(RNS) — Frederick Douglass called the Bible one of his most important resources and was involved in Black church circles as he spent his life working to end what he called the “peculiar institution” of slavery.
Harriet Tubman sensed divine inspiration amid her actions to free herself and dozens of others who had been enslaved in the American South.
The two abolitionists are subjects of a twin set of documentaries, “Becoming Frederick Douglass” and “Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom,” co-productions of Maryland Public Television and Firelight Films and released by PBS this month (October).
“I think that the faith journey of both Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were a huge part of their story,” Stanley Nelson, co-director with Nicole London of the two hourlong films, said in an interview with Religion News Service.
“Religion for both Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass was the foundation in many ways of who they are.”
Stanley Nelson. Photo by Corey Nickols
The films, whose production took more than three years in part due to a COVID-19 hiatus, detail the horrors of slavery both Tubman and Douglass witnessed. Tubman saw her sister being sold to a new enslaver and torn away from her children. A young Douglass hid in a closet as he watched his aunt being beaten. They each expressed beliefs in the providence of God playing a role in the gaining of their freedom.
Scholars in both films spoke of the faith of these “original abolitionists,” as University of Connecticut historian Manisha Sinha called people like Tubman, who took to pulpits and lecterns as they strove to end the ownership of members of their race and sought to convince white people to join their cause.“The Bible was foundational to Douglass as a writer, orator, and activist,” Harvard University scholar John Stauffer told Religion News Service in an email, expanding on his comments in the film about the onetime lay preacher. “It influenced him probably more than any other single work.”
Frederick Douglass, circa 1847-52. Photo by Samuel J. Miller, courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago Stauffer said the holy book, which shaped Douglass’ talks and writings, was the subject of lessons at a Sunday school he organized to teach other slaves.
“It’s impossible to appreciate or understand Douglass without recognizing the enormous influence the Bible had on him and his extraordinary knowledge of it,” Stauffer added.
Actor Wendell Pierce provides the voice of Douglass in the films, quoting him saying in an autobiography that William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly abolitionist newspaper The Liberator “took a place in my heart second only to the Bible.”
The documentary notes that Douglass was part of Baltimore’s African Methodist Episcopal Church circles that included many free Black people. Scholars say he met his future wife Anna Murray, who encouraged him to pursue his own freedom, in that city.
“The AME Church was central in not only creating a space for African Americans to worship but creating a network of support for African Americans who were committed to anti-slavery,” said Georgetown University historian Marcia Chatelain, in the film.
The Douglass documentary is set to premiere Tuesday (Oct. 11) on PBS. It and the Tubman documentary, which first aired Oct. 4, will be available to stream for free for 30 days on PBS.org and the PBS video app after their initial air dates. After streaming on PBS’ website and other locations for a month, the films, which include footage from Maryland’s Eastern Shore where both Douglass and Tubman were born, will then be available on PBS Passport.
Poster for “Becoming Frederick Douglass.” Courtesy image
Poster for “Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom.” Courtesy image
The Tubman documentary opens with her words, spoken by actress Alfre Woodard.
“God’s time is always near,” she says, in words she told writer Ednah Dow Littlehale Cheney around 1850. “He set the North Star in the heavens. He gave me the strength in my limbs. He meant I should be free.”
Tubman, who early in life sustained a serious injury and experienced subsequent seizures and serious headaches, often had visions she interpreted as “signposts from God,” said Rutgers University historian Erica A. Dunbar in the film.
Portrait of Harriet Tubman taken in Auburn, New York. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress. The woman known as “Moses” freed slaves by leading them through nighttime escapes and later as a scout for the Union Army in the Civil War.
“She never accepted praise or responsibility, even, for these great feats,” Dunbar said. “She always saw herself as a vessel of her God.”
But, nevertheless, praise for Tubman came from Douglass, who noted in an 1868 letter to her that while his work was often public, hers was primarily in secret, recognized only by the “heartfelt, ‘God bless you’” from people she had helped reach freedom.
Nelson, a religiously unaffiliated man who created films about the mission work of the United Methodist Church early in his career, said the documentary helps shed light on the importance faith held for Tubman.
“It’s something that most people don’t know and so many people who see the film for the first time are kind of surprised at that,” he said in an interview. “She felt she was guided by a divine spirit and the spirit told her what to do.”
