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…
[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