Pastor and Author Jared C. Wilson Shares What America’s First Ordained African American Taught Him About Facing Hardship in Ministry

Image: Portrait by Joel Kimmel

When the professed friends of God forsake the ministers of Christ, it is attended with circumstances peculiarly aggravating. The sweet counsel and communion they have taken together are now interrupted—mutual confidence destroyed—the parties exposed to peculiar temptations, which renders it difficult to retain that forgiving spirit manifested by the holy apostle when all men forsook him: “I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge.”
— Lemuel Haynes, from “The Suffering, Support, and Reward of Faithful Ministers”

Lemuel Haynes is a historical figure you may not have heard about but should have. By any standard, his life was remarkable. Haynes, who was born in 1753, was an indentured servant as a child, a veteran of the American Revolution, and the first black man in the United States to be ordained to ministry. Known for his keen mind and quick wit, Haynes was a powerful preacher and abolitionist, drawing on his Calvinist theology to argue that God had a sovereign plan to end slavery and integrate the races. Haynes’s life was anything but easy, and his ministry at a church he had led for 30 years ended with him being forced out. We talked to preacher and author Jared C. Wilson about how Haynes’s legacy has inspired him—and taught him to view ministry hardships in the light of eternity.

I have to admit I didn’t know who Haynes was until I read an article about him recently. How did you encounter him?

When I was pastoring in Vermont, I did some research into the history of the area, and I stumbled across him. Haynes wasn’t from Vermont, but he spent 30 years pastoring a church in West Rutland. I was about five miles down the road from where he preached. So I was just looking into the church history of Vermont, and he’s a towering figure in that state. But when I started reading up on him, I thought he should be better known in American church history. He’s the first African American ordained by a religious body in America and the first black pastor of a mostly white congregation. That’s rare today. It was unheard of then.

You wrote, “I had a friend who once said ‘fall in love with a dead guy.’ Haynes is my guy.” Why do you feel this special affinity for Haynes?

One reason is his faithful pastorate. He was a devotee of the theology of Jonathan Edwards, so he was in that American Puritan tradition. He was heavily influenced by the revivals; he cites Edwards and George Whitefield in his final sermon to the congregation in West Rutland. So he has that theology, and he was just a faithful shepherd. The first substantive biography of him, by Timothy Mather Cooley, is full of wonderful anecdotes, vignettes of things Haynes did and said. He was so funny; he had the wit of a Spurgeon. I loved that he was a political-minded guy but kept that out of his pulpit preaching. His theology was very rich. He preached like Edwards, points within points. And unlike Edwards, who has the specter of slavery hanging over him, there’s no asterisk after Haynes’s name. People thought well of him. His family loved him. He doesn’t require doing any triage on his character.

Yet his life was not devoid of controversy. He had some conflict at the West Parish Church of Rutland, Vermont. Can you set the context for Haynes’s final sermon to that congregation?

We don’t know exactly what led to his resignation/dismissal. The reasons he was forced out aren’t entirely clear. Publicly he attributed it to sort of outliving his usefulness. There were some discipline issues with members of his congregation, and there was a long conflict he had with one deacon. One historian cites changing political tastes. So there was a sense that his style of ministry and his politics weren’t in fashion anymore. It’s also likely racism played a role. He alluded privately to some friends that racism played a part in his ouster. But he didn’t mention that in his sermon.

What are some of the most poignant things Haynes said in the sermon?

He preached it in May 1818, but it wasn’t published until years after, so it was likely modified slightly. Half of it is a straightforward exposition of Acts 20:24, where Paul talks about finishing his course. He uses that to talk about what a faithful minister is like. The title of the sermon was “The Suffering, Support, and Reward of Faithful Ministers.” He said that to be a pastor is to engage in suffering and conflict. Roughly half of it is him applying that to his own ministry and giving a farewell exhortation. It’s as close to a mic drop sermon as you could get.

I’ve read Edwards’s last sermon at Northampton, and if he was hurt—and he had to be—he didn’t show it. But Haynes is different. He mentions that his dismissal is not because of his unfaithfulness but because of others who caused him harm. It’s as good a model as any of a pastor addressing hurts and conflicts in a public way without being vindictive. He cares about their souls—for example, he says, “That man that does not appreciate the worth of souls, and is not greatly affected with their dangerous situation, is not qualified for the sacred office”—and points them to grace and the promise of heaven.

He basically says all of this will get sorted out on the Last Day. And he says things like, “Those of you who were found drowsy in my preaching will be fully awake.” It’s really great. But he doesn’t sound like a bitter man. It reads as someone who was willing to confidently address the circumstances without fear and point them to eternity.

Let’s talk about how his example has helped you. How have you had to pastor people who caused you pain?

Often people mistreat you or cause conflict, but they won’t come directly to you. You hear that they’re saying things. The pastoral impulse is to get underneath that. Often it has nothing to do with you. It’s about something else. So I would try to get below the surface to see if I could address the real issue. But there are times when it’s harder because someone has sinned against you—and they won’t repent of it. At one place I pastored, it was made even more difficult because we hadn’t gotten around to codifying church discipline. I inherited an old set of bylaws. So there were people we had issues with, and I had no way of calling them to account. There were people I had to endure and pray their hearts would turn. That was difficult. I felt I’d done all I could do. I had to not let their demeanor affect how I thought of the entire church.

I have to remind myself that doing faithful ministry will often arouse conflict. But I have to remember that I’m not there for the PR. I’m not trying to please the constituency. My primary audience is the Lord. Toward the end of his final sermon to the West Rutland congregation, Haynes said, “The cause in which ministers of Christ are engaged may well excite them to persevering faithfulness and fidelity in their work. ’Tis that dear interest for which all things were created, and the cause of the ever blessed God in three persons; for which the glorious Redeemer shed his precious blood, and is now pleading.” If I’m going to be faithful to Scripture and its implications for our lives, that’s going to be polarizing. I can’t have my emotions ruled by others.

The most hurtful thing for me wasn’t the people who didn’t like me; it was the people who didn’t support me. They were passive. I’m trying to think charitably of them. But that’s the hardest thing—the passive majority, including fellow leaders who were protecting themselves. In private they were very supportive, but then they’d be in a meeting where I was getting beat up, and they just sat on their hands. That was more hurtful than anything.

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Source: Christianity Today