In the sweet by and by

In the sweet by and by September 23, 2003

The birthdays in the previous post are from Dr. Mac's Cultural Calendar, which also notes that today, Sept. 23, is also in a sense the birthday of a peculiarly American version of Christianity.

On this day in 1667 in Williamsburg, Virginia, a law was passed barring slaves from obtaining their freedom by converting to Christianity.

Consider what the implications of this were for these Christian slaves and the Christians who bought and sold them. How could these Christians read together the words of St. Paul's letter to the slave-owner Philemon, delivered on behalf of Philemon's runaway slave Onesimus?

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good– no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.

Or how could these Williamsburg Christians read this, from Paul's epistle to the Galatians?

For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

The law in Williamsburg, which was later embraced throughout the colonies (slavery, in 1667, was not only a southern phenomenon), meant that the body of Christ now encompassed both slave-owners and their slaves. How could these people still be said to be "one body" or "all one in Christ Jesus"?

Something had to give. The behavior and lifestyle of colonial Christians was in conflict with Christian teaching. They would either have to change their behavior, or change the teaching. Guess which seemed easier?

The Great American solution to the conflict between slavery and Christianity was a shifting of focus from this world to the next. American Christianity became wholly otherworldly, preoccupied with heaven and unconcerned with earth. All questions of justice became purely eschatological. The sin of slavery produced the heresy of "pie in the sky when you die."

(The relationship between bad theology and bad behavior — heresy and sin — is a chicken-and-egg conundrum. The case of American slavery is a classic example of this cause-and-effect-and-cause downward spiral.)

This otherworldly focus continues today as it began — as an excuse for injustice. In the centuries since Williamsburg passed its law it has become more refined. It's most popular — and complex — form today is the apocalyptic premillennial dispensationalism described in the "Left Behind" novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

One of the things "left behind" by this American religion is the Christian imperative for justice. When justice in this world appears difficult, costly or inconvenient, the temptation will always be to look away, turning our eyes, instead, to the sweet by and by.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Ted K

    They say the road to hell is paved in good intentions. As I remember Ed Morgan’s _American Slavery/American Freedom_, Anglican missionaries were among those who supported this law. As they saw it, without the law masters were barring missionary access to slaves. After the law was passed and masters no longer had to fear the loss of property, the doors of the slave quarters were opened to them. Slave conversions were still rare until the Great Awakening in the 18th century and even most did not happen until the Second Great Awakening in the 19th. By that later date, both Pro-slavery theologians and the “conservatives” who wanted to reform the institution were citing the letter to Philemon as “proof” that American chattel slavery was in accordance with the literal word of the Bible.
    Ted K

  • merricat

    Maybe the Williamsburg Christians preferred to focus on Ephesians 6:5:
    “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ”

  • none


  • Chris

    Was this guy abused as a child or something? Seriously, what is his problem? I think I know the answer to that, YES! He was one of those that were constantly picked on by the more,”popular”, crowd, and quite possibly other such forms of authority. He sees anything that represents a form of authority as a threat, and thus, the verbal bashings via the internet,”worst diatribe ever”. Kind of reminds me of the comic book guy from the “Simpsons”. Do me a favor, and move out of your moms basement.

  • adam

    you completely misread those passages. the point is that in the body of Christ it doesn’t matter if your slave or free. Not that their shouldn’t be any slaves, or free people. That wouldn’t make sense. That’s like saying there is not difference between men and women any more. Men and women are now the same sex! Go gays and womens libbers.

  • JD

    Great Left Behind blog! I link to you from my site. Thanks.

  • mandy lawson

    All I really want to say is that I really am shocked at how you feel about the series. I really am! In my opinion it is by far my second favorte of all time second only to the bible ofcourse. I am very sad that you feel the way you do and while I might completely disagree with you I only feel sympathy and concern for you not anger. oh yeah and remember jesus loves you !!!!!!!!

  • Barney jinkies Rubble

    You know, i really have to agree. I like to read, about many things, im also a christian…and i have struggled through almost two of these horrible, drivel infested “novels” and not been impressed, save for the sheer lack of quality.
    Or, the immense quality they posses for being…..well, crap. and ive read more crap than anyone should have the misfortune to encounter.
    Left Behind, is ……. horrid. burn all copies and go to hell. the fate will be better than suffering through this muddled, inaccurate, self righteous, juvenile garbage.

  • drkrick

    I’m sure they did. That passage doesn’t address the specific situation of Christian “masters” as the other passages did.