Posts Tagged ‘Baptists’

A Forgotten Legacy

Saturday, May 5th, 2012

Lott Carey (1780-1829)

by Eric Michael Washington

Just recently, an editorial assistant at Christianity Today sent me some stories asking for my assessment regarding their “newsworthiness.” I love it when historians get asked to comment on contemporary issues. One of the stories appeared in the October 6, 2010 edition of christianpost.com. The article, “Black Christians Largely Absent from U. S. Missionary Force,” focused on the lack of African-Americans in world missions.

This particular issue “lives on my street.” As a historian, my focus is on the history of African-American Baptist missions in Africa during the 19th century and early 20th century. When I embarked upon this study as a doctoral student in the early 2000s I realized that there was an alarming lack of attention on world missions in my home church and in my national convention, the National Baptist Convention USA. The article on christianpost.com affirmed my observations. In stark terms the article states: “According to the 2007 African American Missions Mobilization Manifesto by Columbia International University, blacks make up less than one percent of the total number (118,600) of U. S. missionaries.”

The contemporary lack of attention fails to correspond with a historical lack of attention. As I read general histories of African-American Baptists I found that there had been African-American Baptist missionaries in Liberia, Nigeria, the Congo, and southern Africa during the 19th century and early 20th century. With my concentration fixed on African-American Baptist work in southern Africa, I became familiar with the stories of men and women such as R. A. Jackson, Emma Delaney, and James East. One residual effect of my work, hopefully, will be to spark some sort of revival among African-Americans regarding sending missionaries overseas, especially to Africa.

Just recently I presented a paper at Calvin College, my home institution, on the pioneering Baptist missionary to Africa, Lott Carey. Born into slavery in Virginia around 1780, Carey became a Christian, an ordained minister at First Baptist Church in Richmond, and in 1821 a missionary and colonist representing the Baptist General Convention and the American Colonization Society, respectively.

In the paper, I began by showing how Carey’s influence still rested upon African-American Baptists one hundred years after he began his work in West Africa, Liberia particularly. In the summer of 1920, the monthly organ of the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention, the Mission Herald, announced that the third Sunday of January 1921 would be the observance of Lott Carey’s sailing to Africa. From this, it is clear that Lott Carey’s legacy was alive and well. This fails to be the case today.

One can point to a plethora of reasons why African-American churches, in general, and the National Baptist Convention, USA (NBC-USA) in particular has lost a zeal regarding missions to Africa. To be just, the NBC-USA still maintains presence in Liberia and parts of southern Africa;”>With that stated, African-Americans in the 19th century and early 20th century were comparably worse off economically and educationally than in the last 25 years. This is something that is assumed and rightly so. Is there a legitimate excuse for the lack of money that flows to the Foreign Mission Board of the NBC-USA? According to the aforementioned article, the NBC-USA reported that the average church member gives 40 cent to foreign missions work as of 1993. This is simply a neglect on the part of local churches, district associations, and state conventions all of which can funnel monies to the Foreign Mission Board.

Though Lott Carey and his family left for Africa in January 1821, he helped to organize a missionary society in 1815, the Richmond African Baptist Missionary Society. By this time, Carey had purchased his freedom by saving his money earned by being “hired out” to work in tobacco warehouse in Richmond. Other members of the Richmond Society were slaves, who offered their “mites” for the hope of sending a missionary to Africa.

This group was concerned that American Baptists overlooked Africa as a potential mission field; their attention was on India and the Far East. A fledgling missionary society composed of primarily poor African-Americans endeavored to send the gospel to their “homeland” even though these Africans were born in America. For such a purpose, the society gave $700 to Carey and his party as the left for Africa. This was no mean accomplishment.

What made the difference then compared to now? Judging from my research, African-Americans both slave and free had a strong belief that the same God that allowed their suffering under the lash of slavery would fulfill his word in Psalm 68:31, “Princes shall come out of Egypt;”>This was evident in Absalom Jones’ famous sermon preached in January 1, 1808. The day and year marked the United States’ termination of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and caused celebration among African-Americans, especially Christians. Jones, an Episcopalian minister who had been part of the group of African-American worshipers that left St. George’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1791 after receiving prejudicial treatment, wrestled with the providential meanings of African slavery and the abolition of the Atlantic Trade. From his Philadelphia pulpit in St. Thomas’ Church, Jones asserted with a hint of caution:

It has always been a mystery, why the impartial Father of the human race should have permitted the transportation of so many millions of our fellow creatures to this country, to endure all the miseries of slavery. Perhaps his design was that a knowledge of the gospel might be acquired by some of their descendants, in order that they might become qualified to be the messengers of it, to the land of their fathers.

These slaves and free African-Americans had a vision of hope that lay beyond freedom for freedom’s sake. They envisioned their freedom in order to engage in Christian service. Carey exemplified this sentiment when he responded to a person who asked him why he desired to become a missionary in Africa. He said, “I am an African, and in this country, however meritorious my conduct, and respectable my character, I cannot receive the credit due to either. I wish to go to a country where I shall be estimated by my merits, and not by my complexion; and I feel bound to labor for my suffering race.” This sentiment seems to be largely missing among African-American Baptists, this connection between themselves and Africa and Africans, alike.

