Puritans, Slavery, and Criticizing Heroes

Thabiti Anyabwile has a stimulating and thoughtful post about a controversy that, except for the interwebs, I would have missed altogether. It apparently arose over a rap song. Hence my ignorance. Now, if was Al Green, Booker T. and the MGs, or Stevie Wonder singing about it, I would have been on top of it but I digress.

Thabiti’s post linked to an interview with Dr Richard Bailey on the question race relations in New England Puritanism. You should read this interview because it sheds light on the social background of the adaptation of Reformed theology and practice in the American colonies. Here are a couple of particularly interesting quotes:

Stephen Williams, on two separate occasions drove enslaved Africans he owned to take their respective lives within days of his brutally and inhumanely beating them. Williams, a cousin of Jonathan Edwards who actually recorded the famous description of Edwards’s Enfield preaching of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” felt he punished them out of a duty to these men.

As has been noted in this space before, the generic use of “Puritan” to describe British and Colonial (American) theology, piety, and practice is highly problematic:

…the scholarship on puritans makes one thing really clear, namely, that ‘Puritan’ meant lots of different things and that they held many different views—politically, socially, and even theologically. So it’s of course hard to speak for all puritans at all times in all places. But, with that caveat out of the way, puritans in general all supported and participated in the African slave trade. Some in more direct and material ways than others. But nearly all of them deemed slavery (and race-based slavery in particular) as part of the way that God had ordered the world.

According to Bailey, they, as we, struggled with the problem of “Christ and Culture.” The problem was that they, as we, were too much influenced by their culture and not enough by Christ:

And puritans, it seems, were little to no different in how they treated their slaves. The accounts of how puritan ministers abused their “human property” are there and such accounts are mindboggling.

I hope you’ll read these pieces to gain some perspective on the development and degeneration of Reformed theology in the American colonies. If nothing else, this is yet another reminder of the folly of the “golden age” approach to history, the idea that says “if only we could get back to period x.” Such a program will always disappoint because it always depends on a mythologized view of a past, a story about a past that never really existed. Colonial America was not a golden age, not if one was an African bought and sold by “godly men” who, as creatures of their time, were unable to criticize the peculiar institution of American slavery.

Oh, and one more thing: one hopes that these posts will encourage the TGC to reconsider their recent practice of posting writers who have defended that peculiar institution. Anthony Bradley has been documenting this here and here.

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  1. Scott, good word, and thanks for the link. But one clarification. That confederate-like beard is on the one and only Dr. Richard Bailey! He’s taller and more handsome than I am. That should have been given you a clue. 🙂

    • Taller, yes. But I’d stop there, Joe.

      Enjoyed reading your thoughts, R. Scott Clark

    • Thanks for picking up a copy, Scott. Please feel free to get in touch with me and share your thoughts. I know what I see as weaknesses and strengths, but I’m always happy to hear others’ critiques in hopes of doing things more effectively in the future. Again, thanks. I realize there is only so much time and so many books to read.

  2. “So it’s of course hard to speak for all puritans at all times in all places. But, with that caveat out of the way, puritans in general all supported and participated in the African slave trade.”

    Am I reading that right? First Dr. Bailey admits we can’t generalize, then he makes a declarative universal?

    Now admittedly, Dr. Bailey is speaking of New England Puritans, but can it be argued that the differences between English and New England Puritans were all that great? Or that leading English pastors didnt influence the settlers? Consider this quote from Richard Baxter, relocated today over on the Puritan Board forum:

    “Measured by the number of published editions, the most popular Puritan writer in seventeenth-century England was Richard Baxter. That popularity means that Baxter’s ideas must reflect generally accepted views, and in his Christian Oeconomics, Baxter discussed slavery at some length. What he said left nothing to be desired in terms of clarity — I emphasize that calling somebody “incarnate devil” was pretty harsh language among pious early modern Englishmen. [The text comes from The Practical Works of Richard Baxter, Ed. by William Orme. (London: James Duncan, 1830.) IV, pp. 212-220]:

    ‘To go as pirates and catch up poor negroes or people of another land, that never forfeited life or liberty, and to make them slaves, and sell them, is one of the worst kinds of thievery in the world; and such persons are to be taken for the common enemies of mankind; and they that buy them and use them as beasts, for their mere commodity, and betray, or destroy, or neglect their souls, are fitter to be called incarnate devils than Christians, though they be no Christians whom they so abuse.’

