Race and the Evangelical Slavery Problem

Pop Quiz.

First Question: Who are some of the most beloved figures of American Evangelicalism?

Jonathan Edwards

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.

George WhitefieldThis 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?

  1. Good post. I think you are on to something that a lot of white Christians are missing, that being that slavery and racial oppression have helped to cause a wide gap between black and white Christians despite the fact that we generally have very similar theological beliefs. I remember watching “Eyes on the Prize” and how a group of black folks who were having a civil protest by standing at a courthouse praying were asaulted by a white man and other white police. The man who spoke hatefully toward them seemed to agree with their praying, and from what I could read felt as if he were praying to the same God, but didn’t want to have anything to do with them merely because they were black.

    One point of contention, I remember reading in Graham’s autobiography that he specifically refused to preach to a segregated audience, I believe it was in South Carolina. Is there more to the story or

  2. Graham may have refused at some point. I am citing Sweeney, who is an historian. Perhaps he preached to segregated audiences at one time and reversed this policy later in his career. I respect Graham and admire him greatly. He has the disadvantage of being old enough and in the public eye long enough that he spans a couple of generations. His youthful mistakes will bite him when more history is written.

  3. i accidently put this on the next topic down the page…

    yes. i do think that it’s possible to have a racially diverse church. i don’t think that it’s very probable unless the church has minorities in high leadership positions. there has to be a public face that represents the under-represented. i also think that there has to be some style-istic comprimises as well. for instance praise and worship styles and also the preaching has to address elements of the minority cultures.

    i’ve done a little thinking about this since my church is about as white as paper. i think that there should also be a push or a challenge to specific individuals who won’t be in a public position of leadership to join into the body as a cross-over catilyst. some minorities are only comfortable in their culture, some are only comfortable in the mainstream culture and not in their original racial context, but there are some that are comfortable in both contexts. these who are comfortable in both areas could play a huge role as a spokesperson to minorities who wouldn’t feel comfortable anywhere outside their culture.

  4. Charlie

    You’re right, I think, in saying that the leadership needs to be racially diverse. Otherwise, you have a white church and then invite blacks to come to a white church. This is disingenuous. We need to have a diverse leadership structure. But even before that, the church needs to be built from the very start by a both black people and white people with both contributing to the ethos of the church.

    Great comments! Keep them coming….

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