The Arts

The Gospel Movement in Our Ancestors Stories

Jerilyn Sanders

If you’ve felt it between your fingers, you know it’s a rare gift. To hold in your hands a document shedding light on your unknown ancestors, one that reaches back into the era of slavery and reveals how you became who you are. It’s breath-taking, heart-breaking and inspiring—all at once.

History in My Hands

Last year, my mother shared an article* she’d discovered that shed light on the childhood of my grandmother’s great-grandmother (who was still alive when my grandmother was young). Sold away, at age eight, from her mother and brothers in Charleston, South Carolina, Daphney came to settle in East Tennessee at age ten. The day she’d been taken away, her mother, Sylvia, urged her not to cry and “to be a good girl, and to say her prayers and to remember who she was.”

A natural nurturer and avid learner, Daphney had been trained as a nursemaid and was secretly literate. She spent the next seven years cooking, cleaning and tending to the gardens and children of her white owners. Eventually, she came to live with the Peck family. As the Civil War broke out, Mr. Peck was honest with Daphney and told her that she would soon be free, but could stay with the family if she wished. But when the war was over, “something about Mr. Peck began to change.”

Though the family had fallen on hard times, Daphney stayed at the Peck farm and continued to work there for several months because she had nowhere else to go. One November day in 1865, Mr. Peck said it was time for her to leave. She would go work for a Mr. Chestnut. He seemed kind, and even asked Daphney questions about herself and her family as they traveled the ten miles to his farm. Upon arriving, Daphney was told to take her few belongings to a house out back where she would stay with the Negro family who lived there.

“Daphney walked toward the house with her bag. She saw two boys outside, and then she saw a woman holding a pot step into the doorway. She stepped closer and saw the pot drop from the woman’s hands. ‘Daphney?’ said Mama. ‘Oh my sweet baby . . . is it you, Daphney?’ But Daphney could not speak. The basket had fallen from her trembling hands, and for a moment, she thought she was dreaming. Tears rolled down her cheeks as Mama and William and Samuel ran to her, embracing her.”

God With Us

Though it isn’t divinely inspired, reading Daphney Chestnut Melton’s story holds sacred significance and awe for me. [pullquote]I weep at the realization that God did this impossible thing for my family.[/pullquote] This miracle was not set against the backdrop of Ancient Israel, but it is a miracle of biblical proportions nonetheless.

I see the gospel at work – reconciliation and restoration weaving God’s purposes into everyday lives in ways that we will never fully understand this side of heaven.

How did Sylvia (an African girl captured and brought to America) know to pray and teach her children to pray? How many nights did she cry out to God for her little girl during those years of separation? Thousands upon thousands of slave mothers longed to see their children again, but only a fraction were ever reunited. Why did God answer her prayers?

And what about that change in Mr. Peck? Was it pity born from the humility of his newly acquired poverty? Was it remorse? Was it redemption? How did he know of Daphney’s family? And why did two white men in 1865 apparently go out of their way to reconnect this young black girl with her mother?

The best answer I can come up with is grace. I have no idea why God had grace upon my family like this, but I can see the implications on my life because he did. My grandmother, Mildred Melton Upton, held unwavering Christian convictions that ran five generations deep. She insisted that we come to know “who we were” and behave accordingly. She passed on to us what she had inherited.

As an African American, hearing about the faith of our ancestors is a wonderful proof to me that the gospel is true. How in the world could a people so mistreated get past the ugly hypocrisy of the oppressors’ religion to find comfort and hope in God? The work of the Holy Spirit has to be real. Jesus has to be the personification of the True and Living God. [pullquote position=”right”]God really does draw near to nobodies who are hurting and lift them up from their despair.[/pullquote]

This may not have been your family’s story. But God was no less at work in your family—it is miraculous that any of us are here. We rarely get access to these kinds of details, but the fact that any one African American person is here means that someone in their family tree survived the Middle Passage, persisted through chattel slavery and wasn’t annihilated under Jim Crow. This is amazing grace.

Looking Back

I love to look back on God’s hand in our history and to marvel at his hand at work. [pullquote position=”right”]Amazing grace was strong enough to save the slave trader and the slave.[/pullquote] Only a “Whole-World-in-His-Hands” God has that kind of power. Remembering can help us give thanks. Everything I am, have, or will ever accomplish is because God’s hand of blessing was on my foremothers and forefathers.

However, heaviness is also associated with our past. And I want to take time to think about that and the responsibility to the next generation that is on my shoulders. We owe so much to those who came before us. They are part of our “cloud of witnesses” referenced in Hebrews 11 and 12. Does our community still face serious spiritual and social obstacles? Absolutely. Are these obstacles insurmountable for our God? Absolutely not. And so, we run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus. He is the Author and the Finisher of each of our stories.

* Monroe Life Magazine, Winter 2013 Issue, pp 24-25.

10 thoughts on “The Gospel Movement in Our Ancestors Stories

  1. kimberly

    Beautiful. Thank you for sharing your story and His faithfulness.

  2. Ronaé

    Thank you for sharing this Jerilyn, so encouraging and uplifting. I can’t help but be moved by the love of God and the strength of our people because of him!

  3. Jerilyn Sanders

    Thank you, Tabi.

  4. Jerilyn Sanders

    Thanks for adding this story to the conversation, Cousin! Please let me know where I can get Claudia’s history. It is so exciting to get these glimpses into the past, even if they’re incomplete and raise more questions. I feel like we honor the memory and the struggle of our ancestors by doing this — and staying faithful to the “God of their weary years.”

  5. Jerilyn Sanders

    Thank you for sharing, George. It really is something to consider how God’s hand is always at work even when our human understanding is so limited.

  6. Ann Hitchcock Boyd

    Jerilyn, great article and so happy to see more and more of our family sharing the stories my mother, Dorothy Melton Hitchcock, memorized while she lived with her grandmother, Daphney Patience Chestnut Melton. You would definitely love to see the entire Melton history that my sister Claudia wrote down for us. There was another great article in a few days ago that you may also enjoy. Beth Salem Church: A lasting Christian legacy in McMinn County

  7. george canady

    Thank you for this. It adds to my understanding of different ways God keeps His remnant.

  8. Audra

    Very well put niece. Your grandparents would be so proud that you recognize that their struggles and others were not in vain. To God be the glory!

  9. Tabi Upton

    Wow. For some reason, I have been thinking about my awe of the ancestors who endured slavery so we, modern African Americans, could enjoy freedom. Yes, we owe them so much, and we must remember that what we do now matters for generations to come. Praise God for loving us soooo much. Great job, Jerilyn. This was an excellent and uplifting article.

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