Previously in this series, I have covered conservative theologian Doug Wilson’s 1996 pamphlet, Southern Slavery As It Was, and 2005 book, Black and Tan. Wilson has often been accused of racism and has rejected the charges, but his writings tell another story. In Southern Slavery As It Was he argued that owning slaves is compatible with Christianity and that antebellum slavery was a time of racial harmony, and in Black and Tan he argued that blacks were better off in slavery than they had been in “pagan” Africa and that the Civil War opened the door to all things evil.
Today I turn to Wilson’s exchange with Gospel Coalition blogger Thabiti Anyabwile in 2013. How did this exchange begin? Why did it happen? It all started when Wilson wrote this in response to criticism by several bloggers vis a vis his views of slavery:
The conversation should center on the blood of Christ. The blood of Jesus makes it possible for the white bigot to repent of his idiotic sense of superiority. One of the things that the cross of Jesus crucifies is every form of preening racial conceit. It astounds me that there are people who think that I don’t believe that.
The blood of Jesus also makes it possible for the white liberal to repent of his exasperating and cloying insistence on a soft bigotry of low expectations, coupled with his destructive subsidies of all the wrong things in the black community. But the blood of Jesus makes it possible for the liberal to repent of Margaret Sanger’s war on black children in utero. In addition, it requires that he repent of celebrating, and giving awards to, those rap thugs who want to teach America’s next generation to think of black women as bitches and ho’s who are supposed to be beneath contempt. In the face of this demolition job being run on the black family by progressivism, with black children killed by the million, and black women publicly degraded by black men, and other black men standing by letting them, let’s get out there and rebuke the three remaining people who think that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. Way to keep the priorities straight.
Brothers, I don’t have a problem with you standing up for and protecting your people. I do have a problem with your failure to do so.
The blood of Jesus makes it possible for those many blacks who have experienced genuine hostility, animosity, mistreatment, and injustice at the hands of whites to forgive their enemies as Jesus taught all Christians to do. There has been much to forgive, and may God richly bless every saint who has been enabled by the grace of God to do so.
The blood of Jesus enables certain other blacks to repent of their opportunism. I speak of those who play the perpetual victim even though they have never experienced anything worse than a two-day delay in their most recent affirmative action promotion. These are blacks who yell at those who judge them for the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, like somebody is supposed to have said once. I think it was supposed to have been important, but I am not sure anymore. Opportunism is a sin to repent of, and it is one of those things that makes an adult conversation about race so difficult. But the fact that many people can’t afford to say anything about it doesn’t mean they can’t see it.
The sheer level of insensitivity in this post led Thabiti Anyabwile, a black pastor and blogger at the Gospel Coalition, to respond, and the result was a multi-post dialogue, Wilson’s most sustained conversation on race since his publication of Black and Tan.
I’ll begin by summarizing some key points Wilson made during this exchange:
- Wilson Would Accept a Slave Owner Into His Church
- Wilson Wrote Southern Slavery As It Was To Keep People from Killing Abortion Doctors
- Wilson Would Have Told Antebellum Slaves to Obey Their Masters
- Violence to Prevent Being Enslaved In the First Place Is Okay
- Slavery Really Really Really Was More Benign Than Commonly Thought
- Wilson Labored To Acknowledge the Horrific Experience That Was Slavery
- The Civil War Was God’s Judgement on the South
- Today, Black Children Are Slain By Their Own Black Mothers
- Both Sides Planted the Tree of Hatred, Rebellion, and Malice
- The Gospel Would Have Eliminated Slavery without Causing Mass Slaughter
And with that, let’s get started!
Wilson Would Accept a Slave Owner Into His Church
In one post he wrote this:
I know what I would do today if an abortionist wanted to join our church. He would be called upon to repent, and to shut down his clinic immediately (like, yesterday) regardless of the circumstances. In other words, this is the kind of sin that does not admit of any gradations whatever, and so I would not be a supportive pastor if an abortionist parishioner wanted to “taper off.” No, you shut down the clinic, you don’t sell it to someone else, and you simply repent, down to the ground. A slave-trader with five ships would be in the same position. A slave-marketeer trafficking in human souls like that great city Babylon (Rev. 18:11-13) would be in the same position. The message of Christ is to knock it off. But there were more than a few slave-holders in the South who, like the centurion, had members of their household who were dear to them. Their affections were not turned into something else by the corrupt nature of the institution itself.
For my abusive critics, these are the only people I am interested in defending. Part of my defense has been to point out that some of them actually existed. But if you then throw back in my teeth a long history of white degradation, abuse, sexual exploitation, lynchings, etc., as though I had any sympathy whatever with those sorts of monstrosities, I will just give you leave to debate with the man you think I am. Tell him hi when you see him next. I have never met him myself.
