During this (last day of) Black History Month, I thought it appropriate to share again this blog post from a previous year:
I recently came across the inspiring biography of the first African-American minister to be ordained by, and pastor among, mainline churches in America. While there is a treasure trove of information available about this intriguing historical figure (see complete articles here, here, and here), I found this excerpt from Thabiti Anyabwile's article particularly interesting. To think that the doctrines of grace were prominently being preached among the majority of primarily white and primarily black congregations when our nation was born! No wonder there was a strength, resilience, determination, and faithfulness to those mighty men and women of God. Would that our nation would return, not only to its Christian roots, but even to its theological roots!
Lemuel 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 him an honorary master’s degree – another first for African Americans.
Lemuel Haynes’ pastoral career spanned forty years. He began his life of Christian service as a founding member and supply pastor to the church in Middle Granville in 1785. On March 28, 1788, Haynes left the Torrington congregation and accepted a call to pastor the west parish of Rutland, Vermont, where he served the all-white congregation of Rutland for thirty years – a relationship between pastor and congregation rare in Haynes’ time and ours for both its length and its racial dynamic.
During his stay in Rutland, the church grew in membership from forty-two to about three hundred fifty congregants as Haynes modeled pastoral devotedness and fidelity to the people in his charge. He also emerged as a defender of Christian orthodoxy, opposing the encroachment of Arminianism, Universalism, and other errors.
Discovering Lemuel Haynes revolutionized my reading of African-American history. Haynes represented a lost (or obscured?) part of African-American history, not because of the efforts of white slaveholders and their sympathizing descendants, but because of a certain “squint” through which African-American historians often recount Black religious history. In that telling, the most radical opponents of slavery are deified and all those too closely identified with the religion and theology of the slaveholder are viewed with either suspicion or pity for being such undiscerning victims. And the variety of theology most often vilified is historic Reformed or Calvinistic theology, with its emphasis on ideas like “predestination.”
Well, here in front of me in the quiet of the Jefferson building was an African-American who not only knew the horrors of slavery, opposing the injustices of the institution, but who also was an ardent Calvinist.
The theological ideas I had been taught were the wellspring of white superiority and black oppression were foundational to the thinking—not of naÃ¯ve natives—but of informed, critical, self-aware, and ardent champions of Black freedom.
John Saillant observed:
Calvinism seems to have corroborated the deepest structuring elements of the experiences of such men and women as they matured from children living in slavery or servitude into adults desiring freedom, literacy, and membership in a fair society. From Calvinism, this generation of black authors drew a vision of God at work providentially in the lives of black people, directing their sufferings yet promising the faithful among them a restoration to his favor and his presence. Not until around 1815 would African American authors, such as John Jea, explicitly declare themselves against Calvinism and for free-will religion.
Far from being a retarding and oppressing experience as I had thought, Calvinism’s high view of the sovereignty of God nurtured and stimulated in this earliest generation of African-American writers a steadfast faith in the long arc of God’s justice. If Saillant was correct, and I believe he is, then nearly two-hundred years of African-American Christian history and Reformed theological heritage had been neglected and the constructive task of “knowing ourselves” had been warped significantly."
© Baptist Bible Hour
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