As we watch gospel personalities criticize groups who are both spreading awareness for the immediate abolition of human abortion and calling the evangelical church to repent of its apathy (like R. C. Sproul, Sr. has courageously done), it will be helpful to put things in perspective. Here, history can be of great service, although I will warn you, if you’re not into being convicted, proceed no further.
“Abolitionism” today refers to the immediate end of abortion. In other words, it wants to #EndAbortionNow. But most people are familiar with the word from a previous era—the abolitionism made famous by William Wilberforce as well as many such activists in America.
Most people are probably aware of the general religious convictions of men like Wilberfore, William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Weld, and women like Harriet Beecher Stowe. Most people who know much about the abolitionists know that there were religious motivations behind their actions.
What most people do not know is the unfortunate fact that these religious figures were considered fringe elements by the majority of Americans, certainly by the religiously informed. What most people do not know is that the greatest published opposition by far to the abolition of slavery in America was the mainline, establishment churches.
In the history books, this opposition is often well-highlighted among the Southern theologians, but the opposition to radical—immediate—abolition was just as strong from churches and ministers in the Northern free states as well.
A great illustration of this comes in the case of Andover Seminary in the mid-1830s.
Abolition at Andover
Andover was the Westminster Seminary of its day, having been founded by conservative Calvinist ministers, including Jedidiah Morse of American history fame, who had fled the Unitarian takeover at Harvard around 1805.
Several students at the seminary were persuaded by the radical abolitionists Garrison, Weld, and others. They formed a society and organized lectures by these at the seminary chapel, but almost as soon as the abolitionist fire began to spread, the seminary leaders moved to shut them down, and largely succeeded. They succeeded, anyway, in ensuring that the institution itself would remain officially opposed to immediate abolition and in favor of the lip-service version, gradualism and colonization. In the end, while I think the author of the article I am about to feature was a bit too soft on the leadership, he does conclude that “one of the most important, if not the significant, factor predisposing the educators to reject organized immediatism was their professional self-image. . . .”1
The abolitionist movement started on campus in 1833. It was tiny at first, but the work it did was huge. It “criticized the unexamined presuppositions of colonization and voiced the salient arguments of immediatism.”3 The “student abolitionists publicly repudiated colonization” as a movement ultimately built on racism. It was “spurred by hatred and prejudice toward blacks” and thus “proposed to rid America of an unwanted people.”4 These students consistently attacked this prejudice, the slavery built upon it, and the compromise of an emancipation only pending deportation as sinful and contrary to the principles of the gospel. By 1835, 40 out of 164 students sided with the abolitionists, and actually more than that were unofficially on board.5
In other words, up until this point, the establishment’s apathetic, but “professional” and publicly-favorable position had gone unchallenged. When it was exposed by applications of godly ethics and theological principles, students began to see the logic and unrighteousness of it. Awareness and a desire for action grew, and the establishment suddenly realized it had cause for concern—embarrassment of themselves if nothing else.
The convicting mirror here should be becoming evident already, but the full reality appears in the reaction of the leadership. They called a meeting between the faculty and students in 1835, and the faculty, one after the other, preached to the students the dire need “to cease further agitation of the explosive issue.”6 The most disheartening—but enlightening as a historical mirror—point is the reasoning they provided for the need to shut down agitation for immediate abolition.
Reasoning for inaction
Thompson lists four reasons. Of these, only one has any tinge of merit, one is poor, and the remaining two are utterly reprehensible. But here’s the even worse part: they are all four argued still today as reasons to distance oneself and one’s organization from immediate abolitionism of abortion.
The first reason was that debate on the seminary campus would cause division and injure brotherly love among the students. This is the poor reason. What is higher education for if not for hammering out divisive issues? Why was there not some forum for debating issues, especially the most crucial social issue of their day? What we see here is a false piety that values a false unity based in institutionally-imposed censorship. But such silence does not promote brotherly love or unity; it simply creates a coerced neutrality which universally indicates victory for the status quo. In other words, this route creates a safe space for the status quo and ensures nothing imediate will never happen.
The second reason has a façade of merit, but in reality is one more version of the classic dualism inherent in “two kingdoms” theologies. “Professionally” stated, the argument says that “to become embroiled in the slavery question would sidetrack the students from their proper role as Christian scholars and candidates for the ministry.”7 How in the world slavery could not qualify as an issue of at least Christian scholarship, if not ministry, is beyond me. But separating the two like this is what status quo-defending pietists always do, and the Southern theologians were experts at saying, “well slavery is a civil issue, and we only deal with spiritual issues here, sorry.”
Later in his life, Andover Professor Moses Stuart would publish his work against American slavery as a moral wrong and in favor of gradual emancipation. In it, his dualistic theology would shine through: “I have frequented the lecture-room, in the Theological Seminary here, near forty years; yet I believe none of all my pupils will charge me with occupying their time in political lectures.”8 To him this was something to be proud of, as was the fact that he played a central role in suppressing the students’ abolitionism as well—by using such theology.
Beyond these tactics, however, the leadership got startlingly candid—and this is where the reprehensible arguments come. The third argument made was that “to take sides publicly on such a divisive issue would jeopardize their usefulness as ministers by making it difficult for them to secure a church or other post.”9
This is a classic veiled threat: fall in line, or you won’t have a job. Rock the church-boat, and you won’t have a paycheck.
This threat is the reprehensible bullying of cowardly men. And it is used just a widely today as it was then. It is rarely presented in such overt terms, but it is always the unspoken assumption for all seminary students who wish to graduate through the ranks of the organization, get ordained and accepted, and actually receive a pulpit. If your family wants to eat, don’t preach unapproved subjects, certainly not controversial social issues.
Finally, added onto this intimidation tactic, the seminary also revealed its own fear of losing money. The faculty argued that “to plunge the seminary into a bitter wrangle would cast a shadow over the future prospects of the school . . . by alienating friendly churches and wealthy benefactors. . . .”10
There you have it. Don’t do anything to get this institution associated with immediate abolition because our large donors would not like that. Boom. We want you to have a paycheck, and we want to make sure we have one, too. Meanwhile, four million souls remained in chains and slavery, and the best the establishment could do was say one day they may be freed, gradually, maybe a few at a time, and then we can ship them back to Africa. For now, stop convicting folk with your divisive, immediatist and equality nonsense, because there’s a lot of money at stake for us.
Of course, the slave holders in the South could have said the same thing—and many of them did.
So did their pastors.
So did their representatives in Congress, assembled.
So do the opponents of radical, immediate abolition of abortion today.
The appeals seem to have been effective. The majority of students passed a resolution disapproving of all action on the subject of slavery. But when it was clear that the more conscientious among them would still meet, the faculty petitioned the seminary’s Board of Trustees for power to forbid any student associations to be formed without approval of the faculty. This would mean the outlawing of any abolitionist groups meeting on campus, and the power to kick them out if they did.
The Trustees granted the request. After 1835, there is no evidence of any challenge to the faculty’s view. Any protest was confined to off-campus activity and private letters. But the hostility to abolition remained on campus, despite the now-outward appearance of peace and order. One student wrote to Theodore Weld in 1837, “God’s own book is insulted here and that by those who minister at the altar—aye by those who are appointed to train up the ‘leaders of the sacramental hosts of God’s elect.’” But aside from this, the forces of the establishment ended any discussion of immediate abolition.11
Look in the mirror
So, now, look in the mirror you defenders of the establishment, of the organized leadership. Look in the mirror you who criticize the zealous, uncompromising work of today’s immediate abolitionists of human abortion. See the image of yourselves in these leaders:
See them call any debate over the most serious ethical issue we have ever faced “divisive.”
See them label the challenge to apathy “divisive.”
See them hide the demands of justice and God’s Law beneath the false veneer of “unity” and “brotherly love.”
See them ensure the victory of man’s worse crimes with censorship.
See them call the most serious ethical issue we have ever faced “a sidetrack.” It’s not a priority.
See them absolve themselves of ethical duty by separating spiritual issues from “political.”
See them threaten ministers with the loss of a job if they speak out.
See them suppress the truth in the unrighteous covetousness of large donations.
See them intimidate those who would speak out in their ranks.
See them label radical abolitionists as fringe, divisive, distracting, kooks, church haters, having bad theology, and even dangerous.
When intimidation alone doesn’t work, see them use force and compulsion to kick them out.
See them all the while write books, give lectures, and hold conferences on how much they oppose the very evil they are protecting through all these actions.
Look in the mirror, and see your seminary students. See your seminaries. See your pastor. See your church leaders. See your parachurch leaders. See your Christian representatives. See your favorite theologian.
Most of all, look in his mirror and see yourself. Four million souls suffered and many died while thousands of pious theologians made excuses, bullied people, postured publicly, and spread lies which protected their professional image and their flow of funds, and cashed large checks. Today, they do exactly the same things while tens of millions of souls are murdered routinely in the womb. Nothing has changed, except that the apathy of the church has risen in proportion to the bloodshed, and its war on immediate abolitionists has intensified to match.
The hostility toward activists who preach the need for the immediate, coming from established organizations and ministers is as reprehensible now as it was then, and the arguments and reasoning virtually identical. The church needs to repent, and this means scores of leaders need to repent and show an example to their followings of repentance from apathy. I can only echo wholeheartedly the appeal of Dr. Sproul:
It is time for churches that see the evil of abortion to stand up and be counted—no matter the risk or the cost. When the church is silent in the midst of a holocaust, she ceases to be a real church. Wherever human dignity is under attack, it is the duty of the church and of the Christian to rise up in protest against it. This is not a political matter, and neither is it a temporary matter. It is not a matter over which Christians may disagree. It is a matter of life and death, the results of which will count forever.
Check yourself, Christian.
- J. Earl Thompson, “Abolitionism and Theological Education at Andover,” The New England Quarterly 47, no. 2 (June, 1974): 241.(↩)
- You’ll need a subscription or a library visit to do more than read it online one page at a time.(↩)
- Thompson, 243.(↩)
- Thompson, 243.(↩)
- Thompson, 245.(↩)
- Thompson, 246.(↩)
- Thompson, 246.(↩)
- Thompson, 255.(↩)
- Thompson, 246; my emphasis.(↩)
- Thompson, 247; my emphasis.(↩)
- Quoted in Thompson, 251.(↩)