Wilson’s argument, again, is that owning slaves is not wrong so long as one follows biblical proscriptions, and that many more slave owners in the South treated their slaves with kindness than we think. He does not argue that things like rapes of slave women were morally acceptable, but rather that they were very rare in the antebellum South.
Wilson Wrote Southern Slavery As It Was To Keep People from Killing Abortion Doctors
Here is Wilson’s explanation for his decision to write and publish Southern Slavery As It Was:
Paul Hill, executed in 2003 for the 1994 murder of a Florida abortionist, was a former Presbyterian minister, and was operating out of “our circles.” . . . This was an era when the pro-life movement was hoping to bring everything to a head through things like Operation Rescue. In fact, I was arrested once at a rescue in Spokane, although I later rethought my participation in confrontational challenges like that. When we printed an editorial on that rethinking in Credenda, Paul Hill wrote a letter to our magazine (from prison) to argue the point with us. Paul Hill very much thought of himself as a modern John Brown, and he wanted the spark that caused the whole nation to blow up to be a violent spark that he could provide. Shooting an abortionist was how he sought to do it. There were multiple reasons for thinking at the time that there was a distinct possibility that this kind of provocative escalation could work. This was the kind of logic that we were trying to head off.
And so this is the background to my standing question. If we could bring an end to abortion in the United States by precipitating a war (or by trying to), should we do that? Abortion is at least as great an evil as slavery was. Abortion is at least as great an evil for black culture as slavery was. If you allow for gospel gradualism now, then why is my urging a gospel gradualism in 1858 a thought crime? And if gospel gradualism was sinful then, why isn’t it sinful now? I ask these questions, not as a cute hypothetical, but to explain an important part of how I came to these convictions in real time, and why I went into print with them.
Wilson argues that he wrote Southern Slavery As It Was to argue that Christians in the present should not seek to start a Civil War to end the evil of abortion. But this makes absolutely no sense! Why would writing such a book entail arguing that slavery wasn’t nearly as bad as abolitionists made it out to be? After all, Wilson certainly isn’t going to argue that abortion isn’t nearly as bad as abortion opponents make it out be. If preventing people from killing abortion doctors was in fact Wilson’s goal, he should have acknowledged the sheer evil of slavery and then argued that ending it through war was worth than ending it through other means. After all, downplaying the evil of slavery gets in the way of his stated motive, as it could lead readers to say “okay, I see your point, but abortion is a far worse evil than slavery, so your argument for nonviolence doesn’t apply.”
Wilson Would Have Told Antebellum Slaves to Obey Their Masters
After the closure of the canon, we have the same sort of difficulty. Thabiti and I agree completely on the logic of the book of Philemon, and we agree that Philemon also “got it.” But blind spots are not eradicated all at once. There were Christian masters, then and more recently, who didn’t “get it.” They were true Christians, but talk to them about the unfolding of redemptive history, and they were likely to ask you what that had to do with the price of cotton. Suppose such a man, not an ogre, but not a profound Christian either, had some Christian slaves in his household. Suppose that those Christian slaves had been taught to read, and they had read Philemon, and they “got it” and their master didn’t. What do we tell them? We tell them not to despise their master (1 Tim. 6:2). And we, a century and a half later, should take care not to despise them either.
Wilson argues that we should not “despise” antebellum Christians in the South who owned slaves, and that he would have advised Christian slaves in the antebellum era not to despise their masters either. Here again we see Wilson’s earlier assertion that slave owning was not in and of itself sinful, and that owning slaves can be consistent with being a Christian in good standing.
In a followup post Wilson explains that he would encourage Christian slaves “to seek their freedom at the first legitimate opportunity.” That’s my italics, by the way, but I’ve emphasized it because I think the word is key. What makes an opportunity “legitimate”? Wilson goes on to state that the fugitive slave law should have made allowances for protecting “a mistreated slave escaping from an abusive situation,” suggesting that he does not believe it should have made allowances for all escaped slaves, and that running away form a non-abusive master was not a legitimate way to seek freedom.
Violence to Prevent Being Enslaved In the First Place Is Okay
In another post Wilson explains why he believes the American Revolution was legitimate when he believes the Civil War was not.
[T]he American colonists were not long established slaves who decided to revolt against their masters. They were free men who resisted an attempt to make them slaves in the first place. In consequence, because of the circumstances they were in, I believe that such resistance was fully appropriate.
First of all, taxation without representation is not slavery. In no way should the situation of the colonists on the eve of the American Revolution be compared to that of slaves in the Antebellum South. Second, why is it legitimate for free men to resist being enslaved but not for free men to work to end the enslavement of others (remember that the abolitionists are the bad guys in Wilson’s reading) or for enslaved men to run away to freedom (remember Wilson’s use of the word “legitimate”)? I cannot reconcile these things!
Slavery Really Really Really Was More Benign Than Commonly Thought
In responding to Thabiti’s criticism, Wilson says this:
Wilson misses that Fogel and Engerman, whose book 1974 book Time on the Cross Wilson plagiarized heavily, were primarily concerned with whether slavery was a viable system, not with whether the experience of being a slave was benign. Indeed, to the extent that Time on the Cross did portray slavery as benign, the work has been heavily criticized (read this link for more). In arguing that whipping was rare, Fogel and Engerman relied on evidence from a single plantation and failed to take into account the psychological impact watching another slave being whipped had on a slave. Similarly, their argument that slaveowners rarely raped their slaves because they could more affordably and discreetly keep a mistress in town is devoid of evidence.
Thabiti points to the “massive claim” that slavery was more benign than the literature of the abolitionists indicated. But I believe that this point really was established by Fogel and Engerman, and I cited them as having made it.
Indeed, the criticism was so heavy that in 1989 Fogel later wrote a followup book, Without Consent or Contract, in which he walked back some of his assertions, admitting, for example, that slave children were so severely underfed that their growth was stunted.
Besides, Wilson didn’t just quote (and plagiarize) from Fogel and Engerman, he also quoted southern slave owners arguing that their slaves were happy and content. He quoted from Dabney, a well known southern apologist of the late nineteenth century who made his white supremacist views no secret.
Here’s a quote from Dabney, by way of example:
The offspring of an amalgamation must be a hybrid race incapable of the career of civilization and glory as an independent race. And this apparently is the destiny which our conquerors have in view. If indeed they can mix the blood of the heroes of Manassas with this vile stream from the fens of Africa, then they will never again have occasion to tremble before the righteous resistance of Virginia freemen; but will have a race supple and vile enough to fill that position of political subjugation, which they desire to fix on the South.
And yet Wilson describes Dabney as a “godly man.”
It’s worth noting that Fogel and Engerman did not write that “There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world.” No, they admitted that force was a necessary component of antebellum slavery and that it “could, and often did, lead to cruelty.” They suggested that slave owners, motivated by profit, used the carrot more often and the stick less often than was commonly thought. The idea that antebellum slavery was a time of racial harmony was all Wilson.
Wilson Labored To Acknowledge the Horrific Experience That Was Slavery
Take a look at this bit:
Thabiti quotes one portion of my book, and then says this: “This, the central premise of the book, fails to sense how horrific an experience slavery was for African Americans.” But from my perspective, this is something I labored to acknowledge throughout the book. Just a few samples: “slavery was no bagatelle” (p. 21); “deplorable” (p. 101); it was bad enough to be the just cause of “fierce destruction upon the South” (p. 101); we used words like “deplorable, wicked, evil, despicable, cruel, inexcusable, abuse, immorality,” and “criminal barbarity” (p. 101). Thabiti doesn’t see that I did this, but I can say before God that I honestly tried to say it.
Wilson is of course speaking of Black and Tan, not Southern Slavery As It Was, and Wilson did indeed use those words. However, in that same book Wilson also wrote that “it is necessary to get clear on the nature of American slavery, which was not what its abolitionist opponents claimed for it” and then argued that he would have told antebellum slaves to obey their masters. So it seems to me that Wilson is still arguing that while some slaves were abused, the level of abuse was nowhere near what we think it was. This isn’t a change, and it is absolutely, as Thabiti puts it, a failure to acknowledge the horrors of the slave experience.
The Civil War Was God’s Judgement on the South
And then there’s this:
In discussing abuse of slaves, I used words like indefensible, immorality, and deplorable. “These were sad realities in the Southern system, and when God finally determined to judge it, I am determined to say amen to the judgment.” . . . When I talk about the judgment of God falling on the South, I am talking about a wasting desolation, not a wrist slap. Moreover, I am talking about one that was deserved. God is just. I believe that the South was a hellhole for many blacks before 1861, and a hellhole for many whites after.
Um, except that Wilson continues to insist that the Civil War was a mistake that shouldn’t have happened and that was provoked by godless anti-biblical abolitionists. In Southern Slavery As It Was, there was no talk of judgment. In Black and Tan, Wilson argued that the South was more godly and less racist than the North, but nevertheless spoke of the Civil War as God’s judgement. Here, Wilson speaks even more boldly of the Civil War as God’s judgement on the South, even as he continues to lament the evils that came from it and to argue that the Civil War was the wrong way to end slavery. Wilson’s rhetoric on the benign nature of slavery is also less bombastic, and he spends more time acknowledging that there were abuses. Is this perhaps a shift, however small? Or is it all PR?