    * * * * * *
    “Quest: But what if men buy Negores or other slaves . . . what must they do with them afterwards?”
    “Answ: It is their heinous sin to buy them, unless it be in charity to deliver them. 2. Having done it, undoubtedly they are presently bound to deliver them: because by right the man is his own, and therefore no man else can have just title to him.”
    “Quest: But may I not sell him again and make my money of him, seeing I leave him but as I found him?”
    “Answ: No; because you have taken possession of him, and a pretended propriety, then the injury that is done him is by you; which before was by another. And thought the wrong be no greater than the other did him, yet being now done by you, it is your sin.”

    * * * * * * * * * * * *
    The contributor of this quote, Mr. Konkola, continues:

    “In general, there seems to be a correlation in history between the abolition of slavery and the more conservative forms of Christianity. For example, slavery disappeared from Western Europe between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, and this disappearance seems to have been engineered by theologians and lawyers trained in the impeccably Catholic universities of the period. (As far as I know, modern Western Civilization is the only civilization in world history that has eliminated slavery). [or rather, has endeavored to] An earlier example is provided by St. Augustine, who in the fourth century ran what could best be described as a one-man abolition movement in Hippo. Augustine appears to have had some effect in his hometown and its surroundings, but his effect did not last.

    I am not quite sure about why conservative Christianity has regarded slavery as absolutely abhorrent. One possible explanation is the fact that no human must be in a position where somebody can force him/her to commit a sin — this basic freedom of conscience was forcefully stated by Luther, when he defied both the Pope and the Emperor. A second possibility is a “ruboff” from the concept of “slavery to sin,” which in conservative Christianity used to be one of the most disgusting imaginable conditions.”

    Mr. Kari Konkola
    Ph.D. in history of early modern England. Interested in Puritans because I did my dissertation on the Puritan psychology of sins and conversion.
    Madison, Wisconsin.

    I have to agree with Mr. Konkola. There is a long history of true, godly Christians opposing racism and slavery. Racism is at heart a sin of self-deification, found the world over, and all too commonly slavery has been its ready & despicable tool. Where there is sin, let sin be condemned. but please pardon me if I think Dr. Bailey paints with too broad a brush.

    • You read my response to a very specific question that was asking for a generalization. So, a broad brush (in the short space of a blog interview was necessary). My book and several articles tries to nuance things a bit more, though voices of Puritans in the Atlantic world speaking out against racism and race-based slavery are few and far between. Such nuance is not possible in every scenario. In this case, I think I went on much longer than Joe and his readers likely would have liked me to anyway.

  3. I was listening once to a discussion between some Presbyterians on Reformed Forum where it was mentioned that Machen wrote a letter complaining to his mother that B.B. Warfield had desegregated a certain part of Princeton; I think it may have been the living quarters of the seminarians or all the Princeton students.

    I don’t think we Christians are necessarily better today; we definitely don’t have greater power than our forebears to resist sin. I sometimes wonder if there are things within my surrounding culture to which I too have grown accustomed and accepted, things for which I will have to repent someday. It is all very sobering.

