Oakwood College Students' Quest for Social Justice before and during the Civil Rights Era

Article excerpt

The Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church is a worldwide, multiracial, and conservative Christian denomination with a well-established educational system that includes Oakwood College, located in Huntsville, Alabama, and founded in 1896 as the denomination's only historically black college. Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, Oakwood College students often displayed strong determination and perseverance in organizing their own social and civil rights "movements" within the SDA church. The students occasionally organized demonstrations and even participated in sit-ins and other nonviolent protests in an attempt to eradicate racially discriminatory practices inside and outside the denomination. In the 19th century within the sensitive area of race relations, Seventh-day Adventist leaders opposed slavery, but accepted the practices of segregation and the doctrines of white racial superiority pervasive in the post-Reconstruction era. The conservative SDA tradition in racial matters presented a challenge to the black student activists in the 1930s and the 1960s. This study focuses on the student struggles over civil rights and social justice at Oakwood College. In explaining the social activism of Oakwood College students, it is important to understand the origin of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, its unique history of race relations, and the purposes for establishing Oakwood College. (1)

ORIGIN AND FOUNDING OF THE SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST CHURCH

The Seventh-day Adventist church grew out of an interdenominational movement of the 1840s during the "Second Great Awakening" of religious fervor in the United States. (2) William Miller, an ordained Baptist minister, preached in Low Hampton, New York, and its surrounding cities and towns about "the second coming of Jesus Christ," based on his rigorous study of the book of Daniel in the Old Testament. (3) From his initial preaching at the Baptist Church of Dresden on August 14, 1831, to the fall of 1834, Miller worked as an intermittent speaker in Dresden, New York, Poultney and Pawlet, Vermont, and other towns in the rural areas of the upper Northeast. (4) On September 14, 1833, the congregation of the Baptist Church of Hampton-Whitehall voted to "issue him a license to preach." Likewise, in 1835 he was "credentialed" by several Baptist and other denominational clergymen of New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Canada. By 1843 he and Joseph Himes, a Millerite minister, issued the first publications of the "Advent Movement," including the Signs of the Times, Glad Tidings, Midnight Cry, and Advent Chronicle. However, by 1843 traditional clergymen vehemently opposed the Millerite movement because of its strong adherence to setting a specific date for the return of Jesus Christ. Inevitably, the clergymen gave ultimatums to their membership who became Millerites to either renounce these religious convictions or leave their respective churches. However, the Millerites maintained their beliefs, remained in their churches, and continued to spread their religious message. (5)

It was also during this time that Rev. Miller outlined a series of dates for the "return of Jesus Christ," and as a result, the date October 22, 1844, is generally referred to as the day of the "Great Disappointment." (6) Although Christ did not return, some of the followers reevaluated the purposes of the movement, and decided that they should emphasize the "second advent of Christ" through evangelism, and not predicting specific dates for the second coming. (7)

Joseph Bates, a Millerite and Sabbatarian (one who worships on Saturday, the biblical Sabbath), issued a pamphlet in 1844 entitled, "The Seventh-Day Sabbath: A Perpetual Sign," that convinced two Millerites, Ellen Gould White and her husband James White, to become Sabbath observers. (8) After the Great Disappointment, the Millerite movement split into three different camps: the proponents of a return date of Christ after 1844, those who believed in promoting a primitive organization of "Evangelical Adventists," and the group known as "Sabbatarians" who espoused the teaching of the Biblical seventh-day Sabbath. …