Repeating History

OBJECTION:  How is it possible that you guys are right and the rest of the church is wrong?

ANSWER:  It is not uncommon for the majority of Christians in a particular society to be wrong on a certain subject, while God speaks through a tiny minority.  This can be true even when, in many other regards, the spiritual lives of the majority are in line with God’s will.  

“Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize
 the widest, possible difference--so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and
holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.”  
- Frederick Douglass

“The Church has a long and terrible record of indifference where atrocities are concerned.”
- Gregg Cunningham, Executive Director of Center for Bio-Ethical Reform

“The righteous may well be expected to be included and share largely in national judgments. They really deserve it.”  
- Rev. Charles Grandison Finney, 19th Century revivalist

It is often said that the Christian Church is the greatest force for good in the world.  In the ancient world, it was Christians ended abortion, the vicious gladiatorial games of Rome, and the practices of human sacrifice and slavery.  Christians instituted just governments and spoke out against unjust laws.  Christians founded the majority of charitable institutions and donate more time and energy to help the poor, destitute and oppressed than any other demographic.

All of this we admit to be true.  Yet it can be misleading.  It gives the impression that the average Christian is a public crusader who, motivated by the Holy Spirit, seeks to thwart evil and promote goodwill wherever he or she goes.  Unfortunately, this isn’t true.  While a few God-fearing men and women in every generation have tackled the injustices of their age, the overwhelming mass of Christians almost always been content to be bystanders.  It is only after years of persistent agitation by the minority that the majority awakens and begins to act like the Body of Christ.  In this light, the history of Church in regards to social injustice is dismal indeed.

We do not venture to explain this phenomenon theologically.  It is beyond both our capacity and the scope of our mission.  Suffice it to say that Sanctification, the process by which God makes a Christian holy, though a glorious work of God more powerful than any force of evil in the universe, is nevertheless often slow, vacillating, laborious and piecemeal.  Even Paul of Tarsus, the greatest missionary of the early Church, struggled with sin far into his ministry, writing in his letter to the Philippians, “Not that I have already obtained this [Holiness] or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own”  (Philipians 3:12). A Christian may be very advanced in some virtue like chastity or honesty, and yet be as cruel and as quick tempered as many a non-believer.  Perhaps this has something to do with our upbringing and our personality.  Some might even say it is dependent on our willingness to cooperate with God.  But whatever the reason, the fact remains that a person may be a Christian for a very long time and yet retain many lingering aspects of his or her former life.  

Like Christian individuals, Christian societies display this same duplicity. A nation influenced by Christianity may be vastly superior to pagan nations in may respects: more just, more peaceful, more egalitarian and more loving.  Yet it may simultaneously condone great wickedness.  It is an unusual quirk of the human world that radical justice for some and radical injustice for others may exist simultaneously in the same community for a very long time.

Don’t believe it?  Let us consider, as an example, how the American Christian community responded to the second greatest injustice of our nation’s history, slavery.

How the Church's response to slavery demonstrates that the majority can be wrong

The United States became independent in 1776.  Slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1865.  This is an interval of 89 years.  During that time period, nearly the entire population of the United States professed some form of Christianity.  During that same time period millions of persons were denied their God-given right to liberty, pursuit of happiness, and in some cases life. How was this possible?

We all know, or should know, that throughout this entire period the majority of churches of almost every denomination in the southern US tolerated slavery or even endorsed it. The spiritual condition of the people who constituted these congregations is a question outside the realm of this article, but our thoughts on it will be available soon in an section currently under construction.

What we are concerned with now is the response of the anti-slavery churches.  What were those churches which nominally opposed slavery (constituted mostly in the northern states) doing or not doing during the 89 year period between American independence and slave emancipation?

Certainly many understood that slavery was immoral.  Indeed, Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence contained a long paragraph denouncing slavery and specifically rebuking the “Christian” king of England for encouraging it.  Many of the Founding Fathers were vocally anti-slavery, including many who themselves owned slaves.  There was a general consensus amongst many of these early Americans that in a nation so committed to the ideals of liberty, and so Christian in its character, the institution of slavery was inevitably doomed.

However, for 89 years, these sentiments did not translate into action sufficient to bring the end of slavery to fruition.  Rather, as history demonstrates, they produced political and ecclesiastical compromises only sufficient to salve the consciences of anti-slavery Christians by removing the presence of slavery from their immediate surroundings.  As so often happens, Christians responded to social injustice by withdrawing, not engaging.  They avoided the sins of commission.  They washed their hands of personal involvement with evil and considered their duty complete.  

