September 2013

"In Search of Utopia:" James K. Humphrey and the Sabbath-Day Adventists

By R. Clifford Jones


                During the hundred years or so that spanned the start of the Millerite Movement to James Kemuel Humphrey’s break with the Seventh-day Adventist church, the African American [1] experience in the Advent movement and Seventh-day Adventist church was a saga of paradox, ambiguity and ambivalence.    Born in the midst of the Second Awakening, the Adventist movement, and later the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, demonstrated uncertainty in dealing with the blacks who filtered into their ranks.   Early Adventists lacked a coherent, strategic plan to evangelize blacks, hedged on declaring their position on the race issue shortly after their official organization at the height of the American Civil War, and only moved to intentionally minister to people of African descent in America after being reprimanded by Adventist pioneer, Ellen Gould White, in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

                Illustrative of the paradox and ambiguity with which Seventh-day Adventism dealt with people of color during the 19th and early 20th century is the Utopia Park affair, which in 1930 resulted in the expulsion of First Harlem Seventh-day Adventist Church from the sisterhood of churches of the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and the revocation of the ministerial credentials of its pastor, James Kemuel  Humphrey.   At the time of its expulsion, First Harlem was the largest church in the Conference, and James Humphrey was a respected leader whose influence transcended the black community.

                The events and issues surrounding Utopia Park are misunderstood and James Kemuel Humphrey is miscast in many circles today.   Yet the Utopia Park affair is evidence that the issue of race in the Seventh-day Adventist church was not confined to the South and amply demonstrates the denomination’s struggle with the race issue at that time.  It served as the catalyst that spawned the establishment of regional conferences fifteen years later and has had a fundamental impact on race relations in the denomination ever since.

                In this paper, the Utopia Park affair and James K.  Humphrey and his experience in the Seventh-day Adventist church will be examined in their social and political context.  After doing so, I conclude with a summary of the implications of the event for the Seventh-day Adventist church today.

The Seventh-day Adventist Ministerial Tenure of James Kemuel Humphrey 

                James Kemuel Humphrey was born in Jamaica, West Indies, on March 7, 1877, embarking on a career as a Baptist minister shortly after marrying in 1900.   The following year, Humphrey left Jamaica to visit Africa, stopping in New York City for a sightseeing tour that changed his plans and life.   J. H. Carroll, an Adventist layman who had been converted from Catholicism to Adventism by Stephen Haskell, was facilitating meetings in his home in Brooklyn, New York, one day when Humphrey walked in.   Struck by the simplicity and logic of what he heard, Humphrey joined the Adventist church, walking away from the Baptist ministry and aborting his trip to Africa.

                In 1903, Humphrey was chosen to lead the small group of 10 Adventists that had grown out of Carroll’s labors.   The following year he began to function as a licensed missionary with the Greater New York Conference, and he was ordained as a Seventh-day Adventist minister in 1907.   That year, he was invited to serve on the executive committee of the Atlantic Union Conference, and when the North American Negro Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists was established in 1909, Humphrey was appointed as one of the members of its executive committee. [2]

                A leader of uncommon skill and boundless charisma, Humphrey quickly rose through the ranks of the ministry during the 1910s and 1920s.   He was chosen as a delegate from the Atlantic Union to the General Conference Session of 1913, and the gifted evangelist and preacher held several tent revivals in New York City, especially in the Borough of Manhattan, through the early 1920s.   The result was that by 1920 the membership of the First Harlem SDA Church, which Humphrey was serving as pastor, had grown to 600, and there were four black churches in the Greater New York Conference by the end of 1922, all of them under Humphrey’s supervision. [3]    First Harlem continued to grow so well that on January 1, 1924, it planted Harlem Number Two with 108 members.   Matthew C. Strachan was called up from Florida to lead the new congregation and at his installation spoke glowingly of Humphrey’s twenty-four years of service to the denomination.   When Harlem Number Two was voted into the sisterhood of Seventh-day Adventist churches two months later, its membership was 125. [4]

                In spite of Humphrey’s success as an Adventist pastor, it appears that his ministerial tenure in the denomination was marked by stress.   As Humphrey tendered his report of Adventist ministry in the African American community to the delegates at the Eighteenth Session of the Greater New York Conference, he lamented his physical condition, which he claimed had curtailed his evangelistic activities in Harlem the previous year.   He explained that his burden then was not to raise money, but to see his membership grow, and that membership growth was his lifelong ambition.   Yet Humphrey held up the giving totals of blacks–$22,224 in tithes and $18,388 for foreign missions–of the previous year for analysis, arguing that, given their limited economic resources, blacks were giving proportionally more than other groups.   In his report, Humphrey hoped for the time when he would be asked to evangelize not only in New York City, but in Philadelphia and Chicago as well. [5]

