Chattel and Prophets: African Americans in Presbyterian Church History

by Eric M. Washington

African-American woman praying in a church pew with other congregants in the backgroundA careful reading of African-American church history reveals that African Americans have a long history in Presbyterianism. Despite the small numbers of African-American Presbyterians relative to the overall numbers of African-American Christians, they must be considered an important population within the broader scope of the African-American church tradition, owing to their beginnings in slavery and their prophetic voices within the Church and American society. This humble work provides a brief sketched history of key events and persons within this African-American Presbyterian church tradition.

In common with African-American experiences of other Christian traditions in America, African-American Presbyterian history began with slavery. The consensus among historians is that the First Great Awakening (1739-1770s) was the period that considerable numbers of African-born and American-born enslaved persons joined churches. Regarding the revivalistic “sects,” late historian Luther P. Jackson included the Presbyterian church along with Methodist and Baptist churches. For an example, he noted one revival under Presbyterian minister Samuel Davies that lasted from 1742-1758 in Hanover County, VA. According to Jackson and others, revivalistic preaching emphasized human depravity and the need of the new birth. Revivalist preachers applied this preaching to European, Native American, and African alike.

In 1801, Chavis was the first ordained African-American minister, and the first missionary commissioned by the General Assembly to work specifically among African-American slaves and free African Americans. He received his ministerial education at Princeton, but it is doubtful that he actually enrolled there. (Interestingly, it is known that Dr. John Witherspoon, president of Princeton, personally directed Chavis’ studies.) From Princeton he went to Lexington, VA and attended Washington College in that city, and he then began his preaching ministry as an itinerant evangelist with the Hanover Presbytery in 1801. In 1805, he returned to North Carolina, where he preached to audiences of both African Americans and whites. From that year until 1831, he served as a missionary-teacher among free African-American children and white children. In the aftermath of the Nat Rebellion in 1831 in Southampton, Virginia, the state of North Carolina stripped Chavis of his privilege to teach and preach.

Read the rest of this post on in all things

Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.

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The Dreaded Second Question – Or, In Defense of My Major

by Matt Beukema.

blackboard with hand writing in chalk "History"You’ve likely heard the question or even asked it yourself.

After answering “History” to the question of what I studied in college comes that dreaded second question. The question that comes nearly 90% of the time to history (and English, I’m sure) graduates.

“Do you want to teach?”

I don’t know why the question irks me so much. It’s innocent enough. Plus it seems like a large portion of history graduates do go into teaching.

Maybe it’s the underlying assumption that history is only useful for teaching. It’s a ridiculous concept, really. If something is only good for teaching others, why bother learning it in the first place?

I like to say that I study history for what is, not what was. I learned to think, to analyze, to communicate, to see what I’m seeing. I studied history to understand what ties humanity and the world together.

I learned to recognize and make sense of differences in street layouts and housing design over the 20th century in America, and the subtle racism and classism in post-World War II suburbanization. I learned to recognize strains of political and religious thought in American culture. I learned to dig deeper than initial, simple stories and listen to unheard voices.

I learned to look for connections—after all, a fact by itself means nothing (much credit to my advisor, James Bratt, for that one). I learned to pay attention, most of all, to recognize continuity and change as time goes by.

Studying history helps me make sense of the world around me. It reminds me that the world is both worse and better than I want to believe. History reassures me, advises me to panic less in a mad, mad world. History teaches me that Robert Frost was essentially right: “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

The dreaded second question sells history–and the humanities in general–short. I’m a much better person for having studied history. I’m a better citizen, thinker, friend. I have little interest in teaching, but I’ll be forever grateful for studying history.

Are those not good enough reasons to study history?

I propose we begin asking better questions of history grads: So you like reading and writing? How does your degree shape how you see the world? How have you continued to learn about and analyze the world around you? What unheard stories are you listening to?

So please, stop asking me if I want to teach. Do all history grads a favor and ask more than the dreaded second question. We thank you in advance.

This post also appears on the post calvin, a blog for young Calvin alumni exploring the post-diploma years.

Matt Beukema is a 2015 history graduate of Calvin College. 

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Audio: John Fry on the Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder

We had so much interest and enthusiasm for our February colloquium talk, that we are pleased to be able to share it here (with kind permission by the speaker):

‘This is What Men Call God’: The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder

A lecture by John Fry at Calvin College (February 22, 2017)

Poster for the talk features the title and speaker name and a woodcut drawing from the original Little House book.This year marks the 150th anniversary of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birth in 1867. During the Great Depression, her Little House books—children’s fiction based on her childhood in Kansas and the upper Midwest—became best sellers, and they have remained popular since. These books were a collaboration with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Historian John Fry will discuss what the books and Wilder’s other writings reveal about Wilder’s faith and what the depictions of Christianity in the Little House books reveal about Wilder and Lane’s collaboration.

Listen here:

About the Speaker

John J. Fry is an Academic Dean and Professor of History at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.  He is the author of The Farm Press, Reform, and Rural Change: 1895-1920 (Routledge, 2005) and the editor of Laura Gibson Smith’s Almost Pioneers: One Couple’s Homesteading Adventure in the West (Globe-Pequot, 2013).  He grew up on a farm in Western Pennsylvania, but now lives half a block away from the city of Chicago in Blue Island, Illinois.

This is the annual lecture for the Mellema Program in Western American Studies. It is also part of the monthly history colloquia series. These lectures are open to the Calvin community – students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends – and all are welcomed and encouraged to attend. Come early to enjoy refreshments and conversation, and feel free to ask questions or join the discussion at the end.

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