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.**
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.
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:
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.