Thursday, June 20, 2013

Southern slavery

Southern Presbyterian theologians like Thornwell and Dabney have been rightly chided for supporting the Southern institution of slavery. Mind you, it’s easy for us to chide them at a safe distance. But given the power of social conditioning, today’s opponents of slavery might well have been yesterday’s proponents of slavery.

I don’t say that to excuse Thornwell or Dabney. Scripture indicts evil social conditioning in the case of paganism. But we need to resist the impulse to feel personal moral superiority. We should condemn unrighteousness without being self-righteous–which is just another form of unrighteousness.

In addition, their position was complex and conflicted. Take Thornwell:

Thornwell demanded the legal sanction of slave marriages, the repeal of the laws against slave literacy, and effective measures to punish mistreatment of slaves. He assailed the scientific racism of his day that held that blacks were a separate species. He repudiated the idea that the curse of Ham in Genesis was fulfilled by the infliction of slavery on the Africans. He recognized in black people “the same humanity in which we glory as the image of God,” and he declared to a white Charleston congregation, We are not ashamed to call [the black man] our brother!” “Upon an earth radiant with the smile of heaven, or in the Paradise of God, we can no more picture the figure of a slave,” Thornwell wrote. He strongly opposed the reopening of the slave trade in the United States…On a trip to Europe in 1860, Thornwell apparently made up his mind to act at once for the gradual emancipation of the slaves…but when he got back home he found it was too late: “the die was cast,” Our Southern Zion (Banner of Truth 2012), 133-34.

Critics sometimes ask how Christians could have supported slavery. The short answer is simple: Christians are sinners. They have moral blind spots.

But I also think we should turn the question around. Although Thornwell’s qualified position fell short, we ought to ask how much worse his position would be absent Christian ethics, absent a Christian conscience, absent the Gospel, absent biblical restraint.

Historically, slavery is a fairly ubiquitous phenomenon. And it still exists in parts of the world today. Throughout history, people-groups have enslaved other people-groups, or enslaved members of their own society, without any trace of moral compunction.  


  1. The British Empire imported slavery into the United States (think Piers Morgan), including the harshest slave codes that were developed on Caribbean plantations. Tidewater area slavery was more gentile, but the deep south slavery was the British Empire style. Why do they not get a good portion of the blame?