Defending the Faith; Denying the Image – 19th Century American Confessional Calvinism in Faithfulness and Failure

How 19th century Presbyterians simultaneously faithfully defended historic Christian orthodoxy against Enlightenment rationalistic anti-supernaturalism, and accommodated (indeed undergirded) America’s original sin: race-based chattel slavery (and later segregation).

In Old School Presbyterianism, especially in the South, theological orthodoxy was deliberately wedded to the culture’s socio-economic structure, indeed, theological orthodoxy became its main proponent and defender, so that, as the twentieth century dawned and theologians looked for ways to break the link between the Presbyterian Church and segregation and Jim Crow, they felt they had to look to liberalism and then later neo-orthodoxy to find a theological ally against the old system that stubbornly resisted every effort to dismantle it. 

 

Defending the Faith; Denying the Image – Abstract

Summary: How 19th century Presbyterians simultaneously faithfully defended historic Christian orthodoxy against Enlightenment rationalistic anti-supernaturalism, and accommodated (indeed undergirded) America’s original sin: race-based chattel slavery (and later segregation).

  1. The Faithfulness of the Old School

19th century American Presbyterians in the Old School in both North and South recognized the threat of deistic, rationalist, materialist, anti-supernaturalist, Enlightenment thought. When Princeton Seminary was founded, for instance, in 1812, students were expected to be familiar with the “Deistical controversy” and its principal sources and arguments, and well-armed to rebut them with Scripture and Confession.

In particular, Charles Hodge (and other Old School theologians) realized that the kind of theology flowing from Germany, and particularly the stream from Schleiermacher, was going to have deadly effects on the church. Schleiermacher re-understood doctrine subjectively and experientially and balked at doctrines like plenary verbal inspiration, penal substitutionary atonement and the like. They proved prescient. Theological Liberalism has killed the church wherever and whenever it has prevailed.

The Princetonians (and Southern Presbyterians) in this context became the great champions of the historic Christian view of Scripture and doctrine. They articulated the biblical doctrine of the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, upheld the Reformers’ conception of biblical authority, and championed Reformed confessional orthodoxy over against the New Divinity, Liberalism and Deism.

  1. The Failure of the Old School

From the earliest days of Presbyterians in the colonies (17th century), slave-holding was an accepted practice. Edwards, Whitefield and Makemie, to name three famous preachers of the Reformed tradition, were all slaveholders. As the 18th century came to a close, the Presbyterian church harbored members who were both pro- and anti-slavery. But as the 19th century began, more forceful abolitionist sentiment increased. In the late 1700s slavery was often viewed within the church as a necessary evil, but in reaction to abolitionist arguments, in the early 1800s pro-slavery advocates hardened their views and began to argue that slavery was a positive good.

American slavery was uniquely bad in the annals of the history of slavery (not simply in its experience and practice, but in its foundations). It was race-based, chattel slavery. The pillars of American slavery were: white supremacy and economic self-interest. Not only were hundreds of thousands Africans kidnapped and brought to the New World via the infamous “Middle Passage,” not only did millions of Africans have their family, country, history and heritage stolen, and experience a multi-generational, living genocide, but an ideology of their inferiority was developed. So strong was this sense of white superiority that even advocates for abolition embraced this racist view of black Africans.

As slavery was challenged by abolitionists in the church, many Old School theologians viewed their arguments as unbiblical, coming from theological liberalism and secular Jacobinism. In response, Old School theologians (especially in the South) mounted a vigorous “biblical” defense of slavery.

Eventually, there were denominational splits over (among other things) slavery. The Presbyterians split in 1837, and conflict between abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates was a significant part of the division. Baptists split in 1845. In each case the pro-slavery denominations declared slavery to be a social/political matter and not a part of “the spirituality of the church” and therefore, anti-slavery agitation was viewed as divisive, disruptive to the unity of the church, and a violation of the “spiritual mission of the church.” Effectively, this put a gag order on pastors challenging the evil system of race-based chattel slavery.

The Old School Presbyterian theologians, especially in the South, made at least three grave theological errors.

  1. They denied the imago Dei (the image of God in man), or at least its implications, in black people. Their embrace of white supremacy, the root of racism, was an anthropological heresy, and a departure from the Bible and the Reformed tradition, despite their “biblical” arguments.
  2. They denied the 2nd Great Commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself” in putting economic self-interest above neighbor love in relation to black slaves in particular.
  3. They denied the Communion of the Saints, in relation to converted slaves (as well as free blacks). The Pauline instructions to Philemon were muted and ignored. Believing slaves were not treated as brothers. Indeed, Frederick Douglas served under three different masters with some connection to evangelical religion, whom he considered to have become worse masters after their “conversions.”

No wonder Frederick Douglas said this:

I . . . hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land. . . . I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. . . .

I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me.

We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members.

The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. . . .

The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master.

Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity.

Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.” (Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845.)

