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Let My People Stay:
Revisionism, Millennialism, and American Slavery
Jack R. Davidson
A recent news story reports a complaint filed by the Americans United for Separation of Church and State against Heritage Academy of Mesa, Arizona.1 At issue, at least in part, is the school's use of The Making of America by W. Cleon Skousen (1913-2006). Apparently, the book attempts some revision of the treatment of slaves in nineteenth-century America. In an interview with The Arizona Republic, Garrett Epps, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore, describes and challenges the book's claims "that the state (of slavery) was beneficial to African Americans."2 This is not the first time Skousen's book has been in the news. In 1987 the then-governor of California, George Deukmejian, ordered an inquiry to find out "how and why appointees to the state Bicentennial Commission approved the sale of a textbook that characterized?American slave owners as the 'worst victims' of slavery."3 I have not read Skousen's book, but it provides a starting point for explaining how I was drawn into my own research on the Bible and slavery. Historical revisionism that alters or obscures the harsh reality of American slavery not only calls attention to the importance of truthful history but also the need for greater clarity in understanding the Bible's moral authority and its view of slavery.
During a two-year period beginning in late 1998, while I was the pastor of a Presbyterian congregation in Eugene, Oregon, a booklet began circulating in the church and throughout other congregations in the Pacific Northwest. Southern Slavery: As It Was, published by Canon Press in 1996, was authored by two ministers, Steve Wilkins and Douglas Wilson. Both authors are well known to their readers through numerous books, articles, and other activities. Wilkins is known for his involvement with the League of the South and other movements sympathetic toward Southern nationalism, and Wilson for his lively debates with the late Christopher Hitchens. The title of their booklet is a play on the title of the abolitionist work by Theodore Dwight Weld, published anonymously in 1839, American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. Weld presents multiple compilations of the statements of slaveholders about their slaves or slavery culled from more than twenty thousand copies of Southern newspapers sorted by him and his wife, Angelina, and her older sister, Sarah Grimke. Punishments, maiming, branding, and scars resulting from a variety of tortures, routinely mentioned in the personal descriptions of runaway slaves given in advertisements submitted by owners hoping to recover their human property, are presented and catalogued in Weld's book. The overall effect is a crushing indictment of American slavery.
Wilkins and Wilson substitute for Weld's negative portrait a substantially different and positive view of slavery. With regard to American slavery, they argue that there "has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world."4 They find an "overwhelmingly positive view of slavery" in their sources.5 In addition to their attempts to soften American slavery, they also incorporate elements of the defense offered by proslavery Presbyterian ministers in the years before and during the Civil War. As noted by the historian Robert Calhoon, the justification of American slavery for Protestant households required "the articulation of an idealized Providential theory."6 In Wilkins and Wilson's idealism, American slavery was a wonderful providential arrangement of divine beauty when purged of its racism and abuse. My concern over such revisionism and its antecedents was then and is now the same: If the Bible sanctions slavery, there can be no biblically based objection to contemporary forms of slavery or to the establishment and the continuance of a modern slave state.
Reasons for the historical revision of American slavery probably vary. Wilkins and Wilson's interest in the history of Southern slavery seems related to a unique millennialism. Unstated in the booklet, but expressed in other publications, is Wilson's belief in the transformation of culture through the application of biblical law and the establishment of a millennial kingdom through such means.7 The process of fulfillment began with the proclamation of the Gospel to the Gentiles and culminated in the establishment of Christendom in the era of Constantine.8 The American South and other "nations which together, with varying degrees of success, acknowledged the Lordship of Jesus Christ over them" are therefore imperfect versions of a steadily emerging and monolithic Christianized world.9 Wilson sometimes sounds a militant tone about the evils of "confiscatory taxation"10 and the coming of a "a second Christendom, inspired by what it took to establish the first."11
The American South becomes an especially important preview of the millennial kingdom in Wilkins and Wilson's outlook. The Confederate South is "the last nation of the first Christendom."12 That "the Confederate Army was the largest body of evangelicals under arms in the history of the world" supports the assertion.13 In their thinking this is more than evidence of Christianity's influence in Southern culture. It is proof of Christ's kingdom visibly emerging on earth, growing in worldwide approval. Although Appomattox is the death of the "first Christendom," a glorious era is coming, and "the South will rise again."14
