Theological Affections

In this essay, Rev. Darvin Adams, Ph.D., pays autobiographical homage to his theological mentor, Dr. Stephen Ray, and begins to outline his work around the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (pneumatology) and economics in African American life. See Dr. Adams’ full bio below.

Theological Affections: Pneumatology Up Close and Personal

First thing started me—it come to me dat I had to die. And worried me so I got talkin wid an old Christ man—about seventy years old. I wasn't but twentyone. And I started out from his instruction and I heered people say in my time dat de speerit would command you to de graveyard (to pray). 

I fell right between two graves and I saw Him when He laid me upon a table in my vision. I was naked and He split me open. And there was two men there—one on each side of de table. I could hear de knives clicking in me, inside,    And after dey got through wid me, they smother they hand over de wound and I wuz healed.

Then I commenced shouting. And when I commenced shouting I found myself leaving the graveyard. And He told me that was my robe for me bye and bye. In dat swamp where dat graveyard was there was catamounts and panters and wild beasts but not a one of 'em touched me and I laid there all night. Now he tole me, He said: “You got the three witnesses. One is water, one is spirit, and one is blood. And these three correspond with the three in heben—Father, Son and Holy Ghost

- Zora Neale Hurston, The Sanctified Church, 89-90.

Introduction: The Spirit Works

Dr. Stephen G. Ray, Jr., President of Chicago Theological Seminary, is as great of an academic advisor as he is a gifted scholar and systematic theologian. As an experienced pastor of the Black Church, Ray theologizes with the God-given authority of a bishop in the Christian church. A reformed theologian to his Saint Augustine heart, Dr. Ray has shown himself to be a human being of great integrity and far-reaching vision. All three disciplines (integrity, intellect and vision) require both spiritual direction and a clear understanding of one's theological purpose.

For those who have the privilege of knowing Dr. Ray, I’m sure that I’m not saying anything that you haven’t already recognized. Dr. Ray is a man of the Spirit. As a product of Dr. Ray's theological tutelage, I was abundantly blessed by his gift of conceptualizing what I have always been thinking but couldn’t quite pull together at the beginning of my studies. Lovingly jealous of his mastering of theological language, I quickly realized at the start of my studies with him that I was in the presence of an historically-great thinker. However, it was not until I began to share with him my growing interest in the study of economics and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (both of which led to my theological analysis of Black poverty in the United States) that I realized that my academic advisor was a God-send to me.

On one certain occasion, I recall asking Dr. Ray about the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and what God might look in the human realm of economics. With his glasses firmly planted on the top of his naturally-wavy hair, Dr. Ray responded by saying that, “Yes, you can use the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as a way of understanding economics and vice-versa.” Being that I did not ask him a yes or no question, I was overwhelmed at the simplicity of his answer. I came to Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary with a background in business management and economics, theological studies, and funeral directing and local church leadership. Looking back, though, I am sure that I had not experienced anything that would have prepared me for my subsequent formational conversations with Dr. Ray. Certainly, the Spirit was working on my behalf by way of placing me at the feet of such a great teacher. If Dr. Ray had not accepted me to work with him in the field of theology and ethics, I’m not sure that I would have been afforded the privilege to pursue this Ph.D. 

Thus, when I begin to process what it means to identify the sources needed to construct a Black liberation pneumatology — one that theologizes the empowering presence of God in the life of poor Black folk (and other cultures, also) — I tend to think about the totality of what Dr. Ray has taught me about being a responsible scholar. In keeping with such theological words pedagogy, distantiation, eschatological, mesmerization, materialization, hegemony, intellectual currency and modernity in full view, divine intervention came to the forefront of my Kentucky-country nerves and spoke life into the spirit of someone who came to Chicago emotionally damaged by the back-to-back deaths of two close family members and the reoccurring pain of experiencing seminary racism and faculty backbiting. I needed the Holy Spirit to work in my life for a plethora of reasons.

