Is history just a happenstance? Are the marvelous events of history only a series of coincidences? Is there an unseen hand behind the conflict of human wills that shapes our destiny?
Nineteenth century historian Charles Coffin gives the following analysis: “While oppressors have carried out their plans and had things their own way, there were other forces silently at work, which in time undermined their plans, as if a Divine hand were directing the counter-plan … Men act freely in laying and executing their plans; but behind the turmoil and conflict of human wills there is an unseen power that shapes destiny – nations rise and fall, generations come and go; yet through the ages there has been an advancement of justice, truth, right, and liberty … Without recognizing this feature, the student will fail of fully comprehending the meaning of history. There must be a meaning to history, or else existence is an incomprehensible enigma.“1
If this is true, did God have a purpose behind the enslavement of the African people, in their transportation across the Atlantic, in the years of unrequited toil? Was there an unseen hand that not only allowed slavery but also directed the Civil War and later raised up the Civil Rights movement? If God had a plan for this country and the people who were to inhabit it, did God have a plan for the black man as well?
We believe unequivocally that America still has a rendezvous with destiny – that the call of God on America has not been fulfilled. We believe that the gift of liberty purchased by the blood of the martyrs with sacrifice, scars, and many tears – the gift which has been given to the white and black man alike in this American nation – has come directly from the hand of God. We believe that the call of God on America – red, yellow, black and white – has not been revoked.
With this in mind we will be enabled to more readily identify the hand of God in the history of black Americans and to see the mercy and power of the Savior of mankind that brought about such a mighty deliverance. Is there a call of God on black America? We believe that there is. Has the destiny of black America been fulfilled? We believe it has not.
God’s Purpose in the Midst of Human Injustice
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., while imprisoned during the Civil Rights movement, wrote in an open letter to the ministers of Birmingham, Alabama: “I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle … even if our motives are at present misunderstood.We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation because the goal of America is freedom. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of Almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands.”
Since the fall of man in the garden of Eden, bitter hatred, injustice, and the cruelty of mankind runs like a thread through history. Along side this saga of moral depravity can be seen the hand of God as he directs redemption’s story and causes all human rebellion and injustice to work according to the counsel of His will.
Many events recorded in the Bible demonstrate this truth. Joseph was sold as a slave into Egypt by his own brothers. While enslaved in Egypt, Joseph was falsely accused and thrown into prison where he remained for many years. In God’s timing, God delivered Joseph from slavery and set him in rulership next to Pharaoh. When his brothers came to Egypt many years later seeking grain, they had to go before their brother. Joseph revealed his identity, to their astonishment, and explained; “It was not you who sent me here, but God.” With great reconciliation and love he then wept and kissed them.
Such was the attitude of a man who understood the workings of God and the dealings of providence. What man meant for evil, God turned into good. The redemption of the human race from sin, injustice, and the curse is the central theme of the Bible. Jesus came to redeem the human race and to “save the world” from sin and its effects. Yet that redemption had to be worked out in time and in history, and men had to be brought from darkness into light.
Historian Charles Coffin explains, “The story of history is the story of the march of the human race from slavery to freedom.” It was in the garden of Eden at the dawn of time that man was first born free. It was in this same garden that man decided to disobey his Creator, to govern his own affairs independently of God. As a result man became a slave of sin. External slavery was just an outward expression of the condition that already existed in the human heart. When Jesus began his ministry on earth he proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord” (Isaiah 61:1-3).
Jesus stated his ultimate intention to redeem the human race from sin and extend freedom to all mankind, yet in time and in history it has taken 2,000 years to work out the progress thus far. The history of the world has been for the most part a history of wars and slavery – all brought on by hereditary hatred and ancestral thirsts for vengeance. The Old Testament contains, among other things, a record of Israel’s wars; in fact, Israel had rest from wars and from her enemies only during the reign of Solomon. This was a foreshadowing of the day of Messiah’s reign when the ancient prophecy would be fulfilled; “And they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and they will study war no more” (Isaiah 2:4).
It was customary among warring nations that the victors would make the losers into slaves. Abraham, one of the patriarchs of the Old Testament and father of the nation of Israel, owned slaves. Joseph, as we stated earlier, was sold into slavery by his own brothers. Later, the entire nation of Israel was enslaved by the Egyptians. When Israel conquered Canaan, they made slaves of the Canaanites.
