Joel McDurmon has written a book on the subject of slavery in Christian America. In this book McDurmon attempts to inform average white Christians of the true horrors that white Christian America wrought against innocent blacks, and thus to provide a context for contemporary black discontentment with whites. In Part 1, we looked at McDurmon’s comments about slavery in principle. One would imagine that a work dedicated to providing a Christian perspective on slavery and its abuses would have delved deeper into what the Bible says on the subject and then give reasons as to why he doesn’t believe that certain biblical requirements were not met. McDurmon does not do this. McDurmon largely ignores the Bible in his analysis of slavery as it was practiced in America.
The biblical case for slavery is so strong that virtually all historians of any political persuasion are convinced that the defenders of slavery at least won the debate on what the Bible teaches.1 McDurmon is not unaware of this consensus. McDurmon cites contemporary historian Mark Noll who argues, “The literal interpretation of the Bible actually favored the southern defense of slavery. Opponents, he argues, either had to abandon the authority of Scripture altogether (Garrison and many of the radical abolitionists), abandoned biblical interpretation in favor of rhetoric and emotive arguments (Henry Ward Beecher), succumbed to a jungle of obscure semantic arguments (Theodore Dwight Weld), or else ended up either conceding to the southern theologians’ arguments to greater or lesser degrees (Albert Barnes, Moses Stuart) or making their arguments for them (Henry Van Dyke).”2
McDurmon assures his readers:
Noll’s position may appear to have something to it on the surface, but ultimately it ends up overemphasizing the alleged ‘literal’ hermeneutic of the South as the culprit for the defense of slavery.3 . . . Again, while Noll’s review of the issues is important, it is incorrect to place the blame squarely on a ‘literal’ interpretation of Scripture.4 . . . Noll is almost certainly incorrect when he returns to the more simplistic view in reference to racism itself. He argues that one of the strongest driving forces behind the domineering racism of American slavery was ‘the intuitive biblical literalism that prevailed among the country’s dominant Protestant bodies.’ . . . [W]hen the southern theologians preached racism the hardest, and when they were forced by the results of the war to rely upon their arguments for racism the most, they appealed to Scripture the least.5
This is simply dishonest on McDurmon’s part. Most of the foundational biblical passages dealing with slavery are entirely ignored. This is a fundamental flaw in McDurmon’s work, since Southern apologists and defenders of slavery were aware of these passages and used them extensively in their debates with Jacobins and abolitionists. Leftist academics often use the biblical teachings on slavery as a reason to undermine its moral authority. If McDurmon’s aim is to undermine this consensus, he has utterly failed because he hasn’t addressed the most critical biblical passages dealing with subject of slavery. McDurmon has a particular ax to grind against the cultural presuppositions of the “Reformed traditions” that failed to arrive at “the judicial simplicity of Quaker Keith’s solutions.” McDurmon argues, “Their key cultural aspects affecting the biblical slavery debate specifically had not been derived from the Bible, but from classical, medieval, aristocratic, or other cultures.”6
McDurmon reprobates virtually all of Christian history as the product of unbiblical or pagan thinking. This is critical because Christian thinkers have always adhered to non-egalitarian views of race and slavery. If McDurmon is correct, then Christians of all theological persuasions throughout history have been wrong on crucial questions pertaining to society.7 The belief in natural hierarchy expressed by men like R.L. Dabney is certainly consistent with classical, medieval, and aristocratic culture, but these designations are simply extensions of Christian thought throughout the ages. McDurmon isn’t simply rejecting the idiosyncratic beliefs of a few elitist Christians who clung to residual pagan ideas about society. McDurmon is rejecting Christian beliefs that have always pervaded Christendom. McDurmon’s libertarianism has subverted his understanding of God’s Law and theonomy, just as it has subverted his understanding of society.
