The year of our Lord two thousand nineteen is the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing and the famous Woodstock music festival. It is the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy during World War II. One hundred years ago the Grand Canyon National Park was created, and 150 years ago the trans-continental railroad was completed.
These are all important events, shaping our cultural, economic, and political life. But all of them combined—and a dozen more—do not have the impact on our national life today as something that happened 400 years ago.
Angela arrived in Virginia.
She was aboard the English ship White Lion. The White Lion had taken her (and some 20 others) from a Portuguese slave ship headed to Mexico. Ironically and tragically, the Portuguese ship carried the name John the Baptist and on it were 350 Africans bound for slavery in the New World.
We can only imagine what verbal fire and brimstone would have fallen on that ship from the mind and mouth of that first century wilderness prophet for its audacity to take his name and use it for such a vile practice.
When John the Baptist named his own contemporaries “a generation of vipers,” according to the Gospel of Luke, they asked him “What shall we do to escape the wrath to come?” He told them to share their food with the hungry, trade fairly with all people, and inflict no violence on any person—all of which the Christianized bankers, sailors, and farmers did to Angela and her kin to secure their service as slaves.
The slave trade to the western hemisphere had begun in 1525, and before it was over, 12.5 million Africans had been transported to north and south America and the Caribbean Islands.
Angela was the name given to her at her Christian baptism in the country of her birth—Ndongo, in west central Africa. Christianity had been brought to her section of Africa by Portuguese explorers and missionaries and mixed into the traditional religious culture. We can only ask ourselves: how could the people who preached Christ to her people be the very same people to capture her, torture her, bind her, unload her, sell her; and return to her homeland to do it all over again with other people like her?
When Angela was dumped into our country four hundred years ago, Virginia had no laws permitting slavery. Nevertheless, the twenty plus slaves brought in on the White Lion were soon sold; and the practices of selling and buying slaves took root in Virginia. In 1641, just two decades later, Massachusetts became the first colony to formally legalize slavery.
By 1750, it was legal in all thirteen colonies, reflecting the increased demand for slaves, which helped fuel the vast transatlantic slave trade. Before it was over, as many as 400,000 African had been brought to North America to live and labor as slaves, most of them in the Baptist and Methodist societies of the American South.
Slaves were used in the homes and fields of Virginia and other eastern seaboard states: North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. As people migrated over the mountains, they took slavery into Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama. When cotton gained traction as a lucrative crop, especially in Mississippi and Louisiana, slaves were shackled and marched over the mountains, right passed the hundreds of churches and thousands of homes that interrupted the rural landscape, right to the auction blocks of Jackson and New Orleans.
It was another hundred years before a bloody civil war outlawed slavery in the United States; and yet another hundred years before the wickedness of segregation was declared illegal. Sadly, we still live in a land racked by racism, the bitter harvest four hundred years later of what happened that day in 1619 when Angela was beaten off that boat and introduced to her destiny as a slave.
It is hardly an event to celebrate, like we will the coast to coast railroad, the pole to pole telegraph, or the rock and roll sounds of Woodstock. It is more truthfully an event for which we should be in a constant state of repentance.
It is John the Baptist that demands of us still that we level the mountains of meanness, straighten the crookedness of corruption, and smooth the rough ways of racism in our country.
But these four centuries have not been enough time for us to hear and heed the words of the man whom our Lord called the greatest person ever born. Like our ancestors four hundred years ago and two thousand years ago, we still don’t know how to treat people right.