Juneteenth, also known as Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day, commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation and free the remaining enslaved people. Although the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863, many slave owners continued to hold their slaves captive after that date. Juneteenth marks the day when the last enslaved people in the Confederate South finally received news that they were free.
For Christians, Juneteenth provides an opportunity to reflect on the evils of slavery, celebrate freedom, and continue working toward racial justice and equality. Here is a look at the history of Juneteenth, how Christians can observe this holiday, and what the Bible teaches about slavery, freedom, and reconciliation.
Historical Background of Juneteenth
When President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, it declared that all enslaved people in Confederate states “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” However, this proclamation was difficult to enforce in many areas. Texas, as part of the Confederate states, continued to hold 250,000 people in slavery for more than two years after the declaration. It was not until June 19, 1865 that Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce that the Civil War had ended and slavery had been abolished.
General Granger’s announcement came more than two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, signaling the end of the Civil War. Even after the war ended, Confederate forces under General Kirby Smith continued the fight in Texas and did not surrender until May 26, 1865.
Upon their arrival in Galveston, General Granger and the Union army declared General Order No. 3, stating: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”
The reactions to this news ranged from shock and dismay to jubilant celebration. After years of enduring the horrors of slavery, nearly a quarter of a million enslaved people in Texas were finally set free. The following year, on June 19, 1866, the freed people of Texas organized the first Juneteenth celebrations to commemorate this life-changing event.
Juneteenth celebrations spread across the South over the next several decades as African Americans migrated to other states. It grew into a major holiday emphasizing education and self-improvement. Texas officially declared Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980, becoming the first state to grant it official recognition. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Poor People’s March planned by Martin Luther King Jr. was originally scheduled to conclude in Washington D.C. on June 19, 1968. Other states gradually began recognizing Juneteenth in the late 20th century. On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed legislation establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday, the first new federal holiday created since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.
How Juneteenth is Celebrated
Juneteenth is typically celebrated each year on June 19, unless that date falls on a Sunday, in which case the holiday is observed on the following Monday. Communities mark the occasion with festivals, parades, concerts, prayer services, guest speakers, rodeo events, baseball games, cookouts, family reunions, park parties, and more. Some of the key features of Juneteenth celebrations include:
- Raising the Juneteenth Flag – The Juneteenth flag, designed in 1997, features a star surrounded by a burst in the center to represent the “Lone Star State” of Texas, site of the last enslaved people receiving their freedom. The white bursting border around the star stands for the spread of freedom from Texas to other states.
- Public Readings of the Emancipation Proclamation and General Granger’s Order No. 3 – At festivals and gatherings, people will read aloud these decrees that brought freedom to all enslaved people in Texas.
- Singing Traditional Songs Like “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” – Also known as the Black National Anthem, this song expressing resilience during hardship is commonly performed.
- Guest Speakers and Public Readings – Events will often feature influential speakers, elected officials, poets, preachers, historians, community leaders and educators sharing stories, poems, folklore and insights about freedom and the experiences of formerly enslaved people.
- Family Reunions – People travel from miles around to reconnect with relatives and spend time together at barbecues, potlucks and other family celebrations.
- Rodeos and Baseball Games – Community rodeos and baseball games bring families together for outdoor fun and entertainment.
- Parades – People march down the streets waving flags, carrying banners and riding floats celebrating freedom.
- Traditional Foods – Special Juneteenth foods and drinks like red soda water, strawberry soda, fried chicken, baked beans, potato salad, cornbread, watermelon and red velvet cake are served.
- Prayer Services and Church Events – Many churches hold special services, recite prayers or join in marches to honor this historic day.
- Educational Events – Seminars, workshops, museum programs, cemetery tours, plays and historical reinactments teach about the struggles endured by enslaved people.
- Miss Juneteenth Scholarship Pageant – Young women compete for college scholarship funds while celebrating and exemplifying the ideals of Juneteenth.
Overall, Juneteenth provides an opportunity for African Americans to commemorate their history, take pride in their heritage, reconnect with family and community, and continue the work of equality and social justice. The celebrations reflect joy for freedom as well as determination to overcome the remaining challenges of racism and discrimination.
What the Bible Says About Slavery and Freedom
For Christians, Juneteenth offers a time to reflect on what the Bible teaches regarding slavery, liberation, justice, and reconciliation. Here is a brief overview of relevant biblical themes:
Made in God’s Image
The Bible teaches that all human beings are created equal in God’s image. Genesis 1:27 states: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” This affirms the innate dignity and worth of all people. Discriminating against or enslaving someone bearing God’s image goes against their divine purpose and value.
