Doug Wilson: Slavery As It Was

I wrote yesterday about Doug Wilson’s statement that supporting marriage equality is a worse sin than supporting slavery. In the course of writing this post, I took some time to read some of Wilson’s past work more thoroughly, and I want to take a moment to share with you more of what I learned. In this post I’m going to look at Wilson’s 1996 pamphlet, Southern Slavery As It Was. In another post, I will examine Wilson’s 2005 followup book, Black and Tan. Finally, I will turn to Wilson’s 2013 exchange with Thabiti Anyabwile of the Gospel Coalition. If needed, I may finish with a wrap-up post.

I am writing this series in part to trace the evolution (if any) of Wilson’s thought, and in part to provide interested readers with a collection of links to share with Wilson supporters. Be warned: This series will include some fairly frank defenses of slavery. Wilson isn’t one to mince words.

Doug Wilson got in some pretty hot water over his 1996 pamphlet, Southern Slavery As It Was, coauthored with the founder of the racist secession group League of the South. In that post he argued that antebellum slavery was far more benign than we realize and that the abolitionists were the actual bad guys. Over the years since publishing Southern Slavery As It Was, Wilson has often claimed that critics have misunderstood or misinterpreted his words. Indeed, he has generally refused to engage with such critics entirely, insisting that they are arguing in bad faith.

I should pause to note that Southern Slavery As It Was was a heavily plagiarized work. In many places it drew verbatim from the controversial 1974 book Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, and without attribution. While Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, authors of Time on the Cross, have been taken to task for not considering the psychological costs of slavery and for some shady numbers, their pioneering thesis was that antebellum slavery remained economically viable at the time of the Civil War and would likely have remained so indefinitely had the Civil War not interrupted the practice; theirs was a rebuttal to the then-common argument that slavery was already on its way out, and would have soon ended.

I want to warn you up front that this is going to get long. Because of this, I have sprinkled headings throughout, working to summarize each of Wilson’s points as he makes them. Here are those headings, in order, to give you some idea of what Wilson argues and what will be covered in this review:

  • The Antebellum South Was a Pervasively Christian Society
  • The Abolitionists Were Godless Lying Provocateurs
  • Racism Is a Sin, and Should Be Opposed
  • Southern Slavery Was Not in Line with Old Testament Slavery—But
  • It Is Not Sin for a Christian to Own Slaves
  • It Is Wicked for Christians to Say that Owning Slaves is Sin
  • The Slave Trade Was an Abomination, but It Was All Northerners’ Fault
  • Buying Slaves Was Not a Sin in the Conditions of the Antebellum South
  • Slavery Was a Time of Racial Harmony
  • Slavery Did Come with Evils, But Abuses Were Rare
  • Slavery Offered Blacks Benefits
  • The Civil War Was a Mistake and Should Never Have Happened

I will be quoting excerpts from the pamphlet, but you can read it in full here. My goal in choosing the excerpts that I have is to present a fully representative picture of Wilson’s work rather than relying only on the most outrageous quotes. This is to address Wilson’s insistence that his critics have misread or misunderstood him.

And without further ado, let’s get started!

The Antebellum South Was a Pervasively Christian Society

How could men have supported slavery? The question is especially difficult when we consider that these were men who lived in a pervasively Christian culture. We have all heard of the heartlessness — the brutalitites, immoralities, and cruelties — that were supposedly inherent in the system of slavery. We have heard how slave families were broken up, of the forcible rape of slave women, of the brutal beatings that were a commonplace, about the horrible living conditions, and of the unrelenting work schedule and back-breaking routine — all of which go together to form our impression of the crushing oppression which was slavery in the South. The truthfulness of this description has seldom been challenged.

The point of this small booklet is to establish that this impression is largely false. It is important to note, however, that the impression is not entirely false. The truth is, Southern slavery is open to criticism because it did not follow the biblical pattern at every point.

