HOW NOT TO ARGUE HISTORICALLY: THOUGHTS ON “SOUTHERN SLAVERY AS IT WAS”

In my last two posts I have been talking about the dangers of grounding essentially religious arguments about the present in historical assertions about the past.  Drawing examples from the writings first of Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel and then of Francis Schaeffer, I have argued that such an approach has awful consequences.  The worst is that these writers effectively backed themselves into a corner in which it was impossible to admit historical errors.  Any mistakes in their interpretation of the American past would seem to undermine their religious critique of the American present.  In Schaeffer’s case, at least, this led him to group critics of his interpretation of U. S. history with “weak Christians” who don’t fully believe the Scriptures.

It is easy for us to condemn this as unbridled arrogance, but let me check that impulse with this reminder: In books like The Light and the Glory and How Should We Then Live?, Marshall, Manuel, and Schaeffer were courageously calling American evangelicals to think deeply about the surrounding culture, to “take very thought captive in obedience to Christ.”

Schaeffer, in particular, was contesting a deeply entrenched fundamentalist tendency to be suspicious of intellectual pursuits.  He challenged American Christians, instead, to think Christianly about science and philosophy, art and architecture, music and medicine and politics.  His writings about history were  a seamless part of this larger project, and even Christian historians who are skeptical of his historical interpretations–and almost all of them are–give Schaeffer credit for motivating a generation of believers to take the life of the mind more seriously.  That is a huge accomplishment.

And yet good intentions without discernment can still do much harm.  My point in these posts has not been to provide a “final answer” about the degree to which the American founding was Christian (as if that were possible!), as important as that question is.  No, my goal has been to call attention to the damage we can do in conflating the authority of Scripture with the force of our own fallible interpretations of the American past.

Toward that end, I want to share one final illustration of how not to argue historically.  The work I have in mind is a booklet from the 1990s titled Southern Slavery as It Was, authored by two prominent Reformed pastors, Douglas Wilson and Steven Wilkins.

Of the two, Wilkins, a Presbyterian pastor from Louisiana, is probably less well known today, but Wilson is growing in name recognition.  For decades he has been a prominent figure in the Northwest, having founded a church, grammar school, college, and press in his home base of Moscow, Idaho.  Of late he has increased in national stature, thanks especially to his well publicized debates with the (now deceased) atheist Christopher Hitchens, to his growing prominence within the Gospel Coalition, and by his recent authorship of the satirical novel Evangellyfish, which Christianity Today named the best work of fiction in 2012.

SSAIW

Southern Slavery as It Was is a textbook example of the danger of grounding religious arguments in historical interpretations.  Unlike Marshall and Manuel and Schaeffer, who linked their critique of the contemporary U. S. to debatable assertions about the American founding, Wilson and Wilkins went into battle wielding a contentious interpretation of slavery and the Old South.

“The South has long carried the stigma of racism and bigotry,” the authors declare in the booklet’s first sentence.  “The institution of slavery has so blackened the Southern position that nothing about the South can be viewed as good or right. . . . We have all heard of the heartlessness–the brutalities, immoralities, and cruelties–that were supposedly inherent in the system of slavery. . . . The truthfulness of this description has seldom been challenged.  The point of this small booklet,” the authors explain, “is to establish that this impression is largely false.”

In a preemptive strike against those who would challenge their interpretation,  Wilson and Wilkins conclude the booklet’s introduction by exhorting readers to relinquish all false belief about slavery and the South.  “Because we have resolved to abandon sin,” they declare ominously, “this must include the sin of believing a lie” [italics in the original].  The pastors gave their readers a simple choice, in other words: agree with us or be guilty.

By why is it of such paramount importance to know the truth about southern slavery?  Wilson and Wilkins answer by sharing anecdotes of public debates in which liberals dismissed arguments against homosexuality or abortion by observing that the Bible condoned slavery.  The implicit argument in such retorts was that, because slavery is evil and the Bible allows for slavery, then the Bible is obviously an unreliable moral guide.  Reminding us that Christians must never “be embarrassed by any portion of the Word of God,” the pastors then make an utterly illogical leap: they seek to defend the Scripture’s apparent allowance of slavery by defending the treatment of slaves in the American South.

