The Issue of Reparations for Slavery in the Christian Church

Princeton Theological Seminary

The Rev. Dr. Ernest Campbell said no, James Forman could not speak at his church service the next day.

Campbell was the senior pastor at Riverside Church, a predominantly white church on the west side of Manhattan. Forman, a black civil rights leader, wanted to read something to the congregation at the next day’s service on May 4, 1969, according to a history of the events written by Elaine Allen Lechtreck.

Forman was told he could distribute his materials outside the church before the service but he was not to disrupt the Sunday program.

The next day, Forman and six others walked to the front of the church. Campbell signaled for the organist to start playing so Forman’s words could not be heard. He waited for the organist to finish and, in front of a crowd of about 500 white people, Forman read his manifesto.

Forman wanted $500 million.

Forman, along with his work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Black Panther Party, was involved with the National Black Economic Development Conference. The conference was designed to advocate for black businesses and civil rights. It was there Forman helped write the “Black Manifesto” asking for $500 million. By their estimation, this broke down to $15 for every black person, or $104 a person in today’s money.

The $500 million was a form of reparations for the role white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues played in slavery.

“For centuries we have been forced to live as colonized people inside the United States, victimized by the most vicious, racist system in the world,” the manifesto states. “We have helped to build the most industrial country in the world. We are therefore demanding …”

The money was to be used, among other things, to create a southern bank to help African Americans buy land and establish farms, create a publishing industry for African Americans to contrast the white-dominated news field and create a black university in the South.

The congregation of Riverside Church reacted to Forman’s demands with outrage. Days later, Forman was served a court order stopping him from disrupting the church anymore.

However, Forman’s protest and sit-ins across the country led various church leaders from the Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist and Presbyterian traditions to donate to African American-led businesses and nonprofits. However, the donations were a fraction of what Forman and other civil rights leaders were asking for and little money went to Forman’s National Black Economic Development Conference.

The apparent failure of 1969, though, may have a new audience in 2019.

The reparations movement is experiencing a renewed interest in the United States, whether those reparations are symbolic, material or financial. Democratic presidential candidates are talking about it on the campaign trail at the same time churches and religious universities are re-examining how they benefited from decades of human bondage.

The same Bible used to validate slavery is being used to justify repenting for those sins through reparations. With atonement a central part of the Christian faith, theologians say the religion should be leading the cause for reparations.

When the church owned people

American churches and religious schools were just as much a part of the brutal history of slavery as plantation owners, said Jennifer Oast, associate professor of history at Bloomberg University.

Oast began researching the topic as a doctoral candidate at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. She was reviewing a list of enslaved African American children when she saw the listed owner as her college. That initial search led her to write the book “Institutional Slavery: Slaveholding Churches, Schools, Colleges, and Businesses in Virginia, 1680-1860.”

The Episcopal, Presbyterian and Catholic churches all have histories of owning slaves, Oast said. The Episcopal Church used slaves as part of the compensation packages for its ministers. Members of the Presbyterian Church donated their slaves to the church to be hired out. The church could then keep the profits.

“There’s a lot of overlap actually, between the free schools and universities and the churches because so many schools and universities were founded by churches,” Oast said. “So, I would say that you would not have seen such a robust religious establishment in America as early as you did if it hadn’t been for the unpaid labor of slaves.”

The horrors of slavery and the treatment of the enslaved were often worse when they were owned by an institution, such as a church, than by another human. An institution would care little about providing the basic necessities of life, Oast said. She observed lower birth rates and higher mortality rates for children owned by institutions.

“There really was a lot of stress on their families,” Oast said. “If you can imagine what it would have been like, to have been hired out every year, from birth to death, to different people, different places to live. Your family’s broken up every single year, never knowing where you’re going to be from one place to another.”

The Bible includes several passages related to slavery, but the central verses used to justify slavery in early America were those related to the Canaanites, said Emerson Powery, professor of Biblical studies at Messiah College.

The Bible story in the book of Genesis of the “Curse of Ham” or the “Curse of Canaan” details how Noah, who had been drunk off wine, curses Ham’s son Canaan after Ham sees a drunk and naked Noah. In the Bible, Canaan would become the father of the Canaanite people.

Noah’s curse for the Canaanites to be the servants of Israel is the origin story for the eventual ancient war between the two tribes, Powery said.

“That story becomes the dominant myth of the 19th century for the enslavement of Africans, in particular,” he said.

The Canaanite story was co-opted into 19th-century debates about the authority of the Bible in society, he said.

“Folks in the 19th century and leading up to the 19th century who wanted to hang on to the authority of the Bible felt like they had to apply passages … in a kind of literal way,” Powery said. “So, if the Bible says there should be slavery — even if it said slavery of the Canaanites — they still thought the practice of slavery was necessary.”

While in the minority, religious scholars at the time questioned the use of the Canaanite story to justify slavery. Henry Beecher Ward, a 19th century Brooklyn pastor, was one of many who questioned how the curse of a drunken man could be interpreted as the will of God, Powery said.

James Pennington, a 19th-century abolitionist and escaped slave from Western Maryland, was another to challenge the leading religious figures about the authority of the Bible on slavery. He said if the Bible condoned the slavery of the Canaanites, as the religious leaders of the time claimed, then white Americans should free the enslaved blacks and go out and find some Canaanites to enslave, Powery said.

At the same time, the Bible details how all humans are descendants of the same line and equal in the eyes of God. This reality was a historical stumbling block for pro-slavery theologians. New Testament passages, like the Sermon on the Mount, detail how Christians should treat each other with respect and love, as well as advocate for the marginalized.

However, until recently, churches and other institutions have not recognized how they benefited from slavery, Oast said.

“You do not see any of those institutions showing any remorse at all immediately afterward or even later in the 19th or 20th centuries,” she said. “If anything, you see some bitterness.”

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Source: Frederick News-Post