Between 1877 and 1890, the question of how to relate to Southern prejudices regarding separate churches etc. for black SDAs was debated by SDA leaders—the 1887 GC minutes describe “animated discussion” over race. Some argued that discrimination was morally repugnant, stating, “if the people of the South do not want to mingle in a congregation with the colored, let them stay away.” (General Conference Bulletin 27 November, 1887, 2-3.) Others were pragmatic and urged the GC not to arouse unnecessary prejudice” but to preach “the truth to all who come, leaving the spirit of God to obliterate the color line in the hearts of those who may be converted by the truth. (General Conference Bulletin 27 November, 1887, 3.)
All members agreed that there was no biblical or theological basis for racism.
EJ Waggoner proposed the following resolution which was carried:
“WHEREAS, The Bible says that there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond, but that all are one in Christ Jesus, therefore,
Resolved, That it is the decided opinion of this Conference, that when the colored of the south accept the Third Angel’s Message, they should be received into the church on an equality with white members, no distinction whatever being made between the two races in church relations.” (General Conference Bulletin 27 November, 1887, 3.)
Kinney made an important contribution to the debate in 1889 during the Southern Conference camp meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. R. M. Kilgore had suggested that black attendance at the camp meeting was to blame for the low turn-out of white’s. He suggested therefore, that future meetings be segregated along racial lines. In response, Kinney made some recommendations, stating, “It is probable that my ideas may be a little different from what has been expressed by some…In the first place, a separation of the colored people from the white people is great sacrifice upon our part: we lose the blessing of learning the truth—I have reference especially to general meetings….It would be a great sacrifice upon the apart of my people to miss the information that these general meetings would give them; and another thing, it seems to me that a separation in the general meetings would have a tendency to destroy the unity of the Third Angel’s Message. Now, then this question to me is one of great embarrassment and humiliation, not only to me, but to my people also.” (Quoted in Utzinger, “The Third Angel’s Message for My People,” 30-31.)
Kinney continued: “I am glad to state that the third angel’s Message has the power in it to eliminate or remove this race prejudice upon the part of those who get hold of the truth.” At the same time he reasoned:
“The third Angel’s Message will enable us to remove that obstacle. The color line question is an obstacle; in other words, the very presence of the colored people in church relation and in our general meetings is an obstacle, a barrier that hinders the progress of the Third Angel’s Message from reaching many of the white people. (Quoted in Utzinger, “The Third Angel’s Message for My People,” 31.)
Kinney presented twelve propositions, number 4 bluntly stated, “Where the two races cannot meet without limitation in the church, it is better to separate.” Later he stated, “I would say in this connection that in my judgment a separate meeting for the colored people to be held in connection with the general meetings, or a clear-cut distinction, by having them occupy the back seats etc., would not meet with as much favor from my people as a total separation.” (C. M. Kinney’s Statement on the Concept of Regional Conferences October 2, 1889.)
The concept of separate Black conferences was apparently first suggested by Kinney when confronted by efforts to segregate him and his members at a camp meeting on the day of his ordination. He advocated Black conferences as a way to work more effectively among Blacks and to help ease the racial tensions in the church. These Black conferences would, “bear the same relation to the General Conference that White conferences do.”
The bottom-line is: Conferences divided along racial lines were always a second-best solution–they were never presented as the ideal or best solution to the SDA Church’s racial problems.
Utzinger, J. Michael. “The Third Angel’s Message for My People: Charles M. Kinney and the Founding of the Seventh-Day Adventist Missions among Southern African Americans 1889-1895.” Fides et Historia 30, no. 1 (1998): 26-40.