Slavery, History, and Relativism

Slavery, History, and Relativism February 1, 2019

Recently, John Turner contributed an important post concerning John Myles, one of the founders of the American Baptist tradition, and in the process, he noted that Myles owned several slaves. Myles was certainly not alone in that. By any measure, Jonathan Edwards was one of the greatest figures in early American history, a brilliant religious leader, and a daunting polymath. We also know that in 1731 he traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, in order to buy a slave, a “Negro girl named Venus,” and that at various time he might have owned as many as six slaves. Those facts are not in dispute. But how should they affect his reputation, or how we commemorate him? By extension, we also know that a great many distinguished early Americans in the secular realm were slave holders, including a large portion of the founding generation of national leaders, and so were many institutions, particularly colleges. What should we do with that information?

In a Christian context – Edwards or Myles – the problems are obvious enough. If a Christian, and particularly a pastor, is holding another person in slavery, then in no sense can he or she claim to be treating the other with any sense of shared humanity or brotherhood. More generally, purchasing slaves supported the system that drove further demand, and encouraged further slave-taking, with all the devastation that promised for large communities. Beyond the impact on particular individuals, it was socially ruinous. In a US context, the racial character of slavery contributed to labeling whole ethnic groups as inferior. We obviously think of that in terms of people of African descent, but Native Americans made up a sizable share of the slave population in the colonial Americas. (See Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery: The uncovered story of Indian enslavement in America 2016). How can we possibly commemorate and celebrate slave holders who did such things?

Today, we justifiably see slavery as an unforgivable evil, whether we are talking about the slave trade, or the simple possession of slaves. In the context of particular times and places, though, it was not considered wrong in anything like the same way. How much allowance should we give to such contemporary standards?

Assume you are looking at a plantation owner in 1840, say in South Carolina, and he is a substantial magnate owning a hundred slaves. The mores of his particular community and region justify his deeds, but those of the wider world do not, to say the least. Abolitionist sentiment by that point was extremely strong across much of the US, and especially in religious institutions. That condemnation was even stronger in most of the English-speaking world. In 1833, Britain passed a law abolishing slavery throughout the Empire, and the all-powerful British navy began happily pursuing and capturing slave ships, and freeing their cargoes.

Viewed historically, and allowing for the mores of the time, we can reasonably say that that individual should have known better, and that his deeds represented a great evil. If he did not know that, he should have done.

But now shift the focus a century earlier, to an equivalent slave owner in the early eighteenth century. To say the least, no such consensus existed, whether social, moral, religious, or legal – not in the English-speaking world, nor in the larger Europe, nor the Atlantic and imperial realms. Insofar as a consensus did exist, it was entirely in favor of enslavement and the slave trade as a foundation of national prosperity, without serious moral qualms. In 1729, the (to us) infamous Yorke–Talbot opinion gave legal backing to slavery, in England as much as in the larger empire. We can certainly find abolitionist sentiment around the British Atlantic, but usually confined to religious groups that were regarded as far on the social and cultural fringe, such as the Quakers.

You could also point to isolated Anglicans like Samuel Johnson, who was strongly anti-slavery from the 1740s onward. He even spoke out in favor of the slaves’ right to armed resistance against their captors and oppressors. He appalled respectable Oxford with his toast, “Here’s to the next insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies!” But in this as in so much else, Johnson was a cranky eccentric in this regard. His devoted biographer, James Boswell, struggled at length to defend and justify what he and most right-thinking Britons saw as Johnson’s embarrassing and frankly silly opposition to slavery. Speaking for mainstream common sense, Boswell wrote that

To abolish a status, which in all ages God has sanctioned, and man has continued, would not only be robbery to an innumerable class of our fellow-subjects; but it would be extreme cruelty to the African Savages, a portion of whom it saves from massacre, or intolerable bondage in their own country, and introduces into a much happier state of life; especially now when their passage to the West Indies and their treatment there is humanely regulated. To abolish that trade would be to “shut the gates of mercy on mankind.”

Only Johnson’s childish prejudices prevented him from seeing the virtues of slavery.

No less quirky in his way was the humanitarian James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, who struggled to prevent slavery being introduced into his colony in the 1730s. Unlike Johnson, he actually had the power to shape legislation, but he was fighting a lonely battle. A royal decree introduced slavery into Georgia in 1751, partly as a response to the the advocacy of evangelical superstar George Whitefield, whom my Baylor colleague Tommy Kidd has aptly termed “America’s spiritual founding father“). If a moral lodestone like Whitefield felt like this, why would we expect ordinary lay people to think differently?

Only after 1770 or so did the tide of sentiment begin to run decisively against slavery, with key works by leaders like John Wesley, and the critical legal Somerset Case of 1772. The world’s first abolitionist societies and movements began to appear only from 1775 onward. Thereafter, we see the creation of something like the passionately abolitionist sensibility that we associate with the Clapham Sect, and the nineteenth century world.

Plenty of British religious and humanitarian thinkers preached that slave-owners should treat their human property with decency, mildness and consideration, freeing them on easy terms when appropriate. Whitefield himself was eloquent in such causes. But at least before about 1770, opposition to the slavery system as such was rare and sporadic. At that particular time and place, we might reasonably ask how or why someone could have been expected to go against that social current. And that consideration should surely affect how we judge that person’s character, and fitness for historical commemoration.

One illustrative story. Arlo Guthrie sang a wonderful version of John Newton’s Amazing Grace, always including a moving narrative of the writer’s life. According to this, Newton was a slave-ship captain, who one day realized the evil of his actions, leading him to sail the ship back to Africa and let those slaves return home. That was thus his conversion moment. It’s a beautiful story, and it’s totally wrong. Newton did indeed have a conversion experience during a storm in 1748. But for several years afterwards, he carried on as a skipper or mate in the slaving business, seeing no reason why that would be problematic for his new religious belief. Only later did he become a fervent abolitionist. In the context of the time, why would we expect him to have behaved differently?

When we study or commemorate a historical individual, should we pay attention to their involvement in slavery? Definitely. It should affect our opinion of them and their attitudes, and should feature prominently in any biographical account. To take one example, Tommy Kidd discusses Whitefield’s embarrassingly sympathetic relationship to slavery sensitively and in detail. But the degree of our concern or condemnation should be very time specific, and should ask that key question I raised earlier, of how people should have known differently, given the particular time and place. In the English-speaking world at least, slavery became much more self-evidently wrong, sinful, and reprehensible over time, and especially after that 1770 watershed.

And yes, everything I am saying here about attitudes to slavery in (say) 1740 would apply with full force to the Islamic world, where states like Morocco at that time held tens of thousands of white Christian captives, in appalling conditions.

Moral relativism is not a popular approach, but in this matter, do we have any alternative? Or do we rely on 20-20 hindsight?

To provide a modern-day application here. At this moment, you (and I) are almost certainly doing, saying, believing, or thinking something that, in the eyes of sensible and educated people in 2050, will appear morally reprehensible and utterly wrong, and especially for thoughtful religious believers. What exactly is that? I don’t know, as I don’t know where political opinion or moral debate will stand in twenty or thirty years time. By the same token, you and I are today failing to protest or condemn something that generally appears acceptable today, but which in another two or three decades will seem far beyond the moral pale. Again, what is that? Personally, I have no idea.

I’ll return to this topic in my next post.




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