In today’s economy, we hear a lot about the financial struggles of the country. But while we often debate issues of white-collar economics, the struggles of lower-income groups are disparaged.
It is nearly impossible for the average blue-collar worker to make a living wage to support her family. In most states, minimum wage is well below the living wage (there is a big difference) for most households.
There are serious consequences of this disparity. Workers skip meals so that their children may eat. Folks turn to loan sharks to make ends meet, which entrenches them in a spiral of debt. Families make tough choices to cut out “non-essentials” like medicine, clothing, and nutritious food.
When folks are desperate for work, they will endure any number of abuses or indignities. A friend of mine spends an hour on the bus to get to a potential job, only to arrive and find out he isn’t needed that day. Sometimes he’s able to work for a couple of hours, but then gets sent home. “Try again tomorrow.” And if he doesn’t show up for that chance, he knows he’ll lose the opportunity for later.
Or conversely, employees will be held at work hours after their shift is over, if that is what boss deems necessary. My neighbor needs to be able to be home when her kids arrive from school. But when her boss holds her late, she doesn’t dare risk losing her job by leaving at the scheduled time. And she is required to maintain open availability to be placed in a shift as is convenient for the company, but she is not told the schedule until the last minute, and so cannot arrange for child care or line up other jobs.
It also happens that workers are paid less than what they were promised. Or are given insufficient training and made to feel like fools when they don’t perform to standards. And yet, as more states put an end to collective bargaining, the wealthy receive a smaller tax burden now than they have in the last 80 years.
Take a close look at the words of Jeremiah 22:13-16. Woe to we that profit from injustice and gain economic security at the expense of others! We “who make our neighbor serve us for nothing and do not give them their wages.” Jesus himself urges that “the workers deserve their wages.”
Part of our problem is that we have a warped perspective of economic reality. Particularly since housing in the United States is largely segregated by economic standing, people look around themselves and feel that, on the whole, there is equal opportunity and prosperity for everyone.
Last year, PBS NewsHour conducted an informal survey, asking people to identify the sort of economy that exists in the United States. The findings were telling. Watch the segment below.
Also, in his ever-insightful way, Jon Stewart points out the huge economic disparities that most folks gloss over. His analysis of Warren Buffet’s crusade to close the wealth gap is both humorous and sadly revealing.
For even more insight, I recommend Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, or play this excellent interactive game to see what economic choices you would make given some stark realities about your circumstances. (If you do play, please share your thoughts about the experience in the comments section below.)
There’s obviously much more to this issue than I’m able to address in a brief blog post, but the important thing is having frank and honest conversations about the unjust situations around us. We may not be able to immediately see the inequalities in our midst due to our own privileged positions, but it won’t be long before those realities affect our own situations. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remarked in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail“:
All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
AMERICA’S FIRST LADY: Michelle Obama dancing with her husband at President Obama’s inaugural gala on January 20, 2009. A new book shares the history of her multiracial family tree.
While Alex Haley’s groundbreaking book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, may have not been the first attempt to bridge history from the coasts of Africa to American slavery to modern-day life in America, it certainly galvanized widespread interest in African Americans tracing their roots back to their enslaved ancestors and beyond. Since then, scholar and educator Henry Louis Gates Jr. has become Haley’s heir apparent, generating new interest in tracing roots with the additional tool of DNA testing with his PBS show African American Lives and most recently Finding Your Roots. Finally, the proliferation of genealogical research websites such as Africanancestry.com has also made genealogical research more accessible than ever before.
With the scrutiny of the lineage of the nation’s first black president who has more of a direct connection to Africa than many African Americans, very little attention was paid initially to the lineage of Michelle Obama. However, Mrs. Obama’s lineage is likely more representative of average African Americans who may know some of the history of their grandparents in America but have little knowledge of their connection to their enslaved roots or African beginnings. In 2009, a genealogist discovered that Michelle Obama was the great-great-great granddaughter of Melvinia Shields (a former slave) and a white man. New York Times reporter Rachel L. Swarns wrote about the discovery and was later convinced to expand the article into her new book American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama. Swarns traces the ancestry of Mrs. Obama all the way to Clayton County, Georgia, where I have lived for several years.
