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While researching an article on National Baptists for the January issue of Baptists Today, I ran across a historical vignette that has the rare quality of incorporating both pain and delight.

Prior to the Civil War, many African American Baptists were attracted to the gospel, and particularly to the individual-respecting Baptist version of it. Unfortunately, few were allowed to build or control their own churches: most were members of white-owned and operated churches. And, even though they often outnumbered white members by a substantial margin, they had few rights.

In the early nineteenth century, it was customary to practice church discipline more frequently than now, often for offenses such as drinking to excess or dancing.

For slaves, one could also be disciplined for talking out of school or demonstrating a lack of due respect to those who ran the church.

In 1807, in the Elkhorn Baptist Church in Kentucky, a slave woman named Winney was brought up for discipline in church conference. Charges were brought against her “for saying she once thought it her duty to serve her Master & Mistress but sine the Lord converted her, she had never believed that any Christian kept Negroes or Slaves,” and secondly, “For saying she believed there was Thousands of white people Wallowing in Hell for their treatment to Negroes – and she did not care if there was as many more” (cited by Bill Leonard, Baptist Ways, p. 264).

The motion was referred to the next meeting, and I don’t know how the case was eventually resolved. It’s hard to imagine the pain felt by the woman known to us as Winney, what it was like to be surrounded by people who preached freedom in Christ and who claimed to possess Christian love, and yet kept her and millions of her kindred in cruel bondage.

Slavery is not the issue most Christians face today, at least in American, but we still confront the confusing picture of people who speak much of love, but show little respect toward those who disagree with them.

I can’t agree with Winney’s sentiment that they deserve to be “wallowing in hell,” but I have to admire the spunk she showed in speaking truth to power. Time has proven that the might of her oppressors did not make them right.

Long may Winney’s spirit live.

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