In his book on New School Presbyterianism, George Marsden cites American historian Stanley Elkins on one reason America failed to end slavery peacefully:
Elkins suggests that one of the causes of the failure of Americans to resolve the sectional crisis peacefully was a breakdown of effective national institutions, including the churches. Evangelical reformers, Elkins further suggests, because of their characteristic unwillingness to compromise morally, failed in their efforts to carry out their programs through national religious institutions. The absolute moralism of the independent antislavery agencies left little room for support from Northern moderates, and only drove the South into its extreme defensive stance. In the national denominations a strong abolitionist stance invariably brought only a division between North and South.
Granted, it was without question a huge fault of the churches, but the problem was more complex than the refusal to compromise among abolitionists. This phenomenon came so late in the process that the “extreme defensive stance” Elkins mentions on the part of the South already had deep foundations from much earlier. The defenders of slavery in the Southern churches met abolitionist propaganda with a large stock of arguments that had been solidified decades earlier in State houses and the national Congress, and even earlier. On the part of the Southern ministers, it was nothing but a program of dressing up the same old arguments in their own personal rhetoric.
Marsden, however, goes on to add a further explanation I find very interesting, for it has ramifications not only for understanding the antebellum South, but our own contemporary battles today.
Another factor may be added to explain the failure of the institutional churches to make a truly significant contribution to the peaceful resolution of the slavery problem. American Protestant denominations are, in general, too democratic for effective social action. The republican ideals of the rights of the individual and the right of dissent were by the early nineteenth century too deeply engrained to be excluded from American religious life. As a result, with only few exceptions, American denominations have been unable to legislate effectively among their own members for reforms of any wide social implications. Often they have participated in important reform movements, but seldom have they been ahead of popular political reforms. They can hardly expect to be. The republican ideology demands that the denominations follow, rather than lead, their constituencies. If the constituency is significantly divided, as is nearly bound to be the case on crucial social issues, effective denominational reform is impossible. Dissenters from the majority opinion, viewing the church as a free agency, which they have every right to leave, in the face of institutional pressure will simply leave. Preaching and propaganda may, of course, alter social mores; but the American denominations as institutions lack any power to effect social revolution. This institutional impotence is classically illustrated in the antislavery campaigns where Christians did attempt to lead a major social revolution during an era when they were remarkably successful in many minor campaigns.
In the Presbyterian Church, which appeared to have both the machinery and the leadership for effective action, all these inherent weaknesses in the evangelical abolition efforts are particularly conspicuous.1
Yes, it was clear in all the major denominations, not just Presbyterians, that this phenomenon took place. The membership and the pews were so filled with people entirely sold out to the slave system that it would have seemed like a career suicide for any minister to condemn it from the pulpit. Add to this that so many of the clergy courted prestige from the upper class and prominent members of the slave owning aristocracy, and you have the recipe for compromise and even worse: outright defense of wickedness and hate.
One of the very few outspoken uncompromised Presbyterian ministers in the South, George Bourne of Virginia, illustrates the case of career suicide. Bourne was so uncompromised and faithful that he was preaching the demand to discipline slave owners for abuses, etc. The slaveocracy in the church responded with discipline alright: for Bourne. He was deposed from his pulpit, and the decision was upheld on appeal. Bourne appealed all the way to General Assembly, but in 1818 the national Assembly, too, upheld the conviction. Bourne was canned.
But this decision rankled the abolitionists in the denomination, who were growing more and more influential. So, the same General Assembly placated with a strong published denunciation of slavery as wholly incompatible with the Christian faith and as sin. It was to be the strongest language from the denomination yet; but compared to the actions sustained against Bourne, it didn’t seem to make sense except as an attempt to please all sides.
The tough language against slavery, however, also coincided with the establishment of the most popular “abolitionist” measure in the church: the American Colonization Society. It was hardly a call for true abolition, but could pretend to be antislavery while not really accomplishing anything. The central tenet of the ACS was that blacks ought to be freed, and then immediately shipped back to Africa. Will you please donate to the cause so we can send blacks back were they belong, rid the American continent of their presence, and thus end slavery gradually? (The corollary was, of course, that if blacks could not be sent back to Africa, it was better that they remained as slaves—better in the view of most whites, that is.)
The ACS was enormously popular among Presbyterians and Presbyterian ministers. It far outstripped all other purported antislavery groups in prominence, star power, and fundraising power. There were others far more serious and far more radical; but nothing could match the ACS. It was so safe for whites to pretend to be in favor of emancipation, raise huge sums, and not really have to do anything on behalf of those suffering.
This is precisely where this story has a modern parallel: pro-life ministry.
The ACS was to the nineteenth century slavery issue as the national right to life groups are so often to ending abortion today. It was big; it had the allegiance and photo-ops with all the big national evangelical leaders; it could raise tons of money, shake hands with politicians, and talk big. But it was abjectly compromised in its methods from the outset, only ever had moderate ambitions for ending slavery, and was failure. As it was, it was not only a tremendous failure, it was a tremendous waste and sink-hole for evangelical money.
A large reason for this failure was exactly what Marsden notes above: the compromised nature of the church, the complicity in the sin in the church; the inability of the church to purify itself on such issues in such a way as to preach an uncompromising message without angering large parts of its constituency.
Far too much of the church is compromised personally on the abortion issue, is afraid of hurting someone’s feelings by calling it murder and calling for total abolition, is so afraid of the national supreme court, or is afraid of a local fight and stand, or is compromised by “two kingdoms” thinking such that they think legal and political change should not be part of the church’s message. Failures, all.
Another corollary of Marsden’s point is this, and we need to think seriously about it: if there is going to come a real solution to the abortion issue, it is probably going to have to come from outside the institutional churches. True, there may be single local churches here or there that can get on board as a group; but until the denominations get far more pure and far less compromised on these issues, the work will only advance by the work of parachurch ministries and highly motivated individual members of the body of Christ.
In the same way that the most prominent abolitionist voices against slavery came from individuals and small parachurch groups, so today in regard to abortion, such forces will need to shake the institutional churches with a powerful, uncompromised message, and even call vast segments of the compromised church to repentance. The abortion ministry world needs the likes of a Christian William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Weld, and Frederick Douglass, working from biblical grounds to provoke the rest of the body to love and good works.
Let’s hope that the compromised preachers don’t entrench themselves in “extreme defense stance” once again; but sixty million dead dwarfs the civil war; and God will not be mocked.
- George M. Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Century America (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1970), 88–89. [↩]