Before delving into McDurmon’s specific claims about how slavery was practiced in America, I’d like to comment upon McDurmon’s egalitarian ethos. McDurmon spends most of the book discussing the purported evils of slavery, but along the way he makes several comments denouncing the anti-egalitarian views that were ubiquitous until quite recently. McDurmon correctly notes that virtually everyone involved in the slavery debates of the nineteenth century adhered to what he terms “racist” views.8 McDurmon insists that the root problem of slavery was racism. Per McDurmon, “American slavery was specifically racist slavery. It could not exist apart from racism, and could not be separated from it.”9
McDurmon further notes that proponents of abolishing slavery generally rejected the modern notion that everyone is functionally equal and deserves to have equal civil rights and privileges in society: “Even ardent proponents of equality and freedom nevertheless harbored intense racist sentiment, and certainly practices. The southerners easily exploited this fact. Indeed, ‘even the warmest friends to the blacks kept them at a distance, and rejected all intercourse with them.’”10
Most opponents of slavery were opposed not only on humanitarian grounds, but also on ethnonationalist grounds as well. McDurmon cites Massachusetts judge Samuel Sewall as an example: “Even antislavery forces could work mainly from racist motivations. Sewall’s The Selling of Joseph in 1700 urged fellow Massachusetts Puritans to end slavery and the slave trade primarily because he thought a large body of blacks would weaken the Commonwealth. They could never be integrated, he argued, because ‘there is such disparity in their Conditions, Colour, and Hair, that they can never embody with us, and grow up into orderly Families, to the Peopling of the Land: but still remain in our Body Politick as a kind of extravasat [imported, alien] blood.’”11
McDurmon also notes that prior to Southern secession, many Southern apologists openly denounced Jefferson’s dictum that all men are created equal as is stated in the Declaration of Independence. McDurmon observes that Southern apologists
openly despised the language of the Declaration of Independence. To them ‘liberty’ did not mean freedom, and it certainly did not mean equality—not even the most common understanding of that phrase, equality simply before the law. Dabney exemplified this view. In his Defense, he confronted Jefferson’s phrase that ‘all men are created equal,’ and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For Dabney, if this can mean anything, it can only mean that each man is endowed only with a socially-delimited liberty, and an equality only to some people, but not those above him. It could only mean the following:
Each one as truly entitled to possess the set of rights justly appropriate to him, (and by the same reason,) as any other is entitled to his set of rights. . . . This, is man’s moral equality. It means that, under God, the servant is as much entitled to the rights and privileges of a justly-treated servant, as the master is to the rights of a master; that the commoner is as much entitled to the just privileges of a commoner, as a peer [entitled aristocracy] to those of a peer…. [A]ll this is perfectly consistent with differences of social condition, and station, and privilege; where characters and relations are different. As we have seen, the servant for life, who as a slave receives ‘those things which are just and equal,’ has his true liberty, though it is different from that of the free citizen.55”12
McDurmon further comments,
As proof of these assertions, Dabney appealed to the framers of the era who maintained slaves themselves long after endorsing the document. He also, however, excepted the author of those immortal words, despite his contrary personal example, because he allegedly had ‘contracted a fondness for the atheistical philosophy of the French political reformers.’ In other words, the words of the Declaration of Independence were a product of the French Revolution’s atheism. Dabney was not alone in this view. Denunciations of Jefferson’s phrase appear in various places in the southern literature of the period. Prominent southern minister Thomas Smyth argued in 1866 that the principles of the Constitution were actually ‘subverted by the infidel maxims of the Declaration of Independence.’ In his words, that Convention ‘ignored the infidel and atheistical maxims of the absolute freedom and equality of all men, found in the Declaration of Independence’ which were ‘anarchical principles of wild and savage fanaticism.’”13
McDurmon also cites Southern Presbyterian minister G.J.A. Coulson, who “employed this argument to support his claim that ‘Democratic theories that are erected upon the natural equality of men will not endure investigation.’ After all, ‘The division of the race into ranks and classes is as real as the separation of the race into individual members.’”14 McDurmon is also aghast at the temerity of John Randolph of Roanoke, who “once openly stated, ‘I am an aristocrat. I love liberty; I hate equality.’”15
There is no question that Americans in general and Southerners in particular rejected the Enlightenment abstraction of equality. Personally I find the candor of Southerners like Senator John C. Calhoun and Confederate Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens against the egalitarian rhetoric of Thomas Jefferson to be refreshing. Views that are considered “racist” by today’s standards were undoubtedly pervasive throughout American history until quite recently, and pro-slavery apologists were able to leverage these views in defense of the institution of slavery. McDurmon doesn’t offer much in the way of rebuttal, because he knows that most of his readers would reject “racist” views outright without much consideration, but these views deserve to be fairly considered in order to properly evaluate pro-slavery arguments.
McDurmon’s lone argument is that equality was not actually a product of the French Revolution or Enlightenment rationalism, but was instead foundational to the beliefs of the Puritans: “The rights spoken of in the Declaration of Independence may have filtered through Locke to Jefferson, but they had been preached in New England pulpits for over a century prior. They represented the freedom and rights spoken of in biblical law and much (not all) Puritan theology.”16
No examples of these sermons are provided, and this claim is especially tenuous in light of other claims made by McDurmon himself throughout the rest of the book. McDurmon constantly berates the New England states for practicing slavery as well as for their role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and their participation coincides with the ascendancy of Puritan orthodoxy in New England. The quote by Samuel Sewall above is typical of the attitudes of Puritan Massachusetts. McDurmon also quotes Cotton Mather’s protest against those slaveholders who neglected the Christian education of their slaves, and yet according to McDurmon Mather was “hardly blameless on the issues of slavery and race.”17 Puritan Massachusetts also banned interracial marriage, like all other states with substantial black populations. The equality spoken of in the Declaration of Independence, virtually the only sentence known by most Americans today, had no precedent in Christian thought, and certainly not in Puritan New England.
