Commentary: Voices of History

Chris Momany

Chris Momany

I sometimes tell people that I do what I do for the young adults around me and for the folks up in the graveyard. In other words, I love to work with college students, and I love history, especially the courage of those who served God faithfully over the ages. This description of my vocation is not quite fair. I also love people older than young adults and those not in the graveyard. But there are far too many agendas among the established world of “professional” Christians for my liking.

That’s why I flipped out a few weeks ago when a friend from our college library asked my opinion about a recently “discovered” artifact. The piece is an old, old journal – measuring 7 ¾” X 11”. It has 100 pages of writing, beginning in 1839 and ending in 1841. Much of the record was penned from Jamaica, other parts from places in the United States like New Jersey, New York State, and Ohio. There is a connection to Oberlin College among the text, and our first president came to Michigan in the 1850s from Oberlin. Could this be one of his early journals?

A page from David Ingraham's Journal. Click to see full page

A page from David Ingraham’s Journal. Click to see full page

As it turns out, the journal is the legacy of a different antislavery missionary: Rev. David Stedman Ingraham. He lived in Michigan, studied in Cincinnati, and then left his institution when the administration and trustees would not let the students confront slavery. In 1835, young David Ingraham and others entered Oberlin College. They took with them, from Cincinnati, one of the few professionals who stood up for them: an eccentric pastor named Asa Mahan. Mahan had the outlandish conviction to live as if all people really are created equal. He and the abolitionist young people made a powerful team.

David Ingraham married Betsey Hartson at Oberlin, and the two headed for Jamaica, full of optimism about helping newly freed people under British emancipation policy. Yet reality always provides the best, if most severe, education. Ingraham developed a serious lung disease, probably tuberculosis. The brutality of slavery still haunted the hemisphere and thrived in his own country. On Christmas day 1839, Rev. Ingraham went down to the harbor at Port Royal, Jamaica and inspected a recently impounded “slave brig,” the Ulysses. He documented the way 556 people were abused over the course of a fifty day voyage. In response to such cruelty, his journal exclaimed: “It seems as if the church were asleep.” Within two years, David Ingraham was dead – before the age of thirty.

Among the unlimited lessons to be learned from this document, I mention but a few:

1. The contemporary church is sick with “presentism.” By presentism I mean the arrogant assumption that narratives from the past have little to say on their own. After all, much of Christianity these days is struggling to find some future among a world that seems to care little about institutions. Many desiring relevance and real change have fallen into a blanket condemnation of tradition. But there is a big difference between doing things the way we have always done them (at least since the 1950s) and authentic appreciation for the profound witness of those who have gone before us. Institutional anxiety should not drive us to superficial presumption about the past. The folks in the graveyard have a lot to teach us.

2. Perhaps most important, an appreciation for the unexpected voices of the past reminds us that many (perhaps most) are never able to tell their story. That may be why young people around me are so interested in this historical document. They know what it is like to seek one’s voice, even in the presence of resistance. Years ago, theologian Nelle Morton spoke of “hearing people to speech.” The hard work of listening can be advocacy – love and justice that struggles to hear the voices of those too often silenced. I think of the 556 people on that ship. Who were they? What is their story? What are they still trying to say? We don’t know – yet, but it’s time someone listened to them and countless millions today who are told to keep quiet. For now, silence is their voice, but I’m going to work at listening, no matter what. We owe them that.

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Chris Momany

Chris Momany has been chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College since 1996 and has taught in the Department of Philosophy/Religion since 1998. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, and a graduate of Adrian College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Drew University. His academic interests focus on Christian ethics and philosophy. He has been published in the Christian Century, the Wesleyan Theological Journal, The Asbury Theological Journal, the Circuit Rider magazine, the United Methodist Reporter, and other venues. Chris also writes for the Daily Bible Study curriculum of the United Methodist Publishing House and for MinistryMatters, an online ministry resource. His book on the Wesleyan ethic of love and justice bears the title, Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness. Chris has led many conferences, workshops, and continuing education events. For several years he has combined his research and teaching with a focus on human trafficking. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves throughout the world. Chris has been a national leader among college and church professionals in confronting this issue.

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