Through the example of Black Philadelphians in 1793, we glimpse what it means to demonstrate Christian faith in a time of trial.
Dr. Jeffrey W. Barbeau
This year, more than most, I have often thought about how Christians have faced moments of crisis—whether in times of war or political turmoil or, as in our own day, widespread illness. For me, one of the most remarkable instances of Christian faith in a time of trial occurred in the city of Philadelphia, as African Americans in that city served their community despite the prejudicial manner in which they had been treated.
In 1793, the city of Philadelphia was already emerging as one of the energetic cities of the United States. It had been, of course, only a few years since the Revolutionary War and the ratification of the US Constitution.
But when the “yellow fever” hit the city, the outbreak of illness was unlike anything Philadelphia had ever encountered before. The illness was transmitted easily and spread by mosquitoes. Many people immediately left the city—they already practiced ‘social distancing’ and tried desperately to leave.
The black Christian community there was already thriving, especially among Methodists under the leadership of Richard Allen. Methodism in those days was associated with the Wesleys in England and Francis Asbury in America.
Black Americans felt a deep kinship with Methodism, since the leaders taught the plain gospel to all people. In 1774, John Wesley had published the book Thoughts Upon Slavery, making the case that participation in the slave system was contrary to the will of God. Here’s a selection from one of the final paragraphs:
Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature. Let none serve you but by his own act and deed, by his own voluntary choice.—Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion! Be gentle towards all men. And see that you invariably do unto every one, as you would he should do unto you.
In fact, one of the final letters John Wesley wrote in his lifetime – only days before his death in 1791 – was sent to the great abolitionist William Wilberforce, encouraging him to work to end the slave system. He wrote:
Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God before you, who can be against you? … O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.
The goal to end the slave system was founded on a belief that all people are bearers of the image of God. Decades later, the Methodists in America would divide, north and south, over this very issue, but in the 1790s, the matter was still considered a fundamental tenet of the American Methodist movement.
Of course, being part of a church in the north and against slavery did not suggest an absence of bias against black churchgoers. At St. George’s church in Philadelphia, a group of black Christians belonged to the thriving congregation, but one Sunday a trustee of the church attempted to forcibly remove some of these same members on the basis of their race. Absalom Jones told the man: “Just let me finish praying, and you won’t be bothered with us anymore.”
That event sparked a remarkable movement among black Christians in Philadelphia and the founding of Bethel Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The AME church is one of the most important and remarkable denominations in American history. For many, that moment is a key part of the legacy of the civil rights movement.
Not long after, the founding of their church demonstrated the strength of the black Christian community. This was a church movement based on a belief that all people are made in God’s image, and that the free exercise of faith was an essential component of a living community. They rightly refused to suffer under the unjust abuse of white ministers, and their prophetic witness continues to challenge the nation to this day.
This background can help us understand the remarkable example of Allen, Jones, and the black Christian community in 1793. As Philadelphia faced the fever, the city was brought to its knees. Physicians sought out those who would help with care for the sick and to carry off the dead. White Philadelphians looked to the black community, mistakenly assuming that blacks were immune from the fever, and asked for their help.
Richard Allen and Absalom Jones consulted and prayed over the situation. What would they do? Would they be willing to serve the same community that had so often mistreated them and excluded them even from the worship of God?
They decided to help, trusting that God would preserve them “in the midst of a burning, fiery furnace.” They sacrificed and suffered greatly. Not surprisingly, they faced a death rate directly parallel to those in the white community. And, to add insult to injury, they were later accused for having sought recompense for their expenses—supplies for burials and payment for their labors. They suffered profoundly for their work, even as they demonstrated the love of God in their care for the community.
Black Christians in Philadelphia refused to be injured by the white community any longer, but that same liberty allowed them to freely choose to help the very same community that had previously persecuted them. In their example, we learn what it means to demonstrate Christian faith in a time of trial.
Dr. Jeffrey W. Barbeau (Ph. Dr., Marquette University) is professor of theology at Wheaton College, Reviews Editor at The Coleridge Bulletin, and a writer on British Romanticism, religion and literature, and the history of Christian thought.