Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

Archive for the month “May, 2012”

Christianization of African Slaves in North America

Introduction

The colonists of North America in the 17th and 18th centuries adopted slavery to help build the early American colonies. From 1619 until the end of the Civil War in 1865, thousands of Africans were brought to America into slavery, yet little evangelism occurred. Slowly, masters would teach slaves of Christ, until Africans were able to establish their own churches. This essay seeks to analyze the rise of Christianity amongst African slaves with some reflections for the contemporary church.

Christianity Amongst African Slaves in North America

In 1619, the Dutch first brought Africans to Virginia, originally as indentured servants, but when found to be excellent workers, soon became permanent slaves, in the form of chattel slavery.[1] African slaves were easily marked by skin color,[2] leading to racial discrepancies. Hence, there was very little evangelistic effort toward African slaves at first, Christianity being a minor issue for many colonists, and went unquestioned for some time.[3] Some Quakers and German Mennonites went unheeded when they raised concerns regarding slavery in Pennsylvania in 1688,[4] but “the greed of national and colonial leaders was more in evidence than concern for Christian faith and mission.”[5]

The major issue pertained to the question of civil emancipation in the act of baptism, which, to some, conveyed social freedom.[6] On the issue, the Virginia General Assembly adopted an act in 1667, stating that “the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or ffree-dome,”[7] based on the belief that spiritual liberty is separate to civil freedom, a doctrine of “transcendent freedom.” Some even saw them as less than human.[8]

Between 1650 and 1700, the slave population grew dramatically, from 300 to over 6000 slaves in Virginia.[9] Despite major evangelical efforts toward these slaves didn’t begin until mid-18th century,[10] the first decade of the 18th century saw Samuel Sewell publish “The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial”[11] and Francis le Jau instruct and baptise slaves.[12] The Great Awakening in the 1730s was the first wide scale attempt at evangelizing slaves,[13] Methodism being popular due to the active approach of preachers welcoming slaves into the congregation. Volunteer black preachers were largely influential in spreading Christianity to other slaves.[14] Many believed Christianity was a good form of social control over slaves,[15] but according to Noll, “When they found…that the Bible had more to say about Jesus lifting burdens than slaves obeying masters, blacks discovered a secret their masters did not want them to know,”[16] and African church attendance grew dramatically.

In 1757, the antislavery Quaker John Woolman lamented, “These are souls for whom Christ died, and for our conduct toward them we must answer before that Almighty Being,”[17] and by 1776 he had persuaded the Quakers to officially become antislavery. Furthermore, several purely African churches were established, such as a Baptist Church at Silver Bluff, South Carolina and the African Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.[18] In 1777, the African Richard Allen received freedom and became a Methodist preacher and arriving in Philadelphia, he said, “I soon saw a large field open in seeking and instructing my African brethren, who had been a long forgotten people.”[19] While at St. George’s Methodist Church, he and some friends were humiliated, so left to establish the Free African Society, the first establishment by blacks for blacks.[20]

In 1787, the Northern States declared slavery as illegal, with John Leland, an antislavery leader in Virginia stating that “slavery is a violent deprivation of the rights of nature.”[21] By 1820, African churches were even sending missionaries to Africa.[22] However, many Southern States remained proslavery, and as a result of the North rejecting slavery and the British Empire abolishing it in 1833, as well as pressure after the revolt initiated by Nat Turner, the South hardened its slave codes. Thomas Dew and Richard Furman argued for theological reasons for slavery,[23] and tension between the North and South grew around this religious debate over the validity of slavery,[24] until 1861 when civil war broke out until 1865, bringing defeat for the South and abolishment for all America.[25]

Contemporary Significance

The two most significant questions that the contemporary church faces is 1) whether or not racial prejudices or social status differences influence our evangelistic effort, and 2) whether there are any practices the church finds acceptable today, but may find unacceptable in 100 years. In either case a major lesson to be learnt is to avoid allowing differences climax into war. However, this is obviously difficult if not impossible. The church must seriously analyse itself regularly in order to stop seemingly small issues developing into large issues that become universally acceptable, yet are doctrinally incorrect. This self-criticism must regularly be aimed toward how people approach racial and cultural differences, with an eye toward avoiding racial bigotry.


[1] G. T. Miller, The Modern Church: From the Dawn of the Reformation to the Eve of the Third Millenium (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1997). 131; Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992). 77; Robert T. Handy, A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976). 15. Chattel slavery refers to the state in which a master owned a slave’s body like one would own cattle, horses, etc. (Miller. 131).

