And here we are, the last of my four-part look at Doug Wilson’s views on slavery. Why did I embark on this journey of further research? Why did I spend hours and hours reading Doug Wilson’s writings? My interest was piqued by the disparity between these two statements, the first from 1996 and the second from last week:
“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.”
“The institution of slavery in human society is a memorial to the sinfulness of man. I am not saying that the institution of slavery is a good or nice thing. I am not applauding it, and I believe that the gospel of Christ was designed to be the liberty of every man, and therefore the destruction of slavery.”
These two statements seem to contradict each other. Could it be that, over the course of the last two decades, Wilson has changed his views? Everyone’s views and opinions shift gradually, and the way we present our views may also change as we see how they are received. Might he have changed his mind, as people do?
Intrigued by the contrast between these two statements, I returned to Slavery As It Was, rereading the pamphlet and setting it alongside Wilson’s more recent posts and statements, including his 2005 Black and Tan and his 2013 dialogue with Thabiti Anyabwile of the Gospel Coalition.
What did I find? Three things.
1. Wilson now spends more time admitting the brutality of slavery.
However, he continues to argue that slavery was not as brutal as we think it, that abolitionists were liars, and that blacks were better off in slavery in the U.S. than they were in “pagan” Africa.
2. Wilson now says that the gospel should lead Christian slaveowners to free their slaves.
However, he argues that owning slaves is compatible with being a Christian in good standing and that Christian slaveowners should be treated with respect and not derision by other Christians and he says he would have admitted a slaveowner into his church without demanding that he first free his slaves and that he would have told slaves in the antebellum South to obey their masters.
3. Wilson now calls the Civil War God’s judgment on the South.
However, he still portrays abolitionists as wicked and godless, argues that the South was in the right, writes of the South as the last great Christian society, insists that the Civil War was a mistake, and asserts that all manner of evils have resulted from it.So yes, Wilson’s views have changed. But.
How do we square Wilson’s increased acknowledgement of the brutality of slavery with his continued insistence that the abolitionists were lying and that slavery was more benign than we realize? In his exchange with Thabiti Anyabwile, Wilson insisted that he had “labored” to acknowledge the brutality of the slave experience, but he also insisted that slavery “was not what its abolitionist opponents claimed for it.” He seems to want to have it both ways, insisting that really really isn’t ignoring slavery’s brutality but that slavery really really wasn’t as brutal as we think it was.
How do we square Wilson’s newfound insistence that slavery is “a memorial to the sinfulness of man” with his continued insistence that owning slaves is not a sin? Yes, Wilson says that the gospel ought to lead Christian slaveowners to free their slaves, and that the gospel is at cross purposes with slavery, but he also states that a Christian who owns slaves and chooses not to free them is not sinning and should face no repercussions. He also argues, still, that the antebellum South was profoundly Christian—why, then, did we not see slaveowners freeing their slaves left and right?
How do we square Wilson’s sudden willingness to call the Civil War God’s judgement on the South with his continued insistence that the South was the most thoroughly Christian nation at the time and that the Civil War was a disastrous mistake? Wilson states at one point that God often used godless nations to judge Israel, mentioning Assyria as an example and clearly drawing a comparison to the North. It’s worth mentioning that Wilson indicates that the judgement was for racism rather than for slavery, and that he argues that the South was in the right in the Civil War. But if he acknowledges racism is sin and that the South was racist enough to bring down God’s judgement in force, why continue calling it a pervasively Christian society?
Indeed, Wilson argued in Black and Tan that the South was right on “all the essential constitutional and cultural issues surrounding the war,” and he continues to call himself a paleo-Confederate. This fits very oddly with his newfound willingness to call the Civil War a judgement on the South. Can one be judged by God but still in the right? I suppose Wilson might say that Israel had the right of things when invaded by Assyria, but that the invasion was still God’s judgement. Still, though, Wilson continues to to argue that the Civil War was a mistake and to insist that it led to all manner of evils, including abortion, feminism, and sodomy.
As bad as was Southern Slavery As It Was, I’ve been almost more shocked by some of the more recent things he’s said. Wilson’s statements about inferior cultures, his mention of tribes where “hair is washed with cow urine,” and his insistence that blacks were better off in slavery than they were in “pagan” Africa were so blatantly racist as to make Wilson’s claims to the contrary absolutely ridiculous.
I want to finish with a relevant video by black Christian hip hop artist Propaganda: