Promised Power Deferred

Michael T. Nixon

On April 10, 1944, The General Conference Committee held its Spring Meeting in the convention room of the Hotel Stevens in Chicago, IL. Gathered along with the committee were the North American Division’s local conference presidents, union treasurers and auditors, college presidents, and “colored representatives who were members of a large committee appointed to study the question of our colored work.”[1]

The General Conference President, Elder J.L. McElhany, gave the devotional thought that day. He read several passages from Testimonies to the Church, Volume 8, written by E.G. White, on “The Power Promised.”

 McElhany was the 13th President of the General Conference and served from 1936–1950.

McElhany was the 13th President of the General Conference and served from 1936–1950.

The section that he read began with this:

“God does not ask us to do in our strength the work before us. He has provided divine assistance for all the emergencies to which our human resources are unequal. He gives the Holy Spirit to help in every strait, to strengthen our hope and assurance, to illuminate our minds and purify our hearts.”

The passage goes on to make it clear that the same power that was available to Christ’s first disciples was also available to those Adventist followers of Christ in that Hotel Stevens Convention room:

“God will today endow men and women with power from above, as He endowed those who on the day of Pentecost heard the word of salvation. At this very hour His Spirit and His grace are for all who need them and will take Him at His word.”

Sister White then says something very direct regarding the mindset of the disciples in the Upper Room on the Day of Pentecost — something that Elder McElhany would latch onto in later remarks:

“Notice that it was after the disciples had come into perfect unity, when they were no longer striving for the highest place, that the Spirit was poured out. They were of one accord. All differences had been put away. . . .

“So it may be now. Let Christians put away all dissension, and give themselves to God for the saving of the lost. Let them ask in faith for the promised blessing, and it will come. The outpouring of the Spirit in the days of the apostles was ‘the former rain,’ and glorious was the result. But the latter rain will be more abundant.”

 The Hotel Stevens Grand Ballroom [now known as the Hilton Chicago].

The Hotel Stevens Grand Ballroom [now known as the Hilton Chicago].

Elder McElhany added a short statement before opening the meeting with prayer. “As we take up the work of this council,” he said, “as we consider the matters that are to come before us, let us make the things of first importance first in our thinking and in our praying. May we be led and guided by the Spirit of God.”

The Spirit of God, which was poured out on the disciples after they came into perfect unity, was thus invoked to guide the actions of that 1944 Spring Council meeting. Those 120 or so believers who were in the Upper Room “with one accord devoting themselves to prayer”[2] for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit were supposed to be the example that GC Committee followed.

Despite that charge, after the opening prayer in the “spirit of unity” was given and a preliminary matter was voted on, the second order of business that day, titled, “Colored Work in North America,” was voted on. And this vote segregated the Adventist Church in North America at virtually every level. Before summarizing the exact contents of the vote, it is important to point out that African-American members of the Advent movement in North America did not initially desire to have their own, segregated conference. It was only after it was made clear for decades that there was no place for them in the already established State (White) Conferences, that Black leadership started asking for separate leadership recognition.[3]

The vote ensured that a school for “colored youth” would be established in the north; that medical and nursing schools in the north for “our colored constituency” would be considered; that a “colored editor” would be hired to run Message Magazine[4]; that a small publication for the “colored constituency” would be developed to give them church news and promotional information; and that “colored conferences be organized.”

Colored conferences, which are now known as Regional Conferences, were to be administered by “colored officers & committees” and they were to have the “same relation to their respective union as do the white conferences.”

Many of the first presidents of those colored conferences were told that they would come crawling back. In the face of that adversity, these conferences all pressed on with perseverance and have grown into an essential part of not only the North American Division, but the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a whole.

We chose this date — April 10, 2017 — to take an affirmative step forward and make a very simple statement: it is time to change the narrative. Seventy-three years ago, the General Conference decided that it was not going to have this conversation — a conversation that has little to do with segregated conferences and everything to do with bigoted hearts. That Spring Council decision is not the diagnosis of our problem, it is a symptom of a problem that predates that April meeting in 1944. It is the problem that the devotional reading on “perfect unity through the Spirit’s promised power” was urging them to address, but was ultimately avoided. That problem is the systemic institutional racism that has shaped the decision-making of the world church. Until we decide to address that issue — honestly — discussions about restructuring conferences will have no merit and will not truly change anything. So we’re not advocating for any immediate, surface organizational change, but rather for transparent conversation and heartfelt transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit under the illuminating influence of the gospel of Christ.

We believe that the Adventist church has built up too many dividing walls. Walls based on race, gender, and socio-economic status, that have not enabled us to establish a true, Christ-centered identity with the power to win the world. These walls not only prevent us from worshipping with each other in Spirit and in truth, but they also cripple our ability to spread the gospel to a world that is yearning for more inclusive communities of faith amid an increasingly more divisive society.

During Paul’s discussion on oneness in Christ in Ephesians 2, he makes it clear that “[Jesus] Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility”[5]. There was no greater threat to the early church than the potential divide between Christ-following Jews and Gentiles. In the face of that danger, the early church did not make strategic decisions under the guise of evangelistic convenience, but they rather embraced the unifying nature of the Gospel and understood its power to kill “the hostility.”

Can you imagine the early church deciding to organize separate conferences for Jews and Gentiles? One of the reasons why such a decision was not even contemplated is because they were intentional about tearing down that hostile wall. They had tough conversations and were honest with one another about their biases and bigotry.

Against the Wall wants to create an open, honest, and intentional conversation about tearing down these walls and creating new bridges built on the foundation of Christ’s transformational and transcendent love. Our ultimate goal is to advocate for a transparent process of truth and reconciliation across racial lines in our beloved church. We are not presuming that we are qualified to demand or dictate exactly how the issue should be rectified on the organizational level. We know full well that it is a complex matter with deeply rooted factors beyond the scope of our vision. What we are trying to do with Against the Wall is to help stimulate a much-needed conversation on the racial divide within the Seventh-day Adventist church, and to apply gospel principles at the heart level of the issue.

If you have a passion for racial reconciliation and desire to be a part of a movement within our church that is solely focused on building bridges across racial and ethnic lines, then Against The Wall is for you. Together, we can develop the capacity to turn this church that we love, as well as the world to which we have been called to spread Christ’s message, completely upside down. The future of this church depends on the engagement of those who have the potential to shape it through the inspiration of the Spirit. We invite you to join with us as we seek to be Christ’s hands and feet in creating a better future, built on better promises.

(For more information on the mission and vision of Against the Wall, read this piece introducing the project: We Are Against The Wall — A movement that speaks with passionate clarity against walls of racial separation across the globe.)

[1] For a more detailed piece on this historic Spring meeting, you can check out this article from the Compass Magazine: https://thecompassmagazine.com/blog/not-as-i-do

[2] Acts 1:14 (ESV)

[3] https://thecompassmagazine.com/blog/not-as-i-do

[4] Message Magazine was the only Adventist publication “geared towards colored people,” yet it had not up to that point employed an African-American editor.

[5] (Ephesians 2:14, ESV)