The Impact of the Influx of Immigrants from the Developing World on Adventism in Canada

The center of Christianity moved slowly but surely during the twentieth century from the Developed World to the Developing World, so that the majority of Christians today are nonwhite. As the patterns of international migration have shifted in recent decades, bringing increasing numbers of Christian immigrants from the Developing World to parts of the Developed World, the influx has inevitably impacted congregations and denominations in the receiving countries.

Segment of a paper presented at the Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Washington, D.C., August 2000.
Click here for a PDF version of this paper: Influence of Immigrants on Adventism in Canada

This paper examines the changing face of Seventh-day Adventism in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec in Canada. Immigrants from the Caribbean became numerically dominant there. This pattern parallels that found by the author in New York and other urban centers in the U.S. (Lawson, 1998, 1999). The paper examines the extent and dynamics of change


Seventh-day Adventists trace their roots to the Millerite Movement during the early 1840s, which attracted upwards of 50,000 followers in the American Northeast. When the prediction of Baptist lay-preacher, William Miller, that Christ would return on October 22, 1844 proved false, his movement shattered. One fragment, guided by a young visionary, Ellen White, reinterpreted the prophecy and continued to believe that Christ’s return was imminent. It became their God-given task to warn the world to prepare for that event. They took this responsibility seriously, and are now active in 205 countries. The Adventist Church passed the milestone of 11 million baptized members in February 2000, and has been doubling its world membership about every 12 years in recent decades. Adventism’s recent growth has been primarily, and increasingly, in the Developing World, where the bulk of its membership is now clustered.

Earlier research of mine examined the impact of “new immigrants” on the face of Adventism in Metropolitan New York since the new immigration laws took effect in 1968. At that time its membership was almost entirely Caucasian and African-American. However, in 1996 only 2.7% were Caucasians and 8.0% African-Americans: almost 90% were new immigrants. The three largest groups, making up 83.8% of the membership, were West Indians and Guyanese (46.8%), Hispanics, where the largest group was Dominican (18.9%),and Haitians (17.1%) (Lawson 1998).

Research Methods

The research reported here is part of a large study of Seventh-day Adventism, which has included well over 3,000 in-depth interviews with church administrators, teachers, hospital administrators and medical personnel, pastors, students, and leading laypersons in 55 countries in all twelve divisions of the world church. This paper draws on interviews with church officials and members of both the immigrant and indigenous groups in Canada in 1985 and 1996.

Table 1

The Extent of Change

The migration of West Indians to Canada began in the late 1950s, and became an influx a decade later; the Haitians began arriving in large numbers around 1980. The official membership of the Adventist Church in Canada was 46,113 at the end of 1996. The president of the Church estimated that 43% of the members were immigrants from the Developing World – 30% English-speaking West Indian, 4% Haitian, 6% Asian, and 3% Hispanic (see Table 1). As in the USA, England, and France, these percentages indicate that the Adventist membership in Canada is much more strongly immigrant than is the nation as a whole. Because the immigrants are concentrated in a few major cities, Adventism there has now become largely an immigrant church. However, it is having difficulty retaining or attracting those of immigrant stock who have become Canadianized – second generation immigrants.

Adventism grew very slowly among the French Canadians of Quebec, just as it had among the French. Consequently, in that province its membership is overwhelmingly immigrant and concentrated in Greater Montreal: in 1996, 88.3% of the 3,750 members were there, and 95.3% of those were recent immigrants, with 42% Haitian and 40.4% West Indian. Of the 21 congregations in the metropolitan area, 9 were Haitian, 6 West Indian, 3 Hispanic, 1 Filipino, and 1 Ghanaian; only one was French Canadian.

The Adventist membership is much greater in Toronto: 12,221 in 1996, rising to over 14,000 by 1999. Of these, 71% were West Indian, and only 7% Caucasian in 1999; the remainder were from other parts of the Developing World. Of the 45 congregations in the metropolitan area in 2000, 16 are West Indian, 6 Filipino, 5 Caucasian (all worshiping in foreign, mostly Eastern European, languages), 3 Brazilian, 3 Hispanic, 2 Korean, 1 Japanese, 1 Chinese, and 1 Ghanaian, and 7 are mixed English-speaking congregations, whose members include a minority of white Canadians but where the largest group is usually West Indian.

