We modern Americans (and those with a general knowledge of American history) tend to assume that the abolitionists legacy is right not only in the sense of their cause being just but also in their arguments and methods. In other words, we tend to assume that God was on their side and that the means of social and legal reforms they sought was completely right. I would strongly agree that their cause was entirely just and that God was on their side because slavery is evil and an affront to his good will and purpose for human beings. (I addressed this already in other blog posts, The Heresy of Racism, Part 1 and The Heresy of Racism, Part 2.)
However, we need to be careful about passing judgment even as we make judgments about the merits of laws and social customs (culture). The task of discerning the truth regarding social righteousness is complicated by our own biases and blindspots. For if one does not critically evaluate specific contemporary examples in the light of the whole of Scripture and the Christian tradition then we easily fall into line with one of the competing opinions presented to us by those who reject biblical truth. I want to use the abolitionists legacy as an instructive example to contemplate.
So then consider the abolitionists who worked to abolish slavery in the United States. Abolitionists were those people who spoke out, advocated for and became political activists on behalf of Africans who had been brought to the American colonies (and elsewhere) as slaves. They wrote articles, books, preached sermons, agitated for changes to the law and some of them broke the law by smuggling enslaved Africans from the Southern States up into the North. They were hated by the Southerners, distrusted by most of the political and social elites in the Northern States (especially by Democrats who defended slavery). Even among a majority in the newly formed Republican party, who were opposed on principle to slavery, the abolitionists were considered to be too radical. (This division within the Republican party at the time of President Lincoln’s time in office was dramatically illustrated in the film Lincoln.)
Many of the abolitionists were not Christians or they had themselves become alienated from religion (and Christianity) because slavery had been allowed to exist by “Christian” nations and even been sanctioned by Christian leaders—and that in contradiction to the plain meaning of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The one thing they knew was that slavery was an evil that had to be resisted using multiple means and methods. They could not sit in silence and do nothing about such a horrific injustice against enslaved Africans.
One would think that such sentiments and activities would be readily recognized as just by Christians and leaders in the churches. However, many American Christians were ambivalent toward slavery. While they recognized that slavery was not necessarily good (because slaves were treated cruelly and were not given the same basic rights as others under the Constitution) these facts did not compel them to advocate for the abolition of slavery (to say nothing of racism generally). The costs were too high—which was dramatically and painfully experienced during and after the American Civil War. Most people in the Northern states, where slavery was not perceived as essential to the economic well-being of the country, wanted to limit the expansion of slavery but not abolish it outright. Lincoln himself was convinced that slavery could not be outlawed by Congress or a President and thus did not advocate for abolition; he changed his mind after the Southern states seceded and armed conflict broke out. (This is, by the way, one of the reasons why his Emancipation Proclamation was such an important and radical action.)
In hindsight we are often able to “see” more clearly. Such is the case in regard to slavery in the English colonies of America (which became the United States of America). As in the case of great controversies in past generations, we must be careful to not make simplistic judgments of people or their motives. For we ourselves have enormous blind spots in our assessment of the time we live in because we take for granted the cultural assumptions of our time and place—which reflects the dynamic of change as people have assessed and reacted to what prior generations condoned and practiced in law and custom and religious practice. Those generations to come will perhaps be able to perceive our errors with greater clarity than we can now! The abolitionists present us with a noteworthy example by which to think more generally about questions of justice in society and the merits of making legal and cultural reforms.
Here are some examples of current subjects we debate: Was it just for Christians to advocate for amending state Constitutions to define marriage as “one man and one woman” (prior to the recent Supreme Court decision that negated those amendments)? Is it morally right to work toward reversing the Roe v. Wade decision (either by federal law, Constitutional amendment or by a Supreme Court decision)? Should Christians work against the normalizing and legalization of voluntary euthanasia (the so-called “Right to Die”)? Should Christians support “LGBT rights”? Should Christians support the legalization of drugs? Should Christians advocate for legal reparations (via the Federal government) to compensate the descendants of African slaves?
I do not list these in order to try to answer these question in this essay. That is beyond the scope of what I can write here and probably beyond the scope of the mission of this Journal. Rather my purpose is to demonstrate that we are confronted with very difficult questions which force us to think not only in terms of morality (right and wrong) but also about the proprieties of law-making (engagement in politics) and the ethics of how to work for social reform (tactics and strategies). And to be frank, I know of few evangelical Christian writers who are equipped to think coherently about such complicated social questions.
So then, back to the main subject. What then was it that moved people to become abolitionists and to work toward the emancipation of enslaved Africans? I would suggest that it was because of the revelation of Scripture. The Scriptural teachings on the value and identity of humans as image bearers of God and the reality of the Kingdom of God, even if not always well understood or taught, have left Americans with a core idea about the value of human beings. This biblical notion of humans are image bearers (in particular) was utilized by the political founders of the United States and expressed in the wording of the Declaration of Independence and the principles of the Constitution. They applied the biblical doctrine of human value and basic equality before God specifically to how the citizens were to relate to government and government to citizens.
In the case of the practice of slavery, the abolitionists appealed to a version of this biblical notion, even while avoiding quoting from Scripture. That is very telling. For it demonstrates that whether we are aware of it or not, biblical revelation is the ground upon which to understand the basis for doing justice and worthily honoring the living God. Though many of the abolitionists were not theologically orthodox (or self-identified as Christians at all) their consciences were informed by the biblical teaching about the inherent value of human beings as image bearers.
They spoke of the equality of human beings and of unalienable rights as essential gifts from God. As such they could not be stripped away, suppressed or denied anyone without doing violence to those persons. And to enshrine the denial of these and enforce that by force of law, custom or government decree was intrinsically evil. To look the other way or to condone it was, for lack of a better term, sin against one’s neighbor.
Abolitionists would naturally be able to echo and apply this statement (and others like it) to the system of slavery in America.
“Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the LORD pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.” (Proverbs 22:22-23, NRSV)
Justice is not a periphery subject in Scripture or to God—the abolitionists legacy demonstrates this. We modern Christians need to recognize and soberly critique the dynamics and hard realities of how people live and learn to think clearly and act for the good of all of our neighbors. We need to extend compassion to the vulnerable and oppressed and advocate for them. This is clear from Scripture.
Yet to do this rightly we must actively pursue and keep hold of truth so that we can know why and how to put the love of God into practice. There is much “do-gooderism” in churches and among society that is actually counterproductive to constructive social change. We are to do good not because we can make a perfect society or adequately address every social practice that defies God’s good will for all people—that is the heresy of utopianism. We must be discerning as we learn to work for justice because there are causes promoted as “social justice” that are neither just nor conducive to the general welfare of our communities.