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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Black People and Biblical Perspectives

Black people in America have a deep affinity for the Bible. This affinity has evolved despite the negative ways in which the Bible was used from 1620 to 1865. Then, the Bible was used to reinforce attitudes of subservience and servility. It became a weapon for enforcing certain moralisms designed to keep the slaves under control.

Black people found positive reasons for turning to the Bible. During the protracted revival meetings called the “Great Awakenings” (1740's and 1798–1820) they heard the Bible used to proclaim the good news of salvation. The new life in Christ surpassed anything they had ever known, and it was proclaimed under the authority of the Bible.

Some slaves felt the divine call to preach. For those given permission to preach, the Bible became the textbook from which they learned to read. Some were forbidden the opportunity of learning to read, but legends tell of secret instructions by beneficent persons. Often the Bible was the textbook.

Black people also developed love for the Bible because of the stories of deliverance and hope that it contains. These were memorized, embellished, and became their daily spiritual substance. Black people identified with the Israelites moving from Egyptian servitude to the Promised Land. They took courage in God's provisions during the wilderness wanderings. The miraculous battles of Joshua, Gideon, Samson, and David were inspiring to them. Black sermonic themes from those days until the 1950's emphasized God's deliverance as illustrated in Daniel and “the Hebrew Boys”; Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones; the messianic passages of the prophets; the miracles of Jesus; His death, burial, and power over death. Some sermon themes became attention-getters sure to draw crowds (The Valley of Dry Bones, The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest, The Lions Den, The Firey Furnace).

These stories were told over again by God-called men who were denied formal training; but who, having heard others read from the Bible, committed those verses to memory and could retell Bible stories in ways that made them come to life. Black preachers became masters at “telling the story.” They practiced narrative theology long before it was suddenly “discovered” by some seminaries in the 1970's. Even though the congregations had heard these Bible stories, they were anxious to hear them again. Not only did the repetition reinforce the story, but each man gave the stories new vitality through his interpretation.

Black people also “sang the story.” Bible stories became the substance of spirituals and jubilee songs: “Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel, Then Why Not Every Man,” “Go Down Moses,” “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” “Little David, Play On Your Harp,” “O Mary, Don't You Weep.” Music not only reinforced the telling of the story but put it in a medium to be easily remembered. Memorization through music is an experience common to humanity. Black people have maximized music as a communicative medium.

The 1960's and 70's birthed another interest of Black people in relation to the Bible. The quest for Black history and Black pride led to in-depth studies of Bible personalities believed to be Black or with African identification. This has resulted in some deeper affinities for the Bible since Black people now know they are positively represented. Pride is expressed in the rescue of the prophet Jeremiah by Ebedmelech, an Ethiopian (Jeremiah 38:7-13; Jeremiah 39:15-18 ). Simon of Cyrene, identified as an African, was considered heroic for helping Jesus carry the cross (Mark 15:21 ). Black people felt included in the embryonic spread of Christianity when seeing that representatives from African countries were among those upon whom the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost (Acts 2:5-11 ,Acts 2:5-11,2:39 ). Historical notions were rethought when it was discovered that Christianity did not originally come to Africa through Western missionaries, but more likely from the dispersion after Pentecost, the influence of the powerful government official whom Philip baptized (Acts 8:26-37 ), and from the early church fathers. Recent research has determined that nine of the eighteen church fathers were African (Clement, Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian, Dionysius, Athanasius, Didymus, Augustine, and Cyril). These were men who guided the formation, crystallization, and propagation of Christian thought during the first to the third centuries A.D.

The only Bible passages some Black people have difficulty with are the Pauline passages which seem to ignore the problem of slavery as an evil. These are 1 Corinthians 7:20-24; Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-25; Titus 2:9-10; Philemon. One other passage, though not Pauline, is in this category, 1 Peter 2:18-25 .

These passages have become less objectionable when viewed with the “interim ethic” idea. Paul expected the return of Christ to be so immediate that he gave little place for social change. Some Black theologians now think that had Paul known Jesus would have been this long in returning he would have tackled this social evil straight forwardly.

The Bible continues to be loved and reverenced by Black people. Some non-Christians regard it as sacred even though refusing to commit their lives to the Christ of the Bible. Most people, however, regard the Bible as God's Word. They believe it literally, may apply some passages allegorically, and will contemporize it for practical application.

In more recent years the Bible is used less for its story content as for a practical guide in dealing with issues from a Black perspective. These issues include salvation, moral guidance, ethical behavior, and spiritual nurture. The preacher who only “tells the story” is in less demand. The person who applies the truths of the stories to contemporary situations is taken more seriously. As more Black people move into decision-making roles, they will become more dependent upon biblical and spiritual resources to guide that mobility. Many Black people are definite about the place of the Bible in their pilgrimage. It remains in the forefront.

Emmanuel McCall

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Black People and Biblical Perspectives'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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