Thabiti Anyabwile|8:54 am CT

Does the Driving Logic of “Black and Tan” Hold Up?

In his epilogue, Wilson characterizes Black and Tan as “a collection of disparate elements organized around a set of common themes” which may feel “ad-hoc, ragtaggy” at places because the writing and rewriting occurred at various occasions (p. 119). In offering a response to Black and Tan, then, the first thing one must decide is what to respond to. The issues tend to be interlocked both conceptually and in the writing itself. Second, we need to consider in what order to reply. Again, as I excerpt and interact with various portions of the text, I hope with God’s help to be charitable and accurate. Having stated Wilson’s case in a manner Wilson himself judged accurate and fair, I want to offer some critique with those summations in mind.

As I see it, three basic aspects of the book need addressing: (1) the underlying logic guiding the entire book, (2) the exegetical case for slavery as a permissible institution, and (3) the historical claim that the South as a nation and the slavery it practiced was comparable to the Roman practice the apostle Paul addressed. As I see it, the book stands or falls with Wilson’s positions in these three areas. This is not to say that other areas of the book are unimportant, just that these issues “get to the heart of the matter” from my perspective. With God’s help, I would like to take up each issue in separate posts.

The Logic of Black and Tan

At a couple points in Black and Tan, Wilson outlines the driving logic of the book. On page 4 he writes:

If we want to understand the culture wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we must come to grips with the culture wars of the nineteenth century. In order to do this, it is necessary to get clear on the nature of American slavery, which was not what its abolitionist opponents claimed for it. If it had been, it is hard to see how the biblical instructions could have been applicable–for example, I would not cite 1 Timothy 6:1-4 to a person trying to escape from a Nazi death camp. “Obey the authorities!” But if antebellum slavery was the normal kind of sinful situation that Christians have had to deal with regularly down through history (e.g., one comparable to what Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus had to address), then the instructions in 1 Timothy 6 make perfect sense. We need to learn that the antebellum situation was one of Normal Sin, not one of Apocalyptic Evil.

That our nation did not remove slavery in the way it ought to have been removed helps explain many of our nation’s problems in dealing with contemporary social evils. Those evils include abortion-on-demand, radical feminism, and rampant sodomy.

A few pages later, making reference to the underlying argument of Southern Slavery as It Was, an argument being restated in Black and Tan, Wilson contends:

It was the contention of this booklet that the way in which slavery ended has had ongoing deleterious consequences for modern Christians in our current culture wars, and that slavery was far more benign in practice than it was made to appear in the literature of the abolitionists. We were not trying to maintain that slavery in itself was a positive good, like food, air, or sunlight. Our central interest was in defending the integrity and applicability of the Scriptures to our current cultural controversies, and we affirmed that Christians who apologize for what the Bible teaches on slavery will soon be apologizing for what it teaches on marriage. We wrote as Christian apologists, but not the kind who apologize for being Christian (p. 14).

Obviously the approach Wilson takes, his driving argument, is bound up with the nature of Southern slavery. But for the moment, let me leave aside slavery’s nature for a future post so that we can give undivided attention to the logic itself.

Essentially, Wilson walks backwards from:

1. Our current cultural divisions over homosexuality, abortion, and feminism, to…

2. The Christians’ fidelity to and application of the Bible in such controversies (or lack thereof), to…

3. What he regards as a similar cultural conflict (slavery and the Civil War) that (a) featured the same crucial issue of the authority of Scripture and (b) in his opinion gave rise to an expanded federal government that arrests or opposes biblical resolutions for such problems.

Slavery gets a lot of air play, but it’s really a similarity heuristic for contemporary cultural engagement. Which brings us to my question….

Is This an Appropriate Strategy for Either Discussing Slavery or Informing Our Contemporary Battles?

Does this chain of reasoning really hold? Personally, I don’t think so. It fails on at least two grounds.

First, the authority of the Bible was not widely in question during the country’s long dispute over slavery and its end. There certainly were radical abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison who believed that “To discard a portion of scripture is not necessarily to reject the truth, but may be the highest evidence that one can give of his love of truth” (quoted in Noll, Civil War as a Theological Crisis, p. 32). Wilson is correct to note the historical instances and contemporary possibility of Christians losing their grip on the authority, sufficiency and reliability of the Bible. Indeed, Wilson’s concern for the rejection of the Bible was a concern among pro-slavery advocates in the Old South. But, in the Old South, according to historian Mark Noll, the rejection of the Bible by radical abolitionists like Garrison actually strengthened biblical adherence among mainstream observers in the North and South. Noll explains: “Heightened abolitionist attacks on slavery, slaveholders, and slave society angered those who were under assault. Especially when such attacks were expressed with the antibiblical rhetoric that William Lloyd Garrison employed, they deeply troubled religious believers of almost all sorts. By defining slaveholding as a basic evil, whatever the Bible might say about it, radical abolitionists frightened away from antislavery many moderates who had also grown troubled about America’s system of chattel bondage, but who were not willing to give up loyalty to Scripture” (Noll, Civil War, p. 36; emphasis added). The radicals who rejected the Bible hurt their own cause and strengthened the grip of those whose hands once loosely held the Bible.