Quickly following the Revolutionary War, northern states proceeded to abolish slavery from their own territories, a relatively easy task as the institution was not entrenched there.  Northern politicians were generally committed to a policy of restricting the spread of slavery, and the issue of slavery was potent enough to force a church split between most major Christian denominations during the 1840s and 1850s.  But these actions did nothing to stop the injustice of slavery where it already existed, and they required no real sacrifice on the part of the average Christian.  

This is what clergyman and abolitionist Rev. Parker Pillsbury to comment:
“Two things are worthy of notice. First, the fact that all this discussion and action took place in connection with similar discussion out of the church; being little more than an echo of-the popular voice. And, it was, after all, but expression in words; not the least action ever accompanying the expression during that whole quarter of a century. Her action was of a different character. It was the extremest inaction; proving that all her loud protestations and solemn threatenings were most profoundly insincere.” *
Attempts by abolitionists to agitate the consciences of their churches met with stiff opposition from the beginning of the abolitionist movement, all the way through the Civil War.  We know this from the records of abolitionists who continuously despaired at the compromising and downright uncaring attitude many professing Christians exhibited towards the plight of their enslaved brethren.   William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the famous abolitionist newspaper Liberator, stated during the New England Anti-Slavery Convention of May, 1841, that "in regard to the existence of slavery, . . . the clergy stand wickedly  preeminent, and ought to be unsparingly exposed  and reproved before the people”

A cursory reading of resolutions adopted by major denominations prior to the Civil War will illustrate Garrison’s complaint all too clearly.  For example, on May 12th, 1836, the delegates to the annual Methodist Episcopal General Conference, by a vote of 120 to 14, passed a joint resolution declaring: “that they are decidedly opposed to modern abolitionism, and wholly disclaim any right, wish, or intention to interfere in the civil and political relation between master and slave as it exists in the slave-holding states of the Union."  This resolution, when disseminated a large, included a ‘pastoral letter’ which read, in part:
"These facts, which are only mentioned here as a reason for the friendly admonition which we wish to give you, constrain us, as your pastors, who are called to watch over your souls, as they must give account, to exhort you to abstain from all abolition movements and associations, and to refrain from patronizing any of their publications . . . From every view of the subject which we have been able to take, and from the most calm and dispassionate survey of the whole ground, we have come to the conclusion, that the only safe, scriptural, and prudent way for us, both as ministers and people, to take, is wholly to refrain from this agitating subject . . ."
In 1840 the Ohio Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church resolved:
"That those brethren of the North, who resist the abolition movements with firmness and moderation, are the true friends of the church, to the slaves of the South, and to the constitution of our common country.” 
That same year the New York Annual Conference went even further, declaring:
“That we disapprove of the members of this Conference patronizing, or in any way giving countenance to a [anti-slavery] paper called 'Zion's Watchman,' because, in our opinion it tends to disturb the peace and harmony of the body, by sowing dissension in the church.  That although we do not condemn any man, or withhold our suffrages from him on account of his opinions merely, in reference to the subject of abolitionism, yet we are decidedly of the opinion that none ought to be elected to the office of deacon or elder in our church, unless he give a pledge to the Conference, that he will refrain from agitating the church with discussions on this subject.” 
Thus, instead of censoring slave holders for the inhuman crime of reducing men to the level of beasts, breaking apart families and stealing the hard earned wages of other men, one of the largest denominations in America censored the abolitionists for demanding something be done about it!

Christian academia in the north showed a similar resistance to getting involved.  In a letter dated April 10th, 1837, Rev. Moses Stuart, a professor at Andover Theological Seminary in Newton Centre, MA wrote:
"The abuse of it [slavery] is the essential and fundamental wrong.  Not that the theory of slavery is in itself right.  No, 'Love thy neighbor as thyself,' 'Do unto others that which ye would that others should do unto you,' decide against this.  But the relation once constituted and continued, is not such a malum in se as calls for immediate and violent disruption, at all hazard. So Paul did not counsel.  Paul's conduct and advice are still safe guides. Paul knew well that Christianity would ultimately destroy slavery, as it certainly will.  He knew, too that it would destroy monarchy and aristocracy from the earth; for it is fundamentally a doctrine of true liberty and equality. Yet Paul did not expect slavery and monarchy to be ousted in a day; and gave precepts to Christians respecting their demeanor ad interim.”* 
Rev. Stuart acknowledged slavery as sin, yet counseled against abolition, on the grounds that it wasn’t worth the social upheaval and turmoil that would result!  While having faith that Christianity will eventually exterminate slavery, he denounces those who would live out there faith by attempting to bring it about!

