Why a Black Preacher’s Fiery Sermon at a White Church Received a Lasting Tribute

Image of the Week: This painting commemorates a key moment in the life of minister and activist Lemuel Haynes.

American. Lemuel Haynes preaching, circa 1835-40. Painted tray, oil paint on papier-mâché, 65.3 cm. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence. Bequest of Miss Lucy T. Aldrich.

One of the first to systematically critique prevailing opinions about race and slavery, Haynes turned his zealous, scholarly study of divine Scripture in a new, pragmatic direction. Unlike Whitefield, who actually owned slaves, Haynes could not find the slightest justification for black slavery in either biblical Testament. He refuted the commonly held belief, for instance, that blacks were descended from Canaan, the cursed grandson of Noah. Throughout his ministry, Haynes often addressed the issues of slavery and race from the pulpit or in print.

In some respects, his views resembled those of contemporary black abolitionists and activists such as Richard Allen of Philadelphia. Like Allen, Haynes strongly opposed the repatriation of black Americans to Africa, feeling that both races should live in harmony within the same community.

For Allen, however, the issue of segregation of the races within his church led to a much more radical course of action. In 1792, just a few years after Haynes began his long ministry in Vermont, Allen, together with his fellow preacher Absalom Jones and others, walked out of the mostly white St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia after they had been admonished to restrict themselves to the balcony. The disturbing incident led them to found their own, more truly inclusive congregations.

Haynes steadfastly maintained his commitment to the white Congregational Church, though not without negative consequences. In 1818, at nearly 65 years of age, he was asked to leave his ministry in Rutland. The changing political and religious climate was less sympathetic to his vision of a nation governed by Christian principles. In his own mind, Haynes wondered if race hadn’t played some role in his dismissal as well. He moved to the town of South Granville, N.Y., in 1822, where he continued preaching until his death more than 10 years later.

With the emergence of more radical assaults on slavery and other pressing issues facing black people in the United States, the spirited pastor was viewed both as a paragon of mediation but also as an uneasy reminder that true acceptance within the American caste system had become little more than a dream deferred.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

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