                It is apparent that Humphrey wanted to leave New York City, twice petitioning church leaders to be relocated.   On both occasions he was turned down, ostensibly because the church in New York City was thriving under his leadership.   Humphrey never offered reasons for wanting to leave New York City, though they are not difficult to infer.   Humphrey’s association with, and tenure within, the Seventh-day Adventist denomination was marked by emotional stress over the race issue.   In 1905, shortly after he had began working as a licensed missionary, he was accosted by an individual about to cut ties with the church and was asked to do the same.   No one is sure who the individual is, though speculation has centered on Lewis C. Sheafe, whose Washington, D. C. congregation defected from the denomination in 1907.   The group did return to the Adventist fold some years later.  Subsequently, Sheafe left again, never to return. [6]    When he was approached to sever his relationship with the Adventist church, Humphrey “flatly refused,” protesting that he had never come across a precedent in God’s word for anyone rejecting “God’s organized plan of work” and succeeding. [7]

                Humphrey chose to share this information at the General Conference Session of 1922, at which he had been asked to preach.   The pastor of Harlem Number One chose suffering as his theme and “The Divine Program” as the title of his sermon, which was based on 1 Pet. 5:10.   More personal testimony than the exposition of the biblical passage, the sermon reveals a man with a heavy heart and a mind struggling to come to grips with unresolved issues.   Humphrey claimed that independent churches, like the one the brother wanted him to start, only appealed to recalcitrants and individuals who had grown lukewarm in their commitment to the denomination.  He argued that those who love the truth as it is found in Jesus Christ do not lower the bar.   His intention was to remain in the Word, and Humphrey asserted that “the cause of Jesus Christ is greater than men, greater than plans, greater than organization.”   Of supreme importance to him were the salvation of his own soul, the glorification of God, and the salvation of all whom God had entrusted to his care. [8]

                Throughout the 1920s, James K. Humphrey served the Seventh-day Adventist denomination with vision and distinction, leading Harlem Number One to a position of primacy and prominence in the Greater New York Conference.   Between 1920 and 1927, he baptized over 300 persons, although in 1925, Harlem, with a population of 250,000, presented Humphrey with some daunting challenges that included difficulty in procuring vacant lots on which tents for evangelistic crusades could be pitched.   Humphrey was instrumental in establishing African American congregations in Jamaica, New York, and New Rochelle, New York, and the charismatic leader played key roles, including that of session secretary, in the conference sessions held during the decade. [9] 

                Part of the reason for Humphrey’s success as a minister was that he was both available and approachable.   Often, Humphrey opened up his home to his members, welcoming them there for fun, food and fellowship with his family.   These social engagements had the additional value of fostering the faith of the members, who generally were on the lookout for environments beyond the church’s precincts that were conducive to the strengthening of their faith.   With most of Humphrey’s membership having migrated to New York City from the South and the Caribbean, members were truly pilgrims in a strange land.   Humphrey cultivated community and reciprocity among his members, encouraging them to band together and to be supportive of each other in the strange surroundings of New York City. [10]

Prelude to Utopia Park

                What was Utopia Park all about, and could it have been avoided?   Was Utopia Park nothing more than self-promotion on Humphrey’s part?   Did the charismatic leader succumb to a type of megalomania, camouflaging his slide into noncompliance with Seventh-day Adventist denominational policy with evangelical and public relations elements?

                For almost his entire tenure as a Seventh-day Adventist minister, James K. Humphrey had kept the race issue before the denomination’s leadership, agitating for change that would result in greater self-determination for African Americans, and patiently waiting for the denomination to match its words of inclusion with corresponding actions.   As the 1920s drew to a close, Humphrey’s patience began to wear thin.   Humphrey began to think that the denomination was not anxious to bring about substantive changes in the conditions faced by African Americans in the church.

                James K. Humphrey was not the first African American pastor with whom the Seventh-day Adventist church had experienced difficulty over the treatment of blacks in the denomination.   That distinction belonged to Lewis Sheafe, who from 1903 pastored the First Church of Seventh-day Adventists, and later the People’s Seventh-day Adventist Church, in the nation’s capital.   In 1907, disagreements between the denomination and Sheafe resulted in  The People’s Seventh-day Adventist church voting unanimously to sever its associations with the denomination.   Not surprisingly, denominational leadership cited other reasons for the rift.   The organization alleged that its problems with Sheafe were fueled and compounded by Sheafe’s sympathy with the pantheistic beliefs of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the Battle Creek Adventist doctor and businessman who revolutionized the breakfast habits of Americans with the introduction of the breakfast cereal. [11]

