Lessons From The Slavery Crisis

The positions taken by clergymen over slavery during the nineteenth century furnish an illuminating and instructive background for the present debate over segregation. In both cases open identification of the clergy with all viewpoints—radical, moderate, and preservationist-sharpened rather than softened the violent clash of public opinion and conviction. The slavery conflict issued finally in the war between the states Since the Civil War. probably no American political issue has become such a spectacle of internal disunity as today’s discord over segregation.

Both the radicals who championed abolition swiftly and at any price, and the proslavery preservationists who called for continuance of the status quo were the extremists in the slavery controversy. To support their differing positions, both appealed to moral and spiritual considerations. Which side, if either, took its stand actually from the Christian revelation, and whether or not the moral argument was a surface veneer, remains to be examined. Their theological justification of social attitudes and actions, however, formally gave them both a profounder rationale than that of the social pragmatism that has shaped much ecclesiastical strategy in the twentieth century.

Proslavery Southerners forged a biblical and theological defense of the South’s peculiar institution. Far from conceding slavery to be sinful and wicked, some proclaimed it “a blessing to both races” and even “a providential institution for the (ultimate) conversion of pagan Africa.” They argued that slavery is divinely sanctioned by Old Testament precept and in the New Testament by intimations regarding masters and servants or even by silence concerning the problem. They simultaneously defended Christianity and slavery, and justified slavery in terms of Christianity.

Radical abolitionists based their tenets assertedly on the Golden Rule and considered additional appeals to the Bible as deterrents to prompt action. They implied that advocates of a slow rather than swift solution falsified the viewpoint of the Sermon on the Mount as fully as did proslavery leaders. They proclaimed not only the moral necessity of liberty for the slaves but also immediate implementation. They sought prompt emancipation of the Negro irrespective of whatever social upheaval might follow. They considered resort to military force an inevitable result of the moral clash between a righteous cause and the evil of slavery. They prized Christianity mainly for its support and vindication of their sweeping social and political ideal of abolition.

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It is significant that after the mid-nineteenth century both the radical abolitionists and the pro-slavery forces more and more detached themselves from the vital stream of evangelical revivalism.

The preservationists discerned in the abolitionist movement seeds of social radicalism. They were quick to see that what might well be at stake was not simply an end to slavery but a new system of politico-economic ideals and a new scheme of social patterns. They sensed that abolition was sometimes championed by social revolutionists who really had little interest in Christian social ideals. Numbers of clergymen had requested inactive ministerial status in order to give full service to antislavery movements; for them abolition was an end in itself, to enjoy a status equivalent to (if not superior to) the announced mission of the Church. While abolitionists could hardly be branded as symbols of ecclesiastical schism, they nonetheless seemed often, even if unwittingly, to promote the sense of a conflict of interests between abolition and the direct task of the Christian churches. Detecting that this social idolatry of abolition as an independent objective threatened the integrity of the Christian mission, some proslavery spokesmen went so far as to discredit as fanaticism even the revival movements that voiced spiritual criticism of slavery. The repudiation of social radicalism by the proslavery forces, therefore, involved them in repudiation also of evangelical revivalism as radicalism, although of a religious nature. The result, among the preservationists, was a hardening fear of freedom and a growing danger of bondage to legalism in their views of Scripture and of life. Since the revival movements stressed Christian holiness, and strongly emphasized the law of neighbor love, the proslavery charges of radicalism seemed to impugn Christian humanitarianism. Proslavery forces, however, as well as radical abolitionists, increasingly came to debate the issues at stake by isolating the question of social unity from its larger moral and spiritual factors. To proslavery clergymen, union of North and South spelled only slavery while abolition meant only national disunity. To them, antislavery propaganda not only seemed to imperil national union, but also the unity of the churches.

