Sunday, February 25, 2007

Amazing Farce

The religious wingnuts are out in force, touting Amazing Grace as proof of the moral superiority of Christianity and, more importantly, themselves. In Friday's Wall Street Journal, Catholic bigot Charlotte Allen wrote:

It is rare that a Hollywood film takes up a subject like William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the British parliamentarian who devoted nearly his entire 45-year political career to banning the British slave trade. Alas, a lot of people watching "Amazing Grace," Michael Apted's just-released film, may get the impression--perhaps deliberately fostered by Mr. Apted--that Wilberforce was a mostly secular humanitarian whose main passion was not Christian faith but politics and social justice....

In fact, William Wilberforce was driven by a version of Christianity that today would be derided as "fundamentalist." One of his sons, sharing his father's outlook, was the Anglican bishop Samuel Wilberforce, who wrote a passionate critique of "The Origin of the Species," arguing that Darwin's then-new theory could not fully account for the emergence of human beings....

Perhaps the leading evangelical force of the day was the Methodism of John Wesley: It focused on preaching, the close study of the Bible, communal hymn-singing and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Central to the Methodist project was the notion that good works and charity were essential components of the Christian life.


This idea of slaving as sin is key. As sociologist Rodney Stark noted in "For the Glory of God" (2003), the abolition of slavery in the West during the 19th century was a uniquely Christian endeavor.


Thanks to Wilberforce, the movement's most visible champion, Britain ended slavery well before America, but the abolitionist cause in America, too, was driven by Christian churches more than is often acknowledged. Steven Spielberg's 1997 "Amistad," about the fate of blacks on a mutinous slave ship, also obscured the Christian zeal of the abolitionists.

Allow me to provide a little counterpoint to Allen's rectal-targeted smokestorm:

But you will ask me, can these things be possible in a land professing Christianity? Yes, they are so; and this is not the worst. No, a darker feature is yet to be presented than the mere existence of these facts. I have to inform you that the religion of the southern states, at this time, is the great supporter, the greater sanctioner of the bloody atrocities to which I have referred. (Deep sensation). While America is printing tracts and Bibles; sending missionaries abroad to convert the heathen; expending her money in various ways for the promotion of the Gospel in foreign lands, the slave not only lies forgotten—uncared for, but is trampled under foot by the very churches of the land. What have we in America? Why we have slavery made part of the religion of the land. Yes, the pulpit there stands up as the great defender of this cursed institution, as it is called. Ministers of religion come forward, and torture the hallowed pages of inspired wisdom to sanction the bloody deed (Loud cries of "Shame!") They stand forth as the foremost, the strongest defenders of this "institution." As a proof of this, I need not do more than state the general fact, that slavery has existed under the droppings of the sanctuary of the south, for the last 200 years, and there has not been any war between the religion and the slavery of the south.

Whips, chains, gags, and thumb-screws have all lain under the droppings of the sanctuary, and instead of rusting from off the limbs of the bondman, these droppings have served to preserve them in all their strength. Instead of preaching the Gospel against this tyranny, rebuke, and wrong, ministers of religion have sought, by all and every means, to throw in the background whatever in the Bible could be construed into opposition to slavery, and to bring forward that which they could torture into its support. (Cries of "Shame!") This I conceive to be the darkest feature of slavery, and the most difficult to attack, because it is identified with religion, and exposes those who denounce it to the charge of infidelity. Yes, those with whom I have been labouring, namely, the old organization Anti-Slavery Society of America, have been again and again stigmatized as infidels, and for what reason? Why, solely in consequence of the faithfulness of their attacks upon the slaveholding religion of the southern states, and the northern religion that sympathizes with it. (Hear, hear.)


Why, as I said in another place, to a smaller audience the other day, in answer to the question, "[...], are there not Methodist churches, Baptist churches, Congregational churches, Episcopal churches, Roman Catholic churches, Presbyterian churches in the United States, and in the southern states of America, and do they not have revivals of religion, accessions to their ranks from day to day, and will you tell me that these men are not followers of the meek and lowly Saviour?" Most unhesitatingly I do. Revivals in religion, and revivals in the slave trade, go hand in hand together. (Cheers.) The church and the slave prison stand next to each other; the groans and cries of the heartbroken slave are often drowned in the pious devotions of his religious master. (Hear, hear.) The church-going bell and the auctioneer's bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer's block stand in the same neighbourhood; while the blood-stained gold goes to support the pulpit, the pulpit covers the infernal business with the garb of Christianity. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support missionaries, and babies sold to buy Bibles and communion services for the churches. (Loud cheers.)

