On the first day of the first month of 2012, I went to Hopewell Baptist Church. This was the fifth time I’ve been to church since 1996. In the middle of the sermon, some members of the congregation stood in front of their seats, began waving their arms above their heads and saying things like “Amen” and “Yes Lord.” Others members of the congregation left their seats and began running up and down the aisles. As they ran they were waving their arms above their heads, as well, and yelling phrases like “Yes Jesus” and “Thank you Father God.”
It reminded me of the many Sundays when my mother and I attended Baptist Temple Church in Harlem, to listen to Reverend Clay Maxwell. Midway through Reverend Maxwell’s sermons members of the congregation would stand in the aisles yelling and screaming in the same manner as they did at Hopewell. Some would eventually fall back into their seats or on the floor in the aisles crying and shaking as if they were freezing to death. When I asked my mother why these people were screaming and crying and passing out she told me the Holy Ghost affects people in different ways. When I asked her why the Holy Ghost would make people lay on the floor in their good clothes she didn’t answer. Then I asked why was the Holy Ghost making the same people pass out every Sunday? She told me to be quiet and listen to the preacher. However, unlike Hopewell, at Baptist Temple the nurses, in their white church uniforms, would escort these people into the lobby to help them regain their composure. Once their composure was regained they were escorted back to their seats.
As I sat in Hopewell I began to think about the process by which African Americans were introduced to Christianity. So when I returned home I did a little research into that introduction and its continued commitment.
The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007 by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, found that while the U.S. is generally considered a highly religious nation, African-Americans are markedly more religious on a variety of measures than the U.S. population as a whole. This included, but was not limited to; their level of affiliation with a religion, attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer and religion’s importance in their lives. The Landscape Survey also includes the religious composition of African-Americans and the churches they attend, which is:
1- Evangelical Protestant Churches = 15%
2- Black Protestant Churches = 59%
3- Catholic Churches = 6%
4- Unaffiliated =12%
5- Other = 6%
So if my math is correct, at least 80% of African-Americans consider themselves, in some way shape or form, a Christian.
With a little understanding of the African-American Christian composition; I researched Christianity’s introduction to African slaves coming to America.
After reading an article by Anthony Haworth, my understanding of this introduction enabled me to consider elements of that introduction that I had never considered before. I knew that when Africans were being abducted from their homeland and transferred to America they came with no knowledge of Christianity. I found this fact amazing because, not only did these Africans come from an area that was closer to the birth of Christianity than the Americans; but it was also 1800 years after the birth of Christ.
According to Haworth, there is a two pronged argument about how and why Christianity was introduced to the slaves. First he would argument the slave owners imagined that Christianizing slaves would have a civilizing affect on them and possibly make the slave owner feel safer by giving them added control over their slaves. His second argument is that Christianity “Humanized” the slaves and this made the northern whites more comfortable. In either case, the effect of Christianity on the African-Americans was immeasurable and by 1861 the majority of slaves were Christians.
Frederick Douglas, the African-American abolitionist and former slave, shared his personal insight on the subject. Douglas claims it was not individual Christians who were largely responsible for the melding of slavery and American Christianity. It was the Christian Churches that not only owned slaves; they also sold slaves to raise funds for the spreading of Christianity. In Douglas’ self-written biography, he wrote:
“The church and the slave prison stand next to each other; the groans and cries of the heartbroken slave are often drowned in the pious devotions of the religious master. The church-going bell and the auctioneer bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer’s block stand in the same neighborhood; while the blood-stained gold goes to support the pulpit covers the infernal business with the garb of Christianity. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support missionaries and babies sold to buy Bibles and communion services for the churches.”
There have been and continue to be people who have attempted to justify the mistreatment of African-Americans on the basis of their interpretation of the Bible. However, this justification has never held up to honest scrutiny. It has even been suggested the Africans suffered horribly under chattel slavery and were brutalized and dehumanized, but if the slave ships had not arrived and brought you to the New world, you wouldn’t have found Jesus.
Case in point is Pastor Earl Carter who, in 1997, wrote a book titled “No Apology Necessary.” In the book he argues that white people need not apologize because:
1- God instituted slavery due to Africans’ pagan idolatry
2- Importation to the New World eventually resulted in the Christianization of African slaves
Anyone who says the Americans involved in the slave trade should not be held accountable for their involvement is someone who doesn’t have a clue. To even suggest that slavery was necessary for Africans to be introduced to Jesus completely ignores the horrors that took place on the slave ships, the dehumanization of slavery and how slavery forced the total destruction of many African families. Personally, I can’t see God supporting any process that would lead to those results.
So what are we to conclude from the Bible’s text on slavery? One thing is for sure; nowhere in the Old or New Testament does the text directly condemn slavery or call for its abolition. Matter of fact, both Peter and Paul instruct slaves to obey their masters. To better understand the slavery during biblical times I took a closer look at the difference between slavery during that time and the slavery in America.
The Old Testament gave me a better understanding of slavery during that time.
Exodus 20:2-3 “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him.”
Exodus 20:20 “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished.”
The New Testament helped me to better understand of slavery during its time.
1 Timothy 6:1-5 “Let as many bondservants are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and His doctrine may not be blasphemed……”
Ephesians 6:5 “Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ.”
Titus 2:9-10 “Exhort bondservants to be obedient to their own masters, to be well pleasing in all things, not answering back, not pilfering, but showing all good fidelity, that they may adorn the doctrine of God our savior in all things.”
According to the above there is no conflict between being a Christian and at the same time, being the owner of other human beings. However, my closer look did reveal clear differences between the slavery that existed during biblical times and the slavery that took place in America. Unlike slavery in the Bible, American slaves couldn’t win or earn their freedom and not only were they slaves for life, but every member of their family were slaves for life as well. Also in America slave owners were not punished for murdering slaves.
As northerners were working towards ending slavery, southern politicians and religious leaders continued using the bible to support their pro-slavery position. To bring an end to slavery, in America, a war was fought and in just the battles of Gettysburg, Chickamauga and Antietam over 60,000 southern men were killed and Atlanta had to be burned to the ground.
In 1856 Reverend Thomas Stringfellow, a Baptist minister from Culpepper County in Virginia, wrote the following statement in his book titled “A Scriptural View of Slavery:”
“Jesus Christ recognized this institution (i.e. slavery) as one that was lawful among men, and regulated its relative duties…I affirm then, first (and no man denies) that Jesus Christ has not abolished slavery by a prohibitory command; second, I affirm, he has introduced no new moral principal which can work its destruction.”
Obviously the introduction of Christianity to the Africans who were abducted from their homeland and shipped to America occurred during slavery and this raises a question in my mind. If I were a slave and I watched other slaves being sold, murdered, tortured, made disable, beaten, women raped and children being ripped from their parent’s arms to be sold to the highest bidder, Could I subscribe to the same religion as the slave owner?