  4. I wonder if the voices of the Covenanters, in both Scotland and the colonies/U.S.A. are known? Here are but two of a myriad of examples of the outspoken nature of (what would become) the RPCNA and the RPCoS:

    “On the 30 April 1845, the Edinburgh Presbytery of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland (Covenanter) passed a number of resolutions against chattel slavery and fellowship with slaveholding churches. The eighth resolution contains the following condemnation of the practice of racial segregation in the churches of America:

    8. That while this Court express these views in reference to American slavery and the duties of the Churches, they cannot refrain from expressing their sympathy, not only with the oppressed slaves, but with the people of colour generally in that land, who, under the influence of cruel prejudices and unjust laws, are subjected to all manner of hardships and indignities in the whole intercourse of life. Nor can this Court refrain from condemning the conduct of many of the churches in the United States, in reference to this matter, inasmuch as they sanction and strengthen these cruel prejudices and unjust laws, by preventing persons of colour, recognised as members of the church, from sitting in the same pews, and from taking their seats at the Lord’s table in company with their white brethren; thus in their public assemblies having respect to persons committing sin, and being convinced of the law as transgressors; and it is the conviction of this Court, that churches acting in this cruel and sinful manner, render themselves unworthy of fellowship with Christians and Christian churches, who desire to adhere consistently to the laws of Christ, the alone King and Head of his Church, with whom there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free; but himself all, and in all.

    Joseph Wilson, Moderator.

    Wm. Anderson, Clerk.

    Deliverance of the Reformed Presbytery of Edinburgh on American slavery and church-fellowship with slave-holders (Edinburgh, 1845), p. 4.”

    …and here is an extract from: “Minutes of the Reformed Presbytery of America 1798 to 1809; and digest of the acts of the Reformed Presbyterian Synod 1809 to 1888 (Philadelphia, 1888), p. 3.”

    “In the Fall of 1800. — A call was made on Mr. McLeod to the pastoral charge of the united congregations of the city of New York and Coldenham. Mr. McLeod demurred to the call, on the ground that there were slaveholders among the subscribers to the call. The subject of slaveholding being now before the Presbytery, it was enacted that no slaveholder should be allowed the communion of the Church.”

  5. Alberto, we don’t seem to have that much ability to detect self-righteousness either. I’m a born-bred-and-buttered Yank, but often it feels like we have little trouble reaching across time and place and exacting judgment.

  6. Thank you, Dr. Clark, for this comment: “Oh, and one more thing: one hopes that these posts will encourage the TGC to reconsider their recent practice of posting writers who have defended that peculiar institution.”

    I would be exceedingly inconsistent with my “culture war” approach, and with my mother’s ancestors who included a Union Army POW who suffered in the notorious confederate prison in Andersonville, if I did not call for conservative Christians to rebuke defenders of the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

    As far as I’m concerned, those who advocate Confederate causes ought to be treated the same way we would treat people who defend those who fought against America in any of our other wars.

    To the neo-Confederates who call themselves conservative Christian activists and like to post on blogs — you won’t get any support from this culture warrior. You had your chance to follow the Reformed doctrine of revolt of the lesser magistrates, you lost in 1865, so get over it, and either accept the American government or get out.

    • One thing at a time, Dr. Clark, one thing at a time…

      My point was to compliment you for calling the Gospel Coalition to account for publishing the writings of racists and advocates of slavery.

      You know that I don’t agree with you on everything, but I am listening to you. You, along with several Canadian Reformed people, are responsible for convincing me that the Federal Visionists aren’t just wrong but outside the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy. I’m certainly not at the level of a theology professor, but on the other hand I’m not theologically ignorant, and it took a lot of reading to move me to the position that the Federal Visionists weren’t just a modern incarnation of Klaas Schilder’s theology.

      Especially for those in the more broadly evangelical wing of Reformed Christianity represented by people like the Gospel Coalition, it’s a lot easier to understand what’s wrong with slavery and neo-Confederate nonsense than to understand what’s wrong with the Federal Vision.

      Frankly, Doug Wilson has done a great deal of good in the “culture war” world and in Christian education. I don’t like having to reject him out of the Reformed world. However, I don’t think I have any choice.

      At best, I can view him the same way I view a Roman Catholic pro-lifer — someone whose actions are a lot better than his underlying theology.

      • Well, a historical mythology about slavery is one thing but actively corrupting the gospel is something else.

        I noticed that you were quite outraged about a difference over social policy recently but I didn’t see you posting all over the web about the FV.

        Why was it so hard to see that “in by grace [baptism], stay in by faithfulness” is a serious corruption of the gospel?