So prevalent was the practice of slavery that God gave laws to the nation of Israel as to how they were to treat their slaves. Men were allowed to sell themselves into slavery. Slaveowners were commanded to let their slaves go free after seven years. However, the stealing of men for the purposes of slavery was strictly forbidden by biblical law. After Israel had lived in the promised land for many years, the entire nation of Israel rebelled against God and worshiped idols continually. Finally, because they refused to repent, the entire nation of Israel was captured by the Babylonians and taken away as slaves.
Slavery in America
In Noah Webster’s History of the United States, the ancient Teutonic and Gothic nations of Europe were described as “warlike.” No person could appear in public without his weapons. A warrior would typically have his servant stand behind him with a sword while he ate, to insure his defense. Men were devoted to war and the chase. Warriors disdained the drudgery of labor which they left to the old men, women and children. All of life in early Europe was characterized by war and the taking of slaves from captive nations. Yet this type of lifestyle was changed when the benevolent force of Christianity arrived and began to tame the barbaric passions of mankind.
It was no different in early America. Native Indian tribes warred against the white settlers and made slaves of white men, women, and children whom they captured during their attacks.
The continent of Africa was also full of tribal warfare, and is still plagued by this curse today. The conquering tribe would either enslave, kill, and sometimes even eat the loser of the contest. Although some of the blacks were captured as slaves by the white man, others were sold into slavery by their own black kinsmen. Africans at this time – just like the barbaric white men in Europe – were totally pagan, controlled by witchcraft, idolatry, ignorance, and darkness.
The United States became a sad participant in this saga of human depravity. But we must realize that the black slaves who were taken from their own land had not been enjoying freedom prior to their captivity. Many times these slaves were taken from degenerate African chiefs who dominated their own slaves with cruel, barbaric practices. On the whole, there is not much evidence that any American negro ever lived in a “free society” in Africa prior to his coming to America. The idea of “freedom” did not exist, and still does not exist in many African nations where various tribes are suppressed and brutalized by rival tribes in power.
It was the redeeming power of Christianity which began to change the course of human events and bring liberty and justice to a sin-cursed world.
Slavery’s Death Blow in America
We must never forget that the Protestant Reformation brought the world out of a period of over 1,000 years of the darkest days known to the human race. America was discovered and colonized in the shadow of the Reformation because men and women sought a land where they could worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience.
We must never forget that up until the founding of the United States, 99 percent of the human race had lived under the power of Ruler’s Law and the tyranny of kings. The First Great Awakening gave birth to American independence. The establishing of the United States of America and of constitutional government marked the first time since ancient Israel that a people had escaped the tyranny of Ruler’s Law to become a free and self-governing people. From the American Revolution, a wave of freedom and liberty swept the globe that eventually put an end to the doctrine of the divine right of kings.
Although slavery was still lawful after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the framing of the Constitution, it was the hope of the founding fathers to eradicate slavery. These men recognized that the idea of slavery was inconsistent with the liberty for which they had sacrificed everything. George Washington wrote in a letter to John Mercer, September 9, 1786: “I never mean, unless some particular circumstance should compel it, to possess another slave by purchase, it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this country may be abolished by law.”
Washington made arrangements for his slaves to be liberated completely after the death of his wife. (It was his personal desire to free them sooner.) He made arrangements to have them educated, brought to useful employment, and the infirm to be cared for until their death. The younger slaves were to be cared for until they reached the age of 25.
When Thomas Jefferson was 25 years of age, he was elected to the Virginia legislature. His first political act was to begin the elimination of slavery. During the Revolutionary War, Jefferson drew up a plan to revise the Virginia Constitution – which he hoped would be an example when America won her freedom. Both he and James Madison sensed that a campaign must be launched to clear out the accumulated rubbish of feudalism, aristocracy, and slavery which the New World had inherited from Europe.
Among the many reforms that Jefferson proposed was a formula for abolishing slavery by peaceful means within one generation. Virginians, however, were too entrenched in their traditional culture to accept his radical reforms. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the principle charges that Jefferson made against King George and Parliament was that they would not allow the American colonies to outlaw the importation of slaves. While this charge did not appear in the final draft, Jefferson planted in the Declaration of Independence the seed of truth that he knew would eventually overthrow slavery. He wrote:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
That seed which had taken root in America later grew to be a mighty tree. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 to reap a harvest of the seed which the founders had sown. He proclaimed: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note of which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Thanks to the writers of the Constitution and the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, Dr. King had a “right to protest for the right.”
