During my junior year in college I enrolled in a two-credit course entitled “The Spirit of Prophecy.” The professor with an unusual fervor for Ellen G. White also taught German. Near the end of the semester the professor told the class that Ellen White declared in 1858 that slaves would not be in heaven. He said that Sister White was shown in vision that God could not take slaves to heaven who were kept in ignorance and degradation, but in God’s mercy would simply be considered as though they never existed. I had never heard of such a thing, and my impression was that neither had most of the other students in the class.
There was a lightly-colored black female student in the class who was quite intelligent, reform-minded and wickedly biting on occasion. Her name was Becky⎯she was a pretty girl. I had gotten to know her in Educational Psychology where she drained the ponds of nonsense and ignorance when some students gave their reports. In debate her facts were clear and precise. Becky had no equal in class in silencing her adversaries with her quick wit. On occasion her eloquence was impassioned and irresistible.
At the end of the class period, she stood to her feet and with fury in her voice pointedly told the professor, “By God’s grace you have kindled a fire. It will never go out!” And she proceeded to argue that the “no slaves in heaven” statement was obviously corrupted by racial bias and thereby “colored people denied salvation allegedly coming from a compassionate God because of no fault of their own.” I had let the statement roll by without imagining protest. I sensed that I was chained to my own world of ignorance. Becky told the professor that she viewed Ellen White’s statements as “self-righteous, invective and bordered on racial prejudice.” I remember parts of the speech. After class I asked Becky what prompted her outburst.
Becky told me about her family’s slave history. A great-aunt had served a plantation owner’s family for many years and though she could not read or write must have practiced a simple belief in a higher moral authority because the family honored her with a gold cross and chain to wear around her neck. Also a great-grandfather who was a slave in Mississippi had been chained in a barn naked and all he was allowed to do was reproduce with the female slaves on the plantation because he was a large and powerful man. She emphasized he was a human being not his master’s brute beast.
During the next class period the professor tried to reconcile the 1858 statement in the context of the investigative judgment, but the more he dug into his explanation the worst it got. On this account the inflamed anger hung over the class the rest of the semester.
On the occasion of our college twenty-fifth reunion I saw Becky with her two daughters and she explained she was no longer an Adventist. We recounted our experience in the Spirit of Prophecy class and I told her someday I would research this vision and try to determine the origin of the vision. So here it is⎯beginning at ground level with the investigative judgment.
The Investigative Judgment
An unusual letter to the Review and Herald appeared in January 1, 1857. The letter outlined first impressions of the heavenly investigative judgment⎯now the only totally unique doctrine of the Seventh-day Adventist church. It was written by Elon Everts, a farmer living in Round Grove, Illinois and an acquaintance of James and Ellen White. This is the relevant part of the letter.
“Dear Brethren: I am passing through a solemn train of thought. The question with me is, Where are we? I answer, More than twelve years past the proclamation “The hour of his Judgment is come.” Rev. xiv, 6,7. … My dear Brethren, from the scripture referred to I solemnly believe that the judgment has been going on in the Heavenly Sanctuary since 1844, and that upon the righteous dead, from ”righteous Abel” down through patriarchs, prophets, martyrs, and all the saints who have fallen asleep in Jesus, judgment has been passing.”
At the time Everts wrote this letter he had taken James and Ellen White by sleigh from Round Grove, Illinois to Waukon, Iowa. Snowdrifts blocked their journey for a week. As they travelled together there was time for conversation; particularly on the Laodicean message. Returning to Battle Creek in the later part of January, James White took up the subject and enlarged the concepts of “The Judgment.” Little did the pioneers know that the foundations of salvation shifted beneath their feet!
Why Slaves Will Not Be in Heaven
Showing how the investigative judgment has practical applications in the first rendering of The Great Controversy written in 1858 as Spiritual Gifts Vol.1. Ellen White included a short chapter of only five paragraphs entitled “The Sins of Babylon.” Two of these paragraphs dwelt with her anti-slavery views. The first one was a vociferous attack against slave holding⎯although Mrs. White herself was not an activist in the anti-slavery movement. In the last paragraph of this chapter Ellen White revealed how God plans to deny salvation to a class of slaves by treating them as a non-entity in the judgment. Ellen White declared that these slaves (the non-pious ones) were reduced to the lowest depths of degradation, and placed on a level with the brute beasts. Slaveholders were to bear the wicked burdens of the slaves.
“I saw that the slave-master would have to answer for the soul of his slave whom he has kept in ignorance; and all the sins of the slave will be visited upon the master. God cannot take the slave to heaven, who has been kept in ignorance and degradation, knowing nothing of God, or the Bible, fearing nothing but his master’s lash, and not holding so elevated a position to his master’s brute beasts. But he does the best thing for him that a compassionate God can do. He lets him be as though he had not been; which the master has to suffer the seven last plagues, and then come up in the second resurrection, and suffer the second most awful death. Then the wrath of God will be appeased.”
The first question we must ask concerns the depth of Mrs. White’s knowledge of the religious life of the slaves in the South. And there is an obvious flaw in her logic (i.e., a compassionate God who provides no alternative) and the inheritant racism (referring to brute beasts) underlying the paragraph.
Rewards and punishment are natural phenomena of the human mind. And so are concepts of an afterlife related to one’s conduct and God’s judgment. Consequently, this paragraph in Spiritual Gifts could reasonably raise questions in the minds of modern readers on how the Investigative Judgment might work. In this case, the same God can oversee slaves under servitude in the South convinced of sin, and presumably many of them happy in the love of God (as observed in creating and singing Spirituals). It gets more complicated because slaveholders tried to shape and control the religious life of their slaves. The slaves wanted to resisted such pressure to forage their own spiritual concepts for themselves.
We might also ask: “Could these same concerns be applied to poor whites living in the coal mountains of Virginia, or Irishmen in New York City, or for that matter vast numbers of non-Christian Indians living on the Plains west of Battle Creek?”
We do not know if Ellen White had any direct contact with free blacks in the North or with the slave environment in the south. Despite this lack of “hands-on” experience, it is likely Ellen White was exposed to the formality of slavery through newspapers, anti-slavery pamphlets, and religious magazines.
It needs to be emphasized that Ellen White did not establish herself as an orator or expository writer in the abolition movement. She only glances in and back out on the topic of slavery in her writings. Abolitionists included individuals who endorsed immediate emancipation and equality, a willingness to devote time to expressing that doctrine publicly, and commitment to the creation of a society in which blacks would have civil equality with whites. Ellen White expressed her views against slavery, but not as an abolitionist⎯although church apologists, such as George Knight and Roy Branson claimed that she was an abolitionist. Prior to the Civil War Adventists did not campaign for abolition through political parties or anti-slavery associations. By the 1890s when church apologists looked at her work in the South, the slaves had already been emancipated and abolition was irrelevant. In the Testimonies, Ellen White never fully agreed to racial equality (see 9T 214).
It appears that the contextual basis for declaring that “slaves will not be in heaven,” was influenced by an antislavery pamphlet published twenty-one years earlier by Charles Fitch entitled: Slaveholding Weighed in the Balance of Truth. Fitch studied at Brown University before joining the Millerite movement and served as the pastor of the First Free Congregational Church in Boston. He died on Monday October 14, 1844, a few days before The Great Disappointment. In this pamphlet he express the view that:
“But the poor slave is prevented from learning the way of salvation while he lives, and then worn out with toil, he dies and is lost forever.”
The Challenging Debate over Slavery and Religion
The black revolutionary Nat Turner claimed authority from the Bible in leading a revolt against slavery on August 21, 1831. In this racially charged atmosphere “a great burst of proselytizing [occurred] among the slaves.” Nat Turner confirmed the fears of the slaveholders that religion was not a good thing. But they came to fear slaves more without religion and saw Christianity primarily as a means of social control. The contradiction resulted in a decline of antislavery sentiment in Southern churches; laws were passed against black preachers; against teaching slaves to read and write; but encouragement toward oral instruction in Christian faith; and campaigns to encourage more humane treatment of the slaves.
The process and rate by which black slaves converted to Christianity remains unclear. However, the slaves themselves began to see safety in conversion, if only because it gave them stronger claims to the sympathy of their masters. Unfortunately as conversions proceeded there was much more than malice that caused so many slaveholders to whip slaves and treat them badly for praying to God and to demand that they address all grievances and wishes to their earthly masters. Slaveholders were convinced that effective discipline could not be elevated any other way than by beatings.
[Bracketing White’s Vision]
The paragraph in Spiritual Gifts explaining why slaves will not be in heaven begins with “I saw” which implies special authority from God. If you assume that God does not actually permit salvation for the slaves, it is fair to ask, why would God promulgate this vision when so many slaves are looking forward to heaven as an escape from the depths of misery in this world? Slaveholders often reinforced this heavenly escape idea amongst their slaves to make their lives more tolerable. As slaveholders became more religious themselves they increasingly paid white preachers to conduct services for their slaves. Frederick Douglass, former slave and author of the Narrative, observed, “Slaves knew enough of the orthodox theology to consign all bad slaveholders to hell.” Some slaves thought that heaven would be the place where they could avenge their enemies. Most of the time, slaves obeyed their masters out of fear and belief that they “had already lived through Hell: In them days it was hell without fires, but slaveholders faced eternal punishment.”
Slave Religion & Persecution
From the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade, the conversion of slaves to Christianity was viewed as a justification for enslavement of Africans⎯where blacks left in Africa would otherwise die as pagans. The ideal picture of the Christianized master slave relationship contributed to the southern myth of the compassionate slaveholder presiding kindly over their “happy black slaves.” In reality, this benevolence was realized no more frequently than most religious ideals. By the 1830s slaves would have their own churches under supervision of the whites. The facts are that “slaves were willing to risk threats of floggings at the hands of their earthly masters in order to worship their “Divine Master” as they saw fit. “ The singing of the spirituals (sometimes all night) was a natural intensely personal experience that gave consolation for sorrow, lack of freedom and the misery of slavery.
And not all slaves took to Christianity. Some slaves would not accept a belief in a supposedly “just God” who could permit slavery or lashings. In essence, Christianity practiced by their masters remained a white man’s religion.
There was some common religious heritage in Christianity, but it was blended and assimilated in the New World from the many discrete religious backgrounds brought over from Africa (thought by the White’s to be pagan religions).
Jesus the Son of God, along with the divinity of the Holy Spirit and the third person of the Godhead, the Father, (Supreme Creator of the world), came together more or less, as unintelligible to Africans from their religious point of view. It was easier to abide the notion of an afterlife, where the individual suffers from evil and good prospers. Wickedness and concepts of sin as wrongdoing deserving of divine anger and punishment were already relevant in many African religions. The point is that the drama of sin and salvation, of damnation and heavenly translation in the conversion of a Southern slave was more complicated than either Charles Fitch or Ellen White understood in their evaluation of why slaves were considered ignorant and “could not go to heaven.”
If baptism did not change the slave’s situation the slaves grew angry and saucy, and met in the night in the woods and talked about uprisings. Once this was discovered the threat resulted in whippings, or in some case the execution of conspirators. Many runaways were hunted with dogs and shot when captured.
Despite severe persecution and suffering, slave Christians bore witness to the Christian gospel, whose truth they perceived and maintained in contradiction to the debasement of the gospel by those who held power over their bodies and their souls.
Scholars are well aware of the checkered historiography of Christianity in the South, and the difficulties and reluctance to teach the slaves moral and salvation principles from the Bible. Perhaps, Adventists in particular delayed their entrance into this field by almost forty years from the 1858 statement. This may due in part to the vilification of why slaves would not be in heaven. The remnant and a exclusivity as God’s own anointed may have something to do with the racial repugnance⎯that few will be saved. On the other hand, the early Adventist salvation paradigm probably eliminates the vast majority of the world’s population without even consideration based on this 1858 vision. Thus, the investigative judgment requires intense scrutiny to its familiarity to the shut-door teaching after The Great Disappointment. Both “shut door” and “slaves will not be in heaven” appears to serve the same purpose of narrowing the number of redeemed in heaven on the basis of “darkness.”
Over time Ellen White changed her views of black Americans. In the 1890s she sent a series of ten articles to the Review and Herald promoting evangelism in the South. In summary she wrote:
“The colored people have souls to save, and we must enter into the work, and become colaborers (sic) with Jesus Christ.”
Ellen White also believed that blacks arriving in heaven would be changed in complexion to white. She revealed this position at the close of a sermon to recent colored converts in Vicksburg, Mississippi on March 16, 1901:
“Remembering this, you will be able to bear the trials which you meet here. In heaven there will be no color line; for all will be as white as Christ himself (emphasis added). Let us thank God that we can be members of the royal family.”
We would like to think that Adventist pioneers growing up in the Northeast were untainted by the prejudices of their era. Obviously, this was not the case.