Book Report: “Southern Slavery: As it Was”
I recently became aware this book by Doug Wilson & Steve Wilkins justifying Southern chattel slavery and I think it deserves attention. Not because it is in anyway correct, but because I think the author’s way of thinking has a bigger impact on modern American society that we would like to believe.
Southern Slavery: As It Was
Southern Slavery: As It Was [Wilson, Douglas, Wilkins, Steve] on Amazon.com. *FREE* shipping on qualifying offers…
Free PDF for those who don’t want to actually own the thing.
Let’s look at his arguments and why he felt the need to write this book.
The South has long carried the stigma of racism and bigotry The fact that slavery ended abruptly because the South lost the War serves to reinforce this common stereotype. For this reason, most Southerners take little pride in their nation’s role in the War Between the States.
So, there is an issue of pride here. Wilson (and his coauthor) seem to be concerned that Southerners have lost their pride in the South because an unfair stereotype. That being that slavery was both unbiblical and immoral.
We have all heard of the heartlessness — the brutalitites, immoralities, and cruelties — that were supposedly inherent in the system of slavery.
(I’m leaving the typo because it, and others, are all over the book)
“Supposedly” — This is a key word here and sets up the rest of the book. The challenge that Wilson is laying out is that slavery wasn’t nearly as bad as we are led to believe. Perhaps the victor wrote the history to justify a bloody and unnecessary conflict?
This is reiterated more clearly…
The point of this small booklet is to establish that this impression is largely false. It is important to note, however, that the impression is not entirely false.
Now, at this point everyone is pretty much free to chuck this book in the trash. Why? Because it’s SLAVERY. One person owning another person, in America, goes against the very documents the Country was founded on. But, here’s the rub, the Bible apparently justifies and condones slavery.. at least according to some interpretations. Here is a longer work on this topic by another Medium writer: Does the Bible’s New Testament endorse slavery? | by Jon Davis | Medium
At this point, one can’t help but wonder… what if the roles were reversed? Some would be quick to point out that white people have often ended up as slaves throughout history. However, throwing off the yoke of tyranny was exactly what the revolutionary war was about.. and therefore what America itself is about. Why the hypocrisy?
“We have no concern to whitewash the sins of the South — or the North, for that matter. Where there is sin, let us freely confess and forsake it. But because we have resolved to abandon sin, this must include the sin of believing a lie.
Too be fair to the authors, they repeat several times that they don’t condone racism. However… it becomes clear later in the book that it’s far better for Blacks in America to live as slaves. This is the very essence of racism. Were they not truly committed to racism they would be committed to liberation and making sure Blacks were as educated and as well off as whites. And most importantly: Free. George Washington himself could never understand this paradox either. Spent his life fighting for freedom but couldn’t understand why his slaves wanted the same. This is racism.
Meanwhile the authors go on to elaborate more on the reasoning behind the book. During debates about abortion and homosexuality Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell point out that the Old Testament condemns those things.. but others counters with a, “Yeah, but it condones slavery”. Checkmate.
How can you use the Bible as a moral guide for today if it condones slavery? That would mean reframing morality within its culture. How could the Bible be used as a sword to wage Holy War in our culture if we are embarrassed by parts of it?
So, a big reason because this book is so that Christians don’t need to be embarrassed by Christians owning slaves and thus by the Bible.
If those who hate the Word of God can succeed in getting Christians to be embarrassed by any portion of the Word of God, then that portion/will continually be employed as a battering ram against the/godly principles that are currently under attack.
They go on to list the real sins.. “Abortion, feminism, and sodomy.” These are the real enemies, not slavery. Stay focused!
“You have been told many times that the war was over slavery, but in reality it was over the biblical meaning of constitutional government. The inflammatory issue is slavery, however, and so the real issue is obscured in the minds of many.”
This is the real heart of Lost Cause mythology surrounding the Civil War: That it wasn’t really about slavery. This is easily debunked by even a cursory reading of history or the Confederate State constitutions in which they declare slavery eternal and irrevocable.
I would love for the authors to unpack the “biblical meaning of constitutional government”. What I can only assume they are saying is that the Bible trumps the constitution when push comes to shove. This, is the very heart of Christian Nationalism. Something the founders who were Deists sought to avoid and a recurring theme throughout American history.
By the time of the War, the intellectual leadership of the South was conservative, orthodox, and Christian. In contrast, the leadership of the North was radical and Unitarian.
The authors zero in here on the “fact” that the real Christians were in the South and the North were “Unitarians” (not real Christians, apostates).
And then a bit of a plot twist..
Because of a strong popular bigotry against the South, it is necessary for us to assert as strongly as we can that racism and sympathy for the Southern cause are not necessary companions. Rather, when biblically understood, they are antithetical. Because of this, economic death of slavery in our nation would have been hastened had there been more widespread obedience to the Word of God on the part of everyone — abolitionists, slaves, and slave owners. So whenever true racism appears (North, South, East, or West), or whenever it appears (this century or the last), it must be opposed by consistent Christians.
It feels like we are building up to a bit of a straw man at this point. There is perhaps an idea here that in the South the majority of slave owners (and those who upheld slavery that didn’t own slaves) were doing so in a “biblical” manner. In order to do so they would have to treated the slaves as equals. It’s entirely possible that there was a family or two that fell into this category, but to suggest that this was actually the norm is so far from historically accurate as to be laughable.
It does bring up an interesting point. What is our modern complicity in cultural systems? We feel free to condemn our ancestors, but what are we overlooking today that future generations will condemn us for? I’m sure there are plenty. Pollution comes to mind. I think the big difference is that hopefully my ancestors won’t try and justify this, but instead learn from past mistakes.
Owning slaves is not an abomination. The Bible does not condemn it, and those who believe the Bible are bound to refrain in the same way.
This is an amazing theological leap. For most modern ears the Bible loses its veracity at this point if it doesn’t actually condemn slavery. But the Bible is mute on countless topics many would consider immoral. Abortion? Pornography? Destroying the environment? We hold these truths to be “self evident.
The Old South was a caste society, but not a compartmentalized society. There were specific roles for blacks and whites, and each “knew their place” as it were, but what is often overlooked is the high level of interaction between the races which was a common and everyday experience.
The fact the authors don’t this as inherently racist is really getting to the heart of the issue. This is justified through “patriarchy”. The white slave owner is just being a Good Father to those under his care.. the wife, the children, the “negroes”. In that order.
They go on to proclaim the slaves once freed often looked back “wistfully” on their plantation days, when they had “plenty”. It’s funny that they didn’t note that the Israelites said the same thing after being freed from the Egyptians. The thing about this is after slaves were freed many did end up worse off. Most ended up essentially economic slaves to the plantation owners or imprisoned for not having jobs.. and then loaned out as free labor via the “justice” system. A practice you could still argue exists today.
No, the true villain in this story, according the authors, is the North. They were the ones who perpetrated and perpetuated the slave trade. And they are not wrong. The North was absolutely guilty in regards to chattel slavery, and while the vast majority of abolitionists were in the North there were very few who were advocating for equality. They also rightly point out Virginia was the first to ban the slave trade.
But that’s where the South gets to cleanse their hands. Once the kidnapped slaves were in the US and already owned then it was sanctified. Besides, it was other “blacks” [Africans] who were primarily doing kidnapping. And, besides that being a slave in the US was far better than the fate that awaited them in Brazil. That may be correct, but it’s still a horrendous leap of logic.
In fact, most of the arguments feel like blame shifting.
Rather than pick my way further though this painful piece of writing I’ll just distill the arguments and let the reader decide for themselves if they are compelling:
- Slavery is condoned in the Bible and who are we to argue with that?
- Biblically condoned slavery is patriarchal and thus kind and “Christlike”.
- The Northern abolitionists were Unitarian heretics that hate the Word of God.
- It was predominately “blacks” that were the kidnappers, which is not condoned by the Bible.
- The North were guilty of the slave trade, but not the South.
- Most slaves would still be slaves if given the choice.
- Most slaves had things better while slaves since the Federal Government passed laws making things worse for them when free.
- Many slaves had it better off than many poor whites.
I want to touch on that last point as I’ve heard this recently in discussions around systemic racism. The idea that it’s better to be a well dressed slave than a poor white person is truly bizarre as it cuts at the very heart of what it means to be a “free” American. Then again, maybe that’s the trade off we all make taking jobs we hate. The key difference being we are free to leave our jobs at any point without of a fear of a beating. In recent times the argument against systemic racism is that it’s about poverty and many whites have it worse. This too shows a deep misunderstanding of how racism works in society and how it affects minorities on a daily basis.
I’ll touch on a few key rebuttals.
- Slavery was horrible. There are countless books on this topic. While I don’t doubt that many slaves had things “better” under slavery that simple means Reconstruction was a brutal failure, Jim Crow was awful, and it simply doesn’t justify keeping people in bondage. Doug Wilson recently published articles justifying fake vaccination cards during a deadly pandemic in the name of freedom. You can’t say freedom is good for white people and slavery is good for Black people without donning the white robes. Just because Paul wasn’t advocating for open revolution doesn’t mean his verses were meant to ordain slavery has officially sanctioned by God. This logic allows you to ordain all manner of evils and leave it at God’s doorstep. What God allows and what God wants are two wildly different things.
- Patriarchy is part of “the Fall”. If you are going to justify slavery through the lens of “patriarchy” you need to go back to the roots of patriarchy. It was never meant to be system where men dominated women, or black people, or anyone. When humanity fell in the Garden of Eden the domination by the husband was described along with weeds and death as unfortunate byproducts of the curse. This is what the world looks like outside of walking with God in the Garden. It is not good. Not only that, it’s blatantly racist. No matter what the justification for the patriarchy, suggesting Black people need a white father is trash.
- Slaves overwhelmingly rejoiced after being freed. Thousands fought and died for the Cause. To claim otherwise based on cherry picked testimonies is deeply problematic. This is a big problem with creating narratives from history, it’s easy to create alternative histories and difficult to really get a consensus. Even if a few slaves loved their masters and had it “better off”, the system of slavery would have always kept Black Americans in a degraded condition. Equality and suffrage was never going to happen under this system.
- Somewhat inconsequential in comparison to the horrors of human bondage and racism, but slavery was bad for the whites in the South as well. The vast majority of wealth was held by less than 25% of the population. Poor whites couldn’t take low wage jobs as they were considered slave jobs. Those that did earned the title of “White trash”, a term unfortunately still used today. The whole system was dehumanizing for everyone affected.
This book isn’t really worth anyone’s time and there are better rebuttals out there. What drew me to it is the fact that Doug Wilson still plays a distant role in my life. I have good friends that went to one of his conferences last year. An elder in my now former church is a strong supporter of Doug’s and often parrots his talking points. How much of his influence is active in our culture today? This is no small matter.
The events of January 6th didn’t come out of nowhere. There are deep historical roots to it. The insurrection was largely a Christian endeavor. While many I know didn’t actively condone it, they were very quick to down play it or dismiss it in light of BLM riots.
We need to be really careful in how history is used, and what it’s used to justify. It’s the same people who are justifying slavery that are justifying violence using Revolutionary language.
For further reading I highly recommend Kristen Du Mez’s “Jesus & John Wayne” about the rise of Christian Nationalism.
Another great book about the Civil War is Hymns of the Republic by SC Gwynne. While there are many other books on slavery, the causes of the Civil War, and the failures of Reconstruction. Gwynne just highlights the last year of the Civil War and is good read.