A Voice.—It is not true.

... —Not true! is it not? (Immense cheers.) Hear the following advertisement:—"Field Negroes, by Thomas Gadsden." I read now from The American Churches, the Bulwarks of American Slavery; by an American, or by J. G. Birney. This has been before the public in this country and the United States for the last six years; not a fact nor a statement in it has been called in question. (Cheers.) The following is taken from the Charleston Courier of Feb. 12, 1835:—"Field Negroes, by Thomas Gadsden. On Tuesday, the 17th inst., will be sold at the north of the Exchange, at 10 o'clock, a prime gang of ten negroes, accustomed to the culture of cotton and provisions, belonging to the Independent Church, in Christ Church parish." (Loud cheers.) I could read other testimony on this point, but is it necessary? (Cries of "No," and "One more.")

Is it required that one more be given? You shall have another. (Loud cheers.) A notice taken from a Savannah paper will show that slaves are often bequeathed to the missionary societies. "Bryan Superior Court. Between John J. Maxwell and others, executors of Ann Pray, complainants, and Mary Sleigh and others, devisees and legatees under the will of Ann Pray, defendants, in equity. A bill having been filed for the distribution of the estate of the testatrix, Ann Pray, and it appearing that among other legacies in her will is the following:—viz., a legacy of one fourth of certain negro slaves to the American Board of Commissioners for domestic (foreign it probably should have been) missions, for the purpose of sending the Gospel to the heathen, and particularly to the Indians of this continent; it is on motion of the solicitors of the complainants ordered, that all persons claiming the said legacy do appear and answer the bill of the complainants within four months from this day. And it is ordered, that this order be published in a public Gazette of the city of Savannah, and in one of the Gazettes of Philadelphia, once a month, for four months. Extract from the minutes, December 2, 1832." (Cheers.) The bequest I am in duty bound to say, was not accepted by the board. (Cheers.) But let me tell you what would have been accepted by that board. Had those slaves been sold by Ann Pray, and the money bequeathed to that board, the price of their blood would have gone into the treasury, and they would have quoted Chalmers, Cunningham, and Candlish in support of the deed. (Cheers.)

Not only are legacies left and slaves sold in this way to build churches, but the right is openly defended by the church. In 1836 the great Methodist Church in America, holding through ministers. and elders, and members, in their own church 250,000 slaves, said in their general conference in Cincinnati that they had no right, no wish, no intention to interfere with the relation of master and slave as it existed in the slave states of the American union. What was this but saying to the world, we have no right, no wish, No intention to release the bondman from his chains? The annual conference in the south took the broad ground of the right of property in man, asserting it in a resolution, proclaiming it in an address, preaching it in thanksgiving sermons, putting it forth in 4th of July orations, and even quoting Scripture. I could tire your patience by reading if it were required, extracts from documents, the genuineness of which has never been called in question, showing that the right is asserted by the slave holder, to property in human beings. (Hear, hear.)

Let's see. Frederick Douglass vs. Charlotte Allen. Who has more credibility?

There was nothing uniquely Christian about the abolitionist movement. In a time where only white Christian men (and a few women) are allowed to speak and deemed worthy of hearing on the Question of Slavery, you're going to have Christian abolitionists. And you'll find them opposed by a hell of a lot of devout Christian slaveholders.

To put it in slightly more modern terms, for every Reverend King there was a multitude of Reverend Wesley Pruden Snrs.

There still is.

So cram it, Charlotte. Riding Wilberforce's coattails from the safety of 2007 doesn't make you moral. Nor is the existence of Christian abolitionists an endorsement of any of your purportedly Christian pet hates. And given your eager efforts to hide the inconvenient truths about Christianity and slavery, there's absolutely no doubt which side you'd be on in 1846.

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