Monday, February 25, 2013

The first African American biblical scholar? Lemuel Haynes and 1 Cor 7:21

Lemuel Haynes
Image from Wikipedia

February is Black History Month in the USA and as such I have, in the past, tried to offer some blog posts that contribute to the history of African Americans in Biblical studies. This year I would like to highlight the contribution of  Lemuel Haynes, an 18th century preacher who offered some thoughts on one of the most notoriously difficult passages in the New Testament.

1 Corinthians 7:21 has the distinction of being one of the few passage in which Paul directly addresses slaves. The passage holds another distinction. It is one of the more difficult passages to translate and interpret. It appears that Paul left his thoughts incomplete. In 7:21 he says, “Were you a slave when called? Do not worry about it. But if you are able to become free mallon chrāsai [rather use (it)].” Translators and interpreters have all asked the same question: use what? The direct object of chrāsai is ambiguous and requires translators to make a choice. Did Paul mean that those who had become Christians while slaves should use their slavery, that is refuse the chance to become free? Did he mean that slaves should use their freedom? Or did he mean he wanted slaves to continue to use their calling by God?  ‘Slavery,’ ‘freedom’ and ‘calling’ are each an important part of Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor 7:17-24, and a case can be made for each term to fill in Paul’s incomplete thought.

While African American academic interpretations of Paul and slavery are more recent, they are not completely absent in history. One of the earliest comes from Lemuel Haynes who was born in 1753, the child of a white mother and a black father. After serving a period of indentured servitude, he received training for the ministry, including Latin and Greek, from two Connecticut clergymen and was ordained in 1780. Interestingly, Haynes spent nearly 30 years as the pastor of white congregations in eighteenth century New England.

Of the numerous sermons and treatises written by Haynes that have been preserved, one entitled Liberty Further Extended (circa 1776) is of particular interest. Although Haynes was not known as a commentator on race relations, he was an opponent of slavery as the document makes clear. In the undated manuscript, Haynes provides political, theological and moral arguments against the institution of slavery. One of the theological arguments is (to the best of my knowledge) the earliest extant exegesis of 1 Cor 7:17-24 by an African American.

But you will say that Slave-keeping was practiced Even under the Gospel for we find paul, and the other apostles Exhorting Servants to be obedient to their masters. to which I reply, that it mite be they were Speaking to Servants in minority in General; But Doubtless it was practiced in the Days of the Apostles from what St. paul says, 1. Corin 7 21. Art thou called, being a servant? care not for it; but if thou mayest Be made free, use it rather. So that the Apostle seems to recommend freedom if attainable, q.d. “if it is thy unhappy Lot to be a slave, yet if thou art Spiritually free Let the former appear so minute a thing when compared with the Latter that it is comparatively unworthy of notice; yet Since freedom is so Excelent a Jewel, which none have a right to Extirpate, and if there is any hope attaining it, use all Lawful measures for the purpose.” So that however Extant or preval[e]nit it mite Be in that or this age; yet it does not in the Least reverse the unchangeable Laws of God, or of nature;

It is not clear whether Haynes’s exegesis is a product of his theological training, his own investigations into 1 Cor 7:17-24 or both. Whatever the case, it is clear that Haynes has articulated one of the main interpretations supported by NT scholars even up until the present. By acknowledging the fact that slavery existed in antiquity while focusing on the importance of being ‘spiritually free,’ Haynes promoted a Stoic interpretation of slavery and anticipated NT scholars who would later portray Paul in a philosophical manner. Haynes’s conclusion that only legal means should be used to gain freedom and his seeming unwillingness to challenge the fact of slavery in antiquity or his own contemporary setting may be a result of his own privileged existence in revolutionary New England (that is, in comparison to enslaved blacks). But the importance of Haynes contribution cannot be overstated. He represents an early (perhaps the earliest) attempt by an African American to engage the enigmatic apostle of freedom, Paul, and interpret his statements on slavery while living in the midst of a slaveholding society. Unfortunately, Haynes also represents a single voice that was heard among the many that were forcibly silenced by a slaveholding society. 

For more on African American responses to Paul and slavery, see my Recent Research on Paul and Slavery (Sheffield Phoenix, 2008). 

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