as possible, the sure result of their enslavement.”
-Adventist Review, January 21, 1896
“Am I My Brother’s Keeper” (1896)
“When the duty of bringing the gospel to the colored race is presented, many make the plea that association with the colored people will contaminate society. But this very plea is evidence that means should be instituted to remove from this race the degradation that has been brought upon them. As a people, we should no longer say by our attitude, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We should arouse ourselves to do justly, to love mercy. We should make manifest by our actions that we have the faith for which the saints are to contend. We should go forth to seek the oppressed, to lift up the fallen, and to bring help to those who need our assistance. We should remember that many among the colored people who have been entrusted with God-given ability, who had intellectual capabilities far superior to those of the masters who claimed them as their property, were forced to endure every indignity, and their souls groaned under the most cruel and unjust oppression. They were ambitious to obtain their freedom, and sought in every possible way to obtain it. At times their deferred hope caused them to flash out with indignation, and they were forced to suffer such fearful punishments that their courage was broken, and to all outward appearances their spirits were subdued. But others planned for years, and finally were successful in gaining their freedom. Many of these have filled positions of trust, and have demonstrated the fact that the colored race is capable of cultivation and improvement. As a people claiming to be proclaiming the last message of mercy to the world, we cannot consistently neglect the Southern field; for it is a portion of God’s moral vineyard. It is not our place to study consequences; but we are to go to the field and labor for the colored people as earnestly as for the white people, and leave results with God. It is our part to work with all our God-given capabilities to redeem the time that we have wasted in planning how to avoid unhappy results in working the Southern fields.”
-Adventist Review, January 21, 1896
“Volunteers Wanted for the Southern Field” (1896)
“There are thousands who are capable of instruction, cultivation, and elevation. With proper, persevering labor, many who have been considered hopeless cases will become educators of their race. The colored people deserve much more from the hands of the white people than they have received. The colored people may be compared to a mine that is to be worked, in which is valuable ore of most precious material. Christ has given these people souls capable of winning and enjoying immortal life in the kingdom of God. One tenth of the advantages that their more favored brethren have received and failed to improve, would cause them to become mediums of light through which the brightness of the righteousness of Christ might shine forth. Who will enlist in this work, and willingly teach the ignorant what saith the word of God? Who will engage in the work of quickening the mental faculties into sensibility, of uplifting those who are downtrodden? Can we not show that we are willing to try to repair, as far as possible, the injury that has been done to them in the past? Shall not missionaries be multiplied? Shall we hear of volunteers, who are willing to go into the field to bring souls out of darkness and ignorance into the marvelous light in which we rejoiced, that they also may see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ?”
-Adventist Review, February 4, 1896
Letter to Pacific Press employees (1899)
“The terribly neglected condition of the colored people in the South is charged by God upon those in America who have been given light by God regarding the great necessities of that field, and yet have done so little to relieve that situation. No people have suffered such great oppression as the colored people in the South. None have through the treatment received been brought into such degradation. And for no people has so little been done to uplift. They have not been taught to read that they might know the Word of God. This field stands forth to witness against those who have had the light of truth, who have had their duty plainly presented to them, but who have neglected to do what should have been done.”
-Letter 98, 1899
Letter to Frank E. Belden (1899)
“As a nation we have been guilty of a great wrong. In the judgment the charge of neglect will fall with heavy weight upon those who claim to be Christians, but we have left millions of people, men, women, and children, to become more and more depraved. In comparison with the great need there has been very little outlay of means to improve them by teaching them the knowledge of God. After being deprived of their rights, and for generations treated like cattle, they have been deprived of the means of bettering their condition. Virtually they have been left in heathenism, when they might have been helped to educate and elevate themselves. Their color has closed to them almost every possible avenue to improvement. There have been exceptions, but as a people they have received little labor, and have had little inducement to mental or moral improvement. God will soon take this matter in hand. He will judge the nation for their neglect and abuse of His creatures.”
