The Black American Christian


by Tommy Davis

Within the contemporary American church there seems to be a comfortable racial segregation that has taken root.  Worship traditions are also built around racial interests.  The feelings of black Americans as a result of past discrimination has prompted her to develop a cultural Christianity that later proved to be the antithesis of historic Christianity.  As a result, a cultural barrier now exists between the predominantly white congregation and the predominantly black church.  These attitudes have expressed itself in area neighborhoods, schools, and political loyalties.  Evidence has yet to surface that express interest in church reconciliation from either side.

            By identifying legitimate grievances due to racism, solutions are also available if we would learn from past generations, as well as from the biblical testimony.  Worship traditions are cultural and only reflect a clustered consensus within a selected group.  The deliberate effort of the corporate church to mend the racial divide will create another cultural tradition more reflective of the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2 when at least seventeen different nations gathered to worship during the Feast of Weeks (Ex. 34:32; Lev. 23:15-22).  God had already promised to send the Holy Spirit to the church.  He arrived at Pentecost.  Social and moral ills in America can be confronted by a church that has swept its own backyard clean.

            In 1789 the French Revolution begins.  This Revolution would significantly alter the course of French government that would see the abolition of feudal, aristocratic and clerical privileges.  In the same year, William Wilberforce introduces his bill to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire.  In America, the first African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia was already formed (1788), in addition to the first black congregation that had already organized in Virginia (1758). Lemuel Haynes was serving as the first black pastor of a white congregation in Vermont; and these events are significant because selective groups of Christians were engaged in a war to abolish slavery.  Rev. Haynes was dismissed from his pastorate in 1818 after 30 years of service —not because he was black— but for his political views.

            At the founding of America, the slavery issue did not have race as a motivating factor.  Slavery was an economic institution that later acquired a racial distinctive.   David Barton gives the Founding Fathers the proper credit:

 “If asked to list the slave owning Founding Fathers among the Signers, no one would hesitate to name Thomas Jefferson.  But if asked to name a second slave-owner from among the 56, few other names would be mentioned.  And if asked to name the anti-slavery leaders who signed the Declaration, probably no one would mention Samuel Adams – or Stephen Hopkins, or Benjamin Rush, or Elbridge Gerry, or James Wilson, or John Adams, or Roger Sherman, or Benjamin Franklin, or John Witherspoon, or the many other anti-slavery Founders.”[1]

 The liberal media and historical revisionists, in their attempt to rewrite history and erase America’s Christian heritage, would have the Founding Fathers as racist slaveholders.  Truth is, slavery was an institution that existed before America; and it was America that sought to eliminate it gradually because the Declaration of Independence acknowledges “certain inalienable rights…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Also, in 1789, the U.S. Constitution would declare slaves as “three-fifths” persons. 

On the surface, the “three-fifths” language would indicate that black people were counted as sub-human.  Truth would have it that the southern Democrats wanted to count slaves in an effort to increase Congressional representation in Congress.   This would give slave-holders the advantage to halt legislation that would abolish slavery.  The abolitionists recognized the deception and settled on a compromise that eventually allowed the Democrats to count every five slaves as three votes in Congress. 

The three-fifths clause had nothing to do with personhood or black people because it never mentioned race.  It had everything to do with how many representatives the slaveholding states could send to Congress.  The Democrats wanted to play on words.  They wanted to count slaves as “persons” for representative purposes, but also wanted to count them as “property” for slavery purposes.  The anti-slavery Founders would have to exercise wisdom in response.  Again, David Barton expounded so well:

 “These anti-slavery Founders argued that if the South was going to count its ‘property’ (that is, its slaves) in order to get more pro-slavery representation in Congress, then the North would count its ‘property’ (that is, its sheep, cows, and horses) to get more anti-slavery representation in Congress.  Of course, the South objected just as strongly to this proposal as the North had objected to counting slaves.  The final compromise was that only sixty percent of slaves – that is, three-fifths of slaves – would be counted to calculate the number of southern representatives to Congress.”[2]

             For the record, the Bible never condemned slavery as an institution.  What the Bible obviously condemns is slavery based on race because all humans are made in God’s image.  It is the way people acquired slaves that put the American institution at odds with historic Christianity.   In fact, the south eventually built slavery on race, and attempted to extend slavery into the Western territories.  Contrary to popular belief, the first blacks to arrive at Jamestown in 1619 were not slaves, but indentured servants.  According to Lerone Bennett Jr.:

 “…the first Black immigrants (Antoney, Isabella, and the Jamestown group) were not slaves.  This is a fact of critical importance in the history of Black America.  They came, these first Blacks, the same way that most of the first White immigrants came, under duress and pressure.  They found a system (indentured servitude) that enabled poor Whites to come to America and sell their services for a stipulated number of years to planters.”[3]

 In an effort to prevent the spread of slavery, abolitionists from all political parties met in 1854 to form the Republican Party because they wanted to return to the original vision of the Founding Fathers to live in a Republic where all men are created equal.  They ran John C. Fremont as their first candidate in 1856.  Revivals were already happening under men like Charles Finney who converted thousands of people with many of them joining the abolitionist cause.  Black preachers were among them.  Frederick Douglas had escaped slavery in 1838 and begins his career as an abolitionist and preacher.

            The Republicans lost their first Presidential election with dire consequences.  The Democrat controlled United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in 1857 better known as the Dred Scott decision pronouncing that blacks were not persons nor citizens and had no rights because they were mere property.  Bruce Bartlett, concerning the decision, wrote:

  “Chief Justice Roger Taney, a Democrat who had been appointed by Andrew Jackson, justified the ruling on the grounds that ‘blacks were a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race.’”[4] 

 This placed black Americans –slave and free—in a whole new predicament.  Missing from the Foxe’s Book of Martyrs are the scores of black and white Christians who died at the hands of the proponents of slavery.  Albert Raboteau, who served as professor of religion at Princeton University, wrote in Christian History an interesting parallel:

 “Most of us would recall the early centuries of the Church as the era of persecution, when thousands of Christians became confessors or martyrs by suffering or dying for their faith at the hands of the Roman authorities….Few, I think, would identify the suffering of African-American slave Christians in similar terms, as a prime example of the persecution of Christianity within our own nation’s history.  And yet the extent to which the Christianity of American slaves was hindered, proscribed, and persecuted justifies applying the titles confessor and martyr to those slaves.[5]

             The next Presidential election in 1860, however, would significantly alter the American landscape when Republican Abraham Lincoln ran against Democrats Stephen Douglas and John C. Breckenridge.  It should be acknowledged here that black and white Christians spent much time in prayer because the slavery issue was now primarily a racial one; and individual liberties, due to the Supreme Court decision, was now a national phenomenon that threatened free black churches and other institutions.  The Dred Scott decision also declared that “Congress could not prohibit slavery.”[6]

            Abraham Lincoln would win the Presidency and the Republicans would also gain control of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.  As a result the Democrats left the Union and the Civil War –America’s bloodiest war— would begin in 1861.  Even though revivals broke out on both sides during the four year war, 624,562 lives would be lost.  Black Christians would play a pivotal role in the success of the Union Army.  Black chaplains would serve U.S. regiments. 

 When General Lee surrendered on April 9th in 1865, the Civil War ended.  Four months earlier, General William T. Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had already met with black Methodist and Baptist clergy on an island in South Carolina to answer how the federal government may assist the freed slaves.  Taking advantage of the opportunity, the clergy expressed interest in receiving land.  Since there was plenty of land that had been confiscated from the Confederates, Phillip Dray wrote:

 “Sherman issued Field Order Number 15, establishing the Sea Islands as an area for exclusive black settlement where freedmen and their families might be settled on forty-acre parcels. (Sherman mentioned that he had some worn-out army mules he would be willing to give the black settlers to help them get started on their plots of land – the origin of the expression ‘forty acres and a mule’).”[7]

             Sadly, shortly after General Lee’s surrender, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and war Democrat Andrew Johnson became President, which again heightened racial tensions.  Black Americans would again experience a setback.  Even though the year 1865 saw the abolishment of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan was also organized with now President Johnson pardoning the most prominent Confederates who became eligible to receive back their confiscated property.

 Jesus and His followers taught men and women to view themselves as meaningful.  This foundational belief of self-worth and the sacredness of human beings were in stark contrast to the prevailing ideas of the segregationists who enacted discriminatory Jim Crow laws that would expel blacks from public office and the voting booth.  This was a set of directives that sought to control the freed slaves by enacting and enforcing preventive laws that included restricting blacks from juries, the voting booth, and subjecting blacks to more harsh penalties than their white counterparts.

            Black ministers and other black politicians would soon enter the political arena because Congress passed 3 Reconstruction Acts in 1867, and Ulysses S. Grant became President in 1868.  In 1870 the Rev. Hiram Revels was elected as America’s first black U.S. Senator representing the State of Mississippi as a Republican from 1870 to 1871.  He also served as Mississippi’s secretary of state from December 1872 – September 1873.  Rev. Revels were one of hundreds of blacks who served in public office during the Reconstruction era.

