Some Used the Bible to Justify Slavery, but African-Americans Made It Their Path to Freedom

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) An exhibit discussing slavery and the Bible in the United States is displayed inside the Museum of the Bible, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017, in Washington.

When the Rev. Jaymes Robert Moody takes his pulpit to preach, sometimes he pictures the graveyard — that is where his congregation was born.

It was called Georgia Cemetery — named, he has been told, for the place the enslaved were stolen from before being sent to work the fields in Huntsville, Ala.

The graveyard was where they buried their loved ones. It was there they could gather in private. It was there where they could worship a God who offered not only salvation, but also the thing they sought most — the promise of freedom.

That graveyard, and those who founded what is now St. Bartley Primitive Baptist Church in 1820, weighs heavy on the young minister who now leads the congregation. It is not lost on him that the gospel he preaches, the gospel so many African Americans embraced to sustain them through the horrors of beatings and rapes, separations and lynchings, separate and unequal, is the same gospel used to enslave them.

“That’s the history of the black church,” said Moody, who at 29 leads a congregation of 2,000 members that will celebrate 200 years in existence next year.

He makes sure every new member goes through a church orientation to learn that history — all of it. He preaches about the ways slaveholders claimed the Bible was on their side, citing passages that commanded servants to obey. And he talks about the ways African Americans have reclaimed the Bible and its message of liberation.

As America commemorates the 400th anniversary of the creation of representative government in what would become the United States, and the first documented recording of captive Africans being brought to its shores, it is also grappling with the ways the country justified slavery. Nowhere is that discussion more fraught than in its churches.

“Christianity was proslavery,” said Yolanda Pierce, the dean of the divinity school at Howard University. “So much of early American Christian identity is predicated on a proslavery theology. From the naming of the slave ships, to who sponsored some of these journeys including some churches, to the fact that so much of early American religious rhetoric is deeply intertwined . . . with slaveholding: It is proslavery.” Some Christian institutions, notably Georgetown University in the District of Columbia, are engaged in a reckoning about what it means that their past was rooted in slaveholding. But others have not confronted the topic. “In a certain sense,” Pierce said, “we’ve never completely come to terms with that in this nation.”

The Africans who were brought to America from 1619 onward carried with them diverse religious traditions. About 20 percent to 30 percent were Muslim, Pierce said. Some had learned of Christianity before coming to America, but many practiced African spiritual traditions.

Early on, many slaveholders were not concerned with the spiritual well-being of Africans. But few had qualms about using Christianity to justify slavery.

Some theologians said it was providence that had brought Africans to America as slaves, since their enslavement would allow them to encounter the Christian message and thus their eternal souls would be saved, said Mark Noll, a historian of American Christianity.

Some preachers encouraged slave owners to allow their slaves to attend worship services — though only in separate gatherings led by white proslavery preachers. They had to be seated in the back or the balcony of a segregated church. Those men of God argued that the sermons on the injunction in Ephesians and Colossians, “slaves, obey your earthly master,” would promote docility among enslaved workers.

The Museum of the Bible in Washington displays a “slave Bible,” published in 1807, which removed portions of Scripture including the Exodus story that could inspire rebellious thinking.

Some ministers promoted the idea that Africans were the descendants of Ham, cursed in the book of Genesis, and thus their enslavement was fitting.

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Source: Salt Lake Tribune