Reclaiming Christianity: The Rhetoric of Black Theology During Reconstruction

After the civil war, the south focused on reconstructing their states because one of their main forms of making money, Slavery, would now be abolished. While the south focused on reconstructing their states, African Americans focused on reconstructing their race after the years of damage and destruction done by Slavery. In order for them to […]

After the civil war, the south focused on reconstructing their states because one of their main forms of making money, Slavery, would now be abolished. While the south focused on reconstructing their states, African Americans focused on reconstructing their race after the years of damage and destruction done by Slavery. In order for them to reconstruct their race, they needed to first break free of oppression. One of the main tools used by slave masters and people who believed in slavery to oppress African Americans was religion—specifically Christianity. The oppressors interpreted the bible in a way to justify slavery and to justify all the brutalities that came with slavery. In speeches, they would use religion to make the argument that the white race was made by God to be far superior than African Americans and that God intended for African Americans to be slaves. So how does one combat this religious rhetoric that was used for years to Oppress an entire race of people? African Americans combated this with their own religious rhetoric. They created the black church which was made up of predominantly African American pastors and a predominantly African American congregation. At the center of the black church was the roots of a theological perspective that did not fully develop until the mid 1960’s. That theological perspective is now known as black theology. My research focuses on how the religious rhetoric of black theology was used in sermons to help liberate African Americans.

So while oppressors used Christianity in an attempt to convince African Americans that they were inferior, African Americans used Christianity to convince their own people to break free of the oppression.
Before I show how the rhetoric of Black Theology was used, it is essential to first understand what Black Theology is. In “The Divided Mind of the Black Church” Raphael G. Warnock states that “Black theology, since its emergence in the 1960’s, has endeavored to give substance and systematic expression to a theological perspective that sees the work of salvation in the broadest of terms, both underscoring and explicating the theme of liberation as the central message of the gospel and the essential mission of the church” (21). Black theology, fundamentally, is the use of Christianity as a tool of helping African Americans overcome oppression and find liberation. White slave owners used christianity as a form of oppression, but African Americans reclaimed that Christianity by transforming it into a weapon to fight against the after effects of slavery. The term itself did not emerge until years after Reconstruction, but the roots of black liberation—the heart of black theology—can be seen in the sermons of black ministers and white abolitionist ministers.

Each ministers had their own role to play in the fight against oppression, and Alexander Crummell, a pioneering African American minister, played the role of the uniter. Crummell is the founder of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church which was the first independent black Episcopal church in Washington, D.C. On November 25th, 1875, Crummell delivered a sermon entitled “The Social Principle Among A People, And Its Bearing On Their Progress and Development” in Washington, D.C at the Saint Mary’s Chapel. This church was the city’s first African American Episcopal congregation so Crummell’s audience was entirely African Americans. The speech takes place during Reconstruction and his main argument in the sermon is to persuade African Americans to join together, instead of individually trying to accomplish goals. If everyone joins together, he argues, then they can uplift the entire race. Crummell’s main persona is as a man of God. As a reverend, he embraces this persona throughout his sermon. He speaks assertively, and shows excellent knowledge of passages from the bible. He even presents himself as someone with great historical knowledge as well because he refers to the building of imperial Rome, and the conquest of India in his speech to show the power of togetherness.

Crummell uses the rhetoric of the bible to persuade his audience to liberate themselves. He understands that his audience is made up of religious people who want their race to progress, so he uses biblical passages to help portray his point about black unity. He opens his speech up with Isaiah 41:7: “They helped every one his neighbor, and every one said to his brother, Be of good courage. So the carpenter encouraged the goldsmith, and he that smootheth with the hammer him that smote the anvil saying, It is ready for the soldering: and he fastened it with nails that it should not be moved.” This passage shows various workers helping and encouraging each other in their craft. It shows how unity can be used to create something unmovable. Crummell opens up with this passage because he wants to show his audience that if everyone comes together then the race can become an unmovable force, but it can only be accomplished if everyone encourages each other and come together as one. He goes on to say, “this principle of united effort, and of generous concord, is worthy of the imitation of the colored people of this country”. Crummell shows an example of people in the bible practicing united effort because he knows his religious audience is more likely to imitate actions that come directly from biblical passages. He is making an important rhetorical move here, and one he continues to make every time he quotes the bible. He is essentially saying that this idea is not coming only from him but it is coming directly from the word of God. He is appealing to authority. This move makes his argument much more powerful because it transforms it into a command directly from God and not simply from a mere man behind a podium. African Americans, he argues, must come together to build businesses, farms and schools for their race to progress and they must come together to defend each other from oppression. He then uses the phrase from Luke 10:25 “Your brother’s keepers” to emphasize the obligation of brotherhood and compassion that African Americans must feel so that they can help each other financially, and socially progress. By quoting these two biblical passages, Crummell is showing his religious audience that his principles of unity are religious principles that are already preached in the bible, therefore as religious Christians, it is an obligation to God to follow these teachings. Crummell is using ethos to persuade here because God and the bible are seen as strong credible sources by his audience.

