African American Theological Ethics - A Review

The Library of Theological Ethics series from Westminster John Knox Press includes a number of volumes, both reprints and anthologies, that are valuable resources for an ethicist’s library. One need not agree with the contents of the volume to recognize the quality of the collection.

A recent addition to the series, African American Theological Ethics, is no exception to the string of helpful volumes.

This anthology, compiled by Peter Paris with Julius Crump, offers access to a number of voices ranging from well-known figures like Frederick Douglass, Barack Obama, and Martin Luther King, Jr., to lesser known authors like Martin Delaney and Peter Williams. The voices are varied in method and chronology, though all of them are taking up the basic question of race from a distinctly African American perspective.

The contents of the volume are organized in six parts of unequal size. Part One includes on essay opposing the doctrine of white supremacy; Part Two consists of nine essay opposing slavery. In Part Three, the editors include nine essays opposing racial segregation. And, in the fourth part, the reader will find six essays opposing racial discrimination. Part Five hold four essays on African American religious creativity. The sixth part offers eight selections that help interpret African American themes and perspectives.

With thirty-seven distinct selections, a point by point discussion of each chapter would prove onerous, but there are multiple valuable contributions that deserve highlighting. First, the book opens with late 19th century author Martin R. Delaney arguing for the genetic unity of the human race. The essay, “The Origin of Races and Color,” deals with the idea that the mark of Ham is the ultimate sign of God’s judgment and sufficient justification for the permanent subordination of dark-skinned humans. Delaney’s plea is for the unity of the human race, who, according to Scripture, share a common ancestor. It is just as interesting which of the now out of fashion racial myths Delaney accepts as his arguments against white supremacy.

Stretching the boundaries of being theological ethics, perhaps, is Barack Obama’s victory speech from his initial election as President of the United States of America. There are some ethical implications in this speech, the occasional reference to theological concepts, but the essay is more rhetoric than significant thought. The editor’s choice of this essay seems to be to highlight the contrast between Obama’s speech and the dream outlined by Martin Luther King, Jr., which famous speech they also included in the chapter that follows.


Other significant contributions of rhetoric surrounding African American thought have been included, such as James Cone’s essay, “Black Theology and Black Power,” Booker T. Washington’s, “Atlanta Exposition Address, Cornel West’s essay, “Nihilism in Black America.” The reader will find numerous contributions not listed here, but worthy of attention.

The value of this volume is first as a reference volume. It offers easy access to a curated set of sources that will help illuminate the outlines of African American thought through the past two centuries, or so. African American Theological Ethics would also make a helpful supplemental source on an ethics elective on race in the United States, or a similar course.

The weakness of this volume is that, by virtue of its limited scope and particular foci, it enhances the myth that racial minorities think primarily about race. While there is little doubt that the voices of minorities tend to be raised more often than majority voices on the topic of race, many of these thinkers had a great deal more say about theological ethics than this volume offers. Notably absent from the volume are considerations of ethical methodology and ethical reasoning not framed primarily through the lens of race. This is a lacuna that the editor, Paris, takes up in the conclusion of his closing essay in the volume; he attributes it to lack of content, but his critique of African Americans for retaining biblical Christian perspectives on topics like sexual ethics indicate a bias in rejecting non-revisionist contributions as inauthentically black more than an actual absence of material.

This is a helpful resource that should be in the library of ethicists, theologians thinking about applied anthropology, political theologians, and institutional collections. It will provide a place to begin further research, even as it offers an overview of an important topic.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

Through the Storm, Through the Night: A Review

Getting into a topic is the hardest part about research. Most people don’t notice this because they stop doing research when their last academic paper is due. However, if you remember trying to get started on the research for your most recent project, you may know what I mean.

Search around on the internet, check the library catalog, or scan the shelves and you may find dozens of sources, but which one is going to be the most helpful to get introduced into the discussion. Recently I began to dig into African American Christian history and was pleased to cut the Gordian knot, as it were, by asking a friend who is an expert in the topic. His recommendation turned out to be so helpful that I am passing it along for you.

Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity is part of the African American History Series from Rowman and Littlefield. He teaches at University of Colorado and has authored a number of volumes on the topic of race and religion in the U.S. He presents an honest account that avoids revision on both ends of the spectrum.


This brief volume contains six chapters, with a separate introduction and conclusion. The introduction outlines the major themes in African American Religious History, laying the groundwork for the remainder of the volume. Chapter One offers a sweeping overview of African and African American religious experience from the Middle Passage to the Great Awakening; this experience consisted largely of syncretism with a strong dose of opposition of Christianization of slaves by white owners due to concerns it would cause them to desire freedom.

The second chapter documents the early stages of Christianity among slaves, which originated in the urban centers of the North and in the slave quarters. The revival of religious interest among residents of the colonies led to the evangelization of slaves and freemen, and the founding of the earliest traditionally black denominations. Chapter Three surveys the thirty or so years before the Civil War. This period included a high degree of revivalistic evangelism of slaves in the South, and the evolution of a distinct theology among slaves which emphasized liberation with an eye toward dual fulfillment in the present and the future.

In the fourth chapter, Harvey traces the history of African American Christianity from the end of the Civil War to the dawn of the Twentieth Century. It was during this time that blacks began to identify as African Americans as they sought to find their identity amidst their new freedom. This was also a time when whites in the South began to form laws to restrict the freedom of blacks. African Americans also founded a number of new denominations as they sought to live and worship freely. Chapter Five summarizes the first half of the Twentieth Century. This is a period of time when African Americans began to increasingly migrate northward to urban centers and the church became a powerful social center for those displaced communities.

Chapter Six details some of the Civil Rights Movement, shifts toward religious pluralism in some areas, and the continued pursuit of justice in the African American churches. The body of the text concludes with a very brief outline that recaps the volume and makes clear the connection between the prophetic preaching of someone like Jeremiah Wright and the long, dark history of the African American Church. After the epilogue, Harvey provides a number of brief primary source documents that support and illustrate his earlier arguments.

Analysis and Conclusion

Through the Storm, Through the Night is far from an exhaustive treatment of the topic, but it provides an excellent entry point into an interesting and important part of Church History. For those seeking to gain a deeper appreciation for Black History, particularly the history of African American Christianity, this would be an excellent starting point.

Harvey does what is vital for an introductory volume: he tells a good story and makes the reader want to know more. More significantly, he opens up the conversation on a topic that is only becoming increasingly important. The history of the African American portion of the universal church may well, in future, be a model for public engagement, theological fidelity, and social endurance for others.

George Liele - The First Baptist International Missionary

William Cary often gets credit for being the first Baptist sent as missionary to the nations. He certainly deserves credit, along with pastor Andrew Fuller, for kicking off the modern missionary movement.

Adoniram Judson frequently is identified as the first American missionary for leaving the shores of the U.S. in 1812. However, he isn't the first missionary to leave this land to go overseas, nor the first Baptist. Judson is important, but there was a Baptist missionary that preceded him.

The title of the first Baptist missionary actually belongs to a black man from colonial America named George Liele.


Liele was born a slave in the colony of Virginia in 1750. He converted to Christianity in 1773 in the church of his master, Henry Sharp. He gained his freedom in 1778 from Sharp so that he could preach the gospel. In 1783, since he had sided with the British in the revolution, in order to be evacuated from America with British troops, Liele became an indentured servant in exchange for his family's passage to Jamaica. After a short time he repaid his debt and was freed again. He then turned his attention to preaching the gospel to the slave population of Jamaica.

Liele was persecuted by the plantation owners of Jamaica for preaching the gospel. But he continued to preach the gospel.

Although he pastored many years, he did not rely on his pastorate for his income but worked as a teamster/hauler and farmer to support his livelihood.

Liele is an impressive example of a faithful Christian and an important figure in black history. Below you can watch Danny Akin's tribute to Liele in the form of a sermon on the text of Galatians 6:11-18.

Preaching from Galatians 6, Dr. Akin speaks about the marks of a cross-centered ministry and how these marks are seen in the life and ministry of the first Baptist missionary to the nations, George Leile, a former African slave who planted the Gospel in Jamaica.