One thing we should note is that proslavery ideology was not confined to the South, or to the margins of American society. The ideals of white supremacy and justified economic exploitation of blacks in the self-interest of whites was endemic in the whole country and culture. Larry Tise explains:

“From the outset I should make clear that my conception of proslavery ideology differs markedly from that of most historians. Far from being a body of prejudice entertained and expressed by a section of the nation, a group of one-dimensional racists, or even by a slaveholding class, I believe that proslavery ideology was a mode of thinking, a concatenation of ideas, and a system of symbols that expressed the social, cultural, and moral values of a large portion of the population of America in the first half of the nineteenth century. (Larry E Tise, Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701 – 1840 xv Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1987.)

What is worse is that the most respected Southern Presbyterian theologians of the day, Robert Lewis Dabney, James Henley Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer became the great defenders and articulators of the “biblical” and theological arguments for racist, chattel slavery, while at the same time inventing a view of “the spirituality of the church” which inoculated the church against the doctrines of the imago Dei, the neighbor love command and the communion of the saints as they relate to the question of race-based chattel slavery.

In Old School Presbyterianism, especially in the South, theological orthodoxy was deliberately wedded to the culture’s socio-economic structure, indeed, theological orthodoxy became its main proponent and defender, so that, as the twentieth century dawned and theologians looked for ways to break the link between the Presbyterian Church and segregation and Jim Crow, they felt they had to look to liberalism and then later neo-orthodoxy to find a theological ally against the old system that stubbornly resisted every effort to dismantle it.

To restate and elaborate this

This resulted in a tragedy that has engulfed numerous denominations. Resistance to an evil socio-ethical system was mounted from a faulty theological platform, because few voices were being raised against it from the conservative confessional Reformed position.

Mainstream especially Southern Reformed/Presbyterianism allied what was true with what was false in order to support what was wrong rather than right. We should expect to pay the penalty for this for generations to come.

Is Reformed Theology the source of the problem?

No. Three arguments that show Reformed Theology is not the SOURCE of white supremacy and pro-slavery, pro-segregationist ideology. It was infidelity to confessional Reformed theology by white confessional Reformed theologians that produced this errant (and indeed, heretical) ideology.

  1. The Southern and Old School Presbyterian views are themselves idiosyncratic. Significant voices are raised against the mainstream view by Presbyterians like Alexander Macleod and the American Covenanters. British and Scottish Baptists and Presbyterians strenuously objected to Southern Presbyterian arguments and practice in relation to slavery. C.H. Spurgeon was an ardent anti-slavery, abolitionist who would not commune slave-holders. No 19th century Scottish Presbyterians justified slavery.
  2. African American Reformed Theologians, like Frances Grimke, bravely and articulately, advocated for the classical Reformed, confessional and historic Christian doctrines of the imago Dei, neighbor love and the communion of the saints, that destroy white supremacy and pro-slavery and por-segregation ideology.
  3. So, rather than fidelity to Reformed confessional theology, it was economic self-interest and white supremacy that created a recipe for heresy in Old School American Presbyterianism. This is the “ur source” of pro-slavery ideology.

Sadly, the heresy of white supremacy hardened after the American Civil War during reconstruction. The condescension and loathing of Robert Lewis Dabney’s speech before the Synod of Virginia in 1867 will give you a sense of what would circulate in the churches in the South for the next hundred years.

Dabney opposed the ordination of African Americans as pastors in white churches in the Presbyterian church on five grounds. 1. It was untimely, because free blacks were a threat to whites under Reconstruction. 2. Because the overture was incorrect and ambiguous. 3. Because it is impractical. 4. Because blacks are not trustworthy for such a position. 5. Because it will disturb the unity of the church.

Dabney says:

“An insuperable difference of race, made by God and not by man, and of character and social condition, makes it plainly impossible for a black man to teach and rule white Christians to edification” [201].

“I oppose the entrusting of the destinies of our church in any degree whatever to black rulers, because that race is not trustworthy for such position” [203].

“[W]ho that knows the negro does not know that his is a subservient race; that he is made to follow, and not to lead; that his temperament, idiosyncrasy and social relation make him untrustworthy as a depository of power” 203-204. (Robert Lewis Dabney, Discussions, Vol. 2 “Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes” 199-217. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967 (1891). Speech before the Synod of Virginia, November 9, 1867.)

Thankfully, there were responsible Old School Presbyterian voices that saw the heresy and folly of this. The great B.B. Warfield of Princeton, himself a Virginian, said:

“Christian men, under the pressure of their race antipathy, desert the fundamental law of the church of the living God, that in Christ Jesus there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcision and on circumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondman, freeman.” B.B. Warfield, Drawing the Color Line,” The Independent, July 5, 1888. Selected Shorter Writings, Volume 2. P&R.

Nevertheless, the underlying racism, failure of neighbor love, economic self-interest, and indifference toward the plight of freed blacks, dominated the racial landscape of the country and the church, and we are dealing with that sinful wreckage to this very day.

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