The American Church’s Approval of Slavery
While we would like to imagine that historically speaking, the church in America spoke out against slavery, what actually transpired occured more along the lines of geography, rather than theology:
With a few notable exceptions, each denomination made its own accommodation in due time, and the schism of the northern and southern branches merely strengthened a fait accompli.
Thus, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church declared in 1861 that the slave system had generally proven “kindly and benevolent” and had provided “real effective discipline” to a people who could not be elevated in any other way. Slavery, it concluded, was the black man’s “normal condition.”
An Account of Modern-Day Slavery
In his excellent book, Woke Church, Eric Mason shares a personal account of watching people being sold into slavery in real-time with his family:
“CNN released an exclusive report in October 2017 titled, “People for Sale: Where Lives Are Auctioned for $400.” A team of their reporters traveled to Libya and witnessed smugglers auctioning off twelve migrant men as slaves, some for no more than $400.
This modern-day slavery sprang up in recent years when the Libyan coast guard started cracking down on refugees fleeing the country for Europe. Smugglers suddenly had a backlog of refugees on their hands and began selling them as slaves. The reporters learned of at least nine other locations in the country where these auctions were taking place. As our family sat around the family table for dinner, we started talking about what was happening in Libya. We often discuss current events around the dinner table, assessing them through a biblical worldview.
My sons came and stood up behind me as I took out my phone. We don’t usually allow phones at the dinner table, but I made an exception this time. I began showing them a video, not of atrocities, but of the reporting on the story so they could see and understand what was happening. My eight-year-old son, Nehemiah, started crying. He said, “Who are these people?” I said, “Son, these are our people.” He said, “These are our people? Is this today?” He could not wrap his eight-year-old mind around it.
He began to weep because he could not reconcile the idea of slavery in today’s age. My son couldn’t believe that people of any kind would be enslaved, particularly people that looked like him. Nehemiah had never been to Libya. He had never met any of the people featured in the video that we watched, but they looked like him, and he immediately understood his connection to them. They were his people. And their pain, their trauma, became his pain and trauma. When I think about his emotional response, I see what should happen within the family of God whenever injustice rears its ugly head.”
An Appetite that Killed
Thomas Costain’s history, The Three Edwards, described the life of Raynald III, a fourteenth-century duke in what is now Belgium. Grossly overweight, Raynald was commonly called by his Latin nickname, Crassus, which means “fat.” After a violent quarrel, Raynald’s younger brother Edward led a successful revolt against him.
Edward captured Raynald but did not kill him. Instead, he built a room around Raynald in the Nieuwkerk castle and promised him he could regain his title and property as soon as he was able to leave the room.
This would not have been difficult for most people since the room had several windows and a door of near-normal size, and none was locked or barred. The problem was Raynald’s size. To regain his freedom, he needed to lose weight. But Edward knew his older brother, and each day he sent a variety of delicious foods. Instead of dieting his way out of prison, Raynald grew fatter. When Duke Edward was accused of cruelty, he had a ready answer: “My brother is not a prisoner. He may leave when he so wills.”
Raynald stayed in that room for ten years and wasn’t released until after Edward died in battle. By then his health was so ruined he died within a year. . . a prisoner of his own appetite.
American Clergy’s Involvement in Slavery
James Birney in The American Churches, the Bulwarks of American Slavery writes about how the ministers offered support for slavery and opposed abolitionist efforts. In 1835 in Charleston, South Carolina, at a public meeting to exclude anti-slavery publications from circulation and ferreting out persons suspected of favoring abolition, the Charleston Courier reported that “the Clergy of all denominations attended in a body, lending their sanction to the proceedings, and adding by their presence to the impressive character of the scene.” …
Virginia slave holders gathered together on July 29th, 1835 in Richmond and resolved unanimously that “the suspicions which have prevailed to a considerable extent against ministers of the gospel and professors of religion in the State of Virginia, as identified with abolitionists are wholly unmerited—believing as we do, from extensive acquaintances with our churches and brethren, that they are unanimous in opposing the pernicious schemes of abolitionists.”
The history of passive and complicit silence or even the outright support of slavery challenges us in the twenty-first century to consider ways to lament this period. Often, majority culture Christians are unaware of its lasting import, while African-Americans may be acutely aware of its deep-rooted impact. Given the deep wounds left by slavery, the work of racial reconciliation becomes an essential step toward multiethnicity and cross-cultural ministry.