The author’s justification is an egregious non sequitur.  The entire argument of Southern Slavery as It Was is unnecessary and irrelevant to their stated objective.  There is a substantive theological argument that they might have offered, but I am not a theologian, and I want to keep our focus on how they used history.

The desire to help Christians to understand and not be embarrassed by biblical teaching on slavery did not require Wilson and Wilkins to defend slavery as it existed in the American South.  If Beethoven is not on trial when a junior-high band plays his Fifth Symphony, neither is the Bible on trial when we evaluate the godliness of southern slaveholders.

To return to the anecdotal example of the liberal champion of homosexuality or abortion who dismisses the Bible because it tolerates slavery, sincere Christians engaged in contemporary debates have a ready answer with regard to slavery in the American context.  “If the Bible seemingly allows for slavery,” we might answer, “it also condemns racism and enjoins masters to do as they would be done by.  To the degree that southern slavery was racist (and it was, systemically so), or that masters transgressed the Golden Rule, the Bible cannot be interpreted to condone it.”

Wilson and Wilkins do not follow this course, unfortunately.  Implying that anything less than a robust defense of the Old South would weaken the Scriptural argument against homosexuality or abortion, they insist that southern slavery’s “sad realities” were overshadowed by its more admirable features.  Here is a sampling of what they contend:

* “Slavery as it existed in the South . . . was a relationship based on mutual affection and confidence.  There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world.”

* “Slaves were well treated and often had a deep loyalty to, and affection for, their masters.”

* “One could argue that the black family has never been stronger than it was under slavery.”

* Slaves lived “a life of plenty, of simple pleasures.”  Enslavement was a “pleasant . . . experience for the majority.”

* “Most southern blacks (slave and free) supported the southern war effort.”

* “Slavery produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the War or since.”

The damage inflicted by such an argument is immense.  To begin with, it will understandably constitute an enormous stumbling block for many black Christians.  (For elaborations of this point which refer to a later work by Pastor Wilson, see here, here, and here.)

Second, the authors’ argument teaches Christians, black and white, that unless they agree with the authors’ views on southern slavery (not on Biblical principles, mind you, but on American history!) that they are simply part of the problem, helping to undermine any argument against homosexuality or abortion.  (Several years ago, when I forwarded a lengthy critique of SSAIW to Wilson through the elders of my church, Wilson noted in his lengthy reply to my elders, “When a homosexual couple move in next door to Dr. McKenzie, and they are just as married in the eyes of the state of Washington as he is, he should take note of the fact that we have been fighting this kind of thing for years.”)

Finally, the authors’ argument will rightly be a stumbling block to sincere seekers who don’t yet accept the gospel.  When the booklet predictably became a lightning rod for controversy early in the last decade, non-Christians who followed the resulting furor observed the embarrassing spectacle of zealous Christians linking scriptural orthodoxy with the dogmatic insistence that southern slaves were content and well cared for.  What a tragedy.

Let me stress my belief that both Wilson and Wilkins–like Schaeffer and Marshall and Manuel–were honorably motivated.  When I see their zeal and courage, I am honestly convicted.  Thus in criticizing their use of history, I am in no way impugning their character.  I simply see Southern Slavery as It Was as a sad illustration of the consequences that regularly ensue when Christians seek to wield history as a weapon in the culture wars, and I want to do everything that I can to help us learn from the example.

Like Marshall, Manuel, and Schaeffer before them, Wilson and Wilkins were in a dilemma of their own making: any acknowledgment of historical error on their part would be seen as undermining their critique of contemporary culture.  As a Christian historian in a northwestern congregation much influenced by Doug Wilson’s teaching, I wrote privately to Pastor Wilson back in 1996, not long after the publication of Southern Slavery as It Was, to share my opinion that it was marred by numerous errors of fact and logic.  In 1998 I wrote again to him privately, and then five years later, as attacks on the booklet from local critics were rising to a crescendo, I forwarded a 30+ page critique of SSAIW through the elders of my church.  Finally, with the moral support of one of my elders, I flew to Moscow, Idaho and met personally with Wilson, trying one last time to convince him that his approach was wrongheaded.

