In my May 31 blog, I recalled and lamented the many examples of white evangelical failure on the issue of racism. We dare not forget that long history of sinful disobedience.
But there are also some wonderful examples of courageous evangelical efforts to combat racial injustice. In this blog, I want to highlight those positive stories – – in the hope that they can inspire us to daring, faithful activity today.
In 1688, three Mennonite immigrants who had joined the Quakers, worked with a Lutheran Pietist in Germantown, Pennsylvania, to write the “Germantown Protest,” the first Christian protest against slavery in what later became the USA.
John Wesley, the leader of the great 18th century evangelical revival that swept across Great Britain, opposed slavery. One convert in that evangelical revival was the young, wealthy William Wilberforce, who worked for decades as a member of the British Parliament to end the slave trade (1807) and slavery itself (1833). Among Wilberforce’s dedicated partners in the struggle was the pastor, John Newton, who wrote the wonderful hymn, Amazing Grace. Newton had been the captain of a slave ship! When Newton described himself as a “wretch” and acknowledged that he “once was blind but now I see,“ he was confessing his former role in the terrible Atlantic slave trade.
In the mid-1800s, Oberlin College (in Oberlin Ohio) was a thoroughly evangelical college – and also a center of vigorous opposition to slavery. By 1834, Charles Finney was already famous as an evangelist – – the “Billy Graham” of the mid 19th century. In his revival campaigns, Finney preached against the “social sin” of slavery.
In 1834, the leaders of a tiny, new Oberlin Institute asked Finney to come as part-time professor of theology. Finney agreed – – but only on the condition that Oberlin accept black Americans as students. It was agreed, and Oberlin immediately exploded in size and became the center of both evangelism and anti-slavery work. Oberlin also accepted women students, becoming the first co-educational college in the world.
Oberlin students conducted evangelistic missions to Native Americans and then stood with them, demanding that the American government stop breaking its treaties with Native Americans.
Oberlin was most famous for its vigorous campaign against slavery. Finney and Oberlin urged civil disobedience against the 1850 federal Fugitive Slave Law which required that escaping slaves be returned to their masters in the south. In 1858, four slave catchers captured John Price, an escaped slave in Oberlin. (Oberlin was a major stop on the underground railroad for escaping slaves). As the slave catchers held John Price and waited for a train to take the captured slave back south, hundreds of Oberlin folk ( led by the Sunday school superintendent and the professor of Christian ethics) swept through the railroad station, freed John Price, and put him back on his way to Canada.
The federal government, however, was not amused. The government arrested the ethics professor and Sunday school superintendent for breaking the law, and took them to Cleveland for trial. But in Oberlin, all the officials were abolitionists. So the Oberlin officials arrested the slave catchers on kidnapping charges and launched a court case against them in Oberlin. For months, the two court cases were front page stories in newspapers across the country. Eventually, after the abolitionist movement had won massive attention, both cases were dropped!
Wheaton College is one of the most famous evangelical colleges today. Wheaton’s founder and first president, Jonathan Blanchard, was an enthusiastic supporter of Finney and Oberlin College. Blanchard was elected as the American vice president of the World Anti-slavery Convention in London in 1843. Blanchard argued that slaveholding was a “social sin” and insisted that church discipline must be exercised against slaveholders. Blanchard said he went to Wheaton seeking “a perfect state of society” and a college “for Christ and his kingdom. “
Evangelist Charles Finney, Oberlin College, and their broad network of evangelical reformers played a central role in the long 19th century struggle to end slavery in America. They were also very influential in the emergence of a vigorous biblical feminism. (See the excellent book by Donald W Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, for the above history of Oberlin, Finney and Blanchard).
A black preacher, William J, Seymour, was the leader of the famous, interracial, Azusa Street Revival (1906 to 1908) in Los Angeles that led to the explosion of Pentecostalism around the world. (Today, Pentecostalism is the fastest growing part of global Christianity with about 500 million Pentecostals and Charismatics all around the world). It was the black preacher William Seymour, who led this amazing revival. For three years, it was thoroughly interracial. Sadly, racism soon reared its ugly head again and the movement split. White Christians left and formed what became the white Assemblies of God. But the earliest years of Pentecostalism represent a wonderful – – albeit a tragically brief – – moment when Christians truly transcended white racism.
I hope these exciting examples of faithful evangelicals working for racial justice can inspire us to write another, much better, more permanent, chapter in the history of the church. Of course, these stories dare not blind us to the massive examples of white racism that I outlined in my May 31 blog. (See the chapters on racism in the book I edited, The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Evangelical Christians on Justice, Truth and Moral Integrity available at Amazon --buy it and write a short review on Amazon—that encourages others to consider it!)
We must never forget our racist past but today’s stories do remind us that in the power of the Holy Spirit and in obedience to Christ our Lord, we can successfully conquer racism.
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