Making Equality a Reality
Originally, all the American colonies had slaves and bond servants. Several thousand free blacks also had slaves. However, many religious leaders had been campaigning against the importation of slaves by British merchants since the first boat of slaves arrived in 1619.
It was the hope of the majority of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention that slavery would be eradicated. However, some of the southern states balked, fearing economic collapse.
Realizing the threat of war and the great chance of being overrun by European nations the founders knew that without a strong union there would be no hope of keeping the precious freedoms they had just won from England. To insure the Union, they worked out a compromise with the southern states to allow slavery for 20 more years. A provision was made which gave the federal government the right to terminate the importation of slaves after 1808. We must recognize that in the history of men and of nations, this provision was the first milestone on the long road of the human race back from the primeval practice of slavery.
In nearly all the states the moral issue was clear. However, a clear pathway out of slavery was not so clear, even to the slaves themselves who were unprepared for a life of competitive independence. To unitedly declare that slavery was on its way out, the founders put a provision in the Northwest Ordinance (which was passed in 1787, the same year the Constitution was adopted) that in the new states there would be no slavery allowed.
The southern states agreed to work toward getting rid of slavery in their states – an agreement which they never carried out. Although the federal government did make the importation of slaves illegal after 1808, and upheld the banning of slavery in new states and new territory, slave trading continued in the slave states of those slaves who were American born.2
Abraham Lincoln, understanding the founders intent, argued in the Dred Scott decision that the authors of the Declaration of Independence, in declaring all men equal, “did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all men were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.“3
Dr. King, understanding the hand of God in history, proclaimed as he stood on the steps of the capital of Montgomery: “Somebody is asking today, ‘How long will prejudice blind the visions of men?’ I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to the earth will rise again. How long? Not long! Because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long! Because you shall reap what you sow. How long? Not long! … How long? Not long! Because the arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. How long? Not long! Because mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
Jesus Christ: Liberator of the Captives
Echoing in the words of Dr. King was the belief that Jesus Christ was the ultimate Redeemer and deliver of the oppressed – a belief which has been held by the majority of black men and women since they first embraced Christianity on the shores of America and were taught the word of God. As slaves began to understand the basic teachings of Christianity, their spirituals vibrated with a central message: “God will deliver us from bondage if we have faith in Him.”
They emphasized this idea with their choice of such Bible heroes as Moses, Jonah, and Daniel. The hope of the negro slaves in America was that one day, men would judge men by their souls and not by their skins.
The Second Great Awakening in America in the 1800s gave rise to the abolitionist movement and finally the Civil War. A country so dedicated to the cause of social justice could not co-exist with slavery. A people so awakened by God could not tolerate cruelty and injustice. A death blow was delivered to slavery in America that sent a wave of freedom around the world and eventually resulted in the end of the practice of slavery forever. An institution as old as the human race itself was brought to an end. This was the gift of God.
The hand of God, in the Civil War and in the election of Abraham Lincoln as President during those trying times, can be readily seen from just a few of Mr. Lincoln’s words. In 1837, when Mr. Lincoln was 28 years old, he discussed a sermon with some friends. Lincoln said, “It was the most instructive sermon I have ever heard. I firmly believe his interpretation of prophecy, especially about the breaking down of civil and religious tyrannies; and, odd as it may seem, I was deeply impressed that I should be somehow strangely mixed up with them.“4
In 1856, Mr. Lincoln delivered his first great speech on the right or the wrong of slavery before the Republican State Convention of Illinois: “The battle of freedom is to be fought out on principle. Slavery is a violation of the eternal right. We have temporized with it from the necessities of our condition; but as sure as God reigns and school children read, that black foul lie can never be consecrated into God’s hallowed truth!“5
After signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln said, “It is a great satisfaction to me to feel that I have support of the people in the great struggle to save the nation’s life. I never believed in slavery, but I felt I was elected President of both the North and the South. When Sumter was fired upon, and I called for 75 thousand men, my determined purpose was to save this country and slavery, and I called for over a half a million men with the same determination.
