One scene in Scripture that often arrests my attention and stirs my soul is painted in Hebrews 12:1. The preacher exhorts his congregation, telling them that, in their Christian race, they are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” As I picture this scene, I often think about the various people who are among this cloud. Besides those listed in the prior chapter (Heb. 11), this includes saints who have gone before us and who, by their example, encourage us to press on, to continue to trust in Christ, and to “hold fast the confession of our hope” (Heb. 10:23).
One individual who is among that great cloud and who has, by his example, shaped my faith and ministry, particularly as an African American Christian and pastor, is Rev. Lemuel Haynes (1753–1833). Haynes was born in West Hartford, Connecticut. He was abandoned by his parents as an infant and raised as an indentured servant by the Rose family, who treated him as one of their own children and raised him to love the things of the Lord. In their household, Haynes began to show interest in theology and gospel ministry, which would eventually lead him to become the first African American ordained minister in the United States. In the few sermons we have, we see Haynes’s love for the Lord Jesus Christ, his zeal for personal piety, and his commitment to being a faithful minister to God’s people. There is much we should seek to emulate in Haynes—and much has been written in that regard—but I want to highlight one aspect of his life and ministry in particular that has encouraged and challenged me: his emphasis on personal piety.
Pursuit of Piety
In many ways, the phrase “personal piety” has fallen on hard times in the church. When people hear “personal piety,” they think of someone who is a killjoy, or who lacks a sense of humor, or perhaps who considers themselves to be “holier-than-thou.” Maybe they think of legalistic rules and heavy burdens. But caricatures should not keep us from regarding the importance and necessity of piety. Piety is simply another word for godliness, something Scripture quite frequently exhorts God’s people to pursue. For example, Paul commands Timothy to train himself for godliness (1 Tim. 4:7), and later he repeats himself, telling Timothy to “pursue … godliness” (1 Tim. 6:11).
In my own Christian life, I have found it immeasurably helpful to have examples of individuals who are serious about living a consecrated life before the Lord. Lemuel Haynes took seriously the command to pursue godliness. In his first published sermon, The Character and Work of a Spiritual Watchman, he exhorts a freshly minted ordained minister that “the pious preacher will commend the Savior from the personal fund of his own experience. Being smitten with the love of Christ himself, with what zeal and fervor will he speak of the divine glory.” For Haynes, it was imperative that those who labor as ministers of Christ should be those who commend Christ out of their own devotion to him. What is true of ministers is also true of every Christian. As a minister, I want to preach and commend Christ to others as one who walks closely with Christ, and I want those under my care to experience that joy of closely walking with Jesus as well.
For Haynes, the pursuit of personal piety was based on friendship with Jesus. Typically, when one thinks of personal piety, their mind immediately drifts toward the law. And while obedience to God’s law is a necessary component to pursuing piety, it’s not our starting point. Here is where Haynes is helpful. His starting point for personal piety is friendship with Jesus, or as Haynes says, “being smitten with the love of Christ himself.” We find that Haynes follows a similar logic to Jesus in John 15:13–14: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Likewise, we pursue personal piety out of our friendship with Jesus. With this starting point for personal piety, rather than being killjoys, lacking humor, coming across as holier-than-thou, or being burdened by the law, our pursuit of piety will be marked by joy and sweetness because it flows from our friendship with Jesus and his sacrifice for us—the same joy and sweetness that marked Haynes’s life.
No Modern Apologies
In the forward to a recent book published on Haynes’s sermons, Jared Wilson states, “[U]nlike some of his own ministerial contemporaries—Haynes needs no modern apologies, no asterisk next to his legacy. He was a great minister of grace, worthy of great emulation.” May the Lord grant us more ministers who have that story of not needing any modern apologies. If we follow in Haynes’s footsteps just as he followed in Christ’s, by God’s grace we will.
Haynes, Lemuel. The Character and Work of a Spiritual Watchman Described [Sic]. A Sermon, Delivered at Hinesburg, February 23, 1791, at the Ordination of the Rev. Reuben Parmerlee [i.e., Parmele]. / By Lemuel Haynes, Pastor of a Church in Rutland., 2008. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/N18083.0001.001.
Haynes, Lemuel. Selected Sermons. Crossway, 2023, 16.