How the Faith That Arose From the Cotton Fields Challenges Me

Discarding a belief in God can feel like an intellectual rite of passage to adulthood. Just as our bodies develop and change, so can our relationship to things spiritual, leading us sometimes to set aside organized religion. For African Americans, in particular, adult faith is complicated by the way certain understandings of Christianity were used to justify our ancestors’ enslavement.

Before “wokeness” became a right-wing propaganda tool, it was a descriptor for Black people who learned the truth about our history and culture. In my late teens and early 20s, freshly awakened friends challenged me, declaring Christianity a white man’s religion.

I could not deny skepticism’s literary and cultural cachet. Black intellectuals with the most insightful things to say about race, thinkers like W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, often had very conflicted relationships with Christianity if not hostility toward it. The Black literary canon is a beautiful thing, a hard-wrought wonder. Its creators have been my constant companions.

Perhaps they felt that we had lost our spiritual bearings during our sojourn on this continent. Maybe it started when “master’s preacher” told the enslaved that God destined them to be docile and obedient. Certainly the hypocrisy of some of Christianity’s adherents was plain. In any case, Christ was the God of the enslavers, not the enslaved. For them, the path to the promised land was not one in which God was a pillar of cloud guiding the faithful by day and a pillar of fire by night, as he was in the book of Exodus’ telling.

I spent my college years wrestling with that collision between racial consciousness and spiritual doubt. But ultimately, I have charted a path different from that of many of my literary heroes and friends. What led me to remain in the church?

It is not because I am unaware of this country’s evils. My family’s narrative contains all of this nation’s contradictions. It is a story of dried mud and tough soil, cotton and sweat dripping off Black bodies, and if you let my ancestors tell it, the power of God.

Whatever befell my forebears before they arrived in Maysville, Ala., is lost to the ravages of the Middle Passage that swallowed up so much Black history.

The Bones (my mother’s side of the family) spring from a plantation that was owned by Martha and Matthew Bone. I could take my children to see it if I were so inclined. The home where Martha and Matthew lived remained in their family up through the 1950s.

The Rev. Matthew Bone was the pastor of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in my hometown, Huntsville, Ala. According to an 1877 book about leaders of the church, he was a “giant in the pulpit in his day.”

My grandfather, the Rev. Theodore Bone, would receive the same acclaim some 120 years later. According to family lore, he was also called a “giant in the pulpit” by local Black folks. Two men with the same last name, preaching in the same area, separated by more than a century and radically different understandings of the Gospel.

The enslaved Bones were of light complexion. Legend has it that they could pass for white. From the pictures, I can almost believe it. My grandfather Theodore would surprise the family when we came out dark and spawned a line of chocolate Bones evident in my own ebony complexion. It was almost as if Africa reasserted its claim on my family in a moment of pique.

The stories that have been passed down to me suggest that the light complexion of the rest of the family came about because a white man visited the shanties late at night and assaulted the enslaved women. We cannot know for sure who it was.

We do know that such things would not have escaped the knowledge of the family’s patriarch. The Gospel he proclaimed at church was evidently not sufficient to stir his conscience to protect vulnerable Black women, such neglect being a staple of white pastors of that era and beyond.

The Rev. Matthew Bone was remembered as a staunch supporter of the South’s cause. According to his granddaughter Lillian Bone Paul’s account of her childhood recorded in a booklet called “History of New Market Volume 2,” he had been a member of the K.K.K.

My ancestors converted to Christianity on a plantation with all the contradictions that have driven African Americans from the faith. Like many other enslaved people, they found God apart from the watchful eye of the slave master when they gathered to worship in secret.

I came to see that the rightness of Christianity, despite the evil done in its name, was not first posed during my strolls around campus or email exchanges with high school friends at different universities. It occurred a century before on the Bone plantation. I believe that my ancestors wrestled with the questions of faith when the evil was not literary or historical, but a material thing of flesh and blood. How did they manage to see goodness in this religion?

I think that for them, the Black church did not just provide an answer. It was the answer. In a world that proclaimed that the enslaver was lord of all, the idea that something more mighty ordered the tide of events that swept up their lives was the hope needed to survive the day. What if belief in the unrelenting love of God combined with trust in with his power to bend history was not a tool to make chains but to break them?

As providence would have it, there is a record of the reaction of my ancestors to the news of their freedom. One was passed down in my family, and another version exists in print. Lillian, granddaughter of Martha and Matthew, wrote a history in the The Historic Huntsville Quarterly.

As Lillian tells it, “When Lincoln issued his emancipation setting all the slaves free, the Negroes were all highly elated and jumped at the chance to leave their former masters and mistresses.” She goes on to maintain that the freed slaves returned a few days later. In her narrative, John, one of my direct ancestors, “set his bare foot on hot coals” to keep from being taken back to the Yankee camp.

My mom tells me that her father informed her that “John ain’t walk on no hot coals. He left and later came back with money to buy a few acres where he worked the land as his own.” It was not a dramatic departure from the South, but it was a life lived with dignity and respect. It was also an answer to prayer.

Later, during the civil rights movement, the Bones did not march with Martin Luther King Jr. This used to bother me because my Christian heroes were the people who defied governments to make this country a little more free. The quiet faith of the Bones seemed the very thing that my intellectual friends told me to set aside.

But what use is a religion that only produces characters in history books? Was there not room for more ordinary glory? Civil rights activists inspired me, but the people who changed my life were regular members of my congregation.

I recognized that the viability of our faith could not be reduced to its usefulness as an agent of critique. It was not simply a tool to provide a religious veneer to policies I supported. It was not less than a social revolution; it was more.

Christianity had a word to say on how the Bones lived as individuals. It did not make them complacent about white supremacy. It made anti-Black racism survivable and surmountable. At the same time, their faith did the small work of making them better people.

That work of transforming the lives of individuals is the seedbed out of which mass movements grow. The organizers did not succeed because they had an army of studied philosophers. Instead, the marchers reasoned that faith in the God who carried them when there was no revolution would do the same now that there was. Put differently, the confidence in God’s ability to overcome slavery, segregation and white supremacy flowed from a belief in his power to overcome sin and death.

The validity of Black Christianity, then, arose from the millions of lives it made viable and even joyful despite the difficult circumstances that have marked our sojourn in this country.

Sometimes the path of intellectual development leads us home to the beginning of things. I remained a Christian not simply because of what the faith might be able to do in the world but because of what it might do in me.

My mother recently purchased about an acre of land on the plantation where many of the Black Bones lived and died. She got it for around $500 because it was the slave burial site. Their bodies, never finding rest on land owned by others, now repose on land purchased by their descendants. We hold it in trust for them as their due. If the hope of Christians is true and there is a indeed a resurrection of the dead, they will emerge from those graves as free people, and their last moments on this side of the new creation will be spent on their own soil. That is a hope worthy of my allegiance.

Esau McCaulley (@esaumccaulley) is a contributing Opinion writer, the author of “How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South” and an associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College.

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