Proclaiming the gospel and changing society

What two unsung pioneers of African American Adventism can teach us about changing the church and reaching the world.

Douglas Morgan, PhD, is professor of history and political studies, Washington Adventist University, Takoma Park, Maryland, United States.

 

The Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, had a guest speaker for its Sunday evening service on March 30, 1930. Under the leadership of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., the church had become Harlem’s best-known church. The guest preacher, Matthew C. Strachan, after six years of ministry in the city, had accepted a new position in Nashville, Tennessee, and Powell requested he preach his final sermon in New York at Abyssinian. Strachan, indeed, had already delivered a farewell message to his own congregation, Second Harlem Seventh-day Adventist Church, the day before. However, his homiletic finale at Abyssinian Baptist, with 200 of his members accompanying him, was fitting for a pastorate that “covered a wide variety of community service,” according to a front-page report in the New York Age newspaper.1

Twenty-five years earlier, in Washington, D.C., the Bethel Literary and Historical Society’s second meeting of the 1904–1905 season featured a lecture on “The Rise and Fall of Nations in the Light of Scripture.” The society, which met in the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church known as the “national cathedral of African Methodism,” was “the center of black intellectual life in the capital” from the 1880s to the 1920s.2 The speaker, Lewis C. Sheafe, pastor of the People’s Seventh-day Adventist Church, had become well-known in the city through evangelistic meetings begun in the summer of 1902 that attracted racially mixed, standing-room-only crowds numbering in the thousands.

For Sheafe, it was a return engagement at the Bethel Literary. W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington had both been among the speakers since Sheafe’s earlier appearance when his topic had been the “Christian Sabbath.” This time, he “endeavored to trace the prophecies concerning the leading nations of the world,” including America and the prophecy showing “how it pretended to stand for liberty and equality, but at the same time pampered oppression.”3

These vignettes point to the remarkable success Strachan and Sheafe experienced in bringing the Adventist message to the great cities that not only set the pace for American society as a whole, but also held particular importance for African American culture. Though largely forgotten today, their stories shed light on how Adventism’s message of hope for a new world brought the transforming power of the gospel to bear on societies in which it was proclaimed.

How did they do it? Imperfect men, subject to the limitations of their times and circumstances, obscured by a sketchy historical record, did not provide neat, comprehensive formulas. But they may surprise us with the ways they transcended dichotomies that sometimes inhibit and narrow the church’s witness, such as the personal gospel of individual salvation versus the “social gospel” of public activism, and the separating, end-time prophetic message versus interfaith cooperation. And when it comes to the matter of bringing about reform within the church, their experiences help us weigh the classic options of demanding immediate change through radical confrontation versus working for gradual change through diplomacy and compromise.

Sheafe’s ministry

After graduating from Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C., in 1888, Lewis Sheafe started out pastoring Baptist congregations in Minnesota and Ohio, garnering acclaim for exceptional eloquence as a pulpit orator.4 Also in frequent demand as a speaker for civic occasions, he became a forceful advocate for racial justice at a time when conditions for black Americans, after a brief period of hopeful change following the Civil War, were taking a sharp turn for the worse.

In 1895, for example, he stirred controversy with a blistering denunciation of the nation and, more specifically, the Republican Party, for the post-Emancipation betrayal of African Americans. The radical disillusionment with the American political order he expressed may help explain a rather surprising development: less than a year after another sermon he delivered, we find the “eminent Baptist divine” and fiery civil rights orator in the pulpit of Battle Creek Tabernacle, making his debut as a Seventh-day Adventist preacher. In Adventism, Sheafe found a convincing message of biblical truth that was at the same time a promising alternative to politics-as-usual for racial advancement.5

