The Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses

By William L. Holladay | Go to book overview

13
The Psalms
across Space and Time:
The Nineteenth Century

A Psalm Verse That Was a Beacon
for American Slaves

The nineteenth century was a period of optimism. The world was largely at peace, and during the course of the century trade and learning expanded enormously. But before we turn to take note of this optimism, we must ponder the enormity of the institution of slavery in the Western Hemisphere. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the slave trade was waning, but in the United States, in the census of 1860, 4,441,830 African Americans were counted, of whom 487,970 were free; the remainder were slaves.1

Under great disabilities this population gradually embraced the Christian faith.2 African Americans embraced the biblical story of the Exodus out of Egypt as their own; one has only to think of a spiritual such as “Go Down, Moses” to recognize this fact. Again and again, America was understood as Egypt, and the African Americans understood themselves to be Israel in need of liberation.

But there is another Old Testament text that ignited their hope. That was Ps. 68:32 (31), which in the KJV reads, “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.”3

The verse had already been used by Phillis Wheatley, a woman born in Senegal who had been kidnapped onto a slave ship and became the servant of a Boston woman. Wheatley became a poet and an important voice for her people. In a letter written to the Reverend Samuel Hopkins, dated February 9, 1774, she wrote, in part:

Methinks, Rev. Sir, this is the beginning of that happy period foretold by the
Prophets, when all shall know the Lord from the least to the greatest, and that
without the assistance of human Art of Eloquence. My heart expands with
sympathetic joy to see at distant time the thick cloud of ignorance dispersing
from the face of my benighted country. Europe and America have long been
fed with the heavenly provision, and I fear they loath it, while Africa is perish-
ing with a spiritual Famine. O that they could partake of the crumbs, the

-238-

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