James Kemuel Humphrey was born in the parish of St.
Elizabeth, Jamaica, on March 7, 1877. He attended elementary school in
the parish and graduated from Colbert College,
where he distinguished himself as an exceptional student and eloquent
speaker. On December 19, 1900, he married Viola Anderson of Kingston,
Jamaica, embarking shortly thereafter on a career as a Baptist
Always painfully aware of the plight of people of
African descent in the “New World,” Humphrey left Jamaica in 1901 to
visit Africa. On his way there he stopped off in New York City,
where he was converted to Adventism by a Seventh-day Adventist layman
named J.H. Carroll. A former Catholic, Carroll had been won to
Adventism by Stephen Haskell, an Adventist pioneer, and was facilitating
home meetings in Brooklyn, New York, when Humphrey entered one day.
The encounter altered Humphrey’s plans and changed his life. Struck by
the simplicity and logic of what he heard, Humphrey joined the
Seventh-day Adventist church, walking away from the Baptist ministry,
itself a significant step. He aborted his trip to Africa, deciding to
remain in New York City, where his wife joined him the following year.
In 1903 Humphrey, not Carroll, was chosen to lead the
small group of Adventists that had grown out of Carroll’s labors, a
testament to Humphrey’s extraordinary organizational and leadership
skills. A gifted musician and reputable scholar, Humphrey had innate
charisma, a quality that contributed in no small way to the almost
hypnotic effect his presence and words had on people. Humphrey stood
over six feet tall and was lean all his life. His lithe frame, however,
was not his most distinguishing feature, but the way he grew and styled
his hair. Parted to the left and heaped up to the right, Humphrey’s
hair was snow white from his late forties onward, which exerted a
somewhat mystical pull over people.
When Humphrey assumed the leadership of Carroll’s
group in 1903, it consisted of ten people. The following year, Humphrey
began to function as a licensed minister in the Greater New York
Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and he was an ordained as a
Seventh-day Adventist minister in 1907. That year, he was invited to
serve on the Executive Committee of the Greater New York Conference and
on the Executive Committee of the Atlantic Union Conference some time
later. When the North American Negro Department of the General
Conference was established in 1909, Humphrey was appointed as one of the
members of the Executive Committee.
Humphrey’s meteoric rise in the Adventist Church
continued through the 1910s. He was chosen as a delegate from the
Atlantic Union to the General Conference Session in 1913, the first of
many times he would serve in that capacity. Yet Humphrey could not lose
sight of the challenges the race issue presented the SDA denomination.
Humphrey continued to hold tent revivals in New York City, and by 1920 his church, the First Harlem Church,
had about six hundred members. Humphrey was asked to serve in more
leadership positions in the Greater New York Conference, and by the end
of 1922, four Black churches were in the Greater New York Conference,
all of them under the supervision of Humphrey. The delegates from his
church were often the only black delegates in the Conference Sessions.
First Harlem continued growing so well that no building in Harlem
was large enough to accommodate the burgeoning congregation. So, on
January 1, 1924, Harlem Number Two was launched. Within the year its
membership was 125. Humphrey’s evangelism continued to spawn new
churches, and his influence among the black work in the Conference was
dominant. His influence was not confined to African Americans however,
as evidenced by his various leadership roles accorded at the Greater New
York Conference Sessions.
Humphrey wanted to leave New York, and petitioned church leaders to relocate him several times. He was turned down, however, because of the black work in New York was thriving because of his efforts. Humphrey was still distressed over the race issue.
Humphrey was asked to preach at the General Conference Session of 1922, certainly the high point
in his ministry. In his sermon Humphrey related the incident of a
brother encouraging him to leave the SDA church because of the way that
blacks were treated in the denomination. Humphrey stated that he flatly
refused the brother and would never leave God’s church.
Humphrey baptized over 300 persons between 1920 and 1927. The First Harlem Church
was the largest SDA denomination in the Greater New York Conference and
Humphrey was pastoring both it and its daughter church, Number 2. A
part of Humphrey’s vast appeal was that the gospel he preached was
social as well as theological. Humphrey wanted Black people to be
empowered economically and spiritually, so he began to promote a
self-enhancement program called the Utopia Park Benevolent Association
project (Utopia Park).
did not sit too well with Adventist church leadership—it was in
violation of Adventist church policy, and Adventist church leaders
learned about the project in a roundabout way because Humphrey failed to
brief them on the project up front. When church leaders sought to get
full details of the project from Humphrey, he balked, and when he
refused to alter his plans at the request of church leaders, Humphrey
was stripped of his ministerial credentials. Humphrey’s Harlem
congregation, which almost unanimously stood in solidarity with him,
shortly thereafter was expelled from the SDA denomination.
Subsequently, Humphrey established an independent Black religious
organization, the United Sabbath-Day Adventists, which was comprised of
most of his former members. Today it is commonly held that the Utopia
Park affair was a catalyst for Regional (Black) SDA Conferences.