Wilson was gracious to me in all of these private interactions, but he made it clear that if I disagreed with him publicly I would be undermining his work for God’s kingdom.  As he wrote in one e-mail, “either you remain out of the fracas,” referring to the tempest then swirling around the booklet, “or you fight alongside me, or you get co-opted by their side,” referring to the secular “intoleristas” who opposed his ministry.  In sum, unless I was willing to endorse his views or remain silent, I would inevitably aid the cause of his enemies–and his enemies were God’s enemies.

I was reminded of this position on numerous occasions in the coming months.  When I finally decided to share my concerns at my church’s men’s meeting, one of the members in attendance interrupted my presentation to say that I was “sinning” by questioning Wilson’s historical teaching.  Then when I criticized Wilson’s scholarship in a brief letter to World magazine (in response to an article on the controversy in Moscow that quoted me), one of the elders at Wilson’s church e-mailed my pastor (copying me) to say that “God’s enemies really love this stuff.”

How does it come to this?  How do we reach the point where views on American history can be a litmus test of spiritual faithfulness?  We must train ourselves to resist any and every effort to proclaim a particular interpretation of non-Biblical history as the Christian understanding.  Where God has not spoken, we must not pronounce our own opinions as final.

I am reminded of the words of Puritan John Robinson, the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, Holland before their emigration to New England.  “Err we may, alas! too easily,” Robinson lamented from the pulpit.  Reminding his congregation of the human propensity “to err and be deceived in many things,” he enjoined them to cultivate a “modesty of mind” and be willing to learn from those with whom they disagreed.

Nearly four centuries later, that’s still good advice.  Much is at stake.  Evangelical intellectual life will never flourish until we can disagree among ourselves without questioning each others’ character.

11 responses to “HOW NOT TO ARGUE HISTORICALLY: THOUGHTS ON “SOUTHERN SLAVERY AS IT WAS”

  1. Oddly, I stumbled on this post via another post you had written that I stumbled on looking for a Chesterton quote about patriotism. Very strange timing considering the controversy surrounding Doug Wilson right now. The words he spoke to you are very reminiscent of his response to the accusations he is currently facing. He is, and seems to always have been, a very “for us or against us” type, which is sad when he takes it as far as silencing the truth.

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  4. Thank you for such a clear-minded, and clearly written article on the issue at hand. I very appreciate the honesty and humility and the determination to be true to the Scriptural witness. I am blessed, and hope to model such an attitude and ability to think, and to communicate in this way.

  5. Hi Dr. McKenzie,

    In your string of quotes you omitted my favorite:

    “Slaves were not stolen cars; they were human beings. . .”

    Strangely, the authors failed to note that slaves were stolen human beings.

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  7. John C. Gardner

    The issue of comparatively positive views of slavery goes back to at least 30 years prior to 1860 in southern speeches and writings by Calhoun, Hammond, andJefferson Davis, etc. This was the perid when abolitionism and the free soil movement also emerged. God historians such as Noll and Carwardine explicate the political and ethical arguments of this critical period. Unfortunately, proslavery arguments have been revived in recent years.

  8. John C. Gardner

    The idea thaslavery in the united states was in anyway benign is contradicted by historians including kenneth stampp, john hope Franklin, and in the river of dark dreams. Such arguments are not only mistaken but violate the consensus of bth christian and secular historans for the past 40 years.

    • John:

      You are right about this. Indeed, I would say that the academic consensus goes back closer to seventy years. Paradoxically, Wilson and Wilkins use this fact as support for the correctness of their views, arguing that, because the Academy is a bastion of secular bias and political correctness, academic historians will of course disagree with their interpretation. The fact that academic scholars denounce their views, then, becomes evidence that the views in SSAIW are in fact correct. Please note, I am not necessarily defending the Academy from charges of bias, but I do take issue with Wilson and Wilkins’ anti-intellectual, populist argument that if the Academy condemns a particular historical view, that view is more than likely correct.

  9. Irenic and thoughtful. Thanks for your efforts!

  10. Thanks for sharing. Especially the words of John Robinson.

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