I recently purchased African American Readings Of Paul: Reception, Resistance, and Transformation, by Lisa M. Bowens, Emerson B. Powery and Beverly Roberts Gaventa. Beginning in the 1700’s, this book draws from personal narratives and historical accounts to uncover the religious dynamics of various eras in American history, focusing on how African Americans have handled the writing of the Apostle Paul in the face of often terrible misuses from the white population around them.
Today I was reading a section recounting incidents from the life of John Jea as compiled in his narrative The Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, The African Preacher. Compiled and Written by Himself (1811). Like all the stores from the slave era, it’s a heartbreaking read. The physical violence, dehumanization and humiliation coupled with purported ministers of the gospel butchering the Bible to enable slavery is really hard (but important) to read. One thing that stands out is how God brought the truth of His Word to life to the enslaved even in the midst of such overwhelming misrepresentation.
Jea was born in 1773 in Old Callabar, Africa. He and his family were stolen, shipped to America, and sold as enslaved Africans in New York to a Dutch couple. The following contains excerpts pulled directly from the book. I am italicizing only Jea’s entries so as not to cause confusion with the book’s additional commentary.
Our labour was extremely hard, being obliged to work in the summer from about two o’clock in the morning, till about ten or eleven o’clock at night, and in the winter from four in the morning, till ten at night… We dared not murmur, for if we did we were corrected with a weapon an inch and-a-half thick, and that without mercy, striking us in the most tender parts… often they treated the slaves in such a manner as caused their death, shooting them with a gun, or beating their brains out with some weapon, in order to appease their wrath, and thought no more of it than if they had been brutes…After our master had been treating us in this cruel manner, we were obliged to thank him for the punishment he had been inflicting on us, quoting that Scripture which saith, “Bless the rod, and him that appointed it.” But, though he [the master] was a professor of religion, he forgot that passage which saith, “God is love, and whoso dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.”
Despite professing Christianity, Jea’s enslaver taught him and other enslaved Africans that “when we died, we should be like the beasts that perish; not informing us of God, heaven, or eternal punishments”, and that “we poor slaves had no God…Frequently did they [masters] tell us we were made by, and like the devil, and commonly called us black devils.”
Jea’s masters forced him to go to a church where the white minister preached God’s approval of the slavery and the God-ordained servility of the slaves. Not unsurprisingly, Jea rejected Christianity. However, simply being exposed to the message of the gospel started to get to him, and he eventually converted to Christianity through conversation with another minister who was not authorized by Jae’s master. The Quakers were in charge of that area of the country, and they had a policy that if slaves gave a convincing account of salvation, they would be set free. True to their word, they declared him free.
This created a problem. His masters wanted him to hear a message that God wanted him to be a slave. They didn’t want him to actually convert and go free. Conversion meant that the slaveholders’ authority was not all-encompassing and that they, too, had to answer for their deeds. Equally significant, conversion meant that God cared about the enslaved Africans’ plight and they had not been forgotten. If Jea really believed the message of the Bible and genuinely converted, it was going to be…disruptive to the enterprise of slavery.
The master and his sons decided to convince Jea that God did not actually want him to be free, that there was indeed a God-ordained hierarchy of superior (white) people and inferior (black) people. They told him the Bible was literally speaking to them and telling him that Jea was wrong. They would hold the Bible up to their ears and pretend it was whispering to them. Jea couldn’t read; he couldn’t check if what they said was true. So he began begging God to let him hear the Book whisper to him too.
After five or six weeks of prayer, Jae writes in his narrative that God miraculously grants Jea’s petition in an unexpected way.
Thus the Lord was pleased in his in finite mercy, to send an angel, in a vision, in shining raiment, and his countenance shining as the sun, with a large bible in his hands, and brought it unto me, and said, “I am come to bless thee, and to grant thee thy request,” as you read in the Scriptures. Thus my eyes were opened at the end of six weeks, while I was praying, in the place where I slept; although the place was as dark as a dungeon, I awoke, as the Scripture saith, and found it illuminated with the light of the glory of God, and the angel standing by me, with the large book open, which was the Holy Bible, and said unto me, “Thou has desired to read and understand this book, and to speak the language of it both in English and in Dutch; I will therefore teach thee, and now read”; and then he taught me to read the first chapter of the gospel according to St. John; and when I had read the whole chapter, the angel and the book were both gone in the twinkling of an eye, which astonished me very much, for the place was dark immediately; being about four o’clock in the morning in the winter season.”
The next day, Jea speaks to his minister [not the pro-slavery one] about this miracle, proclaiming to the minister that he can read. Refusing to believe him, the minister brings him a Bible, and Jea reads the Scripture to him, prompting the minister to ask Jea how he learned to read. Jea remarks that the Lord taught him. Since Jea could not read any other books the minister presented to him and could not spell, the minister and his wife become convinced that the Lord had indeed taught Jea to read only the Bible.
Jea is brought before the local magistrates, who ask him if he can read. After answering affirmatively, they give him a Bible, and upon hearing him read, they ask how he learned to do so. Jea recounts,
“They believed that I was of God, for they were persuaded that no man could read in such a manner, unless he was taught of God. From that hour, in which the Lord taught me to read, until the present, I have not been able to read in any book, nor any reading whatever, but such as contain the word of God.”
After continuing to serve as a preacher in a local church for four years, Jea leaves for Boston to preach there and travels elsewhere in the United States and the world to proclaim the gospel, including New Orleans, the East Indies, Holland, France, Germany, Ireland, England, and Asia.
Until he died, the only book he could read was the Bible.