Douglas Wilson Says Slavery Was Good For America’s Blacks

This makes me ill:

Slavery produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the War or since.

Southern Slavery As It Was, by
Douglas Wilson and Steve Wilkins

Douglas Wilson is a pastor who founded the school he teaches at and writes for the magazine he created. He has an outsized influence over many in the Body of Christ, especially those prone to patriarchy.

One of his most notorious writings – and one that is, as we will see, firmly grounded in his patriarchal doctrine – is Southern Slavery As It Was, a monograph intended to support Wilson’s view that slavery was beneficial and that the Confederacy has been slandered (his word) by historians through the years.**

Wilson and co-author Steve Wilkins (former board member of The League of the South) state the purpose of their monograph as:

We have all heard of the heartlessness — the brutalities, immoralities, and cruelties — that were supposedly inherent in the system of slavery. We have heard how slave families were broken up, of the forcible rape of slave women, of the brutal beatings that were a commonplace, about the horrible living conditions, and of the unrelenting work schedule and back-breaking routine — all of which go together to form our impression of the crushing oppression which was slavery in the South. The truthfulness of this description has seldom been challenged.

The point of this small booklet is to establish that this impression is largely false. (Emphasis added.)

They buttress their position through selective Scripture use, and criticize abolitionism as contrary to God’s will:

And nothing is clearer — the New Testament opposes anything like the abolitionism of our country prior to the War Between the States. The New Testament contains many instructions for Christian slave owners, and requires a respectful submissive demeanor for Christian slaves. See, for example, Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-4:1, and 1 Timothy 6:1-5.

Nothing is clearer than the position that abolitionism is unbiblical, they say? For that to be true slavery would have to be mandated by Scripture.  It’s not. Nowhere, never, not at all. Wilson the pastor can’t point to a single mandate. So abolitionists are not violating some clear scriptural command.

Wilson Chooses Words That Are Anything But Clear

Notice too the use of language in that last quote: “the War Between the States” (a phrase used more than once). Elsewhere in the piece they use “peculiar institution”, a euphemism for slavery. This type of word-selection serves to blunt the harsh reality that slavery is one person owning another human being made in the image of God, and people were willing to go to war to stop it.

Wilson and Wilkins deny this, though:

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.

Their position – repeated by slave-apologists like Wilson over and over – is flat-out wrong. The Civil War was about enslaving black people, not states’ rights or economic differences, and certainly not about “the biblical meaning of constitutional government”, a phrase so amorphous as to be devoid of substance and meaning entirely.

The writers take northern leadership to task as being a godless bunch while the southern leaders and foot-soldiers alike are lauded as not only Christian but Evangelical Christians:

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. This is not to say there were no Christians in the North, or that no believers fought for the North. It is simply the recognition that the drums of war were being beaten by the abolitionists, who were in turn driven by a zealous hatred of the Word of God.

As an aside, it is interesting to note the revival that took place in the Confederate army during the War. It was so widespread that it has been estimated that (with the possible exception of Cromwell’s army) the Confederate Army was the largest body of evangelicals under arms in the history of the world.

John Brown, c. 1856 (Wikipedia)

When they say abolitionists “were driven by a jealous hatred of the Word of God” one wonders if Wilson and Wilkins have ever heard of John Brown, the most famous armed abolitionist in the years just before the war. Brown, who traced his ancestry to the English Puritans and once studied for the ministry, learned of organized abolition in northern churches and from those who preached God’s word. Wilson and Wilkins might not like the conclusions drawn from the Bible by Brown and others, but to say they hated God’s word is a lie.

The Blindness of the Slavery Apologists

Wilson’s and Wilkins’ blindness to the truth of the Civil War is manifest in this statement:

… the South was correct about the central issues of that War … .

What are “the central issues of that War”? Apparently not a notion that slavery is bad, not that American slavery was built on racist principles, nor that slavery gave wealth to whites and impoverished blacks. No, remember that the central issue, according to these authors, is upholding “the biblical meaning of constitutional government.”

They then go on to assert that abolitionists were interfering with godly people doing godly things in their slave ownership:

The abolitionists maintained that slave-owning was inherently immoral under any circumstance. But in this matter, the Christians who owned slaves in the South were on firm scriptural ground.

Here’s where this type of sick thinking leads Wilson and Wilkins:

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.

