/ Nathan Eshelman

Uncle Fred's Dangerous Bible

What is the value of God’s Word to you? What if you lived in a time in which it was illegal to be taught the Word of God? Or illegal to teach the Word of God to certain persons?

Would you obey those who have the rule over you, or would you obey God rather than men?

The Word of God ought to have such value to your soul that you would risk your very life to learn to be nearer to God and know how to live and how to die.

Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813-1897) was born into slavery and would escape to Philadelphia as a young woman. She learned to read as a child, and as a fugitive slave in the North published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, where she described her experience as a female slave living in the South before the civil war.  In one of her incidents, she wrote about the relationship between the slaves and the church. As a Christian minister it was difficult to read, seeing the way that much of the church sanctioned the permanent enslavement of persons based merely on race.  In that incident of the relationship to the church, she told the story of Uncle Fred approaching her because he desired to learn to read so that he could profit from the Bible.

Here’s part of that narrative:

I knew an old black man, whose piety and child-like trust in God was beautiful to witness…He had a most earnest desire to learn to read. He thought he should know how to serve God better if he could only read the Bible. He came to me, and begged me to teach him. He said he could not pay me, for he had no money; but he would bring me a nice fruit when the season came for it. I asked him if he didn’t know it was contrary to law; and that slaves were whipped and imprisoned for teaching each other to read. This brought tears to his eyes. “Don’t be troubled, Uncle Fred,” said I. “I have no thought of refusing to teach you. I only told you of the law, that you might know the danger, and be on your guard.”…
As soon as he could spell in two syllables he wanted to spell out words in the Bible. The happy smile that illuminated his face put joy into my heart. After spelling out a few words, he paused and said, “Honey, it ‘pears when I can read dis good book I shall be nearer to God… I only wants to read dis good book dat I know how to live; den I hab no fear ‘bout dying.”
At the end of six months he had read through the New Testament, and could find any text in it. One day, when he had recited unusually well, I said, “Uncle Fred, how do you manage to get your lessons so well?”
“Lord bress you chile,” he replied. “You nebber gibs me a lesson dat I don’t pray to God to help me to understan’ what I spells and I reads. And he does help, me chile. Bress his holy name.”  There are thousands like uncle Fred, who are thirsting for the water of life; but the law forbids it, and the churches withhold it.

Here we see the value of the Word of God in one man’s life. Uncle Fred and Harriet Jacobs risked beatings, imprisonment, and great dangers so that Fred could receive the “waters of life.” The Word of God was of such great value to him that with prayer he learned to read as he thirsted for God’s Word in his life. Jacobs tells her readers that the “law forbids it and the churches withhold it.” Today the law does not forbid the reading and studying of God’s holy Word. (It could be argued that some churches withhold it, but that’s a different article.)

What is your relationship to the Word of God? If you were living in the South before the War, would you value the Scriptures as Uncle Fred and Harriet Jacobs valued the Scriptures? Would you risk your life teaching the Scriptures as did Harriet Jacobs?  Living in times of relative peace, freedom, and safety have great benefits—putting the value of God’s Word into eternal context is not one of them. Jacobs and Uncle Fred show us a better way. Bless his holy name.

Nathan Eshelman

Nathan Eshelman

Pastor in LA, studied at Puritan Reformed Theological & Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminaries. One of the chambermen on the podcast The Jerusalem Chamber. Married to Lydia with 5 children.

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