                The departure of the People’s Church may have contributed to the establishment of the North American Negro Department of the General Conference, created in 1909 to foster and promote the spread of the gospel among African Americans.   At the time of the creation of the Negro Department, the denomination had already instituted ethnic entities to facilitate the grafting of European immigrant groups into American and Adventist culture.   Yet the North American Negro Department differed from the departments that catered to the needs of German-Americans, Danish-Americans, and other ethnic groups in that the integration of blacks into the life and mission of the church was not one of its paramount objectives.   Furthermore, the Department was not run by blacks for the first ten years of its existence.   Blacks were a minority in the department, serving mostly on its Advisory Committee and leaving most of the formulation and execution of the Department’s plans and activities to whites. [12]

                Accepting neither the way the Negro Department was constituted nor the way it was operated, African Americans continued to agitate for change, arguing among other things that only one of their own could run the department with the sensitivity to their unique needs for which conditions in society called.   As long as whites continued to control the department, blacks believed, their cause would be hurt.   In 1918, their lobbying efforts paid off with the appointment of William H. Green, a brilliant attorney who had argued cases before the United States Supreme Court,  as the first African American director of the department.   Yet the appointment of Green did little to acquit the denomination of the charges of racism leveled against it.   On the contrary, Green’s appointment appeared to provide evidence to sustain the charge, because in spite of the fact that his three white predecessors had maintained and worked out of offices at the denomination’s world headquarters in Washington, D. C., Green was not allowed to do so.   Four years after he assumed the leadership of the North American Negro Department, the official yearbook of the denomination listed the director as having two addresses–one at its world headquarters and the other in Detroit, Michigan, where Green resided. [13]

                In 1920, as James K. Humphrey was expanding his efforts in Harlem, a black Seventh-day Adventist minister in Savannah, Georgia, ran afoul of denominational policies.   J. W. Manns, like Humphrey a leader of uncommon homiletical ability who possessed an extensive knowledge of Seventh-day Adventist doctrine and policies, had pioneered in the establishment of several Adventist congregations in the South.   Included in the network of churches he had established was a Savannah congregation, where it was rumored he had baptized approximately 160 people.   In violation of denominational policy, which Manns claimed was racist and discriminatory, Manns led his Savannah congregation to retain the deed to its property, and his congregation was dismissed in late 1920 when it refused to reverse itself when pressed by church leadership to do so. [14]

                A collection of Ellen White’s counsels on the race issue, published some ten years earlier, came into the hands of Seventh-day Adventist blacks around the time Manns and his congregation opted to part with the Seventh-day Adventist church.   The “discovery” of White’s book could not have occurred at a less convenient time.   In it, White advises against the erection and perpetuation of barriers between American Adventists and their newly-arrived European cousins, asserting that the unity of a Christian body provided convincing proof that the Godhead is one, and reminding her readers that the principle of heaven is oneness. [15]    Yet Ellen White admonished African Americans to refrain from agitating for change for fear of stirring up ill-will among whites, to labor for and among their own race, and to seek separate church facilities since it was not in the best interests of whites and blacks to worship together. [16]

                African Americans received White’s counsel with a mixture of reservation and bewilderment.   Given their subordinate status in the American society, they had hoped to find spiritual and social salvation in the Seventh-day Adventist church, which wore its uniqueness as God’s special end-time people as a badge of honor.   At a loss to comprehend White’s statements, many black Adventists rejected them outright.

                Issue may have been made about White’s counsel but hardly with the everyday treatment of blacks within the Adventist Church.   In 1919, J. E. Jervis applied to Union College for admission to pursue a degree in theology.   Jervis wanted to become a Seventh-day Adventist minister, and not unlike some blacks of the era, desired to attend an integrated school instead of all-black Oakwood College.   To his surprise and chagrin, Jervis was not accepted at Union, receiving a letter signed by the school’s president, Harvey A. Morrison, that informed him it was not the institution’s policy to accept blacks from outside its territory. [17]    Ten years later, as the First Harlem church was becoming embroiled in the Utopia Park Affair, Jervis was serving the congregation as its associate pastor.

                The denomination’s attitude and policies toward educating blacks in its educational institutions did not change much between 1919 and 1929, the year a member of First Harlem applied for admission to the nursing program of the denomination’s only institution for medical training in the United States.   Mrs. Beryl Holness received word from the College of Medical Evangelists in California, now Loma Linda University, declining her request for admission on the ground of her “nationality.”   That Holness, from a well-known black family, was turned down in the midst of Humphrey’s struggles with the Greater New York Conference, fueled the controversy all the more. [18]

                Still, the Seventh-day Adventist church was not blind to the plight of blacks.   At the 1929 Autumn Council of the General Conference Committee, much time was spent in studying the needs of the “good and growing work” executed by blacks in North America.   The previous year, W. H. Green, who had led the Negro Department for almost 10 years, had died, creating a leadership vacuum in the black work. [19]    Prior to the Autumn Council, a commission appointed at the spring meeting of world church leaders had met, and, through the Plans Committee, had tendered a slate of recommendations concerning work among blacks.   Among the recommendations was one calling for serious study to be given to the feasibility of establishing a school for blacks in the North.   Also, there were recommendations that blacks be encouraged to enter the colporteur field so as to win souls and secure scholarships to Christian schools and that Adventist sanitariums, where possible, should accept blacks into their nursing programs (no mention was made about training blacks to become doctors).   Yet the actions that may have struck Humphrey the hardest were the ones calling for the office of the secretary of the Negro Department to be located at the church’s world headquarters in Washington, D. C., and that George E. Peters be appointed secretary of the department.   A gifted speaker with a commanding presence and impressive bearing, Peters, like Humphrey, was a West Indian, an Antiguan to be exact. [20]

                Earlier that year, at the spring meeting of the world church, the Black Caucus had passed a resolution calling for the creation of regional conferences to replace the nebulous, ineffective Negro Department. [21]    Stressing that regional conferences would relate to the General Conference in much the same way as other conferences did, the resolution nonetheless stated that with regional conferences African Americans would control and administer their own funds, hire and terminate their own workers, negotiate for the acquisition and disposal of real estate property, and cast and pursue the vision for the black work.   In sum, the regional conference idea was an attempt on the part of blacks in the Seventh-day Adventist church for self-determination.   The request of black church leaders, as they saw it, would bring concretization and legitimization to the “separate but equal” condition that existed in the Seventh-day Adventist church. [22]

                The General Conference leaders responded to the request for regional conferences by empaneling a committee to study the issue.   The committee consisted of eighteen individuals, eleven of whom were white, and J. K. Humphrey was one of the six blacks asked to serve on the committee.   Outnumbered three to one, the blacks on the committee were powerless to stop the body from “emphatically and absolutely” voting down the idea of regional conferences, and were particularly distressed with the committee’s statement that “Black Conferences are out of the question.   Don’t ever ask for a Black Conference again.” [23]

The Utopia Park Health Benevolent Association

                Sometime after the Spring meeting of Adventist world church leaders, Humphrey began to promote among his members the idea of an all-black commune.   The project was called Utopia Park, and Humphrey had grand goals and objectives for it.   To be owned, operated and occupied by people of color, Utopia Park was to be completely non-sectarian, and would provide blacks with an environment conducive to their physical, social, and psychological well-being, as well as provide them with employment opportunities.   Initially, Utopia Park was to be located in Wappingers Falls, New York, a small town about seven miles from Poughkeepsie, but problems with that property caused Humphrey to settle for an estate in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey.   Touted as the “Fortune Spot of America for Colored People,” Utopia Park consisted of 16 acres of rolling hills cuddling a huge main lake and three smaller lakes.   Utopia Park was said to be the brainchild of James K. Humphrey, who, allegedly, had conceived of the idea after several years of introspection. [24]

                Humphrey’s dream of establishing a commune where blacks could achieve and experience a measure of self-reliance and independence in their social, economic and political lives through a program of education, training and practical experience mirrored the utopian communities of pre-Civil War North America.   In those societies, leadership was derived from within and was almost always black.   Governing bodies were self-contained, and rules and regulations, which were strict, covered all facets of life in the community.   The utopian communities were communitarian in structure, philosophy, and mission, providing a context of permanence for those who desired it.   As training and support devices, their utility and purpose cannot be overstated. [25]

                On August 13, 1929, Louis K. Dickson, president of the Greater New York Conference, dispatched a letter to James K. Humphrey, asserting he had received word that Humphrey and his members were about to establish a “colored colony, sanitarium, and old people’s home.”   Dickson claimed he was “totally in the dark regarding the facts” about the project, and requested that Humphrey provide him with information that would set him “straight on the matter.” [26]    One week later, Humphrey responded, informing the president that what he had heard was substantially true, but adding that the project was not a denominational initiative.   Humphrey thanked Dickson for his “expression of kind interest” in the project and his “desire to cooperate in this good work,” but told the president that Utopia Park was “absolutely a problem for the colored people.” [27]    Dickson found it difficult to understand and accept Humphrey’s response, calling Humphrey’s refusal to share details of his project “entirely unsatisfactory and disappointing.”    His follow-up letter called upon Humphrey to remember his obligations as a Conference employee, which included counseling with Conference leadership on ventures like Utopia Park. [28]

                Yet Humphrey would not be forthcoming, forcing Dickson to place the matter on the agenda of the September 5, 1929, meeting of the Executive Committee of the Greater New York Conference, of which Humphrey was a member.   Given the opportunity to explain the project so that he could benefit from the “counsel of his associates in the ministry,” Humphrey made a few perfunctory remarks, leaving the Committee “as much in the dark as to the real status of the situation” as it had been before.   Frustrated by Humphrey’s attitude, Dickson felt constrained to refer the matter to the Atlantic Union Conference Executive Committee, whose president, E. K. Slade, was present at the September 5 meeting of the Executive Committee of the Greater New York Conference.   Dickson hoped that Humphrey, also a member of the Executive Committee of the Atlantic Union Conference, might be more forthcoming before that body. [29]    Humphrey and Utopia Park were placed on the agenda of the October 27, 1929, meeting of the Atlantic Union Executive Committee.

                Humphrey did not attend that historic meeting, during which “careful and sympathetic study” that took “all angles into consideration” was given to Humphrey and the Utopia Park project.   The result was a unanimous vote recommending to the Greater New York Conference that Humphrey’s ministerial credentials be revoked “until such time as he shall straighten out this situation in a way that will remove the reproach” that his actions had occasioned.   The Union based its recommendation on the fact that Humphrey was engaged in a “sideline” contrary to established policies of the Church, that he had consistently refused to appraise church leaders of his activities at their request, that he had absented himself from meetings where the matter was up for discussion and advisement, and that his enterprise exposed the organization to litigation of a “serious nature.” [30]

                The Greater New York Conference gave Humphrey another opportunity to enter into dialogue.   On October 31, its Executive Committee, with Humphrey in attendance, convened.   Also present was E. K. Slade, Atlantic Union Conference president.   The strong pleas of the group “to help Elder Humphrey to see his mistakes” failed to move Humphrey, forcing the body to vote to revoke Humphrey’s credentials.   Humphrey was informed that he could no longer serve as pastor of First Harlem or represent the denomination, and that he was no more a member of either the local conference or union executive committees. [31]

                November 2, 1929, was an historic day for James K. Humphrey and the members of the First Harlem Seventh-day Adventist church.   That Sabbath, Humphrey preached his last sermon as pastor of the congregation.   The title of his sermon, based on the first of the Ten Commandments, was “Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods,” and for reasons that are not known, Humphrey cried throughout the sermon.   It is unclear whether church leaders were present for the worship at First Harlem that morning, but it is certain that they attended the business meeting of the church that evening.   Among those present were the president and secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (W. A. Spicer and C. K. Meyers), the president of the Atlantic Union (E. K. Slade), and the president of the Greater New York Conference (Louis K. Dickson).

                Alleging that the meeting had been requested by Humphrey, Greater New York Conference president Louis K. Dickson, reading from a prepared statement, stated that church leaders were there to “talk over” with the congregation a matter of great importance to the church, the denomination, and the “cause of God.”   He regretted the “much-to-be-deplored crisis” to which they had been brought by the actions and attitude of Humphrey, going to great lengths to assure the church that church leaders had an abiding interest in its welfare and the future of Adventist efforts in the African American community in Harlem.   Dickson characterized Humphrey as an individual of “large ability” whose work God had signally blessed with success.   Yet Humphrey’s speculative dealing in a real estate “promotion and colonization enterprise” was proof positive of his “disregard for the well-established policies and regulations of the denomination.”   Dickson then elaborated on the unity that he claimed was both a legacy and hallmark of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, saying that unity was “one of our most sacred legacies and our most potent weapon against the assaults of the enemy of all truth.” [32]

                Dickson informed the members of First Harlem that their pastor, contrary to his claims that the denomination had failed to demonstrate care and concern for African Americans in general and himself in particular, had spurned the efforts of church leader’s to resolve some black-white issues in a collaborative way.   Specifically, Humphrey, who had been appointed to a special committee impaneled at the 1929 Spring Council of world church leaders to study the feasibility of black conferences, had failed to attend any of the meetings called by the group, on one occasion saying he was too sick to attend.   The Conference president appealed to church members to “take their stand as loyal supporters of order and organization in the church in Christ,” reminding them that their allegiance was “to God and to His church, and not to any individual.” [33]

                The November 2, 1929, meeting lasted five stormy hours, during which the First Harlem congregation, standing in almost unanimous solidarity with its pastor as demonstrated by their 695 to 5 vote to side with him, demanded from the Conference the return of the deed to its property.   Later, Dickson characterized the actions of First Harlem on the night of November 2, 1929, as “open rebellion” in support of Humphrey, whom, the president claimed, had reportedly cast himself as a present-day Moses intent on leading his people out of the slavery of disenfranchisement and white oppression into the promised land of liberation and empowerment.   The president claimed that the “wild confusion and uproar” of that fateful evening testified to the “disrespect of the presence, counsel and advice of the leaders of the denomination.”   He labeled the Utopia Park project the “ill-conceived independent personal plan of Humphrey,” speculated that Humphrey had had ambitions of replacing W. H. Green as secretary of the Negro Department, and that it was when it had become clear to Humphrey that he would not, that Humphrey began to poison the minds of his members toward the denomination. [34]

                 On January 14, 1930, the executive committee of the Greater New York Conference adopted two resolutions concerning First Harlem on the basis that the congregation had acted inconsistently with the teachings of the Adventist denomination and had failed to live up to its obligations to the Greater New York Conference.   The first resolution called for First Harlem to be dropped from the sisterhood of churches of the Conference, and the second called for an arrangement to be made for the organization of the few members still loyal to the denomination into a new church.   Another resolution was adopted inviting First Harlem to send delegates to the upcoming biennial session of the Conference for the purpose of presenting facts in its defense.   First Harlem did not send any official delegates to the Session, which voted overwhelmingly to disfellowship the church. [35]    Shortly thereafter, Humphrey and his followers established an independent, Black organization–the United Sabbath Day Adventists. [36]

Assessment and Implications of Utopia Park

                The expulsion of First Harlem from the Greater New York Conference and the revocation of the ministerial credentials of James K. Humphrey were unfortunate occurrences bemoaned by all involved.   Humphrey and his loyalists would have preferred to remain a part of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination in spite of their feelings and accusations.   The tears that seasoned Humphrey’s sermon on November 2, 1929, officially his last day as pastor of First Harlem, indicate that, at the very least, Humphrey was troubled with the way events were unfolding.   Yet, whether Seventh-day Adventist denomination leadership empathized with the members of First Harlem and their pastor is an issue that calls for analysis.

                There is no evidence that officials of the Greater New York Conference responded in any coherent, meaningful way to the five members of First Harlem who visited their offices in the summer of 1929 to explain the reasons for the noticeable drop in the church’s financial remittances to the Conference.   Additionally, it appears that Humphrey’s broad and deep support at the church, as starkly evident by the vote of November 2, had little impact on Conference leadership.   The only time denominational leadership visited First Harlem for sure was on the evening of November 2 to inform church members that their beloved pastor of over twenty years had been defrocked for promoting a project that, as far as the church members were concerned, would benefit them.   It is not certain that denominational leaders were at First Harlem for the worship service of November 2, though it appears that they were not.   One wonders how events would have played out that night had the members of First Harlem seen church leaders worshiping in their midst that day.   Possibly, had the two groups interacted in the context of worship, their encounter that evening may have been stripped of the suspicion, anger, and hurt that characterized the historic event.

                      Church leaders informed the members of First Harlem on November 2 that they had come to the church at the invitation of the church “to talk over with you as brethren” a matter of great importance.   Yet they quickly revealed the reason for their being at First Harlem that night.  Humphrey’s recalcitrant attitude toward “supremely important and vital principles” of church organization and leadership had driven them to take “decided action” which they were there “to announce” to the church.   Thus, church leadership was not at First Harlem to dialogue or listen, but to announce a decision that had already been made without the input of church members. [37]

                One reason the Utopia Park affair ultimately resulted in the revocation of Humphrey of Humphrey’s ministerial credentials was due to Seventh-day Adventist church leaders lack of understanding of the fundamentally significant role African American clergy play in the black community.   It is far from surprising that on the night of November 2 Humphrey won near unanimous endorsement from his members for his course of action and attitude.   The support he received from his parishioners was not due to a gullible childlikeness that could be exploited by shrewd manipulators masquerading as religious leaders, but to the profound love and admiration black congregants historically have for their pastors. [38]

                Adventist leaders also misread the social and political dynamics at play in the African American community during the 1920s.   The era was fraught with vestiges of Pan-Africanism and Ethiopianism, two elements of black nationalism that dominated African American life from 1850 to 1925, [39] and Harlem was throbbing with a cultural renaissance that captured the attention of the world. [40]    With Harlem receiving thousands of the blacks from the South and the West Indies who were flooding the urban communities of the north in search of economic opportunities, the area, viewed as the black capital of the world during the 1920s, was ripe for Humphrey’s emphasis on black uplift.   African Americans were desperate for mechanisms to help them ward off the discrimination and marginalization they encountered on arrival in the “Land of Promise.”   A contemporary of Humphrey, Marcus Garvey, had succeeded in generating the first mass black movement in the United States of America a few years earlier with a similar call for black economic and political empowerment. [41]

                Humphrey’s drive for self-determination for blacks was not based on a Messiah complex or Moses syndrome, but anchored in the broader African American community’s quest for increased autonomy and power during the 1920s.   While it is uncertain whether Humphrey ever personally met Garvey, it is sure that he exhibited many of Garvey’s black nationalist tendencies.  Like Garvey, Humphrey wanted people of color to rise up and fulfill their true destinies and to throw off the yoke of oppression that slowed their drive toward self-determination.   Moreover, Humphrey envisioned his church’s struggle with the Greater New York Conference as part of a larger crusade, namely the black struggle against white oppression. [42]    So sure of this was Humphrey, that in the promotional material for Utopia Park he quoted from another Jamaican expatriate–Harlem Renaissance figure, Claude McKay. [43]

                In spite of the fact that Adventist leaders may have misread crucial social and political phenomena permeating the African American community during the 1920s, and may have displayed an insensitivity toward First Harlem’s perspectives on its pastor and his activities, church leaders did try to resolve their differences with Humphrey in a collaborative fashion.   To be sure, meetings were convened in quick succession, leading some to question if due process was extended to Humphrey.   Yet the conflict management measures church leaders utilized indicate attempts on their part to enter into dialogue with Humphrey.

                Did friction or rivalry between James K. Humphrey and Louis K. Dickson, president of the Greater New York Conference, contribute to the controversy?   Dickson was Humphrey’s junior in many respects, including length of service in the Greater New York Conference.   Humphrey had almost twenty years of service to his credit when Dickson joined the Conference in 1923, and when Dickson was elected president of the Conference in 1927, Dickson had been an ordained Seventh-day Adventist minister for only ten years.   That Dickson shot past Humphrey to the presidency in such a short time may have troubled Humphrey, who was always acutely and painfully aware of the dearth of leadership opportunities available to people of color in the organization.   Yet there is no hard evidence that a rivalry between Dickson and Humphrey contributed in substantive ways to the dramatic events of 1929 and 1930.

                To what extent did Humphrey fail to provide his congregation with information and counsel that would have prevented the congregation from being voted out of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination in January 1930?   Did Humphrey put self before others?   Did he allow resentment and anger to fester within him until they fomented into rebellion?   How did Humphrey get to the point in1929 where he could consciously facilitate and promulgate a break with the established church when less than a year earlier he had declared that nothing could drive a wedge between him and the Adventist church?   Was Humphrey a person who played to the masses, and did he lack moral underpinnings on which to base his decisions and actions?

                The answers to these questions are not easily forthcoming, and assessing Humphrey’s actions and personality is difficult.   That Humphrey was part of a generation of West Indians who rose to leadership in Harlem is certain.  Yet what motivated him psychologically is difficult to gauge.   Admittedly, his immigrant status, as well as his status as an African American in an essentially segregated society, shaped his thinking and ministry.   Based on what little has been preserved of his writings and sermons, clues to his personality evolve slowly, with Humphrey emerging as a complex individual who struggled to reconcile his acceptance of Seventh-day Adventist biblical and theological teachings with the denomination’s treatment of people of color.

                Humphrey’s culpability in the events that led to the revocation of his ministerial credentials include his refusal to attend some of the meetings called by the denomination to deliberate, his disregard for clearly outlined denominational policies and procedures, and his refusal to communicate substantively with denominational leadership when requested to do so.   These actions of his have left him open to charges of recalcitrance and the exploitation of his power and influence.

Summary and Conclusions

                The revocation of Humphrey’s ministerial credentials and the expulsion of First Harlem from the Greater New York Conference did not slow or quiet Humphrey’s call for more autonomy for blacks within the Adventist church.   Humphrey’s experience galvanized Seventh-day Adventist African Americans, providing them with a tangible issue around which they could focus their energies in their struggle for greater self-determination in the organization. [44]    One year after Humphrey’s expulsion, students at all-black Oakwood College rose up in protest against policies and practices at the institution.   A campus-wide student strike brought the educational institution to a standstill, and resulted in the installation of the college’s first black president–J. L. Moran.   W. W. Fordham, one of the student leaders of the strike, was well aware of the events that had taken place in New York City the year before, and believed that Humphrey’s break with the denomination was the spark that ignited and fueled calls for regional conferences. [45]

                Utopia Park and the experience of James Kemuel Humphrey within the Seventh-day Adventist denomination provide eloquent evidence of the tenuousness of race relations in the Seventh-day Adventist church in the early 20th century and the fact that the race issue was not confined to the south.   Previously, the denomination had focused its mission to black America in the south, naively believing that the north was immune to the kinds of challenges it faced in attempting to reach African Americans with the gospel.   Even the departure of the People’s Temple of Washington, D. C. had failed to alter denominational thinking on the issue.   With Utopia Park, no longer could the Seventh-day Adventist church deny that African Americans did not face difficulties in their drive for equality in the United States, or for that matter within the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. [46]

[1]In this paper/lecture, I use the terms African American(s) and black(s) interchangeably.

[2]The General Conference Bulletin, 6/16, Thirty-Seventh Session (Washington, DC: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1909), 243.

[3]Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Minutes of the Seventeenth Session of the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, June 20-24, Greater New York Conference Archives, Manhasset, New York.

[4]Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Minutes of the Eighteenth Session of the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, March 12-14, 1924, Greater New York Conference Archives, Manhasset, New York.


[6]See Jacob Justiss, Angels in Ebony (Toledo: Jet Printing, 1975), 45.

[7]General Conference Bulletin, Fortieth Session, 9/11, Mountain View, California, May 25, 1922, 253, 254.


[9]Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Minutes of the Eighteenth Session of the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, March 12-14, 1924, Greater New York Conference Archives, Manhasset, New York.