Slavery as it existed in the South was not an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity. Because of its dominantly patriarchal character, it was a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence. There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world.

So slaves knew their place and it was a good place to be in, according to Wilson and Wilkins. Notice how they bring patriarchy into it in that quote, too: slavery was beneficial because it was patriarchal. Wilson can’t help but see everything as better when it’s patriarchal because that’s his doctrine for modern families and the church at large as well. And according to him, the patriarchal American slave owners practically had a duty to buy slaves stolen from Africa because they’d be treated so poorly if they went to Caribbean plantations.

Wilson and Wilkins even argue that life got worse, not better, for freed slaves after the Civil War:

Gordon, whipped in 1863. I bet he didn’t think he was better off before the Civil War ended. (Wikimedia.)

After the death of the Old American Republic, the nation created by the new revolutionaries became a nightmare for the newly-freed black men and women. The laws which were ostensibly passed to help them were used more and more to exclude them from the privileges they once enjoyed under the restricted freedom of slavery.

I wonder if those two men would willingly trade places with a 19th century slave in that “Old American Republic”. I wonder if they’d put their families in that slavery and allow the slave owner to sell their children to far off plantations, perhaps even separating Wilson or Wilkins from their wives.

Let’s see how much mutual affection they’d have with their slave owners then.

***

[Update: A friend on Facebook linked this critique of Southern Slavery As It Was. Two historians wrote a scholarly point by point analysis of the monograph and I recommend it as being well reasoned and completely readable even for us non-historians.]

***

*I usually wouldn’t bother debunking Wilson’s nonsense. After all, you can find more scholarly refutations of his position with a mere Google search. The reason I write pertains to the church: Wilson has an inexplicably large influence in conservative reformed circles, and leaders in that movement are just as inexplicably giving him credence as a fellow leader. The more people are aware of his horrendous teachings, the less likely they will see him as a leader.

**Wilson reissued his book with some revisions in his collection of essays entitled Black and Tan, and continues to defend his position.

***

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47 Responses to Douglas Wilson Says Slavery Was Good For America’s Blacks

  1. lauradroege says:

    Truly sickening teaching. Why are some people in the conservative reformed circles so tolerant of this? I mean, all I have to do is read Frederick Douglas’ autobiography to know that his description of slavery is wrong. Is it because the patriarchal ideas are attractive somehow?

    • Tim says:

      It truly is inexplicable to me, Laura. I can’t figure out why they elevate him as a fellow leader when they should be warning people off him due to his nonsensical teachings.

  2. stephanielynn75 says:

    I really can’t wrap my mind around the kind of thinking which would not only approve of the enslavement of another human being, but would ardently defend the right to do so and say that it is the will of God. To cloak the horrors of any kind of slavery in religious garb, to attempt to make it more palatable by quoting scripture to defend such an affront to all that is good, is nothing other than disgusting. It is profoundly disturbing to me that the horrors of slavery has apologists ready to jump to its defense, and that those people would all too happily embrace a turning back of time which would once again make minorities, particularly African Americans, subject to their white heterosexual male authority. It’s sickening. And there is nothing Jesusy about it whatsoever.

    I wonder if these same men would speak out against the modern-day slavery running rampant the world over, or if they would agree with those who think this is the natural order of things, and we are all better off for modern-day slavery because it provides food and shelter for the slaves, and pleasures and convenience for those who benefit from the slave labor. I’d really love to read their take on modern-day slavery, juxtaposed against all their nuggets of wisdom concerning Civil War era slavery.

    • Tim says:

      I’ve wondered the same thing. Do their positions hold for what is going on today? And would they hold those positions if it were their own children being held as slaves?

      I like the way you put it, Steph. There is nothing in Wilson’s position that is Jesusy at all.

  3. Bronwyn Lea says:

    Good grief!! The mind boggles.

    • Tim says:

      Doesn’t it though? And the man is considered by folks like John Piper to be a leader in conservative Reformed thought in America. I think those other leaders are for some reason blind to Wilson’s nonsense, and how his teachings actually undermine the gospel message. Wilson is dangerous, not edifying.

      • Bronwyn Lea says:

        One can only think that Piper et al are indulging in selective hearing/reading from him.

        • Tim says:

          They are willfully ignoring his extensive track record of undercutting the gospel. When Wilson misrepresents history – and in the company of a person with Wilkins’ agenda no less – it is clear that he is not a person who meets the standards of 1 Timothy and Titus for leadership in the church. Piper and others are willing to say he is, though, and that means their own judgment is called into question.