This is an academic problem as well as a church problem. One large question that looms for me is: is there still a type of grassroots Pan-African spirit among African-Americans in general, but among African-American Christians?

A sense of historical and cultural connectedness with Africa and all persons of African descent was key motivating factor that led to African-American missions in Africa. Is there a connection with the seemingly lack of such spirit now and the lack of African-American missionary presence worldwide but also in Africa? These are questions worth exploring.

Sorely Lacking in Saints; or Why Baptists Need Better History

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

by Doug Hibbard

I have been a Southern Baptist all of my life, and am an ordained Southern Baptist pastor. I attended a Baptist-affiliated college and attend a Baptist-influenced seminary, though not one that is part of the Southern Baptist Convention. After all, we all have to walk on the wild side every now and then, right?

One thing I have noticed across my time in study and preaching is this: we Baptists are sorely lacking in saints. Not that we lack for saintly people, but that we lack for saints. Most of the other faith traditions in Christianity have various people they look back on and consider to have been remarkable enough to be remembered by all.

Yet we Baptists do not really do this. It is true that some names are known well, but too often they are known for our efforts to co-opt them for our sides of an argument. Whether it is claiming Charles Spurgeon as the support for our preaching style or Charlotte Diggs Moon for our missionary efforts, we do not revere these people simply for their service. Instead, our desire is that people will be awed by the impact of these people and therefore see the rightness of our own opinions.

Perhaps it is because our history is short. Compared to either the Roman Catholic tradition or the Orthodox tradition, there have really only been Baptists about one-fourth of the time those groups have existed. Further, a great deal of our heritage has been to reject what we see as shortcomings in those traditions. I certainly do not want us to fight those back out here. I would suggest, though, that we have made a mistake by leaving behind the heritage of faith that can be found in many of the stories of the saints of the church.

For example, what became of each of the Apostles after the Day of Pentecost? While many of you history specialists would argue that we do not truly know, what is disturbing is that many people in my tradition would never ask the question. We teach what happens to Peter, we remember where Phillip goes for a little while, and then we see where Paul ended up.

In the process, we have ceded the fate of Thomas, Thaddeus, and the others to the realm of the History Channel. We teach little of the work of Augustine or the faith of Patrick, though we mention his work with snakes, and so leave ourselves with little in the way of inspirational history. Instead, we find ourselves jumping from one trend to the next, seeking our strength from the men and women today though their legacies remain incomplete.

This leaves us lacking. While the emphasis that we turn to the Lord Jesus Christ is a good one, we lose out on the ability to see important moments in the history of our faith, of wider Christianity, and even of the world around us.

We miss the struggles to define the first days of Baptist belief from other faith groups. We do not remember the stories of Adoniram Judson and his commitment to integrity and missions; we do not know Smith and Helwys, and for not knowing, we are the shallower for it. It becomes too easy to believe that the current generation of preachers and teachers are the ones charged with defining and defending the faith alone. Yet they are not.

We miss the strength of the shared heritage of Christianity. Martin Luther’s name may be known, but his actions are mysterious. Thomas Aquinas can hardly get his name spelled properly, and Francis of Assisi only seems to get misquoted. We know little of Catherine of Siena or John Chrysostom and are unlikely to know the difference in Cyril of Jerusalem and Cyril of Alexandria.

In all, though, an examination of the history of the faith at large shows the impact of these and many others. By missing these, it becomes far too easy to think there was a lack of devotion and Christian faith until the people we have heard of came along. Yet the Faith was received by the first generation and transmitted down this long line to us today.

We miss the sense of wonder at the work of God in the world at large when we lack these precious biographies in our churches. Lacking in knowledge of Thomas Cranmer, we might not see how the world saw great upheaval but God used those times to bring worship to people in their own language rather than obscurity. Not knowing the labors of Polycarp in the face of the Roman world or the work of Nicholas amidst a state rising in its power over the church, we might think that these days are the only days that the church has seen opposition. Yet when we can see the faith of a Patrick, going back to his oppressors with the Gospel, or the actions of a Bede to transmit the heritage of faith to further generations, we see that the work of God has not ceased since the vision on Patmos.

To those of you who labor, teach, and strengthen the branches of Christianity that remember these men and women who showed extraordinary faith, do not lose the heritage found in them. While there are always new people that come along to inspire, do not set aside the efforts of those who struggled to bring you where you are. Although, not being there, that may not be a danger for you; I would encourage you to not let it become a danger.

To those of us who work to accomplish those same goals in the less-saintly branches of faith, let us not neglect learning and teaching those around us of the ones who have gone before us. The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of the “great cloud of witnesses” and we would do well to remember that this cloud has been growing in the centuries since the church began. Let us not miss the rich heritage of faith that surrounds all who bear the name of Christ in this age.

Doug Hibbard is a Baptist pastor who also blogs at DougHibbard.com