The Dignity of Work
Forced labor violates the Bible’s call to work honestly and justly. Ephesians 4:28 says “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Involuntary servitude steals the ability to profit fairly from one’s work.
God Hears the Oppressed
The Bible declares that God hears the cries of the oppressed and exploited. Exodus 3:7-8 says, “Then the Lord said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.'” God promises to rescue and liberate those suffering injustice.
Do Not Mistreat Foreigners
God commands his people not to wrong or oppress foreigners living among them. Many enslaved Africans were kidnapped from their homelands and transported overseas. Exodus 22:21 states: “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Christians should extend grace and hospitality to those displaced from their native countries.
The Golden Rule
Jesus commanded his followers to treat others the same way they would want to be treated. Matthew 7:12 says, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” No person wants to be enslaved against their will. The Golden Rule alone condemns the cruelty of human bondage.
Equal Before Christ
The New Testament teaches that discrimination has no place in the church. In Christ, divisions disappear and unity prevails. Galatians 3:28 declares, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Reconciling ethnic and social differences was a hallmark of the early Christian church.
Christ Brings True Freedom
While celebrating freedom from slavery, the Bible also reminds that true liberty is found in Christ alone. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Sin still enslaves people across all races and backgrounds. Jesus frees people spiritually from the slavery of sin.
In summary, the biblical emphasis on human dignity, justice, liberation, equality, and redemption anchors Juneteenth’sthemes in Christian teaching. The Bible opposes the enslavement of fellow image-bearers. It speaks against oppression and champions freedom, equality and reconciliation.
How Christians Should Celebrate Juneteenth
For Christians, Juneteenth can be commemorated both as a national holiday and as a faith-based celebration focused on the spiritual and social implications. Here are some ideas for honoring Juneteenth in a distinctly Christian manner:
Attend a Church Service
Many congregations hold special services in honor of Juneteenth. This is a chance to join other believers in giving thanks for freedom, repenting of racial sins, and committing to a more just society.
Host or Join a Community Celebration
Gather with other families in your neighborhood for a communal Juneteenth event. Share a meal, listen to speakers, sing worship songs, and build relationships across cultural backgrounds.
Participate in a Peaceful March or Parade
Raise awareness and inspire change by marching with other concerned citizens. Carry signs with Bible verses or statements calling for justice and equal treatment.
Read and Study Relevant Scripture
Spend time reflecting on Bible passages about slavery, deliverance, reconciliation, unity, and spiritual freedom in Christ.
Pray for Unity and Healing
Ask God to continue dismantling racial hostility and bringing diverse groups together in His family.
Support Ministries Pursuing Racial Reconciliation
Donate funds or volunteer with local organizations that promote cross-cultural dialogue, education and relationship-building.
Learn a Negro Spiritual
Negro spirituals were songs originating during slave times expressing the hopes and struggles of enslaved people. Learn one to sing or recite and ponder its message.
Read About the History of Juneteenth
Read books, watch documentaries, listen to podcasts, or visit museums to keep learning about Juneteenth’s history and significance.
Talk About Race with Your Family
Have open and honest discussions with your household about race relations and what your family can do to advance the cause of equality.
Address Personal Biases
Evaluation your own attitudes and assumptions about particular ethnicities. Repent where you harbor prejudice or unconsciously devalue others.
Share Stories of Racial Injustice and Reconciliation
Collect stories of hardship endured by minorities along with stories of people from different backgrounds overcoming barriers. Seeing life from other perspectives expands understanding.
Contact Elected Officials
Write or call government leaders urging policies that structurally address racial disparities and counter discrimination.
Donate to Ministries that Help Free Slaves
Support organizations working to end human trafficking and free modern-day slaves around the world.
Volunteer with Prison Ministries
In the U.S., African Americans are disproportionately incarcerated. Help programs providing rehabilitation, education and discipleship for prisoners.
Forgive and Release Grudges
Harboring unforgiveness regarding past or present racial wrongs poisons the soul. Pray for grace to forgive even the gravest injustices.
Juneteenth allows Christians an opportunity to celebrate the God who sets captives free while joining His ongoing work of liberty, justice, and reconciliation. Though slavery legally ended over 150 years ago, the work of building Dr. King’s vision of the “Beloved Community” remains unfinished. Juneteenth reminds believers to keep pressing toward freedom, equality and unity for all.