The first thing to note is that Wilson both insists that slavery was not the “crushing oppression” we think it was but also affirms that slavery was not all good. In other words, he will brush off anyone who accuses him of saying antebellum slavery was completely good as having not actually read what he writes and thus not being worth engaging. But notice that he says the South had a “pervasively Christian culture” and that the impression we have of the brutality of the south is “largely false.” Wilson believes that the South was a truly Christian culture and that slavery in the south was much less brutal and more harmonious than our history books would suggest.

The Abolitionists Were Godless Lying Provocateurs

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.

Wilson views abolitionists as anti-Christian and even as driven by hatred of the Bible. He doesn’t like abolitionists one bit, and in fact sees them (and the North) as the true bad guys.

Racism Is a Sin, and Should Be Opposed

Some Christians balk at having a sympathetic view of the South because they know that racism is evil. This following is a very important point to emphasize. Like abolitionism, all forms of race hatred or racial vainglory are forms of rebellion against God. Such things are to be vigorously opposed because the Word of God opposes them. In brief, God has raised up all nations from one man (Acts 17:26). We are all cousins.  

Wilson often and always condemns racism, so he’s going to brush off anyone who calls him racist as well. He thinks he’s not. In fact, he thinks he’s anti-racism. When Wilson condemns racism today, he is not walking back anything from Southern Slavery As It Was, he is merely repeating it.

Southern Slavery Was Not in Line with Old Testament Slavery—But

Wilson turns next to whether slavery as practiced in the South was biblical.

A common confusion blurs an important distinction between Hebrew slavery — i.e. slavery in a nation covenanted with God, with laws received from His hand — and the slavery seen in the pages of the New Testament. In the former, we see how God’s laws govern and regulate the practice of slavery in a nation called by His name. In the latter, we see God’s laws as they teach His people how to live within a culture having ungodly laws concerning slavery. In the Roman Empire the system of slavery was, along with the rest of that culture, in rebellion against the true and living God. In the Hebrew republic, slavery was akin to indentured servanthood — the only permanent slaves were foreigners (Lev. 25:44-46) or Hebrews who voluntarily submitted themselves to a more permanent servile status (Ex. 21:5-6). But in the Greco/Roman world, the system of slavery was pagan from top to bottom, with the slaves having virtually no recognized rights at all. So a vast difference exists between the laws God gave to His covenant people for the regulation of slavery among themselves, and the laws God gave to His covenant people to regulate their conduct in the midst of a pagan system.

Here Wilson differentiates between “how God’s laws govern and regulate the practice of slavery” in the Old Testament and “God’s laws as they teach His people to live within a culture with ungodly laws concerning slavery.” In other words, he takes issue with slavery in the South inasmuch as it is still pagan, like that in the Roman Empire, and not in line with the Old Testament laws. At the same time, he argues that in the New Testament God laid down specific instructions for the conduct of Christians in a slaveholding society where slavery was pagan rather than biblical, such as that in the antebellum South.

When we ask the question whether slavery in the South was a biblical slavery, the answer must consequently be yes and no. Was the South a nation in covenant with the Lord Jesus Christ? Had it undertaken formally to conform all its laws, including its laws on slavery, to the laws of Scripture? The answer is clearly no: the South was not a Christian utopia. If, however, we ask whether the South contained many conscientious Christians, both slave-owning and enslaved, who endeavored to follow the requirements of Scripture set down in the New Testament for believers in slave-holding societies, then the answer is yes. Not surprisingly, the large number of these believers in the Old South did have the effect of “Christianizing” it. This means that the system of slave-holding in the South was far more humane than that of ancient Rome, although the Christian church had not yet had the full influence that God intends His kingdom to have in the world. 

Wilson continually distinguishes between the morality of slavery as a system and the morality of owning slaves within a slave society. Wilson argues here that that slavery systems that are not based on Old Testament laws regarding slavery are pagan systems. A slave society that does not base its laws on Old Testament laws regarding slavery, such as the antebellum South, is thus in error. But—and this is an important but—that does not mean that Christians who live within that society and own slaves are in the wrong. They aren’t, because that is the situation in the New Testament (the early Christians lived in a society with a pagan system of slavery) and there Paul simply instructs Christian masters to be kind to their slaves and Christian slaves to obey their masters.