The membership in Ottawa in 1996 was 69.5% West Indian, 18.1% Haitian, and only 7.1% Caucasian. Because of the predominance of West Indians in Toronto and Ottawa, they also formed a majority in the Ontario Conference. In spite of the clustering of Caucasians in the smaller cities and towns, the latter comprised only 33.8% of the membership of the Conference in 1996.

There is also a strong West Indian minority in Winnipeg, and a rapidly growing Asian minority in Vancouver.

The Dynamics of Change

The Adventist Church, like the Roman Catholic Church and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, is a global church with an “international outlook.” Its congregations eagerly welcome visiting missionaries and international visitors and students, who are all appreciated as signs that their world church is fulfilling its mission. Members feel close ties to one another wherever they are because of their shared beliefs. Adventists therefore expected to encounter no major problems in building a multiracial church. However, this did not prove to be the case.

Extensive ethnic change seems almost always to cause tensions and conflict, especially when the changes are rapid. The tensions occur initially in the existing congregations which immigrants join, especially if they eventually become a majority of the members. (Where immigrants form new congregations, such as is common when the group speaks a foreign language, this step is omitted.) The second focus of conflict is likely to be within the judicatories of the church, especially, in the case of Adventists, in the local conferences. Here the Adventist Church is especially prone to conflict because of its structure. It is neither congregational, where there is little at stake in the judicatory, nor highly authoritarian, where members have little room to maneuver, but has democratic forms, with delegates from congregations meeting in conference constituency meetings where the officers and executive committees are chosen. These in turn control the choice and payment of pastors, decisions about opening or closing schools, and the disbursement of funds for evangelism, schools, etc. This structure therefore maximizes the opportunities for groups to compete with one another and the incentives for conflict between entrenched and challenging groups.

Adventism had done well in the West Indies, where it had burgeoned over time. In Jamaica, for example, there were four times as many Adventists as in Britain by 1964, and a population ratio of 1:40 compared to 1:5,000 in Britain (Gerloff, 1992:290). It was inevitable, then, that Adventists would be among the influx of immigrants from there to Canada from the 1950s onwards, as they were to England, France, the Netherlands, and the US as those doors also opened to them.

Adventist growth among white Canadians was always slower than in the US. In the mid-1950s, when the first West Indians began to arrive in Toronto, there were only six congregations there. This number expanded rapidly once the immigrants really began to change the face of Adventism there a decade later. However, the immigrants were then blamed for a further decline in evangelism among white Canadians, who could not be attracted to immigrant churches.

Although the first West Indians to arrive longed for racially integrated congregations, these proved difficult to maintain. The new immigrants included many who were used to being active in their churches, but found such activity was not welcomed in the churches they attended in Toronto. Spurred on by a humiliation in 1960 caused when a pastor who had arranged to marry a biracial couple in a church that many of the West Indians attended failed to appear for the wedding and by the negative publicity that followed, some West Indians founded a church for themselves the next year. This church became the mother church of a series of other black congregations (Adams 2000).

Meanwhile, in those cases where immigrants gathered in increasing numbers at the existing white churches, this triggered white flight. During the 1970s and 1980s white members moved to churches further and further into the northern suburbs or disappeared altogether as West Indians poured initially into the churches close to the City center and then expanded out from there. By the mid-1980s no predominantly English-speaking white churches remained in the metropolitan area. Whites became increasingly apprehensive, seeing the churches changing dramatically; some families commuted to the city of Oshawa, location of both the conference and the national headquarters as well as a boarding academy, in order to attend a white congregation. One small white congregation founded in 1984 in the name of evangelizing whites in Toronto was bitterly attacked by West Indians as a racist endeavor. The Ontario Conference followed a policy of staffing the formerly white churches with white pastors even after they became predominantly West Indian in the hope of retaining at least some racial mix there. However, by the 1990s the whites had largely disappeared from almost all English-speaking congregations in the city, and their numbers were also declining in rural areas of the Conference.