While Crummell played the role of a uniter, Minister Henry Highland Garnet, a former slave, played the role of a dismantler. He was the first African American to be invited to speak in the Capital Building in D.C. His sermon entitled, “Let The Monster Perish” was delivered on February 12, 1865, just a few days after congress passed the 13th Amendment banning slavery. In the article “A Black Preacher Addresses Congress” Carla Peterson point out that “Garnet was in the House of Representatives that morning at the invitation of William Henry Channing, chaplain of Congress, to deliver a sermon. Channing’s request was hardly a surprise; after all, the Capitol had served as a church for many decades, and preachers had long spoken in its halls. What was astonishing was that Garnet was a black man, no longer relegated to the galleries but standing at the speaker’s dais.” I agree with Peterson that this invitation was a revolutionary historical moment that pointed towards progress precisely because a black man was now allowed to speak at a podium that only white men have used. While Crummell used biblical passages in his sermon to argue for unity, Garnet used biblical passages in his sermon to denounce and dismantle the Christianity that the oppressors practiced.

There were two forms of Christianity. The Christianity that people who were pro-slavery followed and the Christianity that the abolitionists followed. Crummell’s role was to preach the latter type of Christianity, but Garnet’s role was to attack and crumble the former type of Christianity. For African Americans to rise up, the interpretation of Christianity that was used to oppress them must fall. Garnet’s argument in his sermon was to essentially persuade his audience that the Christianity that the oppressors followed was a sham.

Garnet’s persona is similar to Crummell in that they are both preachers and they embrace that role when behind the podium. Like Crummell, Garnet presents himself as someone with excellent historical knowledge as well by referencing famous historical figures like Socrates. Garnet goes a step further in this sermon than Crummell. He not only takes on the persona of a preacher, he also takes on the persona of a courageous and authoritative figure who scolds and condemns the oppressors publicly. Garnet is addressing Congress. He is talking to those on both side of the aisle—the abolitionists and the senators who believe slavery should have stayed in place. He is also addressing the African American people because it is important that his people see him attack this interpretation of Christianity and witness the courage he portrays by scolding those who believe and try to justify slavery.

While Crummell uses biblical passages to preach unity, Garnet uses it to expose religious hypocrisy. He opens up with Matthew 23:4—“For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”. This quote is a foreshadowing of what to expect as the sermon progresses. The passage refers to when Jesus tells his disciples to beware of the Scribes and Pharisees who invented laws of their own and passed it off as the laws of Moses. They were strict in enforcing the laws with the followers but they failed themselves to practice what they preached. They were religious hypocrites. Garnet makes a rhetorical move by quoting a biblical passage about religious distortion and hypocrisy. He goes on to say that, “They demanded that others should be just, merciful, pure, peaceable and righteous. But they were unjust, impure, unmerciful—they hated and wronged a portion of their fellowmen, and waged a continual war against the government of God”. Garnet then shifts from the past Scribes and Pharisees to what he calls the “modern Scribes and Pharisees”. Garnet are referring to the people who are pro-slavery. He is linking them to a passage about religious distortion and hypocrisy because this is what they have been doing with Christianity. Garnet is playing the role of Jesus by exposing the hypocrisy and the senators who believe in slavery are likened to the Pharisees. He goes on to further point out their hypocrisy by citing the Golden Rule and asks the oppressors if they would like to be done what they did to the African American race.

