During the past few days, America and the world have shuddered in revulsion at the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia. This graphic and perverse eruption of racial hostility, one among many that our country has witnessed in recent times, forces to the surface a cluster of painful and unpalatable issues for Christians in general and Seventh-day Adventists in particular.
If nothing else, the tragedy in Virginia offers unmistakable proof that the sin and cultural poison that is racism has by no means been extinguished in what we Americans are pleased to call the Land of the Free. Speaking as the son of a World War II veteran who fought against Hitler’s Germany, it is particularly offensive for me to see Nazi flags and regalia on display in the streets of a beautiful and prominent American university town.
The late U.S. presidential historian Theodore White wrote of America as “the only peaceful multi-racial civilization in the world” (1). But sadly, both our history and our contemporary society demonstrate that the assimilation of different ethnic strains has been as challenging for the United States as it has been unique in the story of human society.
But without question the greatest scandal of all in the history of American race relations has been the failure of millions of Christians—though certainly not all—to understand and put into practice the Biblical summons to unqualified racial harmony. God’s remnant church, whatever faults in this respect our history or present conduct reveal, remains uniquely positioned—with its proclamation of the everlasting gospel to “every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6)—to redress wrongs of this nature and to model for humanity the divine ideal of racial togetherness.
As I watched the funeral of Heather Heyer on television, and the following candlelight vigil that same evening, I devoutly wished I could have been present. But in those moments of reconciliation and solidarity I heard a call to atonement which I believe only God’s end-time church—the great Advent movement of Bible prophecy—is able to answer successfully in both word and deed.
The Biblical Case for Racial Togetherness
First and foremost, I believe it is imperative, once and for all, to destroy any claim to Biblical credibility so far as the religious premises of racial intolerance and separation among professed Christians are concerned. Seventh-day Adventists have been known from the start of our history as the “people of the Book.” From the beginning of our movement we have stood fearlessly and without qualification against popular teachings in the Christian community which run counter to the Word of God.
Racism in any form is certainly one of these popular yet unscriptural teachings which both the history and present witness of mainstream Christianity tragically reveal. Let us turn to our Bibles and see what the Word of God truly states on this subject.
In the initial call of Abraham, God declared to the father of the faithful the universal ethnic and international reach of the Biblical message of mercy, blessing, and salvation: “And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). God repeated this promise to Abraham following his sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah: “And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because thou hast obeyed My voice” (Gen. 22:18). Later God gave this same promise to Jacob, in the vision of the ladder from earth to heaven at Bethel: “In thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 28:14).
Few passages in Holy Scripture, or in human language, could be more inclusive. Other Old Testament passages are equally clear that all nations were to be included in the blessings of the gospel:
For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward Him (II Chron. 16:9).
All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the Lord: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before Thee (Psalm 22:27).
And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious (Isa. 11:10).
Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else (Isa. 45:22).
And He said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be My salvation unto the end of the earth. . . .Behold, these shall come from far: and lo, these from the north and from the west; and these from the land of Sinim (Isa. 49:6,12).
Consider also what God through Isaiah says regarding His temple, that “Mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people” (Isa. 56:7). Many modern translations translate “all people” as “all nations” (e.g. NKJV,NIV,TEV,NEB,NLT). No racial segregation is envisioned here. It helps to remember that the “court of the Gentiles” was a feature of Herod’s later temple, not—so far as the Biblical record and history indicate—of the temple of Solomon which God Himself designed (I Chron. 28:11-19).
Other verses from Isaiah declare a similar promise:
And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising (Isa. 60:3).
And I will set a sign among them, and I will send those that escape of them unto the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, that draw the bow, to Tubal, and Javan, to the isles afar off, that have not heard My fame, neither have seen My glory; and they shall declare My glory among the Gentiles (Isa. 66:19).
Then, of course, there’s the story of Jonah’s mission to Nineveh (Jonah 1:2; 3:1-10), of the captive maid through whose witness General Naaman was healed of leprosy (II Kings 5), and similar examples. One is led to wonder, with all these Old Testament verses and stories, how there could have been any doubt in the minds of Jews during the New Testament period that God intended to show mercy and offer salvation to the Gentiles.
