Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Today on the Almanac, we talk about Lemuel Haynes, the first ordained black minister in America.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 28th of September 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.

After this many shows (and with no end in sight!) we have decided that we will revisit some characters, especially those I think might be especially helpful in understanding the history of the church. It was one year ago today that we first introduced Lemuel Haynes to you as the first black minister ordained by an American denomination. Last year we talked about his service as a minuteman between 1774 and 1776 as well as his criticism of deism.

On today’s show, I want to remind you about this remarkable figure in the early republic and pin his thought to two really important ideas in the early American republic and church.

Haynes was born in 1753, we don’t know about his parents except that his mother was white and his father was black and he was born out of wedlock. At 5 months he was put up for adoption and taken in by the Rose family of Massachusetts, but as an indentured servant. On Saturday nights the family would read the sermons and devotions of popular preachers. After one particular rousing reading by a teenaged Lemuel, he was asked who the author was. He admitted he was, and soon he was called upon to help edit and write the sermons of others.

After his time as a minuteman in the Massachusetts militia, he studied theology and was ordained by the Congregational church in 1785- making him the first ordained black minister in America.

He married Elizabeth Babbitt, a white woman, and they had 10 children. He took a call in 1787 to Rutland, VA where he served for over 30 years as a popular, but controversial preacher.

To understand the life and thought of Haynes historian John Saillant suggests that the two things to “get” are his 18th-century Republicanism and his adherence to the “New Divinity”. Let’s break those down.

Please, please, please when you see “Republican” or “Democrat” used more than a century ago it has little to do with the modern political parties and ideologies. Words change sometimes and it stinks, but oh well.

18th-century Republicanism focused on universal benevolence, unity, and virtue developed in a system free from the aristocracy and based on popular sovereignty. As opposed to the “liberals” of the day, these Republicans believed in cooperation as opposed to individualism and private ambition.

The “New Divinity” as we have seen was that New England theology, first set forth by Jonathan Edwards that sought to find a middle way between the old Calvinists and the theological liberals. Rather than strict communion and membership rules, this New Divinity allowed those who they called "baptized but not converted” to make a “halfway” covenant in order to join the church and receive the Lord’s Supper in a hope that it would engender saving faith.

Part of this new engagement with the world led the new divinity to stress what was called “universal disinterested benevolence” with society at large. That is a tricky way of saying that in the civic sphere Christians are called to love their neighbors as themselves and put consideration others before themselves. But that doesn’t sound as fancy (even if it’s straight out of the Bible).

Haynes’s political and theological beliefs coalesced to make him a fierce opponent of slavery despite many New Divinity theologians seeing no problem with owning slaves. By the time of the war of 1812, Haynes was apoplectic over the war created by the impressment of white soldiers. The new country was willing to fight a war to free a few white men but kept black men enslaved. As you might guess, this made him unpopular amongst his white congregation and he was relieved of his duties in 1818.

In the final years of his life, he wrote on piety and politics- these have been collected in “Black Preacher to White America: The Collected Writings of Lemuel Haynes, 1774-1833”. It was on this, the 28th of September in 1833 that Lemuel Haynes died at the age of 80.

The last word for today comes from Galatians 3:

All of you are God’s children because of your faith in Christ Jesus. And when you were baptized, it was as though you had put on Christ in the same way you put on new clothes. Faith in Christ Jesus is what makes each of you equal with each other, whether you are a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a free person, a man or a woman. So if you belong to Christ, you are now part of Abraham’s family, and you will be given what God has promised.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 28th of September 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man whose favorite things branded as “new” include the New Divinity, New Coke, and the 90s one-hit-wonder “the new Radicals”. He is Christoper Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who gives the new Coke Zero a solid B. It’s the 3rd recipe change and this one kinda tastes like Coke Zero and Diet Coke combined. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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