The last time I went to church, I went to Hopewell Baptist in Atlanta. It 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 and began waving their arms above their heads and saying, “Amen” and “Yes, Lord.” Other 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, “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 lie on the floor in their good clothes, she didn’t answer. Then I asked why the Holy Ghost made 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 the parishioners into the lobby to help them regain composure. Once their composure was regained, they were escorted back to their seats.
As I sat at the service, I began to think about what the process by which Africans were being introduced to Christianity. 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, the frequency of prayer, and religion’s significance in their lives. The Landscape Survey also included the religious composition of African Americans and the churches they attended:
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, a Christian.
With a little understanding of the African American Christian composition, I researched Christianity’s introduction to African slaves coming to America. I read an article by Anthony Haworth, and its introduction enabled me to consider elements that I had never considered before. I understood that when Africans were abducted from their homeland and transferred to America they came with no knowledge of Christianity. This very fact amazed me because Africans come from an area that was closer to the birth of Christianity than the Americans. According to Haworth, there is a two-pronged argument about how and why Christianity was introduced to the slaves. The first argument is that the slave owners imagined that Christianizing slaves would have a civilizing effect on them and therefore the slave owner had more control and felt a lot safer. His second argument is that Christianity “humanized” the slaves. This made the Northern whites 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 insight on the subject. He claimed it was not individual Christians who were largely responsible for the melding of slavery and American Christianity; no, in fact, it was the very Christian Churches that not only owned slaves but sold them to raise funds for the spreading of Christianity. Douglas wrote in his autobiography:
“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. Men were 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 attempt to justify the mistreatment of African Americans based on their interpretation of the Bible. However, this justification has never held up to honest scrutiny. It’s even been suggested that Africans suffered horribly under chattel slavery and were brutalized and dehumanized, but if the slave ships had not arrived and brought to the New World, the slaves would never have found Jesus.
A 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 that Americans involved in the slave trade should not be held accountable for their involvement is clueless. 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 that very slavery forced the destruction of many African families. 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’s for sure, nowhere in the Old or New Testament does the text directly condemn it or call for its abolition. Both Peter and Paul instructed slaves to obey their masters. To better understand the subject during Biblical times, I took a closer look at the difference between slavery back then, and the egregious time of slavery in America. Herein the Old Testament:
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 she 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.”
Additionally in the New Testament:
1 Timothy 6:1-5 “Let as many bondservants are under the yoke count their 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 the sincerity of heart, as to Christ.”
Titus 2:9-10 “Exhort bondservants to be obedient to their 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.”
In conclusion, I found there is no conflict between being Christian and being the owner of slaves. Unlike slavery in the Bible, American slaves couldn’t win or earn their freedom. Not only were they slaves for life, but every member of their family were as well. American slave owners were not punished for murdering slaves.
As Northerners worked towards ending slavery, Southern politicians and religious leaders used the Bible to support their pro-slavery position. To bring an end to slavery, the Civil war was fought. In the battles of Gettysburg, Chickamauga, and Antietam, over 60,000 Southern men were killed. Atlanta had to be burned to the ground.
In 1856 Reverend Thomas Stringfellow, a Baptist minister from Culpepper County, Virginia wrote in 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 principle which can work its destruction.”
I cannot see where the slave master gave the slave anything that was good for the slave. The slave couldn’t drink from the same water fountain as the master or eat in the same restaurant or use the same toilet. Yet, I’m supposed to believe the slave master would give the slave the keys to the same heaven he was going to.
The introduction of Christianity to the Africans abducted from their homeland and shipped to America occurred during slavery and thus it raises the question: If I were a slave and I watched other slaves being sold, murdered, tortured, beaten, as well as women being raped and children being ripped from their parents’ arms to be sold to the highest bidder, would I subscribe to the same religion as the slave owner?