There has been a lot of discussion since we released Joel’s book The Problem of Slavery in Christian America. He has spoken extensively on the issue of race, and not always in a way that makes some of our followers comfortable. Some have even said, “This is not the same American Vision.”
Without analyzing every detail, the truth is that the views expressed in that book repeat the same sentiments as the ones I wrote below, originally in 1991, republished in 2010, and still stand by today. These include the following main points:
- The Bible condemns chattel slavery and the slave trade as practiced in the West and America.
- Christian civilizations continued to practice it anyway.
- Christians who spoke out against it were labeled “Jacobins,” the equivalent of “Marxist” or “Cultural Marxist” in their day.
- The legacy of slavery and mistreatment of both natives and blacks affects people even today.
- The churches were either directly involved in the problem or aided it with their silence.
- The churches’ theology which spurned social issues worsened the problems.
- The churches’ failures abdicated the problem to humanists and leftists.
- The churches’ failures to lead meant emancipation would come at great cost.
Joel’s book is obviously far more detailed than the following excerpt, but it does not depart from these same points. If anything, it is the extensive detail which is behind the greater discomfort felt by many today.
You can read the full context and much more of my views in the book, Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: How Misreading the Bible Neutralizes Christians and Empowers Liberals, Secularists, and Atheists. The following comes from the 2010 edition, pages 124–128.
Jesus Sets the Pattern
Jesus had established the precedent for the abolition of slavery when he declared the “fulfillment of the provisions of the jubilee year (Luke 4:16-21).”1
Christianity did not inaugurate a violent crusade against slavery. To have commanded and attempted the immediate overthrow of slavery in the Roman Empire would probably have wrought great havoc, brought greater burdens and suffering upon the unfortunate slaves, plunged masters and slaves into protracted war, and turned Europe and Asia into fields of blood.2
The apostle Paul built on the theological foundation for emancipation laid by Jesus when he wrote that in Christ Jesus “there is neither slave nor free man” (Gal. 3:28). Emancipation would have to come through reconciliation in Jesus Christ where the slave could be regarded as a brother. This was Paul’s admonition to Philemon, that he would receive Onesimus back to him “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Phil. 16).
The message of freedom made its way slowly through the church and empire. In time, however, Rome would be judged by God for trafficking in slaves. Those “kings of the earth who committed acts of immorality” (Rev. 18:9) would come under the judgment of God (18:10) because of their buying and selling “slaves and human lives” (18:13).
The sad fact is that it took centuries before the church became the reforming institution that Jesus and Paul set out for it to be in the area of emancipation. It’s true that “multitudes of slaves were received into the Christian brotherhood,” and “under the reign of Hadrian, 117-138, the law forbade the arbitrary killing of a slave and granted the right of trial to establish innocence or guilt.” In addition, “under Constantine, 312-337, and the succeeding emperors further legislation relieved their conditions. . . . Further legislation to improve conditions of the slaves was enacted under Justinian, 527-567. All privileges accorded to citizens were granted to emancipated slaves.”3
Laws protecting freemen slowly were applied to the slave community. “Under the influence of Christianity much favorable legislation was secured, many burdens lightened, many abuses righted, and more humane treatment secured.”4
Nearly 1800 years passed before full emancipation of slaves was championed by the church, although there were pockets of reform efforts before total emancipation was realized.