  4. Jeannie says:

    Thanks for this detailed critique, Tim. As I read your quotes from Wilson I had to keep reminding myself that his essay was written 20 years ago — not 120. If it was the latter, we could delude ourselves into thinking “Thank goodness THAT attitude’s past” (and perhaps into thinking slavery is past too). The fact that a contemporary theologian seems so blind on an issue that still plagues our planet today, is kind of scary.

    • Tim says:

      He reissued it less than 10 years ago under the new title I mentioned above, then defended it as recently as 2013 in the link I put in at the very end of the post. The man is dangerous and should not be invited to speak at events such as the Desiring God Conference (the link in my response to Bronwyn’s comment describes that whole issue from back in 2009), yet people in that segment of reformed theology seem to be enamored of him.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        …yet people in that segment of reformed theology seem to be enamored of him.

        Purity of Ideology excuses and justifies everything, Comrade.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Sight becomes very selective when you’re the one who would personally benefit from the arrangement.

  5. janehinrichs says:

    Awful. We humans …..well, God loves us all! That is amazing! We can convince ourselves absolutely anything is right if we try hard enough. Granted, I am sure there were some real relationships and affection between slaves and their owners but I would say that was rare not typical. The Help is a great movie — have you seen it? Not about slavery but about segregation in the south and what it does and ….anyway, off topic!

    Thanks TIm for this.

    I wrote about submission today — it kind of goes with yours here in a sense that often we blindly accept attitudes and beliefs that are just flat out wrong.

  6. I am astounded, astounded and sickened. Thank you, Tim, for making us aware that such egregious theology exists in our country… heck, in my state! Such erroneous, destructive “teaching” must be combated.

    • Tim says:

      Now that you know, you can inform friends who might mention Wilson as someone they’ve heard of and wondered if his church is worth visiting. Short answer: No. Longer answer: Not on your life.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I assume his “Kirk” up in Idaho is all-white?

        • Tim says:

          I would be surprised, actually. His practice does not appear to refuse to associate with people of color. He just has odd doctrinal ideas on slavery along with a horrible grasp of American history.

  7. You summed it up the way I would have, trade places and see if you feel the same. Most of the time the oppressor finds nothing wrong with those they are oppressing, They think they are superior in some way which is why they think the oppressing is “helping the oppressors out” Any blog on Sterling coming Tim……

    • Tim says:

      Good points, Rodney. Wilson is explicit that he thinks the slave buyers were helping out the slaves by keeping them from being shipped to the West Indies plantations. He justifies this as part of the unbiblical patriarchy he is so enamored with.

      Sterling? No, I avoid matters that may end up in the courts, as the canons of ethics prohibit public commentary by judges on current cases (or what may soon become current cases).

  8. Angie says:

    Wilson & Wilkins: “…exclude [former slaves] from privileges they once enjoyed under the restricted freedom of slavery.” Privileges of slavery? Freedom of slavery?

    Thank you for drawing attention to this and in particular the crafty use of words. Also, patriarchalists like Wilson, et al use euphemisms and Orwellian Double-speak when they speak of the hierarchy of men and women, husbands and wives.

    Like you, when I read this kind of stuff, it makes me ill.

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  10. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    I wonder if those two men would willingly trade places with a 19th century slave in that “Old American Republic”. I wonder if they’d put their families in that slavery and allow the slave owner to sell their children to far off plantations, perhaps even separating Wilson or Wilkins from their wives.

    Let’s see how much mutual affection they’d have with their slave owners then.


    Never happen. Wilson sees himself as The Elect, on the veranda of his Plantation House, sipping his mint julep while his daughters glide around in hoopskirts, being waited on by the houseservants/”animate property”. (Doesn’t the 200-year-plan to establish Christian America plan for “your family’s estates and houseservants”?)

    Holding the Whip instead of Feeling the Whip. Like that neo-Nazi I encountered in college; when someone divides humanity into Master Race and Subhuman, guess which category he always puts himself into.

    (Why am I reminded of the “Your Name is Toby!” scene from Roots, where Kunta Kinte’s owner is “studying Scripture” in the Big House while his overseer almost whips Kunta Kinte to death?)

