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  • Micah Lang

Church & state: lessons from America’s first black pastor

Lemuel Haynes

As unfortunate as it is that so few Christians know his name, Lemuel Haynes is often regarded as one of the unsung heroes of the Christian faith. A native New Englander at the time of the American Revolution (in which he fought), Haynes exhibited a unique aptitude for study and theology. In 1780, he became the first African-American to be ordained. In 1804, he became the first African-American to receive an honorary Master’s degree from an American institution. His ministry was long, faithful, and, by any earthly measure, effective for the work of the gospel in New England.

Haynes was devoted to the doctrines of grace and Reformed theology and quickly became an effective defender of orthodoxy. However, he also wrote much on the topic of slavery in America as well as the topic of Christians in the political arena. His heart and mind were fixed on eternity and the responsibility of all people to live in light of that glorious future. His words are as timely now as they were then. He had much to say about the relationship of the Church to government.

1. The Bible must be the rule for all good civil government

In his day, there was a push to build up the rule of law in America’s infancy without reference to the scriptures. To Haynes, this was a hopeless endeavor. For him, the great commandments (to love God and love each other) were the basis for all biblical law and should therefore be the basis of all civil law. He believed that a contempt for the Bible would soon be partnered with “domination, anarchy, and immorality” in the political sphere (The Influence of Civil Government on Religion, 1798). In truth, he believed that a love for scripture led to a love for good civil government. This is a good challenge for those of us that prefer to see these as unrelated and distinct issues.

2. The Church must encourage civil obedience when possible

Despite coming from a family of slavery and his opposition to the institution itself on gospel grounds (See The Gospel and Slave-keeping, 1776), Haynes passionately advocated for churches to be “subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work, to speak evil of no man,” and for “ministers of the gospel to enforce obedience to the laws of the state” (The Government and Religion Stand Together, 1798). Haynes believed that one could both be subject to God and earthly authorities he had appointed. The heart of this was submission to God’s sovereignty over all authority, the necessity of living at peace with all men, and being a proper witness to the gospel. Civil disobedience was reserved for only the gravest of situations.

3. The Church must discuss political issues

There were also those in his day that believed Churches should refrain from addressing issues that had political relevance. Haynes clearly rejected this notion. He did believe that vocational ministers should devote themselves entirely to the church they were called to and not also take up political office; however, he saw it as a divine responsibility for ministers to speak up on issues that were political and had clear biblical basis. “But when in their view they see a nation going to destruction, is it their duty to be silent?” (The Gospel Ministry and Politics, 1814). Haynes believed the War of 1812 was an unjust war and spoke out boldly against it from the pulpit. In fact, he often used the OT prophets of positive examples of God’s “watchmen” to be used to speak on relevant issues that affected the political sphere. There is understandable hesitation for pastors in our world today to turn to political matters; however, those of us who are ministers of God’s Word must bring the Word to bear on the situations and decisions that affect our people. To do otherwise would be unfaithful.

“They must cry aloud, spare not, and lift up their voice like a trumpet and show people of every name, [political] party, or description their transgressions and their sins, as they would escape eternal damnation.”

Lemuel Haynes (TGMP, 1814)

4. The Church must use means to promote biblical justice and righteousness

Being one of the Reformed tradition (which holds aloft the sovereignty of God over all things) did not mean for Haynes that the Church should not avail herself of the means it had to affect change in the social sphere. In fact, “faith in divine purposes will excite the people of God to the diligent use of means, as He has appointed them as instruments by which He will accomplish His designs and has commanded them to be workers together with Him” (Confiding in God’s Government and the Use of Means, 1805). He pointed to biblical examples such as Moses being rescued from the edict of Pharaoh and then appealing in Pharaoh’s court for the rescue of God’s people. It is a “delight” for God’s people to publicly express their obedience to him through the means he has provided. So, as we have the ability to affect change in our culture, we should seek to do so in a way that moves civil matters closer to the biblical picture. For Haynes, it was often fear or laziness that kept Christians from working hard to transform culture.

5. The Church must trust in the sovereignty of God in all things pertaining to the government

Although Christians had some work to do in the social sphere, Haynes believed that the Christian must always do so with peace and joy in the sovereignty of God. After all, it is God who appoints all who come to power and it is God who must work in the hearts and systems of the government to align with his will. There is no room for complaining or bitterness or unrest in the Church, even when faced with an evil government. It is a “cheerful” work for God’s people to work towards affecting change when they are “seeking the same glorious ultimate [objective] as Him” (CGGUM, 1805). In this sense, the Church must never lose heart but boldly picture the gospel and proclaim the gospel in their world, knowing that God’s plan is never thwarted and he will always use his people to accomplish it.

“The humble Christian will feel his own weakness and insufficiency to do anything of himself and will see that all his sufficiency is of God, and his faith and hope will rest on His power and providence to do all–which will be a motive to diligence.”

Lemuel Haynes (CGGUM, 1805).

These are much-needed exhortations for the church today. If we truly believe the gospel, we will walk boldly in the peace that comes from resting in God’s sovereign will while also speaking, doing, and living in ways that affect change in our world for the gospel (even in the political sphere). To follow Christ requires nothing less.

For an introduction to Lemuel Haynes, see May We Meet in the Heavenly World: The Piety of Lemuel Haynes (edited & introduced by Thabiti M. Anyabwile)

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