How Can Christians Defend Slavery?
How can Americans defend our history of slavery?
We can’t! American enslavement of blacks is an inconvenient truth that has no defense. Yes, there is plenty of guilt for everyone including the black chiefs who sold other blacks for hundreds of years before Arab slavers approached the African coast. But that does not absolve others of the horrible guilt.
Only one in eleven Southerners owned slaves; however, a vast majority of the leaders did: politicians, educators, doctors, even preachers. In South Carolina 40% of Baptist preachers were slaveowners! That is a shame, a scar, and a scab upon that illustrious group.
There was no justification for Christian Americans and even pastors owning slaves and they did by the thousands. Churchill in his A History of the English Speaking Peoples revealed that 660,000 slaves were held in America by ministers and members of different Protestant Churches!
Five thousand Methodist ministers owned 219,000 slaves while 1,400 Episcopalians held 88,000 blacks. Alas, 6,500 Baptists owned over 125,000 slaves. Furthermore, such slavery was defended in many pulpits Sunday after Sunday.
Only the Quakers, as a movement, condemned slavery during the Colonial period. They were right on slavery while wrong on pacifism.
Some Liberals who are more interested in their agenda rather than the truth only present one side, the worst side, of the slavery issue. In many churches, especially Baptist churches, Blacks had active roles as leaders–even preachers–while the Anglican (Episcopal) Church refused them such positions. Some plantations even had churches or chapels built for the slaves.
After some slave revolts in the early 1800s, especially Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, Virginia law required black churches to have a white minister present for all services.
In the early days of the First Great Awakening that began in the 1730s, Baptist and Methodist preachers argued for the release of all slaves and an end to slavery but it was a losing battle and they eventually found ways to defend slavery! They used the Bible by twisting the passages and especially the “curse of Ham” to defend the indefensible.
Christian plantation owners were often leaders at the local Baptist and Methodist churches and were often overwhelmed with guilt. They knew the holding of humans was demeaning, disgraceful, and depraved but were stuck in the system. They had large plantations that required workers and slaves were the only answer. Many slave owners were aware of their greedy materialism and knew it was condemned by the Scriptures.
A wealthy Alabama slave holder warned his son: “Don’t let this world, or the honors of the world, yea I would add the Riches too, cheat you out of the love, and of course the favor of your blessed savior…I know it is not sinful to be rich, or honorable, but Mr. [John] Wesley says it is extremely dangerous, therefore we should watch and pray much in order to keep humble and devotional. . . .”
The Methodists tried to expel slave holding church members in 1784 but found it unenforceable and withdrew the demand. Baptists in Virginia denounced slavery in 1789 and the Kentucky Elkhorn Baptist Association presented a resolution against slavery in 1791 but it was so controversial it was dropped.
Presbyterian synods in New York City and Philadelphia in 1787 suggested that their members gradually end slavery and by 1792 most Presbyterians thought slavery should be ended. By 1815, Presbyterians decided that buying and selling of slaves was “inconsistent with the Gospel.”
Most Abolitionists who fought to free the slaves belonged to strong Methodist and Baptist churches; however, that does not ameliorate the fact that many ministers held slaves no matter how well they were treated.
In 1840, concerned Baptists formed the American Baptist Anti-Slavery Society and that decisive action forced the fence-straddlers to take a stand. In 1844, the Georgia Baptist Convention appointed a slave owner as missionary to the Cherokee Indians but when he came up for approval at to the General Convention he was rejected.
The following year, southern Baptists withdrew to form the Southern Baptist Convention in Augusta, Georgia. The Methodists and Presbyterians also split over slavery. So there was no unanimity on the slavery issue.
In 1855, the soon-to-be famous Confederate General Stonewall Jackson broke the law every Sunday morning by teaching a Sunday school class of Blacks at the Lexington Presbyterian Church. That example of civil disobedience should have been emulated by every pastor and Christian worker. Alas, it was not.
The slavery scandal is a scab on society. Frankly, I think too many unprincipled people “use” the issue for their own selfish desires; however, it is time to admit the guilt of all participants and move on.
Nevertheless, there is a side of this issue that I have never heard discussed: the failure of local pastors to come down hard on their congregations filled with slave owners.
It is one thing to discuss the evils of slavery in a denominational meeting with religious leaders and another thing to preach of its wickedness during a Sunday morning service. That was seldom done, much to the shame of Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian clergymen. Especially Baptists who have always made such a big issue out of standing for biblical truth. And still do.
Our theological ancestors faced influential plantation owners each Sunday morning and said nothing and many pastors today take a stand like a crippled chicken and keep silent lest they lose members, rock the boat, and maybe precipitate an IRS inspection of their church activities. Their local mayor may even demand a copy of recent sermons; and some pastors will probably turn in their sermons–like sheep, not shepherds.
While it is easy for me in the safe distance of the 21st century to criticize my fellow Baptist preachers of the past, it was still a major failure. Those of us today must learn from that failure.
Preachers must major on biblical preaching; we must also give some direction to society.
If anyone is against the killing of unborn babies, it should be Baptist preachers. If anyone is against the perversion of marriage, it should be Baptist preachers. If anyone is against porn, it should be Baptist preachers. If anyone is against vile, venal, visual garbage on television it should be Baptist preachers.
While pastors in the past refused to take on the “colored” thing, most modern day pastors even refuse to take on the color television set that spews out visual garbage because they know it would split their church or put them in the unemployment line.
Baptist preachers preaching against vile television would be as explosive as a pastor preaching against slavery in the 1800s as leading plantation owners gasped and headed for their buggies. It didn’t happen then and it isn’t happening now.
Sometime, even preachers don’t walk their talk.
Top 6 on BarbWire.com