First Question: Who are some of the most beloved figures of American Evangelicalism?
Answer. Consider these names: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Charles Hodge. Great theologians and preachers all.
Second Question: Even though most African American Christians believe in a generally evangelical theology, why do so few identify with evangelicalism as a broader movement?
Answer. Consider these names: Jonathan Edwards (owned at least 6 slaves), George Whitefield (slave owner, fought for legalization of slavery in Georgie, used slave labor in his orphanage, bought 20+ slaves in his lifetime), Charles Hodge (defender of the slave trade). Also, Charles Finney, D.L. Moody and Billy Graham all preached to segregated audiences even while on some level denouncing the slave trade (source: The American Evangelical Story by Doug Sweeney).
In other words, history shows us that white evangelical heroes of the American past have either outright participated in slavery or at least tacitly supported its through racist ministry practices. While Edwards was writing his brilliant essays on the Religious Affections, maybe he had a few slaves in the backyard working to provide food for him and his family to eat.
This is the evangelical slavery problem. Modern day American Christians benefit theologically from the writings and practices of incredibly influential men who directly supported something as wicked and inherently racist as slavery.
From the perspective of history, it is just short of miraculous that any slaves became Christians at all. The economics of the slave trade so intermingled with Christianity that few preachers were willing to denounce it because so many in their audience were profiting from it. At the same time, they continued to preach the gospel to slaves.
How could you preach some of the backwards verses of the Bible, such as proclaiming “liberty to the captives (Is 61:1),” all the while supporting the very system that enslaves them? Rev. Peter Randolph, a rural Virginia former slave once said that “the gospel was so mixed with slavery, that people could see no beauty in it, and feel no reverence for it.”
The paradox is that these preachers treated them as spiritual equals but as physical inferiors. The hypocrisy in this message is clear.
Many Christians even opposed the preaching of the gospel to slaves because they feared that Christian baptism not only freed slaves from their sins but this also implied freedom from slave owners as well. Some evangelists were so eager to preach to the slaves that they made agreements with slave owners to not preach on the deliverance of Israel from Egypt in order to not incite the slaves to seek their own emancipation.
This well intentioned agreement ended up being a pact with the devil.
Many slaves did indeed accept the gospel, but their “good news” wasn’t as good as the white man’s good news. This baggage has been passed down through the generations.
The question for us in this modern era is this: what can we do to remedy this situation?
My answer is to plant churches in racially diverse neighborhoods that embody the gospel racially, economically, and socially, until it becomes clear that the gospel of Christ is more unifying than our collectively divisive racist past. I will be chronicling my thoughts on this issue in the coming weeks.
Do you think a racially unified church is possible?