More than 15 years ago, one of the theologians on this list—Bruce L. Fields—asked the question: What can black theology teach the evangelical church?
Protestant leaders in the US have been asking a similar question since black theology began gaining momentum 50 years ago. Writers in Christianity Today’s own pages discussed African American leaders’ necessary work in dismantling white superiority in the American evangelical church and wondered about the place of the movement in the greater body of Christ. In the decades since James Cone and J. Deotis Roberts developed the “seed of ‘black theology,’” theologians have risen up across traditions and denominations to powerfully assert how the faith and fight of black Christians embodies the gospel.
Their teachings and leadership have inspired the black church across generations—and challenge the church at large to think more deeply about the biblical call for justice, an end to oppression, and freedom in Christ.
This year for Black History Month, CT reached out to several black Christian leaders to hear about a few of the African American theologians, past and present, who have had the greatest impact on their faith. Here are the names they shared.
“There’s a reason black preachers often quote their mothers and grandmothers from the pulpit—these women are among the wisest theologians of the church. Octavia Albert, a former slave and author of The House of Bondage, is case in point. Albert’s Louisiana home became a gathering place for blacks in the Reconstruction era. She captures their stories, some 250 years of black history, from her kitchen table and challenges the vestiges of chattel slavery with the gospel of Christ. She writes, ‘When I pause and think over the hard punishments of the slaves by the whites, many of whom professed to be Christians, I am filled with amazement … We know we have passed from death unto life because we love the brethren.’ Albert didn’t have a title in the academy or church but, like many women in our congregations, she bleeds Bible.” – Nana Dolce, writer, Bible teacher, and instructor for The Charles Simeon Trust
“As a professor of theology and director of Wheaton College’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics, Vincent Bacote has facilitated many opportunities for evangelicals to thoughtfully engage around issues of discipleship, politics, and culture. He’s been faithfully and fruitfully plugging away at Wheaton … for more than 20 years.” – Ed Gilbreath, executive editor at InterVarsity Press
“Brian Bantum, a theology professor formerly at Seattle Pacific University, now at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, has helped stretch and deepen the study of race and culture as it shapes and is shaped by our expressions of Christianity. His books Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity (Baylor University Press, 2010) and The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial World (Fortress Press, 2016) are both refreshingly bold in their honesty and insight.” – Ed Gilbreath
Charles Octavius Boothe and Eric Watkins
Charles Octavius Boothe, born into slavery in Alabama in 1845, became a Baptist pastor and the author of a book on Christian doctrine that was reprinted in recent years by Lexham Press. Eric Watkins is a current pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and a homiletics scholar. “The gospel of Jesus Christ lives best on the ground, among regular folk, living the grinding vicissitudes of daily life. Eric Watkins’ The Drama of Preaching: Participating with God in the History of Redemption and Charles Octavius Boothe’s Plain Theology for Plain People both explore that practical sweet spot where ethics and epistemology meet for God’s called-apart people. Though they wrote more than a century apart, both ‘make it plain’ by connecting Scripture, story, identity, purpose, and action that’s useful for anyone teaching God’s Word—whether in private discipleship or in public proclamation.” – K. A. Ellis, director of the Edmiston Center for the Study of the Bible and Ethnicity at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) Atlanta
Keith Augustus Burton
Keith Augustus Burton, a religion professor and director of the Center for Adventist-Muslim Relations at Oakwood University, wrote The Blessing of Africa: The Bible and African Christianity. Burton’s research “traces the story of biblical Africa and the place of the Bible in the land of Ham” and focuses on “the relevance of the biblical narrative for African Christians as well as Scripture’s influence on African Christianity.” Reading his book helped reveal how “we can’t understand our faith without the centrality of Africa,” said Ralph Basui Watkins, associate professor of evangelism and church growth at Columbia Seminary.
Kelly Brown Douglas
Kelly Brown Douglas is the canon theologian at the Washington National Cathedral and dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. One of the first 10 black women to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church, she is known for her writings on womanist theology, sexuality, and racial justice. “It was Douglas who allowed me to say that my Christ was and is black. Douglas’s book The Black Christ gave me permission to call my Jesus what and who he is. He was African, he was black, and he is still African and black to me today,” said Ralph Basui Watkins.
Over his 50-year career in ministry, Carl Ellis has pastored and taught at several churches and seminaries, currently serving as senior fellow of the African American Leadership Initiative for the Reformed Theological Seminary. His books Beyond Liberation: The Gospel in the Black American Experience and Free at Last?: The Gospel in the African-American Experience were among the top titles recommended by recommended by Mark Croston, national director of black church partnerships at LifeWay Christian Resources. Croston also listed authors Howard Thurman, J. Deotis Roberts, James Cone, Thabiti Anyabwile, and Dwight N. Hopkins, advising fellow Christians to “read theologians you agree with and some you we may not agree with. Reading theology is like eating fish. Enjoy the meat and avoid getting choked by the bones.”
