The Rev. Dr. Ernest Campbell said no, James Forman could not speak at his church service the next day.

Campbell was the senior pastor at Riverside Church, a predominantly white church on the west side of Manhattan. Forman, a black civil rights leader, wanted to read something to the congregation at the next day’s service on May 4, 1969, according to a history of the events written by Elaine Allen Lechtreck.

Forman was told he could distribute his materials outside the church before the service but he was not to disrupt the Sunday program.

The next day, Forman and six others walked to the front of the church. Campbell signaled for the organist to start playing so Forman’s words could not be heard. He waited for the organist to finish and, in front of a crowd of about 500 white people, Forman read his manifesto.

Forman wanted $500 million.

Forman, along with his work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Black Panther Party, was involved with the National Black Economic Development Conference. The conference was designed to advocate for black businesses and civil rights. It was there Forman helped write the “Black Manifesto” asking for $500 million. By their estimation, this broke down to $15 for every black person, or $104 a person in today’s money.

The $500 million was a form of reparations for the role white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues played in slavery.

“For centuries we have been forced to live as colonized people inside the United States, victimized by the most vicious, racist system in the world,” the manifesto states. “We have helped to build the most industrial country in the world. We are therefore demanding ...”

The money was to be used, among other things, to create a southern bank to help African Americans buy land and establish farms, create a publishing industry for African Americans to contrast the white-dominated news field and create a black university in the South.

The congregation of Riverside Church reacted to Forman’s demands with outrage. Days later, Forman was served a court order stopping him from disrupting the church anymore.

However, Forman’s protest and sit-ins across the country led various church leaders from the Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist and Presbyterian traditions to donate to African American-led businesses and nonprofits. However, the donations were a fraction of what Forman and other civil rights leaders were asking for and little money went to Forman’s National Black Economic Development Conference.

The apparent failure of 1969, though, may have a new audience in 2019.

The reparations movement is experiencing a renewed interest in the United States, whether those reparations are symbolic, material or financial. Democratic presidential candidates are talking about it on the campaign trail at the same time churches and religious universities are re-examining how they benefited from decades of human bondage.

The same Bible used to validate slavery is being used to justify repenting for those sins through reparations. With atonement a central part of the Christian faith, theologians say the religion should be leading the cause for reparations.

When the church owned people

American churches and religious schools were just as much a part of the brutal history of slavery as plantation owners, said Jennifer Oast, associate professor of history at Bloomberg University.

Oast began researching the topic as a doctoral candidate at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. She was reviewing a list of enslaved African American children when she saw the listed owner as her college. That initial search led her to write the book “Institutional Slavery: Slaveholding Churches, Schools, Colleges, and Businesses in Virginia, 1680-1860.”

The Episcopal, Presbyterian and Catholic churches all have histories of owning slaves, Oast said. The Episcopal Church used slaves as part of the compensation packages for its ministers. Members of the Presbyterian Church donated their slaves to the church to be hired out. The church could then keep the profits.

“There’s a lot of overlap actually, between the free schools and universities and the churches because so many schools and universities were founded by churches,” Oast said. “So, I would say that you would not have seen such a robust religious establishment in America as early as you did if it hadn’t been for the unpaid labor of slaves.”

The horrors of slavery and the treatment of the enslaved were often worse when they were owned by an institution, such as a church, than by another human. An institution would care little about providing the basic necessities of life, Oast said. She observed lower birth rates and higher mortality rates for children owned by institutions.

“There really was a lot of stress on their families,” Oast said. “If you can imagine what it would have been like, to have been hired out every year, from birth to death, to different people, different places to live. Your family’s broken up every single year, never knowing where you’re going to be from one place to another.”

The Bible includes several passages related to slavery, but the central verses used to justify slavery in early America were those related to the Canaanites, said Emerson Powery, professor of Biblical studies at Messiah College.

The Bible story in the book of Genesis of the “Curse of Ham” or the “Curse of Canaan” details how Noah, who had been drunk off wine, curses Ham’s son Canaan after Ham sees a drunk and naked Noah. In the Bible, Canaan would become the father of the Canaanite people.

Noah’s curse for the Canaanites to be the servants of Israel is the origin story for the eventual ancient war between the two tribes, Powery said.

