Learning about African American History… 1

The recent racial unrest in our country has given me a deep desire to understand the enslavement of the African people in U.S. and, among other things, why African Americans have been almost completely left out of the history of our nation, except for slavery. Most of us raised studying American history have gained little knowledge of the contributions African Americans have made to our nation. Over my next several blogs I would like to share some of what I’ve been learning about African American history. My goal is not to be controversial but informative and to recognize the African American as playing a vital role in the development of our country .


Europeans did not introduce Christianity to Africa. Christianity came to Africa through Egypt and Ethiopia as early as the third and fourth centuries AD. And it was Africans such as Augustine, Tertullian, and Athanasius who clarified for us the very basics of our faith. They were theological “rockstars” in the development of our understanding of the dual-nature of Christ and of Trinitarian theology. (Africans not only had their tribal religions but were also exposed to Islam in the 5th century.)

Slavery, as it developed in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of S. America, was different than the system that developed in N. America. This was due primarily to the Roman Catholic Church, which protected slaves from abuse and preached their treatment as human beings thereby keeping slavery from being infected by racial prejudice. In countries such as Brazil and Cuba, slaves could actually purchase their own freedom.

In the early days of European slave-contact with N. America, a racial caste system had not yet been established. This has led many to the conclusion that race is a social construct—an intentional choice that a society makes that skin color determines who is free and who is a slave. (Jimar Tisby) When slaves first arrived in N. America in 1619, they were treated as indentured servants; workers bound to an employer until they could pay off their debt. They could marry, save money, and pay for their freedom. Some Europeans and Indigenous people also served as indentured servants along with Africans. The movement toward slavery of the Africans happened gradually due to a number of factors: the desire by Virginians to cash in on the lucrative European market for tobacco which demanded more workers, and a declining population of Indigenous people and Europeans willing to work as indentured servants in contrast to a steady supply of workers from Africa through the slave trade. By the mid-1660’s, each of the Southern Colonies had enacted slaves codes or laws that established the rules of human bondage.

As the colonies depended more and more on African slaves, the Virginia Assembly enacted a new law (mid-17th century) stating that if a slave became a Christian and was baptized, it did not include their freedom. It was at this point (it seems) that the religious establishment became a part of a system that encouraged the slave to be content with their spiritual liberation and compliant to their masters.

Slavery in the American Colonial period was marked by a more tolerant attitude towards people of color than the pre-Civil War period. Schools were opened by slave owners to teach slaves to read and write (1740). The farther north one went in the colonies, the smaller the slave population. New England slaves never reached more than 2% of the population (compare the 65% of South Carolina) and their labor tended to be of a domestic kind rather than working in the field. Puritan pastor Cotton Mather insisted that slave owners treat slaves as persons with souls and not as beasts of burdens. He told ministers to preach, “Thy Negro is thy neighbor.” All of this said, slavery still existed in the North and most ministers had one or two household slaves. This included Cotton Mather, who was given a slave by his church as part of his benefit package, and Jonathan Edwards, who questioned the slave trade but did not find the concept of slavery itself inconsistent with the Bible.

It was easier for a New England slave to improve his/her condition than those in the South. Slave soldiers received the same pay as whites. Some slaves successfully sued their owners for freedom. Newport Gardiner of Rhode Island opened a music school for Blacks and Whites. His slave owner took lessons from him. However, a growing discrimination against people of color prevented them from rising in society as far as they could have.

More to come…

It is Good for Me That I was Afflicted…

Things like this are not easy to read or accept, but I would like to share with you a section from Thomas Brooks’ “A Mute Christian under the Smarting Rod of God: Comfort for Suffering Saints,” originally published in 1659. It has been helpful to me. You may find the complete book in a PDF file at http://www.ChapelLibrary.org

“It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn Thy statutes.”—Psalm 119:71.

“A gracious soul secretly concludes, as stars shine brightest in the night, so God will make my soul shine and glisten like gold, while I am in this furnace, and when I come out of the furnace of affliction. “But he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).

Surely, as the taste of honey opened Jonathan’s eyes, so this cross, this affliction shall open my eyes. By this stroke I shall come to have a clearer sight of my sins and of myself, and a fuller sight of my God (Job 33:27-28; 40:4-5; 13:1-7)!

