The North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church has elected its first black president, even though some venerable documents of the church caution against racial integration.

Charles E. Bradford, 53, was named late Thursday to head the 550,000 Adventists in the United States and Canada. He succeeds Neal C. Wilson, who became head of the worldwide church earlier this month.

Bradford's selection in the closeddoor session of the policymaking General Conference Committee, meeting at the church's headquarters in Takoma Park, was said to be unanimous. But the group's 61-member nominating committee had more difficulty in agreeing to recommend him for the post. Scheduled to make their recommendation at 10 a.m., the committee was unable to do so until nearly 4 p.m.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church requires its adherents to follow a vegetarian diet, observe Saturday as the sabbath and believe in the imminent return of Jesus Christ. The church was founded in the latter part of the 19th century.

Although the theologically conservative group has no creed other than the Bible, its members study the writings of an early guiding spirit of the movement, Ellen G. White. Her writings were assembled posthumously into a multi-volume "Testimonies for the Church."

In one of her testimonies, dated 1908, she urges an accommodation to local racial customs for church evangelists in the South. "We are not to agitate the color line question and thus arouse prejudice and bring about a crisis," she wrote in an essay entitled "Proclaiming the Truth."

"Let the work be done in a way that will not arouse prejudice which would close doors now open for the entrance of the truth," she added.

In another essay on "The Color Line," she wrote: "The colored people should not urge that they be placed on an equality with white people... The work of proclaiming the truth for this time is not to be hindered by an effort to adjust the position of the Negro race."

A spokesman for the church said that White's views on race reflect the social pattern of her day, but and are not considered valid for today.

Some black leaders within the church maintain, however, that White's influence has been a factor in the church's attitude toward blacks in both church and society.

Blacks make up about 20 per cent of the membership of the church in North America. An estimated 90 per cent of them are members of all-black congregations.

An ad hoc conference of black clergy and teachers in the church last spring charged that the Adventist "church structure has systematically excluded blacks from crucial organizational positions."

Efforts of black leaders to organize the black churches into their own regional jurisdictions known as unions, repeatedly have been denied -- most recently last October. Blacks maintain that leaving the black churches in the predominantly white unions dilutes the strength of black members and denies them leadership opportunities.

Bradford has been associate secretary of the church's General Conference since 1970.