Ellen White makes the following statements about the nation of Israel during the time of Jesus and the apostles, which are truly remarkable in light of the Old Testament passages we have considered, with which the Jews should have been familiar:
The Jews looked upon Jerusalem as their heaven, and they were actually jealous lest the Lord should show mercy to the Gentiles (2).
Intent on maintaining the separation between themselves and other nations, they (the Jewish leaders) were unwilling to impart the knowledge they still possessed concerning the symbolic service (3).
Make no mistake about it. God had commanded that His people keep themselves separate from heathen worship, intermarriage with idolaters, and a whole lot more. Such verses as the following make this clear:
Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter shalt thou not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son (Deut. 7:3).
Now therefore make confession unto the Lord God of your fathers, and do His pleasure: and separate yourselves from the people of the land (Ezra 10:11).
But by the time of Jesus, the Jewish nation had misunderstood these divine commands as racial rather than religious. And they ignored the Old Testament command to spread the message of God’s truth and the coming Savior to the nations of the world.
Unfortunately, the early Christians appear to have ignored these commands as well, until God made it plain through the experience of Cornelius and others that the Christian community was designed to embrace all ethnic groups and races of humanity. Like the Jews who should have been studying their Old Testament, the early Christians in the first years after Pentecost had forgotten the experience and teachings of Christ Himself.
Old Simeon in the temple, immediately after Jesus’ birth, spoke of the Savior’s mission as “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel” (Luke 2:32). Jesus confirmed this universal nature of the gospel proclamation more than once during His ministry, as in His statement following the healing of the centurion’s servant at Capernaum: “And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11). Certainly the Savior’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well underscored this principle of ethnic inclusion (John 4:5-42).
And then we have the unmistakable clarity of the Great Commission:
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost (Matt. 28:19).
Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15).
When the apostle Peter finally came to understand this truth following his vision on the rooftop in Joppa, he declared: “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him” (Acts 10:34-35). The apostle Paul, in declaring to the Judaizers in Galatia the universal reach of the gospel, pointed his readers back to the original call of Abraham, which we cited earlier:
And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed (Gal. 3:8).
Notice how there is nothing in any of these passages about God showing mercy and salvation to everyone, but nevertheless keeping the races apart. Those in the southern United States and elsewhere in America, along with such groups as the white South Africans under the apartheid regime, could assemble no sound Biblical arguments for the separation or subjugation of any racial group, no matter how hard some of them tried. Sincere and fully persuaded of their cause though many of these misguided souls were, evidence from Scripture in support of their position was—and is—simply not there.
Some may be wondering, What about the argument so many racists have used from Genesis chapter 9, regarding the curse placed on Ham and Canaan and its alleged justification of the subjection by the white race of persons of African descent?
The passage in question, of course, is taken from the sad incident of Noah’s drunkenness after the Flood, and reads as follows:
And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant (Gen. 9:24-27).
Despite the insistence of certain ones, when we take the plain reading of this passage, permitting the Bible to explain itself (I Cor. 2:12-14), there is nothing whatsoever in these verses about persons of African heritage or black skin color. If we simply take the Bible as it reads, these verses are simply talking about the future conquest of Canaan’s descendants—the Canaanites---by the descendants of Shem (including the children of Israel), and the descendants of Japheth (e.g. the Philistines, Hittites, Persians, Greeks, Romans), nothing more.
Some people have tried to use the story of the dispersion at the Tower of Babel as proof that God doesn’t want the races to mix. Again, such a claim is totally without Biblical support. The scattering of the Babel builders was solely about frustrating the schemes of those who doubted God’s promise not to send another Flood, and who were inciting rebellion against His plan for the human race (Gen. 11:2-9). Nothing in this story, or elsewhere in the Bible, prohibits the mixing of the races. There is no Biblical command anywhere against racial integration. All the Biblical commands about separation concern believers and unbelievers (Deut. 7:3; I Kings 11:1-2; II Cor. 6:14-17), not persons of different ethnic or racial backgrounds. Nor can we overlook the fact that Rahab, the harlot of Jericho—a Canaanite, no less—married into the Davidic, Messianic line, as did Ruth the Moabitess (Matt. 1:5-6).
