TRANSCRIPT OF LECTURE, DAY 21
DR. G. HOWARD MILLER
"JESUS IN AMERICAN CULTURE"
UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN
COLLEGE OF LIBERAL ARTS
DEPARTMENT OF HISTORY
OCTOBER 20, 2006
DR. MILLER: Let's steal away to Jesus. You know, Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. Steal away, steal away home. You know that one? Ain't got long to be here. Steal away. Let's talk about slavery and religion and Jesus.
What of Jesus, what of religion in the religious experience of the 4 million slaves in the United States on the eve of the Civil War ‑‑ 4 million. The ancestors of these folk had brought with them from Africa, mostly in the 18th century, the hundreds of religious experiences of Western Africa.
There wasn't just one. There were hundreds of them. Most of these religions were like the Native American religions in one basic way. They were animistic. They were based on the perception ‑‑ very common in the religions of the world, folks ‑‑ that in all of creation, in all of creation, in the elements, in plants and animals there is something called the anima, the spirit.
All of creation is suffused with a spirit, an anima. So they bring with them a heritage, like the Native Americans, of animistic religion. One of the things that we are also learning recently about Native Americans is that maybe as many as 20 percent of them had already experienced in Africa one of the world's great religions. What? Islam.
This is probably the most important thing being discovered. It's real difficult to understand these roots, because they disappeared. But it's becoming clearer and clearer. Folks, Islam had been in Northern Africa since the eleventh century.
It would be strange if they didn't have some experience of it. Well, we're understanding just how wide the experience was. Well, in the late 18th and then particularly in the 19th century the descendants of these black folk from Africa melded all of those experiences: the animistic traditions of the continent maybe with some Islam.
And, folks, they melded that with whatever they found useful in the white man's religion. Not what the white man forced on them, but what they found useful. They had agency for a century in sort of sorting out what they thought about the gospel that was preached to them.
And out of this by the early 19th century emerged something that has come to be called ‑‑ by historians anyhow and apologists ‑‑ the invisible religion of African-Americans, folk Christianity.
Now, not until the first Great Awakening did white Christians begin to take seriously their responsibility for addressing the souls of black folk, the spiritual condition of their slaves. Now, despite what they would say for the record, very few white folk ever could really, truly believe that black people were some sort of animal.
They just simply quite clearly were not. They quite clearly had souls. That being the case, they were in some sense as Christians responsible for them. The evangelical fervor of the Great Awakening, the second Great Awakening, the frontier revival intensified that concern somewhat, but not a whole hell of a lot.
It has been estimated that on the eve of the Civil War perhaps no more than 5 percent of African-Americans were members of a Christian church, no more than 5 percent. Now, slaveholders had fashioned a gospel for the slaves.
What do you think this version of Christianity would focus on? Submission. The "O" word: obedience, lot of Paul, lots of Philemon, lots of God as what? Wrathful?
DR. MILLER: Master. Thank you very much. God as master. And God as the ultimate master has made your masters masters of you. And if that's unjust when will you get your reward for it, for bearing it? When you're dead, ultimately.
Folks, that's actually when all of us get our reward. Now, in the official gospel of submission and obedience, patriarchy, hierarchy preached to slaves virtually nothing was ever said about guess who? Jesus. Jesus is almost entirely absent, because he is a problematical person here, isn't he?
And you know enough about our man now to not have to be told why. Clearly slaves took from this gospel what they wanted and ignored the rest. If you say, How could they believe that, of course they didn't believe it. For instance when the white man told them that their skins, the color of their skins and their servile condition might be the punishment for someone's sin a long time ago, do you really believe that those folks couldn't figure out who the sinner really was in this equation?
Folks, they're human beings just like we. Right? But they lived in a system in which the white man has all of the authority. It is about as complete a system of total control of a servile population as has ever existed in the history of slavery actually.
But they survived. And they survived in part because of our man, because of Jesus and his religion. Now, this gets really complicated, so hang on. The creation of African-American religion is just fascinating actually, because it is so complex.
The first thing to be said about black folks in slavery is that it is clear they identified more with the Hebrews of the Jewish scriptures than they did with the world of the New Testament. For white folk America in the great narrative of history was the promised land.
For white folk America is the promised land of opportunity and rising above yourself. Young people, what was America for the enslaved folk of Africa?
DR. MILLER: Good. It was Egypt. Good for you. Blacks in their religious cosmos resemble Christian Catholics in one way. They created a crowded cosmos. Their cosmos was not full of solus Jesus.