It Is Not Sin for a Christian to Own Slaves

The abolitionists maintained that slave-owning was inherently immoral under any circumstance. But in this matter, the Christians who owned slaves in the South were on firm scriptural ground. . . . Provided he owns them in conformity to Christ’s laws for such situations, the Bible is clear that Christians may own slaves. . . . [T]he Bible prohibits us from saying that slave-owning in such contexts is sin. . . . As far as the apostle [Paul] was concerned, nothing can be plainer than the fact that a Christian could simultaneously be a slave owner and a member in good standing in a Christian church.

Wilson says that owning slaves is not a sin, and indeed that saying that owning slaves is a sin is anti-biblical. In sum, he states that one can simultaneously be a Christian in good standing and own slaves.

It Is Wicked for Christians to Say that Owning Slaves is Sin

He explains further here:

The authors of this small booklet are both pastors, and for us many of the issues become clear if the proper question is asked. Today if an abortionist sought membership at either of our churches, he would be refused unless he repented and abandoned his murderous practice. But if our churches had existed in the ante bellum South, and a godly slave owner sought membership, we could not refuse him without seeking to be holier than Christ. Such a desire would be wicked, and this wickedness was at the heart of the abolitionist dogma.

In other words, requiring a Christian slave owner to free his slaves before granting him church membership would be to go against Christ. Wilson also doubles down on his insistence that abolitionists were wicked.

The Slave Trade Was an Abomination, but It Was All Northerners’ Fault

Have a look at this:

The slave trade was an abomination. The Bible condemns it, and all who believe the Bible are bound to do the same. Owning slaves is not an abomination. The Bible does not condemn it, and those who believe the Bible are bound to refrain in the same way. But if we were to look in history for Christians who reflected this biblical balance — i.e. a hatred of the slave trade and an acceptance of slavery in itself under certain conditions — we will find ourselves looking at the ante bellum South. . . . To say the least, it is strange that the thing the Bible condemns (slave-trading) brings very little opprobrium upon the North, yet that which the Bible allows (slave-ownership) has brought down all manner of condemnation upon the South.

Oh, Wilson. Wilson, Wilson, Wilson.

Here Wilson argues that the slave trade, which he says was predominantly carried out by the North, is an “abomination” while owning slaves, a thing that was primarily confined to the South, is not. Here he again turns the North into the bad guy and the South into the good guy. For Wilson, the North was godless while the South was Christian. I should note that, once again, this is an area where Wilson has not changed his position. Indeed, he continues to argue that the slave trade was the true problem and that the North is primarily to blame.

Wilson is of course correct that the North was much more complicit in slavery than we often like to admit. The North was also much more racist than we realize. But Wilson’s entire framing here ignores that slaves were bought and sold within the South, and also that antebellum Southerners participated in the international slave trade by buying slaves. I also reject the idea that the slave trade is somehow a worse evil than slavery itself. Can we even separate the two?

Buying Slaves Was Not a Sin in the Conditions of the Antebellum South

It turns out Wilson does separate the two:

With the slave trade, the vast majority of the slaves had already been enslaved in Africa by other blacks. They were then taken down to the coast and sold to the traders. The traders transported them, usually under wicked conditions, to those places where a market did exist for their labor, but where the civil leaders had repeatedly and consistently tried to stop the slave traders. One of those places, Virginia, had attempted on no less than twenty-eight occasions to arrest the slave trade, but was stopped by higher (non-Southern) authorities. If the slaves were not sold in the South, they were taken on to Haiti and Brazil, where the condition and treatment of slaves was simply horrendous. The restoration of these slaves to their former condition was a physical impossibility. Now, under these conditions, was it a sin for a Christian to purchase such a slave, knowing that he would take him home and treat him the way the Bible requires? If he did not do so, nothing would be done to improve the slave’s condition, and much could happen that would make it worse. 

