I have mentioned that Cynthia R. Nielson has been posting a series of brief guest-bloggings on “Violence and Holy Writ” on her wonderful blog, Per Caritatem. I am the guest-blogger for the third installment, on slavery and the crisis of biblical authority in 19th C. America. See that post here.
Over at her excellent blog (on the intersection of philosophy and Christian theology), Per Caritatem, Cynthia Nielsen is calling for a series of guest posts by Christian writers on several questions related to violence, slavery, and the interpretation/authority of Scripture. The essays should be 500-1500 words long (strict cut-off at 1500) and should deal with one (0r more, but a question at a time seems more reasonable in the space allowed) of the following questions:
- How should a Christian community interpret the divinely commanded mass killings (genocide) commanded of the Old Testament (e.g. Joshua 6, 10, etc.)? Should we read these allegorically, literally, or what?
- How should a Christian community interpret passages in the Old Testament (e.g. Exodus and Leviticus) that at least appear to permit slavery?
- How does a Christian community make sense out of seemingly opposed views on slavery (e.g. Philemon, and I Cor 7:23 verses 1 Peter) in the New Testament?
- Does a Christian community’s theology of atonement make a difference as to how it interprets the violent acts recorded in Scripture? If so, how?
I will probably contribute to the series (perhaps more than once, one question at a time), but haven’t decided which question to tackle and how to begin, yet. I think Cynthia hopes to get a range of different answers (conservative, liberal, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, etc.) on each question. I think this is a worthy blogosphere discussion and urge all biblio-bloggers and theo-bloggers to contribute. As David Horstkoetter comments on his blog, Flying Further, this could lead to fresh engagement with the kind of passages Phyllis Trible has taught us to call “texts of terror.”
The most famous white abolitionist in the U.S., and deservedly so, is William Lloyd Garrison. The most famous black abolitionist, and deservedly so, is Frederick Douglass. For over a decade (1841-1850), they were also close friends and co-workers in the American Anti-Slavery Society. While not identical, their views on most topics of the day were close and each defended the other from attacks by critics. Yet their friendship ended and the two men became estranged–a breach that was never healed in life. Why?
Was it lingering racism on Garrison’s part, or an unconscious patronism that had difficulty when Douglass’ fame and leadership began to outstrip Garrison’s in the cause they both lived for? Was it simply natural competition and resentment between two selve-made men from humble backgrounds–both strong-willed, ambitious, strivers? Was it a growing “black nationalism” on Douglass’ part–an estrangement from the goal of an equal and integrated society? Did the complex tensions of self-determination and integration break the two men apart in a way similar to the break-down of “black and white together, we shall overcome” in the face of militant nationalism and smoldering resentments in the Freedom Movement a century later? Can we who seek a just and equal “rainbow society” today learn from both their friendship and its breakdown?
First, let us examine their very real friendship. William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) was older than Frederick Douglass (c.1818-1895) by more than a decade and began as a mentor to Douglass. They met in an 1841 meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in which Garrison was the headline speaker but Douglass was unexpectedly asked to tell the story of his life during slavery and his escape to freedom. (Even his name, Frederick Douglass, was a pseudonymn to make it harder for slavecatchers to find and return him to slavery.) Riveted like everyone else, Garrison asked the crowd, “Have we been listening to the testimony of a piece of property or a man?” “A man!” they thundered in reply. “Can we ever allow such a man to be treated as property?” “Never!” “Can you doubt that such treatment is the grossest sin?” “No!” “Then will you pledge with us to end this sin and crime in which 3 million of our fellow beings are not seen as fellow citizens, but simply as property and tools of another to use as he will?” “YES!!”
