Race and the American Church - Part V

Otis W. Pickett
Before starting down the road of narrative history, we have to understand a few things. First, if you have not already done so, please read my first four posts about the heart and experiences God has given me, how He provided me with experiences and studies that have allowed me to speak into this with some measure of understanding and has provided me with a space, through Reformation 21 reaching out to me, to write this series. I desire for it to be irenic, unifying, reconciling and for the good of God's people. Second, I would ask that you understand that it is necessary to walk through all the parts of our history together, especially the ugly and disturbing parts, openly and honestly if we are going to have any hope at reconciling with one another. Third, I have a limited amount of space and I cannot possibly describe the historical interpretations in hundreds of thousands of books, articles and documents that scholars have written about the institution of slavery over the last fifty years. At best, I can give you a brief overview and point you to important works in the field. Finally, we have to understand race is a social construct: meaning it is an artificial edifice, something that power brokers in our society created in order to separate people along perceived biological differences. 

One way to think about race as a social construct is how the Belgian government socially constructed race in Rwanda during European colonialism in the early nineteenth century. The Belgian's believed that taller, lighter skinned Rwandans (called Tutsis) with more European features,  occupied a privileged position under Belgian Colonialism. Therefore, colonial power brokers made racial distinctions between Tutsis and Hutus a cultural and economic reality. The Hutus tended to be shorter than Tutsis and had darker skin. Thus the Belgian government created a social construct along racial lines that fomented racial division, hatred and eventually genocide among the people of Rwanda. Hutus and Tutsis were given identification cards and Tutsis in Rwanda enjoyed the best positions in society and the best jobs as a more privileged minority. This is not exactly what happened in America (it is far more complicated in the U.S.), but it is a good example of the historical impact of a social construction of race. I often hear students and people in the general public say things like "Why are people in Africa so violent and why do they kill each other and are constantly at Civil War?" First, Europeans created racial division and strife in the nineteenth century, which erupted into violence in the twentieth century (like during the Rwandan Genocide). This racial division is directly linked to European colonialism and the constructs put in place to artificially divide people. Also, in our country, we fought a civil war where 800,000 people died in four years and are perceived by much of the world as an incredibly violent society. How different are we really? We cannot forget our history nor can we fail to see how that history is deeply connected to our present.   

In many ways, here in America, race was socially constructed through particularizing an ethnicity of people (Sub-Saharan Africans) as somehow inferior and thus worthy of enslavement. Although we as Christians know that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28), Christians have not always lived up to this principle. Christians and supposedly Christian societies from Portugal, to the Netherlands, to Spain, France and England participated in the subjugation of African peoples, using advanced technological prowess for the time period (largely the flintlock musket and fast moving sailing vessels), to colonize the coast of West Africa. After firm colonization of the coast through fortifications (like Bunce Island), the British and other slave trading nations incentivized man-stealing among West Africans through a mercantilist trade system that provided weapons and goods to anyone who would bring an able bodied man, woman or child to the coast to be bound and sold into slavery. There was a market for this kind of enslaved labor created by a British/French/Portuguese/Spanish and Dutch plantation system in the West Indies, in South America and, to a lesser extent, in North America. This was systematic, profit-driven, man-stealing and it was unbiblical and un-Christian. Do not let any person try to convince you that African-based slavery beginning in the seventeenth century was biblical. It was not. It was race-based, for profit, man-stealing with no hope of freedom for those who were enslaved.  Men, women and children were ripped away from the their families and millions would die in the horrific "middle passage," or the voyage among slave trade ships from the coast of West African to the British West Indies and into Brazil or the northern British Colonies (like Charleston, SC).[1]

European slave traders, driven by greed, chose Sub-Saharan Africans as an ethnicity that was somehow inhuman, deemed uncivilized and worthy of being treated like property for the entirety of their lives. The Christians who lived in these societies are culpable and connected with this sin because they lived comfortably off of the fruits of this trade system and largely did not speak into this traffic of human beings until the late eighteenth century. The hymn writer John Newton (author of Amazing Grace), was once one of these slave traders, later became a Christian and was haunted for much of his life at the thought of carrying thousands of African men, women and children across the Atlantic Ocean to their deaths or to centuries of slavery for themselves and their progeny. He would later repent of his "work" as a slave trader and would be a part of the abolitionist movement in England toward the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century. 

