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Thursday, April 30, 2009

American Christianity and the American Slave, part 3

(See part 1 and part 2.)

Frederick Douglass was quite correct to condemn this twisting of Christ and the Bible to justify slavery in America.

The wider Christian church in America tore itself over slavery, particularly the Methodist church, which split in two over slavery in the 1840s. And Christians formed the backbone of the abolitionist movement. The Second Great Awakening was occurring about this time, which helped fuel the northern Christian response to slavery.

Yet Douglass could not countenance the hypocrisy of a nation and a church that allowed—and even celebrated—slavery. Douglass wrote in the appendix to his Narrative, perhaps thinking in the back of his mind that there was no brotherly affection among believers or forgiveness as displayed in the book of Philemon, that:

“I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation.

“He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families, –sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, – leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate.”

Douglass is absolutely right. Like a televangelist who rages against adultery while privately having an affair, or the TV preacher who lives a life of luxury while calling his flock to a life of piety, the slave owners and their enablers talked out of both sides of their mouths. “Marriage is sacred!—but we’re going to sell your wife to a plantation in Alabama.” “Work is holy writ!—but you’ll never see a penny from your labors.”

Douglass continues:

“We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the POOR HEATHEN! ALL FOR THE GLORY OF GOD AND THE GOOD OF SOULS! The slave auctioneer's bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other--devils dressed in angels' robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.”

WOW. As I said in part 1, the man could write.

Many atheists today attempt to claim Douglass as one of their own. But they’re completely mistaken. Douglass believed in Christ, believed in God, believed in what the Bible really said. He rejected how the church existed in America, Scotland, England, etc.—everywhere pious men preached love on Sunday and gathered funds the rest of the week to further slavery, whether through building a church with profits gained from slavery, or robbing a man (a slave) of his just compensation. He couldn’t stomach the hypocrisy, and it made him turn from organized religion—not from God.

Frederick Douglass rightly criticized—repeatedly—Americanized Christianity for its complicity in modern slavery. In the North Star (and later incarnations of his newspaper), in letters and before audiences in America and Great Britain, he pilloried the incongruities and outright hypocrisies of the mainstream churches, and urged people to not give their earthly treasure to support churches that propped up slavery.

The condemnation of Americanized Christianity leaves one feeling dirty and ashamed. Douglass’ words reminds me of the afore-mentioned John MacArthur, one of the strongest of the modern preachers who continually warns about the dangers of Americanized Christianity with its easy believe-ism, prosperity gospel, unbiblical “word of faith” nonsense and the incredible false teaching that has infested American churches.

I’ve never sat in a pew as a slave while the slave master who told me to seek Christ on Sunday applied the whip to me Monday through Saturday. Yet, I can at least appreciate the anger Douglass acquired at the phoniness and hypocrisy of the church in America, and his longing for pure Christianity. It’s easy for me to sit here in 2009 and argue that Douglass and other slaves who believed in God should have listened to Paul more than Moses. I doubt I would have had the fortitude to bow to Caesar while he continually sought to make me less than human.

I am a Bible-believing Christian, and I despair at the twisting of the Word of God by today’s false teachers, phony “prophets” and “faith healers” who prey on desperate people, fatten their own wallets and lead people down the wide road to destruction. But I thank God my challenges were not what the American slave faced.

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