Promised Land and Freedom: African-American Christianity
For African-American Christians, no biblical texts have been more central to their struggle for freedom than the Exodus and Promised Land stories. The ancient story of God who chooses slaves, sets them free, and gives them a land of their own became both their hope and their goal.
We are God's Chosen People. I don't debate it, I declare it! Black people are God's Chosen People. God supports his Chosen People. We have the witness of the Old Testament. When we fight a battle, God fights with us. In the Old Testament, when the prophet held up his arms, God held the sun still so that the enemies of Black Israel could be killed. That is the kind of God the Old Testament talks about.
The battles black Americans fight are for the Promised Land. "It is the Promised Land for Black people, a Promised Land which includes all Black people in all countries."1
These words from the 1960s, preached by Albert B. Cleage, Jr., represent "Black Christian Nationalism" that was associated with the Black Power Movement. The prominence of Exodus and Promised Land themes, however, comes from mainstream African-American religious experience. As Stephen Breck Reid, professor of Hebrew Scripture and Biblical Theology at Pacific School of Religion, says, "The Exodus tradition is formative for the Black church. It was conceived with a sense of kin with the Hebrew slaves."2
Early on, Christianity among African slaves centered on freedom. As a slave preacher explained, "I tell em iffen they keeps prayin' the Lord will sen em free."3 Much of this preaching was done in secret at night-time meetings in secluded rural areas. During these meetings, slaves were momentarily free from the control of white preachers and plantation owners. By recalling the struggles of Moses and Joshua, the trials and tribulations of the Israelites and their entry into Canaan, the slaves were sustained in their daily toils. They were given hope for redemption and a radically different future. The Jordan River came to symbolize the boundary between slavery and freedom. Canaan or the Promised Land was freedom itself.
This metaphorical imagery is reflected clearly in many of the Spirituals: "I looked over Jordan, and what did I see...," "O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan...," "I'll meet you in de mornin', When you reach de promised land; On de oder side of Jordan, For I'm boun' for de promised land."
But, if this was religious imagery, it also stood for very worldly realities. Many of these songs held codes for those escaping slavery. The Jordan River was the Ohio River. The other side was the North and then Canada, the Promised Land of Freedom. Frederick Douglass wrote, "We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan."4
The African-American Spiritual "Go Down, Moses," tells the whole liberation story. It captures the central themes of the African-American religious experience.5 Its concluding verses (9,10,11) are a great message of hope for the oppressed:
shall not before you stand,
and you'll possess fair Canaan's land,
would's a wilderness of woe,
O let us on to Canaan go,
O let us all
from bondage flee,
and let us all in Christ be free.
(#448, The United Methodist Hymnal)
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1. Albert B. Cleage, Jr., Black Christian Nationalism: New Directions for the Black Church (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1972),pp.239,198.
2. Stephen Brack Reid, Experience and Tradition: A Primer in Black Biblical Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), p. 74.
3. Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 232.
4. Quoted in James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1972, 1991), p. 80. My discussion of the Spirituals, including the verses I have cited, come from Cone's book, chapter 5.
5. Reid, in Experience and Tradition, analyzes the theological meaning of this hymn for African-American Christians. See chapter IV.