Confessions of a Middle-Aged White Woman, Part II: Lessons I've Learned From History

In honor of Black History Month I thought I would include a few more posts that reflect some of the ways in which I, a middle-aged white woman, have grown in my understanding and appreciation of the African American Church. A couple of years ago I posted my first "Confessions" article, which you can read here, in which I describe some initial steps I took with the help of some dear Cru colleagues to grow in awareness.

As I mentioned in the article, the more I exposed to the topic of diversity and the more I interacted with people of color, I was humbled. "You don't know what you don't know" and I knew so little. So, I began taking advantage of writing assignments for certain seminary courses to learn more about the growth of the Church in the north and antebellum south, and marveled how the message of the gospel spread among slaves in the midst of often inhumane and horrific circumstances. Although my research barely scratches the surface, it helped me understand something I knew very little about. 

So, this week's post will provide a brief history of a handful of men used by God to plant and grow the African American church in the North including: Lemuel Hayes, Uncle Jack, and Lott Carey. Let me state, at the outset, these brief histories, although by no means comprehensive in scope, hopefully provide insight into the ways in which God used the adversity of our black brothers and sisters to spread the gospel and to build the church. 

The African American church was birthed as a result of the African slave trade that brought some ten million Africans to Britain and North America between 1500 and 1820. The captives, often viewed as less than human, were rarely exposed to the gospel until the 18th Century, and even after a slave believed and was baptized, slaveholders struggled to see their value as human beings. Historian Bill Leonard explains, “Baptism threatened to make the slave “so nearly a person that no Christian could hold him in slavery.””[1] Despite captivity and oppression these faithful followers of Christ began to form their own congregations in New England and across the frontier as early as 1805.      

During the Revolutionary War, particularly in the north, black believers began to cry for freedom and emancipation. Lemuel Haynes (1753–18330, a black pastor fighting in the War of Independence provided a strong, anti-slavery voice. Haynes, abandoned by his African father and white mother, grew up as an indentured servant in what historians describe as a “hospitable environment.” He received a Christian education as a child and, after serving in the Revolutionary War, studied theology. Thabite Anyabwile notes, “[Haynes] was licensed to preach on November 29, 1780 and five years later became the first African-American ordained by any religious body in America. In 1804 Middlebury College awarded Hayes an honorary Master’s degree—another first for an African American.”[2] Haynes, a Calvinist and “New Light Moderate” became a model for church leaders. He often taught and preached on the importance of a pastor’s character and calling. Remarkably, he pastored an all-white church for 30 years until the onset of the Civil War when he stepped down from the pastorate due to racial tension among his congregants.

During this same period under much different circumstances, celebrated folk preacher, Uncle Jack (c.1750–1843), arrived on American shores as a nine-year-old slave. He converted to Christianity at the age of forty, and although he never attended school, eventually learned to read the Bible and to preach the truth. Biographer, Rev. Dr. William S. White notes: “He became so full of the spirit and knowledge of the Bible that he was recognized among whites as a powerful expounder of Christian doctrine, was licensed to preach by the Baptist Church, and preached from plantation to plantation within a radius of thirty miles.”[3] Uncle Jack was never vocal on the topic of emancipation nor influential in the broad scope of African American church growth, but “[f]or over forty years, and until he was nearly a hundred years of age, he labored successfully in public and private”[4] and walked with God with an influence that reaches into the twenty-first century.

Lott Carey (1780–1828), another fascinating figure, influenced the growth of the African American church in America and became the first American missionary to the continent of Africa. Born to slave parents, Carey was baptized in Richmond, Virginia in 1807 while working as a tobacco laborer. Although never formally educated, he quickly learned to read and write and demonstrated a supernatural ability to preach and teach. In addition, Carey was instrumental in garnering attention among black believers in Richmond for the country of Africa.[5] Carey’s burden, shared by fellow preacher Collin Teague, resulted in the establishment of the African Missionary Society. Carey initially contributed to the mission by raising considerable funds and eventually by relocating as a missionary to Liberia where he and other missionaries to Africa endured great hardship and loss in the midst of evangelizing and baptizing many Africans. Carey’s heart and passion for missions is revealed in a letter dated Dec. 20, 1827:

I do not know what to say, but I must say, O American Christians! Look this way! come this way! and help, if you cannot come! Send help for the Lord’s sake! help Africa’s sons out of the devil’s bush into the kingdom of God; the harvest is already white.[6]

Carey died in Liberia in 1828 after having given considerable leadership in the country and on behalf of Liberian believers in the face of colonization. 

I believe these men continue to have an influence in the twenty-first century. We can learn a great deal personally from their perseverance, calling, and dedication, and corporately as we consider the power of the gospel and the mission of God. 

 

 

Excerpts of this blog are taken from a research paper by Cas Monaco for SEBTS dated 2013.

[1] Bill J. Leonard, Baptist Ways, A History (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2003), 263.

[2] Thabiti M. Anyabwile, The Faithful preacher, Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors (Crossway, Wheaton, 2007), 18.

[3] Phil Zukerman, DuBois on Religion, (Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2000), 76.

[4] Ibid, 77.

[5] (Taylor 1998, 16)

[6] (Taylor 1998, 82)