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John Brown, US Slavery and Segregated Churches: A Christian Historian Offers Perspective

John Brown, US Slavery and Segregated Churches: A Christian Historian Offers Perspective

CP: How did the institution of slavery affect the growth of Christianity in America, and how might that tie into the presence of segregated churches today?

DeCaro: In some respects it's really amazing — and as a Christian believer, I would attribute this only to God's sovereign grace and the Holy Spirit — that black people in large numbers ever became Christians. Certainly from a humanistic standpoint...consider for instance, the Jewish view of Christendom based on their experience in Europe. But with the Second Great Awakening and the revivals that came in the South, many African American people became believers. So the large Christianization, if you will, of the black population actually fed into...because black Christians then had a different conception of Christianity as essentially being humanitarian and [having] an emphasis on freedom. This was something that was a challenge to the slave-holding societies.

You have the African American Church that's born. Black people did not choose to be segregated, it's not an issue of reverse-discrimination as some people say. Every black denomination seems to have started because of rejection. But you have this Black Church that starts with a commitment to the Bible but also a humanitarian view, an egalitarian view that I think you don't find in traditional European churches.

CP: What kind of significance does the Church have for African Americans who are Christians? Because you have the traditional Black Church, and then you just have churches.

DeCaro: I think one thing that many so-called white Christians don't understand, and maybe Christians of other ethnicities, is that people were politically, socially disenfranchised, not allowed to hold any sort of position. Men were stripped of many of the things that white men were allowed to have. The church was the one place where African Americans could be human, could be leaders, could have community, could have solidarity. So the church in some respects is more like the synagogue was for the ancient Jews. It's a place of community, it's a place of empowerment.

For the white community, you had bankers and lawyers and all these people who had power and controlled society, and then the church was just a slot. That's a difference. In terms of slavery and segregation, I think we also tend to forget that after slavery, African Americans were free by the 13th Amendment in 1865...African Americans between 1865 and 1875, did amazing things. They started banks, they became teachers, they became judges, they became elected officials — black people took off with Emancipation and the amendment to ending slavery.

But by 1875 and 1880, the Republican Party sold out the black community for votes and Reconstruction was ended. Union troops were pulled out of the South, which were protecting black people and their human rights, and the Klu Klux Klan was born and it was not a group of loudmouths. But these were Christians who had weapons, many of them Confederate soldiers, and they proceeded to attack and kill and destroy the black leadership, the economic base that blacks had built.

Much of what we have experienced in recent years was not slavery, but was in fact the second terrible phase of oppression that lasted from 1875 until the time that Martin Luther King was marching. What King was trying to fight, and all the civil rights activists, was a century-old problem of Jim Crow, segregation, systemic racism. Many of the negative images of black people that are perpetrated in the media, in film from the 1920s (and) forward, are based on this period of disenfranchisement and essentially an assassination of a people, a cutting off of their ability to do what everyone else would normally do, which is build community and build society.

Watch a History Channel dramatization of John Brown's attack on Harpers Ferry in the video below:

Learn more about John Brown at DeCaro blog:


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