African Americans are a people who care deeply about history. And yet, we are a people who know so little about our history. Three centuries of American chattel slavery did much to uproot generations of American-born Africans from specific African linguistic, cultural, religious and historical soil. The result, as Deborah Dickerson observes in her irenic and insightful book The End of Blackness, is that African-Americans are at once a history-conscious people and “a people with no return address.”
I am a recovering Afrocentrist. Many of my formative years were spent attempting to see the world from the distinct vantage point of African people, to be African-centered. As a college student and young adult, I devoured everything I could find regarding African-American history and culture. Names like Molefi Asante, John S. Mbiti, Yosef Ben-Jochannan, Ivan Van Sertima, Na’im Akbar and Wade Nobles dotted my bookshelves and shaped my thinking about African identity. Through these authors and others, I tried my best to identify a return address and chart a return route to ancestors lost to me. I had mail to deliver them and hoped they had been saving family letters and heirlooms for me.
My mantra and that of others like me was “Man, know thy self.” I attributed this saying to ancient Egyptians, who were of course black-skinned people like me… a return address. The phrase did double-duty as an exhortation to reclaim my history and identity and as a condemnation of those who obscured our legacies. And in a certain sense, the failure to “know thy self” (or more precisely, to “know” one’s self in the way prescribed by the hegemonic ideals of a certain persuasion) was the unpardonable sin never to be forgiven. At all costs history was to be recovered and retold from “our” perspective.
When I became a Christian, my mind was renewed. I went from being a misanthropic racist in practice (though never in profession) to being free in Christ from an idolatrous self-love and to a genuine compassion, interest, and love for others not like me. Recall-ing this change, explainable only by the sovereign regenerating work of God in my soul, has often been an assuring source of witness and testimony.
But one thing I preserved through this change was a desire to know myself, both in light of my new identity in Christ but also with a new Christ-centered appreciation for the ethnicity God himself chose to give me, not by accident but by His glorious design. And part of my desire was to know something about the contribution of African Americans to the religious history of Christianity.
The interesting thing is that you can find African Americans following the “Man, know thy self” impulse to reclaim and identify with African-American history in most every sphere of human investigation. Tomes are written in sociology, the history of science, politics, and education about the role, contribution, and impact of African Americans on American society. But, this concern seems rarely to surface when it comes to Christian history and theology.
Several years ago, I began outlining a series of essays concerned with reforming theology and practice in the African-American church. However, the more I thought about that project the more evident it became that I needed to know more about African-American church history. Pen, pad, and laptop in tow, I headed off to the Library of Congress to begin my expedition. For the earlier years of African-American history, I was not sure that I would find much beyond slave narratives and abolitionist tracts that would at least provide trace material on the subject.
Imagine my surprise when the Lord guided me to the life and writings of Vermont clergyman the Rev. Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833). A minuteman and volunteer in the Continental Army during the American Revolution, Haynes was born of mixed parentage. He was abandoned at five months old and raised as an indentured servant by a Deacon Rose and his family in Middle Granville, Massachusetts.
One biographer described Haynes as “a determined, self-taught student who poured over Scripture until he could repeat from memory most of the texts dealing with the doctrines of grace….”1Helen MacLam, “Introduction: Black Puritan on the Northern Frontier.” In Richard Newman (Ed.), Black Preacher to White America: The Collected Writings of Lemuel Haynes, 1774-1833. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1990, p. xx. At the Rose family home, Haynes benefited from the devout religious practice and instruction of Deacon Rose. However, young Haynes was most influenced by the works of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Philip Doddridge.
Lemuel Haynes was licensed to preach on November 29, 1780 and five years later became the first African American ordained by any religious body in America. In 1804, Middlebury College awarded him an honorary master’s degree—another first for African Americans.
Lemuel Haynes’ pastoral career spanned forty years. He began his life of Christian service as a founding member and supply pastor to the church in Middle Granville in 1785. On March 28, 1788, Haynes left the Torrington congregation and accepted a call to pastor the west parish of Rutland, Vermont, where he served the all-white congregation of Rutland for thirty years—a relationship between pastor and congregation rare in Haynes’ time and ours for both its length and its racial dynamic. During his stay in Rutland, the church grew in membership from forty-two to about three hundred fifty congregants as Haynes modeled pastoral devotedness and fidelity to the people in his charge. He also emerged as a defender of Christian orthodoxy, opposing the encroachment of Arminian-ism, Universalism, and other errors.