    • Tim says:

      Roots came to my mind too, HUG. And like you, as I read Wilson’s piece I got the impression he saw himself as one of the good guys if he had been a plantation owner in the antebellum south, a benevolent slave owner who would provide blessing upon blessing for his slaves. I did not get the impression he was imagining himself in the role of one of the “blessed” slaves.

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  14. Anonymous2 says:

    Highlights from Doug Wilson’s book:

    “Slavery as it existed in the South … was a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence,” the excerpts read in part. “There has never been a multiracial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world. …

    “Slave life was to them [slaves] a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, of food, clothes, and good medical care.”

    This Southern Poverty Law Center article gives a bit of background about Mr. Wilson.
    http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2004/spring/taliban-on-the-palouse

    • Tim says:

      Mr. Wilson’s writings are slavery apologetics, nothing less. Racist too. I bet he’d never think that his family being enslaved in the 19th Century American south and then separated through slave sales would be good for them.

  15. aaron says:

    Read the whole book…you’re wasting everyone’s time

    • Tim says:

      My post here is based on what he wrote in Slavery As It Was, the monograph I link toward the start. I read the entire monograph and it is fairly represented in this post.

  16. its truly mythical thinking really….

  17. Crystal says:

    I AGREE WITH YOU TIM. THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS! DOUG WILSON DISGUSTS ME, AND MARK DRISCOLL, AND THE WHOLE SHEBANG OF HATEFUL, SELF-CENTERED BLOKES AND GALS WHO WANT NOTHING MORE THAN TO MAKE THE WORLD INTO THEIR VILE VERSION OF GEORGE ORWELL’S 1984. ORWELL WOULD CALL THIS STUFF DOUBLETHINK, NEWSPEAK, AND BLACKWHITE. ANYONE WHO HASN’T READ THAT BOOK – READ IT SO YOU REALLY SEE WHAT’S HAPPENING IN OUR WORLD!!!!!!!!

  18. reactionary1 says:

    While I was in the church I once belonged to, I heard often that black people were slaves because they really weren’t all that smart, that they were not capable of governing themselves, that they were the ones to blame because they had slaves before the white slavers existed and that all the songs about the promised land etc did not refer to freedom but only to heaven because they knew what was really best for them. This was not from the pulpit but it was the private view of many men who spoke from that pulpit. Frighteningly, these people are not the rare freaks they should be.

  19. Pastor Bob says:

    Trying to find the words for this like looking for a toothpick in a haystack.
    Allegory will have to do:
    -The Flat Earth Society exists today.
    -There are those who believe that man NEVER went to the Moon.

    Only shred of useful data is the causes of the Civil War were many, all of the referenced issues were important (lifestyles, weaker Federal Government), but the main ingredient and the flash source was slavery. One non-slave state joined the Confederacy, one salve state was in the Union.

    But the first cannot be ignored. Long live the rights this person has exercised, let those who really know pray for him (them?) to recognize the errors of their ways and fix the damage that has been done.

    *sigh …….

  20. The Church (at least in the western world) is in the same place now with gender equality now as it was with slavery in the 19th century. As an advocate for gender equality in the church and in relationships, I find myself in the same position that the abolitionists found themselves in the mid 1800’s. It may or may not happen in my lifetime, but I believe one day the Church will look upon complimentarianism the same way we view slavery today.

    • Tim says:

      Agreed. Although not all comps fall into the category, Clarke, the arguments put forth in favor of slavery are strikingly familiar when compared to some justifications I’ve read for complementarian doctrine. Wilson’s insistence on seeing benevolence in patriarchy wherever he can – slavery or gender inequality – is one example of it.

  21. PEARL says:

    Since men could help themselves sexually to slaves in the Bible, does that mean he and his sons would be down in the slave’s quarters at night helping themselves to their “property”? Would they sell the results of their actions off to the brothels so no one would know? Read the slaves’ commentaries in their own words. They would rather die than go back to slavery. If “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” could immediately come to pass after your action, would you beat another person, rape someone? These men see it from a long way off and never happening to them. If they were overtaken in the night by a country or religious belief system that employed slavery as a way to subjugate their enemies, both male and female, boy or girl would they so glibly say it was a mutually affectionate relationship? Not on their life. They would beg to be killed and their loved ones too to prevent it. R.L. Dabney a “c”hristian in those days said that slaves were inhuman and needed to be enslaved.

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