For Wilkins, Wilson, and others a revision of the history of American slavery is essential in order to make their argument persuasive. For most people, it is counterintuitive to consider the antebellum South as a credible preview of a Christian kingdom because of slavery. American slavery must be revised and viewed as "far more benign in practice than it was made to appear in the literature of the abolitionists."15 Employing anecdotes, fragments of statistical data, and ex-slave testimony, Wilkins and Wilson offer a reconstruction, acknowledging inhumane treatment but with the qualification that "these abuses came from a distinct and very small minority."16
After I began reading some of the sources cited in their booklet, I soon found myself buried in antebellum literature related to the debate over slavery and the biblical roots of the controversy, such as works written by Weld, Albert Barnes, and countless others. I also met with Jack Maddex, an historian at the University of Oregon and specialist in nineteenth-century America, highly regarded for his knowledge of the Presbyterian Church in antebellum America. Maddex brought to my attention Eli Washington Caruthers, a nineteenth century-Presbyterian minister from Greensboro, North Carolina and Caruthers' unpublished manuscript against slavery completed in 1862. He encouraged me to read the manuscript, a unique example of Southern clergy dissent in the slavery controversy. I contacted Special Collections at Duke University to inquire about Caruthers' manuscript, and worked with the staff to create a microfilm version of the original that I began transcribing and completed in 2006. The argument and essence of Caruthers' manuscript is his understanding and treatment of Exodus 10:3: "Let my people go that they may serve me." In over four hundred handwritten pages, he expands its application beyond the slavery of the Hebrews, envisioning its universal application to all slavery for all time.
My subsequent analysis of the manuscript eventually brought me to a dilemma. Before the episode with the proslavery booklet and my study of Caruthers, I was predisposed to believe that my own traditional or Reformed view of the Bible supported an antislavery position. To the contrary, I came to realize that my training in hermeneutics led more easily to proslavery conclusions and resisted antislavery convictions. I began to understand that my approach to the Bible was very similar to that of Presbyterian ministers of the nineteenth century. Because Wilkins and Wilson were also shaped by the same theological tradition, my disagreement with them is a miniature reenactment of the crisis among Presbyterians that presaged the Civil War, a war that powerfully demonstrated the problems of our theological forebears' interpretive method, as well as our own.
Years after my encounter with Southern Slavery: As It Was, I was not surprised by the appearance of a satirical review of the booklet in Harpers magazine in June 2005, entitled, "Let My People Stay." The ironic title illustrates the historical and continuing importance of the Exodus text it comically perverts, and which Caruthers expounds upon in his massive work. By this time, my extended consideration of the antebellum debate and interaction with modern proslavery arguments had destabilized the approach to biblical hermeneutics of my earlier training. Being confronted by Wilkins and Wilson's revision of American slavery brought about the revision of my own approach to interpreting the Bible. I was grateful for Caruthers' work and found myself thinking in new ways and more cautiously about what constitutes a biblical argument. To put it another way: For traditional Protestants, prolonged exposure to the Bible and the American slavery controversy may be hazardous to your hermeneutics.
1Taylor Gordon, "Arizona Charter School Defends Use of Textbook Touting Benefits of Slavery for Blacks," Atlanta BlackStar, July 17, 2014, http://atlantablackstar.com/2014/07/17/arizona-charter-school-teaching-benefits-slavery-blacks-defends-curriculum/.
2Cathryn Creno, "Mesa Charter School Teaches Religion, Group Says," The Arizona Republic, July 14, 2014, http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/mesa/2014/07/14/mesa-charter-school-religion/12615041/.
3Carl Ingram, "Probe Ordered in State Panel's Sale of Racist Book," The Los Angeles Times, February 7, 1987, http://articles.latimes.com/1987-02-07/news/mn-1727_1_appointees.
4Wilkins and Wilson 24.
5Wilkins and Wilson 25.
6Robert Calhoon, Political Moderation in America's First Two Centuries, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) 168.
7Douglas Jones and Douglas Wilson, Angels in the Architecture: A Protestant Vision for Middle Earth (Moscow, ID: Canon, 1998) 145-160.
8Jones and Wilson 203.
9Jones and Wilson 203.
10Douglas Wilson, Rules for Reformers, (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2014) 78.
11Douglas Wilson, Rules for Reformers, (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2014) 78; Douglas Wilson, The Case for Classical Christian Education, (Moscow: Canon Press, 2003) 129; c.f. Douglas Wilson, Rules for Reformers, (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2014) 79.
12Jones and Wilson 203.
13Wilkins and Wilson 13.
14Jones and Wilson. 203, 205.
15Douglas Wilson, Black and Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2005) 14.
16Wilkins and Wilson 26.