Fromer Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, facing trial soon for his part in a 1968 shoot-out with Oakland, California, police, told a large throng of black evangelicals gathered in San Francisco last month that “what I learned at mama’s knee” may have been what brought him to Christ and then back home to the United States to face charges.

Unaware that the words he chose touched on an issue of the conclave, Cleaver was somewhat surprised by the many strong responses of “Amen” and “Preach it” that his statement elicited.

For the several days preceding Cleaver’s appearance at the concluding session, leaders at the fourteenth annual National Black Evangelical Association (NBEA) convention at the Sheraton Palace Hotel in San Francisco had been engaged in lively debate. At issue was whether evangelicals should emphasize black “expositional” theology or black “experiential” theology.

The discussion came to a head at a workshop on black theology conducted by Anthony C. Evans, pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas and a doctoral candidate at Dallas Seminary. Said Evans: “If the Bible message and blackness bump heads, blackness must go.”

A contrasting view was set forth by Henry Mitchell, director of the Ecumenical Center for Black Church Studies in Los Angeles. “Truth is in the book, praise God,” he declared. “But it’s true for me ’cause mama told me.… What mama told me is more important than what the paper says. Scripture came to us orally, and then through singing. The printed word is a substitute.” In short, he said, human transmittal has primacy over the printed word.

Evans countered that blacks ...

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