Scholar who focused on Bible's diversity dies

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The Rev. Cain Hope Felder, whose “fierce and edgy” scholarship challenged Eurocentric interpretations of the Bible, died of cancer Oct. 1 in Mobile, Alabama. He was 76.

“He was a creative and visionary church leader and educator,” said the Rev. Fred A. Allen, executive director of Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century.

The Rev. C. Anthony Hunt, pastor of Epworth United Methodist Chapel in Baltimore, said Felder pushed the denomination on race from its earliest days. 

“As early as 1972, Dr. Felder sought to alert the newly constituted United Methodist Church to resist racist readings of Scripture,” Hunt said. 

A native of Aiken, South Carolina, Felder grew up in segregated Boston neighborhoods. He spent 35 years teaching at his alma mater Howard University, influencing generations of church leaders. He also spent years arguing that The United Methodist Church needed to uproot itself from racial discrimination. After retiring, he left the denomination over the issue.

From 1969 to 1972, Felder was a presence in the civil rights movement as the first executive director of Black Methodists for Church Renewal, the black caucus of The United Methodist Church.

“Cain Felder in scholarship and belief challenged those who use the Bible to justify their anti-black bias and bigotry,” said the Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell, a founder of Black Methodists for Church Renewal and a former staff member of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.

“He believed the Bible was not a weapon to be used to practice racism, nor sexism or heterosexism.”

Felder graduated in 1966 from Howard, a historically black university, where he studied philosophy, Greek and Latin. He earned a master’s degree in divinity from Union Theological Seminary; a Ph.D. and master’s degree of philosophy in biblical languages and literature from Columbia University; and a diploma of theology from Mansfield College at the University of Oxford in England.

“Abstract theory for him was without meaning if it was not coupled with Bible-based activism,” Caldwell said. “His boldness in writing and talking about race and racism, and black presence in Scripture, filled the void caused by the silence and denial of others.”

Felder taught at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1978 to 1981, then returned to Howard, where he spent the rest of his academic career. Many who admired Felder for his books and teaching weren’t aware of his work during the civil rights movement, said Bishop Woodie W. White, bishop in residence at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

“When he was with Black Methodists for Church Renewal, he was actually in between seminary and college, so he was not even a seminary graduate at that point,” White said. “He was a young guy, but extremely bright, articulate and passionate around the issue of race.”

Felder was able to negotiate church politics and reach out successfully to young black power activists at the same time, which showed remarkable grace and acuity at a young age, White said.

“He was as committed to working outside the church as he was working inside the church,” White said. “I believe his impact is still lasting because he was such a force for advocating for full participation of black Methodists in their own denomination.”

Felder was the editor of “The Original African Heritage Study Bible,” which highlighted Africans in the biblical world and text. He expanded biblical maps to show the entire African continent and not just the tiny sliver of Egypt and Ethiopia included in other editions of the Bible, said the Rev. Cheryl J. Sanders, professor of Christian ethics at Howard. 

Felder’s research showed that Scriptures contain ethnic diversity that has been downplayed. He also pointed out that as a Middle Eastern Jew, Jesus — while not black — would not have been considered Caucasian by today’s standards.

In his book “Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation,” Felder wrote: “I hope to clarify, for modern readers, the profound differences in racial attitudes between those in the biblical world and in the subsequent history of Eurocentric interpretation. … The Bible contains no narratives in which the original intent was to negate the full humanity of black people or view blacks in an unfavorable way.”

Hunt said this research “literally shifted the paradigm and changed the game in biblical studies for me and others. He helped black and brown people to see the Bible through our lenses and realize that it is our book in as much as it belongs to others whose skin is of different hue.”

A Felder book published in 1990, “Troubling Biblical Waters,” and the national promotion campaign that followed, was paramount in getting Felder’s ideas to a larger audience, Sanders said. 

Felder’s “fierce and edgy” approach to Afrocentric biblical studies will be long remembered, she said. 

“He was our champion and chief advocate for African American engagement in advanced theological and biblical studies.”

Felder served as pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in New York City from 1975 to 1977. He founded the Washington-based Biblical Institute for Social Change in 1990 and was chair of the implementation panel for the Smithsonian National Center for African American Heritage and Culture.

He held prominent positions in the American Academy of Religion, Rockefeller Brothers Fund for Theological Education, The Middle East Studies Association, The Black Theology Project, The Inter-Religious Foundation for Community Organization and the Society for Biblical Literature.

After he retired and accepted emeritus status from Howard in 2016, Felder left The United Methodist Church and became an elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“He tried to call the church into an honest accounting of itself and invited the church to shift and change, and tired of its racial injustice and racism,” said the Rev. Vance P. Ross, senior pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Atlanta. “I think the church was unsuccessful at opening a place where he could stay with a sense of integrity.”

Ross said Felder made a big impression on him as a lecturer. 

“He had a marvelous, marvelous mind, and dared to not simply imagine a new understanding of biblical literature, but went to it to say, ‘Here’s what Jesus was.’” 

A visitation is scheduled for 4 to 7 p.m. Oct. 10 at Toulminville-Warren Street United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama. 

A viewing will be held from 3 to 7 p.m. Oct. 18 at Emory United Methodist Church in Washington. A family visitation is set for 9:30 to 11 a.m. Oct. 19 in Cramton Auditorium at Howard University, with the funeral service immediately afterward and interment at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood, Maryland.

Survivors include his wife, Jewell Richardson Felder of Mobile, Alabama; daughter Akidah H. Felder of Bethesda, Maryland; brother Robbie J. Felder of Salley, South Carolina; and sister Mary Harvey of Moorestown, New Jersey.

Patterson is a UM News reporter in Nashville, Tennessee. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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