Robert Dabney, McDurmon’s chief villain throughout his narrative on slavery, is targeted for promoting the Roman/classical vision of a stratified society as opposed to one based upon freedom and equality before the law. Dabney lauded his native Virginia as an “aristocratic republic” that strictly limited suffrage to white male landowners. Moreover, Dabney spoke of natural limitations that result in the emergence of distinct social classes: “Providence, social laws, and parental virtues and efforts, do inevitably legislate in favor of some classes . . . social inequality was a divine contrivance.”18
McDurmon responds: “While we can obviously accept that Providence results in certain inequalities, this is a far cry of arguing that we should institute the results of Providence as permanent fixtures for the future—that, for example, the poorness of the poor is proof that he ought to remain poor.”19 This grossly misrepresents the views of Dabney and other Southerners, and this is evident even from the quotes that McDurmon himself provides. Dabney isn’t arguing that “the poorness of the poor is proof that he ought to remain poor.” Dabney specifically argues, “The State . . .should not legislate to the disadvantage of any” to hinder them in the race of life, while also arguing that “if the State undertakes to countervail that legislation of nature by leveling action, the attempt is wicked, mischievous, and futile.” Dabney is standing upon the firm foundation of traditional conservatism that typified the thought of historic Christendom.
Distinct social classes exist because God has not created everyone to be functionally equal, and healthy societies recognize this and take appropriate action to place superior men in positions of authority and influence. No one should be hindered from advancing in society as far as his God-given talents will take him, but the state or society in general should not aim at functional equality because it is not possible to make everyone equal without obstructing the talents of society’s natural leaders and aristocrats. Even Jefferson, years after waxing eloquent on natural equality in the Declaration, himself spoke of the natural aristocracy as a gift of Almighty God in his private correspondence with John Adams.
Common Law vs. Civil Law
McDurmon describes the antebellum South “as a ‘traditional’ society, quasi-aristocracy and hierarchical, supported by a precapitalist, subsistence manorial economy. In such a society, deference was valued higher than egalitarian informality, respect for tradition and family counterbalanced the drive for efficient production, and ‘the best people’ were expected to exercise authority. The structures of leadership were patriarchal. . . . Such a society was not unaware of moral values, but within a slave economy benevolence assumed the form of paternalism, personal honor ranked above utilitarian considerations, and loyalty to other individuals superseded attachment to abstract ethical ideals.”
McDurmon claims that the problems of the antebellum South and America in general derived from the practice of Roman civil law principles as opposed to traditional Anglo-Saxon common law. McDurmon draws a sharp distinction between the common law/Germanic concept of freedom with the civil/Roman law concept of liberty. McDurmon claims that pro-slavery apologists had imbibed classical culture and had forsaken the common law tradition of their Anglo-Saxon ancestors.
The term ‘freedom’ comes from Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Dutch culture, which conceived of ‘free born’ rights—everyone was born free and equal before the law. They may have differences in wealth or status, but none could be deprived of what was theirs by birthright: the rights of life and liberty, and equal protection before the free institutions of law.20
Of liberty, McDurmon writes:
‘Liberty,’ by contrast, has a Roman derivation, and its parent culture conceived of virtually the opposite reality. In classical culture— both Greek and Roman—the mass of humanity was born into bondage or some form of ‘prior restraint.’ Roman libertas referred to the release of someone from their natural bondage. It was a right to independence and status that had to be achieved, and was only achieved by the fittest elites of society. ‘Liberty’ in this culture was thus class-oriented, and the leaders of the society could boast of it while a majority of that society were nevertheless slaves.21
McDurmon claims that Africans were denied the basic rights that they should have been afforded under common law because the early American colonists applied the Roman law principle of partus sequitur ventrum, in which a person’s legal status was determined by the mother, as opposed to the common law tradition of a child’s father determining his social status. McDurmon states that this imposed “a Roman law standard in what should have been a Common Law land.”22 However, at another point McDurmon claims that the common law tradition had already been subverted by Roman/classical legal concepts as early as the Norman conquest of 1066! McDurmon claims, “Classical culture was imported to Britain with the Norman invasion in 1066, and survived in various forms until Anglican culture imported it further into the British colonies, notably those of the American South.”23
McDurmon has made untenable claims about the perceived differences between the Anglo-Saxon/Germanic common law tradition and the Roman civil law tradition. As is the case with his book on theonomy, the distinction between common law and civil law isn’t what McDurmon imagines it to be. It’s true that the word liberty in the English tongue has come down through Middle English derived from Latin through France, and that freedom is Old English and derives from Germanic Anglo-Saxon, but these two words have been so closely associated together that they are considered synonyms. English speakers did not understand the concepts of freedom or liberty to be universal rights inherent in all societies. Different nations achieved varying levels of civilization, and the degree of civilization to which a society attained would naturally correspond to their level of freedom. Thus the rights of Englishmen were not universal to all mankind.
