Reconstructing the Gospel

Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion

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Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , March
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this book Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a southern white male preacher raised in North Carolina’s Bible Belt in the 1980s, weaves together his personal narrative, antebellum and post-slavery history, contemporary events, and biblical interpretation. He retraces and maps the formational interconnectedness between racism and slaveholder religion. Wilson-Hartgrove argues that slaveholder religion, the basis of evangelical Christianity, permeates black and white churches. He acknowledges his lingering demon of demonstrated “slight preference” for white people. Reconstructing the Gospel is also an attempt to evangelize white people that are DNA deep in slaveholder religion. Sometimes the book seems apologetic towardwhite evangelical racism: they are “blind” to the racism inherent in their religious faith, habits, and politics. There is an absence of culpability and choice in the image of blindness that does not cohere with the evil of racism and white supremacy. Perhaps what appears as apologetic is Wilson-Hartgrove’s situated compassion as an insider whose family and friends remain mired in slaveholder religion, though he has twenty years of healing under his belt. He is a wounded healer, as are we all. 

Reconstructing the Gospel is written in two parts: “Slaveholder Religion” consists of six chapters of deconstruction demonstrating how evangelical Christianity inherited a slaveholder religion, and “The Christianity of Christ” offers four chapters on how slaveholder religion can be reconstructed. Chapter 1 argues that one hundred and fifty years ago, Jesus of the Gospel was hijacked by a slaveholder religion that preferred bondage above freedom. White people deceived themselves into believing that America’s original sin of slavery and institutional racism had not shaped them. Until they find wholeness, says Wilson-Hargrove, “evangelicalism [and evangelism] is violence” (17). A gospel that fails to challenge racism is not gospel. Wilson-Hartgrove could benefit from womanism and black feminism’s insistence that African American women do not experience racism apart from sexism; racism, classism, and sexism are interlocking systems of impression. A gospel that does not confront these is no gospel. 

Chapter 2 argues that America has always practiced a “racially fragmented faith,” full of contradictions, as declared by Frederick Douglass. Christianity inherited from slaveholder religion is “more likely to be racist, homophobic, self-righteous, and blindly patriotic” (36), and I add “sexist.” But the Jesus of the Gospel interrupts a slaveholder religion. I would argue that sometimes the Jesus constructed in the gospels needs disrupting with love of God and neighbor mandates: the Jesus of the Gospel teaches using master/slave parables likening God and the kingdom to cruel enslavers. Some enslaved and freed Africans critiqued the scriptures: “Slaves obey your masters” is in the Bible, but it is not gospel, as in good news.

Chapter 3 asserts that sin is deception; racism as sin is self-deception. Because white evangelicalism knows what is right, what they determined is right becomes their duty to perform, even if it means committing violence or hating people. Although Wilson-Hartgrove’s twelve-year-old African American son JaiMichael felt Donald Trump was disqualified to be President because of his “Klan appeal,” the author’s white father’s vote for Trump was “an act of faith” and not an endorsement of bigotry. Does this mean that the grandfather doesn’t recognize bigotry when he hears/sees it? I think racism is illogical, self/race-interested, and not necessarily blind; it is willing to overlook or justify itself for the benefit of white dominance and its perks. Wilson-Hartgrove likens racism to being bewitched in a manner similar to Paul’s foolish Galatians. He connects the dots between Bishop George W. Freeman, pastor of Christ Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, who in 1836 wrote The Rights and Duties of Slave-Holders, and Franklin Graham’s rally beneath that same church’s steeple in 2016. Graham reminded the author of his grandfather; they were alert and endeavored to engender redemption vision. Graham felt his religion would “make American great again.” Slaveholders, like Christian evangelicalism, owed the enslaved evangelism, not freedom. Capitalistic greed was/is a greater factor than the author allows. 

Chapter 4 addresses Wilson-Hartgrove’s journey from racial blindness to sightedness; he engaged with and listened to African Americans—at summer camp, on front porches, as a member of Barber’s church, through Tupac’s music, and so forth. Tupac’s rhymes taught the author that he “didn’t know how to live in skin,” which made him feel less human (60, 61). “Racial blindness” is inherent in the “spiritual DNA” (65). Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God so as to consistently connect faith and politics in meaningful ways (67). But I believe kingdom of God politics inherently privilege power, wealth, and hierarchy over equity, equality, and justice; it is a very useful image for white supremacy. 

Chapter 5 argues that the Christian church’s racial habits have severed Christ’s body as manifested in its segregated community life and the violence of white supremacy. Chapter 6 asserts that when racial habits are changed, one’s worldview changes over time. Racial blindness and habits are accompanied by racial politics that separate people, through fear, from others they don’t really know. A savior that does not disrupt but supports racial politics is constructed and co-opted. Both white and nonwhite peoples have been complicit in racial politics that fail to confront systemic injustice. Ms. Ann Atwater taught the author to be in dispute with a world where friendship is political because injustice hurts our diverse friends. 

In part 2, the gospel of Jesus is reconstructed, beginning with chapter 7 where Wilson-Hartgrove argues that we all have been infected and impacted by slaveholder religion. With hospitality and radical challenge such as what Jesus demonstrated toward Nicodemus, we can be freed from slaveholder religion (like Sarah Grimke and others were). Chapter 8 argues that the blind cannot lead the blind; a moral revival movement does not need a white man to lead it. The author’s view is derived partly from the Rev. Dr. William Barber and his church’s hospitality toward him and “fusion politics,” which is “rooted in the faith of the black-led freedom movement” (131). Fusion politics is the politics of Jesus—a populace coalition of diverse peoples challenging evil political power, of which Jesus’s crucifixion was a consequence. Chapter 9 posits that slaveholder religion reinforces a society and church divided by racism. God’s grace calls us out of slaveholder religion. Although no church is perfect, Greenleaf Christian Church modeled for Wilson-Hartgrove the experience of “having church” where the gospel interrupts racial habits and politics, where investing in neighborhoods and people is a priority. Chapter 10 argues that white people suffer from a “shriveled heart syndrome” that can only be transformed by listening with an open heart to black people; this listening demands showing up and staying put in spaces where they are not the majority, in order to learn from black people and to unlearn the habits and practices of whiteness. Yet white people are responsible for their own transformative journey. It is “white fear” and not “white frailty” that keeps white people enslaved. 

I highly recommend this book to white and nonwhite scholars, college students and seminarians, religious leaders and congregants. We all need help to recognize and unpack the slaveholder religion we have inherited.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mitzi J. Smith is Professor of New Testament at Ashland Theological Seminary in Detroit, MI.

Date of Review: 
October 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a writer, speaker, and activist. He and his wife, Leah, founded the Rutba House, a house of hospitality where the formerly homeless are welcomed into a community that eats, prays, and shares life together. Jonathan directs the School for Conversion, a nonprofit that pursues beloved community with kids in the neighborhood, through classes in North Carolina prisons, and in community-based education around the country. Jonathan is also an associate minister at the historically black St. John's Missionary Baptist Church.


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