Eri L. Barr

Clue left by Adventist pioneer

leads to the discovery of a very early African-American Minister.

Many years ago, Charles F. Stevens, brother of Mrs. Uriah Smith and Mrs. J. N. Andrews, wrote a letter recalling the early days of our message in the New England states. In this letter, housed in the vault at the Center for Adventist Research in the James White Library at Andrews University,  he lists several of our earliest ministers.  After the name of E. L. Barr, Stevens placed the word “colored” in parenthesis.  The name, E. L. Barr, is not new to Adventist historians, but the idea that he might be African-American is new.

For decades, Adventists have recognized Elder Charles M. Kinney (1855-1951) as our first black ordained Seventh-day Adventist minister, beginning his ministry in 1889 in Louisville, Kentucky.  But was he really the first?

Research inspired by the discovery of the clue in Stevens’ letter was rewarding.  Eri L. Barr, was born in Reading, Windsor County, Vermont, May 23, 1814, to the family of William Barr, a “free colored” person who had lived in Reading since at least 1810. Eri was sent to Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts for his education.  Wesleyan, founded as a Methodist ministerial training school, was co-educational and admitted blacks.  The 1836 catalog of the academy lists Eri L. Barr, from Reading, Vermont, as a former student in the English Department.  Just how long he studied there, or if he graduated, is not presently known.

E. L. Barr married Lori Z. Harvey December 7, 1842. He also accepted the doctrine of the soon coming of Christ, and was, no doubt, bitterly disappointed when Christ did not come as expected.  

The 1850 US Census records Eri, Lori, a six year-old daughter Emma, along with Eri’s brother Horace and Lori’s mother all living in Goshen Gore, Caledonia County, Vermont.  Eri is listed as a mechanic and his “color” as “mulatto.”

About 1852, E. L. Barr accepted the Sabbath and began preaching the third angel’s message.  He traveled from town to town and from state to state, all around New England preaching the message, and encouraging the believers.  On September 30, 1852, Ellen White had a vision in Dorchester, Massachusetts in which she saw that Elder Barr was among the preachers “to be depended upon.”  James White records this vision in a letter to “Dear Brother” of the same date.

Unfortunately, on December 10, 1858, just three days after their 16th wedding anniversary, The couple divorced - the cause, “willing absence,” - likely a reference to Elder Barr’s frequent travels away from home.  In 1859, Barr, no doubt still reeling from the trauma of his family’s collapse, began to drift toward some extreme views and began to regard all photographs as a breach of the second commandment.  He preached these new ideas for a time, and Ellen White warned him of the dangers of fanaticism, after which he sent a hearty confession to the Review, expressing “perfect confidence in the gifts of the Spirit, and the testimonies given thereby.”

In 1859, Barr began laboring in upstate New York, and the 1860 US Census records Barr, an “Advent Clergyman” living with the Josiah Witter family in Willing, Allegany County, New York.

But consumption (tuberculosis), lethal to so many of our early pioneers, attacked this minister of Christ.  Eri. L. Barr, only fifty-one years old, died May 16, 1864, in Alma, Allegany County, New York where he was being lovingly cared for by fellow believer Daniel Oviatt.  He awaits the call of the Life-giver in the Bellamy Cemetery, in Alma.

His brother Horace remained in Vermont, where he served as a local elder of the Andover Seventh-day Adventist church for many years.  Horace died in 1886 at the age of 71.

Further research will certainly yield a worthwhile addition to this important segment of our heritage.

Stanley D. Hickerson

Annotation Project Director

Ellen G. White Estate