The Church Identity

Reformed Theology is Indigenous to African American Christianity

Jemar Tisby

While it is true that most systematic and written forms of Reformed theology come from Caucasian males, Reformed theology is not the “white man’s religion.” No matter how you define it, the core tenets of Reformed theology are woven into the fabric of African American Christianity. The sovereignty of God over all of life, his special prerogative in issues of salvation, and the authority of the Bible are endemic to the black church tradition.

People of African descent have always had a prominent voice in Christianity. Many significant biblical figures come from places like Ethiopia and Egypt (Genesis 16:1; Numbers 12; Jeremiah 38:7-13; Acts 8:26-40, etc.). Critical doctrines of the faith were first formulated by people from Africa. Athanasius (A.D. 295-373), an African with skin so dark they dubbed him “the black dwarf”, was an ardent defender of Trinitarian theology against Arianism. Augustine (A.D. 354-430), a north African, is well known as the Bishop of Hippo and author of works like Confessions and the City of God. But focusing strictly on North America, Reformed theology has also had a prominent place.

In his helpful work, The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African -American Pastors, Thabiti Anyabwile recovers the Reformed teachings that shaped African American faith.

On God’s Sovereignty in Election

Lemuel Haynes (A.D. 1753-1833) was the first African American ordained by any religious organization in America. He ministered in New England and exhibited Calvinistic thought in his sermons and writings. In one work “The Character and Work of a Spiritual Watchman Described (1792), he exhibits God’s sovereignty in election.

God has from eternity appointed a proper number for the display of His mercy and justice.

Haynes articulates a core and controversial doctrine of Reformed theology, which is that God exercises dominion in the realm of salvation. His words echo one of the great articulators of Reformed doctrine, John Calvin. In his Institutes Calvin says, “As Scripture, then, clearly shows, we say that God once established by his eternal and unchangeable plan those whom he long before determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, he would devote to destruction.” The Reformers believed it when the Bible said that, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined…And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30). Although other Christian traditions have attempted to refute the doctrine of election, African American Christians have histrically embraced this teaching.

On the Authority of Scripture

Another African American pastor and theologian Bishop Daniel A. Payne, a major contributor to the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.), speaks to the absolute authority of the Bible for all of life. In a sermon entittled “The Christian Ministry: Its Moral and Intellectual Chraracter” (1859), he explains:

Such a man will listen to the doctrines and read the Fathers, but he obeys Christ and Christ alone, giving reverence to human creeds only so far as they breathe the spirit of the written Word, respecting the Fathers and the doctors only so far as they are echoes of the voice of Christ.” (94)

From whence does a person’s doctrine derive? It is not from the formulations of mere mortals but from the inspired word of God in the Bible. Bishop Payne demonstrates that while other sources like the church fathers and creeds are helpful they must be measured against the plumb line of Scripture. The Bible makes its own case for diligent study of God’s special revelation. Psalm 1 declares that the blessed man is one whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (vv 1-2). God commands Joshua as he takes over leadership of the Jews, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night” (Joshua 1:8). Paul warns Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching (1 Timothy 4:16). African American Christians have understood the authority of the word from the earliest days in the faith.

On the Sufficiency of Christ’s Sacrifice

More recently, a pastor named Elder D.J. Ward of Main Street Baptist Church in Lexington, KY, displayed the God-exalting doctrines of Reformation theology in his over 40 years of ministry. Although Elder Ward died in 2008, a video of a sermon he preached was shown at the Together for the Gospel (T4G) conference in 2016. Elder Ward’s preaching shows the prominence of sovereign grace in his predominantly black congregation.

The death of Christ was not an attempt, it was an accomplishment

For he shall save, not attempt to save, not try to save, not hope to save, not want to save, but he shall save the people from their sins.

Now I hear this…That God has done all he can do, the rest is up to you. If the rest is up to you, then he didn’t accomplish it. If anything is up to you, he didn’t accomplish it.

I’ve even heard this. ‘You’ve got to help God save you. He can’t do it by Himself.’ If he can’t do it by himself, then he didn’t accomplish it.

If he didn’t do it, then we ought to stop saying, ‘Jesus paid it all” and say, ‘Jesus paid some of it.’

Christ’s substitutionary atonement did not merely make salvation possible, it actually accomplished the redemption of the elect. While it fuels the hubris of humankind’s self-centered nature, the Bible does not teach that people have any role in their salvation other than receiving it as a free gift of God. Redemption is due to the sovereign will of God. (cf. Romans 9:16, 18). Elder Ward articulates this stunning truth and combines it with the stirring cadences of traditional African American preaching. The intellectual and the soulful combine to make the reality of God’s mercy real to all whom he has called.

Reformed theology is biblical, and in this sense it is for all believers regardless of ethnicity. But the historical evidence of Reformed theology in the African American Christian tradition is helpful for correcting the false assumption that these doctrines are from white people and for white people. The truth belongs to all believers, because the ultimate source of truth is Christ.

4 thoughts on “Reformed Theology is Indigenous to African American Christianity

  1. Anthony Brown

    Thanks Kennon Wigley for recognizing early African’s that contributed to some of the fundamentals of Scripture. I lean towards reformed theology. Although, I also am aware of its flaws just as Bishop Daniel A. Payne pointed out.

    Our biggest challenge is today as we learn is to treat our neighbors with love, and work together in the body of Christ. Inherently there are some subtle views that can cause pride in relation to reformed theology. Pride can turn into supremacy thought.

  2. Daniel Pentimone

    While I am not African-American, I live in an area where the majority are. I’m so encouraged to be reminded of this. Thanks for your work in researching and pointing out the reality that Reformed Theology has a place in the African American community. Many African Americans see Reformed Theology as primarily a belief of Caucasion men. It is good to point out that this is not accurate.

  3. Josh Phillips

    Does Bishop Payne count? A belief in Sola Scriptura is not necessarily reformed unless you just mean reformational. Both Luther and Arminius would have ascribed to Sola Scriptura but would not usually be considered Reformed right? Thanks for the article it was a good read!

  4. Kennon Wigley

    Thank you for this, Jemar! It is encouraging to remember that these wonderful doctrines have been handed down through the centuries from Athanasius to Augustine to Calvin to Lemuel Haynes to DJ Ward and a host of others. Thank you for this perspective!

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