Garnet then shifts his focus directly to Slavery. He says, “I was born among the cherished institutions of slavery. My earliest recollections of parents, friends, and the home of my childhood are clouded with its wrongs. The first sight that met my eyes was a Christian mother enslaved by professed Christians, but, thank God, now a saint in heaven. The first sounds that startled my ear and sent a shudder through my soul were the cracking of the whip and the clanking of chains.”. He makes a rhetorical move by using both ethos and pathos. He is convincing the audience that he is a credible source because he was once a slave and he appeals to his audience’s emotions with the image of his Christian mother and the haunting sounds of the whip and chains. He uses this imagery of motherhood later on when he talks about Mother’s babies who “have been torn from their bosoms and cast upon the plains to die of hunger, or to be devoured by hyenas or jackals.”. He then asks how anyone could see this “to be just, humane, benevolent and Christian.” Then, he ups his attack on those who claim they are Christian, by citing their actions that are not Christian-like. He says, “the ruthless traders in the souls and bodies of men fastened upon Christianity a crime and stain at the sight of which it shudders and shrieks.”. He is telling slave owners that they have soiled the name of true Christianity. This is an extremely powerful rhetorical move, not only because it was rare for an African American man to address white men in this strict manner during that time period, but also because it accuses slave owners of staining the religion they claim to practice. An African American who was once a slave is now condemning and charging his oppressors of being shams and religious hypocrites—this rhetorical move is a power play that puts Garner on top.

Garnet, like Crummell, also appeals to authority. Garnet quotes several historical figures ranging from Socrates to Augustine to Jefferson and Washington that showed them condemning slavery. These were all authoritative figures, especially Jefferson and Washington. So not only is Garnet appealing to authority by using the bible and God, he is also appealing to authority by using these revolutionary historical figures. Garnet even quotes Moses who says, “Whoso stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.” Garnet is mentioning a lot of powerful names and building on them to show his audience that his views are not only widely accepted by prominent figures historically, but by Prophets, like Moses, and even God himself. Garnet then ends his sermon by citing Exodus. This last and final biblical reference is a powerful way to end the sermon because it conjures up the image of a mass movement away from evil and towards progress. Garnet is comparing African Americans to the Israelites to make the point that this is their exodus from slavery.

Crummell was a uniter and Garnet was a dismantler, but Reverend Charles Brandon Boynton played the role of a whistle blower who warned against the dangers of integration. In “The Underground Railroad” Mary Snodgrass says that boynton was “A minister and pamphleteer from Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the Reverend Charles Brandon Boynton labored to free runaway slaves. He resettled in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1846. At the Sixth Presbyterian Church, he advocated abolitionism and founded an Underground Railroad staton on the premises” (185) At Metzerott Hall, Washing D.C, on November 17, 1876, the reverend Boynton gave a sermon entitled, “The duty which the colored people owe to themselves”. His main argument was that African Americans should be proud and work to develop their own talents because there is a danger in imitating white society or trying to become one with it. There is not much evidence on who his direct audience was but the speech was written and intended for the ears of predominantly African Americans. However, Boynton does refer to white people, who believe in equality, at several moments throughout the sermon as well.

like Crummell and Garnet, Boynton begins with a biblical reference. This is strategic and it foreshadows the main idea around which the sermon will revolve. He quotes Hebrews 11-24: “By faith, Moses when he was come to years refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.” He explains that although Moses was adopted into the royal family of Pharaoh, He returns to his people—the Jews. Boynton states, “the love of his own race was so strong, that he decided to turn away from all that the Egyptians could offer, the society of the wealthy, the learned, the noble, from the court and the throne, and be only a Jew, to share the reproach and disabilities of his people, to devote his energies among them, as one of them, to their deliverance and elevation, and in any event, to rise or fall with them, a Jew among Jews, rather than to leave his people to associate with another race, even though it would bring him wealth pleasure and honor. He chose rather to suffer affliction with his own people than to enjoy the pleasures, honors and riches of Egypt.” He chose this passage because he wants his audience to see the love and support Moses had for his people, and how he focuses his energies on helping them instead of embracing the culture of the Pharaohs. Similarly, Boynton argues, African Americans should focus on supporting their own race, instead of integrating into the white culture. The reverend’s argument is similar Crummell’s. Boynton points out to white people that, “It is not affinity for the white race which inclines the black man towards us now, but a desire to escape from the degradation of his people.” Many African Americans wanted to integrate into a white culture, and while many white people opposed it, many white abolitionists saw no harm in this integration. However, the reverend points out that the eagerness for them to integrate into white culture is because their culture has been destroyed. Boynton does not believe, like many whites, that integration is harmless. On the contrary, Boynton saw integration as harmful, not for the white race but for African Americans.

