Racism should die under the gospel…and yet…

A Methodist Camp Meeting

And yet…history reveals to us that racism can be so ingrained that it needs particular, persistent attention – exposure and rejection – before it falls. It’s a bondage that needs particular deliverance, and then disciplined follow-up, before it is purged from the human heart. Even after conversion. How was it that so many church-goers could be either supportive of or complacent about apartheid in South Africa?

The problem isn’t with the gospel

The inadequacy isn’t with the gospel, which has the power to change us inwardly and unite us (Col 3.11). Perhaps our preachers and teachers continually pass over the implications of the gospel when it comes to racism; worse, perhaps many don’t even see it.
And this essentially brings me to why I have included a series on Frederick Douglass on a website focussed on Church History. Undoubtedly one of America’s greatest social reformers and a very powerful speaker (just read his July 4th address), Douglass wasn’t a churchman. His story is here not because he was a church leader, but because of his experience of church leadership. What shook me to the core was the following account of the conversion of one of his masters and the subsequent increase of cruelty by this man towards his slaves. Those of us inspired by reformers like Wilberforce, MLK and Luthuli, or preachers of such moral clarity as Wesley or Spurgeon, and who love stories of revival, must surely cover our faces in confusion when we read accounts like this:

‘In August, 1832, my master attended a Methodist camp-meeting held in the Bay-side, Talbot county, and there experienced religion. I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects. It neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways…Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty…

He made the greatest pretensions to piety. His house was the house of prayer. He prayed morning, noon, and night. He very soon distinguished himself among his brethren, and was soon made a class-leader and exhorter. His activity in revivals was great, and he proved himself an instrument in the hands of the church in converting many souls. His house was the preachers’ home. They used to take great pleasure in coming there to put up; for while he starved us, he stuffed them…

While I lived with my master in St. Michael’s, there was a white young man, a Mr. Wilson, who proposed to keep a Sabbath school for the instruction of such slaves as might be disposed to learn to read the New Testament. We met but three times, when Mr. West and Mr. Fairbanks, both class-leaders, with many others, came upon us with sticks and other missiles, drove us off, and forbade us to meet again. Thus ended our little Sabbath school in the pious town of St. Michael’s.

I have said my master found religious sanction for his cruelty. As an example, I will state one of many facts going to prove the charge. I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture—“He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.”[i]

It is hard to believe that such a man was actually converted. What can we say to such things? Racism should die under the gospel…and yet…

For the first post in this series on Frederick Douglass click here

[i] Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845, p.32-34 (Dover Thrift Edition, 1995)

©2018 Lex Loizides / Church History Review

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One thought on “Racism should die under the gospel…and yet…

  1. Al Shaw December 19, 2018 / 9:19 am

    I’m glad you’re engaging with these issues Lex. Thanks for sharing. It seems there are at least four inter-related issues illustrated by this post.

    1. The reality of false faith. John reveals in his letters that an authentic work of the Spirit of God is evidenced in part by a love for the children of God. An increase in religiously-sanctioned malice and violence, regardless of how “evangelical” the apparent faith, may well be evidence that the individual is not in fact born of God’s Spirit. We need to take seriously John’s defining words, “This is how we know who the children of God are….”

    2. The need for discipleship. Christ’s command to make disciples who are obedient to all he commended should be the framework for the various activities we sometimes describe as evangelism, outreach, mission, etc. Faith-based obedience rather than faith-based confessional-ism must be the church’s goal and task. Discipleship will include thinking and acting in Christlike ways in the whole of life, not just in its “religious bits”.

    3. The reality of confirmation bias and group culture. There might be some comfort in thinking that Frederick Douglass’s master was an horrific aberration. The reality however is that there is considerable historical evidence showing that evangelical faith in the southern states in 19th century America went hand-in-hand with a firm belief in the rightness of slavery. A theological system reinforced it. An individual converted (if indeed he was) in this cultural and theological context would tend to find some of his pre-existing assumptions either unchallenged or reinforced.

    3. The reality of structural sin. You rightly indicate the need for persistent diligence in eradicating racism from our lives. Institutional sin, however, will limit the effect of such otherwise pious actions. Social, economic and political structures based on the oppressive and uneven distribution of power will always produce unjust outcomes regardless of the personal morality and attitudes of the individual participating in such structures. Individual “non-racist attitudes” (where they exist) among individual Christians will not stop such “non-racist” individuals benefiting unjustly from sinful structures at the expense of the oppressed. The history of 19th century America and 20th century South Africa are two obvious examples illustrating this reality.

    Thanks again.

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