Voices

The Bible and black history

Scripture has always played a key role in African-American culture

Issue: "Nuke nightmare," Feb. 25, 2006

Our local newspaper once interviewed a Unitarian-Universalist minister who was trying to plant churches in the black community. This denomination-so liberal as not even to consider itself Christian anymore-is passionately committed to liberal politics, social justice, and multicultural diversity, but it is virtually all white. The minister lamented the difficulty his denomination had in attracting African-Americans. One reason, he generalized to the reporter, is that black people tend to be theologically conservative. They have a thing, he complained, about believing in the Bible.

Although black churches tend to be politically liberal-witness the partisan jabs at President Bush during Coretta Scott King's funeral-they tend to be conservative when it comes to much of the Bible. This is true from the big denominations, such as the 5.5 million member Church of God in Christ, which is Pentecostal, to the tiny storefront churches, two-thirds of which are Baptist. And the Bible has played a key role in African-American culture from the beginning.

The Great Awakenings of the 18th and early 19th centuries brought many slaves, as well as their owners, to faith in Christ. In colonial times, some missionaries-such as those from the Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge in England-evangelized African slaves in the New World and taught them to read the Bible. After independence, American mission agencies continued that work. But slaveholders, fearing that literate blacks would be more likely to push back against slavery, pushed through laws against teaching slaves how to read.

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Nevertheless, slaves who had been taught how to read the Bible passed on their literacy surreptitiously to others, in underground reading classes that multiplied over generations. Some devout white people, including some slaveholders, broke the law. Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson openly conducted Sunday school classes for slaves, in which he taught as many as 100 at a time how to read the Bible.

In the meantime, many slaves-though sometimes attending services with their masters-had their own services, usually featuring fiery Bible preaching.

Though the Bible taught slaves to obey their masters, those who read a little deeper saw that God banned permanent, involuntary slavery of fellow believers. The account of how God delivered the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt resonated deeply, as is evident in the number of spirituals on that theme. Those songs, which have become foundational to American music, were not just concerned with slavery, but demonstrated a deep devotion to Christ.

In her book When I Can Read My Title Clear: Literacy, Slavery, and Religion in the Antebellum South, historian Janet Duitsman Cornelius estimates that as many as 10 percent of slaves could read, despite the anti-literacy laws, thanks to the Bible-reading movement.

Scripture saturated African-American writing from slave narratives to the literary contributions of figures like Phyllis Wheatley and Frederick Douglass. The work of Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Martin Luther King Jr. also showed the influence of the Bible in black culture. In music, the tradition of Bible-themed spirituals has continued in the gospel music that lives on, begetting along the way jazz, soul, and much of today's pop music.

The Bible has been integral to African-American culture, providing strength in times of suffering, a higher moral law that condemns social injustice, and a faith that liberates from the slavery of sin.

Today, the collapse of marriage, absent fathers, criminal gangs, drugs, and moral nihilism plague many parts of American culture. To rebuild that culture on a strong foundation, blacks and whites would do well to draw on our own heritage by going back to the Bible.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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