Boynton shows his audience that there is beauty in diversification, as opposed to monotony. He says, “If all the stars in heaven were of the same magnitude, at the same distance from us, and all equally distant from each other, there would be neither glory nor beauty in the sky” and “Select the most beautiful flower of earth, and make that the only one in all lands, and it would be nothing compared with the infinite variety of hue, and form, and fragrance that delight us now”. Boynton uses nature to emphasize his point about the danger of African Americans imitating white culture. If they were to do this, then it would be a disservice to their own race because it would rip them of the chance to develop their own unique culture and mark on humanity. Boynton goes on to say, “I do not think that the world can afford to have their individuality merged in that of any other race, or even by too close a contact to have it essentially modified. I am radical enough to believe that the world needs a distinctive negro civilization and an African type of christianity.” Boynton sees the importance of African Americans developing their own race and even their own Christianity that they can use to empower their race. Boynton says that he does not believe his race is the superior race and points out that “Moses and the prophets, David and Solomon, Paul and the Apostles, Christ himself, were none of them Caucasians.”. He is showing his audience that even the Prophets were not white but they contributed to humanity and were prominent human beings. Therefore, one does not have to be white to make significant contributions to the human race.

Boynton makes a rhetorical move when he mentions equality. He tells African Americans, “Dare to be a black man, and accept the position that God has assigned you, and do not believe that it is an inferior or degrading one. Be a black man. It is as honorable to be a black man as it is a white one. Aim to make yourself not a white man, but a perfect black man. Have faith in your race, in its capability and in its future. Give your presence, your influence, your support to your own race and color.” Boynton is imploring African Americans to embrace their race and spend their energy contributing to their own race, and not the white race. He reminds them that they are not inferior to his race and that they are just as honorable as he is. A white man telling African Americans that they are not inferior was a revolutionary moment and this move most likely caught the attention of African Americans and even those of his own race who still believe in white supremacy. Boynton ends his sermon with one final but strong analogy to portray the importance of African Americans supporting their own race instead of merging with the white race. He uses the example of the civil war and says, “Many objected to the formation of separate black regiments, and believed that the black soldiers should be mingled indiscriminately with the whites. On principle there could be no objection to this. The thing was right in itself, but if it had been done, the blacks would have lost the crown of battle which was to them the crown of manhood. They would have been scattered among the companies and regiments, lost in the general mass, and though every individual among them were a hero, it would have availed them nothing, every victory would have been a white man’s victory.” He uses the example of war here to show why it was important that African Americans had their own brigades. Any accomplishment or heroic act would not have been seen as the heroism and triumph of the black race, it would have been seen as a win for the white race because their individuality would have been lost.

Crummell and Boynton used the rhetoric of religion to preach unity. Garnet, on the other hand, used the rhetoric of religion to dismantle religious hypocrisy. Each minister had their own role to play. But at the core of all of their sermons was black theology—the theme of liberation. For years, slave masters used Christianity to justify a need for slavery and the brutality that came with it. They relied on God and the bible to convince African Americans that they were unequal and that the white race was superior. The Black church quickly became a beacon of hope after a dark era in human history and the rhetoric of black theology became a powerful weapon to be used to break free of the effects of oppression. Crummell and Garnet’s speeches were not only a personal triumph, but a triumph for a race of people, who for years, were voiceless. Each sermon used the rhetoric of religion to push black liberation and fight back against the oppressors own religious rhetoric to reclaim christianity.

