In many ways, the pioneers of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church were incredibly progressive. Not only was their theology radical and new but the causes they championed were equally bold and fresh. Early Adventists like William Miller, Joseph Bates and Joshua V. Himes all actively championed temperance and abolition at a time when neither of those causes was popular. In fact, Joseph Bates and Heman Gurney were the first Adventists to take the Advent message to the slaves in the South in the early 1840s and they faced fierce opposition as a result.
Abolition especially was a cause that was most dear to the heart of Millerites and early Sabbatarian Adventists. In the mid-1800s Slavery was rife in the Southern states but unheard of in the North. Slaves were treated worse than cattle and their lives were pitiful and unimaginably hard. In an attempt to offer relief to slaves a group of families banded together pooling their resources and connections to create what was known as the underground railroad; a network of safe-houses and transportation that would move escaping slaves up north. Some of the most well-known figures associated with this cause were Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Tubman helped thousands of slaves to escape via the underground railroad and Truth spoke widely and passionately against slavery and championed abolition. In fact, Sojourner Truth moved to Battle Creek, Michigan in 1857 and was baptised as a Sabbatarian Adventist by Uriah Smith around that time. John Byington, the first General Conference president and a farmer lent his farm in New York state as a stop on the underground railroad.
Championing abolition and being associated with the underground railroad were dangerous in the 1840s and 50s. In 1850 the Fugitive Slave Law was passed by Congress in order to strengthen the earlier and often neglected law of 1793. Under this law, every U.S. Citizen was required to return an escaped slave to his master or face a slew of fines and punishments for violation. Ellen White commenting on the relationship Adventists should have to this law stated “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” John Andrews, John Loughborough, Joseph Bates and Uriah Smith all wrote against slavery and were outspoken advocates of abolition. Ellen White even advocated disfellowshipping church members who embraced views that advocated slavery.
Soon after the abolition of Slavery, the Adventist Church made inroads into the Southern states not only with the gospel but also with education and health care for freed slaves. Edson White used his boat The Morningstar to pioneer the work of the church in the deep south, building schools, churches, sanitariums, health food companies, and printing presses. Later, in 1896, a training school for African American workers in the south was established.
Oakwood College would go on to become a flagship educational institution in North America, especially among the African American Community and its legacy still continues today 120 years later. Some of the school’s most famous graduates include evangelists E.E. Cleaveland and C.D. Brooks two of the most prolific evangelists and ministers the Seventh-Day Adventist Church has seen. In the 1960s Oakwood also played an important part in the Civil Rights Movement hosting Dr Martin Luther King who spoke on Campus.
The example of our early pioneers teaches us the importance of advocating for issues related to social justice. Relieving the suffering, injustice and inequality we see around us here and now is as important as sharing the three angels message. In fact, it is part of the three angels message because it demonstrates the living reality of the gospel and its ability to make a difference here and now and also for eternity.