“That story becomes the dominant myth of the 19th century for the enslavement of Africans, in particular,” he said.

The Canaanite story was co-opted into 19th-century debates about the authority of the Bible in society, he said.

“Folks in the 19th century and leading up to the 19th century who wanted to hang on to the authority of the Bible felt like they had to apply passages … in a kind of literal way,” Powery said. “So, if the Bible says there should be slavery — even if it said slavery of the Canaanites — they still thought the practice of slavery was necessary.”

While in the minority, religious scholars at the time questioned the use of the Canaanite story to justify slavery. Henry Beecher Ward, a 19th century Brooklyn pastor, was one of many who questioned how the curse of a drunken man could be interpreted as the will of God, Powery said.

James Pennington, a 19th-century abolitionist and escaped slave from Western Maryland, was another to challenge the leading religious figures about the authority of the Bible on slavery. He said if the Bible condoned the slavery of the Canaanites, as the religious leaders of the time claimed, then white Americans should free the enslaved blacks and go out and find some Canaanites to enslave, Powery said.

At the same time, the Bible details how all humans are descendants of the same line and equal in the eyes of God. This reality was a historical stumbling block for pro-slavery theologians. New Testament passages, like the Sermon on the Mount, detail how Christians should treat each other with respect and love, as well as advocate for the marginalized.

However, until recently, churches and other institutions have not recognized how they benefited from slavery, Oast said.

“You do not see any of those institutions showing any remorse at all immediately afterward or even later in the 19th or 20th centuries,” she said. “If anything, you see some bitterness.”

Profiting from slavery for God

Bitterness at the loss of slavery was the reaction of many of the founders and faculty of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

In December, the seminary released a report about its role in slavery and racism in the United States. Among other things, the report found the seminary had defended “the morality of slaveholding and the justness of the Confederate effort to preserve it.”

The seminary’s four founding members, combined, owned more than 50 slaves. They argued slavery was good for African Americans and that it was an “institution of heaven.”

After the Civil War, leaders of the seminary continued to oppose giving black Americans basic rights. According to the report, they supported segregation and used false science to argue the white race was superior.

The report brought a number of criticisms from students and theologians. African American students of the seminary said the report detailed history that was already known without discussing how the seminary would repent for this history. Other theologians said the report did not include enough analysis of the connection between the seminary’s past and present.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is among those critical of how the seminary handled the report. The pastor from Durham, North Carolina is the author of “Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion.”

The seminary’s report ends in the 1960s and does not draw a connection to the ways in which the interpretations of the Bible used to justify slavery in early America are still used today. The theology of “slaveholder religion” has become more politically correct but still holds the same cultural and political values, Wilson-Hartgrove said.

“[Slaveholder religion] was developed as a kind of spirituality that could allow people to believe that they were good white Christians while they were also keeping slaves and benefiting from that,” he said. “… Even though those arguments are no longer used to justify slavery, they’re still used to justify all sorts of political positions that are opposed to the movement for reconstruction that was begun by formerly enslaved people.”

The sale of 272 slaves in 1838 owned by the Jesuits in Maryland allowed the priests to pay off debts and save the school that would later become Georgetown University in Washington D.C. In 2016, the university announced descendants of those slaves would receive preferred admission to the school, among other things.

The College of William & Mary created The Lemon Project to study the college’s role in slavery and educate current students and the community about the effects of slavery. The project funds research on slavery, hosts lecture series for the community and will create a memorial to honor the contributions of slaves to the college.

Last year, Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey released its own report on the school’s role in American bondage. The seminary did not own slaves and slave labor was not used on constructing the school. However, slave owners were major donors to the school and were responsible for as much as 40 percent of the seminary’s revenue.

The report found the school’s founders and faculty “were in many ways complicit with slavery as individuals and they participated in a larger culture that was inextricably entangled in the effects of the slave trade.”

In response, the Association of Black Seminarians at Princeton are asking the school to spend no less than 15 percent and up to 40 percent of the school’s current endowment to fund scholarships for African American students and expand African American Christianity courses.

The Gospel call for reparations

The entire Gospel message of the Bible is a reparation, said Ekemini Uwan, a public theologian and co-host of the Truth’s Table podcast. The Christian church should be leading the reparations movement, she said.

The original sin in the Bible of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden led to the break between humanity and God. The sins of humans that would follow, detailed in the Bible, all came from the original sin but were repaired with the arrival of Jesus Christ, the son of God, Uwan said.

Jesus dying on the cross repaired the break between God and humanity, Uwan said. That is the reparation.

“If we’re believers, as Christians, we are literally living on an eternal reparation that Christ brought for us,” Uwan said. “That is the most biblical case for reparations. It’s just right there at the core of the Gospel.”

The repentance of sins and acts of atonement are central parts of the Christian tradition, repeated throughout the Old Testament. Jesus repeats calls for repentance in the New Testament, just as God tells Moses in the Old Testament book of Numbers about the need to pay restitution for past sins.

Reparations would require sacrifice, Uwan said, likely in the form of money. The reluctance of white Christians to discuss or advocate for reparations may come down to selfishness and a narrow view of the Gospel. Too much of a focus on an individual’s salvation can cause blindness to social realities, Uwan said.

“I think a lot of white Christians, particularly white evangelicals, have a truncated understanding of the Gospel, and oftentimes practice a disembodied faith,” Uwan said. “There’s no real thought to the actual practical bearings … We are here in the here and now. How should the Gospel impact the way that I live? How should it impact those who are marginalized and those who have been disenfranchised and those who have been enslaved?”

Follow Wyatt Massey on Twitter: @News4Mass.

(32) comments


Reparations have a certain appeal. They would have been possible right after emancipation -- when those who were directly harmed (former slaves) could have been paid by former slave owners.

At this point, 150 years later, it is simply impossible to determine who should pay, and how much, and who should receive those payments, and how much.

At first blush, "reparations" seem like a reasonable idea. People were harmed and should be compensated.

However, within about 5 seconds one begins to realize that it is the ultimate 'rabbit hole':

* There is long-standing precedent that children are not required to pay the debts of their parents -- let alone earlier generations. How is this different?

* No one alive today was directly harmed by or benefited from slavery.

* There are certainly indirect harms and benefits, but how does one begin to calculate those?

* If reparations are paid to African Americans, what about Native Americans?

* Should Spain pay reparations to the native people of Central and South America, as well as Mexico? Should the Catholics and Protestants compensate each other? (There are of course endless examples like this).

* Not all blacks alive today are descended from slaves. How do we make that determination, esp when records are often spotty/nonexistent?

* Not all whites are descended from slave owners.

* Many people are some combination of 2 or more races. How would a person who is 50% white and 50% black be compensated (if at all)?

* Many whites are descended from people who fought in the Union Army to end slavery. Many were injured or killed. Should their descendants be compensated? After all, those injuries and deaths were a direct result of the fight to end slavery.

* Some whites were part of the Underground Railroad.

* Many Americans' ancestors arrived in America *after* the Civil War, and had nothing to do with slavery.

* Should someone (of any race) who recently immigrated to the US be forced to pay? If so, why?

* Some whites belonged to racist hate groups like the KKK.

* Other whites marched alongside blacks during the civil rights movement.

It goes on, and on, and on...

I see no way to begin to calculate reparations in any remotely fair and reasonable way.

However well intentioned the idea is, it must be abandoned. Continuing to raise the issue only furthers the racial divide.


One cannot put all the whites in one bucket. The whites whose ancestors were or worked or fought against slavery should not be among the payors. All the moolah has to come from the descendants of those who owned slaves or engaged in the slave trade. That would mostly be today's white Southerners. The latter would include some blacks, too. Extra moolah should come from the descendants of those shippers who cut loose the chained weights and dragged hundreds of blacks to Davy Jones locker when a federal vessel was spotted, food or water ran low or disease broke out. A lot of ancestoral research is needed before we can decide who pays and who gets paid and who isn't affected. Then we have to decide who gets the moolah and how much.


You don’t understand how white privilege works. Were your parents and grandparents redlined and refused housing in all but a few areas? Were your parents and grandparents allowed to go to decent public schools and colleges that were closed to black children?

Comment deleted.

Have you thought about following your own advice?