Now, it wasn't populated by all the saints. With whom did they populate their cosmos? What did I saw about identifying with the Hebrews? Abraham. Come on. Who else?
DR. MILLER: Moses. Who else? Joshua. Come on.
DR. MILLER: Daniel, Ezekiel.
DR. MILLER: David. Thank you very much. Little David playing his harp, Joshua fit de Battle of Jericho, and Moses. African-Americans were very familiar with all the themes of the Hebrew people. What are those themes? Bondage, years of bondage.
And what kind of deliverance? It wasn't just deliverance. What was it? The exodus was a huge ‑‑ how did they get out of Egypt, young people? Miraculous, parting the Red Seas, miraculous. Diaspora, what does diaspora mean? Dispersed.
Wilderness, wandering in the wilderness in pain. And then finally deliverance into the real promised land, being with God. But it's more complicated than just identifying with the Hebrew people of the Jewish scriptures.
For in fact Moses ‑‑ African-Americans created in slavery a figure ‑‑ a take on Jesus that is without parallel in the history of Jesus. For they conflated two great people: one from the Hebrew scriptures and one from the Christian scriptures.
From the Christian scriptures of course Jesus. Who from the Hebrew scriptures? Moses, the deliverer. And folks, they never called this figure this. But I do. I call this figure simply Moses Jesus. And they don't ever try to sort them out.
Jesus was also Moses. He was both the deliverer from bondage, he who righted wrongs and brought about justice. But he was also the one who heals sin-sick souls, an ever-present refuge from the trials and miseries of slavery.
Now, hope you can handle this. This is a little far fetched. It's a Miller idea. It occurred to me one night when I was sober, so don't worry about it. Has to do with five. Let's go to Matthew. Who is Matthew's Jesus?
See, you thought you could forget all that crap, right? Uh-uh. Who is Matthew's Jesus? He's the rabbi. He's identified with the Hebrew past and with Moses. How many sermons are there in Matthew? I told you: five.
Can you come up with the number five that relates to Moses? The five books of the scriptures, the Torah, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures. Now, that may be weird, but I don't know. Now, they have a dual image: Jesus, the healer of sin-sick souls who comforts you in things you simply cannot go anywhere else for comfort for.
That sentence had way too many prepositions in it, the prepositions that wouldn't end. Healer of sin-sick souls ‑‑ gentle Jesus, meek and mild, love me; nobody else loves me ‑‑ but who also is Jesus. Jesus as judge, Jesus as righteous judge.
We heard Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle a while ago try to outdo each other singing, Great day. Great day, the righteous are marching. God's going to build up Zion. They're going to come back and judge you. These can be demonstrated in the spirituals.
And I'm going to play at least parts of four of them for you. The spirituals are, along with jazz, probably the most important contributions of African-Americans to America culture. Interesting they're both music.
On the eve of the Civil War I don't know of any spiritual that had been written down. They were part of the oral tradition of African-American culture. This should not surprise us. All right? Now, after the Civil War Yankees came down in the Reconstruction.
And they tried to uplift black folk. They often had a college education. And these people are the ones who transcribed the spirituals. They knew how to write music. And they wrote down the music of the spirituals.
And it's because of these white folk that we know about the spirituals. Now, the spirituals are focused on the life of Jesus. The gospel of the masters talk about Jesus not at all. The spirituals talk about very little else, because Jesus had a rough time of it, folks.
Jesus was hated. He was oppressed. And finally he was slaughtered. They focus on two aspects of Jesus's life, those two points in which he is most vulnerable. What's the first time in which Jesus is most vulnerable?
How about as a baby? They loved to sing about the infancy, the birth of Jesus. Mary had a baby, sweet little Jesus boy. And they focused on the end of his life when he was tragically and fatally vulnerable. The birth, the passion: vulnerability and intensely, painfully, breathtakingly human.
They could identify. Now, I first want to play you at least part of Sweet Little Jesus Boy, lying in a manger. Forgive us for not knowing who you were. You will notice that this song finally talks about both the birth of Jesus and the crucifixion.
You were telling us how to live even you was dying. Forgive us, Lord, for not knowing who you were. We didn't know. This is Ms. Price, Leontyne Price.
(Music was played.)
DR. MILLER: This will be posted on the blackboard. I want to go now to Calvary and They Crucified My Lord. This is a combination of two spirituals: Calvary and They Crucified My Lord. This is of course a contemporary arrangement of it.