Earlier this summer, Clayton County officials unveiled a monument dedicated to Melvinia Shields in Rex, Georgia, where Melvinia lived when she gave birth to Mrs. Obama’s great-great grandfather Dolphus Shields. Both black and white family members took part in the ceremony, although Mrs. Obama was not present. While Mrs. Obama declined to be interviewed for the book (as a policy, she is not interviewed for any books, Swarnes said), Swarnes interviewed Mrs. Obama’s family members including her aunt, uncle and others and explained just how all of these people, both black and white, spanning several states, are related. In fact, she traced Mrs. Obama’s maternal and paternal roots, spinning a rich history that is surprisingly relevant today.
One of the book’s recurring themes is how tenuous civil rights can be, particularly for American black people. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, during the era of Reconstruction, blacks were given unprecedented freedom and access to representation in government, both locally and nationally. Jefferson Long became the first black man to represent Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served less than three months before leaving his seat in 1871. Swarnes noted that it would be over a century before another African American represented Georgia again as segregationists and Ku Klux Klan members began implementing schemes and laws rescinding the rights of African Americans. In 1908, “blacks were effectively barred from the ballot box altogether when whites amended the state constitution to require voters to pass a literacy test and own property. … They also had to own forty acres of land or property valued at $500.” As I read example after example of civil rights reversals, I was reminded of the contemporary controversy surrounding the recent implementation of voter ID laws throughout the country that many believe will effectively disenfranchise black voters. In fact, Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network launched a “Voter Engagement Tour” this summer to travel to various states where new voter ID laws have been enacted to educate voters about their full rights.
With all the debate about marriage, whether it’s for white people or gay people or any people, I was interested in how marriage was presented Swarnes’ book. A successful marriage has always been a difficult feat, though there is a tendency to romanticize the marriages of yesteryear. Dolphus Shields was married four times. Fraser Robinson II, Mrs. Obama’s paternal grandfather, left his wife and children in Chicago after nearly seven years of marriage around 1941. In fact, when he enlisted in the Army on March 26, 1941 at 28 years old, he was described as “separated without dependants.” He did, however, ultimately reconcile with his wife around 1950. Mrs. Obama’s maternal grandparents Purnell Shields and Rebecca Jumper Coleman separated after having seven children. The couple lived separately, blocks away from one another in Chicago, although they never divorced.
The black church and the historical impact of religion were also apparent in this work. What has been deemed as “Christian” has certainly changed throughout history. In the 1800s, “one Methodist minister told his congregation that ‘catching and returning runaway slaves to their masters is a Christian duty binding upon any church members.’” I wonder if the church (First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs in Mississippi) that recently refused to allow a black couple to get married at their church would have supported such a stance had it been in existence then. Dolphus Shields, who was a deacon, helped to found Trinity Baptist Church and another church in Birmingham, Alabama, that still exists today. Lavaughn Johnson, for whom the First Lady is named (her full name being Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama), was deeply religious, becoming the first African American woman to manage a Moody Bible bookstore.
As I read American Tapestry, I considered how genealogy is also a persistent theme in the Bible. The lineage of Jesus included Rahab the prostitute, King David the adulterer, the less-than-supermodel Leah, the wise King Solomon, Joseph the dreamer and many other interesting people. Slavery, wars, famine, government takeovers, and more served as backdrops. I believe genealogy in the Bible, as it does in American Tapestry, demonstrates that human beings are essentially the same from generation to generation despite modern innovations, shifting cultural sensibilities and evolving laws through the years. As there is nothing new under the sun, we will always need a Savior to help us resist temptation to be inhumane toward each other and achieve our highest human good. Remembering from whence we came as individuals, families, and nations can help remind us that we’re all part of an evolving legacy of human struggle, hope, and redemption.
What is tithing? And do most Christians practice it in the correct way? Journalist Douglas LeBlanc traveled across the country to speak to people about the spiritual discipline of financial giving, and how today’s churches get it right — and wrong.
Churchgoers know it’s time to dig a little deeper into their pockets when the pastor announces his annual series on stewardship or starts to extend his offertory prayers. The “offering” has become an important part of Christian worship, but many of us don’t understand the difference between tithing and charitable giving. In his new book, Tithing: Test Me in This, journalist Douglas LeBlanc sheds light on the ancient practice of Christian giving by taking readers on a pilgrimage across the United States to meet a variety of people who have made tithing an central part of their spiritual lives. Though some debate the validity of the concept of tithing, and whether it was strictly an Old Testament practice, LeBlanc was more interested in showing how this spiritual discipline of deliberate giving can transform ordinary lives. He recently spoke to UrbanFaith about the subject of his book.