When he became convinced by “present truth,” Sheafe wrote to Ellen White, “My heart leaped for joy as I thought o f the possible help to come to my people through the third angel’s message.”6 At the General Conference of 1899, Sheafe rose to “heartily indorse” a motion to establish a medical missionary training school in the South. He appealed to the church to live up to its principles and move forward with a program ideally suited for confronting the poverty, ignorance, and disease so prevalent among the 90 percent of “his people” who dwelt in the South with the transforming power of its holistic gospel. He believed “that Seventh-day Adventists have a truth which, if they will let it get a hold of them, can do more in this field to demonstrate the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ than can any other people. The one thing needful, is that the truth shall get hold of the individuals who profess to know it.”7

Thus, in Adventism, Lewis Sheafe found both a better hope and more practical help for his people during the very decade in which became unmistakably clear that America was not going to fulfill its promises to them.8

Yet his ministry in Washington, D.C., which began in 1902, shows that this change in no way meant a withdrawal from societal concerns to issue shrill denunciations from the comfort of splendid isolation. There, in the nation’s capital city and the center both of black America’s elite and its largest urban mass population, Sheafe became, at the same time, an emphatically Adventist evangelist, preaching the “full message” to large audiences, and a respected, if at times a controversial, figure in the public arena.

His evangelistic success, not surprisingly, drew opposition from ministers of other denominations. The Washington Bee, one of the city’s two African American newspapers, observed that “Negro ministers abuse him especially the Baptist [sic] but they do not dare to answer his argument, many of them have attempted but failed.”9 One who tried was Francis J. Grimké, pastor of the prestigious Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church for decades and, according to biographer Mark Perry, “the most influential minister in the city.”10

Yet, just weeks later, a committee, including several of the city’s most influential black ministers and chaired by Grimké, chose Sheafe as the clergy representative to speak at a special city-wide fortieth anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1903. The Washington Post, in giving a rundown of the dignitaries on the program, described Sheafe simply as “the well-known evangelist,” testament in brief to his impact after only six months in the city.11

A minister with tact and skill

Ellen White later observed that the Lord had equipped Sheafe with “tact” as well as “skill in knowledge” for proclaiming the “the last message of mercy” to the nation’s capital. 12 While we might wish for more detail on exactly how he went about it, Sheafe gave evidence of those gifts by sharing the prophetic message in a forthright, compelling way, without burning bridges of cooperation with leaders of other faiths. In this way he kept open the possibility of joint action in causes of justice and mercy, thereby also sustaining a winsome influence on behalf of Adventism that could, in due time, bear fruit in a variety of ways.

Meanwhile, his evangelistic preaching led to scores of new members, including several white people, at the “mixed race” First Seventh-day Adventist Church.13 Though renowned for eloquence, the power of Sheafe’s preaching came not from theatrics or flowery rhetoric but from its thoroughly biblical, Christ-centered content and his facility in using simple language to convey basic, straightforward points in striking and memorable ways. Thus, his meetings brought spiritual revival, awakening “this sated city, among both the whites and blacks, to the impulses of a higher and truer Christian life,” according to one newspaper account. He also made his messages practical, not confining himself to narrowly religious topics or doctrinal theory, but addressing “all the intricate and oft elusive questions of the day.”14

In December 1903, with the encouragement of General Conference President A. G. Daniells, Sheafe organized another Adventist congregation in Washington—the People’s Seventh-day Adventist Church. Its initial membership of 51 grew to 130 in little more than a year. While inclusive of all people as a core principle, the People’s Church was predominantly black—one of the first African American Adventist congregations to be established in a large city.15

All too quickly, however, the Adventist Church’s accommodation to the surge of racism in America began wreaking intolerable havoc with Sheafe’s aspirations for it as a vehicle of racial redemption. Though they did not seek or prefer it, Sheafe and his congregation were willing to accept the expedient of racially separate churches and institutions in places where segregation was deeply entrenched, in order that the Adventist message might gain a foothold among both the white and black populations.