It should be clear from our survey of the Biblical evidence that no one can fabricate from Scripture a case for racial segregation, inferiority, or superiority while remaining true to the plain, self-explanatory reading of the written Word.
Race Relations in the Adventist Experience
It is quite beyond the scope of this essay to review at length the story of Adventist race relations, except to say that candor regarding our misdeeds and shortcomings is imperative if we are to right the wrongs of both past and present. Empathy, sensitive dialogue, and a healthy dose of listening will be necessary as we seek full reconciliation regarding this issue.
Ellen White’s testimony on the racial issue is as unambiguous as the testimony of Scripture. What is important for us to recognize in reading the statements of Ellen White and the Adventist pioneers regarding slavery, abolition, and race relations, is that the position taken by early Adventists on these issues was considered in its time to be radical extremism. How easy it is for so many of us, from our present harbor in history, to think of opposition to slavery and the open mistreatment of persons because of their race as a morally obvious principle of human decency. But it was not always so. And as recent events have tragically and painfully demonstrated, for many even today it is not so.
Consider the following words of Ellen White regarding the infamous Fugitive Slave Act, which required American citizens in all states and territories to return an escaping slave to his owner:
The law of our land requiring us to deliver a slave to his master, we are not to obey; and we must abide the consequences of violating this law. The slave is not the property of any man. God is his rightful master, and man has no right to take God’s workmanship into his hands, and claim him as his own (4).
Here’s another one:
Many Sabbath-keepers are not right before God in their political views. . . . These brethren cannot receive the approval of God while they lack sympathy for the oppressed colored race, and are at variance with the pure, republican principles of our Government (5).
It is thus not true to the facts to claim that Ellen White instructed our people, without qualification, to “stay out of politics,” or that none of our political beliefs make any difference to matters of spiritual faithfulness. In another statement Ellen White is clear which political issues we should avoid being public about in the church so far as our personal convictions are concerned:
Whatever the opinions you may entertain in regard to casting your vote in political questions, you are not to proclaim it by pen or voice. Our people need to be silent upon questions which have no relation to the third angel’s message (6).
Notice she is speaking here about “questions which have no relation to the third angel’s message.” Obviously, when one consults the totality of Ellen White’s counsel, this did not include such issues as slavery (7) or the prohibition of alcohol (8).
To be fair to ourselves regarding this issue, it should be acknowledged that whatever faults still need correcting in Seventh-day Adventist circles on the issue of race, one is heartened by such reports from the outside as the following from the Christian Post Recorder, regarding a survey conducted two years ago:
On a scale of 1 to 10, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in America is at a 9.1 when it comes to racial diversity and that number makes it the most diverse religious group in the United States, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.
In the new analysis looking at 29 religious groups including mainline Protestant denominations and others, the Pew Research Center measured the distribution of Hispanics, non-Hispanic whites, blacks, Asians as well as mixed-race Americans and concluded that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the most diverse of all. . . .
The church is so diverse, it had a higher diversity index than the U.S. itself (9).
Some years ago, a biography of Malcolm X, written by Jack Rummel, whom I’m sure is not an Adventist, described the Seventh-day Adventist Church (in which Malcolm was raised during his early years), as “one of the few mainly white religious groups that ignored America’s color line” (10).
Listen to the following statement from the late civil rights icon Dorothy Height, in her autobiography Open Wide the Freedom Gates. Here she recounts a civil rights meeting that she and her fellow activists organized in Tennessee during the 1940s:
After a while, Dr. Smith indicated that it was time to connect with Augusta Roberts, and the three of us proceeded to the Seventh Day Adventist college—one of the few local places that would allow an interracial meeting (11).