If Blacks get reparation it is only fair that those that have had relatives that fought in the Civil War get them too. A number of my relatives fought for the North, in the Civil War. One was shot in the hand, outside of Richmond, Va, at the Battle of Fair Oaks. Another was at Antietam and the Battle of Fredericksburg, Va.

A number of places in northern New York hid runaway slaves on their route to Canada. They were Abolitionists. It was a $1,000 fine if you were caught helping runaway slaves, yet they did it, even though they probably couldn't earn $100 per year - it would take them 10 years to earn that $1,000.

It is only right that ALL Northerners get their just dues.


Were those northerners stripped of dignity, self determination, human rights? The list goes on and on. Not even close on that one, dicky.


Your point is correct to a point. But so is Dick's Yes many northerners were stripped of their dignity, self-determination and human rights. It was a horrible war that many were unwillingly drafted into. Have you ever heard of Andersonville


One of my great Uncles died there, Jim. Look up Martin F. Higby.


Sammy, wake up. Some died in Andersonville, a great Uncle of mine was one of them.


Veterans and their widows did get pensions as per usual in the military. I know this because I also have relatives who fought in the Civil War. Some of them were given land in the West.


Every modern American should watch and listen to this great speech ny a patriotic American... .


Great Carlin clip, thanks olefool!

Comment deleted.

You are unbelievable. Please go back where you came from.


There is no doubt slavery was cruel,and inhumane. That is the nature of man. Up until the 19th century slavery, in some form, existed in every culture. As this article wants to suggest, typical of the modern revisionist, Christianity was responsible for slavery. Just the opposite. Christianity is responsible for ending slavery in many regions throughout the world. Men like Methodist Church founder John Wesley who wrote the widely read, slavery condemning pamphlet, "Thoughts on Slavery" in 1774 was the first to baptize African slaves. Thus proclaiming loudly the gospel that all men of every nation are children of God and should be treated accordingly. And we should not forget the work of 20th century minister that dreamed of God's dream on earth.


What religion were the white ship owners and captains who went to Africa, bought humans, and then brought heir human cargo back to the Colonies?

What religion were the white men who owned and ran the slave markets? What religion were the men who bought the slaves?


Seven, you are aware that the American colonies only received approximately 5% of the trans-Atlantic slaves, aren't you? I suggest you do an online search for "The trans-Atlantic slave trade," I think you be surprised at the results you'll come up with. Including that it was Muslims in Africa who first started slave trade on that continent. A continent where slavery still exists to this day.


You didn’t answer the question. What religion were the white men who brought slavery to America and profited from it? What religion?


Seven, I'll answer your question when you tell me how am I supposed to know. Maybe some were Christians, maybe some were of another religion, maybe some were without religion.


CD Reid
You may want to direct seven to the Mayflower Compact. In essence it is the perfect example of early American settlement. Less then 1/2 the settlers were pilgrims. The compact itself sheds great light on the concept behind our government and why slavery, something we inherited from the British, was not immediately outlawed. The Christians and non Christians formed a compact for mutual survival. Similar to how the south was needed to end the tyranny of the British.


Slave trade was not racial, until slaves were brought to the U.S,, CD.


The Founding Fathers had the choice to outlaw slavery. This wasn’t snuck in by accident. They debated it. They chose to make the owning and torture of humans in the new United States legal. Choices have consequences.


You are right CD, slavery was present in the Louisiana Territory governed by the French and Spanish and in the Caribbean before coming to the original 13 Colonies/States. It came in stages. This link provides the interesting history.


The article does not suggest Christianity is responsible for slavery. It notes that slavery far pre-dates christianity. It also observes that some Christians in the US (and the colonies that predated the US) participated in and profited from slavery.


Would like to know what percentage of American slaveholders would have identified themselves as Christian. Any idea? Did the churches that owned slaves consider themselves Christian?


Probably the overwhelming majority of slaveholders were Christian. As jsk has often pointed out, the overwhelming majority of colonists and early Americans were Christian.


Slavery was in the South.  Most slaves adopted the religion of the slave owners,  As Catholics and Jews were also discriminated against, there were few of them in the South and few African Americans today are Catholic or Jews.


Thank you. American slavery was an institution controlled and perpetrated almost exclusively by Christians.


Dick, don't make a fool of yourself. Slavery existed all the way up to New England, they just abolished it before it was in the South.

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