Explainer: What Is Juneteenth, and Why Should We Celebrate It?

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Americans love holidays. On Thanksgiving we gather around a table to marvel at our blessings. We sit on lawns in our red, white, and blue watching fireworks and rejoicing in our freedom on the 4th of July. The blaring of trumpets and offering prayers mark our remembrance of fallen soldiers on Memorial Day. We celebrate holidays to remember and reaffirm our national, religious, or cultural identity and values. Holidays are moments to remember, celebrate, and pass down our values and beliefs to the next generation. One holiday celebrated by some Christians is Juneteenth. 

Juneteenth is the celebration of the liberation of enslaved people in the Confederate states. Having been enslaved as early as the 1600s and fighting vigorously for their freedom, the Emancipation Proclamation declared slaves in the Confederate states as free. The Emancipation Proclamation was enacted in 1863 but not all enslaved were freed. Many cities like Galveston, Texas withheld the news of freedom from slaves.[1] But with the surrender of Robert E. Lee, southern states had no choice but to accept their emancipation. So, on June 19, 1865, General Gordon Grainger traveled to Galveston to proclaim that the Emancipation Proclamation had set enslaved people free. This day became known as Juneteenth. 

In an attempt to recognize Juneteenth, some Christians compare General Grainger’s role to that of a Christian evangelist, proclaiming good news. While well-intentioned, this comparison obscures the greater lessons we can learn from the enslaved people’s liberation, lessons which can point us to a more faithful understanding of the imago Dei and the Great Commission.

We celebrate Juneteenth because it granted enslaved people the full expression of the Imago Dei.

Juneteenth and the Imago Dei 

We celebrate Juneteenth because of what this holiday reveals to us about the inherent dignity and humanity of Black people.

1. Juneteenth reminds us that freedom is essential to the expression of the Imago Dei.

Genesis 1:27 tells us that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them.” Contemporary scholars believe this Imago Dei involves structural (reason and will), functional (what we do, like work and rule over creation), and relational (with God, others, and creation) capacities that make us human. When God created Adam and Eve, He created them with these capacities and the physical freedom necessary to express the Imago Dei and obey His commands. For example, physical freedom allowed Adam and Eve to work and rule over nature, reproduce, and live in relationship with God, others, and creation. 

Tragically, chattel slavery kept enslaved people from fully expressing their Imago Dei. It robbed them of freedom in childbirth and worship, and it turned nature into an oppressive lord over their lives. Though the lack of physical freedom didn’t remove the Imago Dei from the enslaved people, it did remove their ability to fully and freely express the Imago Dei. Thus, we celebrate Juneteenth because it granted enslaved people the full expression of the Imago Dei. 

2. Juneteenth instructs us to reject anthropological distortions from American slavery.

Defenders of American slavery declared that Blacks and Whites were different in their very humanity. Some believed that Black people were not human and others rejected the notion that Black people descended from Adam. Denying the humanity of slaves or rejecting their Adamic origins unravels the doctrine of original sin and the Gospel.

If Adam is not the federal head of Black people, do Black people possess original sin? If Black people are not human, can they be sinful or saved? If Adam is not the representative of Black people, Christ as the second Adam is irrelevant to their salvation. Consequently, there would need to be another gospel for Black people, or they can’t be saved at all.

Thus, in celebrating Juneteenth, we reaffirm the dignity and humanity of Black people.  Enslaved people were indeed image bearers descended from Adam, capable of being saved by the Gospel.

Newly freed slaves used their freedom to plant churches and fulfill the Great Commission individually and corporately.

Juneteenth and the Great Commission

We also celebrate Juneteenth for what it teaches us about the Great Commission. Two observations stand out:

1. Juneteenth shows us that freedom is vital to fulfilling the Great Commission. 

Though African American churches, missionaries and mission organizations existed prior to Juneteenth, the physical freedom granted to slaves resulted in a dramatic increase in the growth of African American churches and missionary work.

Historian Paul Harvey claims that “independent churches and denominational organizations sprang up quickly in black communities, including thousands of small local congregations and major national organizations” after the Civil War.[2] Benjamin Mays and Joseph William Nicholson identified individual initiatives and church missions as two reasons for the growth of the Black church after 1865.[3] Mays and Nicholson suggests that a study revealed that 110 out of the 185 rural churches present between 1866–1899 were birthed after emancipation.[4] Denominations were born and missionaries were sent to the South and places like Africa, Canada, Haiti, and Jamaica. 

Newly freed slaves used their freedom to plant churches and fulfill the Great Commission individually and corporately. Thus, Juneteenth shows us that freedom enables the fulfillment of the Great Commission and results in the growth of the Church. 

2. Juneteenth demonstrated eschatological discipleship. 

Trevin Wax defines eschatological discipleship as spiritual formation “that calls for contextualized obedience as a demonstration of the Christian belief that the biblical account of the world’s past, present, and future is true.”[5] Simply put, the Great Commission involves teaching Christians how to obey God in their cultural context. This form of discipleship was embodied by African Americans after Juneteenth.  

After Juneteenth, cities and states imposed social barriers to hinder the liberation of free Black people. Thus, while legally free, Black people did not fully experience physical liberation. Their discipleship involved teaching others how to live in relationship and obedience to God in the midst of racism, injustice, and inequality while they awaited their eternal rest. Thus, Juneteenth teaches us that the Great Commission must involve eschatological discipleship. Disciples consider the cultural context of those they are discipling and teach them to live holy in their context.[6]  

So, we celebrate Juneteenth to rejoice in the full expression of the Imago Dei among our brothers and sisters who were freed, in the preservation of the gospel, and in the eschatological discipleship of the late 19th century believers that encourages us now to go and fulfill the Great Commission.

Additional Resources

  • Frazier, E. Franklin. The Negro Church in America. New York: Schocken Books, 1963.
  • Pinn, Anne H. and Pinn, Anthony B. Fortress Introduction to Black Church History. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
  • Woodson, Carter G. The History of the Negro Church. Washington: The Associated Publishers, 1921.

This article was created in conjunction with Kingdom Diversity at Southeastern Seminary.

[1] Joe Williams Trotter Jr., 181, The African American Experience (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001), 181.

[2] Paul Harvey, Through the Storm Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2011), 69.

[3] Benjamin Elijah Mays and Joseph William Nicholson, The Negro’s Church (New York: Arno Press, 1969), 10.

[4] Ibid., 29–30.

[5] Trevin K. Wax, Eschatological Discipleship: Leading Christian to Understand Their Historical and Cultural Context (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2018), 41.

[6] Ibid., 55.


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Sherelle Ducksworth

Sherelle Ducksworth is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi and currently serves as a sociology instructor at Louisburg College in Louisburg, North Carolina. She earned an A.A. in general education from Coahoma Community College, a B.A. in sociology from Mississippi Valley State University, an M.S in sociology with a concentration on social stratification from Mississippi State University, and an M.A. in theology. She is currently working on a Ph.D. in systematic theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She and her husband Aaron currently live in Wake Forest, North Carolina and attend Christ Our King Community Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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