The Conference, as in England, was initially reluctant to hire West Indian pastors; however, it finally responded to the demands following the personal intervention of an African-American at the General Conference, providing the new Black church with a matching pastor in 1964. Some other pastors were then hired fairly rapidly. Within a few years these pastors began pushing for representation in the Conference administration, and there were heated confrontations at constituency meetings. The General Conference, in the wake of its involvement in solving the English crisis, pressed the Ontario Conference to appoint a West Indian Secretary, and this was achieved in 1981, as the conference committed itself to including one West Indian among the three officers. This first black Secretary later commented that he had not felt treated as an equal officer. However, his replacement, another West Indian elected in 1984, was better received. The latter’s elevation to the position of President in 1985 highlighted the pace of rapid change in the racial balance of power during the 1980s. Three further West Indians followed him in that position. Although the three officers are still carefully chosen to represent different racial groups, the white pastors and members told me in the 1990s that they did not expect to have one of their own chosen as president ever again.

It was noted above that the white membership in Quebec had never been large and that it was concentrated primarily in Montreal. When Haitians took over the leadership of the one French-speaking church there, the French Canadians split off and formed a new congregation in the suburbs. When, some years later, a prominent Haitian and his family applied to transfer their membership there, the congregation refused to accept them in order to avoid repeating the earlier process.

The Haitians initially complained because of their lack of representation at the Quebec Conference. Eventually one of their number was appointed Secretary from 1980-1985. When a West Indian was elected President in 1988, he circulated a triumphant letter, which I was told about in France. He served until 1994. A Haitian served as treasurer for over ten years. The conference has had difficulty finding French-speaking administrators. The President in 1996 was Brazilian, and the Secretary Hispanic.

Meanwhile, there had been a strong push for West Indian representation at the Canadian Union. One of their number held the post of Secretary in the early 1980s for a short period; the president of the Ontario Conference was moved up to that same position in 1989. The latter was elevated to the presidency of the Union in 1994.

An Underlying Pattern

In each of my case studies of the impact of “new” immigrants on Adventism in England, France, the Netherlands, the USA, and Canada, the initial influx originated mostly in the Caribbean, entering areas where Adventism had been growing slowly. While the first immigrants were welcomed by white Adventists, tensions emerged as the flow of immigrants increased and they became active in the churches and successful in evangelism among their peers. This caused some whites to pull back, irritated by the “loud” behavior and legalistic theology of the newcomers. As the latter attained majority status within congregations, there were battles for control there, resulting ultimately in immigrant ascendancy and changes in the style of worship. This greatly increased the flight of whites, some of whom moved to other congregations or founded new ones, only to discover that the pattern was sooner or later repeated there.

Meanwhile, the presence of large numbers of immigrant members and their friends in evangelistic meetings made it very difficult to evangelize whites, and similarly the strong black presence in congregations made it difficult to embed any new white converts there. So conversions of whites declined even further just as many of the white members were becoming discouraged and inactive. That is, the number of white Adventists fell sharply over time against the backdrop of a rapidly growing immigrant membership.

The changing numerical balance within each of the conferences led in turn to tensions there. The initial issue was always the demand from immigrants in churches where they had come to form a majority for pastors who matched them racially and culturally – that is, that the conference import them and install them in their churches. When the immigrants realized that the conferences were reluctant to do this, usually using the excuse that they were obliged to hire the graduates of their local colleges to cover their fear that such actions would inevitably change the balance of power within the conference, they became frustrated and, flexing their numbers, began to demand representation at the conference. They realized that this would not only make the conferences more responsive to their demands, but also give their groups respected leadership posts. The entrenched white leadership usually responded by offering token positions to immigrants. However, rapid growth and then careful organization ultimately allowed the latter to seize the highest positions in the conferences. Once they were entrenched at that level, the immigrants sought representation and then leadership in their respective unions – that is, at the national level or, in the case of France, in the body overseeing the three conferences in France and Belgium.

