Friday, February 2, 2018

The Problem of Slavery in Christian America by Joel McDurmon

From time to time, I review some non-fiction, usually history, on this blog. I wouldn't normally review something like this book on Vintage Novels, but I feel that I've made it necessary. Four years ago in this forum I gave a very positive review to John J Dwyer's book The War Between the States: America's Uncivil War. Over the last couple of years, however, I've been forced to re-evaluate a lot of what that book presented. Today I hope to set the record straight with a review of Joel McDurmon's new book The Problem of Slavery in Christian America. This review may not be an easy read, especially if (like me) you've espoused what we might call the John J Dwyer side of the story, or if (unlike me) you've had a front-row seat to American racial tensions. So I want to start by asking the reader to read this review, and interact in the comment section, with as much graciousness as you can muster.

The Problem of Slavery in Christian America describes itself as an ethical/judicial history of slavery in the US. That is, its primary focus is on the civil laws and church teachings as regards slavery (and, related, race) from the early 1600s up to the US Civil War and into the twentieth century. It's also, I should add, written from a conservative, Christian perspective.

The Book

Part 1 of the book focuses on how civil governments promoted, regulated, and institutionalised slavery throughout US history. There is a great amount of legal and statistical detail here: for example, that for a time it was illegal to free a slave unless the former master deported the slave from the colony at his own expense. Or that in some areas slaves made up as much as 90% of the population, and that in the 1700s trade with the Caribbean slave economies supplied a boggling two-thirds of New England’s wealth.

Then, in Part 2, McDurmon retraces his footsteps to look at what the church, through denominational assemblies and prominent churchmen, was saying about issues of slavery and race throughout the same time period. For a committed, conservative Christian, this may actually be the most horrifying part of the book, as it shows - again, through the very words of demominational documents and influential clergymen - how persistently the church either excused slavery, or in many cases actively promoted it, often arguing from natural law premises to do so. And, at best, even where they did condemn it, how often they excused themselves from taking action: "As men and Christian Ministers, we are bound to seek not the freedom but the salvation of our race." Of course there were voices crying in the wilderness, but the majority of the church seems to have turned a stubbornly deaf ear.

The History

I want to make a quick note about something that McDurmon is not saying in this book. He is not picking sides when it comes to North versus South. He is every bit as hard on the North as he is on the South, and he's careful to note that a lot of abolitionist activity in the North was actually motivated by the same racism that motivated Southern slavery.

That said, he does directly engage a lot of the arguments that have been used in the past to excuse the actions of the Confederacy. For instance, many would argue that while there were cruel slaveowners, there were also kind slaveowners whose slaves were not treated too badly. McDurmon provides convincing evidence that this was not the case: if anything, slaves complained that their more devout and "Christian" owners were harder taskmasters than the dissolute ones. Another common argument is that slavery was due to disappear from the South altogether within a few decades, without the need of a war. Even before the war, prominent Southerners promised that slavery wouldn't last. However, the very same men at other times argued that slavery was the foundation of the Southern social order, and that abolishing it would also destroy the South. Southerners also envisioned expanding US slave territory not just into the western frontier but also into the Caribbean, to form a future "Golden Circle" of slave states. Given this vision of a glorious slave-backed future and much other historical evidence, McDurmon is also critical of the notion that the war was not fought primarily over slavery.

However, even if all these pro-Confederacy arguments could be proved to stand up to McDurmon's criticism, reading this book confronted me with a fact which I believe much pro-South material tends to gloss over, and that is that any system which permits evil men to commit outrageous injustice with impunity is abusive by definition. The legal structure itself was horribly oppressive even for the best-possibly-treated slaves: they couldn't learn to read, their movements and gatherings were severely regulated and restricted, their marriages and filial ties could be broken at any moment for the benefit of the domestic slave trade. In addition, you also have the fact that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of human souls suffered under this system for two hundred years, hopelessly, in most cases with no hope that they or their children would ever escape. And then on top of that, you have the racism.

