How Should We Then Live

One of my favourite readings from early Christianity is this excerpt from an unknown writer offering a defence of what it means to be a Christian to a certain (also unknown) Diognetus. Writing about the end of the second century, the author seeks to show that Christians have a certain relationship to the countries and governments under which they find themselves living. Given the present politicized environment, it might be good medicine to help the church get back to being the church.

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. 2 For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life. 3 This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious people, nor do they promote any human doctrine, as some do. 4 But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. 

5 They live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. 

6 They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. 7 They share their food but not their wives. 

8 They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh.  9 They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. 10 They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. 

11 They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. 12 They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. 13 They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. 14 They are dishonoured, yet they are glorified in their dishonour; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. 15 They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. 16 When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life. 

17 By the Jews they are assaulted as foreigners, and by the Greeks they are persecuted, yet those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility. 6:1 In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world.

Epistle to Diognetus 5:1–6:1

[Paragraphing added to aid reading]

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Helping the Donald Find the Collection Plate

Every religious action of Donald Trump is being scrutinzed to see if he might actually be a Christian as he claims to be. Yesterday we caught the Donald confusing the communion plate for the offering plate and should actually be praising him for his willingness to give.

But Trump’s gaffe provides a perfect opportunity to raise a question about how we help outsiders find their way when they worship with us. Since I was not there, this is a general reminder that we do many things in church life that is just baffling to unchurched people as well as to people raised in other traditions.

Here’s my plea: Let’s become more explicit about what we are doing during our worship times. Not only will visitors appreciate it, the church will benefit from the teaching that results from this kind of instruction. Here are some of my suggestions for how this might be done.

  1. At the beginning of the service, explain briefly what will happen in the service.
  2. Before communion, explain in every day langauge what is about to happen. Since I belong to a fellowship that does communion weekly, this is a weekly opportunity to tell how communion participates in the story of Jesus.
  3. Before the offering, explain why the church is taking up money both fiscally and theologically. Invite visitors to give as they are moved. (Please don’t tell them they don’t have to give and that it is just for members as this short-circuits what God may be doing in their lives–they may really need to give because of where they are).
  4. Have attractive literature ready as a guide for newcomers and those from other church traditions so they can find their way around the facility but also through the service.
  5. Have hosts speically trained and available for those who might need some help finding their way. Call on the people who have the emotional sensitivity to read the comfort level of others.
  6. Learn to recognize and not use “insider” language that only those trained in church-ese would understand.

Ok, here are some of my suggestions to help the Donalds of the world find their way in a new church setting, perhaps you have others.

So should the Donald visit your worship gathering, make sure he can find his way easily.

Some Things I Learned About Cheneyville

Recently, I had the opportunity to share some of my findings from my research on the Disciples of Christ in Louisiana. The event was their Founders’ Day celebration, October 18, 2014. My special thanks goes to Rodney White for this invitation.

As I have time, I have been working on the history of the Disciples of Christ in Louisiana from ca. 1800 to the end of the Civil War. One of the most important episodes in this history is the formation of the Christian Church in Cheneyville. It is something of a tragic story as the Christian Church came to be out of a sharp division that occurred within Beulah Baptist Church (founded by the pioneer Baptist missionary Joseph Willis in Cheneyville ca. 1816). What follows is the text of my presentation.

___________

When I began researching the roots of the Disciples of Christ or the Christian Church in Louisiana, I was not looking for information about Solomon Northup, Cheneyville, Beulah Baptist Church, William Prince Ford, or the Tanner family. Nor did I know how important Sue Eakin’s work would become to me.

The few early hints I found led me to the Woodville, Mississippi and a pioneer preacher named Jacob Creath, Jr., so called “Junior” to distinguish him from his famous uncle, the then Baptist Preacher, Jacob Creath, Sr. Disciples historians claimed that Jacob Creath, Jr. was the first preacher of the Campbellite version of the Gospel in the state of Louisiana. This initial preaching moment took place in October 1826 near Bayou Sara. I soon found that this story was more complicated than the Disciples Historians had let on. You see, Creath was a Baptist preacher the entire time he was in Mississippi but, it is of note, that he went straight to Alexander Campbell’s residence as soon as he left Mississippi. Before he vacated the area, though, he had left his mark on several families in Woodville, who would migrate later to Cheneyville. So, in rather short order, my quest for the Disciples of Christ in Louisiana took me from Woodville, to Bayou Sara, finally to Cheneyville.