What they found much more difficult to accept was the appropriation of large sums of money to build segregated institutions for education and health care near the new General Conference headquarters in Takoma Park, with nothing more than imprecise and repeatedly deferred promises of future action when it came to development of parallel institutions for blacks in Washington. As full participants in the denomination’s centralized financial system, they were giving their tithes and offerings to build up an organization whose flagship institutions excluded them, without even second-rate alternatives yet on hand. Despairing of change through regular procedures, Sheafe and the People’s Church confronted the General Conference Committee with a petition in February 1906. Finding little encouragement from the response they received, the People’s Church declared independence from conference organization in 1907 while maintaining their claim on Seventh-day Adventist identity.16

Matthew Strachan enters

At this point the careers of Lewis Sheafe and Matthew Strachan intersected. Educated at Fisk University and Battle Creek College, Strachan stood at the forefront of an emerging corps of young black preachers in the Southern Union Conference when he accepted the unenviable assignment of raising a “loyal” black congregation in Washington to counter Sheafe’s independence movement. Cautious and circumspect, where Sheafe was confrontational and daring, a “manuscript preacher” who was no match for Sheafe when it came to pulpit charisma, Strachan nonetheless possessed keen leadership sensibilities and pursued his strategies with methodical persistence.

In contrast to Sheafe, Strachan made loyalty to the denomination’s organizational authority a bedrock commitment that would not be shaken by the church’s shortcomings or setbacks in implementing its ideals of racial equality. Grounded in that commitment, he took a gradual approach to closing the gap between the denomination’s practice and principles, using loyalty as a lever toward achieving essentially the same changes that Sheafe demanded.

Thus, even as he painstakingly built up a small congregation, Strachan drafted an appeal to denominational leadership that, in unflinching terms, called for an end to the “painful contrast” between resources devoted to educational and health institutions for relatively privileged whites, versus blacks, whose needs in these areas were so desperate. Change, he declared, would be the price if the denomination wanted to see loyal black membership thrive and not fuel the discontents that drove Sheafe’s dissident movement.17

Strachan’s appeals to church leadership made a significant contribution to the formation of the North American Negro Department at the General Conference Session of 1909.18 Though weakened by serious flaws in its early years, the department was an important landmark in the gradual advance of the black Adventist cause. The crisis atmosphere ensuing from Sheafe’s confrontational tactics in 1907 created pressure for something to be done. Strachan’s unrelenting diplomacy, from the standpoint of loyalty, helped bring tangible change into reality. After a year and a half of labor in Washington, Strachan left a congregation of 32 members, which, along with a portion of Sheafe’s larger congregation, became, in 1918, the sources of the new Ephesus Church in Washington, renamed Dupont Park after relocating in the 1960s.

Strachan’s call to New York in 1924 came under circumstances more positive than those of the call to Washington in 1907, though still fraught with volatile potential. Adventism thrived, along with Harlem, as black migration into the city proliferated during and after World War I. The church pastored by J. K. Humphrey outgrew its building, with membership surpassing 600, and conference officials called Strachan to organize a second one—Harlem No. 2. Beginning with 80, the congregation grew to more than 250 active members during Strachan’s six-year tenure. Not long after his departure, the church took the name “Ephesus.”

In New York, Strachan combined uncompromising presentation of Adventism’s distinctive teachings, including rigorous apocalyptic critique of American culture, with broadranging social ministry.19 Unsparing in decrying the deep ills of society, he led his congregation, often in cooperation with those of other faiths, in direct action to heal them.

By taking on the roles of “social worker” in the municipal court system and chaplain for the black inmates in the Women’s Prison on Welfare Island (now called Roosevelt Island), Strachan brought practical help to those entangled in the consequences of crime, vice, and poverty. He served on a New York Urban League committee that developed a multifaceted program for reduction of crime and delinquency among black youth. He was prominent in the leadership of the Clio Welfare and Community Centre, serving as chair of the finance committee.20 The Girls and Boys Rescue League, which he founded in 1929, was Second Harlem’s own initiative in welfare ministry, albeit conducted in conjunction with other churches and public agencies. The league adopted the two-pronged strategy of working with the juvenile courts to “save girls and boys from sentences in the reformatory and workhouse” and provide an alternative residence with a program better suited for their uplift. Strachan left for his new post in the Southern Union before the home could be established, but he built a strong organizational foundation and made a substantial start in raising funds.21

