The Birth of a Denomination, Part 1: Black People in the Bible
by Sydney Freeman, Jr., Ph.D., CFD, COI
Authors Note: This article, in three parts, is based on sermons delivered at Moscow Seventh-day Adventist church in Moscow, Idaho in February 2016, and Bethany Seventh-day Adventist church in Montgomery, Alabama in February 2015.
Last year as I was checking my facebook statuses I learned about a film entitled the “Birth of a Nation.” The 2016 film uses the same title as D.W. Griffith’s 1915 KKK propaganda film. Nate Parker the director of the adapted film, won a Sundance film award for this remake and received $17.5 million dollars from Fox Starlight for the rights to the film. Parker told the magazine Filmmaker,
Griffith’s film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation as a tool to solidify white supremacy as the lifeblood of American sustenance. Not only did this film motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today. I’ve reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.(1)
Taking my cue from Parker’s reclaiming the title “Birth of a Nation,” I’m calling this piece “The Birth of a Denomination.” Of course, I’m talking about the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and all that people of African descent have done to make it a wonderful church.
The Nat Turner slave rebellion took place August 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia. Nat Turner along with other enslaved descendants of Africa led a revolt that led to the murder of 55 to 65 slaveholders. It is the recorded as causing the highest number of fatalities by a slave uprising the in American South. This caused increased fear and a violent backlash by southern White militias. In retaliation the American government executed 56 enslaved African Americans. And it is estimated that 100 to 200 African Americans were murdered by white citizens in retaliation for the uprising.(2) Sadly, that was not all that was implemented. Southern states than began to establish laws that impeded the education of those who were Black, enslaved and/or free. Many African Americans lost their rights to freely assemble and were not even able to hold worship services without white ministers being present.(3)
Blacks in the Bible
Although the story of Black emancipation is a courageous and disturbing story, Black civilization did not start with the enslaved. There is evidence of people of African descent found throughout the Bible: for instance Uriah, a man of African descent and leader in David’s army, was a Hittite.(4) And direct references are made to Africa throughout scripture (See Jeremiah 13:23; Amos 9:7; Nahum 3:9; Zephaniah 3:10; Genesis 2:13; Genesis 10:6-20; 2 Kings 19:9; Esther 1:1, 8:9; 2 Chronicles 14:9; Job 28:19; Psalm 87:4; Acts 8:27; Nahum 3:9; Jeremiah 38:7,10,12.)
For centuries people were taught that the descendants of Ham, who they identified people with black skin (though no such identification is ever made in Scripture) were cursed. They based that on Genesis 22 and 23, which says “And Ham the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father (Noah), and told his brothers outside. But Shem and Japeth took a garment, and laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.”
The Bible goes on to say in verses 25-27, “Then he said: Cursed be Canaan a servant of servants he shall be to his brethren. And he said: Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem, and may Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japeth, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem and may Canaan be his servant.” With a closer reading of scripture you will find that Ham was not cursed, but his son Canaan and his descendants were cursed. And under closer scriptural inspection Ham had three other sons: Cush, Mizraim, and Phut, found in Genesis 10:6. So an accurate understanding of the biblical text would demonstrate that not all of Ham’s descendants were cursed. Nor is Ham mentioned with reference to any racial characteristic. Yet these texts for centuries were used by European and American slave owners to justify the enslavement of those of African descent.
The bible mentions various biblical characters of African descent including the Queen of Sheba in 1 Kings 10:1-13 and 2 Chronicles 9:1-12. Sheba was a territory that spanned modern-day Ethiopia to Yemen.(5) Solomon married a woman who is mentioned in the Bible only as a Shulamite in Song of Solomon 6:13, 7:1 and 1 Kings 3:1. Here is how she describes herself in The Song of Solomon 1:5 “I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.” There is Simon of Cyrene who carried the cross for Christ before his crucifixion. It is believed that Simon was a Black man not only because of his name being mentioned in Mark 15: 21, but because archeologist are in general agreement that Cyrene was a city located next to the Mediterranean shore in the foothills of what is now eastern Libya a country in Northern Africa, which is east of Benghazi.(6) And don’t forget the Ethiopian Philip baptized in Acts 8:26-40.
This search for Africans in Biblical history illustrates Psalm 78:4, which says, “We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.”
It is important that the Seventh-day Adventist church contextualize the role of those of African descent from the standpoint of struggles that African Americans have endured over the last 400 years, and also firmly acknowledge and share the role Blacks have and continue to play in the development and advancement of Adventist Christianity. As the late Adventist scholar and former President of Oakwood University (formerly Oakwood College), Dr. Frank W. Hale was once quoted as saying,
Where there is no Black history, there is no Black culture
Where there is no Black culture, there is no Black pride
Where there is no pride, there is no dignity
Where there is no dignity, there is no freedom
Where there is no freedom, you have to take orders!
We must pass down our history to the next generation. Kenny Anderson, Director of Multicultural Affairs for the City of Huntsville, AL, once said, “Failure to know one’s history will create perpetual deficiency in one’s world view”. We must pass down our complete history from Genesis, to the current contribution that those of African Descent have done to advance the Christendom, and specifically our denomination. This is just the first step in sharing the story of the “Birth of our Denomination”!
- Rezayazdi, Soheil (January 25, 2016). “Five Questions with The Birth of a Nation Director Nate Parker”. Filmmaker. Retrieved January 25, 2016.
- Frederic D. Schwarz “1831: Nat Turner’s Rebellion,” American Heritage, August/September 2006.
- Gray-White, Deborah; Bay, Mia; Martin Jr, Waldo E. (2013). Freedom on my mind: A History of African of American. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. p. 225.
- Black History in the Bible. (January 27, 2017). Uriah: Bathsheba’s African Husband and David’s Mighty Man. From http://www.blackhistoryinthebible.com/the-hamites/uriah-bathshebas-african-husband-and-davids-mighty-man/#comments
- Damien Gayle. “Archaeologists strike Biblical gold with discovery of the Queen of Sheba’s fabled mines.” (Feb. 13, 2012). From: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2100463/Archaeologists-strike-Biblical-gold-discovery-Queen-Shebas-fabled-mines.html
- African World Heritage, “Archaeological site of Cyrene – Libya”. Nairobi, Kenya, 2017. Also, Masters, Sr. Henry L. (2004). Simon of Cyrene: The crossbearar who was the only African eyewitness to the crucifixion. Portland, OR. Inkwater Press, 2004. p. 88
Dr. Sydney Freeman, Jr., is an associate professor at the University of Idaho. He serves on the Board of Directors of the American Association of University Administrators, which honored him with the “2015 Emergent Leader of the Year” award. He is managing editor of the Journal of HBCU Research + Culture, and is founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education.