This collective choice (made by many nations in Europe) of recognizing Sub-Saharan Africans as somehow degraded and sending them across their empires to be sold into forced labor without any hope of emancipation, was present when the first colonists came to Jamestown, VA. Soon after the colonist's arrival, a Dutch Ship carrying enslaved Africans on August 20, 1619 sold some twenty Africans, as property, to colonists in Virginia. In the very earliest days of our colonial society slavery was woven into the fabric of our history and African people occupied a separate position as property specifically because of their race. We therefore cannot say that race does not matter. We cannot say that race is not important. We can trace the economic, political, cultural and social patterns of the beginning of our country back to the subjugation of one race by another. It is a part of our American DNA. The sooner we realize this and begin to understand it, the sooner we will begin to unite and reconcile. We will also better see the reason why some of our brothers and sisters are insistent that we talk about race. It is not just a phenomenon of the Civil Rights movement or Jim Crow or because it is culturally "hip" right now to talk about race. It has been with us from our very inception as a nation, has deeply affected African Americans (indeed, all of us) in the United States and will continue to be with us as long we do not take steps to undo the effects of this social construct over time.      

Racism is indeed one of the greatest sins of our nation from centuries past and it has been prevalent throughout our country's history. While I recognize that great sinful harm has happened to a variety of minorities in U.S. history like women, poor whites, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans and children, I am intending to focus our attention through these articles as a white, Christian population in the church, toward the plight of our African American brothers and sisters. 

When the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia, there was little interest in challenging slavery as inhumane or inconsistent with Christianity by the Anglican Church (the official Church of the Virginia Colony). Further, Virginia still functioned on a labor system of white, indentured Englishmen who offered their labor to a master for a season of time to be determined by contract between the master and laborer. After Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, Virginians realized that indentured servitude was no longer a viable option of labor and that the man-stealing of Africans in a condition of perpetual servitude would be necessary for continued profits in tobacco growth. Slaveholding Quakers would be the first to challenge the institution of slavery as inconsistent with Christianity in 1688. Quakers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey would later free their own slaves in 1750 (a full 60 years after they deemed it inconsistent with Christianity). In the late eighteenth century, many northern Protestant Churches would take a position of antislavery. Presbyterians were one of the first denominations to challenge the institution of slavery as unbiblical. In 1774, many Presbyterians (mostly in NY, NJ, Penn, Maryland and Delaware) were involved with an organization called the American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and Improving the Condition for the African Race. In 1787, Presbyterian synods in New York and Philadelphia called for a measured end to slavery. In 1792, most of the General Assembly agreed that the institution of slavery should end by gradual emancipation (much like the Quaker model).[2] Presbyterian men like Alexander McLeod wrote how slavery was unbiblical such as in his work Negro Slavery Unjustifiable. Christians in America have been antislavery, but moving into the nineteenth century that voice was marginalized and the church became much more reflective of, and captive to, the culture on the institution of slavery.[3]

It wasn't until slavery made an agrarian economy incredibly profitable that the church, largely in the South, began its proslavery position. Historian Christine Heyrman (in her wonderful book Southern Cross) has shown that there was resistance to slavery by clergy in the South from 1740 to the late 1780s. Young Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian clergy motivated by the tenants of the First Great Awakening saw slavery as inconsistent with their religion in a variety of ways. These individuals also challenged the entrenched patriarchal status of the life of the church and emphasized the active roles of enslaved Africans and women in worship and in the church community. These young dissenting evangelicals were largely seen as radicals, especially in Virginia in the mid to late eighteenth century. However, that would soon change as these fledgling congregations and their young pastors would not have a strong position on the Southern landscape until they were able to woo the older, landed, male planter elites to their churches. In order to do this, clergy like John Taylor and Stith Mead would be a part of an ecclesiastical culture that would attempt to ease the anxiety of the planter class toward what was perceived as a "radical evangelicalism." By the end of the eighteenth century, southern Protestant churches would come to reflect a pro-slavery position largely because of this capitulation by the church to forsake the condition of our enslaved brothers and sisters for the pursuit of mammon. 

In 1793, Eli Whitney's cotton gin had made slavery extremely lucrative. After Whitney's invention was commonplace on plantations across the South, the harvest of raw cotton doubled every decade moving into the mid-nineteenth century. After this, few church pulpits, both north and south, were bold in preaching the abolition of slavery. The southern economy was making incredible profits on cotton yields and the northern economy was earning tremendous revenue on by-products of cotton in the textile industry and in trade with Europe. In the span of a decade, the value of enslaved Africans, as chattel property, nearly doubled. Indeed, much of the wealth of the U.S. South was not in cotton fields or rice crops, it was in the commodification of enslaved human bodies. The price of enslaved Africans would also go up after 1807 because Congress ended the international slave trade. This was less an act of altruism and more a way for southern slaveholders (who could make more profits off of hiring out the labor of their slaves and selling their enslaved African's offspring) to make larger profits on an increasingly limited commodity, which were now far more lucrative because of a lack of continual imports (you have to forgive my economic terminology here in reference to human beings. I am simply trying to convey to the reader the nineteenth century mindset and understanding of human beings as property).  

As the abolitionist movement ramped up in the 1830s and 40s, Southerners became increasingly more protective and defensive of the institution of slavery. Southerners sought for expansion of slave states in Missouri, Texas, Kansas and even Cuba, with the idea that a great agrarian slavocracy would expand. Southern Christians also began to look to their divines and theologians to craft theological justifications for the institution of slavery in order to prove the abolitionists wrong. It is also around the 1820s, 30s and 40s that we see churches interested in religious instruction for enslaved Africans. There was some good that came from this missionization, but also many Christians in the South were motivated to show abolitionists that the "pecuiliar institution" was benevolent and helped Christianize the uncivilized African "heathens."[4]

There was also a tremendous tension here. How could southerners simultaneously treat enslaved Africans as property, in perpetual bondage, while also recognizing that they were human beings, bearers of the imago Dei, imprinted with a soul and were members of the church? This is yet another great failure of the church in America and in the U.S. South. Once an enslaved African became a member of a church then their ecclesiastical status and relationship to white members as co-members of the church should have given them both ecclesiastical equality under the church as well as their eventual bodily freedom and liberation. However, southern Christians were captivated by the potency of the peculiar institution and chose instead to keep enslaved Africans in perpetual bondage while recognizing, and attempting to meet, their spiritual needs. This is a false dichotomy that is not consistent with orthodox or historic Christianity. Throughout Christendom one's relationship to Christ and to the church has been their defining characteristic to other Christians. Christianity in the U.S. South had an addendum to that formula: who you were in Christ, what is your relationship to the church, and whether or not you were you free. This was new in the life of the church and a shift away from orthodox Christianity. Theologians like James Henley Thornwell, Robert Lewis Dabney and Benjamin Morgan Palmer, among many other Southern Presbyterians, provided a variety of biblically approached, yet historically, culturally and theologically blinded, defenses of slavery in order to deal with this issue. Most theologians today acknowledge the problems with their biblical exegesis on this issue.[5]  

It is at this point, which I think we should pause and reflect for a moment. If these men, who were highly intelligent, and probably some of the most well trained theologians the South has ever produced, got it (by "it" I mean biblical interpretation) wrong on slavery, then how many massive blind spots might we have? This should give us pause that we can be Godly, pursue righteous living, try to pursue scriptural truth, love the church, love each other and still completely miss an egregious sin we are either complicit in or participating in because of massive cultural, historical or theological blinders we might have. This is yet another tremendous benefit of being in a multiethnic church. Brothers and sisters from different cultures, ethnicities and theological traditions can help us in our blindness because we are still suffering from blindness. Decades of southern pastors (from 1870-today) looked to the aforementioned theologians on this issue (biblical defense of slavery), revered them greatly and have impacted thousands of southern Christians with the notion that southern slaveholding was right, good, biblical and "brought the gospel to the African." Instead, I would argue that despite our forefather's sin of man-stealing, God used something horrific and devastating for His own good. The time period of slave owning is not something we should be proud of, celebrate and look back to as a time when things were good. We should be thankful that God, in His goodness and mercy to His covenant people, decided to end that system and bring something good (a multiethnic society with a thriving African American culture and theological experience) out of that devastating abuse of power.   