Conclusion to Part 2
McDurmon’s book on slavery presupposes that slavery is wrong in principle and that legal and political equality have a foundation in biblical ethics and the Anglo-Saxon common law tradition. Neither of these claims are true. McDurmon omitted most of the relevant biblical passages that deal with slavery and how it is to be practiced. McDurmon is also wrong to assume that the Bible teaches the kind of equality that he envisions. Ancient Israel was certainly a hierarchical society with kings, tribal princes, and clan chiefs. Equal justice was guaranteed by the Law, but this is distinguished from the many civil rights and privileges that were restricted to the physical descendants of Israel. McDurmon presents quotes from Americans which demonstrates that they were not committed to equality but offers little in the way of rebuttal beyond what amounts to, “wow, just wow.”
This is because McDurmon knows that most of his readers already accept equality in principle, and will be just as aghast as he is to see Southerners and Americans in general express such stark inegalitarian sentiments. The reason that virtually everyone up until the twentieth century rejected equality is because of the pervasive commitment to Christian society even among liberal abolitionists. McDurmon does not so much refute these sentiments as he simply presents them to demonstrate the ubiquity of “racism” before the modern era.
The next part of my review of Joel McDurmon’s book on slavery will analyze his many claims of abuse of slaves at the hands of whites. Before doing so I would like to point out that this aspect of McDurmon’s research into the history of slavery in America can be compartmentalized from his remarks on the topics of slavery in general and egalitarianism. One could agree with every word that McDurmon writes about the purported abuse of slaves by white Christians, and still disagree with McDurmon’s claims about the permissibility of slavery in general and equality. That being said, I find many of McDurmon’s specific claims about these abuses to be extremely tenuous and in many cases overgeneralized. In the next part we will analyze the abuses that McDurmon alleges more closely to see if white Christians were as evil as McDurmon suggests.
- Roger Schultz gives an interesting assessment of “dubious theological credentials” of American abolitionists in his article, “Politics of Righteousness: Christian Political Movements in the Early 19th Century“, Contra Mundum, No. 4, Summer 1992, copyright Contra Mundum. Schultz’s perspective is interesting in that he is not a pro-slavery apologist and he believes that Christian slaves of any race could not be held in perpetual servitude. Nevertheless Schultz notes, “Dabney and other southerners tried to develop a social theory from the Bible. They noted that the Bible allowed, but regulated slavery, and appended to their arguments numerous proof texts. Abolitionists, on the other hand, annoyed by the Scriptural references to slavery, frequently ended up denying the authority of Scripture altogether and relied upon mushy sociological arguments about compassion and the negative effects of slavery.” (pg. 14, footnote 28). ↩
- Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 391-395, 403. Cited in McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 7776-7781). ↩
- Ibid. Cited in McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 7781-7783). ↩
- Ibid., 400. Cited in McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 7817-7823). ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 7829-7832). ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 7708-7712). ↩
- This isn’t terribly surprising. McDurmon essentially argued this in his book on theonomy, claiming that almost everyone throughout Christian history has maintained a pagan/classical understanding of justice as opposed to a truly biblical understanding. ↩
- Earlier in the book McDurmon provides his working definition of racism: “In this book, when I use ‘racism,’ ‘racist,’ or derivative terms, I mean what the conservative black economist Thomas Sowell called the legitimate use of it: “a term of moral denunciation of racially discriminatory behavior.” If a man who is perhaps the most prominent black conservative intellectual in America can accept as legitimate the broader sense of the term which includes general discrimination, I find it acceptable as well for this work.” McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 304-310). ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 4166-4168). ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 2309-2311). ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 5637-5642). ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 8963-8973, 8978-8982). ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 8982-8991). ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 9000-9003). ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 9028-9030). ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 9062-9064). ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 5793-5794). ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 6960-6967). ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 6986-6988). ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 9005-9008). ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 9010-9017. ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Location 520. ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 9021-9023). This is particularly tenuous in light of the fact that trial by jury, one of the characteristic distinctions of the common law legal system, was not formally codified until the reign of Henry II, well after the Norman Conquest. ↩