The Gospel Torn in Two
A few weeks after our Christmas at the DPAC, I visited Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Church, a quaint chapel one town over from Durham in Hillsborough, North Carolina. This place was never a megachurch, but 150 years ago it was the DPAC of its day. North Carolina’s elite donated the land and built this chapel in 1824. Their children intermarried, and by the end of the Civil War a member of the church, Paul Cameron, was the wealthiest man in North Carolina. He owned most of the land that is now Durham County and nearly a thousand enslaved human beings…
Thomas Ruffin donated the land where Saint Matthew’s still sits today. He was an upstanding white citizen of North Carolina in the nineteenth century and a lifelong member of the parish, where the fellowship hall still bears his name. Ruffin was also a justice on North Carolina’s Supreme Court. When a white man was convicted of assault against a woman he hired, Ruffin’s court voted in the State v. John Mann to overturn the white man’s conviction. Ruffin wrote the opinion himself.
The priest had read Ruffins words with a pastors eye. He could see the man who is still buried in Saint Matthew’s graveyard wrestling in every sentence with the reality he experienced at the Communion rail each Sunday. Ruffin went to great lengths to acknowledge the humanity of the slave. But legal precedent was clear. “The power of the master must be absolute,” the white churchman wrote, “to render the submission of the slave perfect” Reading Ruffin’s opinion, the priest said, was “like watching a man tear himself in two.
A Matter of Life and Death
Ideas are a matter of life and death. Take slavery, for example, which deems some peoples as inferior to others and regards people as objects to be used. Eugenics similarly witnesses to a whole set of beliefs that suggest only certain human lives are intrinsically valuable — so long as (in the case of Nazism) they are German, have blond hair and blue eyes, and do not have Down syndrome or a disability.
One cannot read Hitler’s writings on the concept of lebensraum (“final solution”) and suggest that ideas, even in seed form, are insignificant or not worth debate. In the end, the ideas of a few led to the murder of millions. For this very reason, Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl commented that the very ideas behind the Holocaust did not arise out of nowhere.
Rather, these monstrous ideas were disseminated mostly from the cold lecterns of university classrooms across Europe in the years leading up to World War II. The Holocaust was first conceived as a simple, inconspicuous idea — unchallenged and unquestioned by far too many.
Ideas are not neutral, be they religious, philosophical, or scientific. Cultural critic and historian Howard Zinn once wrote, “We can reasonably conclude that how we think is not just mildly interesting, not just a subject for intellectual debate, but a matter of life and death.” Christian philosopher Dallas Willard agrees: “We live at the mercy of our ideas.
Perhaps no statistic reminds us more graphically of the distortion of power in our world than this: there are twenty-one million slaves in the world today. They labor as brick makers, coffee harvesters, cigarette rollers and domestic servants. They are not free to leave. If they try, they are savagely beaten.
Millions are serially raped in brothels—as young as nine years old—and even those not enslaved in the sex industry are liable to be sexually exploited at the whim of their masters. They are paid nothing beyond the barest amount for their subsistence, often ostensibly to pay off debts incurred by themselves or their parents, but in fact laboring under onerous interest rates that ensure that their debt will never be discharged.
… Today, it is not just India where you can purchase a slave for one hundred dollars—in his 2008 book A Crime So Monstrous, the journalist Benjamin Skinner describes negotiating to purchase a twelve-year-old girl in Haiti, for the purpose of labor and sex, for a grand total of fifty dollars. In the documentary film At the End of Slavery, Ambassador Mark Lagon observes that this means that modern slaves are in effect disposable, “like a styrofoam cup.” Such slavery is illegal in every country in the world, and few government officials are eager to admit that it is happening on their watch. But it is happening, thanks to official complacency and, often, complicity.
The Most Popular Argument for Slavery
I read that Thornton Stringfellow, pastor of the Stevensburg Baptist Church in Virginia, had made one of the most popular arguments for slavery when Baptists in the mid-nineteenth century were deciding to secede from the American Baptist fold. In a university archive, I found a copy of Stringfellow’s A Brief Examination of Scripture Testimony on the Institution of Slavery. I pored over it like a cancer patient might read her oncology report…
Stringfellow did what Christians have always done to justify injustice. He assumed that the status quo was normal. Abraham, the father of our faith, owned slaves. So did New Testament Christians. Jesus himself had not condemned the practice so it must have been acceptable. Stringfellow, like many before him read in the curse of Noah’s son.
Ham, a divine cause for the race- based subjugation that had become a matter of law in America…Stringfellow claimed with rhetorical flourish that slavery “has brought within the range of Gospel influence, millions of Ham’s descendants among ourselves, who, but for this institution, would have sunk down to eternal ruin; knowing not God, and strangers to the Gospel” He went on to argue that enslaved people would probably live better lives in America than they would have as free peasants in Africa. But the truth of his claim hardly mattered because he had, by his very logic, severed his gospel from the real, bodily conditions in which people live.
