Guest article from Curtis Woods, associate executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention
African-American evangelicals have been passionate about social justice and biblical reconciliation since the late 18th century. Allow me to introduce you to Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833), an American patriot and abolitionist intellectual.
Haynes was born in West Hartford, Conn., to unmarried biracial parents. Haynes’s earliest biographer described his father as an African of “unmingled ancestry.” His mother could have been an indentured servant or an aristocrat. Most historians cannot irrefutably identify the parents. They only know the father was black and the mother was white. Biracial relations were common practice within early American history. For evidence, one need only observe the large amounts of biracial births by African, Native American, and Anglo females. Sadly, the laws of the land often gave special liberties to Anglo male citizens, which accounted for many pregnancies.
Shortly after Haynes’s birth, his mother abandoned him. He became an indentured servant at the tender age of 5 months. Haynes lived his entire life as an indenture to a family in Granville, Mass. They treated him like one of their own. Haynes was emancipated on his 18th birthday. The uninhibited one would soon become a great liberator, as his writings helped plow the ground from which would sprout Abraham Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation.”
Long before Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the now-famous “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail,” which called for the death of Jim Crow society in the South, Haynes penned “Liberty Further Extended” even before the birth of Jim Crow. In 1776, Haynes attacked American slavery and the slave trade.He struggled to understand how colonial leaders could picture “freedom as a natural right” while denying liberty to enslaved Africans.
In similar fashion, King rhetorically asked, “How can you [political leaders] advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” King answered, “The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust.” Just laws come from obeying God’s Word, whereas unjust laws take place when leaders forsake truth. These ideas were generated by King on April 16, 1963. We remember King, but we have regrettably forgotten evangelicals like Haynes.
In their struggle for freedom, African-American evangelicals kept God’s sovereignty in line with Scripture when they critiqued injustice. God was never portrayed as incapable of acting on behalf of truth and love. God’s hands, as it were, were never tied by the will of His creation. These evangelicals believed, “Our God is in heaven and does whatever He pleases.” If you hear this statement and respond, “How can someone say that God’s hands were somehow involved with the horror of slavery?” I would respond, “In the same way God’s hand – and our hands – crushed his own Son so that the innocent One could provide salvation for the guilty” (Acts 2:23).
Like Haynes, evangelicals today must contend for the faith in order to transform society. Contemporary African-American evangelicals cannot allow the apparent cultural tsunami to change the tide of truth. Let us strive to keep the gospel first as we pursue biblical reconciliation and social justice.