Shaw, Henry Sylvester (1860–1931)
By Douglas Morgan
Douglas Morgan is a graduate of Union College (B.A., theology, 1978) in Lincoln, Nebraska and the University of Chicago (Ph.D., history of Christianity, 1992). He has served on the faculties of Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland and Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee. His publications include Adventism and the American Republic (University of Tennessee Press, 2001) and Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America (Review and Herald, 2010). He is the ESDA assistant editor for North America.
First Published: November 18, 2022
During his four decades of varied service as a canvasser, minister, teacher, and conference leader, Henry S. Shaw fostered the early progress of Adventism among African Americans in the South and helped organize the denomination’s work in western Canada.
Henry Shaw was born November 7, 1860, to Rollo and Rhoda Scantlin Shaw, in the rural Illinois community of Athens, about 15 miles north of Springfield. He was the first of their two sons. Henry joined the Seventh-day Adventist church in young adulthood and was baptized in 1882 by Robert F. Andrews, president of the Illinois Conference.1
On March 1, 1883, Henry married Celia Maria Hicks (1860-1932) at Gibson, Illinois.2 The couple began married life in farming, but then sold their personal goods late in 1885 to support Shaw’s venture into full-time gospel service as a canvasser. He did well at it and became one of three district directors in the Illinois State Tract Society.3 Shaw began evangelistic work as a licensed minister in the Illinois Conference in 1890.4 For theological education, he attended the third General Conference ministers’ institute held in Battle Creek, Michigan, during the winter of 1891-1892.5
Special Agent for the Southern Work
Shaw was called to the South in 1892 by Robert M. Kilgore, the conference president under whom he had begun his ministry in Illinois.6 As supervisor of General Conference District No. 2, Kilgore oversaw mission work throughout the South, then still largely unorganized into state conferences. Shaw and his family, which now included two daughters, Blanche (b. 1884) and Bertha (b. 1889), spent two years in Louisiana (1892-1894). He had some evangelistic success, reporting the addition of 17 new members to the state’s small and scattered pockets of Adventism during 1893.7 At meetings held in Welsh, Louisiana, August 5-6, 1893, Kilgore ordained Shaw for gospel ministry.8 The family’s health, however, did not fare well in Louisiana, due to attacks of “malarial fever” that Shaw believed had brought him and his youngest daughter, Bertha, near death.9
In April 1894, at Kilgore’s recommendation, the General Conference Committee designated Shaw to oversee and nurture the denomination’s nascent efforts to reach Black Americans as a distinct population group.10 Shaw accepted the appointment while recognizing something of the difficulties it would entail given racial conditions in the South, and that he had “no idea of how the thing can be begun.” The change brought the Shaw family the side benefit of moving from Louisiana to Graysville, Tennessee—a locale that offered a healthier climate and an Adventist school that the two girls could attend.11
As of the summer of 1894 only four Black Adventist congregations existed with a collective membership of barely 50, and two ordained Black ministers, Charles M. Kinny and Alfonso Barry.12 Although he was assigned to “take charge,” it was not Shaw’s style to travel rapidly from place to place, issue directives, and write lengthy reports. Rather, he immersed himself in ministry on the ground in tandem with other workers, directly involving himself in nurturing embryonic congregations and helping get varied projects off the ground.
In December 1894, Shaw and Kilgore organized a church of 12 believers in Lexington, Kentucky, won to the faith through the ministry of Alfonso Barry, whom Shaw described as having “quite a faculty for reaching the higher classes.”13 During the next two years, Birmingham, Alabama, and Vicksburg, Mississippi, would be at the forefront of Shaw’s work as “general agent” for the “colored work” in the South.
