Some Historical Roots of African American Big God Theology
Year after year our awareness of the historical evidence increases that “Big God Theology” is indigenous to African American leadership from the beginnings of the Christian conversion of Blacks on this continent. Again and again what we find is that the most vivid and horrible descriptions of the slave trade go hand in hand with unshakeable confidence in God’s sovereignty over and in it all.
I would dare to venture that it was precisely the steel certainty of God’s all-governing, all-wise sovereignty, in the furnace of untold suffering, that forged the spiritual treasures of what Carl Ellis calls the “theological soul dynamic” in Black culture. In the last fifty years the biblical character of that soul dynamic has been significantly compromised by the widespread embrace of (largely white!) liberal theology.
But recently there has been a rediscovery and resurgence, among younger black leaders, of confidence in God’s all-wise sovereignty in suffering. This has gone hand in hand with the increasing awareness of how deep are the roots of this confidence in the soil of African American faith.
Ironically, one of the Black historians who has increased our awareness is not a theist, let alone a Christian. Anthony B. Pinn, Professor of humanities and Religious Studies at Rice University, promotes what he calls African American humanism. In his 2002 book, Moral Evil and Redemptive Suffering: A History of Theodicy in African-American Religious Thought, Pinn assembles thirty original historical documents by African Americans from 1787 to the present. Here is a sampling of the three earliest witnesses.
Jupiter Hammon was the first African American writer to be published in the United States. He lived in Lloyd Harbor, New York and was never emancipated. He was a fervent Christian and renowned for his eloquence. One of his most well-known addresses was given at the inaugural meeting of the African Society, September 24, 1786, titled An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York. He speaks of the deplorable condition of his brothers and their “poor, despised, miserable state”.
When he thinks about their plight, he says,
I am pained to the heart. It is at times almost too much for human nature to bear, and I am obliged to turn my thoughts from the subject or endeavor to still my mind, by considering that it is permitted thus to be, by that God who governs all things, who setteth up one and pulleth down another. (Pinn, 28)
Hammon pleads with the Blacks of New York to take every opportunity to learn how to read because then they may read the Bible.
Therein we may learn what God is. That he made all things by the power of his word, and that he made all things for his own glory, and not for our glory. That he is over all, and above all his creatures, and more above them than we can think or conceive — that they can do nothing without him — that he upholds them all and will overrule all things for his own glory. (Pinn, 34)
Twenty-one years later, on January 1, 1808 Absalom Jones, the first African American priest ordained in the Anglican Church, preached a message of thanksgiving in Philadelphia “on account of the abolition of the African Slave Trade on that day by the Congress of the United States.”
Jones gives a painfully vivid account of the plundering of African tribes, the Middle Passage, and the conditions of slaves in their new land, “exposed for sale like horses and cattle upon the wharves; or like bales of good.” He describes the “different modes of torture by means of the whip, the screw, the pincers, and the red hot iron . . . by inhuman overseers . . . deaf to the cries and shrieks of their agonizing slaves” (Pinn, 40).
He admits that “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.” He does not know.
But instead of assuming God was helpless, or evil, or unwise, or non-existent, he assumes an all-wise, divine purpose, even if it is beyond our comprehension. He conjectures:
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. Let this thought animate us, when we are teaching our children to love and adore the name of the Redeemer. Who knows but that a Joseph may rise up among them, who shall be the instrument of feeding the African nations with the bread of life, and of saving them, not from earthly bondage, but from the more galling yoke of sin and Satan. (Pinn, 42)
Nineteen years later, Nathaniel Paul preached a message July 5, 1827, the day after slavery was abolished in the state of New York. Paul was the pastor of the first African American Baptist Church of Albany, New York. He is overflowing with thankfulness to “the all-wise disposer of events” (Pinn, 46). Slavery, he said, “the most pernicious and abominable of all enterprises, in which the depravity of human nature ever led man to engage. . . . Its visage is satanic, its origin the very offspring of hell, and in all cases its effects are grievous” (47–48).
So he is bold to ask God, why he permitted this:
And, oh thou immaculate God, be not angry with us while we come into this thy sanctuary, and make the bold inquiry in this thy holy temple, why it was that thou didst look on with the calm indifference of any unconcerned spectator, when thy holy law was violated, thy divine authority despised, and a portion of thine own creatures reduced to a state of mere vassalage and misery. (50)
And he hears God answer:
Hark! While he answers from on high hear him proclaiming from the skies — Be still, and know that I am God! Clouds and darkness are round about me; yet righteousness and judgment are the habitation of my throne. I do my will and pleasure in the heaven above, and in the earth beneath; it is my sovereign prerogative to bring good out of evil, and cause the wrath of man to praise me. (50)
What these three African American witnesses show is that two hundred years ago Big God Theology was indigenous to the African American Christian mind. It was not alien. What would have been alien is Anthony Pinn’s God-less African American humanism.
The African American recovery of this emphasis today is, therefore, not the mere echo of white, western, Big God awakenings. Instead, what’s happening, across numerous cultures and ethnicities and geographies, is that the all-sovereign God of the Bible is reasserting himself for the strength and joy of his people. And to protect us from theological ethnocentrism, he is simultaneously reminding us that he has done this before among our fathers — white and black. (And, no doubt, other ethnic groups, if I only knew the history better. But I leave that for others.)
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