Okay, true story time! Some of my ancestors were slave owners in North Carolina. In the very early 1800s, they became Quakers and freed their slaves. I don’t tell this story often because I don’t want some sort of pat on the back for having ancestors who were the “good guys.” My ancestors were slaveowners first, and acknowledging that slavery is wrong is basically the bare minimum for being a decent human being. I bring it up here to point out that there was nothing to stop these southern Christians from buying slaves and then setting them free. Somehow in Wilson’s mind the only way these individuals could help those being sold as slaves was to buy them and keep them as slaves. Not so!

Indeed, Wilson is at pains to place the blame for the slave trade on everyone but those who bought the slaves. He explains that the slaves were first enslaved by other Africans, and that the traders then brought them to southern slave markets against the wishes of the Southern states, and that if southerners didn’t buy them they’d be sent on to Caribbean where conditions on plantations were only worse. In Wilson’s hands, buying slaves was simply the humanitarian thing to do! Any historical description of an antebellum slave market will confirm that the purchase of slaves was nothing of the sort.

Perhaps you are wondering if southern states actually opposed the slave trade. The answer is complicated. Southern states tended to oppose the international slave trade because it lowered the market value of the slaves they already owned. They did not, however, oppose the internal slave trade, which flourished throughout the antebellum era. In other words, Wilson is playing fast and loose with the facts in a way that is blatantly dishonest.

Slavery Was a Time of Racial Harmony

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. 

And here we have the bit I see quoted most frequently. Also this:

Slave life was to them a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, of food, clothes, and good medical care. 

Wilson goes into detail in his pamphlet, arguing that whippings were rare and rapes extremely uncommon, that slaves were well fed and clothed and well taken care of, and so on. But let’s remember that he’s not just arguing that slaves were physically well off, but also that slaves existed in genuine harmony with their masters, because of the influence of Christianity. It’s like he read George Fitzhugh’s 1857 propaganda piece and took it at face value.

It should go without saying that Wilson is wrong here. He paints abuses as the exception to the rule when in fact they were systemic. And even if they weren’t, even if there was genuine harmony between master and slave, owning people would still be wrong. If everyone was so happy happy, why didn’t Southern slaveowners simply free their slaves and then employ them? And why did the freed slaves develop a holiday, Juneteenth, to celebrate their freedom? Why did sharecroppers often build their cabins as far away from the “big house” as they could? Why did white Southerners deny freed slaves the right to vote?

Slavery Did Come with Evils, But Abuses Were Rare

Here is what Wilson has to say about the evils of slavery:

Slavery was attended with evils. As it existed in the South, it was not in any way perfect or utopian. But too often the real problems with slavery were not the problems we have been told about. However, as discussed earlier, Christians should be quick to notice the discrepancies between biblical slavery and that practiced in the South. These differences between the biblical standard and Southern slavery do make impossible an unqualified defense of the institution as it existed and operated in the South. Furthermore, the cruel mistreatment given to some slaves is inexcusable and truly despicable. All such evil was wicked and indefensible. When modern Christians condemn such things, however, they must recognize that they are not condemning something defended by the South. This mistreatment was reprobated by the majority of ante bellum Southerners as well.

Third, a problem with slavery not yet discussed is the fact that slavery promoted what can be called a “slave mentality” in the minds of some blacks. . . . Ironically, if slavery had not been so pleasant an experience for the majority, this mentality would not likely have such a strong hold upon the minds of some of their descendants today.

Finally, slavery gave an issue to radical revolutionaries by which they could provoke animosity against the South and, consequently, the “old order” which held sway in this nation prior to 1861. The War that resulted gave these radicals opportunity to increase the size and power of the federal Government in this nation to undreamed-of proportions.

In other words, antebellum slavery had certain problems: (1) it was not based on Old Testament slave codes; (2) some slaves were mistreated; (3) it created a “slave mentality” that fostered dependency; and (4) it provided a wedge issue that allowed Northern radicals to enlarge the federal government.