        What great social good done by the Judaizers did Paul promote? I’m sure they were “right” on “the social issues” against the pagan Romans.

    • One more thing — as I’ve said to some unreconstructed neo-Confederates: “You may be trying to recover the values of your culture, but Southron Culture isn’t my culture, it isn’t my country, and you lost your war a century and a half ago to start a new country, so get over it or get out of America. My flag is the Stars and Stripes, not the Stars and Bars, so whatever we may appear to share in conservative values, what you’re trying to conserve is something with a very different root than that of 1776.”

      If that sounds strong, it probably should be pointed out that at least two well-known Old School Presbyterians have told me that they have problems with my interracial marriage, and a third doesn’t have a problem with me marrying an Asian but would have a problem with me marrying a woman of African descent. (To be fair, this third person has had Asian members of his church in the past and has had black employees who he would have been willing to admit to his church if they had wanted to join; his views on interracial marriage do not extend to keeping minorities out of his local church though he doesn’t have a problem with other people setting up “separate but equal” churches for different races.)

      These are not fringe figures; they’re men of considerable prominence in the PCA, though one is now dead. One of those three, when I pressed him on the slavery issue, refused to tell me whether he believed Southern chattel slavery was sinful, but did tell me that he believed a single man who was a slaveowner met the biblical qualifications for the eldership and diaconate because he’d proved his ability to rule his household well, whereas ordinary unmarried men could not serve as elders or deacons.

      People who talk that way are reading their Bibles in fundamentally different ways from how I read mine, and their reading of the Bible has serious consequences for church life. Southern racial views are not yet dead, though fortunately they are dying out rapidly and I hope they’ll be dead completely within a generation or two.

      The bottom line is that Neo-Confederates should have no more place in conservative political circles in America than people who think America should have lost World War II or the Cold War.

      Should neo-Confederates who defend Southern chattel slavery be allowed to be church members? The question is not identical to the pre-Civil War question of admitting manstealers to communion. Denying that something which ended a century and a half ago was sinful is not the same as practicing it today.

      I’ll leave it to the PCA to decide whether such people should be barred from communion and church membership. To the PCA’s credit, the Neill Payne case down in Black Mountain has made pretty clear that PCA churches have the right to bar bigots from ordained church office.

    • Fair question, Dr. Clark.

      I believe Scripture is crystal clear on its teaching about homosexuality. Given my views on Christian cultural engagement, which I realize you do not share (at least in the form I hold them), my presuppositions lead me to unavoidable actions as a result.

      While I believe we can both concur that Scripture is clear on homosexuality (though perhaps we don’t agree on what the civil government should do about it), I believe we can both concur that the Federal Visionist theology is nothing if not complicated and difficult to understand.

      Very little if anything is clear and obvious about the theology of the Federal Visionists. It takes considerable time to read and understand what they are saying.

      On the other hand, I have never believed the Federal Visionists were right. For me, the issue of paedocommunion has always been a “no go,” and reflected a major underlying problem with the nature of Christian nurture of children.

      The problem here is that I realize that both Abraham Kuyper and Klaas Schilder, both in their own different ways, held views of Christian nurture which were very different from my own views. The Federal Visionists look a lot like Klaas Schilder. There is a difference between an error and a heresy, and just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean I have grounds to unilaterally expel it from the church.

      On the other hand, that doesn’t mean I have to sit back and be quiet about errors just because I’m not yet convinced they rise to the level of heresy.

      I have been objecting loudly and publicly for many years against the prevalence of presumptive regeneration views in the Dutch Reformed world. Twenty to 25 years ago, that was a major part of my complaints about the Christian Reformed Church. Read my recent comments over on Matt Tuininga’s blog about being “saved by race and not by grace” and you’ll see a bit of that.

      If forced to fit myself into the Dutch Reformed tripartite division between scholastics, pietists, and culture-engagers, I would reluctantly side with the Nadere Reformatie and the Dutch Puritans, not the Kuyperians. One of my major problems with Dutch Reformed church life is that the Dutch, unlike New England Puritanism, seem to value only doctrinal orthodoxy, only personal piety, or only culture transformation, rather than recognizing the importance of emphasizing all three.