Surely this affliction shall proceed in the purging away of my dross (Isa 1:25)!

Surely as plowing of the ground kills the weeds, and harrowing breaks hard clods, so these afflictions shall kill my sins and soften my heart (Hos 5:15; 6:1-3)!

Surely as the plaster draws out the infectious core, so the afflictions which are upon me shall draw out the core of pride, the core of self-love, the core of envy, the core of earthliness, the core of formality, the core of hypocrisy (Psa 119:67, 71)!

Surely by these afflictions, the Lord will crucify my heart more and more to the world and the world to my heart (Gal 6:14; Psa 131:1-3)!

Surely by these afflictions, the Lord will keep pride from my soul (Job 33:14-21)!

Surely these afflictions are but the Lord’s pruning-knives, by which He will bleed my sins, and prune my heart, and make it more fertile and fruitful! They are but the Lord’s potion, by which He will clear me, and rid me of those spiritual diseases and maladies which are most deadly and dangerous to my soul! Affliction is such a healing potion, as will carry away all soul-diseases, better than all other remedies (Zech 13:8-9)!

Surely these afflictions shall increase my spiritual communion with God (Rom 5:3-4)!

Surely by these afflictions, I shall be made to partake more of God’s holiness (Heb12:10)! As black soap makes white clothes, so do sharp afflictions make holy hearts!

Surely by these afflictions, the Lord will draw out my heart more and more to seek Him! “In their afflictions they will seek me early” (Hos 5:15)! In times of affliction,Christians will industriously, speedily, early seek unto their Lord!

Surely by these trials and troubles, the Lord will fix my soul more than ever upon the great concernments of the eternal world (Joh 14:1-3; Rom 8:17, 18; 2 Cor 4:16-18)!

Surely by these afflictions the Lord will work in me more tenderness and compassion towards those who are afflicted (Heb 10:34, 13:3)!

Surely these afflictions are but God’s love-tokens! “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten” (Rev 3:19)! So says the holy Christian, “O my soul! be quiet, be still. All is sent in love, all is a fruit of divine favor. I see honey upon the top of every twig; I see the rodis but a rosemary branch; I have sugar with my gall, and wine with my wormwood; therefore be silent, O my soul!”

Afflictions abase the carnal attractions of the world outside us that might entice us!

Affliction abates the lustiness of the flesh within us that might otherwise ensnare us!

Afflictions humble us and keep us low! Holy hearts will be humble under the afflicting hand of God. When God’s rod is upon their backs, their mouths shall be in the dust!

A godly heart will lie lowest, when the hand of God is lifted highest.

All this proves that affliction is a mighty advantage to us! ‘It is good for me that I have been afflicted…’ Psalm 119:71).”

NOTE: Check out a new resource that I have written, “Slavery and the Use of Scripture”.” It can be found on the menu portion of this or any blog.

God Has a Greater Interest in Me, Than I Have in Myself…

I’m getting chemo right now and thanking God for the safe delivery of our new grandson, Micah Lucas McDowell, born to Danielle and Jeremy early this morning at 12:17 am. Micah is our 11th grandchild. Gloria and I are blessed!

I always bring a book with me to chemo and I would like to share a portion of that book with you. The book was written by Thomas Brooks and is titled, “A Mute Christian under the Smarting Rod of God: Comfort for Suffering Saints,” originally published in 1659. Here it is:

You have a greater interest in me, than I have in myself. The godly one gives himself up to God. The secret language of the soul is this,“Lord, here am I; do with me what You please, I give up myself to be at Your disposal.”

There was a good woman, who, when she was sick, being asked whether she were willing to live or die, answered, “Whichever God pleases. ”But, said one who stood by, “If God would refer it to you, which would you choose?” “Truly,” said she, “if God would refer it to me, I would even refer it right back to Him again.” This was a soul worth gold.

“Well,” says a gracious soul, “The ambitious man gives himself up to his honors, but I give up myself unto God. The voluptuous man gives himself up to his pleasures, but I give up myself to God. The covetous man gives himself up to his bags of money, but I give up myself to God. The wanton man gives himself up to his lust, but I give up myself to God. The drunkard gives himself up to his cups, but I give up myself to God. . . .The heretic gives up himself to his heretical opinions, but I give up myself to God.

