Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
My People: Properly Subversive Theology
By William Edgar
February 9, 2015
Duke Ellington once remarked that “the foundation of the United States rests on the sweat of my people.” He had just composed the lengthy symphonic suite My People (1963) which addressed race more directly than usual in his music. A close friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., Ellington included in the suite a piece dedicated to the civil rights reformer entitled “King Fit the Battle of Alabam.” Yet Duke insisted that social commentary was not the main theme of My People. Rather it was love, woven as a golden thread throughout the suite.
This twentieth-century jazz masterpiece shows one of the fundamental principles that has driven African-Americans to respond to their circumstances with both resiliency and generosity toward their oppressors. “Lord, dear Lord above, God Almighty God of love… Please look down and see my people through,” says the refrain from Come Sunday, the second song in the suite. Centered on love, this subversive theology is a divine gift, not self-generated.
The story of the African-American struggle for equality is not linear. So many different voices approached the theme of “liberty and justice for all” differently. Yet few, if any, were without zeal for emancipation. Admittedly, despite certain progress, full freedom has hardly been achieved. Toward the end of his marvelous book Free At Last? (1995), Carl Ellis asks a rhetorical question: “Many of us have achieved a greater degree of freedom than our people have ever had, but are we truly ‘free at last?’” The events of Sanford, Florida, Ferguson, Missouri, or Sunset Park, Brooklyn show that while there may be equality before the law, there is no sense of assurance of equal treatment among many African-Americans. With these setbacks (or is it business as usual?) can we hope for progress? Is Duke Ellington’s strategy of love credible, or is it just naïve?
To declare it naïve or ineffective would be to repudiate the work of some of America’s most extraordinary heroes and heroines. Although the stranglehold of American slavery could not be lifted by bloodless parliamentary reform, as it was in the British Empire under the leadership of William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano, significant advances were made because of the contributions of a number of African-American Christians. As we celebrate Black History Month in the United States, we can be encouraged by looking back at some of the less-known figures who made a profound difference, mostly through their properly subversive theology.
Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was captured in Senegambia and brought to the New World to be sold as a slave. She had the rare fortune of belonging to a family that raised her alongside their two natural children and gave her an unprecedented education for a slave. Early on, the precocious child mastered English, several foreign languages, as well as Latin and Greek, and also subjects such as history, geography, and, especially, the Bible. She began to realize the potential of this kind of learning, combined with sound theology, to help promote the liberation of African people in British North America.
Wheatley became the first African-American woman to have a book published under her own name. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) had to be published by a British company, since Americans doubted that a slave could produce poetry. Because it was so strong, her poetry began to be recognized by friends and detractors alike, and one of her admirers was George Washington. She was something of a threat to many who had embraced the comfortable position that black people were innately inferior to whites. As a child of the American Revolution, but also of biblical religion, she wrote religious poetry that often had political overtones. Her poem, “Isaiah lxiii. 1-8” , warns the British against colonial oppression. In comparing America to Zion, Wheatley also notes the sinfulness of God’s people, specifically the sin of slavery.
In seeking a remedy for slavery, as in the poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” she combines a theology of a loving God with the Enlightenment ideals of equality and human rights. Indeed, she often noted the contradiction between the British-American arguments about natural rights and the continuation of perpetual servitude in North America. In a hopeful letter to Samuel Hopkins she wrote, “Methinks Rev’d Sir, this is the beginning of that happy period foretold by the prophets, when all shall know the Lord from the least to the greatest.” Wheatley’s non-controversial respect for God and the rule of law carried with it the subversive subtext of condemning oppression, whether British or American.
Prince Hall and the African Masons
The emergence of political, economic, and religious institutions in the years following the American Revolution was an important contributing factor to the power of the African-American narrative. In addition to providing places of worship, these institutions provided charity, education, insurance, and even funeral assistance to African-Americans. One of the strongest of these was the African Masons. A prominent voice in the Boston African Mason group was that of Prince Hall (1735-1807). Hall, born a slave, gained his freedom and joined the Congregational Church in 1762. He persuaded the Massachusetts Committee of Safety to open up the military to both enslaved and free Africans. In his argument, he compared the British colonial rule to slavery.
Combining Enlightenment idealism with the Christian religion, stressing such virtues as freedom and republicanism, Hall articulated his striking message eloquently. In a Masonic sermon of 1797, Hall told the group “Although you are deprived of the means of education, you are not deprived of the means of meditation; by which I mean thinking, hearing and weighing matters…” He goes on to warn against “the slavish fear of man, which brings a snare.” No one would have missed this subversive subtext. According to Cedric May, “Hall inserts elements of Enlightenment philosophy into his ideas of liberal Christianity, thereby constructing a philosophical basis on which blacks may define themselves in an American context on their own terms and in accordance with their own value systems.”
Christianity was spreading rapidly among African-Americans. Although the doctrine received was classically European Protestant, they engaged with this religion much more dynamically than did the Old World believers. In spite of the Bible’s seeming defense of slavery, they discovered in the Scripture a strong theology of liberation and a profound emphasis on freedom. When the 1791-1804 slave revolt in Saint-Domingue succeeded, leading to the establishment of the Republic of Haiti, Hall specifically celebrated their courage and their cultivation of a proper use of reason, despite having little access to conventional education. He believed such courage and the rational approach to life would always lead to the defeat of tyrants, and the Haitian revolt was but one example of what is foretold in Revelation 8:11-14, where Babylon collapses because of its ill-gotten wealth, based, among other things, upon “slaves, that is, human souls.”
Slave narratives and autobiographies began to spread in the latter part of the eighteenth century. The majority of them that garnered the approval of the white abolitionists recounted some of the objective facts of slavery, but not any platform for equality between whites and blacks. Frederick Douglass notes several times in the moving My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) that even some of the most sincere abolitionists could not quite accept his preaching nor the virtues he proclaimed. He says his American friends only saw him as a “wood sawyer” who had the audacity to promote his literary skills to his Eurocentric audience. Yet he truly was “A slave, brought up in the very depth of ignorance, assuming to instruct the highly civilized people of the north in the principles of liberty, justice and humanity!”
Richard Allen and the African Methodist Episcopal Church
One of the better known figures from the revolutionary period and beyond was Richard Allen (1760-1831), the pioneering leader who founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1794), the first independent black denomination. Allen was converted while still a slave through the efforts of the local Methodist Society. In a curious reversal, his unconverted master, Stokeley Sturgis, encouraged his slaves to become believers. When Allen and his brothers developed into fine evangelists, local plantation owners were critical, but Sturgis continued to support them, refuting the prevailing oppressive myth that converting to the faith made slaves idle. After the Revolution, Sturgis began to believe slavery was sinful and not only purchased his slaves’ freedom, but also provided for them in their newly emancipated lives.
Richard Allen condemned slavery as both unjust and unholy, “hateful in the sight of God,” who destroyed Pharaoh and his princes because of it. The theology of Richard Allen and his colleague Absalom Jones was more direct, even confrontational, than their predecessors, and yet it still could be called properly subversive in that it undermined the views of the dominant ecclesial powers by means of the same Sacred Book they claimed as theirs. Although his predecessors were often likened to Moses, Allen was likened to King David, a demonstration that black evangelicalism was being transformed from a wilderness religion to one bolstered by strong institutions and exercising a tangible presence.
The founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church was precipitated in large part by the attitude of the white congregation of St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia, among other causes. A few years before, a large group of African-Americans, led by Allen and Jones, began to participate in worship services there and to bring in considerable financial support. When church officials ordered them to move to the gallery, and while praying, to the very back of the gallery, they rose up and left, never to return.
In September 1830, Allen presided over a remarkable meeting of the First Negro Convention, held with representatives from seven states. Significantly, the Convention took place just a year after the riots in Cincinnati, where whites had attacked African-Americans and destroyed their businesses. The Convention gave birth to the Colored Conventions Movement, which discussed various strategies in response to the increasing persecution of African-Americans. These conventions, or “think tanks” spread, mostly in the North but some in the South and the West, attracting the most outstanding African-American leaders around the country, including Frederick Douglass, Lewis Hayden, and Mary Ann Shadd.
A highly significant editorial appearing just after the Civil War notes, “As faithful chroniclers, we cannot deny that the various conventions of the colored people in the late insurrectionary States compare favorably with those of their white brethren. Their conduct is no less orderly; their reasoning is indisputably superior; their resolutions are of an elevated humanity and commonsense to which those of the other Conventions make no pretension; while their expressions of gratitude and fidelity to the United States, and of Christian charity toward their late masters, are in the highest degree encouraging and refreshing after the sullen, reluctant, defiant, acrid tone of the reorganizing conventions in those States.”
The Subversive Power of the Gospel
Perhaps the greatest “miracle” in the words and actions of African-Americans during these times was to have embraced the Gospel with its Christian virtues, which they had largely learned from white people, without accepting their sinful practices. For not only was there “charity toward their late masters,” but also attempts to communicate to them “the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
This fascinating history continues up to the present. We find that in spite of the dreadful setbacks of reconstruction, then the lingering segregation of the twentieth century, and now the racial tensions so evident in our cities, substantial progress has been made. Much of it can be linked to the bold advocates of properly subversive theology, seeking to establish “liberty and justice for all,” in the ongoing struggle in America. We should also note that those advocates include not only Ellington’s “my people” but white sympathizers as well. And surely we can find other examples of individuals from different eras and with different social challenges who found in the Gospel a power to subvert the forces of evil. May we even say that the most properly subversive person of all times was Jesus of Nazareth? Surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, this is a strong call for us to look for opportunities to undermine the structures of evil both in the surrounding culture and in the human heart.
Reflection and Discussion Questions
1. Consider how enslaved Africans were able to embrace the Christian message of their heralds without accepting their views of slavery. What did this involve?
2. With hindsight, do we find these black theologians ahead of their times, or still caught in them?
3. Is it appropriate to see Jesus of Nazareth as somehow subversive? If so how?
- William Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
 See William C. Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, Boston: R. F. Wallcut, 1855, 61-64.
 Cedric May, Evangelism and Resistance in the Black Atlantic, 1760-1835, Athens GA and Lond: The University of Georgia Press, 2008, 85-86.
 William C. Nell, op. cit., 64.
 Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Other Works, San Diego: Canterbury Classics, 2014 (orig. 1855), 362.
 Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, A Narrative of the Proceedings of Black People…, Philadelphia: King & Baird, 1862, 40.
 Cedric May, Evangelism and Resistance, op. cit., 105.
 Editorial, Harpers Weekly Dec. 16, 1865, 786. [http://education.harpweek.com/TheReconstructionConvention/TheBeliefs/Belief3/Belief3-r028.htm]
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