Additionally, Strachan was not only an active participant but also a leader of interdenominational endeavors in Harlem. He seemed to have enjoyed particularly close working relationships with Powell at Abyssinian Baptist and with another of Harlem’s most influential ministers, Rev. Dr. William Lloyd Imes, of St. James’ Presbyterian Church.22 During the summer of 1929, the Interdenominational Ministers’ Meeting and Harlem League of the Greater New York Federation of Churches called upon Strachan to serve as acting chair of its executive committee. This responsibility thrust Strachan into the thick of the struggle for black equality in political representation.23

His duties as acting chairman that summer also included paying tribute, on behalf of the ministers, to Congressman and mayoral candidate Fiorello H. LaGuardia at a meeting of the Bethel Young People’s Lyceum on July 25, attended by an audience of 600. After LaGuardia “hit right and left at discrimination and racial hatred,” Strachan joined representatives of other civic and professional groups in honoring him as “a champion of the rights of all the people.”24

M. C. Strachan was at the zenith of his work in Harlem when tensions between Humphrey and the white leadership exploded, creating the most severe crisis over race relations in the history of Adventism in America.25 Replicating the experience of Sheafe and the People’s Church more than two decades before, Humphrey and First Harlem separated from denominational organization but continued to espouse Adventist doctrines. Strachan remained ever the loyalist, but the perception was that he might not be forceful enough, particularly in dealing with the large West Indian sector of the population, to counter Humphrey’s influence. Strachan was called to coordinate the “Negro work,” in the Southern Union, and G. E. Peters was called to New York from his post as head of the North American Negro Department.

We can only speculate as to how Strachan’s social initiatives in Harlem might have further developed had he stayed longer. However, he by no means abandoned the public arena. After moving to Tampa in 1937 for the final assignment of his pastoral career, Strachan became president of the Tampa Negro Voter’s League and, from 1940 to 1947, president of the Tampa branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In his recently published book Seventh-day Adventists and the Civil Rights Movement, Samuel G. London, Jr., describes how the Tampa NAACP, with Strachan at the helm, pursued numerous legal cases to redress racial injustice, including an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save, from the electric chair, a young black man beaten by police into confessing the rape of a white woman.26

Crowning evidence of the recognition Strachan achieved as a skillful organizer in the struggle for racial justice came in 1943 when A. Philip Randolph, the nation’s foremost civil rights leader at that time, named the 68-year-old preacher to the ten-member national executive committee of the March on Washington movement.27 Randolph warned President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) of the descent of 100,000 representatives of the “black masses” on the nation’s capital to demand desegregation of the armed forces and equal employment opportunity for blacks in defense industries. When the threat of the march induced FDR to grant the latter demand, Randolph agreed to call off the event. Though an actual march became unnecessary at that point, the March on Washington movement had achieved one of the most significant advances toward racial justice in the nation’s history.28

Despite their obscurity today, Lewis C. Sheafe and Matthew C. Strachan were key figures in establishing the foundations of African American Adventism. They preached with prophetic clarity, calling people out of the present evil age and building them up in urban congregations shaped by a powerful sense of distinct Adventist identity and mission. At the same time, indeed as an essential component of that mission, they placed high priority on social action in cooperation with other religious and benevolent agencies. Their stories deepen our understanding of the Adventist movement’s failures with regard to race relations and highlight differing approaches to church reform. They also point us to the possibility of holistic mission that both anticipates and makes more believable the promise of a sooncoming day when God will make all things new.

Notes:

1 “Elder M.C. Strachan, 2nd Seventh Day Adventist Church, Promoted to General Office, Goes to Tennessee,” New York Age (29 March 1930): 1, 7.

2 Jacqueline M. Moore, Leading the Race: The Transformation of the Black Elite in the Nation’s Capitol, 1880-1920 (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1999), 66–69.

3 “Bethel Literary,” Washington Bee (15 Oct. 1904): 4.

4 While some specific references are provided in this essay, fuller documentation and further detail may be found in my biographical study Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2010).