Notice that even here, in admitting that there were evils, Wilson has to insist both that the majority of antebellum Southerners condemned acts of cruelty against slaves and that African Americans today have a “slave mentality” that creates a spirit of dependency (read: welfare). In other words, he can’t even discuss the evils of slavery without making all sorts of excuses and justifications.

Now let me ask this—if the majority of antebellum Southerners opposed cruelty perpetrated by masters against slaves, as Wilson claims, why did they not outlaw it? Or are we perhaps defining cruelty differently? Some states had slave codes that imposed a fine on men who killed or tortured their slaves (i.e. on a rack), but no state banned a slave owner from whipping his slaves or putting them in chains, and they didn’t prohibit slave owners from raping their slaves either. What laws there were were hard to enforce, as slaves were frequently prohibited from bringing suit in court—and it’s not like these Southerners who supposedly opposed cruelty against slaves didn’t know that.

An important thing to take away here is that Wilson’s mention of the “evils” of slavery in his current writings is not evidence that he has walked back from what he wrote in Southern Slavery As It Was—and that what he means when he speaks of the “evils” of slavery may differ from what you mean when you think of the “evil” of slavery.

Slavery Offered Blacks Benefits

But in spite of the evils contained in the system, we cannot overlook the benefits of slavery for both blacks and whites. . . . Slavery produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the War or since. 

This again. Wilson seriously and honestly argues that the antebellum South created a “genuine affection” between blacks and whites that has not existed in any other society, ever. This is poppycock. The French traders and trappers who frequented the American interior from the 1500s through the 1700s weren’t perfect by any means, but they tended to acclimate to the customs of the Native American tribes with whom they traded, and many tribes in return adopted some of their customs as a sort of Catholic syncretism arose. It is possible to achieve some degree of genuine affection between races without one of them enslaving the other.

The Civil War Was a Mistake and Should Never Have Happened

None need lament the passing of slavery. But who cannot but lament the damage to both white and black that has occurred as a consequence of the way it was abolished? We are forced to say that, in many ways, the remedy which has been applied has been far worse than the disease ever was.

The issue of slavery was used to provoke a revolution in 1861. That revolution has continued to this day, and slavery has increased in our land as a result. It is time for us to stand and declare the truth about slavery and to expose the failures of the abolitionist worldview. Having done this, we must go on to proclaim the only truth which can set all men truly free from slavery — the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This argument is central to Wilson’s perspective. Wilson holds that the Civil War was a grave mistake, and positions Northern abolitionists as in the wrong for stirring up the conflict. Wilson does not say we should bring back slavery, but rather that the way it was ended was, well, worse than slavery itself. You may wonder why he says that “slavery has increased” as a result of the Civil War. In answer, I would note that Wilson often speaks of the unsaved as being slaves to their sinful nature. Wilson also blames both abortion and marriage equality on the increased federalism that results from the Civil War.

Conclusion

Wilson argues that the Southern system of slavery was wrong in that it did not follow the Old Testament slavery codes and was thus partially pagan, but that individual southerners did no wrong in owning slaves and that we cannot condemn them today without denying the Bible. Further, he argues that Southern slavery was a predominantly benign institution marked by racial harmony and friendship between masters and slaves, and that the evils that attended the institution had as much to do with the “slave mentality” it created and the war it provoked than it did with abuses of the system. The abolitionists and the North, Wilson says, were radically anti-biblical and anti-God, and the Civil War should never have happened. The South, in contrast, was pervasively Christian.

For a thorough rebuttal of Wilson’s pamphlet, which takes him to task for using former slaveowners as sources and for his treatment of the WPA slave narratives, see this article in the Oklahoma City University Law Review. In my next post in this series, I will turn to Wilson’s 2005 followup book, Black and Tan. Oh and by the way, did anyone else notice that Wilson hammers on both the sinfulness of racism and the true Christian nature of the antebellum South? Methinks there is a bit of a contradiction here . . .

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