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Peacemaking Heritage Series: Am I my brother’s keeper?

The June 7, 1843 issue of the Signs of the Times described John W. Lewis as “a highly esteemed colored preacher” for whom an offering of more than $20 had been collected to support his preaching of the Second Advent message “among that much neglected class of our brethren, with whom he is most closely connected” (1)
A few years later, Lewis published a biography of another well-regarded free black preacher, Elder Charles Bowles (d. 1843), also reputed to have preached the Millerite exposition of prophecy, despite encountering “bitter opposition because of his color” – more specifically as a black man “preaching to large white congregations” (2).
By the time Lewis wrote this book in 1852, however, he apparently had disassociated himself from the Adventist movement, for he makes no explicit mention of it, either in his narration of Father Bowles’ career, or in his “Essay on the Character and Condition of the African Race,” which he included in the same volume.
That noted, Lewis, in the excerpt below, nonetheless sounds themes characteristic of Millerite preaching: the “nominal” condition of American Christendom, its moral and spiritual collapse evidenced in the countenancing of slaveholding, its sectarianism and “inquisitorial spirit” directed against dissenters, and soon-approaching Judgment and the “one heavenly equality” as the only unfailing source of hope for the oppressed.
It was said by wicked Cain to his Maker, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” How solemn and awful was the voice of an infinite God to him in reply. “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth to me from the ground.” And now in the solemn controversy between justice and oppression, who of all the American dare say before the God of Heaven, in reference to the poor African, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The blood of the poor Indian and African in the American soil, is an awful witness against the American church and the American nation. The deeds of dark crime and outrage against humanity have blackened their national escutcheon and tarnished their religious character. For if slavery is a creature of law, popular public opinion sustains that law, and the popular religious influence controls public opinion. For on philosophical principles, we cannot expect water to rise above its level at the fountain head. Neither can we the principle of morality to rise above the church. And thank God it cannot rise above the true church of God; but under the monopolizing ecclesiastical rule of the American church, many of the leading sects of religionists make the religion of the membership mere nominal, so that the popular current religion of some of the leading denominations goes directly to sanction and sustain American oppression, with all its consequent evils. And in many instances the men of the world take the lead in that reform that tends to alleviate the sufferings of mankind, and elevate them to their proper sphere in human life. And if a humble few of the disciples of the Holy Jesus dare obey the dictates of conscience and the spirit of God, with his Holy Word to take gospel ground for the reform of the world, and the enfranchisement of the human race, they are charged in their doctrine with infidelity. True it may be infidelity against the sectarianism and monopoly of the denominational rule and against despotism. But to charge it as infidelity against the cause of God, is often proved false. Although the inquisitorial spirit and action of the American church in proscribing many of its members for conscientiously condemning and opposing the evil system of American slavery, and condemn the aiding in degrading the African race for a cause over which they have no control, does most certainly identify that church with the power of despotism, and involves it in the guilt of oppression, it is folly for her ministry or membership to cry out, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” They cannot say in truth that they are free from guilt on this subject, in the face of the fact that they have hoodwinked truth, and made expediency turn the scale of justice to gratify the caprice of the unholy oppressor.
For the truth of this I appeal in candor to a candid community, to view the action of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, in all its operations from first to last, and I ask where has been seen the first act of that body of any appearance of christian philanthropy, to relieve poor bleeding humanity, in the condition of the African race? And does not the popular current religion of the Presbyterian church, tolerate the negro pew, and the most wicked intolerance towards the colored man or woman that enters their temples of worship? Does not the leading influence of the Presbyterian church in America, help support the most abominable cast, while its current religion puts in motion the machinery of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, as well as the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, taking the price of the souls and bodies of men to pay for the means to convert the heathen world? Thus stepping over and trampling down the noble sentiment of Apostolic religion, that “God is no respecter of persons.” What then can we expect from wicked political men, on the ground of humanity, under the teaching of such religion? And is the leading American Baptist, or Methodist, or Episcopalian religion, in their educational, or missionary, or national ecclesiastical operations, a whit better, in its favor of bleeding, suffering humanity, in the condition of the colored man?
When Doctors of Divinity of many of the leading sects, with cool, unblushing misanthropy, employ their pens to argue the divine right of the American people to sustain a system of robbery, concubinage, bigamy, adultery and every violation of the moral decalogue, against the African race, and wicked men constantly echoing the voice of the pulpit in sounding out thsse sentiments to stigmatize and proscribe the colored man, is it a wonder that his condition is no better? And is it not a marvel that so many have risen so high in improvement and moral worth? But as a colored man, I rejoice in God, that all the religion of the country is not under the rule of despotism, and all the christian hearts of the country are not bowed at the shrine of corrupt sectarianism. The angel of mercy can often bear the spirit of christian sympathy to the humble cot of the poor colored man, and a faint glimmer of light from the star of freedom sometimes breaks the gloom over our pathway of life, and the blessed word hope, often lingers in our ears as a source of consolation in God. And if on account of our color, our character will not entitle us to a better condition among our fellow-men on earth, we will try to maintain a sufficiently religious and moral character, to entitle us to an inheritance with the people of God, in that blessed kingdom, in immortal light, “Where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are forever at rest.” Thank God, there is one heavenly equality, for “Neither Jew nor Greek, Barbarian, Scythean, Bond nor Free, but all one in Christ Jesus.” I thank my God, that in this the poor colored man can enjoy a glimmer of hope, amidst the toils and the trials of human life.
Dear reader, it is my devout prayer, that you may all enjoy that immortal life. If your sympathies have been pent up from us; if you have either politically, socially, religiously, or domestically, thrown your influence against us, by helping to sustain the system of American slavery, may God forgive you, for with all my heart I pity your condition at that Judgment to which we are all approaching. For be you assured, that Infinite Justice will not be bribed, or turned away from the principles of right, for any purpose whatever. And be you assured that God overlooks not the deeds of the wrong-doer, for he takes cognizance of all human acts in this life, not to be forgotten at the Judgment. (3)
Doug Morgan teaches history at Columbia Union College. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago and is the author of Adventism and the American Republic: The Public Involvement of a Major Apocalyptic Movement (2001).
This series is cross-posted at his Peace Messenger blog.
(1)George R. Knight, Millennial Fever and the End of the World [Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1993], p. 118.
(2)Le Roy Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, Vol. IV [Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1954], p. 705.
(3)The Life, Labors, and Travels of Elder Charles Bowles, of the Free Will Baptist Denomination, by Eld. John W. Lewis. Together with an Essay on the Character and Condition of the African Race by the Same. Also, an Essay on the Fugitive Law of the U. S. Congress of 1850, by Rev. Arthur Dearing, (Watertown: Ingall & Stowall’s Steam Press, 1852), pp. 265-268, online at “Documenting the American South,”

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