Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Kevin Giles on the Catholic and Evangelical Espousal of Slavery


This post is taken from something I once submitted to a yahoogroup.
I reviewed Kevin Giles' work entitled Trinity and Subordinationism. In particular, it will focus on what he has to say about the "proslavery" tradition in Christianity and tie together some loose ends. I also encourage everyone here to read my review of Giles' book on amazon.

By the "proslavery tradition," Giles means the evangelical and Catholic line of thought that espoused slavery as a divine institution or (at least) as an institution that resulted from the Edenic Fall but which God used to ordain different roles in the fallen social order. As was pointed out last night, as late as 1957, one theologian was still touting slavery as a divine institution. The proslavery tradition only ended when evangelicals and other Christians began to read the Bible through a different set of cultural lenses, Giles contends. We will now consider quotes presented by Giles in The Trinity and Subordinationism:

I. Quotes from The Trinity and Subordinationism

"We are not mistaken in concluding that the Negro race, as a people, are judicially given over to a state of peculiar liability of being enslaved by other races" (Reverend Josiah Priest in Bible Defense of Slavery. See Giles, 223).

The one who allegedly gave the "Negro race" over to other races for the purpose of slavery was God, Priest insisted. His words were penned in 1855.

"God sanctions slavery in the first table of the Decalogue, and Moses treats it as an institution to be regulated, not abolished, legitimated and not condemned" (The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America in Dec 1861).

"The fact that the Mosaic institutions recognized the lawfulness of slavery is a point too plain to need proof, and is almost universally admitted" (Charles Hodge).

Regarding the Pauline texts on slavery and how evangelicals once commonly read them, Brian Dodd writes:

"Thousands of expository sermons were preached on these texts, sending many of the half million Southern soldiers to their deaths confident that God was on their side" (See Giles, 227).

Characteristic of the evangelical attitude at that time is this comment made by Robert L. Dabney:

"The Negro . . . is a subservient race; he is made to follow, and not to lead."

We could provide more quotations, but the ones we have provided above are sufficient for now. They all make the same point, namely:

"The evidence is clear. For almost nineteen centuries, Christians believed that the Bible endorsed and legitimated both the institution and the practice of slavery. In the nineteenth century the best Reformed theologians developed this tradition into an impressive biblical theology of slavery" (Giles, 230).

To be fair, evangelical and Reformed theologians did not approve of many cruelties or sexual exploits that African slaves suffered. Nevertheless, they did approve of the institution that was responsible for such atrocities.

II. What Changed the Evangelical or Christian outlook?

Giles seems to think that God Himself acted in history so that the eyes of certain believers might be opened to the evils of slavery (Giles, p. 235). This is apparently supported by the simultaneous opposition to slavery that Quakers, latitudinarians and evangelicals showed in the second half of the 18th century. Around this time period, we read about men condemning slavery as "a hellish practice" or "the greatest sin in the world." John Wesley writes against slavery in 1774 and others followed in his wake. Some Enlightenment thinkers who railed against the institution of slavery were Voltaire, Charles-Louis Montesquieu (his view was actually confused since he did not view Negroes as being fully human), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Giles notes that it was the evangelicals who primarily devoted their efforts and resources to the abolition of slavery: men such as Charles J. Finney, Thomas Weld and John Newton. I might also add Granville Sharp to Giles' list.

A comparison with modern evangelical works shows that the evangelical view of slavery and the Catholic view has most surely changed. What, however, brought about the change in viewpoint? Giles thinks it was a shift in cultural presuppositions, possibly the result of divine intervention, that brought about the change. He also believes that culture determines how evangelicals (among others) interpret the Trinity doctrine and the place of women in society and the church. Whatever one may think of Giles' approach to the Trinity doctrine, I have found his book to be very important and of interest. I hope to one day critique it and more clearly show its strengths and weaknesses.

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