Garrison and Douglass often shared a speaking stage for the American Anti-Slavery Society and they worked well together. Because Garrison’s religious views had become more suspect (from hanging around Hicksite Quakers, Unitarians and holiness perfectionists) and Douglass was seen as more theologically orthodox, the tag-team often had Garrison keep quiet on-stage about the churches’ complicity in slavery while Douglass would thunder against the racism of the white churches. Meanwhile, because Douglass was more vulnerable to reprisals by local, state, and federal governments, it would be Garrison who took the lead in criticizing the racism even of the free states. This was a careful strategy since both men actually had radical views about the need for reform of both state and church.
Both were also strong supporters of women’s rights–although, after Garrison’s death, Douglass would strain his relationships with many white feminists by supporting the passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution even though it protected the voting rights of black men but continued to deny the right to vote to women of all races.
Garrison’s paper, The Liberator, first published Douglass’ story in 1845 as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Garrison has never received enough credit for this publication. It was a bestseller and most of the profits went to Douglass and to the abolitionist movement–Garrison was poor throughout his life and made no attempt to exploit Douglass’ story for his personal gain. He also took quite a risk in publishing Douglass’ book and was charged with several crimes, but he faced the charges bravely. Moreover, he recognized that this publication placed Douglass in grave danger of being recognized and reclaimed by his former “masters.” Garrison solicited wealthy abolitionists for funds to enable Douglass to tour Britain on the lecture circuit in order to avoid capture. Further, although Garrison was against schemes of ending slavery by paying off slaveholders (enabling them to profit from their sin of slaveholding) instead of compensating slaves for their free labor, he defended the morality of escaped slaves and free blacks purchasing their own or others’ freedom. Just as in cases of kidnapping and ranson, Garrison argued, the sin is not in paying for freedom, but with those who receive such money for the crime the King James’ Bible called “man-stealing.” Thus, against further criticisim, when he joined Douglass in England at the end of the lecture tour, Garrison helped him raise money and purchase his freedom so that he could return to America without risk of arrest under the Fugitive Slave Law.
The split between the two men began in 1848 when Douglass started his own newspaper, The Northstar instead of continuing as a lecturer for the AAS and a regular writer for The Liberator. This cannot be seen as a racist attack on black-owned business by Garrison. He had long been a supporter of black entrepeneurs. He had even previously supported a black-owned abolitionist paper in New York (The Ram’s Horn). But, while The Liberator had once had a virtual monopoly on abolitionist papers, there was now much competition and Garrison had to see The North Star as an economic rival, especially for black subscribers. Black subscribers had kept the always-poor Garrison afloat during many hard times. Now that abolitionism was a much bigger movement, there was competition for subscriptions and The North Star’s success might come at The Liberator’s expense–or so it had to appear to Garrison.
The split continued when Douglass changed his mind over political activity. He had started in complete agreement with Garrison that the Constitution so protected slavery that the legal overthrow of slavery would need “disunion” and a new Constitution. But after founding The North Star, Douglass came to agree with members of the short-lived Liberty Party that the Framers had intended the Constitutional compromises with slavery to be short-lived, that slavery was un-Constitutional, and that Congress had the power to end slavery. He was thus a supporter of the new Republican Party (a “free soil” party) while Garrison continued to see party politics as a distraction from the work of abolishing slavery having it seen as morally abhorrent by the overwhelming majority so that the popular will would demand a new (anti-slavery) Constitution.
The split widened when Douglass rejected his earlier pacifism to praise John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Garrison saw Brown as being more morally right than the defenders of slavery–and struggled to show non-pacifists that Brown should be seen in the same light as the American patriots who rebelled against Britain. But he continued to see nonviolence as a more excellent way, still. But Garrison also, reluctantly supported the Civil War (and saw one of his own sons enlist on the Union side) and black soldiers after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. But while Garrison abandoned his absolute pacifism reluctantly and returned to the struggle for a peaceful world that would outlaw war after the end of the Civil War, Douglass moved to support the concept of “defensive” wars. And Douglass ended up being influential with Abraham Lincoln in a way that Garrison never was. The differences caused resentments.
