With just one look at the news app on your phone, you’ll take in a host of seemingly insurmountable issues involving race, religion and social structures. Dr. Daniel Lee Hill, however, finds himself emboldened to face them by the inspiring actions of figures of the past. His upcoming book, Gospel Freedom, aims to detail the struggles and achievements of 19th-century Christian abolitionists.
“I’m trying to illustrate what [abolitionists] did in a time when they had limited social agency and rights of citizenship and show how we can learn from them as we attempt to formulate an evangelical account of public life,” he says.
In particular, Hill is teasing out the ideas of three abolitionary leaders: William Still, Maria Stewart and David Ruggles.
We can cry out to the Lord and ask him to do things…but we can also be used by him to cultivate these pockets of renewal.”
“Although they’re not as well known in contemporary times, they were very influential in their day,” he says. “In an era when they’re told they can’t do anything, they refuse to accept that proposition. William Still, for example, was called ‘The Angel of Philadelphia’ because he helped 1,000 people get to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Even though he was offered a chance to go to Canada, he was committed to transforming things in the US. That challenges me because I think about family members and neighbours I grew up with who need that kind of hope. We can cry out to the Lord and ask him to do things like alleviate poverty, educate those who are incarcerated or whatever the case may be, but we can also be used by him to cultivate these pockets of renewal.”
Long before he decided to pursue academic work, Hill held lofty ideals of being a missionary. It took some rather brutal insight for him to change course.
“Some gracious missionary friends told me that I didn’t know anything and needed to go to seminary, and they were right,” he recalls.
But, by the time he finished seminary, Hill still didn’t feel equipped to wholeheartedly serve the church.
“I like to use the analogy of renovating a room in a house, and you’re putting up drywall,” he says. “You’ve run out of time to finish it, so you’ve got these gaping holes everywhere that you’re covering with paint and spackle to hold you over. I still had questions I wanted to think through, and that’s what led to me to do a PhD.”
After completing his PhD in biblical and theological studies, Hill was involved in young adult and college ministries, helped found a classical Christian school in Chicago’s west side and served as assistant professor of theological studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. In August 2022, he took the position of assistant professor of Christian theology at George W. Truett Seminary at Baylor University. As he still longs for answers to enigmatic questions, Hill’s research focuses on 21st-century challenges such as race, social-sin and human embodiment and frailty. His findings led to the publishing of his first book, Gathered on the Road to Zion: Toward a Free Church Ecclesio-Anthropology, in 2020. The idea for Gospel Freedom came when the term “evangelical” was being heavily debated within the US.
“There was a lot of conversation about who is and isn’t included in the term, if it should be retired altogether and the larger responsibility of the church,” he explains. “I’d been reading about abolitionary figures for my own edification, and they have a very different approach to answering this question. As runaway, escaped or freeborn slaves who identified as evangelical in one form or another, they thought that the church had a responsibility to seek transformation in society.”
Committing to seeing the good in those around us can have a marked change in an individual and a community’s life.
Gospel Freedom is due to be published later this year with Baker Academic. Hill hopes that readers will share in his conviction to bring about transformation right where they are.
“We can get caught up in the hustle and bustle of life and ignore things that don’t affect us, or we can decide that we’re actually bound to our neighbour. Committing to seeing the good in those around us can have a marked change in an individual and a community’s life.”
On January 25, 2023, Dr. Daniel Lee Hill will speak on “Reweaving the Social Fabric: William Still and Public Life” as part of Redeemer’s The World and Our Calling Lecture series.