Today, Black Children Are Slain By Their Own Black Mothers
And then this, again arguing that abortion is worse than slavery:
Thabiti has said on his blog that he doesn’t believe that the abortion situation is really comparable to the time of slavery. In one sense, I agree that it is not — it is far, far worse. Then, blacks were enslaved by white strangers, by another people. Today, black children are slain by own their black mothers. The crime is more hideous, and the scale goes far beyond anything we can get our minds around.
Yes, you read that right—Wilson is arguing that black women who have abortions are committing a worse crime than that committed by antebellum slaveowners.
Both Sides Planted the Tree of Hatred, Rebellion, and Malice
Wilson goes further still.
The “strange fruit” that Bryan Loritts referenced in his original post grew on a particular kind of tree — the tree of hatred, rebellion, and malice. That tree was planted by both sides and watered with the blood of over half a million men, and it wasn’t blood of martyrs shed in imitation of Jesus. “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free” sounds very fine, but it didn’t quite work out that way. It was blood shed in a way that makes men hate each other for a hundred trips around the sun.
Bryan Loritts’ mention of “strange fruit” is in reference to a famous poem about lynching. Here is how it begins:
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
This isn’t something Wilson could have missed, as Lorrits makes the reference pretty clear. And yet, Wilson argues that this tree—the tree on which the strange fruit, or lynched black bodies, hung—was planted “by both sides” and that it was the Civil War that caused animosity between blacks and whites, not, I don’t know, white racism.
The Gospel Would Have Eliminated Slavery without Causing Mass Slaughter
If anyone would like to read a glorious and detailed treatment of the Pauline strategy for dealing with slavery, I commend N.T. Wright’s commentary on the book of Philemon in the Tyndale series. Warning: Paul’s strategy played out in slow motion, and did not require slaughtering 600,000 people to do it. But that’s not a bug; it’s a feature.
It’s a pity Wilson seems to be so much more concerned about the deaths of soldiers during the Civil War than he does about, oh, I don’t know, the deaths of slaves during the middle passage. But also, I don’t understand how Wilson can consistently argue both this and that the South was a “pervasively” Christian society. If the South was so very Christian, why was the gospel not busy at work phasing out slavery? The answer is simple: the Christian slaveowners of the South believed that the Bible sanctioned slavery. But isn’t that what Wilson himself has argued, even in this very exchange? Remember that he said he would not tell a Christian slave owner petitioning for church membership in his church to first free his slaves, because he does not consider owning slaves to be incompatible with being a Christian in good standing.
It seems to me that Wilson has shifted his views here slightly, but in a way that makes his position contradictory. Wilson wants to argue what he has argued all along, that owning slaves in a slaveholding society is not a sin, but he also wants to argue that the gospel is incompatible with slavery and will naturally lead to the peaceful, bloodless elimination of the practice. He insists to Thabiti, for example, that Philemon surely understood that Paul wanted him to free his newly converted slave Onesimus, and that that is what Paul would have asked of all early Christian slave owners. But Wilson also suggests in the opening of this post that some slave owners might not “get it,” and that they might fail to free their slaves, but that that is okay because continuing to own slaves is not a sin.
Can Wilson not see the contradiction here? He holds that owning slaves is not a sin, and that one can be a slaveowner and a Christian in good standing, but also that Christians under the influence of the gospel will free their slaves voluntarily, and that slavery will naturally die out in a Christian society suffused with the gospel.
During the exchange Wilson explicitly refused to walk back what he had said in the past about slavery being more benign than is generally thought. His “apology” to Thabiti for being racially insensitive was so fraught with exceptions and qualifications as to invalidate itself as an apology—and indeed, he specified that he was only extending said apology to those who were, like Thabiti, willing to approach him kindly and civilly, as brothers in Christ.
In fact, the entire exchange was marked by his profuse gratitude to Thabiti for being so “charitable” and “fair-minded” in their exchange—and by that he means that Thabiti never calls him a racist. Wilson things nothing of calling the antebellum abolitionists wicked or bloodthirsty, but he has a really hard time taking what he dishes out, because his immediate response to anyone who calls him a racist is not to examine what he has said but rather to insist that that individual must not have actually read his writings.
In our last and final installment of this series, I will address whether (and how) Wilson’s positions have shifted since he originally published Southern Slavery As It Was back in 1996.