A Light in the Darkness (Part 1)

In the book of Genesis, a young and brash Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelites by none other than his brothers. Decades later, after years of slavery, false accusations, and prison, Joseph saw his brothers again and told them, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

Fast-forward a few thousand years, when the oppressed Jews were living under the watchful eye of the Persians. Through a providential series of events, a young and beautiful Jewish girl, Esther, became queen, and her cousin Mordecai wondered if everything happening around them was part of God’s plan all along. “Who knows,” he asked Esther, “whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).

Whether it was Joseph among the Ishmaelites, Esther with the Persians, Moses growing up with the Egyptians, or Daniel taken hostage by the Babylonians, there is a common theme found among the stories of slavery and oppression throughout history—a light in the darkness that God intended to shine in a mighty way.

For 180 years, Moody Center CEO Emmitt Mitchell’s family has held up that light in the darkness. Though it was certainly not a role anyone would’ve ever asked for, with the darkness at times seeming so impenetrable that not even the brightest of lights appeared to be illuminating the smallest corner, a story that began with a fourteen-year-old and her baby on a slave-trading block in Tennessee, has led to multiple family generations, throughout three centuries now, who allowed the light of Christ to use them to illuminate a dark room. What many had intended for evil, God meant for good. Though admittedly, the good was more difficult to see at certain times than it was others. Nevertheless, Mitchell says, “We didn’t live in the dark. We lived in the light.” 

It was a child named Nancy, forced into the most horrendous form of slavery the world has ever known—nineteenth-century American slavery—who had the first opportunity to shine that light in the darkest of hell holes, establishing the legacy that continues to influence and inspire her descendants almost two hundred years later.

A Family Begins Out of the Darkness of Slavery

Unfortunately, the site was not an atypical one in 1840s Tennessee. A fourteen-year-old girl—a child herself—wearing a tattered gunny sack dress and carrying her baby stood on an auction block crying, waiting to be sold to the highest bidder. Though not sure what the winner of the auction block would have in store for her, Nancy knew she would be the loser in the transaction, forced into a life of slavery no one ever dreamed of when running around chasing fireflies as a care-free child. 

By the end of the day, a man named James Mallory had bought Nancy, an old black man, and a mule. Nancy’s baby would be given to Mallory as a “bonus.”

It was just another Monday in Tennessee. Sadly, transactions like these happened all the time.

Mallory had recently moved to Texas as a settler. Coming out of the Alamo, with a great deal of help from Davy Crockett and company, the Lone Star State had announced to the nation, “Come to Texas and get free land!” The common belief at the time was that if you wanted to be wealthy in America, all you needed was “land and negroes,” according to the old Thomas Jefferson admonition. Texas was offering the land; all Mallory had to do was bring the slaves. Nancy and the old man would become part of his “team” that day, heading back to Texas to help Mallory build his wealth.

No one could have imagined that day—Nancy, most of all—that one day Nancy’s granddaughter would hoist up her own grandchild on her lap, young Emmitt, and tell him the stories of Great-great-grandma Nancy’s days in Texas, where she began as a slave but died as a free woman. Yes, free from slavery, thanks to President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the hundreds of thousands of lives sacrificed during the Civil War. But more importantly, free in Christ, whose gospel became well known throughout the slave fields of the South, giving them the Light they needed in these dark times.

At the time of slavery, according to Mitchell, people had ethical reasons for not getting involved in the clearly wretched practice. How could Christians—if not by faith, certainly by name—justify ownership of other humans, for the benefit of worldly wealth? They decided that the end could justify the means, if they introduced their “heathen slaves” to the gospel of Jesus. Of course, the irony of their country having been established out of a desire to escape the overbearing clutches of the British regime escaped them at the time, with the prospect of American wealth dancing before their eyes if they merely had slaves to work their lands.

Nevertheless, James Mallory and his family did what many slave owners did at the time to help them sleep better at night—they introduced Nancy and the others to Jesus. What some intended for evil, God meant for good.

But Jesus would not be the only man Nancy began a relationship with in Texas. As what happened all too often between slaves and slave owners back then, the single James Mallory decided Nancy was too beautiful to waste only in the fields. He would end up “asking” her to serve him in more personal ways as well, resulting in eight children over the next decade and a half.

About this unexpected role Nancy had been forced into by Mallory, Mitchell says, “Being the master’s favorite . . . was the worst situation on the plantation. You had no virtue. You were the favorite of the master, had better clothes, nicer food, which caused resentment among other slaves. You felt alone. Nancy felt she only had God.”

One of the eight children Nancy had through Mallory, Malvinna, would come to be known by Emmitt Mitchell as Grandma Allen, his great-grandma who one day witnessed with her own eyes a horrific scene on the Mallory land—representing quite possibly the absolute worst of humanity and the slavery it fought so hard to keep—that she shared one day with her own daughter, Mary, Mitchell’s Grandma McMillian.