[10]Donald L. Vanterpool, “A Study of Events Concerning the First Harlem Church,” Unpublished Term Paper (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University School of Graduate Studies, 1979), 12.

[11]Alven Makapela, The Problem with Africanity in the Seventh-day Adventist Church   (Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter: The Edwin Mellon Press, 1996), 210-218.

[12]Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Vol. 86, No. 23, June 10, 1909, 13.

[13]Yearbook of the Seventh-day Adventist Denomination (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1922), 263.

[14]Makapela, 223.

[15]Testimonies to the Church, 9:195-198.

[16]Ibid, 206.

[17]Letter, Union College, August 22, 1919, as it appears in “?” (n.p.: The Russwurm Publishing Company, Inc., n.d.), 19.


[19]One of the three individuals who authored the obituary of W. H. Green, who died on October 31, 1928, was J. K. Humphrey.   Humphrey was at Green’s funeral services, which were held in Detroit, Michigan, and presided over by General Conference president, W. A. Spicer, who delivered the eulogy.   The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, December 27, 1928, Vol. 105, No. 52, 22.

[20]“Report of the Autumn Council of the General Conference Committee,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Vol. 106, No. 46, November 14, 1929, 7, 8. 

[21]The concept of regional conferences had been mentioned as early as the late 19th century by Charles Kinney, “the father of black Adventism.”

[22]“?,” 7.

[23]Makapela, 231.   See also W. W. Fordham, Righteous Rebel (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1990), 79.

[24]The Utopia Park Health Benevolent Association, (n.p.: n.d.).

[25]William H. Pease and Jane H. Pease, Black Utopia: Negro Communal Experiments in America (Madison, WI: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1963).

[26]Letter, Louis K. Dickson to Elder J. K. Humphrey, August 13, 1929, in Statement Regarding the Present Standing of Elder J. K. Humphrey, ed. James Lamar McElhany (Washington, D. C.: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1930), 6.

[27]Letter, J. K. Humphrey to Elder Louis K. Dickson, August 20, 1929, in Statement Regarding the Present Standing of Elder J. K. Humphrey, ed. James Lamar McElhany (Washington, D. C.: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1930), 7.

[28]Letter, Louis K. Dickson to Elder J. K. Humphrey, August 26, 1929, Statement Regarding the Present Standing of Elder J. K. Humphrey, ed. James Lamar McElhany (Washington, D. C.: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1930), 7, 8.


[30]McElhany, Statement Regarding the Present Standing of Elder J. K. Humphrey, 8, 9.

[31]Ibid., 10.

[32]Ibid., 6-7.

[33]Ibid., 11.

[34]Ibid., 44, 11-13.

[35]McElhany, 21-22.   At the 21st Session of the Greater New York Conference, three members from First Harlem did show up and were promptly seated as delegates-at-large.   The trio later became the nucleus of the Ephesus SDA Church.   Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Minutes of the Twenty-First Biennial Session of the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, January 27-29, 1930, Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventist Archives, Manhasset, New York.

[36]See R. Clifford Jones, “James Kemuel Humphrey and the Emergence of the United Sabbath Day Adventists,” AUSS 41 (2003):255-273.

[37]McElhany, 5-6.         

[38]Maurice Roy Jordine, Reflections on J. K. Humphrey and the First Harlem Church, Unpublished Term Paper, James White Library, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Mich., Spring 1978, 12.   For an enlightening account of the historic role of African American clergy in the Black community, see Charles V. Hamilton, The Black Preacher in America (New York: William Morrow and Co. Inc., 1972).

[39]Trenchant treatment of the subject may be found in Wilson Jeremiah Moses, The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).   See also Kevin Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966).

[40]For excellent analyses of Harlem in its heyday, dubbed the “Roaring Twenties,” see Jervis Anderson, This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950 (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1981), John Henrik Clarke, ed., Harlem: A Community in Transition (New York: Citadel, 1963); David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981); Mark Irving Helbling, The Harlem Renaissance: The One and the Many (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999); Gilbert Osofky, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto (New York: Harper and Row, 1963).

[41]Scholars are divided as to whether Garveyism was a religion or not.  See, for example, Randall K. Burnett, who examines Garvey as a black theologian, (Garveyism as a Religious Movement: The Institutionalization of a Black Civil Religion [Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1978]); (Black Redemption: Churchmen Speak for the Garvey Movement [Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978]).     Gayraud Wilmore argues that Garveyism was in the “best tradition of the Black Church in America” (Black Religion and Black Radicalism [New York: Orbis Books, 1983], 203).

[42]Joe Mesar and Tom Dybdahl, “The Utopia Park Affair and the Rise of Northern Black Adventists,” Adventist Heritage, No. 1, January 1974, 22-35.

[43]Claude McKay, “Like a Strong Tree,” in “?,” 22.

[44]Mesa and Dybdahl, 53.

[45]Fordham, 158.

[46]Mesar and Dybdahl, 53.