It hasn't been sung this way at all. It has an orchestra. But it's just magnificent. This is one of the most effective treatments of the crucifixion of Jesus I think that has ever been written. And when performed by Jessye Norman in this way it's downright scary.
Calvary. Jesus never says a word, a mumbling word as they crucify him. Perseverance, leave it all up to God.
(Whereupon a song was played.)
DR. MILLER: I want you to think of this song as you read the chapter about the death of Uncle Tom. Who can tell me who Marian Anderson was? Anybody? Great African-American contralto of the 1930s and '40s. But she was a black person.
She was one of the great opera stars, but she couldn't sing in a lot of the houses, because she was a black person. She requested permission to sing a recital in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., in the middle of the Second World War.
The Constitution Hall is owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution. And they said, no to the great African-American singer, saying, You can't sing there. Eleanor Roosevelt then went to her husband and got permission for Marian Anderson to sing a recital out of doors. Guess where?
Before the Lincoln Memorial in 1944, one of the most moving events in the prehistory of the civil rights movement.
DR. MILLER: That was Jessye Norman. Here is Marian Anderson singing, "I Want Jesus To Walk With Me." All of this nurture, support, kindness. Be with me all my life. Just a little bit of Ms. Anderson, "I Want Jesus To Walk With Me."
(Music was played.)
DR. MILLER: I found that I could not stop Marion Anderson's singing. Now, the vast majority of the songs about Jesus from slaves in the spirituals are about Jesus, the comforter. There are a few though that are about the other Jesus: Jesus as Judge, Jesus who will come back in triumph.
And I will play just a bit of Jessye Norman singing the most important of those, Right On, King Jesus.
(Whereupon a song was played.)
DR. MILLER: That's the best thing she can say about him. He's a slave. No man works like him.
(Whereupon a song was played.)
DR. MILLER: That recording had Ms. Norman almost missing a high note. I don't know if you caught it or not, but she almost misses one of those. Any questions? Dual image of Jesus. Any questions?
DR. MILLER: I'm not sure I understand the point, Stephanie.
DR. MILLER: They're all over the place taking things from white people, what they can use. See, students are often saying, why did they put up with all these alien systems. Christianity's got a lot of good stuff in it. Use it.
Besides, what's the alternative? They have guns; you don't. And you're black; they're not. Let's talk about another duality. Let's talk about Father Abraham and Christ figure. Let's talk about Abraham Lincoln.
Now, religion is very important. And folks, this is going to break my heart to have to do this. I'm going to do this in 15 minutes. This is really a very complicated subject. But here we go. Religion is central actually to the coming of the Civil War.
But Jesus isn't. In the runup to the Civil War, in the 25 years before the Civil War, the great denominations ‑‑ the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Methodists ‑‑ divide over the issue of slavery. The Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, that's where you get the Southern Baptist Convention.
They kind of practiced in their churches to be Southerners and Yankees for 25 years. They also believed that God was on their side. They were both inheritors of the idea from England that we are God's chosen people. We are more God's chosen people than you are.
How can God be on both sides? But they were both Protestants about that. They were Americans about that. And in the war there were revivals of religion in the camps of both armies. And ministers preached up the war as a religious crusade.
Religion probably kept the war going a little bit. But what we need to focus on for the purposes of this class is Abraham Lincoln, who is for my money quite simply the most compelling personage in America history, a truly extraordinary human being.
And I want to talk to you for a very few minutes about the emergence of Abraham Lincoln as what historians have called the theologian of democracy. Abraham Lincoln grew up reading the Jewish and Christian scriptures.
He was deeply steeped in the language, the cadences of the King James Bible. And he was deeply aware of and convinced of providence in the affairs of men. And more precisely he was convinced of the sovereignty of some kind of god in the affairs of men.
Now, he didn't think much of religion though. He was kind of bemusedly skeptical of organized religions and religious hypocrisy, and he never joined a church. In this sense he's rather like someone we've already noticed ‑‑ actually I think Ben Franklin more than Jefferson even.
And he's like someone we won't talk much about, Mark Twain. But unlike both of those two men, Abraham Lincoln was a very dark man. He was almost certainly clinically depressed. And then he had to supervise, he had to lead the people through the most extraordinary experience up to the time that he lived.
Now, Abraham Lincoln, even before the Civil War had started, had grown a beard, and people had already started calling him Father Abraham. And as the war progressed and as his extraordinary leadership of the Union cause became more and more matter of comment, more and more he was called Father Abraham.
Father Abraham's most important contribution to our land is to interpret the meaning of the Union victory. In several of his great state addresses, but especially the second inaugural address a few months before he was assassinated ‑‑ in fact just a month ‑‑ he interpreted the meaning of the Union victory.
And he publicly rebuked those Northerners who would say that we won because ‑‑ guess what? Because God was on our side. He said, no, no, no. He never prayed that God would be on our side. He prayed that we would be on God's side, whatever that means.
I'm never quite sure I know what that means as a distinction. But that's what people always say about it. He reminded Americans over and over again that slavery for its first 150 years had been a national institution, that all Americans had been complicit in the creation of chattel slavery in the American Republic, all of them.
No one gets free on this one. He made the war finally a war against slavery. He didn't start it. What's the word for when we start the war from Lincoln's perspective? What does he want to do? Save the Union. If we can get rid of slavery and do it, fine.
If we can't do it, fine. But I will save the Union. But after it became clear that slavery was going to end he made it a war against slavery. Right? But slavery ends, too. So now what's the war about? It wasn't just to free the slaves.
It was to vindicate democracy. It was to prove that people could rule themselves. Gettysburg address. We are met on a great battlefield to see if people really can rule themselves. He became the theologian of democracy.
That's what the war was about: equality, majority rule. Have I said anything about Jesus? Not much about Jesus here. I have very little sense of Abraham Lincoln ever being engaged with the Jesus of his day.
He certainly had no use for an evangelical conversion experience like the revivalists preach. And he thought, unlike liberal Christians, that there are all kinds of models for moral and ethical behavior. Jesus may or may not be the best model of those.
And he simply didn't understand the transcendentalist idea of God in nature and Being: go out into the wilderness and commune with nature and become part of the great eyeball and all that Ralph Waldo Emerson stuff.
That didn't resonate. He doesn't resonate with that hallucinogenic at all. It gets kind of interesting, because Mrs. Lincoln becomes rather an unusual Christian. Does anyone know what Mrs. Lincoln becomes in the Civil War, besides Chris?
The most important result of the Civil War was demographic. As a result of the Civil War 600,000 people died. Did you know that? The bloodiest war up to then of all times. And folks, one of the results of that ‑‑ we're going to be talking about this in a little while, next week ‑‑ as a result of that people began to be interested in communing with the dead.
And something called spiritualism emerged. Maybe a million people, especially in the North, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War began to believe that you could talk with the dead. Folks, I probably would have, too.
You can't imagine that kind of impact. It's incredible. One of every five adult white men in the South died in the Civil War. It's astounding. Let's talk to the dead. And she actually made Todd Lincoln even have seances in the White House.
And Lincoln went to one once, and Chrissy said, that was interesting, if you're interested in that kind of thing. And that's about it. That's all he said about it. Abraham Lincoln focuses on the Hebrew god, Jehovah god, the God of the Hebrews.
DR. MILLER: The question was did her life end in a crazy house. Well, it's technically not true. But she did go away for a while. She came back. Just because you're a spiritualist it doesn't make you crazy, or does it?
Like black folk Abraham Lincoln closely identified with Jewish history and with the Jewish god, Jehovah. So how does Jesus get mixed up with Abraham Lincoln? Obviously, folks, Abraham Lincoln died for our sins.
He became a Christ figure. He became a martyr. Folks, if Abraham Lincoln had lived a life his second term out and left the White House I might not even ‑‑ have I talked about any other president except Jefferson? What about James K. Polk and Jesus?
Can you say Zachary Taylor? No. I may not even talk about Lincoln. But Lincoln didn't have to focus on Jesus. He became Jesus. Father Abraham died. He became a martyr. On what day of the Christian year, young people, did Abraham Lincoln get assassinated?
This is incredible, folks. But he was assassinated on Good Friday. He died on Good Friday. And you think people didn't notice it at the time that Father Abraham died on Good Friday. Yes, they did. And that his death immediately, in the North at least, put a whole new perspective on all of that language.
It sacralized it, because he had died for the sins of us all just like the man named Jesus. And Abraham Lincoln became by far the most compelling Christ figure in real life.
And young people, Dr. Miller has now given you in the past two days' classes the two most compelling Christ figures in American history: one of them real life, Father Abraham, and the other in literature, Uncle Tom. Attention must be paid.
(End of recording.)