But was this racism on Garrison’s part? Perhaps. I am among those who believe that in a thoroughly racist society like ours, it is impossible to be completely without racial prejudices. The best we can do is to try constantly to become aware of our lingering prejudices, confront them, and attempt a life as a “recovering racist.” I don’t think Garrison would have disagreed. He worked his entire life to see where he fell short of holiness, repent, and become more sanctified. But I also think that some kind of split might have happened even if both men were the same color–because when students surpass mentors in fame and influence it usually creates generational rifts even if the mentor is rightly proud of the student’s success.
It is also difficult in our competitive society for two men to work so closely together, share so much, and maintain a close friendship. The failure in Garrison and Douglass’ case is a case study in the tragedy of so many men to be able to sustain close friendships over a lifetime, but we ought also to give praise to the way they were able to sustain such a friendship for over a decade in very trying circumstances. Outside of military service during war, we have few examples of such close friendships among heterosexual males for any length of time. Garrison and Douglass both worked for a society that would go beyond the patriarchy that works against close male friendships, so it is sad that they did not succeed with each other–friendships should be able to survive differences inviewpoints when two kindred spirits agree on so much of the “big picture.”
Douglass was probably the deeper thinker–and it is good to see today a renewed interest in Douglass by political scientists, moral philosophers, and theologians. But Garrison deserves more credit in all those areas than he usually gets, too–and without Garrison, would we have ever known Douglass at all?
Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998; pb. ed., 2000).
Looking backward, it has seemed to many historians that the abolition of slavery in the U.S. was inevitable. From that perspective, the voices of gradualists like Henry Clay of Kentucky have seemed reasonable and historians have tended to dismiss the strong voices calling for the immediate abolition of slavery as “fanatical.” The editor and printer William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), founder of The Liberator (the first and leading abolitionist newspaper) and founder of The New England Anti-Slavery Society, the American Anti-Slavery Society, and the Massachussetts Anti-Slavery Society, is one of those voices too often dismissed as “shrill,” “unreasonable,” and “fanatical.” Many of his contemporaries saw him the same way and were usually surprised that the author of editorials that thundered jeremiads against the moral complacency of his age was, in person, mild-mannered, soft spoken, and careful of personal relationships. Henry Mayer has written a large biography of Garrison that rehabilitates him–showing that Garrison, as a professional agitator, changed the political climate and made the issue of slavery a moral priority that could not be ignored.
This is a wonderful biography that has made Garrison one of my heroes. Born into poverty in a pious New England Baptist family (though never baptized because he couldn’t describe a conversion story in the style expected by his time), Garrison was a self-educated “mechanic,” as a printer, editor, and publisher. When he began The Liberator in 1831 there were few if any voices calling for the immediate abolition of slavery. All but two (John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams) presidents had been slaveowners and there were no political parties or presidential candidates who were not either apologists for the perpetual continuation of slavery or appeasers of the Southern slaveholders. The U. S. Constitution counted slaves as “3/5ths of persons” for census purposes, thus giving the slave states more political power than the non-slave states and forcing slaves to virtually vote for their own continued slavery. The Missouri Compromise created a gag rule against even discussing the end of slavery in Congress (with Southern politicians constantly threatening secession if the rule was removed) and Southerners schemed to annex much of northern Mexico (which abolished slavery after independence from Spain) to spread slavery westward and keep slavery in perpetuity. When Garrison began, the “liberal” view of reforming philanthropists was represented by the American Colonization Society which worked for gradual emancipation of slaves on condition of deportation to the U. S. colony of Liberia in West Africa (whose capital, Monrovia, is named after U.S. President James Monroe, a slaveholder and pro-colonization man). These gradualists and colonizationists, including presidents Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, and Monroe, all deliberately denied any future for free blacks in the U. S. and all argued that equal citizenship was impossible because of the “degraded” condition of slaves and the inherent inferiority of persons of African descent. To say it differently, when Garrison began his campaign for the immediate abolition of slavery and creation of a racially just and equal society, the “liberals” were all white supremacists and proponents of massive ethnic cleansing schemes–and they had the Constitution on their side.
