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According to Pew Research, in 2007, when the first Religious Landscape Study was conducted, only 12% of Black Americans said they were religiously unaffiliated — that is, atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” By the time the 2014 Landscape Study was conducted, that number had grown to 18%. In other words, young Black people are leaving the faith. Why? The reasons are certainly layered, but there is one myth out there that is rubbing young Black people the wrong way. The myth is that Christianity is a religion by and for white people. But is Christianity the white man’s religion? No! And this is one of the greatest lies that the enemy has perpetrated on the Black church.
Like most things with Black history, the story is complex, tragic, and (of course) racist. Here are a few of the more common talking points around this subject:
- “Black people weren’t Christians until after the Transatlantic Slave Trade.”
- “You know the Bible was used to enslave Black people?”
- “Christianity was used to keep Black people as slaves!”
It is true that Scripture was twisted and manipulated to support the institution of chattel slavery in America. However, I would call it a stretch to say that “the Bible was used to enslave Black people.”
The Slave Bible
In a previous article (It’s Okay to Question God), I mentioned something called “The Slave Bible”. This Bible was our Holy Scriptures with almost all of the Old Testament missing and only about half of the New Testament. The Slave Bible was actually titled “Parts of the Holy Bible, selected for the use of the Negro Slaves.”
According to History.com, the goal was to ensure that enslaved Africans and African-Americans did not read (or, rather, have anything read to them) that would encourage them to rebel. For example, Moses’s exodus story is omitted while Joseph’s slavery story remains. Passages that emphasized equality between groups were cut as well (such as Galatians 3:28). The entire book of Revelation was cut for its mention of a new heaven and earth where evil will be punished.
White enslavers knew that sharing the full Word of God would lead enslaved African’s to the expectation of freedom because the basis of Christianity is freedom in Jesus!
Africans Influenced Christianity WAAAYYY Before Slavery
A lot of predominantly-Black denominations that have influenced Christianity today get their start either during or after American chattel slavery. For example, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination started in 1816, the AME Zion denomination in 1821, and The Church of God in Christ in 1897.
However, one would be mistaken in thinking that Black contributions to Christianity began in the post-slavery era. In fact, Black people have been influencing Christianity before slavery. WAY before slavery. There would be no worldwide Christian movement if there were no Africa. Black people were essential to the Jesus movement before Western slavery.
How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind
Here’s a direct quote from Dr. Thomas Oden’s book “How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind” (click to get the audiobook).
“Africa has played a decisive role in the formation of Christian culture from its infancy. Some of the most decisive intellectual achievements of Christianity were explored and understood in Africa before they were in Europe. If this is so, why is Christianity so often perceived in Africa as a Western colonial import?”
The simple fact is that what we know of today as “Christianity” was shaped and defined by Africans. And I’m not talking about three, four, or even five hundred years ago. I’m talking about almost 2,000 years ago!
“There would be no worldwide Christian movement if there were no Africa. Black people were essential to the Jesus movement before Western slavery.”
Early Church & Christian History
We tend to think of Christian history as a straight trajectory: from Jesus to the Apostles, to today. But early church history is much more complex than this. After Jesus’s departure, early Christians had to decide what to do with everything he left.
What would be our Christology? Is Jesus born the Messiah or does He become the Messiah after His baptism? Was Jesus God? Man? Both? What about when Jesus said to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? We know there’s one God, but how do we express this in terms of three entities?
The answers to these seem apparent now, but these are all questions that early Christians had to wrestle with. And a lot of the answers that we’re familiar with came from Africans.
Men like Tertullian (155-240), often called “the founder of Western Theology” was from Carthage (Tunisia) North Africa. He also invented the term “Trinity”. Origen of Alexandria (185-254) was also from North African and he wrote “On the First Principles”, which systematically laid out principles for Christian Theology, which became foundational for the theological writings that came after it.
Perhaps most important of all was Augustine of Hippo (354-430). To this day, his books “The City of God”, and “On Christian Doctrine” are revered as one of the important works in redemptive history. His writings have influenced Western Christianity and Western philosophy. He was from Hippo Regius in North Africa. (Source: Hope Academy)
Africans in the Bible
But Africans weren’t just a part of early church history. They are also prominent in the Bible. Long before Europe ever heard of Jesus, Africans were getting baptized and preaching the gospel.
Simon of Cyrene (North Africa/Lybia) – Luke 23:26
Africans from Egypt and Libya were there at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came – Acts 2:10
An Ethiopian Eunuch believes and is baptized. Ethiopia is Central Eastern Africa – Acts 8:26-36
Men from North Africa (Cyrene) were preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ – Acts 11:19-24
Why We Believe Christianity is the White Man’s Religion
In my last article, “Is Beyonce Demonic?”, I raised the fact that our culture has an anti-African bias. This bias, however, did not start with America. It’s been going on for millennia. There was a concerted effort to minimize theological and intellectual contributions from the continent. As racism became the norm of the day, Black contributions needed to be minimized.
This is why 1,500 years later, “Christian missionaries” went in droves to Africa. Africans were thought to be uneducated, uncultured, pagans in need of saving from their wicked ways. The false idea that no significant theological or intellectual contributions came from Africa strengthened the “need” for missionary activity on the continent. However, this was all just a ploy to rob Africa of its great natural resources and its people.
If you are Black and Christian, you have every right to be proud of the theological contributions of Africans and the continent’s shaping of Christianity.
So the next time someone tells you that Christianity is the white man’s religion, tell them that the Scriptures attest to the fact the Africans were a part of the early Christian movement. There were African followers of Jesus long before there were a unified Europe and 1,500 years before American slavery.
Then, send them this blog post 😉