An alternate history and an alternate future

An alternate history and an alternate future February 6, 2019

I’m not a big fan of alternate history stories premised on “What if the Bad Guys had won?” Mostly that’s because I’m pretty pleased that the Bad Guys didn’t win and I don’t find the idea of dwelling on the alternate possibility very appealing. I’m glad the Nazis lost. I’m glad that the dishonorable cause of treason in defense of slavery lost.

I get the allure of alternate history in general. The “for lack of a nail” contingencies of history can be fascinating. What if Ögedei Khan’s death hadn’t interrupted the Mongol invasion of Europe? What if McNamara had put in a defensive substitute for Buckner in the 10th inning? What if it was Flash Thompson who got bitten by that radioactive spider? (I loved those Marvel What If …? comics when I was a kid.)

But, again, if I’m going to spend time contemplating how the world might be different, I’d prefer to think about how it might be better, not how it might be worse. If I’m going to read something dystopian, I’d rather it be a cautionary tale about where we might be headed rather than an alternate history suggesting we should just be grateful that things aren’t even more messed up than they already are.

That doesn’t mean I’m looking for utopian alternate histories. I’ve read too much Niebuhr to find utopias appealing. But the contingencies of history also include lots of false starts and wrong turns where the Good Guys failed us. What if they hadn’t? Stretching our imagination in that direction might help us better understand our own failings and blind-spots, our own wrong turns and missed opportunities.

All of which is why I’ve been trying to track down a map or an itinerary of George Whitfield’s third tour of the American colonies. All I’ve found in my initial, cursory search is the suggestion that he traveled “far and wide” or “throughout the colonies, North and South.”

This isn’t for any planned work in progress, mind you. I haven’t the time or the discipline or the chops for that. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about a bit and something I think it might be fruitful to contemplate.

See, the tantalizing aspect of the great evangelist’s third visit to the Americas has to do with the dates of that journey: 1745 to 1748. That means that Whitefield was over here and on the road during 1746 — the same year that the great Quaker abolitionist John Woolman was traveling some 1,500 miles throughout Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, and just beginning to compose his “Considerations.”

What if Whitefield and Woolman had crossed paths?

I realize that Whitefield would not likely have been very receptive to anything Woolman had to say. He wasn’t predisposed, theologically or otherwise, to paying much attention to what Quakers had to say.

But John Woolman was apparently an extremely persuasive guy. He spent most of his life changing the minds of people who weren’t predisposed to listen to what he had to say.

Woolman’s journeys in 1746 — along with Isaac Andrews — involved visits to the homes and meeting houses of countless slave-owning Quakers. It was kind of a Jesus-and-Zacchaeus thing: I’m inviting myself to have dinner at your house today. Once there, he would just talk, laying out his arguments for why slavery was wrong — why it was selfish and sinful, based on a God-denying and God-defying “darkness in the understanding.” He would urge these slave-owning Christians not just to emancipate their slaves, but also to pay them the back wages they were owed for all of their uncompensated labor.

And they did. At the beginning of the 1700s, American Quakers were mostly as complicit in slave-owning and slave-trading as other white Christians in the Americas. By the middle of that century, the Friends Societies were officially abolitionist (to the extent that anything Anabaptist can be “official”). And much of that transformation was the result of John Woolman walking thousands of miles, from house to house, knocking on doors and just talking to people.

As far as I know, Woolman never talked to George Whitefield. But what if he had? 

Imagine, let’s say, that the world-famous evangelist’s carriage broke an axle somewhere in Maryland or Virginia or North Carolina as he was traveling to yet another standing-room-only mass revival meeting. There he sits, not relishing the prospect of spending the night along the side of the road, when John Woolman and Isaac Andrews come ambling along, offering him the prospect of a hearty meal and a warm bed at the home of a nearby slave-owning Quaker family.

By 1746, I think, Whitefield had already latched onto his great dream of founding an orphanage and farm in the colony of Georgia. Here in our timeline, that involved him believing that this plantation-orphanage could only be financially viable with the use of slave labor, which was not yet legal in Georgia. So Whitefield — constrained by an abysmally unsanctified lack of imagination — believed his only option was to campaign for the legalization of slavery in the colony. He did so aggressively and, ultimately, successfully. For the children.

That might have gone differently if Whitefield had encountered someone like Woolman — someone whose imagination was shaped by the gospel and the Golden Rule rather than the brute banality of Whitefield’s actual, real-world scheme.

I like to imagine Woolman working his holy magic on Whitefield, inviting him to imagine an orphanage that would welcome all children as a picture of and a response to God’s universal, indiscriminate love. But how would this even larger, more beautiful orphanage survive financially? The same way all of Woolman’s fellow Quakers were learning to survive financially, with duly and justly compensated labor.

Basically, I’m imagining Whitefield and Woolman sitting at the candlelit table of some Quaker family in rural Virginia, sketching out the plans for building Koinonia Farm 166 years before Clarence Jordan was ever born.

Koinonia Farm is, after all, right there in Georgia, just a short drive from the site of Whitefield’s former slave plantation.

Where does this “What if …?” alternate history lead us?

If Whitefield doesn’t lead the effort to legalize slavery in Georgia, does that ever happen? Probably, eventually. The sums of money available to anyone willing to steal the labor of millions while selling off their children was just too tempting to resist for too many powerful people.

But with Whitefield’s orphanage and his publicity machine behind the effort, Woolman’s proposed “free produce” movement might have gotten off the ground during his lifetime rather than percolating slowly for another generation. Abolition might have been accelerated by decades, saving and liberating millions of lives.

Yet what I’m most intrigued by here is the road not taken, the road never taken. I’m thinking of the beautiful possibility of something that our timeline, our real world, has never seen: The potential existence of an evangelical Christianity that was not intrinsically and inextricably bound up with racism.

Here my imagination fails me. I cannot envision such a thing because I have never seen such a thing. The real world has never seen such a thing on any meaningful scale. Is it even possible? I don’t know.

But what if?


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