In 1847 Jacob Creath, Jr. visited Cheneyville. Here he reunited with Banks Marshall[1] and his wife whom he had earlier baptized in 1827 at Woodville, Mississippi. Of Josiah Scott, Creath wrote, “the nephew of Gov. Scott of Mississippi, whose wife I baptized at the same time [as the Marshalls], was also there with Mr. Scott’s mother, and a number of other ‘Disciples’ who had removed from Mississipi [sic] to that portion of Louisiana.” “I preached, of course,” he continued, “the ancient gospel to them. About a dozen believed it, felt its power, and obeyed.”[2] Josiah Scott would later become the minister of the First Christian Church in Cheneyville. Josiah is buried in the First Christian Church cemetery.

Don’t worry; I do not plan to share everything I think I know about how the Disciples of Christ/Christian Church grew out of a major split within Beulah Baptist Church in 1843. I suspect most of you know that story, and some of you deep within. What I would like to do, I hope, will be more interesting for such an occasion as the one we are celebrating today. I want to tell a few stories that have caught my attention as I was trying to find out more about how my church came to be in this state. To be exact, I have three stories to share with you. The first is about William Prince Ford, the second is about Peter William Robert, and the final one is about Alexander Campbell’s visit to Cheneyville.

William Prince Ford

For his involvement in the founding of the Christian Church, W. P. Ford was reprimanded by his former Baptist colleagues. Louisiana Baptist historian W. E. Paxton noted that by 1845 the Baptists leveled three charges against Ford: (1) that he administered the Lord’s Supper to the Campbellite Church at Cheneyville; (2) that he had ordained elders in said churches; and (3) that he gave countenance to the schism in the Cheneyville Baptist Church.[3] An entry in the Spring Hill Church minutes substantiates Paxton’s assessment of Ford’s involvement with the Campbellite reformers:

SPRING HILL, Saturday, January, 1845.

Inasmuch as it has been reported to this church by brethren Wright and Rand[4] that our brother Rev. W. P. Ford had been administering the communion of the Lord’s Supper and himself communing with the Campbellite church at Cheneyville, composed, in part, of persons standing excluded from our sister church called Beulah. And second, That he has ordained elders in said church who are persons excluded as above and person not holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And third, That his course has confirmed divisions, and offenses contrary to the doctrines we have learned, and inasmuch as the said brethren Wright and Rand have entreated brother Ford and told him his faults, according to the Gospel and have not gained our brother,

Therefore we the Church of Christ[5] at Spring Hill feel offended by Bro. Ford’s course, and feel it our duty to entreat and admonish him according the Gospel, and that Bro. Rand acted in this matter in behalf of the church and that a copy of this resolution be forwarded to him.

Resolved, That the church set apart Saturday the 25th inst. as a day of fasting and prayer to God with special reference to the case of brother Ford.

G. Robert, Clerk.[6]

The next pertinent entry in the church minutes records:

Sunday, March 16, 1845. The church met in conference. Prayer by Brother Rand. Whereas Brother W. P. Ford has been admonished and entreated by this church and has refused to hear us. Therefore, Resolved, that he is no longer with us.[7]

How true this last statement was. Ford fully embraced the Gospel as taught by Alexander Campbell. As late as 1850 Ford wrote to Campbell to secure a minister of the Cheneyville Christian Church.

Cheneyville, Parish of Rapid[e]s, La., Nov. 5, 1850

Brother Campbell: It is known to you that there has existed a church of Christ at this place for five or six years. There have been but few additions to its numbers during the last year or two; but I believe, that if an Evangelist would come amongst us, the church might be revived, and members added to it. There is now $350 subscribed for the compensation of a minister, either in the capacity of an Evangelist or Bishop, as may be agreed upon after his arrival. And by the time that fund is exhausted, as much more can be obtained. I have thought, by giving this publicity, some proclaiming brother might be induced to come amongst us, or address me for further particulars.

Yours, in the love of the gospel, W. P. FORD.[8]

Ford’s letter apparently had its desired effect. W. H. Steward became the Christian Church’s first full time pastor in 1854 and he was still with the church when Alexander Campbell visited in 1857.

Ford’s commitment to the new church is felt through the generous contribution of his second wife, Mary Boaz Dawson (m. 1849; d. 1880), the widow of William H. Cureton. She donated the land on which the church was built  c. 1852.[9] What remains of the original columns of this structure still stands in the Christian Church cemetery.

Peter William Robert

In the early 1840s, Peter William Robert, an “elderly gentlemen,” found Beulah Baptist Church in a “lamentable” state, so Jabez Tanner would have us believe in the account he left of the tragic split that occurred in Beulah Baptist in 1843. Despite the impression in Jabez Tanner’s narrative that Robert had recently arrived, Robert was one of those who had migrated from Beaufort District, SC, to Woodville, MS, and then finally to Cheneyville. As such he was actually a long-time member of the Baptist church and already a known preacher. Tanner speaks admirably of Robert’s ministry:

There was but one house in which family worship was maintained. Elder P. W. Robert was truly a man of God. He commenced lecturing publicly and privately in a manner that was entirely new at this place, for in preaching, he held up Christ in front of himself. He read the Word of the Lord and caused the people to understand the meaning thereof. In a very short time there was a considerable stir amongst the people. Persons who had not been on friendly terms for years were induced to become reconciled. To be concise, he preached about a year and baptized in this region about four hundred persons.”[10]

The ministry of Robert also came to the attention of the emerging Disciples. For instance, Walter Scott, in The Evangelist, copied the following letter describing Robert’s ministry.

New Orleans, Nov. 9th 1841.

Since I last wrote you, about three hundred and seventy five persons have bowed the neck to the yoke of Jesus Christ. Principally under the labors of Father Robert, in the Parishes of Ra[p]id[e]s and Avoyelles. All ranks and classes are among the number added through his and our labors; about forty Methodists, twelve Presbyterians, and twenty Roman Catholics are of the number.

Brother Robert is a Baptist; though he preaches the word, and it has been mighty in pulling down the strong holds of Humanism, infidelity &c.

We have agreed to keep Father Robert in the field this year. He speaks about 10 times per week. The people are reading the Bible with as much interest as thought it had just dropped from heaven. He gets every one as soon as they are added, to came forward in family worship, and be active in every duty. I have never wit­nessed more interest in a neighborhood, than in the section where he is laboring, without usual machinery, such as this age of invention has produced. I am much pleased with this scriptural manner of proceeding.[11]

On the first Sunday in August 1841, P. W. Robert baptized Jabez Tanner and forty others. These people formed the nucleus of the Christian Church in Cheneyville. The founding member of the First Christian Church of Cheneyville were Mr. and Mrs. John W. Pearce; Mr. and Mrs. W. P. Ford, Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Jackson, Mr. and Mrs. Jabez Tanner, Mr. and Mrs Josiah Scott, Mr. and Mrs. Bordeaux Robert[12] and a Mrs. Andry.[13]

Campbell’s Visit to Cheneyville (1857)

On Alexander Campbell’s second “Tour of the South” (beginning 26 February 1857) he came again to Louisiana but made his first visit to Cheneyville in March 1857. He reported in his journal the Millennial Harbinger,

The cause of Christianity in its sectarian attitudes, had almost expired in that vicinity [speaking of Cheneyville and area]. The Baptist church formerly existing there had ceased to be, and one individual of the Methodist persuasion was the sole representative of that denominational form of religion. The Christian church alone survived, and consisted of some hundred members white and black.”[14]

Of course, the Beulah Baptist did not disappear.

With a brother Meyers, a graduate of Bethany in Cheneyville at this time, Campbell reported they had held a meeting for several days with a favorable response. Since one of Campbell’s aims was to raise funds for his Bethany college—which no doubt, Meyers provided a living exhibit of the type of student Bethany produced—he spoke on the need for Christian education and the role of Bethany. Campbell’s presentation impressed the church as Jabez Tanner pledged $1000.00 and Andrew Jackson, $300.00.[15]

That Campbell’s reported blacks and whites participating in the same church is somewhat unexpected in an area made famous by Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave. However, the oddness of what Campbell experienced in Cheneyville led Campbell offer a bit of commentary about the meeting. He noted that a “considerable colored population” was in attendance filling an “entire range of pews from the pulpit to the door” while the white audience filled “three ranges of pews of the same length.” Furthermore, Campbell delighted to note, everyone had cushioned pews! Campbell saw this luxury to be an unusual display of equality in Christian fellowship. Campbell also noted that the congregation exhibited a “more fervent devotion” than he usually experienced.[16]

Conclusion

Cheneyville has a deep, rich history. Some that history is troubled, but today was not the day to go there. However, our path forward will not be made easier by ignoring the past, but by retelling it. And retelling it well. Sue Eakins knew this. So I hope in retelling these few stories I have somehow helped keep history alive here in Cheneyville.

NOTES:

[1] Perhaps Rogers Banks Marshall (b. October 1797 in Caroline Co, Virginia – d. August 1873 in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana). Information online: http://www.fanta-levey.com/ getperson.php?personID=I1709&tree=tree2.

[2] Philip Donan, Memoir of Jacob Creath, Jr. (Cincinnati: Chase and Hall, 1872), 147. Josiah Scott gave $7.50 on behalf of the  Cheneyville Church for a church building in Washington, D.C., reported in Millennial Harbinger (HM) (1851): 353; repeated at MH (1859): 595. After leaving Cheneyville, Creath went to Alexandria where he reunited with an old classmate, James Brice. They had been classmates in Washington, D.C. in 1822-1823. Following his time in Alexandria, Creath visited Major Johnson in Woodville, Mississippi, where Creath resided when he was in Mississippi from 1826–1828.

[3] W. E. Paxton, A History of the Baptists of Louisiana (St. Louis: C. R. Barns, 1888), 149–50. Paxton notes that Ford was born in Henry County, Kentucky, January 5, 1803. He was baptized by G. A. Ir[i]on at Cotile in Rapides Parish in 1829. The following year he moved to the area of Spring Hill (West of LeCompte) and in 1841, with fourteen others, constituted a Baptist church by that name. Paxton continued that in 1844 Ford was ordained to the ministry by Elder B. C. Robert (uncle of Mary Epps), Thomas Rand, and A. J. Spencer (later minister of Beulah Baptist). On Baynard C. Robert, see William Cathcart, The Baptist Encyclopedia: A Dictionary of the Doctrines, Ordinances, Usages, Confessions of Faith, Suffering, Labors, and Successes, and of the General History of the Baptist Denomination in All Lands with Numerous Biographical Ketches of Distinguished American and Foreign Baptists, and a Supplment (2 vols.; Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1881), 2.991: a pioneer preacher in Rapides Parish, La., was born in South Carolina in 1800. He came to Louisiana in 1818; was ordained in 1821— the second Baptist minister ever ordained in the State. He was a man of intelligence and ability, and was instrumental in founding many churches in his region. He was often moderator of the Louisiana Association. He died in 1865. See also Paxton, Baptists of Louisiana, 503-05; and Glen Lee Greene, House Upon a Rock: About Southern Baptists in Louisiana (Alexandria, La.: Executive Board of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, 1973), 59.

[4] Thomas Rand was one of the most accomplished preachers to come to Louisiana. Cathcart, Baptist Encyclopedia, 2.955, noted that Rand, “the son of a minister of the same name, was born in West Springfield, Mass., July 10, 1813; licensed to preach in 1836; graduated at Hamilton Theological Seminary in 1838; ordained at Bayou Chicot, La., in 1841; died at Lake Charles, La., July 1, 1869. He devoted his life to teaching and preaching, and did much to build up the Baptist cause in the Opelousas region. He was a ripe scholar and fine preacher.” See biographical sketch in Paxton, Baptists of Louisiana, 493.

[5] Baptist Churches will sometimes refer to themselves in a generic sense as “Churches of Christ.”

[6] Paxton, Baptists of Louisiana, 169-70.

[7] Ibid., 170.

[8] MH (January 1851): 60.

[9] See Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave (ed. Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon; Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968; orig., 1853), 76, n. 4; 93, n. 5, 6 and 7; et al.; William A. Wilson Jr., “The Disciples of Christ in Louisiana: 1826-1860” (M.A. thesis, Louisiana State University, 1934), 42.

[10] Jabez Tanner’s letter as cited in “History of Beulah Baptist Church, 1816-1966” (Cheneyville: Beulah Baptist Church), 12. Sometime after 1834 or 1835, P. W. Robert is said to have worked toward the establishment of a Baptist congregation in New Orleans. See Oscar Dubose Bowen, Historical Sketches of the Work of Baptists on the Mississippi Sea Coast and in New Orleans: The Organization and History of the Gulf Coast Baptist Association (Handsboro, Miss.: Gulf Coast Baptist Association, 1882),18.

[11] Evangelist 10.2 (1842): 47. Unfortunately the letter is unsigned in the Evangelist.

[12] Obit for Rosella Ann Robert at MH (1855): 238. Is this Bordeaux’s wife?

[13] We can perhaps add Mrs. Irene Johns (and husband?) who is listed by J. V. Coombs of Danville, IN, as the only charter member alive in 1918. See Unsigned letter from Cheneyville, Louisiana, Sept. 15, 1908 in “A Church with a Marvelous History,” Christian Standard (March 30, 1918), 839.

[14] MH (1857): 312.

[15] Robert Richardson, The Memoirs of Alexander Campbell Embracing a View of the Origin, Progress and Principles of the Religious Reformation which He Advocated (2 vol.; Philadelpia: J. P. Lippincott and Co., 1868), 2.628; MH (1857): 312, which has A. Jackson giving $300.00, but on p. 470, notes that bro. Jackson of La. gave $200.00; Lester G. McAllister, Bethany: The First 150 Years (Bethany, W.V.: Bethany College Press, 1991), 102. The Christian Church in Cheneyville built a block wood pulpit for Alexander Campbell to use during his visit; the church still uses the pulpit. Wilson, “Disciples of Christ in Louisiana,” 37, mentioned the pulpit. See MH (1861): 119 for Tanner’s obituary.

[16] Richardson, The Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, 2.312-13.

Solomon Northup: Not in the Book

As with most viewers, I have been wowed by the movie presentation of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave. I encountered the book some fifteen or so years ago when I was doing historical research on the Disciples of Christ in Louisiana. In my research I had discovered William Prince Ford, a Baptist minister in Cheneyville, Louisiana; the Baptists excommunicated him because of his acceptance of the teachings of Alexander Campbell. Ford also was a founder of the First Christian Church in that community in 1843. I wish I could remember who it was that pointed me to Northup’s book because when I read it, I “knew” some of the people mentioned in the book. I was amazed that no one studying Disciples of Christ History in  Louisiana had used Northup’s tale as a source. So at first, Northup was for me a historical source; over time, it has become so much more. However, it’s historicity keeps drawing me back to it.

Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon has shown the historical veracity of Northup’s tale. He gets places, people, family relationships, and local customs right. His errors are minimal and often amount to a misspelling here or there–particularly of some names which he probably only heard but never saw in print. There is a great story that Eakin use to tell about finding a copy of the book at a bookstore in Baton Rouge when she was a student at LSU. The bookstore owner asked her why she wanted the old book since it was mere fiction. She would remark after telling this story that she spent her whole life proving him wrong–and she did.

Now as wonderful as the movie is (and Steve McQueen and Brad Pitt have done us all a service by bringing Northup’s story to the widest audience it has ever had–and I understand that movies can’t always deliver what a text can–and it is customary for movies to take some poetic license and retelling a narrative), there are some historical displacements that weaken the impact of the story “as it really happened.” And I would argue un-does some of the hard work Eakin and Logsdon did.

In what follows I would like to draw attention to some revisions in the movie that are not in the book.

1. There is no rape on the ship bound for New Orleans–I’m not of course denying that such things happened. They did and often. Yet in the book, there was a conspiracy among three of the slaves, Northup being one of them. Their scheme fell apart when one of number died suddenly of small pox. Solomon and others subsequently got small pox and were treated for a couple of weeks at New Orleans’ Charity (then St. Mary’s) Hospital. Solomon himself suffered three days of blindness before recovering. The slaves that William Prince Ford purchased were still healing from the disease when he got them to his plantation.

2. Ford who purchased Solomon actually bought three slaves; they wrote Harry out of the movie. Since Harry has no real role in the later narrative, I understand this move.

3. The scene where Epps is preaching to his slaves from Luke 12 never happened in the book. Epps was not religious as far as I have found. I suspect his wife was more religious as her uncles were active in church life in the region. In the book the sermon was actually preached by Peter Tanner, Ford’s brother-in-law, who leased Northup from his second owner, John M. Tibaut.

