Introduction to Ellen G. White and Black People

Ellen G. White (1827-1915) was one of the founders and pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventist church, one of the largest American-born religions, and currently with a membership of over 18 million.  White was highly influential in the founding and development of Adventism’s elite worldwide healthcare and educational systems. 

A prolific author, during her lifetime White published some 40 books, upwards of 5,000 periodical articles, and tens of thousands of pages correspondence.  She wrote on myriad topics, including spirituality, diet, health and lifestyle practices, church evangelism, education, history, biblical exegesis, denominational matters, current affairs, eschatology, social issues and almost every other subject pertinent to the fledgling church. 

White’s writings continued to proliferate posthumously: since her death, more new volumes have been compiled and published from her writings than actual books she wrote while alive.  White is credited as being the most-published American author and most published woman writer ever—both in terms of book circulation and number of languages translated in.  Seventh-day Adventists believe White to have exercised the prophetic gift, and her life and writings have been an authoritative presence in the Adventist church since its inception.

Ellen G. White arguably lived through the most critical and foundational periods in the history of the United States.  For African Americans these times were especially critical.  Upon White’s birth, almost two million Africans were enslaved in the United States, predominately in the South.  The transatlantic slave trade, responsible for displacing between 12 and 50 million Africans, had been legally abolished, but was still flourishing illegally. The most legendary American slave rebellion occurred four years after White’s birth, leading to the violent death of its leader, Nathaniel Turner.

The period from White’s birth to the start of the Civil War (1827-1861) was one of unprecedented metamorphosis in the United States.  The young country physically expanded its territory, engaging in several critical wars.  Important American religions were founded, Seventh-day Adventism being one of them.  Lifestyle reforms concerning health, dress, gender roles and education were widespread.  Industries proliferated and boomed.  Ideas that would revolutionize the world gained currency.  Abolitionism rose to a fevered pitch, leading to a war that divided the nation.  In Ellen’s early years she participated in one of America’s largest nineteenth century religious revivals, Millerism.  Shortly after the Millerites disbanded in 1844, White claimed to receive visions from God.

White was in her thirties during the Civil War, the last and crucial step in emancipating some four million African American captives.  Like millions of other Americans she was deeply affected by the Civil War.  Yet it was during the War years that she, her husband, and a former sailor named Joseph Bates formally founded the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, an entity that had existed de facto for over a decade.   Their vision, energy and charisma were infectious; the Adventist membership was around 17,000 in 1880.

Ellen White reached the height of her career during the Reconstruction and Post-Reconstruction eras.  By the 1870s she was firmly established as the de facto leader of the denomination (she never held any official leadership post) and her writings and visions largely determined the course of Adventism.  In 1891 White focused her attention on a neglected aspect of church’s agenda, that of evangelizing the significant African American population in the South.  From this year to the end of her life, White produced an impressive amount of writing concerning “the Southern work.”  The Adventist leadership sent White to Australia from 1891 until the turn of the century.

During the so called “nadir of race relations,” Ellen White was in her senior citizen years, but was still a keen observer of the worsening race relations and continued to speak out about them, mainly in letters to her son, Edson, who was a missionary in Mississippi at the time.  It was to Edson that White wrote her most controversial statements about segregation and the condition of the black race, and additional counsel to others about interracial marriage and the revival of slavery, which still influence Adventist race policies and dialogue to the present day.

Ellen White however was responsible for doing more for the establishment of the Seventh-day Adventist message among blacks than anyone else.  Her Civil War statements informed the church that God Himself freed blacks for His own special purpose.  White's identification of the United States as the lamb-like beast of Revelation 13 because of its inhumane treatment of blacks with the institution of slavery was the foundation of Adventist eschatology.  Her highlighting of indigenous African Sabbath heroes while Europe was in spiritual darkness during the Dark Ages inspired several movements of black historical scholarship on African Christianity.  Her 1891 address "Our Duty to the Colored People" eventually prodded the SDA church administration out of its lethargy over the work among African Americans.  Edson White, Ellen's son, was the most important white pioneer of the black Adventist work, and her writings guided him, making his southern nautical evangelism successful.  In the 1890s White's counsel on the work in Africa facilitated the explosive evangelistic growth that now places Africa as the new center of Adventism with over a third of its membership living on the continent.  White, through prophetic instruction, cofounded Oakwood University, Adventism's sole HBCU and the institution that graduates the most black Adventists.  And there are countless other ways that Ellen White's ministry, influence and legacy have made black Adventism the success it is.

The pages in this section are selected documents of Ellen White's work among blacks during her time.

-Benjamin Baker