By Elijah Zehyoue
Recently, I was in Colonial Williamsburg with the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty Inaugural Fellows Program. As a BJC Fellow, we got to spend the week learning about early America, religious liberty and, of course, Baptist heritage.
Colonial Williamsburg is dedicated to preserving, as best it can, the traditional culture and feel of colonial times. One of the primary ways it does this is through “interpreters” who portray major colonial figures. Our group had the wonderful opportunity to meet with Gowan Pamphlet’s interpreter.
Born a slave in Virginia in 1748, Gowan was owned by Mrs. Jane Vobe, the owner of the King’s Arms tavern. As a barkeep in Williamsburg, Gowan got to know the slaves of other colonial leaders and the leaders themselves very well. In early 1776, Gowan (still a slave), like many others, came across Thomas Paine’s powerful pamphlet Common Sense. Gowan was said to be so encouraged by Paine’s deeply held opposition to slavery and strong advocacy for religious liberty, both expressed in the pamphlet, that he made Pamphlet his surname.
Around the same time that powerful pamphlet was being circulated, Baptists and the other religious dissenters were being persecuted. One of those persecuted was an itinerant (traveling) black preacher, Moses, who, like Great Awakening revivalist George Whitfield, preached equality for all before God. Pamphlet ultimately followed Moses into the ministry and became one of the first black ordained ministers in America. He founded the African Baptist Church, the only Baptist church in Williamsburg for many years.
I share the story of Pamphlet for two reasons. Pamphlet and many other blacks during his time, slave and free, have been forgotten from history. Their stories have been left out even though they have left primary source writings for us to study. Pamphlet was surrounded by and reflected upon the many forces in early American history and should be known generally for his important contributions and access to history.
The second reason I share this story is because Pamphlet’s life teaches us that Baptist values and social justice go back to the beginning of our shared life in America. Pamphlet first began to think seriously about freedom through his interactions with Baptist preachers and leaders. Pamphlet developed a relationship with John Leland, who attended his ordination, and other Virginia Baptists who were both anti-slavery and staunch advocates of religious liberty. As Baptists today, we need to remember this history of Pamphlet, John Leland and the other Baptists who advocated broadly and specifically for social justice. Baptist emphasis on religious liberty has often led to Baptist involvement in social justice.
Much like in Pamphlet’s day, we are living in revolutionary times and are experiencing paradigmatic shifts. Some historians remark that the world looks vastly different today than it did even at the end of the 20th century. Our country has made incredible leaps and bounds on marriage equality, religious freedom and racial justice. But at the same time, not enough has actually changed for those who still live at the bottom and on the margins of society. The lack of specific progress for these people cannot and should not be overlooked by any but especially not by those of us who call ourselves Baptist.
The Black Lives Matter movement is an opportunity for Baptists of all shapes and sizes, races and nationalities to answer the call. Specifically, however, this is an opportunity for white Baptists to look into their heritage and proudly stand upon the shoulders of the greats like Gowan Pamphlet and John Leland and boldly march into a future that proclaims specifically black lives matter, too.
All around our country this year, young activists have pointed out the unconscionable deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of police and other agents of the state. These activists have protested and marched in almost every major American city and have highlighted the specific brutality toward black people in these places in their many forms. These activists have plastered the names of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Scott Dubose and the literally thousands of others through social and mainstream media.
But somehow all of their activism, all of their brilliant media strategies, all of the attention that this is getting nationally and internationally seem to be doing very little to make the lives of actual black people better. In fact, many of us feel worse and more discouraged. That is to say, despite all of the attention on the Black Lives Matter movement, it still feels like police brutality toward blacks is staying the same or even on the rise. It seems as though our activism is being ignored. It seems as though our hope — that if others only knew about the reality of the terror and brutality we really face it would compel them to be allies of action — also seems to be founded upon very little.
Why is that? Is it because not enough people have seen the video of Sam Dubose getting shot in the head? Is it because black people haven’t proved beyond a reasonable doubt that we shouldn’t have to be exceptional people to deserve basic human and civil rights? I think the real reason we are stuck in this place is that despite black people’s legitimate best efforts, not enough white people actually care about the movement or black lives in general.
Now, I know this seems harsh, but how are black people to feel when we are quite reasonably advocating that our lives should matter and our sacred institutions are shot up, burned and defaced with Confederate flags? How are black people to feel otherwise when we pour out our hearts, wail in the streets, passionately tell our stories and then reach into the very depths of our Christian convictions to forgive the people who terrorize us in the hope that our goodwill will engender compassion but instead only hear people say that we are responsible for how we’ve been violated? How are black people to respond when we try to tell our stories to reasonable and moderate white people but are greeted with apathy at best and resistance and opposition at worst?
It is soul crushing, existentially agonizing and spiritually exhausting to live in the most free, most progressive and most advanced country in the most free, most progressive and most advanced time in the history of our world and still feel like you and your race do not matter!
As I drove out of Colonial Williamsburg that Sunday morning, I left realizing that a pamphlet, like a hashtag and a preacher, has power to make the world better. I left with an odd sense of admiration for the founders and their lesser-known Baptist associates, who through pamphlets and preachers were willing to advocate for their own freedoms and speak boldly on behalf of others. I left thinking that maybe what we need today are Baptists like Gowan Pamphlet and John Leland who are inspired to rise above their times, look deep into their heritage and live boldly on behalf of their posterity and say that black lives have mattered before, and it is only common sense that we must embody what is necessary for them to matter again!