In all these cases, the Adventist Church grew much larger during the period of immigrant influx from both the arrival of immigrants who were already Adventists and the successful evangelization of their peers. However, with immigrant majorities and leadership, and a small and declining white membership, Adventism came to be seen, accurately, as primarily an immigrant church. Given the fact that its profiles there had become strikingly different from those of the host societies, this had the effect of further marginalizing the Church.

Meanwhile, restrictions on immigration and the passage of time are steadily changing the composition of Adventism once again, bringing second- and third-generation immigrants, socialized to their new cultures, to predominance. The Adventist Church has found that it is now having increased difficulty retaining its youth and evangelizing the new generations of immigrants. The problem of retaining youth is exacerbated by the generation gap between them and their first-generation parents, who have largely retained their immigrant cultures. Moreover, the new generations of non-Adventist immigrants are much less responsive to Adventism because they have developed their own networks, and are not urgently in need of opportunities to celebrate their cultures through church-based fellowship opportunities since they have become more secularized and have developed opportunities for advancement within the secular societies.

Why has Adventism been transformed so dramatically in each of these cases? Why has its white membership declined so sharply and its immigrant membership grown so rapidly?

Accounting for the Decline of Indigenous White Members

The decline of white members in all cases occurred in contexts where religious participation among whites in general, notably in the established, mainline denominations, had been falling because of modernization and secularization. These trends also impacted Adventism in ways that affected both the enthusiasm of its members and its ability to evangelize others. As the white Adventists had experienced upward mobility, thus gaining greater opportunities within the secular society, they had become less eager to witness personally to their faith, so that the Adventist Church had come to rely more on public campaigns for outreach. At the same time non-Adventists were proving less receptive to evangelistic endeavors. They found Adventism unattractive because of the social costs of its strictness, isolation, and its low esteem, which was linked in part to an often troubled history, such as problems in wartime because of the refusal of its members to serve as regular soldiers. Moreover, the Adventist message of warning concerning the impending apocalypse was less appealing to an increasingly materialistic generation. Meanwhile, the Adventist Church found that its white youth were also increasingly unwilling to embrace the costs of Adventism. That is, the growth-rate through conversions prior to the influx of the immigrants had been barely sufficient to make up for Adventist losses to death and apostasy.

As Adventist growth had slowed, the demographics of its membership had in turn
become less suitable for internal growth, as its members passed the age of reproduction, thus making decline more likely as there were fewer children to replace the deaths among the aged. That is, the profile of white Adventism had been approaching closer to that of the declining mainline denominations, and had moved away from those sectarian groups, such as the Pentecostals, which were still experiencing growth among whites.

An influx of racially different immigrants was then injected into each of these situations. Nancy Ammerman, reviewing an array of case studies of congregations undergoing community change in the US, remarked that such challenges often kill churches (1997:3). They may, for example, fade away because their memberships and programs no longer match their communities, or they may choose to sell their buildings and move elsewhere. These Adventist churches did not fade away – indeed, they typically grew considerably, for the immigrants mostly spoke the same language as the white members and, being Adventists, assumed that they belonged in the existing congregations; nor could they sell their houses of worship and move their congregations elsewhere, since title to Adventist buildings is vested in the conferences, which would not consider such an option since there were new members operating the churches, filling their pews, and returning tithes. Nevertheless, these Adventist congregations did experience the problems that many congregations which become multicultural face: tensions caused by clashing cultures and sharply differing social classes (Ammerman 1997:198-208).

These Adventist case studies echo the tensions suggested by other studies. Immigrant congregations (and members) are often more conservative than indigenous congregations (and members), as for example the Presbyterian Church USA found with Korean members (Chai 1998:327; Warner forthcoming). Similarly, less educated groups, such as most immigrant groups, tend to be more conservative than their better educated co-religionists. This is true even when they gain opportunities for upward mobility in their new societies: Weber found that the upwardly mobile are ascetic (1958). Their faith may become more important to immigrants in their new societies that it was at home, since it becomes more central to their identity and sense of community, and assists their acculturation (Herberg 1960; Warner 1998:15-17). A strict adherence to the beliefs and behavioral rules of their faith allows immigrants to assert their identity: they feel more holy than most white members, whom they see as following compromised versions of faith and practice.

