Was Slavery a Good Thing? Examining Doug Wilson

Sometimes I see a story come up and wonder if I should weigh in. Sometimes the same story keeps coming up, passed around the blogosphere that I read. That’s what happened this last week, and it’s time I finally weigh in. The stories, which are both different and yet related, involve the Bible, slavery in the Old South, and the stoning of rebellious children. Today I’m going to handle slavery, and tomorrow stoning of rebellious children.

Blogger JT brought up the opinions on slavery held by a candidate for public office in Arkansas in 1996, soon followed by similar views from a candidate in the same state today:

An Alabama state senator (meaning he’s already been elected to one office) running for Congress [in 1996], Charles Davidson, [wrote] a speech arguing that slavery was a moral good for blacks.

An Alabama State Senator running for Congress has written a speech arguing that slavery was justified by the Bible and that it was good for blacks.

The lawmaker, Charles Davidson, a first-term Republican from Jasper, made the arguments in a speech he prepared for a Senate debate over his proposal to fly the Confederate battle flag atop the State Capitol. The measure was quickly tabled on Tuesday before Mr. Davidson could deliver the speech, so he passed out copies of it.

Mr. Davidson referred to Leviticus 25:44 — “You may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you” — and quoted I Timothy 6:1 as saying slaves should “regard their own masters as worthy of all honor.”

“The incidence of abuse, rape, broken homes and murder are 100 times greater, today, in the housing projects than they ever were on the slave plantations in the Old South,” he wrote. “The truth is that nowhere on the face of the earth, in all of time, were servants better treated or better loved than they were in the Old South by white, black, Hispanic and Indian slave owners.”

One can only wonder why they were so keen to be free if the conditions for slaves were so good.

And the second story…

Meet Representative John Hubbard (who is up for re-election…which means this racist sack of poo got elected once already)..

Representative Jon Hubbard’s book, “Letters to the Editor: Confessions of  a Frustrated Conservative,” was self published in 2009.

However it’s now grabbing the attention of many because of a comment in the book where Hubbard wrote, ” slavery just might have been a blessing in disguise.”

“… even while in the throes of slavery, their lives as Americans are likely much better than they ever would have enjoyed living in sub-Saharan Africa… Knowing what we know today about life on the African continent, would an existence spent in slavery have been any crueler than a life spent in sub-Saharan Africa?”

Okay, so, I think this calls for a bit of background. Personally, I grew up in an evangelical family that never sought to defend slavery in any way, shape, or form. There was no defense of the Confederacy. Lincoln was seen as the third best president, next to Reagan and Washington. I am speaking here not so much from my experience in the family and community I grew up in as from my general knowledge of a wider swath of evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and Christian homeschooling.

There is a segment of the Christian Patriarchy movement that is pro-Confederacy. I’m not completely sure where Doug Phillips of Vision Forum stands, though his son was photographed standing proudly by a monument to the founder of the Ku Klux Klan last year, and I have no idea at all where Bill Gothard stands. I do, however, have some familiarity with where Doug Wilson stands, and I think his position is fairly representative of the pro-Confederacy sentiments in some segments of the Christian Patriarchy movement.

Quick word of background on Wilson. Wilson has founded a college, a seminary, a publishing house, a denomination, and an association of Christian schools. He has written dozens of books, and his educational curriculum, which combines theology, literature, and history, is extremely popular with homeschoolers. Wilson isn’t simply fringe, either; he has connections with mainstream evangelicals like Chuck Colson and John Piper. This is the same Doug Wilson whose comments on dominance and submission in the marriage bed made him infamous in the blogosphere this past summer.

In 1996, Doug Wilson, together with co-author Steve Wilkins, published Southern Slavery As It Was. (Read the whole book here.) Let me offer you a few excerpts:

“Slavery as it existed in the South was not an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity. Because of its dominantly patriarchal character, it 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.” (pp. 23-24)

“Slave life was to them [the slaves] a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, of food, clothes, and good medical care.” (p. 25)

“If slavery had been as bad as the abolitionists maintained that it was, and as we have been reminded countless times on supposedly good authority, then why were there not thousands of rabid abolitionists demanding an end to the evil? Or, even more to the point, why were there not hundreds of slave rebellions?” (p. 22)

Wilson has since distanced himself from Southern Slavery As It Was, claiming that it was misinterpreted and misunderstood, and the book is no longer published. But I think it’s important to note that the views outlined above are not as marginal as you might thing. Back in 2011, Michelle Bachman signed a marriage pact that stated that black children were more likely to grow up in stable families under slavery than today. It seems that this idea that slavery wasn’t really that bad because slaves had their basic needs met by kindly southern slave owners just won’t ever completely die, it seems.