Lord! Lay what burden You will upon me, only let Your everlasting arms be under me!” Strike, Lord, strike, and spare not; for I submit to Your will. You have a greater interest in me, than I have in myself; and therefore I give up myself unto You, and am willing to be at Your disposal, and am ready to receive whatever impression You shall stamp upon me. O blessed Lord! Have you not again and again said unto me, as once the king of Israel said to the king of Syria, “I am yours, and all that I have is yours” (1Kings 20:4).

God says, “I am yours, O soul, to save you!

My mercy is yours to pardon you-

My blood is yours to cleanse you!

My merits are yours to justify you!

My righteousness is yours to clothe you!

My Spirit is yours to lead you!

My grace is yours to enrich you!

My glory is yours to reward you!”

“And therefore,” says a gracious soul, “I cannot but make a resignation of myself unto You. Lord! Here I am, do with me as seems good in Your own eyes. I resign up myself to Your will.”


Is it just science?

An increasing number of people in the global community rely more on of the advice given by the medical and scientific communities about dealing with COVID-19 than they do in what comes from religious leaders, government officials, and even family and friends. This is not surprising, but it hasn’t always been true.

The 1721 outbreak of small pox in Boston (one of six over many years) was deadly. Before it was over, the disease had infected half the population of the city and killed nearly 850. It was a Puritan minister by the name of Cotton Mather (of the Salem Witch Trials fame) who led the fight for inoculation and was opposed by members of the medical profession and by journalist James Franklin (Ben’s brother), who argued that the procedure was not safe and interfered with the Providence of God. Isn’t that interesting that the media would say that? What they meant was that the disease was sent by God as a judgment on a sinful nation and thus trying to find a cure short-circuited God’s purpose of eliciting repentance and moral reformation.

It wasn’t so much that Mather disagreed with the concept of God’s judgment (after all he was a Puritan), but that he also believed God was merciful in giving gifts to his children so they might also escape from his wrath. He looked upon the advances in science and knowledge as divine gifts. He wrote, “Almighty God, in his great mercy to mankind, has taught us a remedy to be used, when the dangers of the smallpox distress us.”(Christian History, issue 135, p. 34)

Mather was given a slave by this congregation whom Mather named Onesimus and was most likely from Ghana. One day during the epidemic, Onesimus shared with Mather that he had undergone an operation in Africa where he was cut and given the small pox from the pus of an infected person in order to build a resistance against the disease. He also said that people who had this done tended to survive small pox in greater numbers than those who didn’t. It was called inoculation by variolation and was practiced in Africa, China, India, and the Ottoman Empire. The procedure was not unknown in the Western world.* Unfortunately, slavers in North America would look for scars of this procedure on prospective slaves knowing it would be a mark that they were resistant to the small pox.

Mather began to tout this procedure as an antidote to the disease, but the medical profession and newspapers vilified him. Much of the criticism was racially motivated believing that such a procedure was part of an African attempt to destroy the white race. As word spread of the new medicine, the people of Boston were terrified and angry. According to Mather, they “raised an horrid Clamour.” Their rage came from many sources; fear that inoculation might spread smallpox further; knowledge that the bubonic plague was on the rise in France; and a righteous fury that it was immoral to tamper with God’s judgment in this way. There was a racial tone to their response as well, as they rebelled against an idea that was not only foreign, but African (one critic, an eminent doctor, attacked Mather for his “Negroish” thinking). Some of Mather’s opponents compared inoculation to what we would now call terrorism—as if “a man should willfully throw a Bomb into a Town.” Indeed, one local terrorist did exactly that, throwing a bomb through Mather’s window, with a note that read, “COTTON MATHER, You Dog, Dam You; I’l inoculate you with this, with a Pox to you. (www.historyof vaccines.org…smallpox-boston-cotton-mather) Fortunately the bomb did not detonate.

One Boston physician, Zabdiel Boylston, did inoculate his 6 yr old son and 2 household servants. He was threatened with lynching which never materialized. Mather and Boylston supervised the intentional inoculation of hundreds of Bostonians. Only 6 of the 287 people (2%) who developed small pox through inoculation died compared to 844 deaths among the 5700 (15%) who contracted the the natural way.