      So have I been criticizing Federal Visionists? Yes, and I’ve been doing it long before the Federal Vision movement became publicly known under that name, but I’ve been hammering them on paedocommunion and presumptive regeneration.

      Nobody can do everything; everyone has to specialize. You are a professor of theology and you have spent a great deal of time digging into the Federal Vision movement. It took a long time, but you (and several Canadian Reformed people) have convinced me that whatever connection Norman Shepherd and the Federal Visionists may have to Klaas Schilder, the modern Federal Visionists have moved into territory that is beyond the pale.

      That’s your issue. You’re doing a lot of good work there dealing with the Federal Visionists, and I encourage you to keep doing it.

  7. DTM, you may be forgetting a fourth category to the doctrinalists, pietists, and culturalists–the liturgicals. The best combination is the doctrinalist-liturgicals, which tend to be more critical of the pietists and culturalists, but also no FV or PC, and I’m betting no problems whatever with your marriage.

    • ZRim, you probably don’t want to discuss liturgy with me. I think we’re too far apart on the regulative principle to have a useful discussion.

      I won’t insist on the point because I think there are bigger battles to fight, but my ideal church would be exclusive psalmody with no instruments.

  8. Darrell,

    You don’t specialize in the gospel, the article by which the church stands or falls (which slogan was coined by a 17th-century Reformed theologian) but you do specialize in inferences from Scripture about social issues? So social “orthodoxy” comes before doctrinal orthodoxy? From where in Scripture or the Reformed confessions do you infer this order of priorities?

    Have you ever posted in three different places simultaneously your grave concerns about the FV? We’ve been dealing with it, in this go-round, since at least 2000 so you’ve had 12 years to speak to it. Did you ever speak up about the Sheperdite error before that?

    Given that you have endorsed the social theories of the leader of the FV movement and that the Reformed churches have rejected his FV theology root and branch, why shouldn’t we say that you’re soft on the FV? After all, objecting to presumptive regeneration isn’t the same thing as objecting to the FV.

    • If we’re talking about the post I think we’re talking about on homosexuality and civil unions, it was actually more than three places, and some of those other places get a lot more readers than Christian Observer’s family of websites.

      However, that’s a side point.

      Dr. Clark, I’ve been complaining about presumptive regeneration almost as long as I’ve been a Calvinist and then got connected with the Dutch Reformed world as an insider rather than as a Grand Rapids native looking at the Dutch from the outside. I’ve been complaining about paedocommunion ever since it popped up as an issue in the Christian Reformed synod, and for a long time couldn’t figure out why certain Christian Reformed conservatives supported that obviously aberrant doctrine.

      Objections to presumptive regeneration and paedocommunion have made me a critic of the Federal Visionists before they were using that term for themselves.

      The problem is that there is a significant wing of the conservative Dutch Reformed world which teaches a theology which has many similarities to the Federal Visionists. You may not deal with the influence of the Canadian Reformed very much in California, and I am not unaware of Westminster’s history with Rev. Norman Shepherd, but given the considerable respect for the Canadian Reformed in the conservative Dutch Reformed world, it takes time to convince me and others that men who look, smell, and taste a lot like the Canadian Reformed are heretics.

      There was never a question in my mind that the Federal Visionists were wrong, but I think you and I can both agree that not all errors are heresy.

      You are one of several people who convinced me that the Federal Visionists are outside the bounds of Reformed theology. You deserve thanks for that.

  9. DTM, by “liturgical” I don’t necessarily mean doxology (though I am personally sympathetic to EP/no instruments, as well as the idea that doxology might be a fourth mark—can the only tradition with something like the RPW really not have such a mark?). A better term may have been “confessional,” by which I mean something that esteems the institutional church, her offices, creeds, worship, and sacraments. This estimation tends to be at odds with the pietists and culturalists.

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