Black Adventist Women Clergy Advancing the Gospel, Part 1

by Sasha A. Ross

Women have worked to advance the gospel from our earliest days as an organized church, yet when discussing their role, an important sub-group is often excluded from the story. White women are often overrepresented, while the accomplishments of Black women and other trailblazing women of color are less recognized. i

The legacy of women who have helped build the church, literally and figuratively, needs greater attention if we are to fully herald the Second Coming. Women pastors must be put on a more equitable, secure footing with their male counterparts in keeping with their divine calling.

Continued support for women’s ordination as elders is needed according to biblical precedent. And women’s presence in directorship, board-level, and other decision-making positions of leadership better reflects our heritage as Seventh-day Adventist Christians. ii

Church members must gain awareness of the dauntless efforts made by African American Adventist women, in particular, to fully appreciate the foundation from which they work today and the depth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in America as a whole.

Church leaders have noted the importance of speaking out against injustice in order to live out our calling as followers of Christ, and Adventists in North America and elsewhere have turned the corner in recent years toward greater diversity and inclusion as a policy. iii

An increasing number of women pastors are employed and ordained, even in conservative congregations. Ethnic and racial diversity also appears more frequently now in the leadership of non-regional SDA conferences, even in historically segregated parts of the United States.

These changes must be celebrated. Yet, despite the historical diversity and greater equity on the West Coast, Black Adventist women clergy in the Pacific Union continue to face compounded, unique challenges to answering and living out their calling in ministry. 

One basic reason for this is that many Adventists remain unaware of early Adventists’ abolitionist views and how vital Black women were to ministry and church growth, long before the civil rights and women’s rights movements of the 20th century.

Multi-faceted solutions at the congregational and denominational levels are needed, therefore, to enable Black Adventist women clergy’s advancement, retention, and well-being in gospel ministry today. Raising awareness and improving Adventists’ understanding of our church history is a first step in this important work.

Surveying the ministerial landscape

The historical nexus between race and Adventist Christian theology in the 20th century demonstrates the crucial importance of Black Adventist women clergy’s work today. 

However, Black Adventist women clergy face a unique bind.iv They are doubly integral to the Church’s mission as they carry forward the gospel in a hurting and troubled world, yet they face increased risks and operate in a more complex environment because of the intersection between their race, gender, and religious profession.

Statistics about Black Adventist women clergy in America are limited. Four recent studies discuss key challenges they face in living out their calling and flourishing in ministry.

A 2013 study of ordained clergy in America—Adventist and otherwise—found that race correlated with decreased health for clergy, such that Black clergy reported lower levels of physical health than other respondents. Those with higher levels of education had increased levels of work and boundary stress, and the presence of children in the home related to poorer levels of emotional health when compared to clergy who did not have kids living in their home. v

A 2016 study described the unique burden Black women clergy carry: 
Many African American women were socialized to espouse the “strong black woman” motif, which is attributed to their survival during slavery. The problem is [that] this tends to make them over function in their personal and professional relationships. When this tendency toward over-functioning occurs in the lives of African American female pastors, it produces women who are besieged by familial, communal, and religious responsibilities and this can often lead to depression. vi 

These findings align with a 2017 research study that looked at the common challenges facing all 5,400 Seventh-day Adventist pastors then employed in North America, including men and women. It identified the three greatest stressors as experiencing stress from undefined or excessive role expectations; frequent moves; and congregants impinging on family time. vii

Adventist clergy experiencing chronic stress suffered negative consequences to their physical health (e.g., sleep deprivation, increased blood pressure and heart rate, inhibition of the immune system), which then impaired their relationships with family members and parishioners. viii  The study also found that Adventist clergy working in the field longer report higher levels of burnout, which significantly correlated with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

We infer from the data that Black Adventist women clergy face greater health risks and job insecurity than their white female counterparts—and greater administrative challenges in balancing their time and family demands than Black brethren.