[2] Miller notes, “If white servants escaped, they melted into the general population; however, wherever Africans went, people recognized their bondage or, if legally free, their former bondage. Escaped slaves were easily rounded up and returned,” (p. 131).

[3] Jonathan Hill, The New Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2007). 295; Noll. 77; Miller.132.

[4] Noll. 77.

[5] Handy. 4.

[6] Charles H. Lippy, “Slave Christianity,” in A People’s History of Christianity: Modern Christianity to 1900, ed. Amanda Porterfield(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007). 297. Cf. Miller. 132.

[7] Quoted in Handy. 70.

[8] J. Earl Thompson, “The Contradictions of Liberty,” Andover Newton Quarterly 2, no. 1 (1976). 165. Miller expands, arguing that some thought the church should only look after humanity’s spiritual needs, hence pastors shouldn’t be involved in political matters, (p. 136).

[9] Handy. 70.

[10] Hill. 333.

[11] Miller. 137.

[12] Noll. 79. Francis wrote in October 1709, “On Sunday next I design God willing to baptise two very sensible and honest Negro Men whom I have kept upon tryal these two Years. Several others have spoken to me also; I do nothing too hastily in that respect. I instruct them and must have the consent of their Masters with a good Testimony and proof of their honest life and sober Conversation: Some Masters in my parish are very well satisfied with my Proceedings in that respect: others do not seem to be so; yet they have given over opposing my design openly; it is to be hoped the good Example of the one will have an influence over the others,” (Noll, p. 79).

[13] Miller. 132.

[14] Harry V. Richardson, “Early Black Methodist Preachers,” Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center 3, no. 1 (1975). 1-3. Fountain discusses why Christianity was so successful among African slaves, concluding that a huge influence was the similarities Christianity had with African traditions. Monotheism, the symbolism of water, prayer, song and a belief in an afterlife were very easily accepted by most, allowed them to incorporate their own traditions into the Christianity being preached to them, (Daniel Fountain, Slavery, Civil War, and Salvation (Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2010). 19-20). Furthermore, Lippy similarly notes that the spirituality of the Africans was so strong that it wasn’t difficult for them to believe in the Christian God, but formed a Christianity of their own, incorporating elements such as the “Ring Shout” into services, which developed into call-response style sermons and preachers would often walk around the congregation, as would people in the congregation, (Lippy. 295-297).

[15] Miller. 133. Cf. Noll. 78. Slaves were forbidden to learn to read or marry, and were sometimes even bred for profit (Miller. 132-134).

[16] Noll. 79.

[17] John Woolman, “John Woolman’s Journal,” in Quaker Spirituality: Selected Writings, ed. Douglas V. Steere(Ramsey, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1984). 184

[18] Miller. 137.

[19] Quoted in Noll. 201.

[20] Ibid. 202. Other influential people include Lemuel Hayes, who was the first African to be ordained in a predominately white church, but retired in 1818 after racial antagonism (ibid. 200). Another was Jupiter Hammon, one of the first African preachers to have his writings published, which included poetic expression “to encourage slaves to know and expect that they had every equality in the salvation of Jesus Christ,” (Sonda O’Neale, “Jupiter Hammon and His Works: A Discussion of the First Black Preacher to Publish Poems, Sermons and Essays in America,” Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center 9, no. 1 (1982). 99).

[21] Quoted in Clifton E. Olmstead, History of Religion in the United States (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1960). 365.

[22] Noll. 204.

[23] Their reasons were largely based on texts such as Paul’s letter to Philemon, and they argued that God cannot permit anything immoral, hence the fact that he permits slavery means that is, in fact, moral.

[24] Miller. 138-140.

[25] Hill. 442-444.

Thoughts on Habakkuk 3

Last year, I had my wisdom teeth taken out. They weren’t hurting or anything, but the dentist told me they had to come out. He also told me I had to have 6 fillings, which wasn’t so comforting, and so that one dentist appointment wasn’t exactly my favourite appointment. But we booked a check up and an x-ray with a dental surgeon and then we booked an actual surgery and had my wisdom teeth come out. The next couple of weeks were extremely uncomfortable and I quickly got sick of mashed potatoes and jelly. It was also very expensive. It cost over a thousand dollars just for the anaesthesiologist.

And so despite the fact that I brush my teeth regularly, I look after them, and despite the dentist telling me I had great teeth, I still needed the expensive and uncomfortable experience of having my wisdom teeth removed.

I’m telling you this story because it is a story similar to something we all go through at some time. Despite us putting effort into doing what we know is right and good, sometimes we still end up in an uncomfortable situation.

Just like the prophets preaching to the Jews about 600 years before Jesus came along. Their situation was far worse than my needing dental surgery, but the idea is similar. Like Habakkuk, who saw where Israel was going, knew it was not good, and knew that if the Jews did not fix up what they were doing, they would end up in an even worse place. Habakkuk and other prophets were doing what they thought was right and good, telling the Israelites to return to Yahweh before judgment came in the form of the Babylonians. And Habakkuk had this long conversation with God, crying out to God, knowing that God could fix the problem of the Babylonians, and wrestling with why God wasn’t immediately removing the impending doom Israel was surely about to experience.

I brushed my teeth, and yet I needed dental surgery; Habakkuk prayed and sought God, and yet Israel still needed serious punishment. The analogy obviously isn’t sufficient, but I hope it expresses some of the confusion I’m sure Habakkuk felt. Like today when we ask God to heal all the sick and to remove all the poverty and to reveal himself to all the atheists, but responds in a way we either weren’t expecting or weren’t wanting.

So as we turn to Habakkuk chapter 3, keep that sense of confusion in the back of your mind; because Habakkuk was wanting God to fix their problems, to remember his merciful and gracious covenant he had made with Israel and defeat the Babylonians. However, God’s response is different to what Habakkuk was expecting, and by the end of the book, we see a drastic shift in Habakkuk’s approach to God, and an attitude to God’s sovereignty that we can learn from.

Chapter 3 can be broken into three sections, and we’ll look at each in turn: vv.1-2; vv.3-15; and vv.16-19. Each of these three sections offer 3 different perspectives about what our attitude to God should look like.

1.    We must be willing and open to the new things that God wants to do.

This chapter is a prayer, Habakkuk is having a conversation with God, wrestling with issues, and begins with this grand statement of God. In 1:5, God tells Habakkuk to open his eyes and see the things he is doing, and in this verse Habakkuk finally recognizes God’s work in this world. In this statement he recognizes the way God has worked in the past to help his people and asks that he do it again in his own time, to reveal his glory and to bring salvation to Israel.

One theologian wrote, “The love of God is so strong that, even when he is flagrantly ignored, deserted or rejected, he is drawn, as a husband to his wife or a mother to her child, to love in spite of the actions of the other. The wrongs are real, but so too are the compassion and the desire to forgive.”

Habakkuk knew this of God’s nature. He knew that God was merciful and desired to forgive Israel. He was well aware of how bad Israel had become, that’s why he mentions “wrath,” but he knows that God offers mercy and he appeals to that side of God’s nature. He was saying, “God, you are a loving and merciful God, so please forgive us despite the many wrongs we have committed.”

But as we can see from earlier chapters, God was going to bring that punishment, there was no escaping it. It had to be done. Habakkuk had seen had God had forgiven, rescued and vindicated his people in the past and wanted him to do it again, but God was going to do something different. God was doing something new in allowing the Babylonians to deport the people away from Israel.

And that is something that we have to be open up to, today. We have to allow the possibility of God doing something entirely new and different in our lives. We may be tempted to ask God to repeat what he has done in the past. We can become envious of the people who lived before us. But we must remember that God may want to do something new. We have to open our eyes to God’s activity.

The story of Jesus is a good example. The Israelites had a very particular image of the Messiah and were expecting this Messiah to rid them of their Roman oppressors. Yet, the Messiah they received was not what they were expecting, let alone a Messiah that would die on the cross. God was doing something new in Jesus. We have to be open to God doing something new in our lives today.

2.    We must always remember that nothing is greater than God.

Habakkuk was faced with the question of if Israel – God’s appointed nation, whom he is in a covenantal relationship with – fell to the Babylonians, is God weak? Are the Babylonians stronger than God?

In vv.3-15, he uses many different images to present a God who is incredibly strong. Habakkuk was sure that none was greater than Yahweh.

“His glory covered the heavens”; “The brightness was like the sun; rays came forth from his hand”; “He stopped and shook the earth; he looked and made the nations tremble”; “The mountains saw you, and writhed.” These images present a God who is incredibly mighty. Habakkuk knew that God was sovereign above all.

These images also carry connotations of the exodus out of Egypt, talking of the people’s deliverance from Egypt following the plagues, their wandering in the wilderness and the entry into the promised land. Verse 13 says, “You came forth to save your people, to save your anointed.” Teman and Mount Paran are places often associated with the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. And these images also show a God who is on the move, a God who intervenes for his people, a God who actually does something on this earth.

