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How a secular Jew proved Christians ended slavery

How a secular Jew proved Christians ended slavery

A man is silhouetted against the ''Door of No Return'' at the House of Slaves on Goree Island near Senegal's capital Dakar March 16, 2007. Millions of Africans were shipped from places like this whitewashed fort in Elmina, Ghana, to a life of slavery in Brazil, the Caribbean and America. | (Photo: Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly)

In the debate over social justice and reparations, many claims are being made about slavery. Christians are now debating about how complicit earlier Christians were in slavery. Below, I answer some questions about how Robert W. Fogel (1922-2013) a former communist, a “secular Jew,” arguably the foremost scholar on American slavery who won a Nobel Prize for his work, concluded that Christians ended slavery.

A version of this was originally posted at acton.org.

Q: What made you write about Professor Fogel now?

A. I recently saw a Christian intellectual scoff at the idea that Christians ended slavery, holding the suggestion up for mockery, suggesting it was a conservative’s simplistic caricature of history, embarrassing to other Christians. The Christian scholar apparently had no idea of what Professor Fogel proved. In the recent “social justice” debate some one-sided information is getting thrown around about how evangelical Christians supported slavery discouraging us.

Q: Who was Professor Fogel?

A. In his youth, he spent eight years campaigning for communism. Eventually, he rejected it. He pioneered an approach to history that relied on quantifiable data; that is, concrete documentation, like government records, the business ledgers of plantations. He calculated that Southern slavery was 36% more efficient than free Northern farms and that the Southern economy was growing at double the rate as the North’s in the ten years before the Civil War. He also found some facts about how slaves were treated that were controversial, like that they ate more calories and lived longer than Northern city-dwellers. Some people misused his findings to defend slavery but that wasn’t at all his intention. In 1993 he won the Nobel Prize in economics on the basis of his work on slavery.

Q. If slavery was profitable and provided relatively good material lives for slaves, how did Americans awake to the fact that it was evil?

A. That’s the key question, especially for an economist. They usually assume that what is efficient succeeds and spreads. But wasn’t ended by economics but by what Christians taught. More and more, especially after the Great Awakening, Christians saw that slavery and racism violate the golden rule. Professor Fogel saw that Christians turned the tide of popular opinion against slavery so that by 1860 the people were willing to vote for an anti-slavery president.

Q. Don’t you have a personal connection with Professor Fogel?

A. Yes. I took his class at the University of Chicago. For that class I wrote a paper in which I argued about the condition of evangelicals. He had written a book in 2000, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, in which he argued that evangelicals would lead the USA forward to moral progress just as they had lead the end of slavery. I disagreed with him, an evangelical telling a Jew that his positive view of current day evangelicals was too rosy! He invited me to his office and we had a congenial conversation, me trying to show him that Christians have lost some of the Puritan ethic. We didn’t change each other’s minds but the next year he asked me to be his teaching assistant. Imagine a professor asking the student who dared disagree with him to be his teaching assistant! He even gave me the job of giving the lecture about his findings on slavery. Once while chatting after class, he told me that he was astounded to discover that Christians ended slavery. He confessed, that he had been a professor in some of America’s leading universities and yet had no idea that Christians had ended slavery.

Q. How did Christians turn the tide of opinion in the USA against slavery?

A. The Puritans from New England and the Quakers in Pennsylvania first turned against slavery. In 1700 a New England Puritan, Samuel Sewall, wrote one of the earliest books against slavery, The Selling of Joseph. The abolitionists were motivated by their Christian principles. The Great Awakening was a revival of Puritanism and as the descendants of Puritans spread across the Northern USA, they spread the Puritan ethic, thus spreading opposition to slavery. Northern Protestants coalesced into the new Republican Party. So the Republican Party had a strong evangelical element with the intention of applying Christian principles, especially, as priority number one, the abolition of slavery.

Q. But weren’t some leading Christians, like Jonathan Edwards, slave-holders?

A. Yes, sad to say, that’s true. Edwards owned a few slaves. But his principles, set on fire by the Great Awakening, helped ignite the abolition movement. Some of his followers, like Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803) and even his own son, Jonathan Edwards the younger, became fierce opponents of slavery. The ministers inspired by Edwards denounced slavery in their evangelistic preaching.

Q. What implications does this have for the reparations for slavery debate?

A. It doesn’t mean that we white-wash slavery, that we down-play it as some Christians have foolishly done; we don’t say it wasn’t so bad and so doesn’t deserve restitution. It was a horrible thing because human beings are not commodities and are each made in the image of God, not to be lorded over by “masters” who think they can be God to others. But it does mean the material loss to the slaves have often been exaggerated, especially if we compare the current living standards of the descendants of slaves in America to where they came from. Further, some reparations were already paid in the enormous sacrifice the USA paid to free the slaves, including over 350,000 men. Also, I believe the Bible forbids punishing people for the sins of their ancestors (Ez. 18:20). Reparations would necessarily do that as the money would have to come from people who didn’t commit the sin being restituted, thus that would be unjust. Finally, as I said, if we go back far enough, all of us probably have a slave and slave-holder in our pedigree. We’re all the children of slaves and enslavers. Where will the grievances stop if we try to repair those five generations ago? It should stop with every generation. The secret to racial harmony is truth and forgiveness, not a check.

Q. Today some Christian intellectuals scold the church for being complicit in slavery. What are they missing?

A. They’re right, of course. But they’re not telling the whole story. There’s no excuse for complicity with slavery, especially the race-based slavery of the South. But what they fail to see is that slavery was a universal human institution. It had been normal for all of history. If we go back in into anyone’s family tree of far enough, we’ll almost certainly find a slave owner. We’re all descended from slaves and slave-owners. So the question isn’t who enabled slavery. The whole world did. The questions is who put an end to it. Christians did. Sure, we have the normal people who defended slavery to be ashamed of. But what’s amazing is that we have the courageous saints who read their Bible, were fueled by the Holy Spirit, and saw that they couldn’t love their neighbor as themselves and enslave him, or sit back quietly and allow him to be enslaved by others. We have a great heritage to celebrate.

John B. Carpenter (M.Div. Fuller Theological Seminary, Th.M., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Ph.D. Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago) is pastor of Covenant Reformed Baptist Church in Danville, VA. www.covenantcaswell.org.

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