ABSTRACT

“Cast out the sinner!” That was the call in August 1848 when William Williams asked fellow members of the Shiloh Baptist Church in Greene County, Georgia (seventy miles north of Atlanta) to expel Willis, one of his slaves, for stealing. Slave owners commonly complained that their slaves stole, though some expected Christianity to deter theft. The slaves regarded taking from one’s master differently than they did stealing from fellow slaves. It was not pilfering but an act of resistance. Masters regarded slaves as chattels, after all, and so the food they took was, in a sense, not even stolen – just stored differently. Preaching the Gospel to one’s slaves may have reduced the incidence of theft but it also provided a powerful ideological framework for claiming equality and asserting human dignity. Despite efforts to limit their knowledge to scriptural passages that recommended submission, slaves readily embraced the idea that everyone was equal in the sight of God. They relished the prospect that their masters would face divine judgment, just like themselves. In October 1848, Willis presented himself to the Shiloh church elders. He confessed his offense, but added that the Lord had forgiven him. Preempted by the Lord Himself, the elders had little option but to receive Willis back into their communion. By skillfully obliging the church committeemen to be better Christians, Willis – a preacher among his fellow slaves – was a fitting ancestor for his great grandson, Martin Luther King, Jr. He sounded a drum for justice to which his famed descendant would march.