The Sunday-school And Church As A Solution Of The Negro Problem
BY D. WEBSTER DAVIS, D. D.
of Richmond, Virginia
[Note 35: Delivered at the International, Interdenominational
Sunday-school Convention, Massey Hall, Toronto, Canada, June 27, 1905.]
If I were asked to name the most wonderful and far-reaching achievement
of the splendid, all-conquering Anglo-Saxon race, I would ignore the
Pass of Thermopylae, the immortal six hundred at Balaklava, Trafalgar,
Waterloo, Quebec, Bunker Hill, Yorktown, and Appomattox; I would forget
its marvelous accumulations of wealth; its additions to the literature
of the world, and point to the single fact that it has done the most to
spread the religion of Jesus Christ, as the greatest thing it has
accomplished for the betterment of the human family.
The Jews preserved the idea of a one God, and gave the ethics to
religion--the ten commandements, the Lord's Prayer, and the Sermon on
the Mount; the Greeks contributed philosophy; the Romans, polity; the
Teutons, liberty and breadth of thought; but it remained to the
Anglo-Saxon implicitly to obey the divine command: "Go ye into all the
world, and preach the Gospel to every creature."
If some man would ask me the one act on the part of my own race that
gives to me the greatest hope for the Negro's ultimate elevation to the
heights of civilization and culture, I would not revel in ancient lore
to prove them the pioneers in civilization, nor would I point to their
marvelous progress since Emancipation that has surprised their most
sanguine friends, but I would take the single idea of their unquestioned
acceptance of the dogmas and tenets of the Christian religion as
promulgated by the Anglo-Saxon, as the highest evidence of the future
possibilities of the race.
Ours was indeed a wonderful faith that overleaped the barriers of
ecclesiastical juggling to justify from Holy Writ the iniquitous traffic
in human flesh and blood; forgot the glaring inconsistencies of a
religion that prayed, on Sunday, "Our Father which art in heaven," and
on Monday sold a brother, who, though cut in ebony, was yet the image of
the Divine. The Negro had in very truth,
"That faith that would not shrink,
Tho' pressed by every foe;
That would not tremble on the brink
Of any earthly woe.
That faith that shone more bright and clear
When trials reigned without;
That, when in danger, knew no fear,
In darkness felt no doubt."
If it is indeed true that "by faith are ye saved," not only in this
world, but in the world to come, then God will vouchsafe to us a most
It is my blessed privilege to-night, while you are pleading for the
"Winning of a generation," and at this special session for "the relation
of the Sunday-school to missions, both home and foreign," to plead for
my people, and my prayer is that God may help me to make my plea
effective. For the people for whom I plead are bone of my bone and flesh
of my flesh. I plead for help for my own bright-eyed boy and girl, and
for all the little black boys and girls in my far-off Southern home.
If the great race problem is to be settled (and it is a problem,
notwithstanding all that has been said to the contrary), it is to be
settled, not in blood and carnage, not by material wealth and
accumulation of lands and houses, not in literary culture nor on the
college campus, not in industrial education, or in the marts of trade,
but by the religion of Him who said, "And I, if I be lifted up, will
draw all men unto Me." These things are resultant factors in the
problem, but the problem itself lies far deeper than these.
Calhoun is reported to have said, "If I could find a Negro who could
master the Greek syntax, I would believe in his possibilities of
development." A comparatively few years have passed away, and a Negro
not only masters the Greek syntax, but writes a Greek grammar accepted
as authority by some of the ablest scholars of the States. But Abbe
Gregori of France published, in the fifteenth century, "Literature of
the Negro," telling of the achievements of Negro writers, scholars,
priests, philosophers, painters, and Roman prelates in Spain, Portugal,
France, Italy, Holland, and Turkey, which prompted Blumenbach to
declare it would be difficult to meet with such in the French Academy;
and yet, literature and learning have not settled the problem. No, the
religion of Jesus Christ is the touchstone to settle all the problems of
human life. More than nineteen hundred years ago, Christ gave solution
when he said, "Ye are brethern," "Love is the fulfilling of the law,"
and "Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to
Is the Negro in any measure deserving of the help for which I plead? The
universal brotherhood, and common instincts of humanity should be
enough. I bring more. Othello, in speaking of Desdemona, says, "She
loved me for the dangers I had passed, I loved her that she did pity
me." If pity and suffering can awaken sympathy, then we boldly claim our
right to the fullest measure of consideration. Two hundred and fifty
years of slavery, with all its attendant evils, is one of our most
potent weapons to enlist sympathy and aid.