Discovering Lemuel Haynes revolutionized my reading of African-American history. Haynes represented a lost (or obscured?) part of African-American history, not be-cause of the efforts of white slaveholders and their sympathizing descendants, but because of a certain “squint” through which African-American historians often recount Black religious history. In that telling, the most radical opponents of slavery are deified and all those too closely identified with the religion and theology of the slaveholder are viewed with either suspicion or pity for being such undiscerning victims. And the variety of theology most often vilified is historic Reformed or Calvinistic theology, with its emphasis on ideas like “predestination.”
Well, here in front of me in the quiet of the Jefferson building was an African-American who not only knew the horrors of slavery, opposing the injustices of the institution, but who also was an ardent Calvinist. The theological ideas I had been taught were the wellspring of white superiority and black oppression were foundational to the thinking—not of naïve natives—but of in-formed, critical, self-aware, and ardent champions of Black freedom. John Saillant observed:
Calvinism seems to have corroborated the deepest structuring elements of the experiences of such men and women as they matured from children living in slavery or servitude into adults desiring freedom, literacy, and membership in a fair society. From Calvinism, this generation of black authors drew a vision of God at work providentially in the lives of black people, directing their sufferings yet promising the faithful among them a restoration to his favor and his presence. Not until around 1815 would African American authors, such as John Jea, explicitly declare themselves against Calvinism and for free-will religion.2John Saillant, Black Puritan, Black Republican: The Life and Thought of Lemuel Haynes, 1753-1833 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 4.
Far from being a retarding and oppressing experience as I had thought, Calvinism’s high view of the sovereignty of God nurtured and stimulated in this earliest generation of African-American writers a steadfast faith in the long arc of God’s justice. If Saillant was correct, and I believe he is, then nearly two-hundred years of African-American Christian history and Reformed theological heritage had been neglected and the constructive task of “knowing ourselves” had been warped significantly.
In Lemuel Haynes I glimpsed the possibility of a personal “return address.” Haynes not only shared my theological convictions, he was also a pastor. And his ordination sermons on pastoral ministry have profoundly affected my own view of the pastorate. Haynes seemed always to be possessed with thoughts of the welfare of his congregation’s souls. Their salvation was paramount. His sermons made explicit the centrality of the cross of Christ and were rich in both theological instruction and practical application for his hearers.
An eschatological expectation gripped Haynes’ heart and mind. The anticipation of meeting the Lord Jesus Christ at the judgment motivated his instructions to his hearers. He well understood that the bar of Christ, especially for the minister, would be a time of penetrating judgment, a time at which the heart and habits of the pastor would be laid bare and his just rewards made known.
Haynes believed that a minister’s Christian character was essential to his faithfulness and effectiveness in the gospel ministry. In a 1792 ordination sermon, The Character and Work of a Spiritual Watchman Described, Haynes underscored five key traits for a minister to possess. First, they were to “love the cause in which they profess to embark,” that is, they must love Christ himself and the proclamation of his divine glory to those who would hear and be saved. Second, the minister was to be wise and prudent, understanding the subtlety of the spiritual task and of spiritual enemies against whom he is engaged. Third, patience must accompany every member of the ministry. Fourth, courage and fortitude must fill his heart. And fifth, vigilance, alertness, and close attention to the business of watching for souls must characterize the spiritual watchman. Apart from these qualifications, the Christian minister was completely unprepared to give an account to God for their conduct and their care for His people. But those who were prepared would examine their motives for entering the ministry; would be careful to know their duties as pastors; would seek to please none but God; would work to make their preaching plain, sober, modest, and reverent; and would work to know as much as possible about the souls entrusted to their care.