The Narrative of Racial Difference
In this excerpt by Bryan Stevenson, the civil rights attorney and author of Just Mercy, explains the origins of racial identity and difference, necessitated by a slave-based (American Christian) society and economy:
The whole narrative of white supremacy was created during the era of slavery. It was a necessary theory to make white Christian people feel comfortable with their ownership of other human beings. And we created a narrative of racial difference in this country to sustain slavery, and even people who didn’t own slaves bought into that narrative, including people in the North. . . .
So this narrative of racial difference has done really destructive things in our society. Lots of countries had slaves, but they were mostly societies with slaves. We became something different, we became a slave society. We created a narrative of racial difference to maintain slavery. And our 13th amendment never dealt with that narrative. It didn’t talk about white supremacy. The Emancipation Proclamation doesn’t discuss the ideology of white supremacy or the narrative of racial difference, so I don’t believe slavery ended in 1865, I believe it just evolved.
It turned into decades of racial hierarchy that was violently enforced—from the end of reconstruction until WWII—through acts of racial terror. And in the north, that was tolerated. And so we are very confused when we start talking about race in this country because we think that things are “of the past” because we don’t understand what these things really are, that narrative of racial difference that was created during slavery that resulted in terrorism and lynching, that humiliated, belittled and burdened African Americans throughout most of the 20th century.
The same narrative of racial difference that got Michael Brown killed, got Eric Garner killed and got Tamir Rice killed. That got these thousands of others—of African Americans—wrongly accused, convicted and condemned. It is the same narrative that has denied opportunities and fair treatment to millions of people of color, and it is the same narrative that supported and led to the executions in Charleston [South Carolina].
Corey G. Johnson, “Bryan Stevenson on Charleston and Our Real Problem with Race,” interview with Bryan Stevenson, The Marshall Project, June 24, 2015.
Pro or Anti-Slavery?
Upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, President Lincoln was purported to have said that it was nice to meet the woman who started the Civil War. Stowe’s father was among the northern evangelical ministers who preached against slavery.
Other preachers from the south penned equally eloquent pro-slavery sermons. The church, like the country, found itself split by the slavery controversy. How could church leaders come to such different conclusions while reading the same Bible? Can we draw lessons from this defining moment in our history, or are we doomed to repeat it?
Seared into Her Conscience
Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a slaveholder and judge in Charleston, South Carolina, was five years old in 1797 when the sight of an enslaved person being whipped seared her conscience. Like many white people before and after her, she was troubled in her body. It made her sick to her stomach. But Grimke was told this was how the world works. She was supposed to get used to it.
Instead, Grimke read voraciously in her father’s law library, trying to understand how it had become normal for white people to own and control black bodies. For over thirty years, she continued to question her privilege and the customs of plantation life. In defiance of South Carolina law, she taught the enslaved woman who worked most closely with her in her fathers house to read. When she was thirty-six years old, Grimke finally fled her father s house and native South to become an abolitionist in Philadelphia.
Eight years later, Grimke wrote in an open letter to Southern clergy that “slavery has… trampled the image of God in the dust.” She was challenging fellow Christians to face what had become clear to her after nearly four decades of personal struggle. Trusting her gut and asking hard questions, Grimke learned to see.
Spirituals and Suffering
There is no lack of pain and suffering in the world. Look around. Read the newspaper. Click on the Internet. Scroll Facebook or read a tweet. Suffering is always present like the paparazzi. It seems to stalk its human prey. Suffering is a part of the broken, sin-sick world. And if there is a theomusical genre that reminds us of this, it is the Spirituals.
They are musical memorabilia created on the anvil of misery by enslaved Backs. They are sorrow songs. They are suffering songs. However, to sing can be a sting to the reality of suffering. It can be a sign of hope and the presence of God in the midst of agony. This is why they called the “Spirituals” because they are the Spirit’s song and the Spirit will not be stopped and will blow through every season of life, even liturgical seasons like Lent.
Using Christianity as a Means of Social Control
A great burst of proselytizing among slaves followed the Nat Turner revolt. Whereas previously many slaveholders had feared slaves with religion—and the example of Turner himself confirmed their fears—now they feared slaves without religion even more.
They came to see Christianity primarily as a means of social control. Hence the apparent contradictions of the period: a decline of antislavery sentiment in the southern churches; laws against black preachers; laws against teaching slaves to read and write; encouragement of oral instruction of slaves in the Christian faith; and campaigns to encourage more humane treatment of slaves.