On Edgar Allan Poe: A Biographical Criticism

The literary texts of Edgar Allan Poe parallel his life in several ways. Some of Poe’s poems and short stories are extended metaphors—allegories that reflect his bleak and troubling existence. It is generally accepted that Jane Stanard, whom Poe considered “the first, purely ideal love of my soul” inspired the 1831 poem To Helen. Poe […]

The literary texts of Edgar Allan Poe parallel his life in several ways. Some of Poe’s poems and short stories are extended metaphors—allegories that reflect his bleak and troubling existence. It is generally accepted that Jane Stanard, whom Poe considered “the first, purely ideal love of my soul” inspired the 1831 poem To Helen. Poe also wrote a poem entitled To M. L. S — thanking Mrs. Shew who nursed him back to life when he was ill. It was not uncommon for Poe to write poetry that is inspired or based on sources from his life. The death of women in Poe’s life should be seen as one of the sources that influence his fiction. Poe’s relationship with alcohol trickles over to his literature as well. And his famous character, Dupin, should be seen as a reflection of Poe’s own wit. Poe’s fiction is in many ways allegories of his own life.
Poe’s biological mother, Elizabeth Poe, died in 1811. Jane stanard, Poe’s first love, died 1824. And Poe’s foster mother, Mrs. Allan, died in 1829. By the time he was just twenty years old, Poe had lost all three of these women. The narrator in The fall of the house of Usher says about Roderick Usher, “Surely, man had never before so terribly altered, in so brief a period” (180). This quote, while addressed to Roderick Usher, also reflects Poe himself whose life had changed drastically in a short period of time. Lady Madeline, Roderick’s sister, died in the short story. The death of a close relative of Roderick is a reflection of the female relatives of Poe who had died as well. However, one might argue that there is no link between the death of one female character in Poe’s story to the many women he had lost. One instance in one short story might not be enough evidence to support the view that Poe is pulling from his own personal experience to contribute to his fiction. If The Fall of the House of Usher was the only story where a female character died then it could simply be seen as a coincidence. However, this is not the case. Poe has several short stories and poems where female characters die, and often die young like the women who he had lost. In Murders in the Rue Morgue, the two female characters both died abruptly. In The Black Cat, the female character died. His poem Ulalume and Annabel Lee also deal with the death of female characters. With so many references, I don’t see the relationship between the death of Poe’s female characters and the real women in his life as a meaningless coincidence. At the least, I consider it as a meaningful connection.

On a general level, death plaques the women in his fiction much like it did in his own life. But specifically, what connections are there between the women in Poe’s life and his female characters? In the short story Eleonora, the narrator says, “She whom I loved in youth, and of whom I now pen calmly and distinctly these remembrances, was the sole daughter of the only sister of my mother long departed. Eleonora was the name of my cousin” (513). In this instance, we have more of a concrete connection between a real woman in Poe’s life and a woman in his literature. The Eleonora being refereed to here is Poe’s cousin Virginia who he married. The narrator also says Eleonora “was a maiden artless and innocent as the brief life she had led among the flowers” (515). The innocence and short lifespan is a reference to Virginia who was only 13 years old when Poe married her. The narrator also states, “She had seen that the finger of Death was upon her bosom — that, like the ephemeron, she had been made perfect in loveliness only to die” (515). Like Virginia, Eleonora tragically dies at a young age and had known that she was dying. In Poe’s poem, The Raven, Lenore—a slight variation of Eleonora—the narrator writes, “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before” (754). The narrator in this instance is Poe who is both fearing and doubting that Virginia will die, and perhaps dreaming of immortality for his love. Both Eleonora and The Raven were written before the death of Virginia but after her illness. Therefore, both pieces can still be connected to her if one keeps in mind that Poe himself said that he was in constant fear of Virginia’s death. In the poem, To My Mother, the narrator writes, “My mother—my own mother, who died early, Was but the mother of myself; but you Are the mother to the one I loved so dearly, And thus are dearer than the mother I knew” (739). This is one of the cases where there is an explicit reference being made. In this poem, Poe is talking about Maria Clemm, Virginia’s mother, and his mother in law. He sees her as more of a mother to him than his biological mother. In both his poetry and short stories, Poe makes allusions and specific references to women from his life.