By the time Nancy had entered her thirties, Mallory had finally begun earning the wealth that he had set out to find when decades earlier he bought for himself some “land and negros.” With his newfound status, he was able to then marry into a prominent Texas family. Now with his own wife, along with children through her, he had lost interest in Nancy, leaving her to be able to begin a relationship of her own with another of Mallory’s slaves, a man Mitchell’s grandma referred to only as “the driver.”

“The driver”—possibly called so because he may have had the job of cattle driver—would have two children of his own with Nancy, as well as become the surrogate father to her other children. The two loved each other, loved their children, and had made the best out of this unfortunate life of theirs—living in the light, not the dark, as Mitchell says. In a relative sense of the word, they were happy. And this drove James Mallory crazy. Nancy, still young and attractive, used to serve only his physical needs. Seeing her with the driver—happy, no less—set him off, and one day he decided he wanted to take up with her again. So that’s exactly what he did, taking her out of the house she shared with the driver and their children so as to have his way with her as he used to when he was younger. Understandably, the driver didn’t like this one bit, to the point that he fought back with Mallory, warning him, “If you touch her again, I’ll run every negroe you got off this place.” As the cattle driver, he had this kind of power. Like Joseph in the Old Testament had become, he was basically the prisoner in charge of all the prisoners. 

But Mallory was still in charge of the driver. And no way would a white slave owner be shown up like this on his land, by his own slave. So Mallory rounded up every man in the county, returned to Nancy and the driver’s house, and in front of Mitchell’s great-grandma Albina, who years later would bounce young Emmitt in her lap while holding the burden of this horrific memory still in her head, took the driver out of the house, dragged him with horses until his skin was torn off of him, then dunked him into a barrel of boiling oil until he had breathed his last breath.

Indeed, it’s a tough story to swallow, and Mitchell admitted to not having shared it before outside the family. How does one come to terms with such atrocity happening to anyone, in any country, let alone to your family, in your country? How does a little girl process seeing the only true father figure she ever had dragged by horses and tortured to death in a barrel of boiling oil? No doubt James Mallory intended evil with his unthinkable actions. Where would the good come from? Where would the light find a way to pierce through the impregnable darkness?

Moving Forward After the War

In 1865, the Civil War ended, and about another year after that the slaves in Texas were finally freed, including Nancy and her children. Not long after, young Albina, who had grown up into a beautiful young woman herself, married a buffalo soldier and war veteran, Andy Allen, whose family had moved to Paris, Texas, after being freed. In 1879, Mary—who Emmitt would know as Grandma McMillian—was born in Paris, but soon after would begin spending the majority of her childhood in forts all across the west, from the Grand Canyon, to Montana, to Grand Tetons. Her father, Andy, served with the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments, two black regiments that had been established after the war. Based out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the regiments’ assignment was to patrol the trails in the west and secure safe passage.

With so much familiarity with the military and their families, it isn’t surprising that Mary also ended up marrying a buffalo soldier herself, Percy McMillian, who had fought in the Spanish-American War under Teddy Roosevelt and later would end up on the battlefield in France during World War I, where he would give his life for the country that had enslaved his family.

Emmitt credits Grandma McMillian with helping to raise him decades later when he was a little boy running around Wichita, Kansas. He remembers vividly the many times she’d pull him up on her lap and tell him the stories of living in forts across the west. The stories of her mom, Malvinna, born into slavery in Texas. The stories of “the driver,” including his unthinkable ending. The stories of Nancy and her baby on an auction block in Tennessee.

Knowing well all that she and their family had been through that had led to that moment in Wichita, with Emmitt on her lap, she would point her finger at him and tell him, “You don’t fear nothin’ in this life, man nor beast. Some things will hurt you and some things will kill you, but you stand there and face it. Don’t turn your back and run!”

Emmitt’s great-great-grandma, Nancy, certainly would never have chosen to be stripped from her family, sold into slavery, moved across multiple state lines, given the burden of having eight children through the master, and forced to watch her husband succumb to a horrifying demise. But while in slavery, Nancy found Christ. She and her children learned to be content in whatever situation God placed them in. They learned to focus on simply doing the best with what God gave them. 

From the world’s standards—and certainly from James Mallory’s—they didn’t have much. But Nancy knew the truth. Because of Jesus, she had everything she needed, including eternity in God’s heavenly kingdom. And she raised her children to dwell on the day they would all be there together. Free. With nothing to fear, man nor beast.

Read Part 2 of this 4-part series on the family journey of D. L. Moody Center CEO Emmitt Mitchell.


JAMES SPENCER, PHD is President the D.L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody and Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind