Jupiter Hammon and the Negro Vision of the Christian Life
It’s 1786. African-Americans are getting sold, beaten, abused, and killed. They are seen as property, commodity, and not worthy of life itself. For them, all seems hopeless. It’s in this context that these powerful words were spoken by one slave to others:
“Let me beg of you my dear African brethren, to think very little of your bondage in this life, for your thinking of it will do you no good. If God designs to set us free, he will do it, in his own time, and way.”
Jupiter Hammon, slave and poet, wrote this to the African Society on September 24, 1786. In this address, he informed his fellow slaves of how to live out their condition for the glory of God and the good of their fellow man. They were to live as those who “make it clear that they are seeking a homeland” (Heb. 11:14), or as some would say, “otherworldly.”
As I sat in my study, I wondered what shaped his view and what we can learn from Hammon today. The answer is that he had a great vision of God, redemption, and the Christian life. Can the same be said of us today? If it is to be said, we must be informed by these great truths as well. To do so, we will survey his vision from An Address to The Negroes in the State of New York.
First, Jupiter Hammon had a great vision of God. He didn’t just know God; he treasured him. In spite of limited opportunity as a slave, he was very well read and educated. Because of this, he became the first published African-American poet in the United States. Far greater than his education was his belief: “In the Bible, God has told us everything necessary we should know, in order to be happy here and hereafter.”
Though Hammon had every reason to deny, out of his biblical belief came the truth that the Triune God “made all things for his own glory, and not for our glory.” This was not only true of the created universe and all its glory, but undoubtedly included slavery and all its suffering. Hammon trusted God willed his trials and suffering for their good and His glory. So, if his fellow slaves were to endure with great joy, they had to be captivated by the truth that God “is over all, and above all his creatures…that he upholds them all, and will overrule all things for his own glory.” Jupiter Hammon was not ultimately concerned with them knowing a great life on earth, but knowing the great God of the Bible.
For Hammon, his audience’s greatest need was not freedom from slavery, but freedom through Christ. Though freedom as slaves was worth seeking, he powerfully noted, “This, my dear brethren, is by no means the greatest thing.” Getting their liberty in the present life was nothing compared to having “the liberty of the children of God.
In order to know this great liberty, they needed to know their great bondage. The problem was that “we are all by nature sinners, that we are slaves to sin and Satan, and that unless we are converted, or born again, we must be miserable forever.” Not only so, but that “there are but two places where all go after death, white and black, rich and poor; those places are Heaven and Hell.”
If this was the only news, where was true freedom to be found? In redemption through Christ! Over and against man’s condition, God, “to save some of mankind, sent His Son into this world to die, in the room and stead of sinners, and that now God can save from eternal misery, all that believe in His Son, and take him for their savior.” Hammon knew that though slaves would experience many trials in life, yet “they shall be happy forever” because their happiness is found in God. It was this hope of future glory that informed and far outweighed the present suffering.
The Christian Life
Lastly, Jupiter Hammon knew that this present life should be lived for God’s glory in whatever circumstance God has called you. Paul exhorted in 1 Corinthians 7:24, “So brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.” Hammon exhorted in the same way: “Whether slave or free, whether learned or unlearned, whether male or female, you are to live for God.”
We must be careful to note this was not a call to passivity in any area of life. It was very much a call to strive and to labor for the glory of God and the good of others. Hammon knew God called those in slavery effectually through Christ and also to good works for Christ. His exhortation to others included learning the mind and will of God, honesty and faithfulness, and obedience to slave masters. Additionally, he exhorted others to labor for liberty and justice in slavery, seek freedom, and to use freedom as a means for the good of souls.
Most of all, he encouraged his fellow slaves to look at their present condition as a reason to seek happiness in the next world. To this he asks, “Why should we not take care to be happy after death?” He knew that no matter their present condition, because of the great Gospel of Christ, accomplished by the great God of the Bible, that “when thousands and millions of years have rolled away, this eternity will be no nigher coming to an end.” Because of this and the joy that was to come, he could not help but proclaim “Oh how glorious is an eternal life of happiness!” All their labors, no matter how difficult, would not be in vain.
Recapturing the vision
In light of the great vision Jupiter Hammon had, what can you as a Christian learn from him today?
Firstly, you must recapture this vision by having your heart informed by great doctrinal truths. It’s by knowing and enjoying this great God of the Bible that we are brought to this type of God-glorifying life.
Secondly, in your present circumstance, you must know that God has placed you there, so live for His glory and the good of others. The truth of God’s sovereignty and daily grace is not a hindrance, but the solid ground of our good works.
Thirdly, fight the good fight of justice and reconciliation with truth. Jupiter Hammon knew that these were accomplished not by wielding the sword of hatred, but by wielding the truth in love and service.
Lastly, day by day, moment by moment, seek to live with an awareness of eternity and enjoyment of God. May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with your spirit as you seek a great vision of God, freedom through Christ, and a life lived for God’s glory in the place he has called you.