Slavery and Sin: The Fight against Slavery and the Rise of Liberal Protestantism

Slavery and Sin: The Fight against Slavery and the Rise of Liberal Protestantism

Slavery and Sin: The Fight against Slavery and the Rise of Liberal Protestantism

Slavery and Sin: The Fight against Slavery and the Rise of Liberal Protestantism

Synopsis

In this groundbreaking examination of the antislavery origins of liberal Protestantism, Molly Oshatz contends that the antebellum slavery debates forced antislavery Protestants to adopt an historicist understanding of truth and morality. Unlike earlier debates over slavery, in antebellum America the key question was whether slavery was a sin in the abstract. Unable to use the letter of the Bible to answer the claim that slavery was not a sin in and of itself, antislavery Protestants argued that biblical principles requiredopposition to slavery and that God revealed slavery's sinfulness through the gradual unfolding of these principles. Although they believed that slavery was a sin, antislavery Protestants' sympathy for individual slaveholders and their knowledge of the Bible made them reluctant to denounce allslaveholders as sinners. In order to reconcile slavery's sinfulness with their commitments to the Bible and to the Union, antislavery Protestants defined slavery as a social rather than an individual sin. Oshatz demonstrates that the antislavery notions of progressive revelation and social sin hadradical implications for Protestant theology. Oshatz carries her study through the Civil War to reveal how emancipation confirmed for northern Protestants the notion that God revealed His will through history. She reveals how, after the war, a new generation of liberal theologians drew on this experience to respond to evolution and historicalbiblical criticism. Slavery and Sin provides critical insight into how the theological innovations rooted in the slavery debates came to fruition in liberal Protestantism's acceptance of the historical and evolutionary nature of religious truth.

Excerpt

Before the late eighteenth century, it was generally recognized that slavery was a bad thing—for the slave. Like disease, loss in warfare, or early death, it was thought of mostly as a variety of poor fortune. There were worse and better masters, worse and better places to be enslaved, but only a very few considered that the institution, in all cases, was not just bad, but wrong, evil. Although this change in mind-set certainly came too slowly for the victims of slavery, it was an extraordinarily rapid process. Less than fifty years after the colonies had seen the first stirrings of an abolitionist movement among Pennsylvania Quakers, every Northern state had committed itself to abolition. Rarely has the perceived nature of a social institution changed so dramatically and so rapidly. Not only perceptions of slavery, but slavery itself, had changed, becoming an inherited condition based firmly in racial inequality. In a society that had dedicated itself to political equality, modern slavery stood out in stark relief. By the time of the Civil War, what a few isolated radicals first proclaimed in the eighteenth century—that slavery was a sin—had become for vast numbers of Northern Protestants an obvious statement of moral fact. Once an accepted social institution, slavery had become a moral horror.

American antislavery advocates were also impressed by the rapidity of this process, which they took as evidence of the providential progress of mankind in their time. Otherwise they were hard pressed to explain how an institution taken for granted from biblical times until less than a hundred years ago was now seen to be wrong. Yet this explanation raised troubling questions in a society dominated by evangelical Protestantism and still very much divided over the issue of slavery. The Bible revealed a God who sanctioned Hebrew slavery in the Old Testament, and, in the person of Christ, refused to denounce Roman slavery in the New. How to explain the conflict of conscience with scripture? Moreover, how could God sanction something in his revelation, but forbid it now? And, finally, if slavery was so obviously wrong, why did slaveholding Christians not perceive its sinfulness?

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