-Letter 165, 1899
Letter to “Brethren in Positions of Responsibility” (1901)
“Let those in responsible positions think of the past chapters in the experience of those who have robbed the Southern field and never, never repeat this experience. Let them rather make restitution, restoring fourfold to the Southern field. Let them do this heartily, as a mistake that must be remedied. Let them not multiply robbery toward a people already robbed and trodden underfoot of men.”
-Letter 6, 1901
Letter to I.H. Evans (1901)
“I am instructed to keep the Southern field before you, that for your own good you may make ample restitution to this field. False representations have been made regarding the work done in the South. Men have not had sufficient interest in the work to go to the field and make a disinterested examination. Think of the prevarication which has been shown, the schemes which have been entered upon to get control of that which the Lord created to help the Southern field. The past course has been crooked. Wrong methods have been followed. But the errors of the past are unconfessed and unrepented of. Men have in their own minds justified the course that was then taken. They have viewed things from beginning to end in an altogether false light; and from the present showing, the same course will be followed in the future.
“The Lord will accept no excuse for the past neglect of the Southern field. Restitution has not yet been made in full to this field. The reproach is not yet wiped out. Christ has been wronged in the person of His saints. God has been robbed of the revenue with which He desired to open the work in the South. And this miserably selfish work will be repeated, as surely as it has been done in the past, unless it is seen in a true light.”
-Letter 74, 1901
“In the Southern Field” (1902)
“The Lord desires the desert places of the South, where the outlook appears so forbidding, to become as the garden of God. Let our people arouse and redeem the past. The obligation to work for the colored people rests heavily upon us. Shall we not try to repair, as far as lies in our power, the injury that in the past has been done to these people? Shall not the number of missionaries to the South be multiplied? Shall we not hear of many volunteers who are ready to enter this field to bring souls out of darkness and ignorance into the marvelous light in which we rejoice? God will pour out His Spirit upon those who respond to His call. In the strength of Christ they may do a work that will fill heaven with rejoicing.”
-Testimonies, vol. 7, 230
Letter to Cassuis Boone and Ella Hughes (1903)
“The Lord would have His people who love Him to know [that] the converted colored men and women who love God and try to do His will are His property, of as much value in His sight as the white who have not endured the same embarrassments that the colored race have, however educated and talented they may be. Let the white people who ignore the color of the skin be sure to show their appreciation of the same by making their own peace [and] gratitude offerings to God, and by teaching those who are not so highly favored that they will help, that they will restore to them as far as they can what has been lost through the years of privation and slavery.”
-Letter 304, 1903
“Nashville as a Center” (1903)
“You say that the colored people are depraved and wicked, that their standard of morality is very low. Who made them wicked? Who spoiled their morals? I want you to think of this and of the burden that rests upon the white people to help the colored people.”
-Manuscript 38, 1903
A Sermon to Adventists at a Church in Los Angeles, California (1905)
“We want you to save your means that you devote to ruining yourselves, and send it where we can labor for the colored people in America, for they are a legacy to every person that is in America. And means are needed to establish schools to educate and train the colored people to work for the colored people.”
-Manuscript 192, 1905
“The Support of God’s Work” (1906)
“What I have said in the past should be repeated. The colored people deserve more from the hands of the white people than they have received. There are thousands who have minds capable of cultivation and uplifting. With proper labor, many who have been looked upon as hopeless will become educators of their race. Let our people arouse, and redeem the past. The obligation to work for the colored people rests heavily upon us. Shall we not try to repair, as far as lies in our power, the injury that in the past has been done these people? Shall not the number of missionaries in the South be multiplied? This field lies at our very doors, and in it there is a great work to be done for the Master. This work must be done now, while the angels continue to hold the four winds. There is no time to lose.”
-Atlantic Union Gleaner, September 25, 1906
Image courtesy of the author.
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