“But,” said he slowly and with great emphasis, “on many a defeated field there was a voice louder than the thundering of cannon. It was the voice of God crying, ‘Let my people go.’ We were all very slow in realizing it was God’s voice, but after many humiliating defeats the nation came to believe it as a great and solemn command. Great multitudes begged and prayed that I might answer God’s voice by signing the Emancipation Proclamation, and I did it believing we should never be successful in the great struggle unless the ‘God of Battles’ has been on our side.“6
It was during the Civil War that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was written. The author, Julia Ward Howe, had gone down to the Potomac River to view the Union Troops. She saw the burnished rows of still rifles, the circling camps, and men reading their Bibles by the light of campfires. As she left that scene, going home in the dark, images from her Puritan background began to flood her soul and the song took possession of her mind. It came to her, she would later write, “already completed.” She simply went home and wrote it down. No one can question its divine inspiration. In it resides the divine call of America – the call to bring liberty and truth to the nations – to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
As we picture the contest between good and evil, slavery and freedom, between light and darkness, the words stir our hearts:
I have seen Him in the watchfires
of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded him an altar
in the evening dews and damps.
I can read His righteous sentence
by the dim and flaring lamps.
His day is marching on!
He has sounded forth the trumpet
which shall never sound retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men
before His judgment seat.
Oh be swift my soul to answer Him!
Be jubilant my feet!
His truth is marching on!
In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea,
with a glory in His bosom
that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy,
let us die to make men free!
His truth is marching on!
This hymn was the hallmark of the liberation of all African Americans from slavery, and it was later chosen by the providence of God as the theme of the Civil Rights Movement. This song, more than any other like it, depicts the march of the human race from slavery to freedom through the willingness of men to live and die for the truth that can alone set men free.
As we look over the broad scope of history – from the Declaration of Independence, to the Constitution, the Northwest Ordinance, the 14th Amendment, and the Civil Rights Acts – we see that our political course has been charted by the design of the unseen hand of God. Yet, for what purpose?
And what can we say of men and women who laid their all on the altar of freedom? What can we say of William Lloyd Garrison, a white Christian who published The Liberator – a newspaper which expounded the evils of slavery and called for the complete eradication of it. When threatened, he labored with a price on his head and was dragged through the streets of Boston. What can we say of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who brought our nation face to face with itself through her exposure of the evils of slavery.
And what of the more recent struggle for Civil Rights? What of the courage of your parents and your grandparents who stood up and claimed for themselves and their children a better way of life? And what of Martin Luther King, Jr.? What did these martyrs die for? Was it for the black man to spend his life accumulating material riches and the honors of this world alone?
And what of that slave couple who knelt down in the cotton fields of antebellum Georgia and first thanked God for slavery, praying, “Lord, we may be slaves on the outside, but we are free on the inside. We thank you Lord that you delivered us from superstition, idolatry, and the cruel tribal life in Africa. We thank you that you brought us to this new land and taught us about the Savior. And now, Oh God, we pray for deliverance from our bondage. Grant to us that our children may become free moral agents who have the liberty to go where you send them to preach the gospel to a lost and dying world.”
What are we doing with these liberties which were so hard won over the centuries by sacrifice, heroism, and consecrated by the blood of the martyrs? Are they being spent on passion, lust, and self-interest? Is the only end of the struggle for the black American to become rich, powerful, and to enjoy the liberty that the white man enjoys? Or is there a God-shaped vacuum that can never be satisfied until we have discovered the will of God and are fulfilling His purpose and taking His kingdom to the ends of the earth.
Perhaps the call of God for Black America can best be summed up in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., as he preached his last message: “If you get someone to deliver my eulogy, tell them not to talk too much – not to mention I have a Nobel Peace Prize. That isn’t important. Tell them not to mention I have three or four hundred other awards. That’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. Tell them to mention on that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. Tell them that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to love somebody; that I tried to feed the hungry, I tried to clothe those who were naked, I tried to visit those in prison, I tried to live and serve humanity.
“Tell them I was a drum major for justice, for peace, for righteousness. All the other shallow things won’t matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have any of the fine luxurious things of life to leave behind. I just want to leave a committed life behind – If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a word or song, if I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain. If I can do my duty as a Christian ought. If I can bring salvation, if I can spread the message as the Master taught, then my living will not be in vain!”
1 Charles Coffin, The Story of Liberty, (originally published in 1879) Reprinted by Maranatha Publications, Gainesville, FL, 1987.
2 Cleon Skousen, The Making of America, (Washington, D.C.: The National Center for Constitutional Studies, 1985), p.37, 466.
3 Ed Meese, “Address to Students of Dickinson College,” Sept. 17, 1985, Carlisle, PA, p. 16.
4 William J. Johnson, Abraham Lincoln the Christian (Milford, MI. Mott Media: 1976), p. 37.
5 Ibid., p. 61.
6 Ibid., p. 105,106.
Copyright © Bob and Rose Weiner 2007, All Rights Reserved