What does a German monk nailing a long list of complaints on a church door have to do with an African American ministering in a small, international Caribbean island? Luther’s world and my own couldn’t be farther apart it seems.
But on closer inspection, I would not be in Cayman if it were not for that massive Christian church split some 500 years ago. I’ve been thinking a lot about church splits lately… and this one I am quite thankful for. I could wish that the result had been sweeping reform in the Roman Catholic Church. But failing that, I’m thrilled for the recovery of the Gospel.
If there had been no recovery of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—the grand promise of justification in the sight of God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone—I and most African-Americans and Caribbean peoples would likely be utterly and eternally lost today.
The greatest miracle of the Reformation is that enslaved Africans heard, above the din of rattling chains and the back-slashing crack of whips, the free Gospel call at the hands of slave traders and many less-than-heroic gospel preachers in the plantation south. That untutored Africans, imprisoned in a foreign land and surrounded by hostile wilderness, heard with clarity the learned oracles of Christ, were spiritually set free, and found the glorious banks of Zion is astounding!
However crude, however hampered by their conditions, however assaulted and persecuted by white brothers and sisters in Christ, the Reformation found expression among African descended peoples. There was every earthly reason why it should not have happened. But the one heavenly reason why it should – justification by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone – prevailed even among the meanest slaves of the south and the Caribbean.
You see… this gospel truly makes everything level at the foot of the cross. The conversion of African Americans and Afro-Caribbean peoples proves this. Despite caste and castigation, slaves came to Jesus! It’s inexplicable apart from the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Why would the master’s Master become the Master of the mastered? Because He is Master of all.
Clifton Johnson’s classic collection of slave conversion stories, God Struck Me Dead, makes the point in the slave's own words. One slave recalled:
I saw in a vision, myself in two bodies, a little body and an old body. My old body was dangling over hell and destruction. A voice said to me, “My little one, I have cleansed you of all iniquity. By grace are you saved and it is not of yourself but the gift of God. Weep not, for you are a new child. Abide in me and you need never fear.” I looked in the distance and saw the rejoicing and singing.
I know that I have been dug up and made alive and my soul made satisfied. (God Struck Me Dead, p. 48).
The slave understood God’s sovereignty in election (and all things for that matter) in a way that many of us still fail to grasp:
He (God) spoke to me once after I prayed and prayed trying to hurry Him and get a religion. He said, ‘I am a time-God. Behold, I work after the counsel of my own will and in due time I will visit whomsoever I will (p. 7).
Another convert tells a similar story: “I began to pray for my soul more and more and began to hurry God. He gave me the gift in His own time. He was drawing me all the time but I didn’t know it” (p. 41).
They knew the sovereign election of sinners in their own experience:
I was born a slave and lived through some very hard times. If it had not been for my God, I don’t know what I would have done. Through His mercy I was lifted up. My soul began singing and I was told that I was one of the elected children and that I would live as long as God lives (p. 23; emphasis added).
“How can we find God? God has a chosen people. He has always had a chosen people and He calls whomsoever He wills. Any child who has been born of the spirit, knows it for he has felt His power, tasted His love and seen the travail of his soul.”
“After I passed through this experience (a vision of Jesus and the city) I lost all worldly cares. The things I used to enjoy don’t interest me now. I am a new creature in Jesus, the workmanship of His hand saved from the foundation of the world. I was a chosen vessel before the wind ever blew or before the sun ever shined.
“Religion is not a work but a gift from God. We are saved by grace and it is not of ourselves but the gift of God” (p. 57).
These are the testimonies of field hands at the twilight of chattel slavery. To these we could add the more educated voices of Jupiter Hammon, Lemuel Haynes, Phillis Wheatley and country preacher Joseph Bayesmore (Weldon, NC) and a host of others. As John Saillant put it: “the Calvinism provided the deepest structuring elements of their thought.”
The miracle is that the Reformation Gospel came to African America and the Caribbean.
The work that’s left before us is to recapture it and to reform our churches according to the Word of God. There’s much to celebrate this Reformation Day… and much work to be done once the celebration is over.