February is Black History Month, so today the spotlight is on one of my favorite early black leaders in the history of the Restoration Movement: Samuel Robert Cassius.
Samuel Robert Cassius was born in Virginia in 1853. He was conceived when his mother Jane was raped by her white slave owner, James W. F. Macrae, an alcoholic politician, physician, and farm owner. Cassius became part of the Restoration Movement while working as a coal miner in Indiana. He went on to preach in Oklahoma before planting black churches in Colorado and California. Cassius was a bold evangelist, publicist and critic of racism both in the church and in society.
I first heard Cassius’ name in 2008 while visiting with archivist Don Haymes in the backrooms of the campus library of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN. Haymes pulled out original issues of the historic restoration journal, “Christian Evangelist” and located what he believed to be the first known printed words of Cassius.
In the “Letters to the Editor” of an 1889 issue, Cassius wrote,
Although I am not a subscriber to the “Christian Evangelist,” I hope you will allow me space in your paper to say something that I hope will help to break down the barrier that is keeping thousands of intelligent colored men and women out of the Christian Church.
We all know that in order to convince a man that you are right, you must first show him the correctness of the course you are pursuing. This the Christian Church is doing among the English-speaking white people of America, but if a colored man should accidentally hear one of these arguments and become convinced of its soundness and if he should accept the plan of salvation as laid down by the Savior, it matters not what that man’s ability may be. It matters not how earnest and zealous he may be. He finds himself hedged in by brethren that as a rule simply tolerate his presence because it would bring reproach upon them to do otherwise.
But let him presume to know something beyond the occasional prayer or short talk at some midweek social or prayer meeting, and he will soon find out that he is a Negro and a relic of an inferior race, and that his presence can only be tolerated as long as he is willing to keep still. Finding himself thus surrounded, if he should attempt to do the work of an evangelist among his own race of people, he finds that the mission funds are all used up in the supper of white evangelists and there is nothing but ‘Go ahead, my brother. Godspeed you in your work,’ and such like expressions left to evangelize the Negro with.
If a colored man should appeal to the general board, he soon finds out that there is not much paid out for the benefit of the colored race except that it is paid out to white men and women; therefore the board don’t need his service except it is free.
If the question of an African mission is approached, we are given to understand that it is out of the question to even think of such a thing. Why? Because white men and women don’t want to go there; therefore, it is better to leave Africa alone and save India, China and Japan.
I tell you my brother it is time that this race hatred and prejudice was left at the church door, and a determined effort made to evangelize every community regardless of race or color…
I hope you will excuse me if I speak too plainly on this subject, but my experience as a minster in the Christian Church forbids me to hold my peace any longer. I hope you will publish this letter, because it is my desire to hear from some of our leading divines on this subject. – S R Cassius, [Sigourney], Iowa.”
In light of the events of recent months, I cannot help but read this letter and note that much of it could have been written not in 1889, but just this year. I hope that in the days ahead we will see more being done to plant churches that reach all people of every ethnicity and from every socio-economic level. And in the days ahead, you’ll hear more about just such churches, like the one we featured last month, First Christian Church in Chicago.
Heavenly Father, we pray real solutions will be offered, received and enacted so that the corner of Your vineyard in which we serve will increasingly reflect the vision of heaven that your servant John described in Revelation 7:9: “…I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…”
To read more about Samuel Robert Cassius, click on these resources from Abilene Christian University Professor Edward J. Robinson:
To Lift Up My Race: The Essential Writings of Samuel Robert Cassius. Included in this collection is Cassius’s “Third Birth of a Nation” (1920), a sharp response to Thomas Dixon’s racist novel, “The Clansman” (1905) and D. W. Griffith’s movie, “Birth of a Nation” (1915).
Pictures of Samuel Robert Cassius courtesy of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society.