Australia isn't completely devoid of racism, but racial tensions here are nothing compared to the US, and after reading this book I think I understand why. With the rise of American slavery in the 1600s, the medieval caste system was fading away following the downfall of its intellectual foundations in the Reformation, and slavery needed a new justification. McDurmon's book shows how racism became a new tool to justify slavery. He traces the development of racism through laws intended to drive social wedges between poor whites and black slaves, because the southern aristocracy feared what might happen if the two classes joined in revolt. Later, racism also became institutionalised in the church as well: theologians like Thornwell and Dabney argued from natural-law grounds that blacks were inherently inferior to whites, and that without the benevolent institution of slavery to curb their impulses they would run amok. In other words, slavery was such a huge part of American culture for such a long time that the justifications underpinning it became deeply, deeply ingrained into the minds of everyone in it.

This is why, although slavery itself was abolished after the war, quasi-slavery arrangements as well as a vast and entrenched attitude of racism persisted well into the twentieth-century and have yet to be completely eradicated in the twenty-first.

The How and Why

As previously mentioned, Joel McDurmon has written this book from a conservative, Christian point of view. The stirring Epilogue is an exhortation based on the parable of the Good Samaritan (which is explicitly about racial reconciliation), in which he gives a practical outline for healing these old wounds through personal and private service, giving, and fellowship.

As I was reading The Problem of Slavery in Christian America earlier last month, I had a friend ask if I thought this book was really necessary given how much has already happened to redress the evils of slavery and racism. Do we really need this book? Naturally, as an Australian, I'm not completely qualified to answer this question. But here's what I think.

The US has always prided itself on being a beacon of freedom and opportunity for all comers, the place where you could go from being born in a log cabin to dying in the White House. That is the American dream. But for the majority of its history - let's say from 1660 to 1960 (still within living memory), or three hundred years - that dream was only for white people. For a huge number of black people, the US was "the land of the not-free and the home of the slave." For black slaves and far too many of their descendants, it was a dystopia where they were exploited, segregated, and silenced. While some things have improved, I'm willing to bet that a huge number of black people have never had a conservative, Christian person look them in the eye and say, "What happened was indefensible, and it grieves me that it was done to your people." But even just knowing the history documented so painstakingly in this book will, I believe, open the way to greater empathy and understanding.

And that's why I think this book is important: because I honestly believe that reading it, and taking it seriously, will lead to greater love, service, and fellowship. This is not an attempt to stir up strife, it's an attempt to lance and clean a festering wound. I hope this book travels far and causes great reconciliation.

I'd warmly encourage you to buy The Problem of Slavery in Christian America at Amazon.


Jill Stengl said...

This book sounds excellent. It's about time the church in the USA honestly addresses racial issues.

In my experience (which, granted, is limited), the majority of ordinary people in this country are ready and willing to embrace diversity, focus on character rather than race, and move on to a true era of equality--but the media and many politicians won't address or admit the positive changes of the past forty to fifty years. There is too much political power wrapped up in these issues--some politicians don't actually want the nation to heal. They want people of all races to be dependent on government, not independent and thriving.

Which brings us back to a basic truth: Only Jesus Christ can truly heal the deep wounds caused by man's evil nature. The Church as a whole has dismally failed in its mission. But there is no time like the present . . .

Suzannah said...

I thought it was excellent too!

My impression of Americans, from having American friends and also doing a little travel there, is certainly that they are ready and willing to embrace diversity. But, I do think that especially among conservative Christians, there's also a certain level of willingness to offend, in favour of certain historical idols. I think this does need to be addressed and I think that McDurmon makes a good point in this book, which is that if black people have identified themselves overwhelmingly with left-leaning politics, it's primarily because the left-leaning politicians have been far more willing to listen to their legitimate grievances.

Influence only comes through honest and humble service patterned on the example of Christ. It's not too late, as you say!


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