Honoring Godly Heroes
America’s Godly heritage has been under assault in recent years. Secularist spokesmen claim that America was created as a secular nation by secular individuals who intended that it always remain secular. These individuals understand that by destroying the knowledge of America’s religious heritage, it is easier to persuade subsequent generations to embrace secularism. Interestingly, this religious cleansing has no racial boundaries. An examination of the individuals often honored during February’s “Black History Month” (celebrated nationally since 1976) shows that the secularization of America’s history
Is directed against all Godly heroes, no matter their skin color. Therefore, to introduce Americans to little-known heroes, this WallBuilder Report will honor three famous Godly Black Americans all but ignored by today’s secularists: Benjamin Banneker, Phillis Wheatley, and Richard Allen.
Benjamin Banneker was born a free Black on a tobacco plantation near Baltimore in 1731. Although he received little formal education (his grandmother taught him to read), this was no handicap to a man with his work ethic and his intense desire to learn. In fact, his life was characterized by his passion for knowledge.
For example, in his early twenties, after studying the workings of a pocket watch, Banneker built a perfectly operating wooden clock that even struck on the hour! Although he loved to read, he was in his thirties before he was able to purchase his first book – a Bible (Banneker frequented the meetings of the Quakers throughout his life). By the time he was in his fifties, he had so completely mastered the science of astronomy through self-study that he was even able to point out errors in several noted scientific works of the day. And when he was in his sixties, because of his fame and reputation, he was picked as one of seven surveyors to lay out the District of Columbia – the new capitol city.
In the early 1790s, Banneker began to publish an almanac for Maryland and neighboring states. His work was in high demand because of his accurate predictions for sunsets, sunrises, eclipses, weather conditions, and even for his calculation of the recurrence of locust plagues in seventeen year cycles. At his death in 1806, he had actually lived eight years longer than he had calculated, and this is often referred to as the only time he made a mistake in his calculations! The knowledge he acquired by his study of the heavens earned him the title of “Star Gazer.”
Of all of Banneker’s writings, one of his most notable was a 1791 letter to Secretary-of-State Thomas Jefferson:
Sir, I am fully sensible of the greatness of the freedom I take with you on the present occasion; a liberty which seemed scarcely allowable when I reflect on that distinguished and dignifed station in which you stand, and the almost general prejudice which is so prevalent in the world against those of my complexion. . . .
I hope I may safely admit, in consequence of the report which has reached me, that you are a man far less inflexible in sentiments of this nature than many others; that you are measurably friendly and well-disposed towards us; and that you are willing to lend your aid and assistance for our relief. . . .
[Y]our sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are that one universal Father hath given being to us all; that He hath . . . made us all of one flesh . . . and that however variable we may be in society or religion, however diversified in situation or in color, we are all of the same family and stand in the same relation to Him. . . .
[I]t is the indispensable duty of those who . . . profess the obligations of Christianity, to extend their powers and influence to the relief of every part of the human race from whatever burden or oppression they may unjustly labor under. . . .
I freely and cheerfully acknowledge that I am of the African race, and in that color which is natural to them, of the deepest dye. . . .
[There] was a time when you clearly saw into the injustice of a state of slavery, and. . . . your abhorrence thereof was so excited that you publicly held forth this true and invaluable doctrine, which is worthy to be recorded and remembered in all succeeding ages: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” . . .
I . . . recommend to you and all others to wean yourselves from those narrow prejudices which you have imbibed with respect to [my brethren], and as Job proposed to his friends, “put your soul in their soul’s stead” [Job 16:4]; thus shall your hearts be enlarged with kindness and benevolence towards them. . . .
Your most obedient humble servant, Benjamin Banneker
Jefferson responded to Banneker, telling him that “Nobody wishes more than I do to seek such proofs as you exhibit – that nature has given to our Black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men.”
This wish by Jefferson became reality, for Benjamin Banneker – both during his life and after his death – was held forth as a shining example of the intellectual capacity and the moral uprightness of Blacks, something which was long denied by the pro-slavery advocates of that day.
Phillis Wheatley was born in Senegal, Africa, in 1753. She was kidnapped at the age of eight and sent on a slave ship to Boston. Purchased by a prosperous Boston tailor, John Wheatley, she was trained as a personal servant for John’s wife, Susannah.
Phillis was quick and perceptive, and Susannah and her daughter Mary were drawn in a special manner to Phillis. Susannah considered Phillis a daughter, and Mary treated her like a sister. Both tutored her in the
Scriptures and in morals, and within sixteen months Phillis had so mastered English that she was able to read the most difficult parts of the Bible with ease. Mary then taught Phillis astronomy, geography, ancient history, the Latin classics, and the English poets, all of which Phillis conquered with equal ease. Because of her aptitude for difficult knowledge and her ability as a brilliant conversationalist, Phillis was considered by the Bostonian intellectuals to be a child prodigy.
When she was only thirteen years old, Phillis wrote her first poetic verses; and then three years later, being an admirer of the celebrated Rev. George Whitefield, she authored a special poem about his life. This early interest in poetry continued for the rest of her life, and today Phillis is known as America’s first Black female poet.
In 1771, Phillis became a member of the famous Old South Church. It was later said that “her membership in Old South was an exception to the rule that slaves were not baptized into the church.”