Also, I have heard many brothers and sisters in Christ from the South say that the Civil War was about states' rights and was not about slavery. This is somewhat true in that the right that every single state in the South was concerned about was slavery. All one needs to do is read the ordinance of secession for each southern state to see that the Confederacy was fighting a war largely to preserve the right of each state to promote and continue the institution of slavery. Great links to some of the aforementioned documents that help display this can be found here and here

I have used the term "culturally captive" before and it is a very important term that Samuel S. Hill, among other historians of religion, have used to describe Christians throughout U.S. history. Put simply: these Christians reflected their culture more on slavery than they reflected the Bible and the spirit of Christianity on slavery. Christians became captive to the culture. If the culture said that making money off of enslaved labor produced through man-stealing was good then the overwhelming Christian response was to affirm this status quo rather than challenge it. I would argue that we are prone to the same kind of captivity today and Christians will tend to follow the culture wherever it leadeth. Christians, especially in the South toward the late eighteenth century, made arguments and biblical justifications to sanctify this system rather than question it. Kenneth Moore Startup has noted this in his important work The Root of All Evil: The Protestant Clergy and the Economic Mind of the Old South.
Startup found that materialism and greed was widespread among Christians in the nineteenth century South. This materialism and greed, driven by a consumerist and materialistic culture, blunted the senses of Christians to see the suffering of those providing the actual labor for material goods. John Boles, another eminent historian of religion, has noted that, "the white south was absolutely absorbed with money, advancement and self-interest almost to the exclusion of every other virtue."[6] When a people are consumed with something, it is often difficult for them to question it. Ask yourself: If your entire station (and everyone else you knew), status and livelihood were based on the institution of slave labor, how willing, able and effective would you be in challenging it? If you challenge this system as unbiblical then you are, in effect, saying that the entire system of labor, on which the South (and the nation via the South's materials) made the overwhelming majority of its income, needs to be overturned. To say the least, this is not going to be a popular or well-received position. You might even be hated or ostracized for taking it. 

Plus, if you are a Baptist or Presbyterian minister in the nineteenth century and your congregation, session or diaconate is made up of wealthy slaveholders (and many were), and you attempted to challenge the institution of slavery, then you were either going to be out of a job, or worse, perceived as an outside agitator and find yourself "dealt with." The slavocracy system had become so corrosive and controlling that a pastor would not have even been able to question, from the pulpit or publicly, whether or not this institution was consistent with the spirit of Christianity. This is how captive the church became to the culture on this issue. Anyone who questioned this system publicly or openly was ostensibly removed from the community. This is a great lesson for modern day discussions. If we are not, as Christians, able to raise a critique or question on something that grips the church and are fearful of being removed from a community because it is questioned, then it is probably a good sign that we have become culturally captive to the object in question. For instance, Christians will later become captive to the idea that segregation was right and that racial homogeneity was good for religious communities. Some would attempt to challenge white congregations to open the doors of the church to African American participants only to find many in the congregation's stiff resistance.[7] The church had become captive to this idea and to challenge it was akin to being a "liberal" and being ostracized from the church. Sean Lucas, a wonderful church historian and scholar of Presbyterianism, has pointed this out in a series of articles for Reformation 21 about race and the historical roots of the PCA. Christians today can learn from the examples of their forefathers. What are we so gripped by in the church today that for a brother to raise a question about it would cause us to want to remove that brother from fellowship? 

Southerners were not alone in this view of African Americans. Northern white Christians were also consumed with profit making and these profits largely came via materials produced in the South and products of enslaved African labor. Brown University has done a wonderful study on how it's university and the city of Providence, Rhode Island was complicit in the slave trade because the profits made off of enslaved labor were used in the building of the university and of the town. That report can be found here. The Brown report is important in how communities are beginning to investigate their history openly and dealing honestly with past racial problems and how they might be addressed moving forward.  