Finally, a 2022 study on women clergy in America showed that female clergy encounter specific barriers that can negatively impact them as well as the churches and congregations they serve: 

  • While many churches and denominations express willingness to ordain women, they do not encourage women to seek leadership, place them in thriving churches, or pay them as well as their male counterparts. Just as in other sectors, the appointment of the first woman to a position of power rarely leads to consistent appointments of women to powerful positions. ix

We infer from the data that Black Adventist women clergy face greater health risks and job insecurity than their white female counterparts—and greater administrative challenges in balancing their time and family demands than Black brethren.

One final caveat: all people in ministry need the opportunity to serve, to respond to their calling, to challenge themselves, and to contribute to church life through progressively advanced levels of responsibility. Yet in this, Black women in particular are often expected to be “twice as good” or have multiple credentials and additional certifications just to be given equal footing for leadership positions with other, less-qualified candidates. Statistically, they also face over-scrutinization by their bosses. x

These social factors create additional barriers that worsen the higher risks and reduced well-being described in the studies above, and which highlight the urgency for greater social, financial, and administrative support. In light of the centrality of the health message to Adventist beliefs and practices, renewed efforts are needed at minimum to reduce healthcare disparities as a key way to reduce stressors for Black women in ministry specifically. 
Sasha Ross served as director of the La Sierra University Women’s Resource Center from 2013–2016. She lives in Riverside, California, with her husband, Harold Thomas, and their daughter, Madeleine.

i    While editorial usage of the terms “Black” and “White” differ, they are increasingly capitalized. However, for the purpose of clarity, the term “white” is not being capitalized herein so as to disambiguate it from references to the person, Ellen Gould Harmon White.
ii    Currently there are approximately 100-150 Adventist women employed as clergy in North America, across all ethnic and racial backgrounds, according to the NAD Ministerial Department (2015). This is down from more than 1,000 women church workers a century ago, as documented in Michael Campbell’s “Adventists, Fundamentalism, and the Second Wave of the Ku Klux Klan,” Spectrum Magazine 50:1 (April 26, 2022), footnote 16. Online at
iii    This is a key theme of church discussions following the death of George Floyd, entitled “A Conversation on Racism and Adventism within NAD Leadership,” featuring Daniel Jackson, Alex Bryant, and Randy Robinson with Mylon Medley, moderator (June 18, 2020). Online at
iv    Calvin B. Rock, Protest & Progress: Black Seventh-day Adventist Leadership and the Push for Parity, p. 8. Rock discusses W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of the “twoness” of African American citizenship, or the thesis that Black Americans live a double existence—one within the Black community itself and the other in broader society.
v    C.R. Wells, “The effects of work-related and boundary-related stress on the emotional and physical health status of ordained clergy,” Pastoral Psychology 62:1 (2013), pp. 101-114.
vi    Wynnetta Wimberley, “Depression in African American Clergy” in the Black Religion / Womanist Thought / Social Justice Series (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 3-12.
vii    A. Heck, R. Drumm, D. McBride, D. Sedlacek, “Seventh-day Adventist Clergy: Understanding Stressors and Coping Mechanisms,” Review of Religious Research 60 (2018), p. 116. Online at NB: data is not disaggregated by race, gender, or age.
viii    Ibid, p. 117.
ix    Heather Matthews, “Uncovering & Dismantling Barriers for Women Pastors,” Priscilla Papers (Feb. 3, 2022). Online at
x    Gillian B. White, “Black Workers Really Do Need to Be Twice as Good, The Atlantic (Oct. 7, 2015). Online at:


Biographical Sketches of Adventist Women Civil Rights Pioneers

Black Adventist women are as integral to the early history of Adventism as to the histories of the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and the United States itself. This is exemplified in the stories of Sojourner Truth, Rosetta Douglass-Sprague, Louise Helen Norton Little, and Irene Amos Morgan Kirkaldy.

Their witness and legacy draws on the connection between their lived experience, their religious belief, and the social contexts in which they lived. None lived for herself alone; each looked for practical solutions that would improve the plight of others and named the social ailments that confronted her respective generation. 

The theology, social ethic, and worldview of each of these remarkable women can teach us new ways of seeing God, living out our calling, and advocating for the important work that Black Adventist women are doing in America today—both in the pews and behind the pulpit.


Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth (née Isabella Baumfree) was born into slavery in 1797. She survived a difficult childhood and many atrocities, including forced separation from her parents and most of her children before reaching freedom in New York. Newly free with an infant daughter, she became the first Black woman to sue a white man in a U.S. Court in 1827. She won, prevailing over her previous slaveowner Dumont’s illegal sale of her five-year-old son Peter. 1

Truth lived with Millerite groups after her emancipation and spoke, sang, and debated at two Millerite camp meetings in 1843. In 1857, she moved to Berrien Springs, Michigan, and was reportedly baptized by Uriah Smith. 2  Her 1850 autobiography describes her work as a social reformer, her religious conversion, and her life as an itinerant—or traveling—preacher during the 1840s. It includes an extended section entitled “The Second Advent Doctrines.” 

Her 1851 speech “Ain’t I a Woman” at a convention of mostly white suffragists in Ohio famously suggested that the early women’s rights movement had marginalized African American women. She continued to speak passionately and with great wit against discrimination and in favor of women’s suffrage until her death in 1883. 3  She is buried in the Oak Hill cemetery in Battle Creek, Michigan, alongside Ellen and James White and other early Adventist leaders. 4


Rosetta Douglass-Sprague
Rosetta Douglass-Sprague

Rosetta Douglass-Sprague (1839-1906), the eldest daughter of abolitionist Fredrick Douglass, embodied the social reform ideas of early 19th-century Adventism. In 1845, when she was six, the Rochester Board of Education closed public schools to Black students. Tutored instead by two cousins of the famous Quaker abolitionist and feminist Lucretia Mott, she became the only African American student at a prestigious private school for girls. 5

She converted to Adventism around 1889 and worked as an assistant to her father, who was known for opposing the use of Christianity to justify slavery and advocating for desegregation throughout New England. 6 

Douglass-Sprague attributed her father’s aspirations and career to the “unswerving loyalty” of her mother, his first wife Anna Murray, who dedicated her life to the cause of equal rights for all. 7  Anna is described by her family as someone who “worked early and late by the sunlight of day and the burning of the midnight oil at her duties of the household,” and whose lifelong activism and liberationist work motivated the passion of her five children for social justice and human rights. 8

As Rosetta’s daughter noted, “Too often are the facts of the great sacrifices and heroic efforts of the wives of renowned men overshadowed by the achievements of the men and the wonderful and beautiful part she has played so well is overlooked.” Yet Rosetta’s mother’s conviction was simple: “Why not we endure hardship that our race may be free?” 9

1    “Isabella (Sojourner Truth),” in The Missing Chapter: Untold Stories of the African American Presence in the Mid-Hudson Valley. Published by the Hudson River Valley Heritage and Southeastern NY Library Resources Council.
2    Patricia Humphrey, “Pioneer of Freedom,” Columbia Union Visitor (Feb. 15, 1989), p. 4.
3    Sojourner Truth with Olive Gilbert, Narrative of Sojourner Truth (first published in 1850; republished by Dover Publications, 1997), online at 
4     “Famous Blacks and Adventists,” compiled by Benjamin Baker, Black SDA History. Online at
5    “Rosetta Douglass Sprague,” University of Rochester Frederick Douglass Project, online at For an account of the school controversy, see John Blassingame, ed. The Frederick Douglass Papers, vol. 2 1847-54 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), p. 534.
6    Benjamin Baker, “Civil Rights Pioneer: Rosetta Douglass Sprague,” Black SDA History. See also “Rosetta Douglass” in the New Bedford Whaling Museum project, Lighting the Way: Historic Women of South Coast, online at
7    Rosetta Douglass-Sprague, “Anna Murray-Douglass: My Mother as I Recall Her,” Journal of Negro History 8:1 (Jan. 1923). 
8    Celeste-Marie Bernier, “‘Why not we endure hardship that our race may be free?’ The Anna Murray and Frederick Douglas Family Papers, vol. 1 and 2, and Douglass Family Lives: The Biography,” New North Star 3 (2021), p. 60.
9    Bernier, p. 59.