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Sabbath observance rooted in Africa, says Adventist historian

Black History celebration at Adventist university highlights Christian history in Africa

Sabbath observance rooted in Africa, says Adventist historian

Early groups in Africa may have observed the seventh-day Sabbath long before European missionaries introduced Christianity to the continent, said Bertram Melbourne, an Adventist pastor and Interim Dean of Howard University School of Divinity in Washington D.C.. Melbourne was one of 11 presenters for the conference "Conversations on 2000 Years of Christianity in Africa and the Diaspora," a three-day event at Adventist-owned Andrews University celebrating Black History Month February 7 to 9.

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A study of Black history reveals that Christianity in Africa might more closely reflect an Adventist view of the seventh-day Sabbath than previously thought, according to one Adventist historian.

Bertram Melbourne, an Adventist pastor and Interim Dean of Howard University School of Divinity in Washington D.C., said the Basotho tribe of 15th century southern Africa worshipped a God called Molimo O Diatla Di Maroba Rammolobi, or “God with scars in His hands, the Father of salvation.”

Some groups even observed the Biblical seventh-day Sabbath as a day of rest, Melbourne said February 9 at a weekend conference at Adventist-owned Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States. It was not until European missionaries came to evangelize Africa that the practice was abandoned, he added.

Melbourne joined 10 other scholars at the conference in celebration of Black History Month, marked in the United States each February. Under the focus of early African people and traditions, the group presented insights gained during more than 15 years of study on Sabbath observance in Africa.

University officials said they hoped the conference would both affirm the roots of Sabbath-observance and help dispel misconceptions surrounding Africa, which presenters said is often stereotyped as little more than a “mission field” within Christian traditions.

“God is often presented as the God of white people,” said Andrews seminary student Wol Vol Wol, who attended the conference. He added that many people from his native Sudan “don’t know He is a God of all people.

“We do not own God. We need to place God in the hands of the people and let them see that He is a God of everyone,” Wol said.

Several presenters said such open-mindedness would help the church spread its message more rapidly and effectively. “The church approaches evangelism from a negative perspective, emphasizing differences instead of things we have in common,” Melbourne said. In outreach efforts, the church should first “build on similarities,” he added.

“Our idea of mission can be somewhat ethnocentric at times,” said Brian Ibanez, a junior economics major. “We feel that we need to be a light to the world, but we forget that they might have a light already.”

The church must rid itself of an “us” and “them” mindset, said Harold Lee, chairman of the Sabbath in Africa Study Group. Instead, Adventists should view all people, cultures and faiths as “one body, preparing souls for Heaven.”

Conference speaker Charles Bradford, retired president of the Adventist Church in North America, stressed the importance of learning from the past and using such knowledge to better the future. Bradford, author of the book “Sabbath Roots: The African Connection” and founder of the Sabbath in Africa Study Group, also told students they cannot simply be a mirror of the Adventist Church, but rather, should play a central role in the church’s mission. 

Andrews University representatives responded to concerns raised over the weekend by committing to ongoing discussion on other cultures and worldviews and deciding to consider adding a Black Studies program to Andrews’ curriculum.