Further, abolitionists in America were a very small minority in this country until after 1863 and most northerners resented slavery's expansion not because they thought enslaved Africans ought to be free, but because of political and economic control the South might gain if slavery were to expand into new territories. Most northerners were just as racist in their attitudes toward African Americans as southerners and this is reflected in racial violence in northern communities, riots protesting African American workers in large northern cities all through the nineteenth century and de facto segregation, red lining and race rioting in the twentieth century. I say all of this to say that race is not just a southern problem. It is a national problem. It is something that is a part of our national DNA, our founding documents and the driving labor force behind the nation's economy for hundreds of years. This is something that we must all understand. Given that the church has been held captive by the culture for much of its history in America, you can imagine that this national sin has invaded the church and into the lives of Christians in a myriad of ways. 

Rather than challenge the institutions that buttressed the subjugation of African Americans over time, which is what we should have done as Christians because race-based slavery is unbiblical, sinful and un-Godly, we succumbed to it.  We submitted to it because people around us made tremendous profits off of the labor of enslaved Africans. People would later make even more profits on other institutions that used race to denigrate people such as sharecropping, tenant farming, convict-leasing and predatory crop lien loaning systems (or a plantation "commissary" owned by the landholder who would provide loans to sharecroppers at massive interest rates knowing that this was the sharecroppers only option and thus crippling them in cycles of debt and poverty for the rest of their lives).  We became culturally captive to the idea that another race was inferior and we justified our consciences with this belief through culturally blind systematic theology, unsound biblical justifications, and through believing a socially Darwinistic and scientific racism, which supported the Eugenics movement.[8]

In the next article, I hope to bring us up past the Civil War, into Reconstruction and perhaps even into the twentieth century. The impact of three centuries of slavery will continue to have an influence on all sections of the country during this time period and concepts driven by stereotypes of the African American, largely derived from this pre-1865 era of slavery, will largely determine Jim Crow policies of segregation and violence towards African Americans until the end of the Civil Rights movement. Mostly, the white church during this time will reflect the culture more than the Biblical mandate to see neither "Jew nor Greek." Churches will reflect Jim Crow segregation in the late nineteenth century up to the mid twentieth century and beyond (by segregating along racial lines) and church members will largely remain silent about lynching and racial violence towards African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century. Historians refer to this as historical continuity.

Otis Pickett is Assistant Professor of History and Political Science at Mississippi College, Clinton, MS. You can follow him on Twitter @OtisWPickett


[1] If you are interested in the Middle Passage then you should read the works of E. Franklin Frazier, Melville J. Herskovitz, Marcus Rediker, Hugh Thomas and David Eltis. Other historians on slavery and human bondage such as Winthrop Jordan, John Hope Franklin, Adam Rothman, Anthony E. Kaye are good to read. I would especially recommend David Brion Davis's Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World.

[3] If you are interested in church history, southern religious history and the church's switch from an antislavery position to one that adopted the cultural and economic status quo I would recommend reading Rhys Isaac, Christine Heyrman, Anne C. Loveland, Janet Cornelius, Beth Barton Schweiger, Don Matthews, John Boles, Samuel Hill and Eugene Genovese.   

[4]  This is a common tern in the nineteenth century among missions literature for anyone not from a "Christian" society or civilization. 

[5]  Read Mitchell Snay's Gospel of Disunion, Don Mathews Religion in the Old South, John Boles, Masters and Slaves in the House of the Lord, H. Shelton Smith's In His Image But,....Racism in Southern Religion 1790-1910, Eugene Genovese, A Consuming Fire, Sean Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney, John Patrick Daly's When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery and the Causes of the Civil War and Jim Farmer's The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Value.

[6] John Boles," Review of: The Root of All Evil: The Protestant Clergy and the Economic Mind of the Old South. by Kenneth Moore Startup The Journal of American History Vol. 85, No. 3 (Dec., 1998), pp. 1066-106. 

[7]  Read Stephen R. Haynes, Pete Daniel, Paul Harvey and Carolyn Renee Dupont.

[8] If you are interested in some of the other issues I mentioned you should read David O'shinsky's Worse Than Slavery, C Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow, and Glenda Gilmore's Gender and Jim Crow. There have also been excellent studies done on the eugenics movement in the U.S. by Edwin Black, Mark Largent and Christine Rosen, who particularly focuses on how Christians supported Eugenics.