Radical abolitionists likewise tended to detach themselves from the spiritual current and had long determined the moral pulse of the nation. Some of their more vocal spokesmen were forthright political agitators with neither church affiliation nor even interest. Not a few criticized both the Bible and the American Constitution; some scorned the Deity; others denounced the Church and clergy as vociferously as they fought the slave traffic. Obviously, antislavery clergymen were concerned lest the public one-sidedly identify the cause of social idealism with such vocal infidels, although some who left pulpits to join the radical abolitionists did not hesitate to criticize the churches where necessary for a sluggish social conscience; at times, they even implied themselves to be the only ecclesiastical friends of the oppressed. A few extremists, who denounced the moderate clergy for “shunning politics” because they preached “only Christ crucified,” were victims (as in the case of the Methodist abolitionist Gilbert Haven) of radical social views; in advocating abolition they also endorsed racial intermarriage and other social novelties. No clergy openly identified with the radical abolitionists were prominently known as aggressive champions of revealed religion or as evangelistic soul-winners.

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Between these extremes of proslavery preservationist and of radical abolitionist stood a group quite indifferent to the clash of conscience over slavery. Of these many ministers and church members alike gave primary interest to private piety, to the peace and prosperity of their local congregations, and to otherworldly saintliness. The morality or immorality of slavery was a neutral or even unrecognized issue. By such aloofness this circle deprived the Church of its witness against the century’s most glaring social evil. Privately some of these clergymen believed no persuasive spiritual or moral justification could be found for slavery; nevertheless, they regarded public silence as desirable. Others privately insisted that the Church could be antislavery without being vocal about it. Some who granted that the abolitionists were right in principle, nonetheless devoted their major energies to criticism of their wrong procedures. But perhaps the largest bloc, aware that Christians held the balance of the nation’s moral and political power, stressed the primary obligation of maintaining unity of the churches and of the nation. To lose these values in gaining abolition, they argued, was less justified than some hasty and chaotic achievement of abolition.

A fourth group, the evangelical moderates, while sharing the same concern for unity of the churches and of the nation, nevertheless was quite distinct from these indifferentists. As fully as the abolitionists, the evangelical moderates identified slavery as a sin. They called for an immediate moral confrontation of the problem and sought its elimination primarily through spiritual means. Most of the anti-slavery forces in the North were of this group. Distressed because some Southern ministers were invoking Scripture to defend slavery, the Northern evangelical moderates reactivated the Bible as a tool for social reform. In their churches spiritual revivals increasingly discovered a moral platform in the new concern for the Negro. Evangelical writers prepared careful research on the bearing of the Bible on slavery. They affirmed that in apostolic times slavery was not a divine stipulation but a matter of Roman law, that Paul placed the relation of masters and servants under the higher law of Christian love and equality. Wherever Christianity gained an ascendency, they held, abolition of slavery followed as a proper consequence. These evangelical moderates, therefore, emphasized spiritual renewal rather than criticism of the churches. Instead of isolating themselves from either the moral impact of biblical religion or from revivalism, they courageously classified slavery as part of the larger problem of man’s corruption and his need for divine grace and power. For them the slavery conflict was an important aspect of the greater campaign to free the souls of enslaved humanity. By recognizing oneness of the race in Adam, in Noah and in Christ, they underscored the universal relevance of the divine command to wholehearted love for God and neighbor. The duty and burden of “soul winning” vitalized the evangelical compassion for men. Quest for personal holiness promoted a restless dissatisfaction with evil.

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Despite the renewed moral concern that gave fresh spiritual perspective and vitality to meet the slavery issue, the evangelical moderates encountered a series of difficult problems. In his Revivalism and Social Reform, Timothy L. Smith surveys the following questions that plagued this group:

1. In pursuing freedom for the slave, were churchmen at liberty to jeopardize the unity of the nation more or less than politicians? At what point, if any, did national solidarity become less important than a clear witness against human bondage?

2. Were Christians justified in encouraging violence or force to achieve benevolent ends?

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3. In a democratic society could the Church properly use organized action to impose Christian principles on national law and social institutions? Ought she rather seek to regulate the conduct of individual members, and encourage them to exemplify Christian ideals in personal life and in their respective callings?

4. At what point was unity in the churches less important than criticism of members who condoned and defended slavery? Should, therefore, criticism of objectionable attitudes and conduct and discipline come from the various denominational headquarters or from the governing bodies of local churches?