Haynes displayed his eschatological vision of pastoral ministry most clearly in a 1798 funeral sermon entitled The Important Concerns of Ministers and the People of Their Charge. In this sermon, Haynes anticipated that the pastor and the congregation would have a special relationship to one another in the coming judgment of Christ, where the congregation would be the “hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing… in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming.”3Haynes used 1 Thessalonians 2:19 as his key text for the funeral sermon of the Rev. Abraham Carpenter. The text reads: “For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming?” However, the second coming of Christ and the accompanying judgment of ministers and their people was, in Haynes estimation, a proposition filled with both joyous promise and striking terror. At stake, more than merely the souls of pastors and congregants, was the very glory of God himself, whether the character of the Redeemer was properly displayed before His creation through the ministry of which both minister and member were a part. If the pastor was faithful, the congregation and their shepherd would enjoy a special intimacy with one another, an intimacy deepened by their commendation of the pastor and of the pastor’s recommendation of his people before the Lord himself. However, if either the pastor or the congregation were unfaithful, their eternal relationship would be one of accusing and exposing the other before God and His Son. For everlasting good or for eternal ill, the pastor and the congregation were joined in a most solemn union before God. Haynes concluded, “The influence of a faithful or unfaithful minister is such as to effect unborn ages; it will commonly determine the sentiments and characters of their successors, and in this way they may be doing good or evil after they are dead, and even to the second coming of Christ.” The unfaithful minister would be tried for his treasonous neglect of the souls of the people, and the unfaithful congregation would stand to hear the pastor’s denouncement of their spiritual apathy and hard heartedness. Therefore, ministers ought to preach, and people ought to listen, “with death and judgment in view.”
After three decades of pastoral ministry, the church in Rutland, Vermont discharged Lemuel Haynes from his pulpit. By most accounts, the strong sin of racial prejudice finally overcame some members of the congregation who challenged Haynes’ leadership. At the occasion of his farewell sermon, The Sufferings, Support, and Reward of Faithful Ministers, Haynes only briefly recounted some of his thirty years in Rutland. For the most part, he took the opportunity to instruct the congregation one last time in the calling, character, and challenges of pastoral ministry. Perhaps feeling the sting of his own situation, Haynes focused on the joys and sorrows that accompany faithfulness in ministers. Faithful ministers were commissioned and sent by Christ as His ambassadors and messengers, a commission that determined their direction and manner in ministry, including how and what to preach and how long they were to serve in a particular place. That commission, asserted Haynes, ended quickly for the faithful minister:
“The lives of ministers are often shortened by the trials they meet with; some times they are actually put to death for the sake of the gospel: they can say with this holy apostle, As dying, and behold we live! As chastened, and not killing; As sorrowing, yet always rejoicing. The memory of a Patrick, a Beveridge, a Manton, a Flavel, a Watts, a Doddridge, an Edwards, Hopkins, Bellamy, Spencer and Fuller is previous to us; but alas! we see them no more. No more in their studies; no more the visitants of their bereaved flock; no more in their chapels or sanctuaries on earth. They have run their race, finished their course, and are receiving their reward. Their successors in office are pursuing them with rapid speed: and will soon, very soon accomplish their work.”
Haynes anticipated his own demise would follow shortly after leaving the pulpit in Rutland. But for all the bonds and afflictions, briars and thorns, vilification, and opposition faced, the faithful minister was never to despair or lose heart because his lot in eternity would be great joy and satisfaction with his Master.
For those in or contemplating entrance into pastoral ministry, Lemuel Haynes reminds us of the solemn importance of faithfulness in the gospel minister. Haynes warns us of a blithe attitude toward our work as ministers, ambassadors for Jesus Christ. Indifference is deadly—to our people and ourselves. Ours is a life dedicated to caring for another’s children with the anticipation of one day returning them to their Heavenly Father. At that time, we shall give an account of our stewardship—what we have taught His children; what model or example we have provided; whether we have tended to the state of their souls; and most importantly, whether we spoke reproachfully or gloriously of their True Father. If we would be faithful, we must keep the coming of our Lord in full view as we discharge all the duties we have been given by Him who “walks in the midst of the seven lampstands.”
I’ve found in Lemuel Haynes a kindred pastor in theology and biology. In my quest to know myself, he has taught me much about who I am as a Christian, a pastor, and an African-American. And his writings are at the ready for helping others find their way as well.
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as Assistant Pastor, Capital Hill Baptist Church, in Washington, DC. Presented with permission of reformation21.org, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.
|↑1||Helen MacLam, “Introduction: Black Puritan on the Northern Frontier.” In Richard Newman (Ed.), Black Preacher to White America: The Collected Writings of Lemuel Haynes, 1774-1833. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1990, p. xx.|
|↑2||John Saillant, Black Puritan, Black Republican: The Life and Thought of Lemuel Haynes, 1753-1833 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 4.|
|↑3||Haynes used 1 Thessalonians 2:19 as his key text for the funeral sermon of the Rev. Abraham Carpenter. The text reads: “For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming?”|