Born in or around 1753, a little girl in the region of Senegambia in West Africa was captured and enslaved. She survived the torturous journey to America on a slave ship and was sold to a British American living in Boston named John Wheatley. Wheatley and his wife, Susanna, named this little girl Phillis, the name of the ship that had carried her to North America. The Wheatleys were members of a Congregational church. Their daughter Mary taught Phillis about the Christian faith as well as lessons in Latin, Greek, and English literature. Phillis Wheatley had an emerging talent for writing poetry and was the first Afro-British woman to have her writing published, beginning in 1767, the year of her baptism at Old South Church. She wrote scores of poems on numerous subjects, including race and slavery. In one poem from her 1773 collection On Being Brought from Africa to America, Wheatley wrote about God’s providence and God’s electing mercy and grace, particularly toward an African person:
‘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 color is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
Well aware that racism undergirded the entire American slave system, Wheatley’s poems combatted the explicit racism directed against all Africans during the 18th century. For Wheatley, Africans, or “Negros,” as she termed them, were recipients of saving grace as much as their British-American counterparts were. As a Reformed Puritan, Wheatley used her intelligence and talent to draw attention to the injustice of race-based slavery and to African equality in the sight of a merciful God.
European colonialists—Puritans in New England and Dutch Reformed people in New York and New Jersey—brought Reformed traditions to North America during the 17th century. As Congregational and Reformed churches dotted the landscape in colonial America, English slave traders dropped off their cargoes of enslaved Africans. Over time, enslaved Africans became baptized members of these churches and became part of the covenant community. As early the 1660s, Dutch Reformed congregations in America included enslaved Africans. Their Puritan neighbors in New England were sure to include their enslaved persons in family devotions and, in their churches, in catechesis and baptism. From this context of slavery, African-American voices emerged within the Reformed tradition.
The most prominent African-American Presbyterian during the 19th century was arguably Henry Highland Garnet, born into slavery in New Market, Maryland, on December 23, 1815.
In 1824, Garnet’s family escaped from slavery, eventually settling in New York City. Educated in African schools in New York City, Garnet entered the Presbyterian Oneida Theological Institute to study theology and classics in 1836. After graduating in 1840, Garnet moved to Troy, New York, where he became an elder of the newly founded African American Presbyterian Church. He then studied under African-American ministers who were members of the Presbytery of Troy and became a licensed preacher in 1842. The following year, Garnet received his ordination and a call to the pastorate of Liberty Street Presbyterian Church in Troy. In his famous 1843 “Address to Slaves,” a speech he gave in Buffalo, New York, directed to an imaginary audience of enslaved persons, Garnet encouraged enslaved people to overthrow slavery with the words “Let your motto be Resistance!”
Few people realize that one of the most prominent late 19th-century civil rights advocates and organizers of African-American women served in a Presbyterian church in Chicago. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a member of Sixth Presbyterian Church (now Sixth-Grace Presbyterian Church) and taught Sunday school. Wells-Barnett was born an enslaved girl in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. After emancipation, she would eventually earn her degree from Fisk University in Nashville. Wells-Barnett is noted for her groundbreaking journalism exposing incidents of lynching in the South. In her 1892 book Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, Wells-Barnett argued that white men lynched African Americans for fear of African-American economic progress, not in defense of white women’s honor and purity as they claimed. Sometime in the 1890s, Wells-Barnett joined Sixth Presbyterian, an all-African-American church founded in 1888 in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. There her Sunday school class with young men eventually blossomed into the Negro Fellowship League. She also founded the Frederick Douglass Center, a literary society. With Wells-Barnett’s service, Sixth-Grace Presbyterian became a community hub lifting up members of the African-American community.
In 1951 Eugene Callender, who possessed the spirit of Henry Garnet’s Reformed theology, became the first African-American pastor in the Christian Reformed Church. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1926, Callender was the first African-American student to attend Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 1947. In Philadelphia, Callender experienced discrimination at a downtown restaurant that refused to serve him. He told fellow student Lewis Smedes of the incident. What followed was the mobilization of the entire student body and faculty in protest of that restaurant.
Upon graduating in 1950, Callender connected with Peter Eldersveld, longtime host of the CRC’s evangelistic radio program The Back to God Hour, when Eldersveld spoke at Westminster’s commencement. Eldersveld hired Callender to contact African Americans in New York City who were avid listeners of the program. Before long, Callender’s mission resulted in a church plant in Harlem in 1951, which became the Mid-Harlem Community Parish. In 1959, Callender accepted the call to Church of the Master (Presbyterian Church (USA)). During his longtime ministry there, Callender established “street academies” that educated African-American and Latinx high school dropouts. In addition, Callender was active in the civil rights movement, serving as executive president of the New York Urban League for a time. His Reformed witness was directed toward the whole person, with special attention to the African Americans and Latinx people on the margins of New York City.
Today, in a popular Christian podcast called Truth’s Table, three Reformed Christian women of African descent approach issues such as colorism, “gender apartheid,” and misogynoir—defined in a recent episodeas “anti-black misogyny aimed at black women exclusively.” During the course of the podcast, the three women—Christina Edmondson, Michelle Higgins, and Ekemini Uwan—draw attention to how this affects African-American women mentally, emotionally, and personally. The women of Truth’s Table unapologetically target African-American women as their primary audience. They are among many African-American Reformed Christians who through their perspective and their application of Reformed theology engage a whole host of topics relevant to African Americans. For African-American Reformed Christians, this has also been a service to the whole church.
The tradition within Reformed and Presbyterian churches has always been to engage with dominant theologies and historical narratives, speaking truth to power. From Phillis Wheatley to Eugene Callender to the women of Truth’s Table, African-American Reformed Christians have done so, ministering from the margins to the margins.
About the Author
Eric Michael Washington is associate professor of history and director of the African and African Diaspora Studies program at Calvin College. His research interests are African-American missions in Africa and the intersection of postcolonial African liter