I come with no bitterness to North or South. For slavery I acknowledge
all the possible good that came to us from it; the contact with superior
civilization, the knowledge of the true God, the crude preparation for
citizenship, the mastery of some handicraft; yet, slavery had its side
of suffering and degradation. North and South rejoice that it is gone
forever, and yet, many of its evils cling to us, like the Old Man of the
Sea to Sinbad the sailor, and, like Banquo's ghost, they haunt us still.
As I stand here to-night, my mind is carried back to a plantation down
in "Old Virginia." It is the first day of January, 1864. Lincoln's
immortal proclamation is a year old, and yet I see an aunt of mine, the
unacknowledged offspring of her white master, being sent away from the
old homestead to be sold. The proud Anglo-Saxon blood in her veins will
assert itself as she resists with all the power of her being the
attempts of the overseer to ply lash to her fair skin, and for this she
must be sold "Way down Souf." I see her now as she comes down from the
"Great House," chained to twelve others, to be carried to Lumpkin's jail
in Richmond to be put upon the "block." She had been united to a slave
of her choice some two years before, and a little innocent babe had been
born to them. The husband, my mother with the babe in her arms, and
other slaves watch them from the "big gate" as they come down to the
road to go to their destination some twenty miles away. As she saw us,
great tears welled up in her big black eyes; not a word could she utter
as she looked her last sad farewell. She thought of one of the old
slave-songs we used to sing in the cabin prayer-meetings at night as we
turned up the pots and kettles, and filled them up with water to drown
the sound. Being blessed, as is true of most of my race, with a splendid
voice, she raised her eyes, and began to sing:
"Brethren, fare you well, brethren, fare you well,
May God Almighty bless you until we meet again."
Singing these touching lines she passed out of sight. More than forty
years have passed, and she and her loved ones have never met again,
unless they have met in the Morning land, where partings are no more.
For the sufferings we have endured, leaving their traces indelibly
stamped upon us, I claim your aid that we may have for our children this
blessed Gospel, the panacea for all human ills.
The Negro has elements in his nature that make him peculiarly
susceptible to religious training. He stands as a monument to
faithfulness to humble duty, one of the highest marks of the
Christ-life. He is humble and faithful, but not from cowardice, in
evidence of which I recall his achievements at Boston, Bunker Hill, New
Orleans, Milikens Bend, Wilson's Landing, and San Juan Hill.
He fought when a slave, some would say, from compulsion, but would he
fight for love of the flag of the Union? God gave him a chance to answer
the question at San Juan Hill. The story is best understood as told to
me by one of the brave 9th Cavalry as he lay wounded at Old Point
* * * * *
Up go the splendid Rough Riders amid shot and shell from enemies
concealed in fields, trees, ditches, and the block-house on the hill.
The galling fire proves too much for them and back they come. A second
and third assault proves equally unavailing. They must have help. Help
arrives, in the form of a colored regiment. See them as they come, black
as the sable plume of midnight, yet irresistible as the terrible
cyclone. As is the custom of my race under excitement of any kind, they
are singing, not
"My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of Liberty,
Of thee I sing,"
though fighting willingly for the land that gave them birth; not, "The
Bonnie blue flag," though they were willing to die for the flag they
loved; they sing a song never heard on battle-field before, "There's a
hot time in the old town to-night." On they come, trampling on the dead
bodies of their comrades; they climb the hill. "To the rear!" is the
command. "To the front!" they cry; and leaderless, with officers far in
the rear, they plant the flag on San Juan Hill, and prove to the world
that Negroes can fight for love of country.
They were faithful to humble duty in the dark days of the South from
1861 to 1865. When Jefferson Davis had called for troops until he had
well-nigh decimated the fair Southland, and even boys, in their devotion
to the cause they loved dearly, were willing to go to the front, my
young master came to my old mistress and asked to be allowed to go.
Calling my Uncle Isaac, my old mistress said to him, "Isaac, go along
with your young Mars Edmund, take good care of him, and bring him home
to me." "I gwy do de bes I kin," was his reply. Off these two went, amid
the tears of the whole plantation, and we heard no more of them for some
time. One night we were startled to hear the dogs howling down in the
pasture-lot, always to the Southern heart a forewarning of death. A few
nights thereafter, my mother heard a tapping on the kitchen window, and,
on going to the door, saw Uncle Isaac standing there--alone. "What in
the world are you doing here?" was the question of my mother. "Whar's
mistis'?" was the interrogative answer. My mother went to call the
mistress, who, white as a sheet repeated the question. "Mistis', I done
de bes' I could." Going a few paces from the door, while the soft
southern moon shone pitilessly through the solemn pines, he brought the
dead body of his young master and laid it tenderly at his mother's feet.
