Longhurst: Lessons from a long-ago conflict

Feb 26, 2018 by

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Although I am Canadian, I’m a bit of a U.S. Civil War buff. For a long time I’ve been fascinated by that terrible war — how it started, the military strategies and campaigns, the lives of ordinary soldiers and the implications that still reverberate today.

John Longhurst

Longhurst

I am also interested in the role religion played in the war. One important source of information is Mark Noll’s book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. He discusses how the Bible was used to justify slavery and how that debate tore the church apart.

Along the way, I discovered this long-ago conflict might also hold some lessons for today as Christians deal with another issue tearing the church apart: same-sex relationships.

Today, it’s obvious to everyone that slavery is wrong and against God’s will.

Back then, however, many Christians in the South felt very strongly otherwise — and they had many passages from the Bible on their side.

These included Eph. 6:5 (“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling”), Titus 2:9 (“Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect”) and 1 Cor. 7:20-21 (“Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it”).

Christians who “defended the legitimacy of slavery in the Bible had the easiest task,” Noll writes.

All a Christian had to do was turn to verses that supported slavery and then “decide for yourself what these passages mean. Don’t wait for a bishop or a king or a president or a meddling Yankee to tell you what the passage means, but decide for yourself.”

And what did those defenders of slavery decide?

Based on their literal reading of these texts, they believed the Bible permitted and encouraged slavery. Any other reading was plainly wrong and failed to take seriously the authority of Scripture.

As Presbyterian minister and pro-slavery advocate Henry Van Dyke put it: “When the abolitionist tells me that slaveholding is sin, in the simplicity of my faith in the Holy Scriptures, I point him to this sacred record, and tell him, in all candor, as my text does, that his teaching blasphemes the name of God.”

Says Noll: “Those who saw in Scripture a sanction for slavery were both more insistent on pointing to the passages that seemed so transparently to support their position and more confident in decrying the wanton disregard for divine revelation that seemed so willfully to dismiss biblical truths.”

Christians who opposed slavery had a much harder challenge.

Unlike pro-slavery Christians, opponents of the institution weren’t able to cite specific verses to support their position. Instead, they had to infer from the larger story of the Bible that slavery contradicted God’s desire that everyone should live in dignity and freedom.

According to Noll, they had to appeal to the “broad sweep of Scripture,” arguing that while slavery was supported by the letter of the Bible, it violated its spirit.

Or, as abolitionist Gerrit Smith succinctly put it: “The religion taught by Jesus is not a letter, but a life.”

An example of this argument occurred in 1845 during a public debate between Presbyterian pastors Nathaniel Rice, who supported slavery, and Jonathan Blanchard, who opposed it.

Rice, Noll writes, “methodically tied Blanchard in knots over how to interpret the pro-slavery implications of specific texts.”

All Blanchard could offer, he states, was “the broad principle of common equity and common sense,” the “the general principles of the Bible” and “the whole scope of the Bible.”

For supporters of slavery, this approach was completely and decidedly wrong. It undermined the authority and legitimacy of the Bible and called into question the rest of Scripture.

As Congregationalist preacher Leonard Bacon stated: “The evidence that there were both slaves and masters of slaves in churches founded and directed by the apostles cannot be got rid of without resorting to methods of interpretation that will get rid of everything.”

For Moses Stuart, an anti-abolitionist and professor at Andover Theological Seminary, those who argued against what the Bible clearly said about slavery must “give up the New Testament authority or abandon the fiery course which they are pursuing.”

The debate polarized U.S. Christians. Denominations divided over it. In fact, the modern-day Southern Baptist Convention traces its origin to the split in the Baptist family that happened in those days.

As I contemplated Noll’s book, I couldn’t help but think about similarities between the debate over slavery back then and the battle today over a Christian response to same-sex relationships.

As it was back then, the opponents of being more welcoming of LGBTQ Christians claim the Bible for their side. They can point to verses that condemn it.

Supporters, on the other hand, cannot do the same thing. They have to appeal to the larger sweep of Scripture and to God’s love and acceptance of every person.

And, also as it was back then, opponents of same-sex relationships accuse supporters of not taking the Bible seriously — of undercutting its authority and failing to abide by biblical Christianity.

The result is also the same as it was then: Christians divided and polarized, denominations split apart.

The analogy between slavery and same-sex relationships isn’t perfect.

For one thing, the issue of slavery was not settled in the churches. It was settled by the politicians, generals and soldiers who made it possible for African-Americans to become free.

For another, there were significant economic interests at play. The economy of the southern states depended on slavery, as did the personal fortunes of Christian plantation owners.

It can also be argued that Christianity was already moving in the direction of abolishing slavery. Christians in the South were merely lagging behind.

Despite these differences, are there lessons to be learned from that long-ago conflict that can help Christians today in the current battle? I think there are. And Noll’s book can be a help, although I’m guessing that’s not what he had in mind when he published it.

At a time when the battle over same-sex relationships is tearing the church apart, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis offers a helpful perspective, and maybe also some ideas for how Christians today might find a way through this current crisis.

John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.


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