Juneteenth is an American holiday commemorating the end of slavery in Texas. It is observed on June 19 (Juneteenth is a shortened form of June nineteenth) or on the Monday following that date, if Juneteenth falls on a weekend. Juneteenth also goes by the names Black Independence Day, Emancipation Day, and Jubilee Day.
The history of Juneteenth goes back to the end of the Civil War in 1865. The war had officially ended on April 9, 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox, Virginia. Prior to that, on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation that, on paper, at least, freed all slaves in the Confederate States. Neither Lincoln’s proclamation nor the end of the war made much of a difference for slaves in Texas, however—news traveled slowly in those days. Prior to the war, mail had come to Texas via stagecoach or wagon; during the war, funding for the postal service was cut off, and delivery of mail was even more unreliable and sporadic.
Then, on June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger and his Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and read General Order No. 3: “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 freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” With that, slavery came to an end in Texas. On December 6 of that year, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, ending legalized slavery in all states.
In 1866, a year after Granger’s arrival in Texas, freedmen in Galveston celebrated “Jubilee Day” on June 19. From that point on, Juneteenth was observed in Texas with celebrations featuring music, barbecues, prayers, speeches, and church services. People began coming from other parts of the country to Texas to celebrate Juneteenth. In 1872, a group of ministers and businessmen purchased some land in Houston, named the spot Emancipation Park, and began using that land for annual Juneteenth observances. Juneteenth became a federal U.S. holiday in 2021.
Christians certainly can and should celebrate the end of legalized slavery. On both sides of the Atlantic, Christians were involved in abolitionist movements: William Wilberforce, John Newton, Charles Spurgeon, and John Wesley were all committed Christians who helped end the slave trade in England; John Woolman, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Charles Finney, and other American Christians were instrumental in abolishing slavery in the U.S. Christians then played a large role in ending the injustice of slavery, and Christians today should celebrate what they worked so hard to bring about.
In the Bible, freedom from slavery was celebrated in several ways. The Jewish people were to keep the Passover, which commemorated their exodus from Egyptian slavery. Also was the annual Feast of Tabernacles in which God’s people celebrated God’s provision in the wilderness following their deliverance from slavery. And every fifty years was the Year of Jubilee in which all debts were canceled, all slaves were freed, and all property was returned to the original owners. It is good and right to thank God for freedom, and that is part of what Juneteenth is.
On Juneteenth, we rejoice in that we’ve come a little closer to seeing the fulfillment of the words to the Christmas hymn “O Holy Night”:
“Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease.”
Juneteenth is a celebration of a victory over a national sin. Slavery was a sin and a stain on the United States. It was an evil to be stamped out. As Presbyterian pastor John Rankin wrote in 1822, “I consider involuntary slavery a never-failing fountain of the grossest immorality, and one of the deepest sources of human misery; it hangs like the mantle of night over our republic, and shrouds its rising glories” ( Letters on American Slavery: Addressed to Mr. Thomas, 2nd Edition, Landmark Press, 1836). Christians everywhere should celebrate victory over sin.
Juneteenth is a celebration of unity and justice. Slavery naturally divided people into those who were privileged and those who were considered “less than.” Legalized slavery was the epitome of injustice. President John Quincy Adams wrote in his journal that slavery “establishes false estimates of virtue and vice: for what can be more false and heartless than this doctrine which makes the first and holiest rights of humanity to depend upon the color of the skin?” (Memoirs of John Quincy Adams: Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1795 to 1848, Vol. 5, J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1875, p. 11). The Bible values unity and justice, and Juneteenth gives Christians an opportunity every year to celebrate those values.
Juneteenth is also a good occasion for the Body of Christ to pray for the healing of racial divisions within society and within the church. In Christ, there is “neither slave nor free . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). On June 19, 1865, the country finally broke a deep-set iniquity’s hold, but there remain wounds to be healed and bridges to be built.
The historical event marked by Juneteenth should be remembered and honored by those who follow the Lord Jesus. He is, after all, the One who came “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and . . . to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18).