One of my Caucasian friends recently asked me a question in an e-mail, “Why do black people practice Christianity when it was a religion introduced by the white man, the slave owners?” I thought it was great question, one that has surely been asked before. I responded to her e-mail quickly, but later I began to think about some of the comments I sent her. I began to think more critically about just how and why the biblical stories must have resonated with the slaves.
We have known for years that the Bible was used to justify slavery; some masters used the Good Book to subjugate the natives and keep them in line. They argued that slavery was a divine institution, one that God sanctioned and approved. To support their claims they cherry-picked a few verses written by the apostle Paul and others that implored slaves to be obedient, submissive and docile (Ephesians 6:5; Titus 2:9; I Peter 2:18). Unfortunately, the slave masters did not take into consideration the historical and cultural context in which the Scriptures were written. Had they done so they would have realized that God never thought it was a good idea for one human being to own another.
Some slave masters may have succeeded in getting the Africans to believe that slavery was good, just and proper. However, there was another group of white abolitionists who saw slavery as a moral evil. To support their claims they pointed to Luke 4:18-19. This Scripture speaks to how Jesus came to set the captives free and liberate people who were oppressed. Surely, the abolitionists also told the slaves about Moses and how he led the children of Israel out of bondage. In time the slaves began to believe that they could be free. And, perhaps more importantly, they began to believe that God was on their side and would eventually step in and end their suffering. The slaves most likely embraced Christianity because it spoke to the idea that they could be liberated.
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Frazier, E. F. (1974). The Negro Church/The black church since Frazier. New York: Schocken.
Keener, C. (2000). The IVP bible background commentary: New testament. Illinois: Intervarsity Press.
Lincoln E. C., & Mamiya, L. H. (1990). The black church in the African-American experience. North Carolina: Duke University Press.
Youngblood, R. F., Bruce, F. F., & Harrison, R. K. (Eds.). (1995). Nelson’s new illustrated bible dictionary. Nashville: Nelson.