4. With some of Ford’s descendants, I don’t think they got Ford quite right–though who would not want Benedict Cumberbatch to play them (his versatility is amazing enough, having played Star Trek’s Khan, Sherlock Holmes, and now William Prince Ford).

When Solomon is allowed to spend the night in the Big House, it is overseer Chafin (Northup called him Chapin), not Ford, who watches over him. Thus, there was no disclosure to Ford that Northup was legally a free man; and had Northup done so, though he was uncertain at the time, the outcome would have been favorable based on what is known about Ford. In fact, based on the available information, Ford did not know of Northup’s true status until Epps, who made a visit to Ford after Northup was taken from him, informed him.

The characterization that Ford was “a pompous hypocrite; a weak-willed man unable to protect Northup and his fellow slaves from sadistic overseers in the cotton fields” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2545950/Hollywood-villian-No-slave-owner-great-grandfather-model-morality-Astonishing-claim-family-outraged-Benedict-Cumberbatch-portrayal-hit-film-12-Years-A-Slave.html) does not take seriously what Northup says about Ford. In one place, for example, Northup writes,

Throughout the whole parish of Avoyelles, and especially along both shores of Bayou Boeuf, where [Ford] is more intimately known, he is accounted by his fellow-citizens as a worthy minister of God. In many northern minds, perhaps, the idea of a man holding his brother man in servitude, and the traffic in human flesh, may seem altogether incompatible with their conceptions of a moral or religious life. From descriptions of such men as Burch and Freeman [slave dealers], and others hereinafter mentioned, they are led to despise and execrate the whole class of slaveholders, indiscriminately. But I was sometime his slave, and had an opportunity of learning well his character and disposition, and it is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession. Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness (90 in 1853 ed. and hereinafter).

Northup is very careful to make sure his readers don’t simply bifurcate the issues of slavery. It was much more complex; Northup’s contribution and the beauty of his narrative is that he captures the layers of complexity. Ford is a long ways off from Epps. And Northup is even clear that Epps was not the worse on Bayou Beouf. That (dis)honor goes to Jim Burns (156).

As with most great movies, the book is better. And in this case, if one wants how it really happened, then, please, read the book.

The Legacy of Solomon Northup

As Black History Month comes to a close, I have a moment to reflect on my journey with Solomon Northup, both through his book once again and now twice through the movie. After last night’s presentation on Northup’s theologizing in Twelve Years a Slave, I received a question by text: What did the book mean to you?

To this question I texted back: “I become Solomon every time I read it and I ‘see’ more than I could before.” As Jerry Sanson, professor from LSUA, reminds us, reading Northup allows the reader to experience, in a limited way, what slavery was really like. Sanson remarks, “Solomon Northup’s story helps us to identify with him and others held in slavery against their wills. One of the reviewers of Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, the PBS documentary, succinctly summarized the importance of his experiences with these words: ‘It is this movie and Solomon Northrup [sic] that brings you closest to being able to say, ‘I’ve walked in the shoes of a slave.’ Indeed they do.” There is something about sharing Solomon’s experience that moves us deeper than the mere recognition that slavery was evil.

How prophetic was Samuel Bass, the Canadian emancipator of Northup, when he told the sadistic Edwin Epps, “There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet—yes, Epps, there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just.”

We now live 160 years since the publication of Northup’s book and we have witnessed the outworking of the “peculiar institution” in our nation. And the fruit has been extremely bitter–yet progress has also been made. Northup also witnessed this.

For every Epps, there was a William Prince Ford, who Northup compared to the Good Samaritan. When  Northup had fled from his second owner, John M. Tibaut, who was seeking to kill him, he made his way through the swamp to Ford’s place. Once there Ford and his wife took care of him. They provided him with food and a safe place to rest, but, Northup writes, “neither food nor rest afforded half the pleasure as did the blessed voices speaking kindness and consolation. It was the oil and the wine which the Good Samaritan in the “Great Pine Woods” was ready to pour into the wounded spirit of the slave, who came to him, stripped of his raiment and half-dead.”

The legacy of Solomon Northup is not that his book is about the evil of slavery (which it is) but that his story is about what it means to be human. For Northup, to be human was to be created in the image of God and “images” of God are to be treated with extraordinary respect.