It helps to keep in mind that those were the days when holding an interracial gathering could result in the infliction of grisly violence on the part of those organizing or even attending such a meeting, along with deliberate indifference to such crimes on the part of local law enforcement. The fact that a local Adventist college was willing to host such a gathering during that time can only be described as an act of notable, even heroic courage.
So while it is true that Seventh-day Adventists still have a distance to go in achieving the full racial togetherness God desires of us, these observations from the outside give us cause for encouragement.
Conclusion: A Call to Atonement
The word “atonement” in the Bible means reconciliation—at-one-ment. This work, according to the apostle Paul, is central to the Christian agenda:
And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to Himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation (II Cor. 5:18).
It is imperative that persons of all races and ethnic traditions in the Seventh-day Adventist Church open their hearts and minds to one another, thus enabling the demolition of those lingering barriers which continue to keep us apart. Especially is such a course imperative among those of us who chance to be among history’s and society’s favored classes.
Because the message given to Seventh-day Adventists is uniquely dedicated to the full restoration of Bible truth and moral rectitude in the faith and lives of believers, our faith community holds an unparalleled potential to demonstrate before the world the racial oneness embodied in the Biblical message. The unity God seeks between every racial and ethnic heritage on earth is, as we have noted, depicted in the introduction to the three angels’ messages, in the summons of the everlasting gospel “to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6). There cannot be the slightest hint of racial injustice, hostility, or tension in such a movement.
Finally, we must hold before our people, our society, Christendom, and the world the promise of the closing verse in the messages of the three angels of Revelation 14:
Here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus (Rev. 14:12).
Commandment-keeping and racism are mutually exclusive, regardless of the sincerity of those who hold, and have held, racist views in professedly Christian circles. Racism remains one of the ugliest, most degrading, most despicable sins yet devised by humanity. Yet the most glorious promise of Holy Scripture—the most precious assurance made possible by the gospel, the blood, and the righteousness of our Lord Jesus Christ—is the promise of total victory, in this present life, over all and every sin.
The Bible declares: “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (II Cor. 7:1). Racial injustice is certainly part of the filthiness of the human spirit that God’s grace promises to purge out. Both Old and New Testaments promise the rise in the last days of a final, triumphant, victorious generation, arrayed in the spotless robe of our Savior’s practical, visible, sanctifying righteousness.
Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we should follow in His steps, Who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth (I Peter 2:21-22).
The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies, neither shall a deceitful tongue by found in their mouth; for they shall feed and lie down, and none shall make them afraid (Zeph. 3:13).
Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure (I John 3:2-3).
Wherefore, brethren, seeing that ye look for such things (Jesus’ return), be diligent that ye be found of Him in peace, without spot, and blameless (II Peter 3:14).
And returning to the words of the prophet Zephaniah, John the Revelator declares the following regarding God’s final generation of the faithful—the 144,000 who will be translated to heaven without seeing death:
And in their mouth was found no guile, for they are without fault before the throne of God (Rev. 14:5).
Every race, every ethnicity, every national heritage on earth will be represented in that group of triumphant saints. And as the modern prophet declares:
If you are to be saints in heaven, you must first be saints upon the earth (12).
1. Theodore H. White, Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon (New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1975), p. 323.
2. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 29.
3. Ibid, p. 33.
4. ----Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 202.
5. Ibid, pp. 533-534.
6. ----Selected Messages, vol. 2, p. 336.
7. ----Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 202,253-260,264-268,355-368,533-534.
8. ----Ministry of Healing, pp. 337-346; Selected Messages, vol. 2, p. 337.
9. Leonardo Blair, “The Seventh-Day Adventist Church is the Most Diverse Church Group in America, Says Study,” Christian Post Recorder, Aug. 4, 2015 http://www.christianpost.com/news/the-seventh-day-adventist-church-is-the-most-diverse-church-group-in-america-says-study-142236/
10. Jack Rummel, Malcolm X (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989), p. 25.
11. Dorothy Height, Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memoir (New York: PublicAffairs, 2003), p. 106.
12. Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers, p. 145.