White had written to Poe warning him that if he doesn’t stop drinking, his employment at the Messenger will end. Poe also ruined his chances of a job in Washington D.C because he was drunk and his friends had to help him onto a train so he could return to Philadelphia. The narrator in The Black Cat says, “But my disease grew upon me—for what disease is like Alcohol!” (64). The Black Cat was written the same year that Poe ruined his chances of a Job in D.C because he was drunk. The quote mirrors Poe himself who, like the narrator, has a disease. The narrator also refers to alcohol as the, “Fiend Intemperance” which shows that the narrator, like Poe, could not control his thirst for liquor.

Poe wrote articles on cryptography and had also solved who the murderer was in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge. Poe’s ability to solve riddles and his interest in cryptology are traits seen in Dupin who often solved crimes that no one else could. To dupe means to trick and it is no coincidence that the main character of the detective stories is called Dupin. In The Purloined Letter, Dupin said, “I complained of my weak eyes, and lamented the necessity of the spectacles, under cover of which I cautiously and thoroughly surveyed the apartment” (136). Dupin deceived the minister under the pretense that his eyes were weak so that he could search for the letter. And later Dupin again dupes the minister when he switches the letters. Poe, like Dupin, was a master of deception as well. He wrote, “The Balloon Hoax” which is fictional but was first presented as a true story and it deceived many readers.

Poe’s life often influenced his literature. His stories are allegories of his own biography. Many of his stories and poems are dark and gloomy which reflect his experience with death. Stories like The Black Cat show Poe’s battle with alcoholism and the destruction that it is capable of. And the character Dupin from the detective series posses a similar wit as Poe himself. Poe’s fiction is a verbal portrait of himself, layered with death, alcoholism, and mental sharpness.

On Suffering

Hearing the cries of someone pleading for death is a disconcerting experience. I have twice heard the request for death to come quick and I can recall both times vividly. A friend of my father was dying of cancer and as he lay in bed, he begged those around him to throw him off the […]

Hearing the cries of someone pleading for death is a disconcerting experience. I have twice heard the request for death to come quick and I can recall both times vividly. A friend of my father was dying of cancer and as he lay in bed, he begged those around him to throw him off the balcony of his 3 story home. I was a child but I still remember the despairing mood that filled the room every time he called out for death.

Years later, that same hopelessness that filled the room came back and displayed itself on my mother’s face as she was asked by her mother “Why is God not taking me?”. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, has been suffering from the after effects of a severe stoke for almost a year now. I was at a lost for answers to her question when she asked it and I am still at a lost for answers to this day. I do not know why God is not taking her. My mother answered her, though, by saying “It is not your time as yet. God will come for you when he is ready”.

Sometimes life can be unbearably painful and in those moments, when one is faced with an irredeemable disease, death becomes the only comfort. When I look back at both expereinces, apart from the heart wrenching feeling I get, I also think about a few topics: Euthanisia, Religion, and my own mortality.

Euthansia is also commonly known as assisted suicide. Suicide is the act of taking one’s own life voluntarially or intentenionally. In some case, people might kill themselves directly by hanging, cutting, or overdosing. In other cases, people might deliberatly act in a certain way to be killed by others like the suicide method known as “suicide by cop”.

I am typically against suicide. But I find myself being sympathetic towards those who choose Euthansia. I can’t imagine myself goign through such severe pain knowing there is no cure and just waiting for death to come no matter how long it takes. I can understand the craving for euthnasisia and the logics isn’t hard to follow either. There is only a handful of States currently in the U.S where euthnasia is legal. And I don’t see that number getting higher anytime soon.

One of the main reasons I have always had trouble beliving in a God is the problem of suffering. My grandmother, as far as i know, is a good woman. I have never met anyone who had anything bad to say about her and the stories I have heard of her all convey themes of courage and goodness. Yet, what seems to be, her last days are made up of immense suffering. I can’t understand why any God could look down on this and not help. If there is a heaven and there is a God, and i somehow manage to get to the pearly gates, and could ask just one question, mine would be: “Why did you allow so much good people to suffer?”

I’m not sure when death will come for me, how it will happen or in what condition i’ll be in. Like most humans, I hope death isn’t too painfil or involves much suffering, but that’s not something we have much control of and the most we can really do is hope for the best.