              John Hyman, a former slave born in North Carolina was elected as a Republican to the 44th Congress in March of 1877. In spite of being sold to slaveholders in Alabama, the Honorable Hyman overcame the disgrace of prior captivity and took on a political career after the culmination of the Civil War. His political influence would surpass ten years.

Rev. Jeremiah Haralson —born a slave on a Georgia plantation in 1846; self-educated, yet was elected as a Republican to the 44th Congress in 1875 where he served for two years. This Alabama representative was raised in servitude and did not consider failure as an option. Jefferson Franklin Long, also born a slave on a Georgia plantation in 1836, was elected to the 41st Congress as a Republican in 1870.  The Honorable Long would be Georgia’s first black Congressman.

            It should be noted, however, that very little attention was being given to “church and state” issues. Blacks had already founded so many “black churches” due to the prevailing racism and the issue of black slavery.  After the Civil War, many black colleges were founded to train ministers in the Gospel ministry and for laborious occupation because it was said that “only twenty-eight blacks earned college degrees in America before the Civil War.”[8] 

            Black American Christians would continue to enjoy the freedom from slavery but some radicalism arose because the enthusiasm for doctrinal purity was no longer a focus.  Segregation was still an issue but freedom to worship took on a whole new meaning as blacks appealed to the emotional side of worship rather than equally emphasize the educational counterpart. 

            Subsequently, so-called “revivals” would only be another religious service or a fundraiser without spiritual growth or a return to the Word of God.  While many of the black Baptist churches upheld doctrinal orthodoxy, many other groups experienced greater confusion as they struggled with the realities of segregation and political loyalties.  Black churches would soon emphasize economic advantages which made her vulnerable to politicians and the philosophy of Karl Marx and black liberation theology.

            Contrary to popular belief, ancient liberation theology championed freedom for every human being because God created all people in His image. Slaves and other oppressed peoples realized that God loved them as well, and that no man had the right to redefine another person’s worth.  This realization sparked every abolitionist movement and was the driving factor behind every equal rights law known to man.  Another aspect of this principle was the belief that God was not just another god of a city, or a people.  The Lord of the Scriptures is God over all human beings and the sole Savior of all people.

            Somewhere along the way, certain elements of the black church felt the need to acquire a black liberation theology, a theological position that emphasized black permanent oppression and a distinct theological system that would serve as the antithesis relative to the Scriptures.  Black liberation theology is just another supremacist group painted black.  Dr. Anthony Bradley, a black theologian, wrote, “If we do not begin with God in our understanding of the human person, we will not develop a proper understanding of what the human person is in the fullest possible sense.”[9]   The early Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s was led by men of the Baptist persuasion like Martin Luther King Jr.  The objective was equality rather than separatism.  They fought for the freedom of opportunity.

            What is the solution to our divided churches?  How can we recapture the blessings of God’s strength to be authentic witnesses similar to what happened at Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost when the church communicated the Gospel in the language of the hearers?  Pentecost was no sensational man-made revival speaking in unknown tongues.  Pentecost was the second great festival of the Jewish year when the firstfruits of the grain harvest were presented to God (Lev. 23:17).  Diverse nations gathered in Jerusalem to honor the One true God from whom all blessings flow.  

The churches’ mission can continue if our varied body of believers make the pilgrimage again to “Jerusalem” (coming together) and devote ourselves to serious prayer by confessing our present racism and abandoning our cultural gods.   An effort must be made to deliberately mend the racial divide by joining other churches to worship the same Lord of all rather than a cultural one.  Only then will the church realize her full potential by being energized by the Holy Spirit as God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.

[1] Barton, David. American History in Black & White. Aledo: Wallbuilders, 2004. P. 7

[2] Barton. P.13

[3] Jr., Lerone Bennett. Before the Mayflower, A History of Black America. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 1961: 33

[4] Bartlett, Bruce. Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past. New York: MacMillan, 2008: 19

[5] Raboteau, Albert J. “The Dignity of Faith.” Christian History, 1999: 42.

[6] Barton, David. Original Intent, The Courts, the Constitution, & Religion. Aledo: Wallbuilders, 1996: 272

[7] Dray, Philip. Capitol Men: An Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008: 51

[8] Reed, James & Ronnie Prevost. A History of Christian Education. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993: 326

[9] Bradley, Anthony B. Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010: 23

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