URBAN FAITH: Very simply, what is tithing?
DOUGLAS LEBLANC: To my mind, tithing is giving 10 percent of your income to the church where you worship God week after week. Some people like to count donations to all nonprofits as part of their tithe. That’s a more easily achievable definition of tithing, but it’s better than not giving away 10 percent of your income. The one thing I resist strenuously is referring to anything other than giving 10 percent as tithing: “I’m tithing 4 percent of my income this year.” Words matter, and that’s an abuse of a perfectly clear word.
Does what we do in our churches each week during offering time resemble anything that happened in the early church? How has the practice of corporate giving evolved through the years?
I’m afraid my book does not explore the evolution of giving, other than through a few quotations from the early church. Consider this from the Didache, which may have been written before A.D. 150 and is quoted by leaders in the fourth century:
Do not be one who stretches out the hands to receive but withdraws them when it comes to giving. If you earn something by working with your hands, you shall give a ransom for your sins. You shall not hesitate to give, nor shall you grumble when giving, for you will know who is the good paymaster of the reward.
What we have in most churches today is a formal opportunity to give. Some pastors whom I spoke to for the book, such as Jerald January of Vernon Park Church of God on the South Side of Chicago, have done away with a designated time for collecting offerings. I think it’s outstanding if a congregation supports the church without a formal offering, but I am not bothered by churches that collect the offering with more ritual. In my church, the choir sings some of its loveliest hymns during the offertory.
What are some of the most fascinating stats or findings about tithing in American churches that you discovered during your research?
What’s most fascinating to me is how low the level of giving is. Read any of the annual surveys by empty tomb, inc., and you’ll have to fight away sadness with a baseball bat. The founders of empty tomb, inc., John and Sylvia Ronsvalle, drove it home for me when I visited them in Champaign, Illinois. John Ronsvalle has calculated that a serious work of world evangelism would cost $182 million, which translates to about 2 cents per day from churches that clearly identify themselves as evangelical. Are we anywhere near achieving that goal? No.
I once heard a youth leader point out that the average congregation spends more on air conditioning than on youth ministry. I think you could replace “youth ministry” with any number of categories and still make that statement. I love air conditioning as much as the next guy — probably more, being a son of southern Louisiana — but surely we can do better than this in our church budgets.
More personally, when I take an honest look at what I spend on cable TV, books, broadband access, magazines, two pet cats, travel, and computers, my stewardship begins to look paltry. I try to remind myself regularly that, by the terms of history or the terms of how most people live in this world, I am among the remarkably wealthy by virtue of living in the United States. I try to let that inspire more generosity rather than guilt and self-loathing.
You interviewed various pastors and Christian leaders regarding the practices of tithing and giving. What were the most surprising things that you discovered as you spoke to different people?
What I greatly enjoyed was meeting several people on the Christian left who tithe. I’ve been a cultural and theological conservative for most of my adult life, and I’ll admit to making many glib assumptions about people on the other side of the aisle. As I traveled to various states to interview people, I saw just how much the basic discipline of tithing transcends so many political differences. Tithing even cuts across vast differences in theology. Tithing becomes a quiet rallying point for people who realize that serious Christian faith makes demands of you. Jesus does not settle for whatever kindness that comes naturally to us.
I also loved the drama of interviewing Randy Alcorn, who considers tithing as the training wheels one uses on the way toward real giving. Randy is a full-throttle Christian, and I find it humbling to spend time with people who submit so much more of their lives to God than I manage on so many days.
What is typically the trend with giving in the church during tough economic periods like the one we’re currently experiencing? Have you observed anything unique about this latest economic crisis?
Based only on my own observations, I believe many of us see giving to our church as part of our discretionary income, something that we would cut sooner than other outlets of discretionary income, such as dining out, entertainment, or vacations. I am horrified, more often than not, at how self-indulgent I can be on any given day, so I’m not arguing that tithing is the line of demarcation between holiness and sin. For those of us who do not struggle with much economic uncertainty, tithing is the beginning of Christian stewardship, rather than some Mt. Everest that only a select few would think of scaling.
