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The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors
By Thabiti M. Anyabwile

–Review by Landrum P. Leavell III, Th.D.

I chose to read this book for at least a couple of reasons: First, I know the author. He has served as pastor of First Baptist Church, Grand Cayman and has now planted the Anacostia River Church in the Washington, D.C. area. The church I serve is a supporting partner of Anacostia, and Thabiti has preached for us several times. (He has the most silky, FM D.J. voice.) Secondly, I’d never read any compilation of sermons and stories by African-American pastors from the eras covered in this book. From the Foreward:

“You are about to meet three African-American pastors—Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833), Daniel A. Payne (1811-1893), and Francis Grimke (1850-1937). Their pastoral and educational ministries total over 130 years of faithfulness… You will be introduced to them biographically… Then you will meet them in their own words. This book is mainly to be prized as the never-before-gathered collection of African-American writings on the pastoral ministry from a time that spans 150 years and stretches across the terrible Civil War of our nation.

“In this book we who are not African-American receive the double profit of reading not only across a culture but across the centuries—and thus across another culture…these unusual crossings will weave our lives and ministries together in ways we have not foreseen. There are surprises…”

Did you know there was such a thing as “black puritans”? The author describes all three of these brothers like this: “They were puritans. They committed themselves to sound theology in the pulpit, theologically informed practice in the church, and theologically reformed living in the world.”

Did you know that in 1835 the South Carolina Assembly passed a law that said, “[If] any free person of color or slave shall keep any school or other place of instruction for teaching any slave or free person of color to read or write, such free person of color or slave shall be liable to the same fine, imprisonment, and corporal punishment as are by this Act imposed and afflicted upon free persons of color and slaves for teaching slaves to read or write”? This forced the closing of Daniel Payne’s school and led him to work out his vision for an educated black ministry within the northern context of the African American Methodist Episcopal Church and in the leadership of Wilberforce University in Ohio, “the first institution of higher education owned and operated by African-Americans.”

Who knew it was even possible for a former indentured servant, a free black man (Lemuel Haynes) in the eighteenth century to marry a white woman and pastor an all-white congregation in Vermont for over thirty-three years, an unheard of feat for an African-American of his period and ours?

Did you know that Charles Hodge, professor of theology at Princeton Seminary, taught African-American students such as Francis Grimke, who took the great reformed vision of God and spent his life working out its implications for race relations in the church while serving as pastor of 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. for nearly six decades? (10)

The scope of their ministries is definitely related to their longevity. “Their careers span most major periods in American history, including the American Revolution, slavery at the height of its power, the Civil War, Emancipation and Reconstruction, and World War I. That they faced extreme hardships is a given. None of them were born into privilege. All of them either witnessed or tasted the lash of slavery and the racial prejudices that followed that institution. Around them American society changed radically while their commitment to the ministry and their understanding of it remained constant.” (15)

The sermons included by these three pastors cover a wide variety of topics, circumstances, passions, and burdens. For example, Lemuel Haynes’ first published sermon was preached at an ordination service in 1791, based on Hebrews 13:17. He also has a rare funeral sermon (only two known copies—one each at Brown and Howard Universities) for the founding pastor of a new congregation. The exhortations therein are timeless. The longest of Haynes’ sermons cited was his farewell sermon to the congregation he served for thirty years. Beleaguered by constant conflicts with various members over church discipline (“nothing new under the sun!”), recalling 1,500 Sabbaths and 5,500 sermons led him to confess, “I did not realize my attachment to you before the parting time came.” (47) This sermon is a masterpiece of truth, class, and restraint.

Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne was born to free blacks in Charleston, South Carolina, lost both parents before the age of ten, yet found the means to piece together an education replete with classical studies. At age eighteen in a time of prayer, he heard a voice speaking to him: “I have set thee apart to educate thyself in order that thou mayest be an educator of thy people.” It’s amazing, mind-boggling, crazy—pick a word—that Payne at age 19 opened his first school in 1829 with three children and three adults. It closed after a year and he later reopened and “became not only the largest but by far the most influential school for the education of colored people in Charleston, if not in the entire South.” (76) After five years the South Carolina Assembly brought it to a halt.

He moved to New York, becoming licensed and fully ordained in the Lutheran Church at the age of twenty-six. Later switching denominational horses, “Payne’s tireless efforts to reform the character and educational quality of the African-American pastorate earned him the moniker ‘Apostle of Education to the Negro as well as the Apostle to Educators in the AME Church.” He almost single-handedly changed the educational culture of pastors and preachers in the AME Church. Payne felt like the undereducated and ill-prepared minister was a scandal and affliction upon black churches. (78-79)

The three sermons offered cover twenty-two years of Bishop Payne’s service, demonstrating his career-long concern for the integrity of the gospel ministry. He emphasized the education, preparedness, and Christian character of the minister of God as well as his vision for reforming the educational character of both the minister and the congregation. Payne believed the Christian minister should be dedicated to cultivating the life of the mind. He is “to feel and know that he was not to be a mere drone about the hive, a snail in the garden, or a lounger about the house of God—but that he had a mind, and that mind was made for thinking, investigating, discriminating—for study.” It is important to note that Payne challenged the church to prepare men and women for careers in education: “Perhaps there is no greater power in a given community than that of educated women.” (82-83)

Francis J. Grimke was born to a slave mother and her owner, Henry Grimke, the son of an aristocratic slaveholding family in Charleston, South Carolina. When his wife died, Grimke found in Francis’ mother a suitable “wife” and mother for three children. He died when Francis was five, and later he joined the Confederate Army for two years as an officer’s valet to avoid being re-slaved.

One of the greatest lessons to glean from Grimke’s life is his tenacious insistence on both the primacy of the gospel preaching ministry and the need for fully engaging the affairs of the world. In the history of the Christian church, most have leaned one way or the other. Grimke offers a case study in how to hold the tension without being torn in two. His Christian engagement with public pursuits was critical. He helped found the NAACP in 1906, creating educational opportunities, improving race relations, and encouraging suffrage. His public life was especially critical and stinging in his appraisal of the church and “Christian” hypocrisy in the face of injustice.

He hammered emotionalism as yielding little biblical instruction, and also targeted greed for money causing the church to degenerate into “a mere agency for begging.” Grimke lamented the very existence of such a thing as “white churches” and “black churches” (in 1910). He preached about “The Afro-American Pulpit Relation to Race Elevation” in 1892, “Christianity and Race Prejudice” in 1910, and the “Religious Aspect of Reconstruction” in 1919. Check out the sermons.

Reading the book, I was amazed at the degree of educational depth, grasp of language, and scope of gospel application in centuries before our own and cultures not our own—all the while not wanting to be guilty of chronological snobbery or ethnocentricity. I’m grateful for the deep dive into a new and expanded picture of those on whose shoulders we stand.

You’re welcome.