Many Christian leaders feared that the radical demands of abolitionists did more harm than good, and preferred a far less confrontational approach to dealing with the problem.  Lyman Beecher was one of the greatest preachers of the early 19th Century.  He is famous for combating the liberal influences of Unitarianism in Boston, MA, and leading campaigns against alcoholism.  He is best known as the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher.  Yet this great moralist, while himself anti-slavery, was for many years an ardent opponent of abolition!  Beecher valued the “silken ties” between northern and southern churches which supposedly held the nation together and which would, if given sufficient time, work some sort of magic and convince southerners to emancipate their slaves.  He opposed abolition because he felt it distracted from the Gospel and exuded a spirit of self-righteous pride. Though William Lloyd Garrison was for a time a member of his congregation, Beecher offered only tepid toleration of the anti-slavery societies then forming in and around Boston, and refused to permit his pulpit to be used stir up anti-slavery fervor.  Later, as president of Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, OH, he tried to suppress abolitionist activity on campus.   Only after years of opposition, and the conversion of his children Harriet and Henry to the abolitionist position, did Beecher recognize the righteousness of the their cause.* 

Beecher’s eldest daughter, Catherine Beecher, once drafted a treatise discouraging Christian ladies from joining abolitionist societies.  Like many Christians today, she believed that boldly denouncing evil was counter-productive.  Far better to tenderly persuade the sinner!  In her own words:
“The Abolitionists have violated all these laws of mind and of experience, in dealing with their southern brethren...They have not approached them with the spirit of love, courtesy, and forbearance.  They are not the persons who would be regarded by the South, as having any right to interfere...In dealing with their brethren, too, they have not tried silent, retired, private measures. It has been public denunciation of crime and shame in newspapers, addressed as it were to bystanders, in order to arouse the guilty…”*
One particularly sensitive subject, which Northern churches were continuously struggling to evade, was the abolitionists’ irritating insistence that Christians exercise church discipline on slave holders within their ranks.  “No communion with slave holders!” may seem like common sense to us, but in those days there were many who felt it was better to maintain good relationships with Southern slavery advocates than risk splitting a church.  

Anti-abolitionist cartoons like this denounced abolitionists for behaving 'holier-than-thou' in their insistence that communion be withheld from slave-holders.  Here William H. Seward and John Brown will not share the cup with a very pius looking slave-holder, to the despair of the general congregation.

In his book A Brotherhood of Thieves, a True Picture of the American Church and Clergy (1843) anti-slavery activist Rev. Stephen S. Foster wrote,
“I know not of a single ecclesiastical body in the country which has excommunicated any of its members for the crime of slave-holding, since the commencement of the anti-slavery enterprise, though most of them have cast out true and faithful abolitionists from their communion. Those who themselves abstain from [slave-holding], are in church fellowship with those who perpetrate them; and that, by this connection, they countenance the wrong, and strengthen the hands of the oppressor!”
In summary, we find the following similarities between the behavior of anti-slavery Christians prior to the Civil War and the behavior of pro-life Christians today:
  1. Then, as now, most churches that recognized the injustice saw no pressing need to encourage their congregations to fight it.
  2. Then, as now, most churches that recognized the injustice, if they could be persuaded to oppose it at all, used the most passive methods available.
  3. Then as now, most churches that recognized the injustice refused to address the presence of unrepentant members in their congregations.  Church discipline was then, and is now, nonexistent.  
  4. Then, as now, the abolition of injustice was often viewed as a distraction from the proclamation of the Gospel.  
  5. Then, as now, most churches that recognized the injustice viewed reformers as radical, dangerous, bothersome and legalistic busybodies.
  6. Then, as now, most churches that recognized the injustice acted against it only in so far as to secure for themselves territory where it was not permitted.  The churches of the past prohibited slavery north of a certain geographic boundary.  The churches of today refuse to permit their tax dollars being used to pay for abortion.  In other words, we tolerate evil so long as it happens out of our sight.  

The simple truth of the matter is that Christians are very good a compartmentalizing their faith.  We give God control of one area of our lives while keeping back some other area.  This is especially true when it comes to ridding the world of flagrant injustice.  For 89 years,  the majority of American Christians fought hard to avoid dealing with the issue of slavery.  Only a tiny minority championed the cause of the downtrodden slave.  It should not be surprising that the same thing is happening today with abortion.  Once again, truth and justice are championed by a tiny minority while the majority sits and waits.  We are simply repeating history.

Please learn from the past.  Majority opinion has often been tragically wrong.  Minorities have often been proven right.  He who truly wishes to end abortion will find himself outside the stream of average Christianity, but he will also find himself right in the center of the will of God.

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