J. H. LAURENCE: PIONEER BLACK EVANGELIST
by Patricia Nash
Nineteen-year-old J. H. Laurence set his mug down on the table. Finally he began to relax. The warmth of the fire and the friendliness of his hosts welcomed him to this new land. How wonderful stable ground felt after an eight-day journey across the tumbling Caribbean sea, he thought.
"More cocoa, J.H.?" Without waiting for an answer, Mrs. Haskell tipped the pitcher with an oven-mittened hand.
"Sorry about the weather. New York is not known for early springs - but where you are going it should be warmer," she promised.
Tomorrow J.H. would start the last leg of his travels. And in three days he would arrive at the place that was to be his stepping stone to God's service.
March 25, 1903 was his first night in the United States And what a past he had left behind. It was this tumultuous past that now led him, alone and penniless, from his homeland to seek training as a Seventh-day Adventist minister.
J.H. thought back - eleven years back - to when he had first heard the Seventh-day Adventist message and he sadly remembered his mother's reaction. He was eight years old then and though he was deeply impressed, his mother was bitterly opposed. "Why can't you leave this Saturday church alone?" she screamed. "Isn't our Episcopalian church good enough?"
Seven years later, J.H. still had not left the truth he had found in the Adventist church. And his mother was no closer to approving of his new-found faith. He had tried to explain, but she would not listen to his convictions.
"I want to be baptized," J.H. told his pastor the next opportunity he got to see him. J.H. and his pastor scheduled the baptism for Easter Sabbath in 1900. J.H. was ready to make his commitment, but his mother was not ready to let him go.
When the day arrived, J.H. prepared to leave, but his mother had locked away his clothes in the closet. "I'm protecting you until you're old enough to think straight," she shouted.
Crushed, J.H. turned away from her. In his room he prayed again for her, pleading that God would change her heart. But he did not give up. Two months later J.H. was baptized.
From then on, J.H.'s situation worsened. He was expelled from school and forbidden to teach or talk about the Adventist message. For the next three years he suffered many hardships because of his faith. Then J.H.'s pastor was able to enlist the help of eight members of the Dorcas Society of Grand Junction, Colorado. The ladies sent money to assist J.H. in attending school.
And now here he was in America, enveloped in warmth in a fellow believer's home and on his way to Oakwood Training School (later called Oakwood College).
"I'll pack you a big lunch for tomorrow." - Mrs. Haskell's words broke his reverie. "We can't send a hungry man like you on the road to Alabama with nothing to eat," she smiled, touching his shoulder.
"Good night, J.H.," Elder Haskell said. "Well wake you in the morning in time to meet the train."
Later, when J.H. knelt by his bed, he once again prayed for his mother - like he had for the last eleven years. Maybe someday she would open her heart to her Savior, he hoped.
Just as she had promised, Mrs. Haskell loaded bread and butter, a bit of jam, apples, dried fruit and homemade oatmeal cookies into a big package. She also slipped two dollar bills into J.H.'s hand as she wished him well. Together the Haskells and the young man knelt in prayer. Elder Haskell prayed for traveling safety and guidance in J.H.'s young life.
And indeed God did guide: J.H. baptized many new believers and organized many new churches. He baptized many who were to become important leaders among Black Adventists - such as a future Oakwood College president, the first Black vice president of the General Conference and other regional conference presidents.
But the most rewarding baptism and the best present he ever received occurred on Christmas Day in 1937. On that day, after 44 years of hoping and praying, J.H. baptized his mother into the Seventh-day Adventist Church.