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 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 black people 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. He also talks about the ways black Christians 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 pro slavery,” said the Rev. Yolanda Pierce, dean of the divinity school at Howard University. “So much of early American Christian identity is predicated on a pro slavery 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 pro slavery.”
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, we’ve never completely come to terms with that in this nation,” Pierce said.
The Africans who were brought to America from 1619 onward carried with them diverse religious traditions. About 20% to 30% 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 pro slavery 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.
“That biblical interpretation is made up of whole cloth in the 15th century,” Noll said. “There’s just no historical record of any seriousness to back it up. It’s made up, at a time when Europeans are beginning to colonize Africa.”
Slaveholders frequently noted that the Israelites of the Old Testament owned slaves.
Abolitionists tried to make arguments against using the Bible to justify slavery, but they were in the minority.
“They were considered to be radical,” Noll said. “Often they were considered to be infidels, because how could they say God was opposed to slavery if it was so obvious in the Bible that he was not?”
The foremost objectors, of course, were black people themselves. Large numbers adopted the faith, and they quickly began remaking it into their own.
“As soon as enslaved people learned to read English, they immediately began to read the Bible, and they immediately began to protest this idea of a biblical justification for slavery,” Pierce said. “Literally as soon as black people took pen to paper, we are arguing for our own liberation.”
Those books and broadsides challenging prevailing biblical interpretations were savvy.
“They very quickly learned that the only way we can be heard is to speak the language of our slaveholders, to speak to them about the text that they love, that they believe in,” Pierce said.
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Source: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette