The first time that I met Cain Hope Felder in person was during a job interview. I was a finalist for a faculty position at Howard University School of Divinity. I had just launched into the start of my presentation when he sauntered into the room. There were students and other faculty present, but to me, it was as if the prophet Elijah had rolled in on a chariot of fire. I had devoured Felder’s book Stony the Road We Trod when I was a master’s of divinity student, and I regarded Felder as legendary hero in biblical studies. I managed to get through the presentation, and then I asked for questions. When Felder raised his hand, time stood still. In that moment, I recognized that whatever he said was going to determine my fate. With his booming voice, he wheeled back in his chair and bellowed, “Let me just say that…” (I held my breath.) He continued, “This is very fine work, and we need more of this around here.” (I exhaled.) Reader, I got the job.
In academia, faculty productivity is usually judged within three main areas: teaching, service, and research that leads to publication. Biblical scholar Cain Hope Felder was that rare academic who was exemplary in all three areas. Felder died on October 1, 2019, at the age of 76. His dedicated service to both the church and the academy will stand as his abiding legacy.
Felder was an internationally recognized New Testament scholar who forged new paths in African American biblical hermeneutics. In 1982, he earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University. His first book, Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class, and Family, was published in 1989, but he is probably best known as the editor of the landmark 1991 volume Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation. It was written and edited by Black biblical scholars who challenged conventional Eurocentric scholarship, highlighted the African presence in biblical texts, and engaged traditions of African American biblical interpretation, including interpretation outside of the academy. In the introduction, Felder wrote:
There is a great tradition of black biblical understanding. It is our calling in our time and place in history to recover, enlarge, and proclaim that tradition. We must use the training that we have received, but we must also argue with and correct such training, so we can apply our tools, language, and theological sensitivity to those realities that we were not taught to take seriously academically.
Felder was never content to focus solely on the biblical text as a dispassionate or seemingly neutral biblical scholar. Building on the research of scholars such as classicist Frank M. Snowden Jr. and Hebrew Bible scholar Charles B. Copher, Felder’s work attempted to provide a corrective to traditional biblical scholarship by emphasizing the importance of Africa and highlighting how interpreters had used and misused biblical texts, especially concerning matters of race and racism. For instance, in his article “Race, Racism, and the Biblical Narratives” in Stony the Road, Felder detailed how the so-called “Curse of Ham” (Genesis 9:18-27) was used to justify enslavement and negative views of Black people.
In an interview with New Testament scholar William H. Meyers, Felder admitted that at Union Theological Seminary he earned a “C” in his New Testament Introduction 101 course—the only C on his transcript—because it was so thoroughly “Eurocentric.” Felder told Meyers, “I became exasperated and had little patience or interest in dissecting the text and thereby seeming to murder it!” He was more concerned with addressing how the text was interpreted and how it applied to ministry. In his book Troubling Biblical Waters, he discussed his decision to pursue what would become a life-long research agenda. He explained:
I began to realize that my own theological training and graduate studies had treated most of ancient Africa as peripheral or insignificant. I also recognized that aspects of European historiography and archeology have been tainted by a self-serving, racialist hermeneutic that sought not objective truth but careful, ‘scientific’ ways of reinforcing the superiority and normative character of Western culture (i.e., white people) as the sole arbitrator of the biblical tradition.
Throughout his career, Felder maintained an unflinching dedication to countering the devaluation of Africa and to redefining critical biblical scholarship.
While renowned as a scholar, Felder was also a beloved teacher for generations of students at the Howard University School of Divinity (HUSD), where I was his colleague for six years. Howard University is a private HBCU (historically Black college or university) in Washington, D.C. Felder served as professor of New Testament Language and Literature and as editor of The Journal of Religious Thought. A product of the Boston Latin School, Felder graduated from Howard University in 1966 with a B.A. in philosophy. He spent three years as an instructor in New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, but he returned to Howard as a faculty member in 1981 and remained there until his retirement in 2016. Since both Old and New Testament courses were required for master’s of divinity students, nearly everyone who graduated from the School of Divinity encountered Felder in some capacity. He taught various courses in biblical studies and led study tours to Greece and Egypt. His scholarship and teaching influenced HUSD graduates as well as the congregations and organizations they served. Furthermore, his influence extended far beyond HUSD since his work became required reading in many seminary and university biblical studies courses.
Felder was a scholar and teacher, but he was not an ivory-tower academic. He remained committed to serving the church and aimed to provide critical resources for those interested in learning more about biblical texts. Felder served as the National Director for Black Methodists for Church Renewal from 1969 to 1972, and he served as the pastor at Grace United Methodist Church in New York City from 1975 to 1977. Later, Felder became an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC) and was appointed as the resident biblical scholar in the D.C.-area Second Episcopal District of the AMEC. Before it became popular to encourage academics to engage in public-facing scholarship, Felder maintained a demanding travel schedule and spoke frequently at churches, colleges, and universities. He appeared on The Phil Donohue Show in 1993 to discuss the color of Jesus. He argued that the biblical world was a multi-cultural world without color prejudice. Also, in a pre-Amazon era, he brought copies of his books to his speaking engagements, which contributed to their popularity outside of traditional academic circles. Contemporary scholars within various disciplines such as classics and history are beginning to grapple with how their sources are employed within White supremacist ideologies. For more than 30 years, Felder toiled to provide the groundwork for challenges to the false notion of Whiteness and homogeneity within the ancient world.
Although Felder taught in the doctor of ministry (D.Min.) program at HUSD, he had hoped to establish a doctorate of philosophy (Ph.D.) program in religious studies at HUSD before his retirement. (The D.Min. degree is a professional degree for those in ministry leadership, while the Ph.D. is a terminal research degree, which is the usual required credential for most academic research faculty.) Unlike his contemporary, the late theologian James H. Cone, Felder did not have the opportunity to shape a doctoral program or to train doctoral students. Still, he has had a lasting impact on the field of biblical studies through his encouragement and mentoring of HUSD master’s students who have gone on to earn doctoral degrees. Mitzi J. Smith serves as the J. Davison Philips Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. She earned a Ph.D. in New Testament and early Christian Studies from Harvard in 2006 after studying under Felder as a master’s student. Likewise, Rodney Sadler, Jr. went to Howard for his master’s of divinity degree. He is now a Hebrew Bible scholar and an associate professor of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary. His 2005 book, Can a Cushite Change His Skin? An Examination of Race, Ethnicity, and Othering in the Hebrew Bible, stands squarely within the tradition of Felder. The official records will not show Felder as the Doktorvater or dissertation advisor for either Smith or Sadler, but they are still his students.
Traditional academic productivity measures focus on the things that appear on one’s CV, but what “counts” in the eyes of the merit committee or the tenure and promotion committee does not take full measure of the effect of someone like Felder, who has played such a significant role in the lives and careers of academics, clergy, and laypersons. I no longer teach at HUSD, but like many other biblical scholars, I acknowledge that my work is made possible and made easier because of those who have gone before me, including Cain Hope Felder.
In the gospel of John 5:4, an angel troubles the waters and provides an opportunity for healing. Felder took his first book’s title from the African American spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” which offers comfort and guidance to freedom-seeking enslaved Africans. Consistently and unapologetically, Felder has troubled biblical waters, and our engagement with biblical texts has been forever changed.