At a meeting from April 21 to 24, the board of the 834,000-member Protestant denomination passed a resolution declaring that many religious communities in the U.S., including the Christian Church, "failed to work or speak against the institution of slavery in the United States, a wicked apathy that permitted and resulted in untold suffering among the African people kidnapped by evil people and sold to Americans to labor without compensation and often subjected to inhuman persecutions by their white owners."
The General Board "confesses the corporate guilt we all share for these evils and heartily begs the forgiveness of God and of all God's children whose lives have been damaged or limited by these sins."
The board had been considering asking the U.S. government to apologize for slavery, but board members realized they could not ask the government to apologize until they had apologized themselves.
Emily Jackson of Memphis, Tennessee, an African American member of the board and the great-granddaughter of slaves, accepted the apology. "I speak for myself—that when an apology is extended, it is to either be accepted or rejected. I personally accept the apology and the spirit in which it was offered," she told Disciples News Service.
Curt Miller, a spokesperson for the denomination, says it was a "significant and important resolution" because for the first time the church had tackled the issue. "It's really part of the Christian Church's conviction to be pro-conciliation and anti-racist," he said. "What the General Board was saying was the church was inappropriately silent."
The Christian Church was one of a number of churches born as American settlers moved westwards in the early 1800s. Miller said some church members and leaders had been in favor of the abolition of slavery, and the issue was debated on the floor of the 1863 General Convention, at the height of the Civil War. But the denomination never became a symbol of abolitionist reform.
"We knew it was wrong, and we didn't do enough to end it," Miller said. "Slavery was an institution that crushed people, and still has implications to this day. Attitudes and practices that sprang from slavery still affect the U.S. today."
According to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, the Christian Church is "marked by informality, openness, individualism and diversity. The Disciples claim no official doctrine or dogma."
Miller said the General Board's resolution was not binding on the entire church, and that the board was speaking for itself.
The General Board is a 160-member body that comprises only one part of the church's structure. The representative body of the church is a biennial General Assembly. "The board was speaking to congregations and not for them," Miller said, adding that the church had received little reaction to the resolution.
Miller told ENI that he expected the resolution could have an impact when the General Assembly met later this year to discuss the issue of reparations, long a controversial matter in the U.S.
Supporters of reparations have said the U.S. should formally apologize to African Americans for slavery and make financial compensation to the descendants of slaves. Opponents have argued that such a move would be unfair to other Americans, given that slavery ended more than 100 years ago and that other groups have suffered discrimination.
The General Board recommended that the assembly call on the denomination to formally address the issue of reparations and give faith-based reasons for support of a formal apology for slavery. The board mentioned the possibility of lobbying for the creation of a U.S. Congressional Commission for the study of reparations.
Another possibility would be a church request that the U.S. government "issue a national apology for participating in and supporting the kidnapping, exporting and enslaving [of] people of African descent."
There are about 73,000 African Americans in the Christian Church—nine percent of the denomination's membership. The church's national headquarters are in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Copyright © 2001 ENI.
Disciples News Service and Disciples Today (the denomination's monthly online magazine) both have articles on the apology.
The Associated Press also took note.
Adherents.com notes that there are almost a million members of the denomination in the United States, but that membership has dropped in recent years.
Slavery is a recurring topic in Christianity Today and our sister publications. Christian History looked at African-American Christianity before the Civil War, focusing largely on slave religion. Eugene D. Genovese wrote an article for Books & Culture on how Christians in the South sought to reconcile slavery with Scripture while Tim Stafford wrote on forgotten abolitionism. Tim Stafford also wrote an article for Christianity Today on learning from the abolitionists, and interviewed historian Lamin Sanneh on African slavery. Other Christianity Today articles have asked if God divinely sanctioned slavery, and whether Christian should apologize for it.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingHillsong Says It Is Moving ForwardNew revelations will require increased accountability, but pastor wants to look to the future.
- From the MagazineIs It Time to Quit ‘Quiet Time’?Effective biblical engagement must be about more than one’s personal experience with Scripture.
- RelatedWhat Evangelicals Owe HaitiTo understand the island nation’s crisis and what the church must do now, start with what we didn’t do.español
- Editor's PickThese 3 Japanese Christian Women Changed Their CountryMeet an early evangelist, an education reformer, and a preacher who held Bible studies with the royal family.