A Short History of Being Black and Reformed

If you’re a black member of the Christian Reformed Church, you probably know what an identity crisis is all about. On the one hand there are the CRCs of predominantly Dutch subculture and traditions, and on the other hand is your uniquely black cultural identity. Sometimes they coexist comfortably; sometimes they don’t.

This dilemma was articulated nicely by author and civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois in his classic book The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois defined the “spiritual strivings” of black folks as one of “double-consciousness” or tension between two often-conflicting identities. Here’s what he said:

The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

This double consciousness is felt by many blacks in the CRC as they strive for theological soundness and cultural relevance at the same time.

Using the Term “Black”

Why do we use the term “black” when we talk about being “black and Reformed”? Because the term African American does not apply to blacks from the West Indies, Canada, or Africa. Therefore “black” is the preferred term because it includes blacks from different places and cultures while not classifying them as African American.

When we talk about being “black and Reformed,” we do not intend to exclude whites or other people of color from the conversation. We welcome people from all nations and heritages to participate in ministry, especially in worship services and the annual “Black and Reformed” conferences.

Covenant People

Blacks in the CRC hold to the doctrines and confessions of the denomination, even though they may hail from Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal backgrounds.

Like George Whitefield, the Calvinist Methodist, many blacks learn the principles of the sovereignty of God and the grace of God by reading Scripture, not by reading John Calvin. Oftentimes, black leaders will awaken to Reformed theology realizing that they believed this doctrine all along.

The black experience, however, leads to some inevitable questions about the sovereignty of God and slavery. Blacks identify with the slave experience of the Israelites. They take comfort in the fact that God’s covenant people were enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years and then were delivered out of slavery to serve the Lord. When Moses introduced the Israelites to the Ten Commandments, he reminded the covenant people in the wilderness that they were once slaves: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut. 5:15).

In the black preaching tradition, the slavery and deliverance motif gives hope that God is truly sovereign and loves blacks as fully human beings made in the image of God.

Unfortunately, chattel slavery stigmatized blacks as property and predestined by God for servitude and menial labor. When blacks hear the good news that the covenant people of God were slaves too, they readily identify with covenant theology.

The Black and Reformed Tradition

Historically there are many black and Reformed leaders whose inspiring lives and contributions deserve recognition, but let me highlight a few here.

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753 and kidnapped from the Senegal-Gambia region when she was 7 years old. Too young to be sold in a slave auction in the southern colonies, she was purchased by a prosperous Boston tailor to be an attendant to his wife. Wheatley was educated and treated as a family member. She studied the Bible, and in addition to English, she learned Greek and Latin. She is said to be the first African American to publish a book; her volume Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in 1773. (It is noteworthy that her outspoken critic was none other than Thomas Jefferson—a striking fact, since he fathered seven children by a slave named Sally Heming.)

Many of Wheatley’s poems affirm the sovereignty of God while maintaining her identity as a black person. In “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” she wrote

’Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their colour is a diabolic dye.”

Remember, Christians; Negroes, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Lemuel Haynes

Lemuel Haynes was abandoned as a child by his white mother and African father. He became the first African American to be ordained by a mainstream Protestant denomination. Haynes was a Congregational minister, and he served white and integrated churches in New England. After manumission from indentured servitude at 21, he served as a minuteman in the Revolutionary War.

Lemuel was inspired by the Declaration of Independence, and in 1776 he wrote an essay called “Liberty Further   Extended” about the need to extend freedom to Africans. He wrote, “Liberty is equally as precious to a black man as it is to a white one, and bondage is equally as intolerable to the one as it is to the other.”

Francis Grimke

Francis Grimke was born a slave in 1850. After the Civil War he attended Lincoln College, studied law at Howard University, and graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1878. He became pastor of the influential 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. From his pulpit he encouraged a national audience to agitate for civil rights “until justice is done.” He organized the Afro-Presbyterian Council to encourage black moral uplift and self-help, and he supported the ideologies of both W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. Grimke also created the American Negro Academy and supported the organization of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Eugene St. Clair Callender

The first black pastor in the Christian Reformed Church was Eugene St. Clair Callender. He was also the first black person to graduate with a master-of-divinity degree from Westminster Theological Seminary. He was recruited by Rev. Harold Dekker of The Back to God Hour to plant a church in Harlem. During his 10 years with the CRC, Callender developed effective community ministry alongside people such as Malcolm X and Alex Haley (he officiated at the funeral service for Billie Holiday), while maintaining cross-cultural ministry as the “Jackie Robinson” of the Christian Reformed Church.

After leaving the CRC in 1958, Callender joined the Presbyterian Church. He went on to earn master’s degrees in business and law from Columbia University, and he became an advisor on race matters for five U.S. presidents. He lives in Manhattan and recently retired from ministry at 80 years of age, though he is available for speaking and consultation.

Moving Forward

We are grateful for the support and encouragement from Home Missions as we seek to recruit and retain leaders for the denomination. The Black Planning Committee partners with me to plan and coordinate the ministry.

Currently black and Reformed churches are located in Paterson, N.J.; Jersey City, N.J.; Los Angeles; Orlando, Fla.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Cleveland; Muskegon, Mich.; Chicago; and Atlanta. Church planting opportunities for urban ministry are available.

There are two major conferences planned for the black and Reformed community. The annual “Black and Reformed” conference features the preaching and teaching of Reformed theology in the black cultural grain. The 13th annual conference will be held at Trinity Christian College on April 26-28.

There is a need for “generational reconciliation” to reach out to future leaders, now consumers of hip-hop culture. Therefore we sponsor an annual “Urban Youth Conference” to reach out to young people to evangelize and disciple leaders. The “cultural mandate” compels us to embrace popular hip-hop culture for Christ. There is also a movement emerging among younger leaders that seek to maintain biblical Reformed theology while reaching out to evangelize in hip-hop popular culture so that black and Reformed is relevant to the next generation.

For Further Reading

Several contemporary authors have written books and articles on black and Reformed issues, including the following:

Allan Boesak wrote Black and Reformed: Apartheid, Liberation, and the Calvinist Tradition. (Orbis Books, 1984)

Carl Ellis is the author of Free at Last?: The Gospel in the African-American Experience and articulates the black and Reformed notion of “jazz theology” as an improvisational approach to theology over against “classical theology” in the Western tradition. (InterVarsity Press, 1996)

Anthony Carter wrote On Being Black and Reformed: A New Perspective on the African-American Christian Experience. Carter has been a keynote speaker for “Black and Reformed conferences,” CRC churches, and Trinity Christian College. (P&R Publishing, 2003)

Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson authored The Hip Hop Church:

Connecting with the Movement Shaping Our Culture. (IVP Books, 2006)

for discussion
  1. What is the most important thing you learned from this article? Discuss
  2. What is the most distressful information revealed in this article?
  3. What new insight have you gained about Reformed theology?
  4. What may hinder black people from joining and remaining in the Christian Reformed Church?
  5. Will the Christian Reformed Church benefit from a diverse membership? Why or why not?

About the Author

Rev. Bob Price is Home Missions ministry team leader for all Christian Reformed black ministries.

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