On the Mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

Jun 16, 2023

On Monday, we celebrate Juneteenth, a federal holiday which commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans.

Some of you know that my Ph.D. dissertation focused on questions of racial identity and justice. The first chapter of that dissertation in particular looked at the history of slavery and racial injustice in this country, and examined the church’s relationship to that history. Thankfully, at times, the church was a powerful force in resisting slavery and racial injustice. Regrettably, at other times, the church supported and upheld the institution of slavery and the performance of racial injustice.

One of the most significant things I discovered during my research was how often those who supported the institution of slavery felt that, in order to do so, they had to refuse or limit slaves’ access to the Bible. A striking example of this was given by Whitemarsh Seabrook, a South Carolina State Senator, who said from the floor of the South Carolina state senate: “anyone who wanted to acquaint the slave with the whole Bible was fit for ‘a room in the Lunatic Asylum.’”[1] In other words, Seabrook (and others like him) feared that if slaves learned to read the Bible for themselves, they might encounter on their own ideas that could disrupt the order around which the slave state was organized––not least, the idea of their own independent status and worth in the eyes of God.

I wonder how that fear strikes you.

For me, it leads me to ask a question I might commend to all of us this Juneteenth. If these pro-slavery advocates believed that the totality of the Bible–that the full witness of the Christian faith–would be dangerous to their cause, it begs the question: Do those who perpetuate racial injustice today see us as dangerous? Do they fear that we will upend the systems and the structures that allow racial injustice to continue?

Because, if they do not see us as dangerous, then it may also be worth asking: Are we really taking the “whole Bible” seriously? Or else, are we practicing a truncated version of the Christian faith?



[1] Janet Duitsman Cornelius, When I Can Read My Title Clear: Literacy, Slavery, and Religion in the Antebellum South (South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1991), 40-1.