Archive for May, 2006


The SDA Church–Structurally Divided Along Racial Lines I

May 16, 2006

In a recent email circular doing the rounds in South Africa, Geoff Garne states, “I cannot understand why separate racial and linguistic groups in USA are permitted to operate their own non-territorial organizations and even operate their own educational facilities, whereas in South Africa separate Conferences for a minority group is not permissable. That is beyond my comprehension….”

In the same email, Gerhard van Wyk asks, “Is the General Conference protecting minority rights in the USA, but majority rights in South Africa?”

Similarly, Max Webster: “Think also of the hypocrisy of the church that will allow regional (black) conferences in the USA but seeks to destroy so-called white conferences in South Africa on the basis of their being a legacy of apartheid, which is not true. Separate governance of the church in South Africa began before apartheid, and one of the aims was to develop black leadership.”

Valid questions!

I’ll begin by discussing the history of the SDA Church structure in South Africa:

Currently, all but two conferences in the Southern African Union of the SDA Church are racially integrated–the Transvaal Conference–which is predominately White, and the Trans-Oranje Conference–which is predominately Black. In South Africa, racially divided conferences date back to 1920 when under the newly formed African Division, the SDA Church’s organizational structure was divided at union level into the South African Union Conference–caring for White conferences–and the Southern Union Mission–caring for Black Missions. In 1922, the church was structurally merged at all levels. However, in 1927, racially separate conferences were revived under a single union–a situation that continued until 1953.

“Since 1953 the South African Union has functioned in two parts–Group I and Group II–meeting separately in general, but jointly for the transaction of certain business. Using this as a foundation, the Union administration has now been re-organized into two parts, Group I and Group II. In Group I are the four conferences for the European and coloured membership, The Indian Mission, and the South West Africa Field….Group II comprises the mission fields and institutions serving the African population.” (South African Division Outlook, March 15, 1961, 8.) Read it here.

In 1965, the separate “groups” were recognised as separate unions–the South African Union Conference–caring for the White, Coloured, and Indian conferences and fields–and the Southern Union Mission–caring for Black fields. This situation continued until December 1991 when the South African Union Conference and the Southern Union merged to form the Southern African Union Conference. Mergers at local conference level then took place until the present structure emerged. (On March 26, 2006, a bid to unite the remaining two conferences–the Transvaal and the Trans-Oranje conferences failed.)


The SDA Church in South Africa II

May 11, 2006

One of the SDA Church's biggest problems has been its willingness to compromise its Christian teachings in exchange for societal approval. This might seem an odd statement in view of the SDA Church's perceived separation from society–its insistence on keeping the seventh day (Saturday) Sabbath, its lifestyle distinctives (no pork, no alcohol etc.), its belief in the separation of Church and State etc.–but in the important areas of race relations and gender equality (to name but two), the SDA Church has been anything but a prophetic voice in the wilderness. Rather, the Church has allowed the inequalities and injustices present in society to determine its attitudes and actions.

In the the same letter quoted previously, Pieter Wessels stated:

"So there is the colour line drawn which is very distinctly drawn here in society. For my part I do not care. [Of course he cares! See the previous post on Pieter's refusal to allow his children to mix with non-Whites socially.] I can shake hands with the coloured people and so forth. But our association with them is going to spoil our influence with others who are accustomed to these things…to have any influence with the higher class of people, we must respect these differences."

P. J. D. Wessels to Ellen G. White, January 14, 1893.

Thus for Wessels, it was more important to retain the values of his surrounding culture than to take a moral stand on the issue of racial equality. Ironically, his aim in doing so was in order that members of society with racist attitudes could be reached with the gospel. One has to ask though–is a racist gospel really the gospel of Jesus Christ?


Racist From the Start? The SDA Church in South Africa

May 10, 2006

On the 14th of January 1893, P.J.D. Wessels wrote to Ellen White:

"I do not want my children to associate with the lower classes of coloured people. I will labor for them and teach my children to do so. But I do not want my children to mix with them for such is detrimental to their moral welfare. Nor do I want my children to think there is no difference in society that they should finally associate and marry into coloured blood."

DF 506, as quoted in Antonio Pantalone's DTh. thesis.

Like all historical accounts, official accounts of Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) history are selective and gloss over much of the darkness. Official (and most unofficial) accounts of the SDA church in South Africa are almost hagiographic in nature. You can find an account of the conversion of Pieter/Peter Wessels–one of the first converts to the SDA church in South Africa at:

There is no doubt that the Wessels family donated large amounts of money to the work of the SDA church in South Africa, Australia, and America and their generosity should be remembered. We must also however, take note of the racist attitudes of these early SDA members and the impact that such attitudes have had on the church in South Africa–which is still in one area divided along racial lines. Recommended reading is Antonio Pantalone's 1998 DTh thesis: A Missiological Evaluation of the Afrikanse Konferensie (1968-1974) and its Significance for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in South Africa (University of Durban Westville) pp 177-187, 306-314.