Felder was an intellectual action figure

Dr. Felder

Dr. Cain Hope Felder can never depart fully from the earth because he leaves so much of himself behind. 

Dr. Felder died October 1. He was 76.  For decades, he was a pioneer scholar and a professor of New Testament language and literature and editor of The Journal of Religious Thought at Howard University School of Divinity. Through research and publications, he countered the negative conceptions about Africa and Blacks in biblical history. 

No ‘White man’s religion’ 

“Despite the fact that the Bible has a favorable attitude about Blacks, there is a mistaken impression that the Bible is the foundation document of the White Man’s religion,” he wrote in one of his many well-received books,  “Troubling Biblical Waters.” 

In 1993, Dr. Felder co-edited and produced the Original African Heritage Bible, a powerful broadside refuting the erroneous claims about Africa and Blacks in biblical history. First, he refuted the claim that the Black race was cursed and detailed how Black men and women are fully a part of the salvation history within the Bible itself. 

For example, Moses himself was Black (Afro-Asiatic) and he married an Ethiopian woman according to Num. 12-1-10. The Queen of Sheba was a Black African (1Kings 10-1-10 and 2 Chron.9:1-9). The New Testament mentions another Black queen, Kandace, queen of the Nubians in ancient Ethiopian capital of Meroe (Acts 8:26). 

The Ethiopian Abimelech acts to save the prophet Jeremiah’s life, thus becoming the beneficial of a singular divine blessing (Jer.39:15-18) and the dominant portrait of the Ethiopians in the Old Testament is that of a wealthy people (Job 28:19). Nimrod, the grandson of Ham who was Black, was cited at “the mighty warrior” (Gen. 10:8).

Who was Jesus? 

On the issue of race, Felder writes that Jesus of Nazareth, His mother, Mary were Afro-Asiatic and probably looked like a typical Yemenite, Trinidadian, or African-American of today. Felder points to Matt. 2:15 and Hos.11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” as Scripture that challenge the traditional perception of Mary and Jesus as White Europeans. 

The passage tells of how Jesus’ parents Mary and Joseph escaped to Egypt with the Christ child to hide from the murderous intent of King Herod, who feared someone rising up to displace him. Can you imagine the family depicted as White Europeans fleeing to a Black country to hide out? 

Despite the depictions of Hollywood, Egypt has always been part of Africa. Felder also points to the literally hundreds of shrines of the Black Madonna that exist in many parts of North Africa, Europe and Asia showing the mother of Jesus as Black with a Black infant son named Jesus. 

African dust 

Felder concludes, in the mythopoeic world of the earliest biblical authors, it was believed that in the beginning man was formed “from the dust of the earth. This very dust was envisioned as the soil of Africa.” 

Dr. Felder was ordained in the United Methodist Church and worked as the first national director of Black Methodists for Church Renewal from 1969 to 1972. After earning a doctorate in biblical languages and literature from Columbia University, he took a position as an adjunct professor at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1978 before coming to Howard in 1981.

Dr. Felder was Herculean in my life, an intellectual action figure who groomed me as a student, which eventually enabled me to teach at the Divinity School in the very classroom where in fear and trembling I learned from him about the Black presence in the Bible and much more. In the midnineties there were many churches and institutions that did not welcome female ministers; Felder helped me and many other women overcome that bias. 

Behind all the rigors of intellectual scholarship, Felder left his mark not by his first name Cain –the son of Adam and Eve who killed his brother – but by his middle name, Hope. While he demanded excellence, he also showed through his challenge of White institutional racism in biblical studies that he was not requiring of his students any more than the demands he put on himself. 

Holy Land tour 

In 2009, I was among the group that Dr. Felder let on a tour of Egypt and Israel. Biblical history came alive as we cruised down the Nile, reflecting on how Moses began his life as a Hebrew infant in a little ark floating away from terror onto his destiny as a liberator of his people. 

We rode camels alongside the pyramids. We went to Nubia, a place where I thought was just a byword until we actually visited there. In Israel, our group took turns preaching at the Garden of Gethsemane and Felder baptizes us in the River Jordan where Jesus himself was baptized by John the Baptist. 

I will truly miss Dr. Felder. I am just one of thousands who have been touched my his grace and greatness.


Dr. Barbara Reynolds is a former editorial writer and columnist for USA TODAY. She has also written for The Washington Post, Essence Magazine, Playboy Magazine, and the Trice Edney News Wire, and is the author of seven books, including “Coretta Scott King: My Life, My Love, My Legacy,” published in paperback in 2018.

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