Habakkuk knew that God was great and knew that God had saved his people in the past. And he knew that God intervened in this world. Habakkuk knew that God could defeat the Babylonians and glorify Israel. But God did not do that. Despite telling Habakkuk in earlier chapters that he would not stop Babylon, Habakkuk still recited these stories in his prayer to God. He desperately wanted God to reveal his glory to all the nations.

In v.7, Cushan and Midian are mentioned, and these were old enemies of Israel who were defeated long ago. So when Habakkuk here mentions them, he is thinking of victory as God shakes the nations. Habakkuk wants God to intervene again and defeat Israel’s enemies.

Habakkuk knew that Israel would be overrun by the Babylonians. He knew that things were not looking good. But he knew that God is great and that no one and nothing is greater than God. The situation didn’t cause Habakkuk to doubt God’s holiness, just like Job’s terrible situation did not cause Job to doubt God’s sovereignty. Only God is great.

The Pharaohs and the Nebuchadnezzars of the world may have political power for some time and may seem huge and mighty. But in the end God will be recognized as the holiest and the greatest. Only God is great. We must remember this, no matter the opposition.

Louise XIV of France, known by some as the Sun King, wanted to be remembered as the greatest French king ever. So, he insisted that at his funeral, in Notre-Dame in Paris, the only candle that would be lit would be the candle on his casket. Jean-Baptiste Massillon got up to give the funeral oration and walked over to the casket. He snuffed out the candle on the casket and began his message by saying, “Only God is great. Only God is great.”

I’m reminded of Psalm 96:4, 6 – “For God is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods…Honour and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.”

And Paul declares that God’s greatness will eventually be acknowledged by all, in Philippians 2:9-11 – “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

3.    We must remember that God is sovereign judge.

The last 4 verses portray a Habakkuk very different to the Habakkuk at the beginning of the book. He has been taken on this journey in prayer, has been challenged with God and wrestled over difficult issues. He finally comes to a point where he just opens his hands up to God and accepts whatever God has planned.

Habakkuk has recited these stories of God being victorious for his people and defeating Israel’s enemies, and what he realizes is that ultimately God will come through for his people and will punish those who harm them. He is physically overwhelmed with awe, he trembles, he quivers and rottenness enters his bones. God will come through for his people eventually, but seeing God as almighty and as sovereign judge, Habakkuk trembles in fear.

He is then able to say “I wait quietly for the day of calamity to come upon those who attack us.” He knows that the Babylonians are coming and that the fall of Israel is imminent, but he remembers that God has rescued his people in the past and judges their enemies. And so he waits for the day to come when the Babylonians will be judged by God.

And in the mean time, he is confident in God. In verses 17-19 he recognizes that even in the difficult times God is worthy of being praised. When all seems lost, God is eternally the God of salvation.

Habakkuk knows that God is the sovereign judge of this world. He knows that even in the tough times, he will come through for his people and will strengthen them. At all times, God is worthy of being rejoiced and exulted. In times of distress, the Lord is Habakkuk’s strength.

And the Lord is still sovereign judge and is still our strength, even today. Jesus said in Matthew 16:18  that the powers of death, the gates of Hades cannot ever prevail against the Church. This should give us confidence as it gave Habakkuk confidence to open our arms to God and his ways and to rejoice in him and to exult him. For he will be our strength, as Paul says in Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

I think of the persecution against the Christian Church in today’s context, which is not entirely dissimilar to Habakkuk’s situation. The wave of atheism that attacks the Church, in the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who say that the best thing for the world is for religion to no longer exist. They say we do not need God, and they even say that the concept of the Christian God will be extinct soon enough. They are attacking the Church, trying to get rid of it. Just as Habakkuk cried to God to get him to vanquish God’s people’s enemies, we may today cry out to God to vanquish our enemies today. But yet they are still here and the attacks keep coming.

But we can take comfort!

“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.”

No matter what comes our way, whatever surprises God has in store for us, we can always remember that alone is great and that he alone will judge the actions of every person. We can take comfort that he will be our strength and will guide us and that the Church can never destroyed by anything this world can throw at it. Our God is great.

And I’ll conclude with a quote from John Calvin: “We are fully persuaded, that our salvation is in God’s hand, and that he is its faithful guardian. We shall, therefore, rest quietly, though heaven and earth were rolled together, and all places were full of confusion…we shall yet be in a tranquil state of mind, looking for his gratuitous salvation.”

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