The evangelical moderates were convinced that churches could not remain silent, that they must deplore slavery as a sin. For the clergy, preaching carried an obligation to sharpen the moral sensitivity of the laity and to regenerate the conscience of the community. Official denominational appeals and edicts, moreover, worked toward removing the evil. Whether local churches or their denominational offices could best maintain effective jurisdiction and best formulate judicious statements and policies was a question whose answer doubtless was influenced at times by moral indifference and self-interest. Unlike the local pastors, denominational leaders did not suffer the direct consequences of edicts on the slavery issue. Some ministers urged the brethren to use any judicious corrective measures that would not disrupt the peace and unity of the Church. On the other hand, some denominational leaders, persuaded that a voice raised long and loud must inevitably be heard, regularly issued public pronouncements that frustrated and embarrassed a number of their constituencies. Others urged hasty abolition, and attached degrees of moral turpitude to all those in the churches still involved in the slavery system. Proposals to remove from fellowship any who refused to end the slavery evil, whatever the temporary obligations and local circumstances might be, elicited strong protest. Such expulsion, it was said, would remove from the churches the very ones most in special need of Christian influences. Some considered abolition of greater importance than the harmony and unity of the churches; they asked whether slavery would be expelled from the churches or whether, instead, men of high idealism would secede from the congregations. Such an alternative inflamed the pride of the South.

The conflict between antislavery and proslavery radicals was storing up combustibles of war. While all factions spoke of brotherhood, in a controversy that imperiled the religious, moral, and political ideals of a free people, they all the while inched closer to the brink of combat. Tragically, when the clash came, it was not simply a war to free the slaves. Countless Southerners, who knew that slavery was not only doomed, but morally unjustifiable, felt also that the states should be free to resolve the issue. In the pressures for abolition they detected a bondage that impounded legitimate States’ rights. Of this they wanted no part.

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Was it perchance the failure to aggressively pursue a moderate course, and instead the tendency to view the issues in extreme terms, that led at last to the Civil War? The evangelical moderates had sought to quicken conscience against sin, to supply a moral fervor helpful to peaceful emancipation of the Negro. Had they really done all within their spiritual power? Did the slow and limited pace of spiritual impact grant any moral strength at all to views essentially secular but often outwardly sanctified by spiritual clichés? Had the Almighty, as Abraham Lincoln suggested, so shaped the course of events that now the sins of all parties would be punished even while all would fight to make men free? When the decisive battle came, it was clear as never before that neither the unity of the nation nor of the Church was at stake against the freedom of the Negro. Rather, the issue was justice for the Negro in a just politico-social order, and love for the Negro in the community of faith. In the last analysis, both the State and the states faced a crisis in justice and in love. That crisis involved more than the dignity of the Negro; it measured the vigor of the nation and of the churches as well.


The Christian’S Duty In The Present Crisis

It is the duty of every Christian citizen to take an active part in public affairs. The present world crisis is a challenge to our faith, our courage and spiritual resourcefulness. Without this element in our national and international strategy there is little hope of winning the cold war against atheistic communism.

In Toynbee’s A Study of History he deals with a type of “futurism” associated with wide areas of Christianity and brands it as a mark of a disintegrating Western society. Eternal life is of course the most glorious possession of the Christian. Some consider it a gift which divorces the receiver from the flow of events in the political and social spheres of this present world. Eternal life, in its true biblical sense, is the life of the eternal God within the soul. While it is life rooted in another dimension, it is also life glorified by immanence. It is “the way, the truth and the life” for today and for eternity. The universal reign of God in his Kingdom is the goal of eternal life. Courage in pursuing the moral issue is fundamental for the citizen of that Kingdom.

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In the present world crisis the “futurism” of some fundamentalists is being matched by an “opium smoker’s dream” on the part of liberals like Walter Lippman and Bertrand Russell. Lippman calls for “a diplomacy of accommodation” in dealing with Russia. Russell considers death the ultimate catastrophe and would pay any price for the perpetuation of the race. This is abdication of moral and political righteousness.

The true Christian does not consider the end of earthly existence the ultimate catastrophe. To him life is eternal. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is at the center of this world and the world to come. His truth and righteousness must eventually triumph. The Christian has no choice but to fight always on God’s side.

We must bring the holy judgments of God to bear against the present fear, appeasement and confusion which threaten to destroy Western unity and open the gates to atheistic communism.


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