The tensions which developed among Adventists in these case studies as the number of immigrants in their ranks burgeoned had the effect of further eroding the previously dominant white groups. Once the flows of black immigrants increased from trickles to floods, creating tensions in urban congregations as newcomers took control, Adventism in all these cases experienced white flight. White members were not only offended by what they saw as unacceptably exuberant worship behavior and legalistic beliefs, but they felt uncomfortable being identified with an immigrant church—an identity that increased the cost of membership further by lowering its status another notch. Moreover, not only did their internal tensions distract Adventists from any outreach they might have otherwise engaged in, but their changing racial demographics made it increasingly difficult to attract potential white converts to Adventism.

The demographics of white Adventism in all these cases became increasingly unfavorable to growth, as the white membership aged and the profile of the denomination shifted, until it gained the reputation of being a black immigrant church. For the indigenous whites, Adventism had become distinctive in yet another way, thus increasing the cost of becoming or remaining a member.

Accounting for the Rapid Growth of Immigrant Members

All these cases have occurred against the background of the numerical center of Christianity shifting from the Developed World to the Developing World, and of this process occurring much more dramatically within Adventism. A second feature of this context has been the strong flow of immigrants from The Developing World to parts of the Developed World. Where there has been a strong flow of immigrants from parts of the world where Adventists are well represented, such as the Caribbean, it has been inevitable that Adventists would be among them. Since Adventism attracts converts who are looking for opportunities for upward mobility, and often provides the means for this to occur and teaches members to expect it, it may well be that the Adventist representation among immigrants moving from areas where economies are weak to areas where they are strong is greater than a random selection of citizens would provide.

Studies among immigrants to England showed that Adventists were much more successful in retaining the participation of members arriving from abroad than were the established and mainline denominations. This was found to be related to the welcomes they initially received from Adventist congregations, from their sense of the correctness of their beliefs, which they had been taught so well in their homelands, and from the extent to which the immigrants succeeded in creating strong communities in their new congregations. In the opportunities it provided for participation and internal status and in its perspective on the “world,” Adventism, like Pentecostalism, offered compensation for the various status and other deprivations which a racial minority faced in British society—compensations which were not available in the more staid, white-dominated denominations (Hill 1971:121-123; Theobold 1979:318; Stark and Bainbridge 1985). Such compensators bind underprivileged groups to strict churches.

The number of Adventist immigrants were also swelled because of their enthusiasm in reaching out to their non-Adventist peers. The latter were often open to such outreach, having been shaken loose from their customary ways and ties (including their religious ties) by their migration, and often feeling the needs to re-establish communal networks. As immigrants, they had few established opportunities to lose by embracing Adventism and much to gain, such as fellowship in situations where they could celebrate their culture and a new, enclosed status system where there were opportunities for them to rise rapidly. Moreover, because Adventism was much better known in the Caribbean than in the countries they migrated to, they often had a positive image of it rather than, as among the Europeans and North Americans, being suspicious of it as possibly an unknown cult.

The demographics of the immigrants in turn helped their growth, for they were typically much younger than the indigenous members, eager to bear children, and their families tended to be larger than those of the whites. Consequently, they rapidly took over the children’s divisions in their new churches. Their numbers therefore also experienced rapid natural increase.

However, the immigrants, in spite of their numbers, proved to be slow in asserting themselves. Initially they were marginalized in society and also the church because of their poverty, relative lack of education, and the prevailing racism – a racism that was expressed in the church as assumptions that they could be neglected because they were temporary visitors who would in due course return home. Those who eventually took the lead in politicizing the immigrants were youthful members who attended or had graduated from universities. Having gained access to opportunities, they now possessed a stake in society and set out to fight for their rights there.

