Charles Octavius Boothe was a slave. Born in Alabama, June 13, 1845, he was the “legal property” of one Nathaniel Howard.
Charles Octavius Boothe was a man of God. Coming to faith in Christ in 1865 and baptized in 1866. It seems his social or physical, and his spiritual emancipation coincided. And from that time on, as Walter Strickland writes in the introduction to Boothe’s “Plain Theology”, “Racial uplift was Boothe’s consuming passion.”
Boothe’s efforts toward this end were concentrated above all in education. He was convinced that an educated black community was the best way to contradict the stereotypes with which black Americans were saddled.
Entering the ministry, he both founded and pastored two important churches: “First Colored Baptist Church” in Meridian, Mississippi, and in 1877, “Second Colored Baptist Church” in Montgomery Al. The latter had a name change to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and went on to civil rights fame under the pastorate of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King served there from 1954 – 1960.
Thus while basic education was a necessity, Boothe was burdened that mere education was not enough. The impact in black literacy rates due to his and other’s efforts during this time was profound. In 1860, literacy among southern blacks was a mere 10%. By 1890, that rate had risen to 43%. But as I said above, for Boothe, that was not enough. Literacy alone could not accomplish what needed to be done. To quote Strickland’s Introduction once more: “Boothe promoted literacy so former slaves could read the Bible and break free of the oppressive interpretive practices that made the Christian faith a tool to subjugate blacks during slavery. By reading the Bible for themselves blacks could escape manipulative interpretations that were used to foster docility in slaves and make obedience to their masters synonymous with obedience to God.”
Boothe’s response that fuller need was: “Plain Theology for Plain People.” A systematic theology for those who had no prior theological platform to build upon. A volume in the plainest English, to summarize a Biblical framework and worldview to lead African American to their rightful place at the table of broader Evangelicalism. Simple but not simplistic. Brief, but not scant. Plain but not vulgar. It is a model of concise lucidity.
Boothe felt keenly the reality that in the African American community, those endeavoring to shepherd the souls of others and pastor God’s people were woefully ill equipped. In most cases prevented from higher education let alone formal theological education, something was needed to meaningfully and soundly fill the gap. And in my estimation, he more than succeeds.
As I read this very slender volume (140 pages in all) the word that kept coming to my mind was that it “breathed.” Systematics can be stifling. Don’t get me wrong, I am a systematics guy. I love systematic theology. I love the symmetry and the depth and the framework it provides. From Calvin’s Institutes (interestingly penned as a digest for the average ex-Romanist in the pew) to Shedd’s Dogmatic theology, Berkhof, Horton, Packer, Grudem, Erickson, Ryrie, Mullins, Boice, Frame and others – I gladly swim in these waters. But often, they can be so academic and philosophical, or so driven by a pre-cast system that they lose their energy. They don’t breathe. They aren’t for the average guy or gal in the pew, but more for specialists. Unlike the Bible. Not so Plain theology for Plain People.
I did not go back to actually test this in fact, but I think if you were to take out all of Boothe’s Scripture quotations and only referenced them – you would reduce the book by 1/3 to ½. This tells you two things: 1. It is Scripture-rich in all of its points. 2. It shows Boothe’s extraordinary facility with the Word in that Plain Theology is a sum of crucial Bible doctrine demonstrated from the Bible itself, threaded together by connecting thoughts from the author. Brilliant.
Gone is the specialized technical jargon of the academic in favor of clarifying simplicity.
There are a couple of glitches. Boothe is clearly committed to Believer’s Baptism. That might give some an itch to scratch. And his portion on church discipline seems a tad unbalanced at first blush. I would love to be able to have him clarify a couple of his statements more. But no one is going to be led astray. And while the readers will not emerge with the delightful ecclesiastical labels we are so fond of in our day for classifying everyone into categories, sub-categories, sub-sub-categories etc., they will be sound their overall Biblical understanding in a systematic way. He won’t say a word about being a Baptist, a Presbyterian, Methodist or Episcopalian. He won’t refer to being “Reformed” or “Calvinistic”, “Arminian”, pre- post- or a-mill, traducian, creationist, tricotomist, in-errantist or supra- sub- or infralapsarian. Nor will he mention being a White Christian versus a Black Christian vs a Hispanic Christian vs. any other ethnically categorized Christian. He will talk only of being Christ’s and belonging to His Church and knowing truth as revealed in the Scriptures.
Plain Theology for Plain People would make a stupendous small group study, beginning Believer’s class or individual Bible study for anyone wishing to come away with the basics in a readable, accessible non-technical format.
I really cannot recommend this work highly enough. Reading it was a real treat for my own soul. And at 140 pages, it can be read through very quickly.
Plain theology for Plain People has earned one of those permanent places in my collection – and one I plan to revisit again.
Lexham press is to be commended for bringing this gem of African American theological thought to us anew in our generation. It may be more useful now than ever before.