The discussion this week of the intersection between Christian nationalism, white supremacy, and “safe [white] evangelical environments” has me thinking again of Oney Judge.
Judge was enslaved by Martha Washington, the first first lady, and lived and worked in the president’s household for many years. The White House hadn’t been built yet when George Washington was president of the United States, so the president and his family — and their slaves — lived in a rented house on Market Street in Philadelphia while the young nation was preparing its new capital city in a strange little district, ten Miles square, south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Washington’s slaves were his legal property according to the new Constitution and to the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, but Pennsylvania had passed a gradual emancipation law 10 years before the president settled in here. That situation required Washington to rotate “his” slaves regularly between Philadelphia and Mount Vernon lest they remain in Philly long enough to be considered Pennsylvania residents and thereby become legally free. That created an opportunity for Oney Judge, and she took it. With the assistance of free black Philadelphians, Judge escaped in 1796 and fled to New Hampshire, where her neighbors and local officials helped her evade recapture by the kidnappers the president sent to re-enslave her.
After Judge married and had children, Washington threatened to capture and enslave her children as well. She wrote to the president — to the president! — offering a deal. She would surrender herself to be re-enslaved just as long as her children were allowed to remain free. Washington indignantly refused to negotiate because, after all, he was the president and presidents don’t have to stoop to bargaining with escaped slaves. Plus the Constitution and the law — the Fugitive Slave Act he had signed into law himself — were on his side. The full story is amazing (Jen Kirkman’s tipsy summary for Drunk History is mostly accurate).
Overall, Oney Judge comes out of all this looking like a badass while George Washington comes out looking like, well, just an ass. And the whole story is a potent reminder that every nasty thing William Lloyd Garrison ever said about the pre-Lincoln Constitution was absolutely true and well-deserved. It really was a “covenant with death” and an “agreement with Hell” and whether or not you think that burning the thing in public was the most winsome or persuasive approach for him to take, he was right.*
Anyway, George Washington’s service as president ended in 1797 and he died two years later in 1799, but Oney Judge lived a long life as a free woman in Greenland, New Hampshire. It was a hard life — she was poor, widowed young, and outlived all her children. But she was active in a local church and found great comfort in her devout Christian faith. “I am free,” she said, “and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means.”
That quote comes from an 1846 article in The Granite Freeman — a local abolitionist newspaper. She was also interviewed later that same year by the Rev. Benjamin Chase for The Liberator — Garrison’s larger abolitionist paper.
By this time, nearly 50 years after Washington’s death, the myth-making process of Christian nationalism had set to work beatifying the first president as a saintly man chosen by God. In the 1840s, this idea of America as a Christian nation blessed by providence was largely promoted as a way of dismissing any concern for the injustice of the American Holocaust. America was good and godly and blessed by God, and this divine approval included the sin of slavery and the covenant with death enshrined in the Constitution.
This is also the purpose that such Christian nationalism and myth-making serves today in the 21st century.
The Rev. Chase cites the testimony of Oney Judge as a way of pushing back against that pious mythologizing:
She says that she never received the least mental or moral instruction, of any kind, while she remained in Washington’s family. But, after she came to Portsmouth, she learned to read; and when Elias Smith first preached in Portsmouth, she professes to have been converted to Christianity.
She, and the woman with whom she lives, (who is nearly of her age), appear to be, and have the reputation of being imbued with the real spirit of Christianity. She says that the stories told of Washington’s piety and prayers, so far as she ever saw or heard while she was his slave, have no foundation. Card-playing and wine-drinking were the business at his parties, and he had more of such company Sundays than on any other day. I do not mention this as showing, in my estimation, his anti-Christian character, so much as the bare fact of being a slaveholder, and not a hundredth part so much as trying to kidnap this woman; but, in the minds of the community, it will weigh infinitely more.
That last sentence is a fierce indictment of those Chase derides as “all the D.D.’s in Christendom.” It’s a devastating updating of Isaiah 58 or any of the other ferocious biblical condemnations of the hypocritical piety of oppressors. Chase knew that a great many pious white Christians in America would find this report of Washington’s “card-playing and wine-drinking” to be shocking and scandalous. But that these same “Christian” folk wouldn’t feel a fraction of that righteous indignation when it came to Washington’s slave-holding or his attempts to kidnap this woman and her children into lives of unpaid bondage.
This weird, ungodly elevation of “card-playing and wine-drinking” as more grievous sins than white supremacy or racist chattel slavery is what ties all this back to our discussion of evangelical colleges and universities and their attempts to ensure that they are perceived by their fellow white evangelicals as “safe environments.”
Consider, again, the example of Wheaton College — an institution founded by abolitionist Jonathan Blanchard.
Blanchard was a social justice warrior. He was a Free Soiler, devoted to abolition — to seeing the oppressed go free and to breaking every yoke. He walked out of the Presbyterian church when it failed to condemn slavery in uncertain terms. And he intended to model his young Wheaton College after the radical abolitionist school, Oberlin, where he’d once given the commencement address. Blanchard offered to allow black students to board in his own house and he envisioned Wheaton as a “drill camp” for “training social activists.”
Blanchard died in 1892. A generation later, the college he founded was no longer interested in abolitionism or in training social activists for the cause of justice. It had become a safe evangelical environment, a place, school leaders said, “where parents can send their children without any fear of their being inoculated with any ‘isms but Americanism and Christianism.”
The school had new rules. “Americanism” meant it would no longer defy racist laws as its founder had done, but it did forbid ungodly behavior such as card-playing and wine-drinking — yes, both of those explicitly. In the minds of the white evangelical community, those things still “weighed infinitely more” than the cause of justice that had animated its founding president.
The shameful fiasco involving the firing of Dr. Larycia Hawkins for the sin of opposing bigotry demonstrated that the Rev. Chase’s scornful mockery of “all the D.D.’s of Christendom” was just as accurate in 2016 as it had been in 1846. Whether or not the institutions of Christendom still explicitly advocate the marriage of “Americanism and Christianism,” they retain and enforce all the underlying values of that approach — Christian nationalism wedded to white supremacy. Their moral judgment is now reserved solely for impious card-playing and wine-drinking — and for any uppity, “controversial” woman of color who has the audacity to stand up for the values once championed by Jonathan Blanchard himself.
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* No, shut up. Garrison was right and his critics were wrong.
But his tactics may have been … Stop. No buts allowed here until you’re done acknowledging how massively, totally, colossally wrong his opponents were. Utterly wrong. On the most significant, most urgent, most important matter about which they could be wrong. They were morally wrong. They were theologically wrong. They were wrong in a way that rotted their souls and ruined their nation. They were wrong in a way that ended lives, ruined lives, and twisted religion beyond all recognition.
But burning the Constit— Shut up. Spend a decade or two plumbing the depths of the utter wrongness he was opposing and attempting to undue the enduring harm that wrongness has infected into every root and branch of American life, and then — maybe then — you can mumble a word or two about the possible strategic imprudence of some of Garrison’s rhetorical tactics. But until then, here’s all that needs be said and all you’re allowed to say: Garrison was right. His critics were very, very wrong.