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Have you ever been in circumstances so deplorable that you had no recourse but prayer, or a situation so harrowing that you had no hope but the afterlife?
Moses Gandy’s narrative—published in 1843—provides a glimpse into the constant state of threats, privation and violence that compelled slaves to beseech God for relief.
… my mother often hid us all in the woods, to prevent master selling us. When we wanted water, she sought for it in any hole or puddle formed by falling trees or otherwise: it was often full of tadpoles and insects: she strained it, and gave it round to each of us in the hollow of her hand. – p. 8.
… he sent my brother out, naked and hungry, to find a yoke of steers: the boy returned without finding them, when his master flogged him, and sent him out again … – p. 9.
Prayer and devotional gatherings gave them the power to persevere. Thinking of this you may appreciate that slaves gathered to pray and commune with God–even if it meant severe punishment:
De masters ‘fore and after freedom didn’t like dem ‘ligious meetin’s, so us natcherly slips off at night, down in de bottoms or somewhere. – Wash Wilson, Slave Narratives: Interviews with Former Slaves, p. 169.
For preaching to them, Isaac was flogged, and his back pickled; when he was nearly well, he was flogged and pickled again, and so on for some months; then his back was suffered to get well, and he was sold. – Narrative of the Life of Moses Gandy, p. 57.
The slaves’ grievous predicament compels the faithful to ask if God saw their suffering and responded to their prayers. Let’s consider God’s response to the abominable institution of slavery from the perspective of human expectation.
The slaves beseeched God to be set free. They hoped for liberation based on their understanding of the Book of Exodus in the Bible:
Aunt Jane used to tell us, too, that the children of Israel was in Egypt in bondage, and that God delivered them out of Egypt; and she said he would deliver us. We all used to sing a hymn like this: “My God delivered Daniel, And why not deliver me too?” – Octavia V. Rogers Albert, The House of Bondage, p. 31.
As for the remainder of the country, it was in the grip of the most widespread and intense religious revivals in its history which exerted a profound influence on all strata of American society. Consider for example that Harriet Livermore (1788-1868) made four separate sermons to the entire Congress of the United States of America. What could have moved the United States Congress to let a woman address it once, much less four times, in the first half of the 19th century when women were not allowed to vote? Answer: Harriet Livermore was one of hundreds of itinerant preachers transfigured in anticipation of the Return of Christ. President John Quincy Adams’ extolls Harriet Livermore’s sublime radiance.
… when she closed by singing a … prayer…her voice was so melodious, and her face beamed with such heavenly goodness as to resemble a transfiguration … – Quoted in Elizabeth F. Hoxie, The New England Quarterly, 18:1. (1945)
What precipitated the American religious renaissance? Adventism–the widespread expectation of the Return of Christ in the Glory of the Father. William Miller (1782-1849) was one of the most popular Adventists of the period. He preached that Christ would return in 1844.
One of the high points of American religious awakenings took place in the middle of the 19th century under the name of “Great Second Advent Movement”, more commonly known as Millerism. – Trevor O’Reggio, The Connection Between Slavery and Prophecy, p. 2.
Both the slaves’ hopes, and the Adventists expectations were fulfilled—however, not in the manner either had anticipated. The messenger of God appears to the pure hearted who are not entangled in the evils of the world. The Bible explains that detachment is requisite of attainment to the Spirit of Christ:
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves … What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. – Matthew 16:24-27.
This passage demonstrates the slave owners’ predicament—they approached God through their wealth. They were categorically opposed to any prophet of God that might deprive them of their property. William W. Brown’s account illustrates the way slavery bent the church to its own ends—perpetuating a detestable dynamic devastating its victims’ lives and its destroying its perpetrators’ souls:
Slaveholders hide themselves behind the church. A more praying, preaching, psalm-singing people cannot be found than the slaveholders at the south… But with all their pretensions, and all the aid which they get from the northern church, they cannot succeed in deceiving the Christian portion of the world. Their child-robbing, man-stealing, woman-whipping, chain-forging, marriage-destroying, slave-manufacturing, man-slaying religion, will not be received as genuine … – Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave p. 119
Oil and water don’t mix; and a heart given to iniquity suffers the abomination of desolation from its Lord. This passage speaks directly to the obscuring influence of wealth and cares for the world:
He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful. – Matthew 16:22.
By the middle of the 19th century, it was clear that a new revitalizing spiritual springtime was required to rescue the slaves and renew the Church. The advent of the return of Christ was fulfilled and all over the world pure hearted souls responded to the influence from the latest messenger of God. Consider the preface from the best-selling book of the 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin:
… another and better day is dawning; every influence of literature, of poetry and of art, in our times, is becoming more and more in unison with the great master chord of Christianity, “good will to man.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, p. 1.
This novel precipitated widespread revulsion for the institution of slavery. The question is why in the 1850s after 300 years would humanity be receptive to the “better angels of our nature”? In the next essay in this series, we’ll continue to consider the vitalizing influence and conspicuous effects of a new messenger of God—Baha’u’llah—whose decision to take up the shackles of tyranny transformed hearts and minds:
The Ancient Beauty hath consented to be bound with chains that mankind may be released from its bondage … He hath drained to its dregs the cup of sorrow, that all the peoples of the earth may attain unto abiding joy. We have accepted to be abased … that ye may be exalted, and have suffered manifold afflictions, that ye might prosper and flourish. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 99-100.