Once the immigrants took control of their congregations and then, in turn, also their conferences, the Adventist Church shifted its focus to meeting their needs, providing them with schools and turning its evangelical thrust towards the newcomers, so that the conversion rate among immigrants increased further.

However, as Black Adventism in the new host societies became increasingly a second-generation phenomenon, and as black Adventists attained higher levels of education and experienced upward mobility, they increasingly mirrored white Adventists there: they lost more of their youth from the church, became less strict so that they were less eager to be involved in personal outreach, and their demographics became less favorable to growth. This pattern mirrored that found in other studies (Ebaugh and Chafetz 2000: 431-446). Meanwhile, their non-Adventist peers, having themselves put down roots in their new societies, became less disposed to use foreign churches as their social centers, and were more reluctant to respond to evangelistic outreach, now having more to lose by joining a group that still clung to distinctive behavioral norms such as Sabbath observance.


This paper has tested the usefulness of “strictness theory” in a new role: that of explaining why one religious constituency grows while another declines. It has proved to be effective in this. Adventist distinctiveness and strictness encouraged both close ties and zeal among immigrant Adventists. It fitted their needs in their new countries, providing them with community, purpose, a status system where they could easily climb, and help with their problems. Consequently, most of those who arrived with Adventist roots clung to them, and others were drawn in by their outreach. They had much to gain from their Adventist connection in their new situation, and as newcomers had little to lose by so separating themselves from the broader society.

In contrast, few whites were drawn to peculiar Adventism, for they had much more to lose. Those who had grown up as Adventists had already moderated the rules in order to reduce the costs of membership, making Adventism less distinctive. However, when the immigrants took over they brought a more distinctive brand of Adventism, with higher costs, and also further raised the cost for white Adventists as the denomination gained the reputation of being a “black church.” This led to tension, a sense of loss among the whites, and the exit of the majority of them as the impact of the immigrants resulted in a new homogenization of Adventism. Only isolated attempts to create or maintain niche congregations meeting the needs of different kinds of Adventists – different cultures, different educational levels, different music and styles of worship – survived the rapid changes brought about by an overwhelming change in the makeup of the membership.

These case studies illustrate the continuing relevance of Adventism to many of the people yearning for better opportunities in the Developing World – and especially to the new immigrants from such societies seeking a sense of community in the Developed World. However, they also starkly illustrate the decline of Adventism in the Developed World, a decline that increasingly parallels that of the mainline denominations active there but not the more vibrant sects. Indeed, the failure of Adventism to appeal to second-generation immigrants and its huge losses among the children of its immigrant members underlines the problem that Adventism faces in the Developed World.

The problems that indigenous and immigrant Adventists have had worshiping, fellowshipping and working together in the same congregations and conferences in turn illustrate how difficult it is proving to practice Christian love, brotherhood and servant-leadership in a global church. This difficulty is likely to escalate as the relative financial decline of the American church renders it increasingly less able to exercise control through the power of the almighty dollar.


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Ebaugh, Helen Rose, and Janet Saltzman Chafetz. 2000. Religion and the New Immigrants: Continuities and Adaptations in Immigrant Congregations. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira.

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Lawson, Ronald. 1998. “From American Church to Immigrant Church: The Changing Face of Seventh-day Adventism in Metropolitan New York.” Sociology of Religion, 59(4), 329-351.

Lawson, Ronald. 1999. “Internal Political Fallout from the Emergence of an Immigrant Majority: The Impact of the Transformation of Seventh-day Adventism in Metropolitan New York.” Review of Religious Research, 41(1), Fall, 21-47.

Warner, R. Stephen. 1998. “Immigration and Religious Communities in the United States,” pp 3-36 in R. Stephen Warner and Judith G. Wittner (eds), Gatherings in Diaspora: Religious Communities and the New Immigration. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Warner, R. Stephen. Forthcoming. “The Korean Immigrant Church as Case and Model.” Chapter 2 in Ho-Youn Kwon, Kwang Chung Kim and R Stephen Warner (eds), Korean Americans and their Religions: Pilgrims and Missionaries from a Different Shore. Pennsylvania State University Press.

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