In 1773, her health began to fail. A sea-voyage was recommended, and Mrs. Wheatley promptly saw to it that Phillis was manumitted (freed). Phillis traveled to England, where she was received by British royalty. While abroad, she published her first collection of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
In 1775, while still abroad, and while the siege of Boston was underway in America, Phillis wrote a letter to the new Commander-in-Chief, General Washington, containing a special poem she had written for him:
His Excellency George Washington . . . Thee, first in place and honors, – we demand
The grace and glory of thy martial band Fam’d for thy valor, for thy virtues more, Here every tongue thy guardian aid implore! . . . Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side, Thy every action let the goddess guide. A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, With gold unfading, Washington, be thine. . . .
Washington was touched by the poem; and when Phillis returned to America, Washington invited her to his military camp at Cambridge to honor her before his staff.
Phillis had returned to America when she had learned of the declining health of Mrs. Wheatley, who died shortly after her return. Phillis remained close to the family. She continued her writings and purposed to bring out a second volume of poems to be dedicated to Benjamin Franklin. Misfortune, however, intervened.
In 1778, Phillis married John Peters, a free Black. Although he appeared promising (he was a writer and had studied for the law), his character was deeply flawed: he was slothful, did not provide for his new wife, and failed to give her the care that her delicate health required. He also demanded that she isolate herself from her former friends and even required that she cut off all contact with the Wheatleys. Peters finally deserted Phillis.
Under these circumstances, and only five years after her marriage, Phillis died in obscurity at the age of 30, alone and in poverty, buried in an unmarked grave. Of her three children, two died in infancy, and the third was buried alongside her.
Despite the hardships in her life, Phillis never complained. In fact, she found a silver lining – or rather a Divine one – even in her tragic life of slavery. In her poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” she wrote:
‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too: Once I redemption neither sought nor knew. Some view our fable race with scornful eye, “Their color is a diabolic dye.” Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain, May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
Phillis’ poetry was popular for generations after her death, and she was considered a heroine by those who fought to end slavery. She remains a shining example of a devout Christian, an accomplished poet, and a gracious and kind woman.
Richard Allen was born as a slave to Benjamin Chew in Philadelphia in 1760. While still a youngster, he was sold to a farmer in Delaware. Allen was converted to Christianity by the preaching of the Methodists. His owner (known in Allen’s autobiography as “Stokeley”) was so impressed with Richard’s Godly lifestyle that he permitted the young Allen to conduct services in his home. In fact, Stokeley himself was converted during one of these services, after which he made it possible for Allen to purchase his freedom.
Allen traveled throughout eastern Pennsylvania and neighboring states, using every opportunity to preach the Gospel to both Whites and Blacks. At the meeting of the first general conference of the Methodist Church in Baltimore in 1784, Allen was accepted as a minister.
Allen began to preach regularly at the St. George Methodist Church in Philadelphia. He suggested that Blacks should have a separate place of worship apart from Whites; and although his suggestion was at first resisted, his forceful preaching attracted such a vast number of Blacks to the church that when objections were raised, Allen’s idea of a separate congregation was finally accepted.
In 1787, Allen led in the establishment of an organization known as the “Free African Society,” composed of both Black Methodists and Black Episcopalians. Black churches in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland began to separate from traditional denominations to join this loose-knit society. In 1816, these independent churches merged to become the “Africa Methodist Episcopal Church” (the A. M. E. Church); Allen was chosen as its First bishop.
Allen ministered not only to the spiritual needs of his fellow man, but to his temporal needs as well. For example, when the yellow-fever epidemic ravaged Philadelphia in 1793 (killing over four thousand of the forty-thousand inhabitants), nearly all medical doctors fled the city to save their own lives. One of the few who remained was Dr. Benjamin Rush (signer of the Declaration). Richard Allen worked shoulder to shoulder as a medic with Dr. Rush throughout the danger to aid countless victims in whatever way he could.
In 1794, the year following the epidemic, Allen wrote a compelling work documenting his service during that tragedy: A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia. Allen’s humanitarian service ranks with the most heroic deeds of America’s history.
Allen urged others to humanitarian service whenever possible and in whatever cause. On one occasion, he charged his audience:
Consider, my brethren, that all we have and are is entrusted to us by Almighty God. . . . and to Him we must give an account at the great day of reckoning. . . . Our blessed Lord has not committed His goods to us as a dead stock, to be hoarded up, or to lie unprofitably in our own hands. He expects that we shall put them out to proper and beneficial uses, and raise them to an advanced value by doing good with them as often as we have opportunity.
Allen’s faith shone through in all of his accomplishments, and he openly proclaimed his gratefulness to God:
I believe it is my greatest honor and happiness to be Thy disciple; how miserable and blind are those that live without God in the world, who despise the light of Thy holy faith. Make me to part with all the enjoyments of life; nay, even life itself, rather than forfeit this jewel of great price.
When Allen died in 1831, it was said that the crowd which gathered to honor him “exceeded anything of the kind ever before witnessed in the country.” Richard Allen was described as “a man of deep piety, the strictest integrity, and indomitable perseverance; and his moral influence was unbounded.”
America’s Godly heritage encompasses heroes from many races – a fact both we and our children, regardless of our ethnic roots, must understand. The book of Revelation affirms this fact when it declares:
There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne. . . . They cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God!” Revelation 7:9, 10
The universal truth of Psalm 144:15 has been proven by every historical age and should be remembered at all times – including Black History Month – that “Happy is that people whose God is the Lord!”
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