The English Abolition Movement
Generally, the Christian community in England supported slavery. An example of this blindness can be seen in the career of John Newton (1725-1807). Newton was an infamous slave trader. The church knows him best as the author of such well-know hymns as “Amazing Grace” and “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.” Newton’s opposition to slavery did not develop until after he became a Christian. Even while Newton was still a Christian he was also a captain of a slave ship. “Newton penned the beloved hymn `How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds in a Believer’s Ear’ during the leisure time afforded by a voyage from Africa to the West Indies.”5
In time, however, Newton confessed “shame” for “the misery and mischief to which [he had], formerly, been accessory.” He eventually denounced his former occupation with the publication of Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade (1788), “a stinging attack upon slavery that makes scenes from Alex Haley’s Roots seem mild by comparison.”6 Newton believed, prior to his denunciation of the slave trade, that he could be a good Christian and still participate in a great evil. “By 1788 Newton considered it `criminal’ to remain silent and not inveigh with evangelical fervor against the entire slave system. This conviction did not arise automatically upon his conversion, but from ethical deliberations that [William] Wilberforce set in motion.”7
England’s abolition movement was almost entirely led by the evangelical wing of the church. At the pleading of Lady Middleton and Bishop Porteus, James Ramsay wrote a long Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies (1784). Ramsay was “convinced that men will not respond to lessons of eternal redemption from those who enslave them on earth, or about heaven when kept in hell. . . . He proposed steps to total Emancipation, and suggested that free labour would yield more profit to plantation owners.”8
William Wilberforce, upon being struck with the oppression inherent in the slave trade, wrote in his diary, “Almighty God has set before me two great objectives: The abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”9 Wilberforce began his mission in 1787. His efforts were ridiculed and lampooned in popular cartoons. “The attitude in the House of Lords was summed up by the member who declared flatly, ‘All abolitionists are Jacobins.’”10 Such an accusation is the modern equivalent of calling someone an anarchist, Bolshevik, Marxist, socialist, or revolutionary. A bill outlawing slavery finally passed in 1807. Had the British government “not been in the hands of Christians there seems little reason to have expected it to mount its massive, expensive, and voluntary campaign against slavery.”11
American Abolition at Great Cost
The past practice of slavery in the United States continues to affect those who were enslaved against their will. Although emancipation has come, it was a long and arduous road. Keep in mind that it wasn’t until the 1860s that slavery was constitutionally abolished. John Eliot, “the apostle to the Indians,” protested in 1675 against the treatment of captives in King Philip’s War. Most of the male captives (including those who voluntarily surrendered) were enslaved and traded to the West Indies for black slaves. Eliot argued that sending the Indians away hindered their conversion to the blessings of Christianity. Eliot was one of the earliest Christians to challenge the slave trade. “This usage of them,” Eliot said of the Indian captives, “is worse than death.”12
The silence, and in many cases the support of slavery, by much of the evangelical wing of the church in the United States, especially in the South, brought about emancipation at great cost. The task of “liberating” slaves was left to radicals and revolutionaries. America is still paying a heavy price for the unrighteous way blacks were treated and the way they were emancipated. If modern anti-reformists had their way, the institution of slavery would still be with us. They would be preaching to the church to remain silent on the issue since, in their way of thinking, the church should not be involved in social issues. . . .
Joel McDurmon, The Problem of Slavery in Christian America
- Gary North, Tools of Dominion, 125. [↩]
- Charles David Eldridge, Christianity’s Contributions to Civilization (Nashville, TN: Cokesbury Press, 1928), 25. [↩]
- Eldridge, Christianity’s Contributions to Civilization, 26–28. [↩]
- Eldridge, Christianity’s Contributions to Civilization, 28. [↩]
- John D. Woodbridge, Mark A. Knoll, and Nathan O. Hatch, The Gospel in America: Themes in the Story of America’s Evangelicals (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979), 233. [↩]
- Woodbridge, Knoll, and Hatch, The Gospel in America, 233. [↩]
- Woodbridge, Knoll, and Hatch, The Gospel in America, 234. [↩]
- John Pollock, Wilberforce (Belleville, MI: Lion Publishing,  1986), 51. [↩]
- Quoted in Charles Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI:
Zondervan, 1987), 100. [↩]
- Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict, 104. [↩]
- Otto J. Scott, The Secret Six: John Brown and the Abolitionist Movement (New York: Times Books, 1979), 85. [↩]
- Lester B. Scherer, Slavery and the Churches in Early America, 1619–1817 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), 39. [↩]