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  • Writer's pictureAaron Mead

Were My Ancestors Pro-slavery Preachers?

Portrait of Bishop William Meade

My first novel, Neither Slave nor Free, tells a backstory to the New Testament letter Philemon. From the time I began writing it, I wanted a New Testament scholar to review the manuscript—preferably someone who’d studied the letter.

While researching for the novel, I read a collection of essays on Philemon titled Onesimus Our Brother. As I’ve written previously, the first essay in that collection—a history of the interpretation of the letter by Professor Demetrius K. Williams—was especially enlightening. After reading the essay, I thought Williams would be an ideal person to review my manuscript, though I imagined it pretty unlikely he would. While I have some contacts in the world of New Testament scholarship (having been to seminary), he was not one of them. Nevertheless, I sent him an email.

After a few days without a response, I felt deflated. It seemed I’d have to look elsewhere for an expert review. But, just as my hope ran out, I got an email back: Williams thought my project was interesting and wanted to help! A few months later he gave me five pages of detailed comments. They remain some of the most exciting and formative feedback I’ve had on the project, and they prompted me to write an entirely new chapter, which I’ve thought of as “The Williams Chapter” ever since. We stayed in touch by email.

Last March, almost a year after my first email to Demetrius, I visited my daughter in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she was attending university. Since Grand Rapids is just across the lake from Milwaukee, where Demetrius lives and teaches, before spending time with my girl I arranged to buy him breakfast as a token of thanks for how generous he’d been with me and my project. Leading up to our meeting, he sent me two chapters of his own manuscript in progress—The Cross of Christ in African American Christian Religious Experience.

From the moment I shook his hand, even before the pancakes and maple syrup hit the table, Demetrius put me at ease. Gracious host that he is, he insisted on buying me breakfast (really, I tried to pay!). We traded stories of our spiritual and academic paths, our families, and our writing journeys. Near the end of breakfast, our conversation turned to his draft chapters. I’d read them before our meeting and found them fascinating, enlightening, and troubling all at once.

What I read traced how European colonizers used the Christian symbol of the cross to justify ongoing enslavement of Africans in the “new world.” Their justification often employed a passage from the New Testament letter to the Philippians (a passage Demetrius studied for his dissertation at Harvard Divinity School), in which Paul says Jesus “took the form of a slave” and “became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7,8). The enslavers’ claimed that, just as Jesus humbled himself and took the form of a slave, so enslaved Africans should humble themselves and obey their masters.

In his chapters, Demetrius cited several American pro-slavery preachers who used this sort of argument. One of them caught my eye because of his last name: William Meade (1789-1862), once the Assistant Anglican Bishop of Virginia. Although the spelling of his last name is slightly different from mine—I lack the final “e”—I do have family in Oregon (where my dad was born) who spell it with the "e", so it seemed entirely possible Meade was a distant relative.

I mentioned this possibility over breakfast, and Demetrius was gracious about it (he’d also noticed the similar last name). He reminded me that most of us have wayward relatives of one kind or another. But the idea I might have a pro-slavery preacher in my family line gnawed at me, so I purposed to dig into my family tree when I got home.

I contacted my dad, and he told me one of the living Meades in Oregon had traced my dad’s descendants back thirteen generations to one Richard Mead, born around 1515 in England. The only “William” in that line was Richard’s grandson, and it seems he died in 1663. I concluded I was not a direct descendant of Bishop William Meade.

However, it's still possible he's part of my wider family tree. Also, family lore has it that the male Meads in my dad's line were Christian ministers all the way back to their arrival in the American colonies in the late 17th century. Given this long line of Anglo-American ministers and the period of history through which they lived, odds are good at least one of them preached in support of slavery.

I shared these findings with a close friend, and he thought it suggested a personal significance to my novel I hadn't seen before: the book alters my shameful family story. My ancestors (likely) used the Bible to support slavery, and here I was telling a story from the Bible that overturns the pro-slavery narrative. Indeed, my ancestors likely used Philemon to support their case, while my story sees in that letter not a case for slavery but a subtle request for the liberation of a slave.

Of course, none of this was conscious on my part: I never set out to change my family story. Indeed, I hadn't even noticed what I was doing until my friend pointed it out. But even so, something in that unconscious pattern gives me goosebumps.

For all of us, the patterns of our ancestors are etched into our minds and bodies, and our lives express those patterns to one degree or another. Usually, I think of those unconscious patterns as negative, like how we play out the dysfunction of our family-of-origin until we become aware and actively choose a different path.

But the case of my novel feels unmistakably positive: you might say I was unconsciously redeeming part of my family story in writing it. And this strengthens my hope that the novel is part of the providential, redemptive stream that flows through the lives of God's people, whether they know it or not.

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