Its amazing how history repeats itself. Often when it does, its not just because we fail to learn our history, but often because we find ourselves trapped in the cycle of our human nature. Each generation is presented issues that will challenge their thinking, their visions of society, and that visions fidelity to the scriptures.
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!
In Revelations 7:9-10 we have a beautiful vision of a church of all colors and languages worshiping together. On Sunday morning often we have a church of one race worshiping in seclusion. Why is there such a disparity between houses of worship? There are plenty of answers, but today I want to briefly give a historical answer in the case of the United States.
Before the great call to missions, the American church had a unique challenge. The challenge was what to do about slavery? This question however was not necessarily about freeing slaves, but actually whether to evangelize and preach to slaves. Ironically one of the rationalizations for slavery was for the christianizing of the African “heathen”yet, in practice you will find that for over 100 years there was no real sustained effort by mainline denominations to evangelize slaves. The Moravians did as early as the 1700’s but they were unique bunch in and of themselves. However the first generations of slaves weren’t really systematically targeted till about the late 1700’s.Think of how many generations were lost. Many owners and church goers faced a conflict of interest when it came down to preaching to slaves, How can we continue to abuse our slaves and then invite them to church with us? If we do preach to them, and they do become our brothers and Christ will that mean we have to treat them better? In fact there were laws in certain parts that stated no christian should be kept in slavery. Coincidentally, in places such as Virgina, they enacted laws that stated baptism does not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom. It was so much easier to abuse slaves if they weren’t considered souls who could be saved. In fact one of the justifications used to not minister to slaves is that they were beyond salvation, and were just mere property.
Freed blacks who had been baptized faced different challenges in regard to churches. Sometimes they were forced to sit outside the fellowship halls. Sometimes they were not admitted at all. Again one of the big challenges was if a freed black or slave becomes a member will they be equal to white members?
One of the early associations to attempt to evangelize slaves and freed blacks was The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. In a letter stating the challenges and barriers towards ministering they state,
” The greatest obstruction is the masters themselves do not consider enough the obligation which lies upon them to have their slaves instructed.”
Another writer describing the state of Blacks writes in 1842
“It is a remarkable fact in the history of the Negroes in our country that their regular, systematic religious instruction has never received in the churches at any time that general attention and effort whit demanded and the people have consequently been left both in the free and in the slave states, in great numbers in moral darkness and destitution of the means of grace. “
Even when there were ministers, some times the ministers told the slaves that they should be happy to be enslaved. One freed man in detailing his experience with one of the “kind preachers” says the following:
“After he preached a sermon to us in which he urged from the Bible that it was the will of heaven from all eternity that we should be slaves, and our masters be our owners, many of us left him considering like the doubting disciple of old,’this is a hard saying: who can hear it?”
Imagine being told you were born to be a slave and that you would be a slave forever. Especially when your master is killing you, raping your sisters and mercilessly beating you.
There were some solid teachers, but they were few and far between. It wasn’t until America had a series of revivals that consideration of sending and training black preachers began. The Baptists and Methodist churches were some of the first churches to do so, yet the big question that each church had to answer was would black members be equal to white members?
The way the church washed their hand of the problem was eventually to allow and permit blacks to have their own churches. So as revivals spread across the nation, and as more blacks converted, rather than accept their black brethren as equals churches treated them as second class members, or in the event that there were black churches, blacks were encouraged to attend those churches.
Black christians chose to worship with their own people as equals rather than being accepted as a lesser member, and so thus we have the set up for the division of churches. Eventually black churches would grow, and expand, and create their own denominations, but the legacy of racism is what caused the church separation. By the 1940’s blacks had been entrenched in their own churches, and it wasn’t until the pentecostal revivals that you would see more multicultural churches.
Lack of formal theological training also was a consequence of the separation. Many aspiring black ministers were not permitted entrance into white seminaries, and often faced additional challenges of funding. This would also shape the formation and development of ministers and teachers. This is a legacy that also endures today.
Though times have changed, the legacy of that division and theological elitism can still be seen. There’s a latent prejudice that can still be seen in churches today when they look and select potential ministers. It is rare to see in mainline white church to sit under a black pastor or minority leadership.
Despite our shortcomings, the Lord is still at work. There are faithful men of vision who have freed themselves of the blinders of the past and pursing the vision set forth by Christ of a glorious body of many nations. Let us continue to pray, not just here in America but around the world.
All Citations taken from Book The Negro Church: WED Du Bois.( A great book online in pdf form. Google it.)