K. A. Ellis
K. A. (Karen) Ellis is an advocate for global religious freedom and currently serves as director of the Center for the Study of the Bible and Ethnicity at the RTS Atlanta. “My older brother sent me a recording of Karen speaking on the impact of Phillis Wheatley, one of the first African American missionaries. From that point on, I was intrigued and wanted to know who this woman was. As I began to listen to more of her work, it was refreshing to hear a black woman speak so passionately about the needs of the persecuted church and educating on African American missionaries. Having served on the mission field and typically being one of the only women of color, this was refreshing. Karen’s teachings spurred me to dig deeper to learn more about the rich heritage of African American missionaries and their contributions,” said Jennifer Lucy Tyler, author and missionary
Cain Hope Felder
Cain Hope Felder, the longtime Howard University School of Divinity professor who published the Original African Heritage Study Bible, died last year and is remembered for highlighting the role of black people in Scripture. “There were and continue to be a relatively small number of African American biblical scholars. I had few role models, and so I sought out Dr. Felder during my time in DC as a pastor who was also doing PhD studies. Dr. Cain personally encouraged me in my academic pursuits and helped legitimize African American hermeneutics,” said Dennis R. Edwards, associate professor of New Testament at North Park University.
Bruce L. Fields
The author of Introducing Black Theology: Three Crucial Questions for the Evangelical Church, Bruce Fields teaches biblical and systematic theology, specializing in the book of Philippians and liberation and black theology. “Fields was the first African American faculty member at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, hired while I was a student there. He struggled to challenge evangelicalism while modeling personal faith in Jesus and high regard for the Scriptures,” said Dennis R. Edwards.
Lisa Fields is the founder of the Jude 3 Project, an apologetics ministry designed for black believers. Last year, Fields released Through the Eyes of Color, a curriculum addressing common apologetics questions. “Her work to cast a contemporary vision for black apologetics is bold and innovative. Her Courageous Conversations events, which bring together black scholars from a broad range of theological perspectives, offer a dynamic model of gracious and productive theology in action,” said Ed Gilbreath.
Revolutionary War-era pastor Lemuel Haynes is remembered as the first black man ordained as a preacher in the United States, where he led mostly white congregations in New England during his 40-year ministry career. He was Calvinist like fellow African American authors of that era, turning to God and his providence. “As a pastor, Haynes seemed always to be possessed with thoughts of the welfare of his congregation. Their salvation was paramount. His sermons made explicit the centrality of the cross of Christ and were rich in both theological instruction and practical application for his hearers,” wrote pastor and author Thabiti Anyabwile.
Fannie Lou Hamer
“A poor, sharecropping black woman is not who many first think of when they imagine a ‘theologian,’ but that is exactly who and what Fannie Lou Hamer was. Although her formal education stopped at sixth grade, she learned theology in the worn wooden pews of rural black Baptist churches and at the feet of her mother. She employed her knowledge of the Bible to develop a sophisticated political theology that led her to become one of the most notable activists in the civil rights era. Hamer’s combination of courage in the face of racism and faith in God inspire my own efforts for racial justice today.” – Jemar Tisby, founder of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective
Robert E. Hood
Robert E. Hood was a theologian and historian specializing in race and religion. Ordained in the Episcopal Church, he was an assistant to Desmond Tutu in the mid-1980s, a professor at General Theological Seminary, and director of the Center for African American Studies at Adelphi University. He wrote Must God Remain Greek?: Afro Cultures and God-Talk and Begrimed and Black: Christian Traditions on Blacks and Blackness. The former was among the works that “pointed me back to Africa as a starting point for my theology and understanding of my faith,” said Ralph Basui Watkins.
Dwight N. Hopkins
A theology professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Dwight N. Hopkins specializes in black theology and liberation theology. He has written or edited more than a dozen books on the topic, with research spanning decades and continents to offer global perspectives on black theological movements. He is known for his multidisciplinary approach and visited Fuller Theological Seminary last year for a lecture “on the tangible lessons from Martin Luther King Jr. on the relationships among race, economic hardship, and theology.” Mark Croston recommended his book Introducing Black Theology of Liberation, which follows the history of black theology.