So, Garrison, using the popular media of his day, sought not to play party politics, but to change the moral and political context in which any would be politician had to operate. Within 5 years he could no longer be ignored or dismissed, colonization schemes were seen as the racist plans they were, and the question of abolition became THE moral issue of the day.
Garrison’s story could be seen as one of failure: A Christian pacifist, Garrison hoped to abolish slavery by “moral suasion” that created a nonviolent social revolution that would call for a new Constitution. Instead, slavery was only abolished after a bitter civil war and even after the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution (which could only be passed and ratified because the former slave states were under military governments), white supremacy, segregation, and legal discrimination continued for another century. We have yet to see the racially just society which Garrison and his fellow abolitionists worked so hard. The churches he hoped to purify divided over slavery along sectional lines and 11 o’clock Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour in the U.S.
But Mayer doesn’t present Garrison as a failure. Instead, his is a story of how an ordinary person–not a general or politician or “captain of industry,”–can make a difference. One person became a small group of people which grew into a movement. The movement widened–participation by women created the first wave of feminism and the struggle for women’s suffrage and equality (which Garrison completely supported). The movement divided over “the woman question,” over questions of political strategy (Garrison opposed voting until the Constitution was changed since voting in the current context perpetuated the flawed system, but others wanted to create abolitionist parties and candidates), over the issue of the use of violence in the struggle for justice, and much else. Even many of the abolitionists were racially prejudiced, but Garrison and others worked to overcome this–attending black churches, staying in black homes and hosting black families in theirs, pushing against discriminatory laws. Garrison even urged an end to all laws against interracial marriage–laws that would exist in 13 states until 1967. If struggles continued after Garrison’s death, they built upon the struggles and victories of Garrison’s day. His is a legacy which needs to be reclaimed for this generation.
Mayer’s book also deepens the account of U.S. history in the decades leading up to the Civil War (1861-1865), showing how deeply slavery and racism were woven into the law and culture and how the seeds of the Civil War were sown by the Constitutional compromises, the Missouri Compromise, the rebellion of Texas (and schemes of Texas annexation), the War with Mexico, the Monroe Doctrine, and, of course, the economics of cotton. We also see Garrison intersect the lives of less-neglected figures from the wealthy Tappan brothers to Charles Finney, the Grimke Sisters, Lucretia Mott, William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Clay, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, and many others. It was Garrison who first introduced Frederick Douglass to the world and who published the first edition of Douglass autobiography–for which he has receieved little credit. (Today, Douglass is being recovered by scholars and popular history, too, after long neglect. But Garrison has yet to get his due.)
Readers of this magnificent biography should also see the collection of primary sources, William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight Against Slavery: Selections from The Liberator, ed with and introduction by William Cain.
This is the First Sunday of the Season of Lent. It is also Freedom Sunday, promoted by organizations in the “New Abolitionist Movement” to highlight the problem of human trafficking and modern slavery. I found out about this too late to urge my congregation to participate and it is too much to hope that all slavery and human trafficking will have ended in a year’s time–so I can urge both my congregation and yours to put Freedom Sunday on your annual calendars. I also urge us all to find out more about human trafficking and modern slavery (including sex slavery, but also the way that much of the clothes we wear is produced by slave-labor in sweatshops in the global south) and what we can do to end it.
I think this is appropriately on the calendar for the First Sunday in Lent. No matter whether we observe some form of Lenten fasting or other spiritual disciplines, they are only a means, never the end in themselves. As God says in Isaiah, “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?” Isa. 58:6.
Here are some resources on human trafficking and the New Abolitionist Movement.
Race Traitor (online journal of new abolitionism)
Not for Sale campaign
Child Trafficking. com
Coalition of Organ-Failure Solutions (Fights the trafficking in human organs for transplants, including the kidnapping and trafficking of persons for theft of their organs.)