5 Morgan, Lewis C. Sheafe, 104–111; “Editorial Notes,” Review and Herald (21 July 1896): 16.

6 Lewis C. Sheafe to Ellen G. White, 25 May 1899, Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, MD.

7 General Conference Bulletin (16 Feb. 1899): 5.

8 In the two decades or so following the Civil War, constitutional promises and progressive initiatives had stirred hope of progress toward racial justice, but in the 1890s it all gave way in the “national capitulation to racism” described by C. Vann Woodward in The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974).

9 “A Small Thing,” Washington Bee (29 Nov. 1902): 1.

10 Lift Up Thy Voice: The Grimké Family’s Journey From Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders (New York: Viking,
2001); sermon manuscript, “Exodus 20:8,” Francis J. Grimké Papers; Manuscript Division, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.

11 “Celebration of Lincoln’s Proclamation,” Washington Post (1 Jan. 1903): 3; “Date of Emancipation,” Washington Evening Star (2 Jan. 1903): 6.

12 Manuscript Releases 13 (Washington, DC: Ellen G. White Estate, 1990): 159.

13 Douglas Morgan, “ ‘They Preach a Political Gospel’: The Prophetic Witness of Washington, D.C.’s Earliest Seventhday Adventists,” Spectrum (Summer 2009), 31–36, includes a brief treatment of the early history of the First Seventhday Adventist Church in Washington, D.C.

14 Morgan, Lewis C. Sheafe, 202–207.

15 Sheafe’s own narrative of his ministry in Washington, 1902–1905, can be found in “People’s Seventh-day Adventist Church of Washington, D.C.,” Review and Herald (24 Aug. 1905): 15, 16. At least one other black Adventist church can also lay claim to have been founded in a large city prior to 1903—the church now known as Ephesus in New Orleans (1892). According to the 1900 U.S. Census, New Orleans had 287,104 residents to D.C.’s 278,718.

16 Morgan, Lewis C. Sheafe, 294–301, 304–311.

17 M.C. Strachan to General Conference Brethren, 26 Feb. 1907, General Conference Archives.

18 See “An Appeal in Behalf of the Work Among the Colored People,” May 1909, General Conference Archives.

19 Summaries of Strachan’s sermons regularly appeared in the New York Age and New York Amsterdam News, including a series of evangelistic sermons near the beginning of his tenure that presented Adventist understandings of apocalyptic prophecy in a straightforward manner. See, for example, the summary of his exposition of Revelation 12 and 13, in “Harlem 2nd S.D.A,” New York Amsterdam News (18 Mar. 1925): 10.

20 “Elder M.C. Strachan, 2nd Seventh Day Adventist Church”; “Select Court Worker for Women and Girls,” New York Amsterdam News (11 Sept. 1929): 11; “Clio Centre Notes,” New York Amsterdam News (19 Feb. 1930): 6.

21 “Churches of Harlem Form Organization to Aid Delinquent Youth,” New York Age (10 Aug. 1929): 2.

22 See, for example, “News of the Churches—St. James’ Church,” New York Amsterdam News (24 July 1929): 14. Also, St. James’ was one venue for Strachan’s fund-raising efforts referred to above.

23 “Interdenominational Ministers in Strong Resolutions Condemn the Dual Leadership Proposition,” New York Age (6 July 1929): 1; “Harlem Voters Swamp Alien Republican Leadership … ,” New York Age (21 Sept. 1929): 1.

24 “LaGuardia Talks to Bethel Lyceum,” New York Amsterdam News (31 July 1929): 2.

25 R. Clifford Jones, James K. Humphrey and the Sabbath-Day Adventists (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006).

26 Samuel G. London, Jr., Seventh-day Adventists and the Civil Rights Movement (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009), 102–104.

27 “March-On-Washington Committee Named,” Chicago Defender (1 May 1943): 6.

28 Paula F. Pfeffer, A. Philip Randolph: Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 47–50.


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Douglas Morgan, PhD, is professor of history and political studies, Washington Adventist University, Takoma Park, Maryland, United States.

April 2011

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