He had brought his dead "massa" on his back a distance of more than
twenty miles from the battle-field, thus faithfully keeping his promise.
Such an act of devotion can never be forgotten while memory holds its
sacred office. Not one case of nameless crime was ever heard in those
days, though the flower of the womanhood of the South was left
practically helpless in the hands of black men in Southern plantations.
"But as a faithful watch-dog stands and guards with jealous eye,
He cared for master's wife and child, and at the door would lie,
To shed his blood in their defense, 'gainst traitors, thieves, and knaves,
Altho' those masters went to fight to keep them helpless slaves."
Some have claimed that, instead of putting so much money in churches,
the Negro, after the war, should have built mills and factories, and
thus would have advanced more rapidly in civilization; but I rejoice
that he did build churches, and to-day can say that of the three hundred
millions he has accumulated, more than forty millions are in church
property in the sixteen Southern States. This shows his fidelity and
gratitude to God, and that by intuition he had grasped the fundamental
fact that faith and love and morality are greater bulwarks for the
perpetuity of a nation than material wealth; that somehow he was in
accord with God's holy mandate that "man does not live by bread alone."
Guided by a superior wisdom, he first sought the kingdom of heaven, and
it does seem that "all these things" are slowly being added to him.
Education and wealth, unsanctified by the grace of God, are after all,
curses rather than a blessing. We are to rise, not by our strong bodies,
our intellectual powers, or material wealth, although these are
necessary concomitants, but by the virtue, character, and honesty of our
men and women.
We are proud of our 30,000 teachers, 2,000 graduated doctors, 1,000
lawyers, 20,000 ordained ministers, 75,000 business men, 400 patentees,
and 250,000 farms all paid for, as evidences of our possibilities, but
proudest of the fact that nearly three millions of our almost ten
millions of Negroes are professing Christians. It is true that the black
man is not always the best kind of a Christian. He is often rather crude
in worship, with a rather hazy idea of the connection between religion
and morality. A colored man, on making a loud profession of religion,
was asked if he were going to pay a certain debt he had contracted,
remarked, "'Ligun is 'ligun, an' bisnes' is bisnes', an' I aint gwy mix
um," yet I am afraid ours is not the only race that fails to "mix um,"
and he does not have to go far to find others with advantages far
superior to his, who have not reached the delectable mountain. We, like
others, are seeking higher ground, and some have almost reached it.
Thank God we can point to thousands of Negro Christians whose faith is
as strong as that of the prophets of old, and whose lives are as pure
and sweet as the morning dew.
Our greatest curse to-day is the rum-shop, kept far too often by men of
the developed and forward race to filch from us our hard earnings, and
give us shame and misery in return. And a man who would deliberately
debauch and hinder a backward race, struggling for the light, would "rob
the dead, steal the orphan's bread, pillage the palace of the King of
Kings, and clip the angels' pinions while they sing."
Right by the side of this hindrance, especially in the country
districts, is our ignorant, and, in too many cases, venial ministry, for
ignorance is the greatest curse on earth, save sin. The Sunday-school is
destined to be the most potent factor in the removal of this evil. As
our children see the light as revealed in the Sunday-school by the
teachers of God's word, they will demand an intelligent and moral
ministry and will support no other. Let me say to you that there is no
agency doing more in that absolutely necessary and fundamental line than
this God-sent association.
Wherever your missionaries have gone, there have been magical and
positive changes for good, and the elevating power of this work for us
can never be told. God bless the thousands of Sunday-school teachers
whose names may never be known outside their immediate circles, and yet
are doing a work so grand and noble that angels would delight to come
down and bear them company.
There is a beautiful story told in Greek mythology that when Ulysses was
passing in his ship by the Isle of the Sirens, the beautiful sirens
began to play their sweetest music to lure the sailors from their posts
of duty. Ulysses and his sailors stuffed wax in their ears, and lashed
themselves to the masts that they might not be lured away; but, when
Orpheus passed by in the search of the golden fleece and heard the same
sweet songs, he simply took out his harp and played sweeter music, and
not a sailor desired to leave the vessel. The sirens of sin and crime
are doing all in their power to lure us from the highest and best things
in life. Wealth, education, political power are, after all, but wax in
the ears, the ropes that may or may not hold us to the masts of safety;
but that sweeter music of the heart, played on the harp of love by the
fingers of faith will hold us stronger than "hoops of steel." Let the
great Sunday-school movement continue to play for us this sweeter music,
and no sirens can lure us away from truth and right and heaven. The
mission that will be of real help to us will be the mission dictated by
love, for no race is more susceptible to kindness than ours. It must be
undertaken in the spirit of the Master who said, "I call ye not
servants, for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth; but I have
called you friends." The Negro loves his own and is satisfied to be with
them, and yet, the man who would really help him must be a man who has
seen the vision. Peter was unwilling to go to the Gentiles, being an
orthodox Jew, until God put him in a trance upon the house top, let down
the sheet from heaven with all manner of beasts, and bid him rise up,
slay, and eat. Peter strenuously objected, saying, "Lord, I have touched
nothing unclean." But God said, "What I have cleansed, call thou not
unclean." Then Peter said, "I see of a truth that God is no respector of
persons, but has made of one blood all men to dwell upon all the face of
I pray, I believe, that you have seen this vision, and in this spirit
have come to help us. Sir Launfal, in searching for the Holy Grail,
found it in ministering to the suffering and diseased at his own door.
Ye who are in search of God's best gift can find it to-day in lifting up
these ten millions of people at your door, broken by slavery, bound by
ignorance, yet groping for the light. If we go down in sin and
ignorance, we can not go alone, but must contaminate and curse millions
unborn. If we go up, as in God's name we will, we will constitute the
brightest star in your crown. What religion has done for others, it will
do for us. See the triumphs of King Emanuel in Africa, Burmah, China,
and the isles of the sea. It was Christianity that liberated four
millions of slaves, and brought them to their better position. Christian
men, North and South, are helping them to-day. We could not rise alone.
* * * * *
Has the Negro made improvement commensurate with the help he has
received from North and South? I believe he has, and that each year
finds him better than the last. Good Dr. Talmage was visiting a
parishioner when a little girl sat on his knee. Seeing his seamed and
wrinkled face, she asked, "Doctor, did God make you?" "Yes," was the
reply. Then, looking at her own sweet, rosy face in a glass opposite,
she asked, "Did God make me, too?" "Yes." "Did God make me after he
made you?" "Yes, my child, why?" Looking again at his face and hers,
she said, "Well. Doctor, God is doing better work these days."
God bless our mothers and fathers; no nobler souls ever lived under such
circumstances; but God has answered their prayers, and with the young
folks will do better work. The convention helps us to help ourselves,
the only true help, and in this the conveners are investing in
soul-power that pays the biggest dividends, and its bonds are always
redeemable at the Bank of Heaven.
In a terrible storm at sea, when all the passengers were trembling with
fear, one little boy stood calm and serene. "Why so calm, my little
man?" asked one. "My father runs this ship," was the reply. I have too
much confidence in what religion has done and too much faith in what it
can do, to be afraid. "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world."
Let each do his part to help on the cause.
"There is never a rose in all the world
But makes some green spray sweeter;
There is never a wind in all the sky
But makes some bird's wing fleeter;
There is never a star but brings to earth
Some silvery radiance tender,
And never a sunset cloud but helps
To cheer the sunset's splendor.
No robin but may cheer some heart,
Its dawnlight gladness voicing;
God gives us all some small sweet way
To set the world rejoicing."
America, I believe, is destined of God to be the land that shall flow
with milk and honey, the King's Highway, when the "ransomed of the Lord
shall return and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their
heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and mourning shall
I see gathered upon our fair western plain nations of all the earth. The
Italian is there and thinks of "Italia, fair Italia!" The Frenchman
sings his "Marsellaise." The solid, phlegmatic German sings his "Die
Wacht am Rhein." The Irish sing "Killarney" and "Wearin' the Green"; the
Scotchman his "Blue Bells"; the Englishman, "God save the King!"; the
American, the "Star-spangled Banner." God bless the patriot, but the
ultimate end of all governments is that the Kingdom of Christ may
prevail. One towering Christian man thinks of this, and seeing a black
man standing by without home or country remembers that "all are Christ's
and Christ's is God's." He swings a baton high in air and starts a grand
hallelujah chorus. Forgot is all else as the grand chorus, white and
black, of every age and every clime, sing till heaven's arches ring
again, while angels from the battlements of heaven listen and wave anew
the palm-branches from the trees of paradise, and the angels' choir that
sang on the plains of Bethlehem more than nineteen hundred years ago
join in the grand refrain,
"All hail the power of Jesus' name,
Let angels prostrate fall;
Bring forth the royal diadem,
And crown him Lord of all."
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