Have you ever wondered how slaves and freed men and women interpreted the Bible in the pre-Civil War period? This is precisely the question that Dr. Emerson Powery, our guest speaker from Messiah College for this year’s Faith Forum, engaged with this week in his lectures. He wanted his audience to try to think like a slave or someone who had just been freed from slavery in the mid-1800s, and reflect on how that life experience would influence their view and interpretation of the Bible. The Bible informed both the pro-slavery and abolitionist groups and both used the text to support their views. This made both groups think about the Bible and what it says about slavery and freedom, especially in light of Jesus’ life and teaching. Hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) emphasizing freedom made an impact on African Americans since then, with people like Martin Luther King, Jr. following the idea of pursuing freedom through the reading and preaching of the Bible.
Dr. Powery told stories and gave examples of how pro-slavery interpreters used the Bible to abuse and oppress slaves, but he also emphasized the positive use of the Bible by abolitionists and freed men and women in what he called “freedom narratives”. These are stories that are not told as often, so Dr. Powery’s emphasis on them was insightful. These are stories of former slaves that recount their suffering as slaves, but also used the Bible and Christian spirituality to bring hope of freedom to themselves and others. One of the most helpful aspects of the “freedom narratives” is that it gives us an insider’s view of the horrors of slavery, but also the hope of freedom, which these storytellers eventually achieved. While the white abolitionists also spoke about the horrors of slavery, the voices of the black freed slaves gave the narrative the emotional and personal dimension of being written by someone who lived through these situations.
There are two stories that Dr. Powery told that help us understand how the African American community viewed and used the Bible during the 19th century. Dr. Powery spoke about the Bible being read in community among the slaves and former slaves. There was high illiteracy among them, so oftentimes they needed one person who was literate to read aloud the Scriptures while the rest would listen. This became a communal practice which functioned to make the Bible a tool to unify the slaves with the common pursuit of freedom and finding God’s love. Dr. Powery also told the story of a former slave named Equiano who spoke about the “talking Book” (many think it was the Bible.) He had seen his master reading the Book out loud, so he thought the book somehow spoke to him. Sojourner Truth, another important abolitionist, had also thought the “talking Book” could speak to those who wanted to hear. They did not seem to understand that the Book did not actually speak, but it was read. This, however, served as an important metaphor, because an important aspect about the “talking Book” idea is that slaves and abolitionists began to think that it was proper to “talk back” to the Book by arguing with what it says about slavery and especially by arguing with interpreters who used the Bible to oppress them.
The “freedom narratives” that Dr. Powery lectured on found an important voice in that of Martin Luther King, Jr. He preached for freedom, desiring to help his African American brothers and sisters to achieve the blessings he believed God wanted for them. King, who like his enslaved and freed ancestors, had a similar biblical hermeneutic of freedom, justice and love, preached that it was unjust to oppress African Americans and that God’s love and justice demanded their freedom and rights during the Civil Rights period. King called America to repent of its many sins, an important one being racism. His desire was for people of all ethnicities to come together to build a “world house” where they could pursue the common good together through justice and love. Jesus’ life and words provided an apt example for Americans to show love and justice to all.
What could one learn from the “freedom narratives” of antebellum America and Martin Luther King Jr.’s preaching? The hermeneutical presupposition of love and justice is one that may be helpful to try to pursue when reading the Bible. Asking ourselves if this or that interpretation of the Bible will be one that is loving and helpful to those who hear it is a good question to ask. Abolitionists and Martin Luther King would argue that it is. Acknowledging that the Bible has had a long history of interpretation and that it has been used and abused by many, it is crucial to remember but that since the Bible proclaims a just and loving God, interpreting the Bible well is a Christian’s responsibility to be able to do what “the Lord require[s] of [us], but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with [our] God.” (Micah 6:8 KJV).