by Terrence Turman
Richard Allen and Absalom Jones might not be names you know. Their story rarely makes the cut for what many seminaries choose to teach and what mainstream Christian historians choose to remember. Theirs is the story of two bold and revolutionary church planters who, in the face of Sunday morning racism, decided they’d had enough.
After years of racist church policies and a culminating event during prayer time one Sunday morning, Allen and Jones led around 40 or so people out of St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia and established a gathering that would birth two church congregations and the first Black-led denomination: the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
This is American church history, but, like many others, the stories of Allen and Jones are cast into the catch-all of Black history and not given their due and honor of being seen as essential to how faith traditions in America are understood.
It can be argued that many of the most known moments and stories in Black history—like the stories of Harriet Tubman’s work on the Underground Railroad, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights work, and even Nat Turner’s slave rebellion—are very well stories of church history. When examined, their actions were compelled by their faith in God and what His Word deemed true about them—along with the reality that their situations were heavily perpetuated by a culture in which many Christians and the majority movement of the church actively failed them as siblings of the faith.
Now, you may be asking, why is this in the Unleashed magazine? Good question!
There is a profound quote attributed to William Wordsworth that will help answer that: “Life is divided into three terms—that which was, which is, and which will be. Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future.”
In other words, a right view of church history will only help us have a right assessment of the present to have a better engagement for the future. We can’t continue to highlight the awakenings, revivals, and “great” preachers of old without equally acknowledging the ostracizing, segregation, and contradictory practices (like pro-slavery teaching, the Negro Slave Bible, and the curse of Ham theology) to which many of those same men clung. Instead, we must embrace the wider story, because, after all, it’s not just Black history, but church history!
Church history is like family history, in that it can be really complicated. A story of beauty, perseverance, and strength for one party can be an ugly one of shame and guilt for the other. Those who had the power to tell the whole story chose instead to tell one of partiality of their own group! In doing this, they paved the way for a cultural critique that still haunts the church today in minority communities, the label that Christianity is “The White Man’s Religion.” Though this couldn’t be further from the truth, the damage has been done, and it’s time for honesty and healing to lead the way.
One at a Time Challenge
With everything I’ve shared in mind, I would like to invite you to join me in some courageous, but soul-deep work. We are going to reclaim the stories and truths once left out back into the narrative as we continue to walk toward racial/ethnic healing in the church and as a family!
During Black History Month, as you revisit, hear, and read stories of Black history, ask yourself:
1. Is this also church history?
2. How is this story relevant for today?
3. What are some practical implications of this story to my Christian witness, relationships, and mission? To my family? In my workplace? In my neighborhood? In my city?
To learn more, Terrence recommends reading the book, The Whitewashing of Christianity: A Hidden Past, A Hurtful Present, and A Hopeful Future.
Terrence Turman is Associate Pastor of Southeast Christian Church City Region.