Shaw spent several months in Birmingham during the summer and autumn of 1895. He worked alongside Melvin C. Sturdevant, a man of European heritage who dedicated himself to reaching Black people with the Adventist message, first in the American South, then in Africa, and with Tazwell B. Buckner, a Black man who became a Seventh-day Adventist a few years previously in St. Louis and devoted his life to ministry.14 In the face of heated opposition from ministers of other denominations, they led 14 to take a stand for Adventism by the end of the year, working door-to-door and in small groups.15
In early 1896, Shaw went to Vicksburg to nurture the work that J. Edson White and Will O. Palmer had initiated using the “Morning Star” riverboat as a base.16 In addition to a thriving school, they had constructed a small chapel that was the first house of worship built for Adventists of either race in the South.17 According to White, Shaw’s preaching was well-received: “He spoke with a good deal of clearness and power, and I think he is an excellent worker among the colored people.”18
Shaw was highly impressed with the educational work begun in Vicksburg, which included both a day school for children and evening sessions attended by adults who eagerly took advantage of the opportunity, previously denied them, to attain literacy. To provide a measure of relief to the overworked teacher at the day school, E. W. Carey, Shaw took over teaching the Bible classes and one arithmetic class each morning.19 He also helped with construction of an addition to the church that would serve as a library and reading room—a place where people could “spend their evenings in a decent way.”20 The library soon held 1,500 volumes, including a set of health books by Dr. J. H. Kellogg of Battle Creek, donated by the author.21
Yet another way Shaw stepped in to meet a need was in taking responsibility for the start-up of a small bakery from which bread was delivered to customers in the city. He was enthusiastic about the potential of the enterprise, believing that it met a need in the city and would thereby both create good will toward Adventists and generate profits to support the overall work of the church. It would also provide employment for those who had lost their positions because of their commitment to observing the Sabbath.22 At the very first Shaw himself could be seen early in the morning “with bread-basket on his arm, delivering orders,” though soon Black young people were hired for the task. According to educator and historian Arthur W. Spalding, the bakery “flourished for a considerable time” but qualified personnel could not be found to sustain it.23
Spalding, who studied in-depth the early Seventh-day Adventist work in the South, commented that Shaw’s complexion “was so dark that he sometimes passed” as a man partially of African descent. However, Spalding provides no details or sources on how Shaw may have done this to advance his work as a “special agent” for the Black work.24
Oakwood’s First Bible Teacher
It was because of “his acquaintance with the work among the colored people, and the favor with which he was regarded by that people,” that the GC Committee appointed Shaw to teach Bible and take charge of the young men’s dormitory when Oakwood Industrial School, later Oakwood University, opened in Huntsville, Alabama, in October 1896. He and Arthur Hughes were the only two teachers, with Solon Jacobs the principal and farm manager.25
Shaw seems to have developed a genuine passion for advancing the Adventist cause among Black Americans and found his work at Oakwood meaningful and rewarding. The school opened with 16 students, growing to 33 by early 1897, most of whom seemed receptive to Shaw’s teaching. Writing on December 1, about a month after his arrival, he acknowledged that “plenty of work” was needed to help some of the students “in the line of spirituality.”26 But near the end of February 1897 he reported that some who needed this help the most “have lately been converted to God, and the atmosphere among them seems altogether changed.”27
In the Northland
Though he had improved after the family moved to Graysville, then Huntsville in 1897, Shaw continued to be plagued by health difficulties. These appear to have been the main reason for his acceptance of a call to the Minnesota Conference in 1899, after three years of teaching at Oakwood. He became vice president of the conference in 1901 and then president from 1904-1907.28
The Shaws were called still further northward in July 1907 to take a leading role in organizing the Adventist work in western Canada, where the church had just begun to take root in significant numbers. The General Conference Committee recommended in May 1907 that the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, territory previously divided between the Northern and North Pacific Union conferences, become the territory of a new administrative entity—the Western Canadian Union Conference.29
