This month’s column is a medley of February celebrations. Enjoy.
February is Black History Month
Black History Month has its origins in “Negro History Week” in the 1920s. The idea of a whole month devoted to African American history was born at Kent State University in 1969 and caught on like wildfire in the following years. President Gerald Ford made it official in 1976. Now it is observed not only in the the United States, but also Great Britain, Ireland, Netherlands, Germany and Canada. While just about everybody knows Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., see if you can identify the contributions of these other great African American religious leaders (answers at the end of this column).
1. Harry Hosier (1750-1806)
2. Absalom Jones (1746–1818)
3. Richard Allen (1760–1831)
4. Sojourner Truth (1797–1883)
5. Alexander Crummell (1819–1898)
6. John Jasper (1812–1901)
7. Harriet Tubman (1822-1913)
8. William Seymour (1870–1922)
9. Thomas Dorsey (1899–1993)
Step aside Punxsutawney Phil
Ninety-nine percent of Americans think today is Groundhog Day. A fair number of Americans will watch the annual replaying of the hit 1993 movie with Bill Murray (as well as getting ready for tomorrow’s Super Bowl). About one percent of us, however, realize today is really Candlemas. Roman Catholics and Episcopalians (and maybe some high church Lutherans) know that Feb. 2 is the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
It’s even a big holiday in little Liechtenstein. Luke 2:22–40 tells the story of Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus at the Temple 40 days after his birth. That’s why some people consider Candlemas the true conclusion of the Christmas season. But why the name Candlemas? The suffix is easy to understand. There’s a Mass that day. What’s the deal about candles? It comes from the fact that many churches bless candles today for the upcoming year. Back in the day, I’d lug boxes of candles to the Chapel of St. Michael and All Angels at St. Peter’s Cathedral to bless for the upcoming year. Hence, Candle Mass, shortened to Candlemas. Now you know. Keep the faith burning brightly all year.
All about St. Valentine(s)
While we’re on the subject of significant celebrations in February, I don’t want to overlook Valentine’s Day, which is also Frederick Douglass’ birthday. He was the great 19th century African American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. Back to St. Valentine.
Did you know that there may have been two Valentines? Emperor Claudius the Goth (reigned 268-270) executed two men, both of them named Valentine, on Feb. 14 but in different years. Adding to the confusion, Valentinus was a popular name during the late Roman and early medieval era. There’s a least a dozen Valentines in church history. However obscure his origins, St. Valentine is considered the patron saint of lovers and happy marriages (also beekeepers but not chocolate makers).
The Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome claims to have his skull (or somebody’s skull). Bits and pieces of St. Valentine are scattered around church shrines in the Czech Republic, Ireland, Scotland, England, France, and on the Island of Lesbos. Credit fourteenth century poet Geoffrey Chaucer with introducing the day. In a poem entitled “Parliament of Foules,” Chaucer links courtly love with St. Valentine’s Day. The poem mentions Feb. 14 as the day birds (and humans) come together to find a mate. “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” So. Happy Seynt Valentyne Day to you!
1. Harry Hosier was one of the greatest preachers of his era, dazzling both white and black audiences. “Black Harry,” as he was known at the time, was a Methodist freedman who studied under Bishop Francis Asbury, the founder of the American Methodist Church.
2. Absalom Jones was the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church. He was friends with Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia who signed the Declaration of Independence.
3. Richard Allen founded the first African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in Philadelphia in 1794. Today the the AME church has 7,000 congregations and 3.5 million members.
4. Born into slavery, Sojourner Truth, a Methodist, dedicated her life to breaking down the institution of slavery and working on behalf of women’s rights.
5. Alexander Crummell was an Episcopal priest, missionary, and scholar who founded the first independent Episcopal church in Washington, D.C.
6. John Jasper, a former slave, was a Baptist minister and noted preacher who attracted thousands.
7. Harriet Tubman was a former slave, abolitionist, and political activist. Nicknamed Moses, she helped slaves escape from the South using safe houses called the Underground Railroad. Later in her life Tubman was an activist in the struggle for women's suffrage. She is slated to replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill by 2020.
8. William Seymour was a holiness preacher and one of the founders of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movements.
9. William Dorsey was the founder of black gospel music. His best-known composition was “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which was a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.