What Is Juneteenth?

You would think that Juneteenth is a new holiday, but it has been observed in Texas for more than forty years.  However, it is now a federal holiday and many states, including Ohio, have also recognized it as such.  As with everything else, the media and our culture have worked tirelessly to politicize Juneteenth and use it to divide Americans.  This article includes a sizable excerpt from a piece written by George Scanlan.  The original article has been edited in this post to remove woke ideologies that many members of The Gospel Coalition continually put forth.  What remains is useful to help us understand the origin of the holiday, and help us think rightly about our mission as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Juneteenth (June + nineteenth) celebrates the date in 1865 when the last stronghold of slavery in the Union, Texas, received a formal decree to liberate all slaves. Though the Emancipation Proclamation had been in effect for nearly two and a half years, many thousands of black slaves remained in bondage. While word indeed traveled slower in those days, the information seemed to travel slowest across the many plantations in Texas, where wealthy slave-owning plantation owners and southern gentility had fled after the Confederate Army's surrender. From the onset of the Civil War, new mansions and plantations sprung up in Texas as the wealthy migrated to the westernmost southern state. Though most of the South had acquiesced to the demands of the Emancipation Proclamation, southern life in Texas had continued uninterrupted with all antebellum convention. So much so that when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Texas to issue "General Order Number Three," some 250,000 black men and women were still toiling beneath the whips of their owners, none the wiser of the news of liberty issued by the Federal Government.

Now, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect, and at the head of 2,000 Union troops, General Granger had come to enforce the liberation of slaves. On June 19, 1865, General Granger made the following announcement:

"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."

In short, the mass release of slaves was to happen forthwith. However, the transition that ensued was far from simple. Many slave owners kept their slaves in the dark until after the next harvest season, while others attempted to keep the news of their ordered release hidden altogether. Notwithstanding, when June 19 came the following year, the last vestiges of slave ownership had passed away, and the historic date became known as "Black Independence Day," "Emancipation Day," or "Juneteenth." Ex-slaves gathered in their communities, celebrating their freedom with expressions of the unique culture they developed during centuries of bondage. These expressions included prayer gatherings, music, singing of spirituals, parades, historical readings, and the sharing of food. In the years following, the celebrations also included training sessions on citizenship, including learning how to vote. Presently, 46 of 50 states commemorate Juneteenth, Texas being the first to recognize it as a state holiday in 1980.

Slavery in America, and the slave trade itself, has been wrong from the beginning. The practice of stealing and selling people was a typical, wicked practice among the nations that surrounded Israel. However, God explicitly outlawed such evil, declaring it to be punishable by death (Exodus 21:16). Even still, the buying, selling, and owning of slaves became prevalently common in Europe and America.

Though the institution's sinfulness was less evident to many domestically, for many Christians outside of America, its stain was obvious. After experiencing a radical conversion to Christianity and having sought the counsel of John Newton about whether to remain in public office, a young William Wilberforce resolved to "commit his life and work to service of God" and to remain in politics with "increased diligence and conscientiousness." His later meeting with Rev. James Ramsay would prove momentously significant, as he heard firsthand of the horrifying conditions and treatment of slaves on British sugar plantations and transport ships. With a strong desire to put his Christian principles into action and serve God with his public life, Wilberforce soon began a quest that would outlive him, but would eventually result in the abolition of slavery in most of the British Empire.

Charles Spurgeon also championed an anti-slavery, abolitionist message from his pulpit and published works. He made his position on the equality of slaves plain by regularly receiving ex-slaves into his Pastor's College and his pulpit. He articulated well his feeling toward slave owners when he wrote: "I do from my inmost soul detest slavery . . . and although I commune at the Lord's table with men of all creeds, yet with a slave-holder I have no fellowship of any sort or kind. Whenever one has called upon me, I have considered it my duty to express my detestation of his wickedness, and I would as soon think of receiving a murderer into my church... as a man stealer."

As grateful as we can be to such men for their legacy of Christian love and commitment to Gospel-centric equality, many of their contemporaries viewed such stances with apathy or opposition. However, Juneteenth marks the final victory for the many voices that stood against the abhorrent institution of slavery.

The historical slave trade in America is gone.  Juneteenth symbolizes the day an unrighteous institution was broken, and when God Almighty delivered America's domestic slave population.  We can celebrate the many Christians who rose beyond apathy and fought and spoke out against the great injustice of slavery. Ultimately, we can listen and talk about the Savior who came to release those who are enslaved by sin, and by whose grace we all stand on equal footing before the Cross through repentance and faith in Jesus.

Why is Juneteenth useful for all Christians? Because after generations of calling on the Lord for deliverance, our black brothers and sisters were set free.  Moreover, it can be a reminder that billions of people around the world are still enslaved to sin and need to hear the liberating message of the gospel.  Finally, it should be a call to remember that slavery still exists around the world and we should pray and work to end slavery in all its forms wherever it is found.