We call people like Garrison “radicals” for a reason—they lie outside the mainstream opinion. In fact, the mainstream of both sides claimed to have the Bible’s authority on its side. Where Wilson sees a shrinking away from biblical authority in antebellum arguments over slavery, I see in the main a theological debate about precisely how to apply the Scripture—not whether. At least that seems to be the case among professing Christians on either side of the conflict. Pro-slavery advocates certainly marshaled whatever texts they could in support of the institution (see Fox-Genovese and Genovese, Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview, especially part IV). But, not to be outdone, anti-slavery advocates garnered a full range of texts to make its case for abolition (see, for example, Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, chapter3, and Dillon, Slavery Attacked: Southern Slaves and Their Allies, 16:19-1865). That was especially the case among African Americans as early as the mid-1700s, when African Americans first began to publish. I’m thinking here of men like Lemuel Haynes and his “Liberty Further Extended,” for example, and even the recently discovered poem of Jupiter Hammon.

The purpose of this post isn’t to restate those arguments here. The purpose is simply to illustrate and substantiate the fact that the Bible’s authority was only being challenged in the small radical corners of the debate. At best what we might say is that the mainstream of each side privileged different biblical texts in their arsenal of arguments—pro-slavery advocates the plain sense statements in Pauline epistles and anti-slavery advocates the anti-racist texts of Scripture. But both sides made their appeal to the authority of the Bible. That being the case, it seems to me that Black and Tan fails to accurately portray the scope and effect of any anti-Bible sentiments of the time. If preserving the authority of scripture motivates Black and Tan, it seems to have chosen the wrong historical moment as an analogy for helping us in our day. At the very least, the book fails to give us a robust and nuanced treatment of various views of biblical authority.

Second, the Federal action to end slavery in 1865 can’t be causally connected to Federal actions today. Wilson argues that the North’s actions to end slavery, in contravention of State’s rights, laid the foundation for Federal over-reach in things like homosexual “marriage” and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. He writes, “The point here was that the revolution that made it possible for the federal government to impose an atrocity like Roe v. Wade on the several states was a revolution that began in earnest in 1861″ (p. 64).

While people continue to argue about State’s rights and its place in the Civil War, what cannot be denied is that every party wishes to use Federal power to its benefit, even if the “use” is to limit that power. The simple fact that the national government took action seems a poor basis for drawing a dark line connecting slavery’s end and our current culture wars. After all, at various points along the country’s history Federal action achieved positive goods for society. I fully recognize Wilson disagrees, writing, “Because of the way slavery was ended, we are dealing with atrocious consequences down to the present” (p. 96) and “I am forced to say that, in many ways, the remedy which has been applied has resulted in problems that are every bit as bad as the original disease ever was” (p. 60). But if we’re honest, most evangelical Christians would be quite happy to see a decisive federal action to overturn Roe or to prohibit same-sex “marriage.” If I am correct in saying this, then what we’re really lamenting is seeing the power of the federal government wielded by the “wrong” hands, i.e., not our hands.

Rather than lamenting the use of Federal power, it seems to me we must evaluate the merit and outcome of the Federal action taken. For instance, Federal action against slavery and Federal action in Roe v. Wade differ in at least one critical way: Federal action to end slavery was justified, while Federal action to legalize abortion was not. One saved lives; the other destroys lives. One pursued justice; the other denies justice. One achieved freedom; the other perverts freedom. I’m suggesting we include the ends in our evaluation of the means, at least in part (there are other things that need to be considered in order to avoid being rabid Machiavellians).

In a South that had opportunity after secession to voluntarily reform or end the institution but didn’t, in a nation that had come to think it impossible to end slavery (see Miller, Arguing About Slavery: The Great Debate in the United States Senate), disenfranchised human beings had no recourse but Federal action. Insofar as government saved and improved millions of lives, it seems to me the action was warranted. That some nowadays want similar Federal action on issues contrary to a biblical position does not in itself impeach the actions taken in the Civil War. I think Wilson commits a genetic fallacy.


For at least these two reasons I think the inner logic driving Black and Tan does not work. I certainly share Wilson’s concern that Christians of every age learn to stand under the authority of the Bible and learn not to shrink back from difficult and unpopular parts when critics attack. But that’s only the first thing to learn. The second thing to learn is how to rightly interpret those difficult parts. If we argue about what the Bible teaches, we’re then having the right kind of argument. That there are two sides to the argument does not necessarily mean one side or the other has abandoned biblical authority. With that, we hope to turn to Black and Tan’s exegesis of biblical texts on the matter of slavery.

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