I’m sure, now, that Dr. Ray's presence in my life came as a form of God's grace[1]. I was thankful then and I am even more thankful now for the Spirit leading me to learn from such a wonderful person. With that in mind, I want to share a sketch of the ways I have learned under Dr. Ray to begin constructing a reformed theological analysis of Black poverty and Black religion in America with special attention to the role of the Holy Spirit.

A Theological Framing

In his book, The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity, Thabiti M. Anyabwile affirms that African Americans' constructive maltreatment of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has led to the declining influence among both the Black Church and the communities it seeks to serve. Anyabwile states that, “African Americans inherited from their Western brethren less theological material from which to begin construction of a doctrine of the Holy Spirit.”[2] He goes on to say:

In a vacuum left by their Christian forebears, African Americans developed a           pneumatology that combined remnants of African beliefs concerning the spirit world and some teachings from Scripture, especially those associating miraculous gifts of with the work of the Holy Spirit. The result was a doctrine of the Holy Spirit more inclusive of cultural patterns and ideas than either what was known in the Scriptures or by the early church fathers.[3]

In consideration of how the Holy Spirit works in all of creation (including the Christian church and the individual believer), Anyabwile stresses the need for Black folk to study what the Bible and the early Christian tradition says about the Spirit giving life to oppressive situations. In addition to seeking guidance from the Bible, the early church fathers and mothers can teach the Black Church even more about the Spirit of God working in the mundane spaces of sacred institutions and secular environments.

Barbara A. Holmes speaks to Anyabwile's point of referencing the larger Christian tradition in the diversity of its theological differences. Holmes cites Stephen G. Ray Jr., stating that:

Ray subsumes the problematic legacy by suggesting that Africana Christian faith has been treated as an interloping reality in the stream of religious history. This racial bifurcation of perceived Christian origins creates reluctance on the part of African Americans to claim John Calvin, Luther, and John Wesley as mentors in the faith, while members of the dominant culture are unwilling to acknowledge their connection to African church fathers and mothers, e.g., Augustine, Tertullian, and Saint Mary of Egypt. Ray concludes that we share a common history with rich cultural elements that enhance our common origins. He urges the church to reject the cartography of race that severs Christian history into white and Black discourses.[4]

A contemporary rendering by Tim Ladwig of the early church father, Tertullian

A contemporary rendering by Tim Ladwig of the early church father, Tertullian

I take Anyabwile and Ray's assessment seriously in that both theologians speak to an inescapable/existential reality within the religious experiences of African American people. That is to say that the religious experiences of Black folk are inextricably intertwined with the larger Christian narrative. This theological intertwining must be collaboratively referenced in the practice of one's cultural patterns and religious convictions. Both Anyabwile and Ray point to African Americans' need to acknowledge their modern religious history as part of a larger religious history. In other words, the construction of a Black pneumatology need not to be confined to modern African American history or simply the Bible. To do so buys into the lie that African culture has never contributed to the larger Christian tradition, thus participating in the whitewashing of our shared history. The Black Church, then, did not come along in modernity and attach itself to the [white] Christian Tradition, but instead has contributed over the centuries through African theologians like those mentioned in Holmes’ excerpt: Augustine, Tertullian, and Saint Mary of Egypt.[5]

In addition to the existential experiences of Black people in the realm of the Black Church and Black culture, the Bible and a reframing of the broader participation of African life in the Christian tradition can represent the work of the Holy Spirit to understand its impact in lifeless situations. The work of the Holy Spirit is what allows Christians of all races to share this common history with rich cultural elements that enhance our common origins.

The Spirit Moves

While the Church is certainly benefited from Ray’s reorientation of the influence of African culture on the Christian tradition, thus demonstrating why the Black Church is not a recent “interloper,” it is also important for a Black pneumatology to attend to its modern beginnings in the practice of chattel slavery. In Dwight N. Hopkins' work, Cut Loose Your Stammering Tongue: Black Theology in the Slave Narratives, he reminds his readers, “The Black church begins in slavery; thus slave religion provides the first source for a contemporary statement on the black theology. The Black church’s unique tradition springs from the emerging theology of African American chattel. While white masters attempted to force their Christianity onto Black property, slaves worshiped God secretly.”[6] In other words, because the African slave trade was both an economic system and the source of racial dominance and cultural dehumanization, the slaves’ view of God as seen in the oppressive reality of “African American life or humanity forged its unadulterated self with the attendance of God’s Spirit.”[7]

Even in the midst of being theologized economically and taken advantage of by way of their forced labor, Black people still developed an outlet to lay their painful burdens on the altar of worship before a higher power. This outlet came in the form of the Invisible Institution - the name given to the early, secret instantiations of gatherings of enslaved Africans to worship. The Invisible Institution provided the African slave an opportunity to theologize what they believed about God and themselves. Hopkins refers to this Black religious experience as “Bush Arbor Theology.”[8] Hopkins elaborates on the African slaves' unique ability to theologize:

Enslaved Africans took the remnants of their traditional religious structures and meshed them together with their interpretation of the Bible. All this occurred in the Invisible Institution, far away from the watchful eyes of white people. Only in their own cultural idiom and political space could black slaves truly worship God. Ex-slave Becky Ilsey describes the hidden nature of the Invisible Institution pre-Civil War: “For de war when we'd have a meetin' at night, wuz mos' always 'way in de woods or de bushes some what so de white folks couldn't hear.[9]

“The Bear Dance,” c. 1870, by William Holbrook Beard

“The Bear Dance,” c. 1870, by William Holbrook Beard

Simply put, Black folk had church in the woods under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As the Spirit moved in their lives and in their environment, the slaves worshiped God for who God is/was. With the notion of worshiping God in spirit and in truth, I can’t help but envision a framed picture that Dr. Ray kept framed above his desk at Garrett-Evangelical. The painting is an 1870 print by William Holbrook Beard, in which numerous brown bears gathered together deep in the woods beyond the sight of any people, safe from the outside world’s scrutiny.

Dr. Ray mentioned this painting one day to his doctoral students, explaining why he kept it in his office. He mentioned that it reminded him of the Black experience in America, in general, and of the Black Church. Ray interpreted the painting in such a way as to remind his students that the scrutiny of a racist society often assumes it knows more than it truly does about Black life and experience. This racist gaze often assumes that very few substantive cultural or theological constructions worth celebrating come out of the Black community. Nevertheless, like the bears and like the slaves worshiping deep in the secrecy of the “bush arbors,” those in the dominant culture should consider that there is much in Black life that they do not know about and/or have overlooked in a racist sense of superiority.

Pointing back to Hopkins’ work, though thought to be animalistic in their subhuman existence, African slaves were extremely organized in their worship experiences and created a culture that thrived in the face of existential and bodily dominance and death. Despite the dehumanizing things that were done to them and said about them, many African slaves, in other words, empowered by the Holy Spirit, asserted that they were fully human and created in the image of God for a good purpose on earth. These are important reminders both to the Black Church and to those who would partner or seek to be allies in these troublesome days.

[1]     John Wesley believes that God's grace is the work of the Holy Spirit.

[2]     Thabiti M. Anyabwile, The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 236.

[3]     Ibid

[4]     Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Press, 2004), 39-40. Holmes is referencing Ray's lecture, “Cartographies of Race: Mapping a Landscape of Exclusion, “Black History Lectures, February 29, 2004, Memphis Theological Seminary.

[5]     Ibid.

[6]     Dwight N. Hopkins and George Cummings, eds. Cut Loose Your Stammering Tongue: Black Theology and the Slave Narratives (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1992), 1.

[7]     Ibid., 41.

[8]     Ibid., 5.

[9]     Ibid.


The Reverend Doctor Darvin A. Adams I completed his Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

A native of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, Dr. Adams is a pastor in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church tradition and an elected city councilman in Hopkinsville (Ward 1).

His research interests are Contemporary Theology, Black Theology (first-generation) and Poverty, John Wesley and the Poor, Pneumatology, Black Culture, Black Religion, Slavery, Marxism and Late Capitalism, and Poetry