But there’s something else going on in Wilson’s southern apology. Part of the reason that Wilson and others like him feel the need to justify slavery is that it is important to them to be able to see the antebellum South as their ideal, godly society. It is to this ideal that they strive to return, and their embrace of the patriarchal family is part of this. Here is a quote from Wilson in his 2005 book, Angels in the Architecture:

“The American South was the last nation of the first Christendom. … The South will rise again.” (pp. 203, 205)

In order to clarify what Wilson meant, we need to look also at this quote:

“You’re not going to scare me away from the word Confederate.” Wilson identifies as a “paleo-confederate.” “We’re fighting in a long war, and that [the Civil War] was one battle that we lost.” (Christianity Today, April 17, 2009)

In other words, Doug Wilson views the Civil War as a battle between the a truly godly, Christian nation and a hedonistic, dictatorial, ungodly North. To understand Wilson’s view of the North during the Civil War, let’s return to Southern Slavery As It Was.

In the early nineteenth century, the intellectual leadership of the North apostatized from their previous cultural commitment to the Christian faith. The watershed event in this regard was the capture of Harvard by the Unitarians in 1805. This cultural apostasy was not nearly as advanced in the South, although there were some signs of it. By the time of the War, the intellectual leadership of the South was conservative, orthodox, and Christian. In contrast, the leadership of the North was radical and Unitarian. This is not to say there were no Christians in the North, or that no believers fought for the North. It is simply the recognition that the drums of war were being beaten by the abolitionists, who were in turn driven by a zealous hatred of the Word of God. (p. 13)

Wilson idealizes the antebellum South as the closest we’ve come to a truly Christian society. When he says that “the South will rise again” he means that he and those who agree with him will eventually someday, with the help of God, restore the country to the ideal Christian society he thinks the South was. When he calls himself a “paleo-confederate” and calls the Civil War just one lost battle in a longer war, he is talking about the struggle to create a Christian society here on earth, a struggle that he, as a postmillenialist, believes must and will be won before the second coming of Christ.

In his effort to portray the South as an ideal Christian society, Wilson has a problem. Slavery. He has to somehow explain slavery away. And in come all the justifications. The idea that even as slaves, they were better off than they would have been in Africa. (For instance, they had exposure to Christianity and the salvation of their souls, a strong contrast to the demonic influence supposedly practically omnipresent in darkest Africa.) The idea that southern masters, being good Christians, were kind to their slaves, giving them food, shelter, and medical care. The idea that slave families were stable and intact, a sharp contrast to black families today (forgetting all about the fact that slave families knew they could at any moment be torn apart by sale).

This mythology is not new. The myth of the Old South was created before the Confederate and Union dead were quite buried. White southern children growing up after the Civil War were taught to view slavery as a time of ideal race relations, when whites and blacks lived together in love and harmony in contrast to the animosity and hatred brought by freedom. The age of this mythology means that people like Wilson have a lot of source material to pull from in their quest to prove that slavery really wasn’t so bad after all. And if you read Southern Slavery As It Was, you’ll find it relying on some of the original slavery apologists. Here’s another quote:

Slavery as it existed in the South was not an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity. Because of its dominantly patriarchal character, it was a relationship based upon 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. The credit for this must go to the predominance of Christianity. The gospel enabled men who were distinct in nearly every way, to live and work together, to be friends and often intimates. This happened to such an extent that moderns indoctrinated on “civil rights” propaganda would be thunderstruck to know the half of it.

It hardly bares saying, but Wilson is wrong. The “propaganda” here is the writings of the postbellum southerners who responded to their loss by creating the Myth of the Old South, with its supposed ideal race relations and friendly intimacy. Forgotten are the backs whipped raw and forever scarred. Forgotten are the interracial children of coerced liaisons between masters and female slaves. Forgotten are the “fancy maids,” light-skinned black female teens commonly sold as sex slaves in large slave markets like New Orleans. Forgotten are the families ripped apart by sale never to find each other again.

And if slavery was half as brutal as historians say it was, Wilson’s idealization of the Old South as a perfect Christian nation is a problem.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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