Shaw was appointed supervisor of the Saskatchewan Mission, in which four churches and about 100 Sabbath-keepers were located, about a fourth of them too isolated to be part of a congregation. Andrew C. Gilbert, newly ordained for gospel ministry and newly-wed to the Shaws’ eldest daughter, Blanche, joined his father-in-law in developing the Adventist work in Saskatchewan. Later, their second daughter, Bertha, and her minister husband, Joseph Rowse, would also join them. When the Western Canadian Union was organized at a meeting held in Leduc, Alberta, in October 1907, Henry Shaw was elected vice president, while also remaining in charge of the Saskatchewan Mission, and Celia Shaw was elected secretary-treasurer of the union conference.30
Two years later, Henry was elected president of the Western Canadian Union, with Celia remaining in office as secretary-treasurer until 1911.31 During Shaw’s seven years of leadership, the union conference membership more than doubled, from 1,200 at the end of 1909 to 2,435 at the end of 1916.32 Along with that impressive increase, the Western Canadian Tidings pointed out “large gifts” to overseas missions as well as the “prosperous condition of the home institutions” as evidence of “the constructive nature” of Shaw’s leadership. A partial breakdown in health once again was the main factor prompting Shaw to leave a position of successful ministry. He accepted a call to the Pacific Union Conference in May 1916, first taking a few weeks to recover his health at Portland Sanitarium in Oregon.33
Final Years in California
For a few months in 1916, the Pacific Union Conference utilized Shaw for special assignments, including two weeks of rallies in the run-up to the November 1916 election, urging Adventists to circulate “temperance literature” in support of a ballot measure for statewide prohibition of alcohol in California.34 In December he became pastor of the Oakland Church, serving for two years, before returning to administration for three years as president of the Central California Conference (1919-1922). He returned to pastoral work in the same conference for four years, until retiring due to declining health in 1926.35
In retirement, the Shaws lived with their younger daughter, Bertha Rowse, in Mountain View, California. An automobile accident took Henry Shaw’s life on October 5, 1931.36 He was 70 years old. Celia Shaw’s health was already in serious decline before her husband’s death. She died a year later, on October 25, 1932, in Mountain View, at the age of 72.37
Henry S. Shaw did important, pioneering work on both the southern and northern frontiers of Adventist mission in North America. In the process, he and his family made sacrifices and endured privations that took a lasting toll on their lives but also helped bring about the subsequent success of the churches and institutions that have thrived in these regions.
Adams, W. M. “Celia Maria Shaw obituary.” ARH, December 15, 1932.
Annual Statistical Reports. General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Online Archives (GCA). http://documents.adventistarchives.org/.
“Elder H.S. Shaw left Calgary . . . .” Western Canadian Tidings, May 18, 1916.
Ellen G. White Estate (EGWE). White Estate Correspondence, ellenwhite.org.
“Ex-Clergyman of Adventists Fatally Hurt, Rev. Henry S. Shaw Dies After Collision of Automobiles.” Daily Palo Alto Times, October 5, 1931.
General Conference Committee. General Conference Online Archives. https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Minutes/Forms/AllFolders.aspx. (GCA)
“Henry Shaw.” FamilySearch. Accessed November 15, 2022. https://www.familysearch.org/tree/person/details/L5BL-PRC.
Kilgore, R. M. “In the South.” ARH, July 26, 1892.
O[lsen], O. A. “Visit to Birmingham and Vicksburg.” ARH, August 27, 1895.
Seventh-day Adventist Yearbooks. General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Online Archives (GCA). https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/Forms/AllItems.aspx.
Shaw, H. S. “Illinois.” ARH, December 8, 1891.
Shaw, Henry S. and Celia M. Sustentation File. RG 33, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Archives, Silver Spring, MD.
Spalding, Arthur W. “Lights and Shades in the Black Belt.” Unpublished manuscript, General Conference Online Archives, ca. 1914. Accessed November 14, 2022. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=CJFR.
Spalding, Arthur Whitefield. Origin and History of Seventh-day Adventists, Vol. 2. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1962.
Tait, A. O. “Henry S. Shaw obituary,” ARH, December 3, 1931.
A. O. Tait, “Henry S. Shaw obituary,” ARH, December 3, 1931, 22; “Henry Shaw,” FamilySearch, accessed November 15, 2022, https://www.familysearch.org/tree/person/details/L5BL-PRC.↩
“Illinois, County Marriages, 1810-1940,” FamilySearch, accessed November 15, 2022, https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q292-4539.↩
Henry S. and Celia M. Shaw Sustentation File, RG 33, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Archives, Silver Spring, MD (GCA); “Illinois Tract Society Proceedings,” ARH, November 5, 1889, 701.↩
“Illinois Conference Proceedings,” ARH, October 14, 1890, 636; Shaw Sustentation File, GCA.↩
H.S. Shaw, “Illinois,” ARH, December 8, 1891, 764; “The Ministerial Institute,” ARH, December 1, 1891, 762.↩
“Report of the General Conference Committee Meetings, March 11-21, 1892,” ARH, April 26, 1894, 266; R. M. Kilgore, “In the South,” ARH, July 26, 1892, 476.↩
H. S. Shaw to L. T. Nicola, May 18, 1894, Ellen G. White Estate Correspondence, ellenwhite.org (EGWE).↩
“Field Notes,” Signs of the Times, September 11, 1893, 701.↩
H. S. Shaw to L. T. Nicola, May 28, 1894, EGWE.↩
General Conference Committee, April 17, 1894, General Conference Online Archives (GCA).↩
H. S. Shaw to L. T. Nicola, July 27, 1894 (EGWE).↩
Trevor O’Reggio, “Kinny, Charles Marshall (1855–1951),” Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. February 26, 2022, accessed November 12, 2022, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=CJFR.↩
“An ‘Advent’ Church Formed By a Score of Lexington Colored People,” Kentucky Leader, December 11, 1894, 3; H. S. Shaw to L. T. Nicola, October 4, 1894, EGWE.↩
E. R. Potter, “Melvin C. Sturdevant obituary,” ARH, October 5, 1933, 22; Mrs. H. B. Seeney, “Tazwell Benjamin Buckner obituary,” ARH, June 12, 1924, 22.↩
H. S. Shaw to L. T. Nicola, November 20, 1895, EGWE; O.A.O[lsen], “Visit to Birmingham and Vicksburg,” ARH, August 27, 1895, 553-554.↩
Ronald D. Graybill, Mission to Black America: The True Story of J. Edson White and the riverboat Morning Star (Westlake Village, CA: Oak & Acorn, 2013).↩
O. A. Olsen to W. C. White, August 14, 1895, EGWE.↩
J. E. White to W. C. White, March 11, 1896, EGWE.↩
H. S. Shaw to L. T. Nicola, May 6, 1896, EGWE.↩
H. S. Shaw to L. T. Nicola, April 3, 1896, EGWE.↩
Arthur W. Spalding, “Lights and Shades in the Black Belt,” unpublished manuscript (General Conference Online Archives, ca. 1914), 206, accessed November 14, 2022, https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Books/LSBB.pdf.↩
Shaw to Nicola, May 6, 1896.↩
Spalding, “Lights and Shades in the Black Belt,” 209.↩
Arthur Whitefield Spalding, Origin and History of Seventh-day Adventists, Vol. 2 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1962), 343; John Casillas and Alice R. Voorheis, “Spalding, Arthur Whitefield (1877–1953),” Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, January 29, 2020, accessed November 11, 2022, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=6A7D.↩
General Conference Committee, October 9, 1896, GCA; Mervyn A. Warren, Oakwood! A Vision Splendid Continues, 1896-2010 (Oakwood University, 2010), 16.↩
G. A. Irwin to O. A. Olsen, November 17, 1896, EGWE; H.S. Shaw to L.T. Nicola, December 1, 1896, EGWE; H. S. Shaw to L.T. Nicola, January 12, 1897, EGWE.↩
H. S. Shaw to L.T. Nicola, February 24, 1897, EGWE.↩
H. S. Shaw to L.A. Hoopes, June 25, 1899, EGWE; Shaw Sustentation File, RG 33, GCA.↩
G. A. Irwin, “A New Union Conference: The West Canadian,” ARH, November 14, 1907, 20.↩
Ibid., 21; Annual Statistical Report, 1907, GCA; “Andrew C. Gilbert obituary,” Canadian Union Messenger, July 12, 1967, 311; “The Minnesota Camp-Meeting,” Northern Union Reaper, June 11, 1907, 1.↩
See “Western Canadian Union Conference” listings in the Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook for 1909 through 1911.↩
Annual Statistical Report, 1909 and 1916, GCA.↩
“Elder H.S. Shaw left Calgary . . . ,” Western Canadian Tidings, May 18, 1916, 16.↩
Ernest Lloyd, “Temperance Campaign,” Pacific Union Recorder, October 19, 1916, 3; F.A. C[offin], “The Prohibition Campaign, Only Two Weeks,” Pacific Union Recorder, October 19, 1916, 5.↩
Shaw Sustentation File, RG 33, GCA; Tait, “Henry S. Shaw obituary.”↩
“Ex-Clergyman of Adventists Fatally Hurt, Rev. Henry S. Shaw Dies After Collision of Automobiles,” Daily Palo Alto Times, October 5, 1931, 1.↩
W. M. Adams, “Celia Maria Shaw obituary,” ARH, December 15, 1932, 22; Shaw Sustentation File, RG 33, GCA.↩