I think this shows us that belief in science and trust in God are not mutually exclusive. We can be thankful for medical science without worshiping it, viewing it as a gift of God and evidence of his common grace and providential care over all of humanity. At the same time we can also believe that God is sovereign and working out his higher purposes through these pandemics—calling the nations to repentance before the Day of Judgment and purifying his church so as to prepare it for the return of Christ.

*Jonathan Edwards was not only a theologian but a student of natural philosophy who closely followed the scientific advancements of the Enlightenment. This newly inaugurated President of Princeton chose to be inoculated by variolation for smallpox as an example to his students. His risk proved fatal. On March 22, 1758, Edwards died from complications related to the inoculation.

For Whom This Bell Tolls…

Engraving from Thomas More's 'Utopia'

Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.

I have written this brief I intro to the meditation below to give a little background to his devotional. John Donne (1572-1631) wrote this work, which is divided into 23 chapters—each chapter a reflection representing a day in his bout with a serious illness (1623), possibly Typhus. On day 17, he wrote a Meditation XVII which has become one of his most famous writings because of two memorable phrases: “for whom the bell tolls,” and “no man is an island.” One day Donne heard a funeral bell ringing from a church and began to muse on his own sickness and mortality. He believed that everyone’s suffering is shared by all and should be instructional in helping each person face his own affliction. He believed that death is a “translation” from one realm of existence to a heavenly one. In death, a chapter is not torn from the book of humanity, but is “translated” into a new and better language. He believed that the funeral bell tolling one’s death, at the same time, should call us to worship and to matters of ultimate importance. Just as the bell that calls members of a religious order to prayer is rung by those who rise earliest, so the funeral bell rings for those who are able to hear it’s deeper meaning. He also believed that our connection to one another is like the soil that makes up a continent. When some of the soil erodes and washes away making the continent smaller, so the death of each person diminishes all of humanity. The wisdom gained from the sufferings and death of others is like a treasure for those who recognize it and will help make us more fit to live out the years that God gives to us. How appropriate these words are in the age of COVID-19: that we are closely connected to one another; that every person’s death is not a statistic but something which really does diminish us; that even in the face of suffering and death, we are called to find value in affliction and to make sure we find our recourse (source of help) in God, “who is our only security.” 



Now this bell tolling softly for another,
says to me, Thou must die.

PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him.  And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.  The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all.  When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingraffed into that body, whereof I am a member.  And when she buries a man, that action concerns me; all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another; as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. 

There was a contention as far as a suit (in which, piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled) which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest.  If we understand aright the dignity of this bell, that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours, by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is.  The bell doth toll for him, that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute, that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God.  Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises?  But who takes off his eye from a comet, when that breaks out? who bends not his ear to any bell, which upon any occasion rings?  But who can remove it from that bell, which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? 

No man is an island,  entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. 

Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors.  Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.  No man hath afflicion enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.  If a man carry treasure in bullion or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels.  Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it.  Another may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction, digs out, and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger, I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security. 

Donne, John. The Works of John Donne. vol III.
Henry Alford, ed.
London: John W. Parker, 1839. 574-5.

Plagues and Epidemics in History

It is often helpful to place what we experience in the present within the context of the past in order to provide a perspective for the future.

Our present COVID-19 moment demands such a perspective and Christian History Magazine will help provide it. I have every hard copy of the magazine since its inception and have found it to be one of the most helpful and informative resources in all my years of ministry. Each quarterly issue is completely dedicated to a particular theme: the last two were on the historical relationship between Judaism and Christianity and the Church’s relationship to Science and Technology throughout history. Every once in awhile there will be a bonus issue published, such as the one I’ve included for your perusal, Plaques and Epidemics: Christian Responses Past and Present. I encourage you subscribe. There is no set price, but subscriptions are on a donation basis.

If you click on the link below to the present issue and look on pages 22 and 23,  you will find a summary of all the major plagues and epidemics recorded in history. You can compare these with our present global crisis which has infected, to date, 17.3 million and claimed the lives of 674K (154K in the US). This will be helpful in keeping our present troubles in proper perspective.

Also, let me suggest that you read pages 24-29 to gain even more perspective: encouragement by the Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) and the ministry of Margaret Blaurer (1493-1541). Especially note the words to the “plague hymn” of Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1583) on page 29, Now, Christ Prevail.

May the Lord give you wisdom, insight, and encouragement as you read this material and think deeply about its application to you and your ministry to others. Blessings!