Still, I also strive to remember the deeply pastoral perspective I heard from Ron and Arbutus Sider, two of the great champions of living more simply. “It’s an Old Testament principle that makes enormous sense, and it’s a great starting point,” Ron told me. “I wouldn’t say to a desperately poor single mom, ‘You’ve got to tithe or you’re disobeying God.'” Arbutus added: “It’s perfectly fine for impoverished people to give 2 or 3 or 5 percent.”
A recurring question that you hear a lot about tithing is whether it’s 10 percent off your gross or net income. What have you come to believe about that one?
I like the cleanness of tithing off my gross income, because income is income, even if it is taxed or allotted to a medical savings account before I receive a pay stub. Still, a tithe from a net income is better than no tithe at all. I think the biblical principle of giving with a cheerful heart should inform that choice.
There are so many perspectives and theologies out there about Christian giving, everything from prosperity teaching to pooling your resources and living in an intentional community.
I consider prosperity theology entirely bad news. It helps us confuse what we need and what we want. Worse, it tries to conceal carnal materialism in pious clothing. It turns prosperity into a sick measure of God’s favor, or of the authenticity of a person’s Christian faith.
Of course God does not want people living in poverty, but throughout Scripture the emphasis is not on blaming people for their afflictions. If anything, Scripture indicts those of us who are healthy and wealthy if we do not try to share what we have with those who have less. If a prosperity theologian had told Jesus’ parable about Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man would rebuke Lazarus for not having sufficient faith to claim the riches that are his as a King’s Kid.
Living in an intentional community is a noble sacrifice, and I have great affection for people who do it, especially long term. One thing is also clear: Living in community is exceptionally difficult, and many communities simply fall apart over time because they cannot resolve the conflicts that arise when people live in that sort of emotional and spiritual hothouse. Few people are truly called to that life, and still fewer can make it work over many years. God bless those who can do it. Those few who argue that all true Christians should live such a life will soon enough find their idealism challenged by hard experience.
So, what do you think is the most biblical approach for Christians to take?
I consider the tithe my starting point. After that, there’s no shortage of other opportunities to give: natural disasters in impoverished nations; a friend or relative in an emergency; sponsoring a child through a relief and development agency; volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. As a shy person, I find it too easy to write a check rather than making myself vulnerable among the poor. I struggle against that, though, and when I relax enough, God sends moments of grace.
I once encountered a poor woman in Minneapolis and we spent about an hour together, talking and walking on a chilly day. She told me about being kicked out of her house by a heartless son. I bought her coffee and a piece of pie. She helped me find a better corner for catching a taxi to the airport. I prayed with her before we separated. I told her that our encounter reminded me of Hebrews 13 (“Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it”). As I paraphrased it, she completed the sentence with me. It was eerie and I spent the rest of the trip home feeling unduly blessed.
I don’t see any one perspective on giving as the most biblical, except perhaps that Jesus calls us to be generous because generosity is at the heart of the Holy Trinity. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus represent the most extravagant act of generosity in all of history.
What do you think is the biggest misconception that American Christians have about giving?
Many Americans seem to believe we are somehow doing God a favor by giving even token money to the church by tossing $5 or $10 into the collection plate every week or two. God does not need our money, but he wants our hearts and souls. If our love for God does not lead us to a greater generosity with our time, talent and treasure, perhaps it’s time to stoke the fires of that love again.
And what are we generally doing right?
My sense, and perhaps it’s just wishful thinking on my part, is that thousands of churches are doing exceptionally creative works of mercy and hospitality with the resources they have, whether they’re storefronts or megachurches. It’s easy to take shots at Willow Creek or Saddleback, but both of those churches are deliberate about helping struggling people, whether they’re on the West Side of Chicago or across the world in Rwanda.
One of the sweetest films I’ve ever seen is a PBS documentary, Let the Church Say Amen, which depicts the small, struggling World Missions for Christ in Washington, D.C. I had never heard of this church before, and I doubt that it ever will be known widely. The film left me with an abiding sense of God’s presence, because Pastor Bobby Perkins Sr. was there to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. I expect there are far more churches like that throughout the country, both in inner cities and in tiny towns.
With all the Abraham Lincoln buzz this month, in commemoration of our 16th president’s 200th birthday, every night brings something new to watch. Tonight, we’re looking forward to catching scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Looking for Lincoln on PBS. From the look of the previews, it promises to be a fascinating documentary. Here’s what media columnist Richard Prince had to say about it at his blog: (more…)