Known as the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson was a singer involved in the civil rights movement and sang before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “One of my greatest heroes in the faith might not be considered a theologian by our standards, but I believe she was. Mahalia Jackson was a gospel singer and activist who brought sorrows to life and shined bright the glory of Jesus, our only hope. Her words and passion consistently remind me to endure in this Christian faith,” said Trillia Newbell, author and speaker.
Willie James Jennings
Willie James Jennings teaches systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale Divinity School and is known for his award-winning book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race as well as a commentary on Acts. He is in the midst of a project on the intersection between race, Christianity, and private property. “His thorough scholarship sets an example for all of us,” said Dennis R. Edwards.
Donald H. Matthews
A writer and researcher in the areas of African American religion, social ethics, and pastoral care, Donald H. Matthews is the author of Honoring the Ancestors: An African Cultural Interpretation of Black Religion and Literature as well as multiple works focusing on economic and sexual abuse in the black church. In Honoring the Ancestors, Matthews analyzes Negro spirituals and black scholarship to showcase the African foundations in African American religious practice. “In Matthew 2, it is recorded ‘that out of Egypt I have called my son.’ Where you start your theological journey shapes how you see the faith. If we start in Europe, we get a mutated form of the faith, and we miss its origin,” said Ralph Basui Watkins.
Benjamin Elijah Mays
“Christians today would benefit from the profound teachings of Benjamin Elijah Mays (August 1, 1894-March 28, 1984). Mays, a Baptist minister and the sixth president of Morehouse College, is attributed as one of the great architects of the civil rights movement and a direct mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. His belief that all people are given a unique assignment from God has helped shape the call of God upon my life and others, to compassionately respond with the prophetic proclamation that redemption, justice, and empowerment is for all people.” – Parnell Lovelace, adjunct professor of African American leadership at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology
Dwight McKissic is senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. “McKissic’s work was incredibly affirming for me as a black girl educated in mostly white Christian schools. His book Beyond Roots: In Search of Blacks in the Bible was a revelation of the fuller story; that God’s redemptive plan has always included people like me. It is a must-read for biblical education and a powerful tool for advocates of biblical justice.” – Dorena Williamson, writer and children’s book author
Love Sechrest, now the vice president of academic affairs at Columbia Theological Seminary, was a longtime professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and served two terms as the Society for Biblical Literature’s cochair for the African American Biblical Hermeneutics section. She is the author of dozens of papers on race and the Gospels, the Pauline Epistles, and Revelation. Her latest book, Negotiating Privilege: Race Relations and the New Testament, will be published by Eerdmans. “Sechrest is a New Testament scholar whose presence and work motivates my efforts,” said Dennis R. Edwards.
Decades after first hearing the call to preach and teach, Mitzi Smith became the first African American woman to earn her doctorate in New Testament from Harvard University in 2006. Since then she has taught and written about the New Testament and early Christianity at Ashland Theological Seminary and Columbia Theological Seminary, penning titles such as The Literary Construction of the Other in the Acts of the Apostles: Charismatics, the Jews, and Women and Toward Decentering the New Testament: A Reintroduction. “Smith is a womanist scholar who teaches me to pay attention to details in biblical texts that I might miss because of my own social location,” said Dennis R. Edwards.
Considered “one of the most influential homileticians of the 20th century” and the “dean of the nation’s black preachers,” Gardner Taylor’s ministry career spanned from the 1930s to his retirement in 1990. He helped found the Progressive National Baptist Convention with Martin Luther King Jr. and faithfully pastored and preached over 2,000 sermons through the decades. At age 93, a few years before his death, he told CT’s Leadership Journal: “Sometimes there are arid stretches where God does not seem real. Our Lord expressed it supremely at Calvary: ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ Over and over again, I’ve experienced that. But if my preaching in those times has had any attractiveness, it has been because people have heard me express what many of them were going through. Often with pain, I might add.” Trillia Newbell said she has recently been reading Taylor’s works; many of his sermon series have been compiled into volumes by year or topic.
“I wish that more Christians knew about, and read, the work of Howard Thurman. His magnum opus, Jesus and the Disinherited, unravels and demystifies much of the white normative construct of Christianity that has been problematic in the US for various reasons. In its pages, Howard recovers the narrative of a marginalized Jesus without political convenience. Yet all people—those who wield power and those without access to power—find themselves challenged by the graphic descriptions of the ‘hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the disinherited,’ and the persistent the ethic of love. Thurman’s work, along with others like Kelly Brown Douglas, J. Deotis Roberts, Jacquelyn Grant, and Dwight Hopkins have challenged my embedded understanding of God, and helped me begin to see the expanse of the image and the kingdom of God.” – Dwight A. Radcliff Jr., director of the William E. Pannell Center for African American Church Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary
CT has featured additional figures in African American church history in the list below: