If you’re not scandalized by the history of slavery and racism in our America, then you have not read much of the full history of it. “Yes, it was bad,” shows hardly adequate reflection, and “but it’s over now” not only compounds this, but shows too much of an eagerness not to learn any more. It’s time to be done with this attitude.
Great reports are already coming in for The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (get your copy here today) from some who have obtained eBook versions and read the first chapter or so. Last night I was told it was “engaging,” which is a tremendous relief for anyone writing history. Of course, the subject matter and shocking truth of what people simply don’t know is a big part of that. Then late last night I got the following comment:
I can’t put your new book down!! Man! you need a podcast or something. Good work sir!
We’ll see about that podcast (I’ve been wanting to for a long time), but the comments on the book are very encouraging. These reactions are exactly what I hoped for.
As you can imagine, however, there is also a good degree of hate. Some modern racists, old South defenders, neoconfederates, and/or old-school alt-righters are already hating on The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (and they haven’t even read a word of it yet!), and their ignorant comments only demonstrate ever more strongly the dire need for the information in this book.
Some have complained, for example, about the title of the book, for various reasons. It just so happens I have a few explanatory lines about the title, which was carefully chosen, in the book’s Preface. These comments may just wet your appetite a little bit for this book:
The best way I can think to spark the needed awakening is to start with what startled and aroused me to action on this topic: the history of slavery and slave laws, and the role of the churches in perpetuating them. Then, I read just how openly unconscionable and callous the justifications and defenses of racism and slavery were, not just from the planters and politicians, but especially from the men who should have known far better—the pastors. It is for this reason that I structured a whole chapter of this book as I have: responses to the claims, arguments, lies, myths, and propaganda produced by Southern theologians. In my case, I will focus on the Defense of Virginia [and Through Her, of the South], by Robert Lewis Dabney, but rest assured that Dabney’s position is without question representative of the hundreds of other proslavery defenses that appeared beginning in the 1800s. . . .
[T]his book is entitled The Problem of Slavery in Christian America: An Ethical-Judicial Critique of American Slavery and Racism. This contains several points of its own worth mentioning. First, the main title The Problem of Slavery in Christian America plays off the work of a giant in the field, David Brion Davis. His hefty volumes The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966) and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1999), as well as The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (2014), are substantial in every way and are probably the closest thing to being definitive works in a field that defies definitive works. While not pretending to have achieved the same status as Davis’s works (which beyond these are voluminous) by any means, I have adopted the theme because I wanted to provide the same type of work with the same type of academic tone for the evangelical Christian world, and I thought it was particularly fitting for the nature of much of the writing which follows.
Second, “Ethical-Judicial” refers to our moral foundations and laws, and means that this book will emphasize the role of laws and institutions pertaining to race and slavery. This includes the roles of both the State and the Church, as well as other key social customs and economic factors, all of which are moral issues. For this reason, Part I of the book details what may be called the “secular” history of these issues, then Part II backs up and tells the history of the churches and religious doctrines involved—and unfortunately, there is much to tell. The description also, however, designates the need for objective standards by which we critique the facts of our history and our attitudes to each other, especially when these are not pretty. The prophets—of which I am not—would have called this type of historical exercise a covenant lawsuit: judging one’s history and institutions according to the law of God, to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Third, I do not pretend to address the whole history of slavery, nor “slavery” or “slavery in itself” as an abstraction (an equivocation by which quite a few defenders of the institution stymied many a critic in debate), but specifically “American Slavery.” By this I mean the institution as it came to be practiced specifically in North America, later the United States and the Confederate States of America. In its historical setting, “slavery” in America meant a very specific set of laws, practices, realities, abuses, reactions, prejudices, etc., all of which are inseparable from each other. Anyone defending “slavery” in that context was defending the whole of it, no matter what caveat they provided, and anyone criticizing “slavery” in that context was criticizing the whole, no matter what debate opponent or respondent was able to divert the discussion into an abstraction. Here, we specify “American” slavery to cover the whole system in its various forms from the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia around 1619 all the way to industrial penal slavery as late as the 1940s, and perhaps in some select instances beyond.
Fourth, the book deals with both “Slavery and Racism.” In the American context, slavery and racism were made almost inseparable very early in the process, and Part I explains how and why that occurred. But it did not always remain this way. The racism that existed primarily against blacks remained strong long after slavery was formally ended. Society, State, and Church all partook of this sin for decades after the institution of slavery was officially abolished. Even where some forms or legacies of the slave system did not exist, racism still pervaded nearly every area of life.
While this book also does not purport to be anywhere near an exhaustive history of either slavery or racism, not even just in America, it is certainly more than enough, I believe, to answer the need for knowledge on the subject, to call, where necessary, some members of society and churches to repentance for neglecting, denying, or dismissing the painful realities.
While there is much more to come, I hope you can see just from this that the issue is far deeper than modern arguments over confederate statues or immigration, or #blacklivesmatter, yet it is also certainly still linked. It is also far deeper and more troubling than any of the neoconfederate or old south sympathizers or defenders I have read (a few of whom are men I otherwise respect) have related. It is my deep and earnest hope they will read this book, and read it very slowly and with much contemplation.
For those of you interested, Reconstructionist Radio has already started an audio version of the book. This will probably take a long while to get up all the way, but the reader, Joe Salant, has done a pretty good job with what I’ve heard so far. Go check that out, too.