The Contrast of Abolitionist Versus Providential Views - Part 5 of a series of 10
On February 4, 1863, the famous abolitionist attorney and orator, Wendell Phillips, made this remarkable declaration from the pulpit of Henry Ward Beecher’s huge Plymouth Church in Brooklyn:
“I do not believe there will be any peace until 347,000 men of the South are either hanged or exiled.”
The crowd cheered. Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was himself one of the most famous abolitionists and sought-after speakers in America. Henry Beecher was also known for raising money to send Sharps rifles to abolitionists fighting in Kansas and Nebraska—known as “Beecher’s Bibles.”
After the War, Beecher endorsed the theories of Charles Darwin as compatible with Christianity. Both Wendell Phillips and Henry Ward Beecher were admirers of the murderous Bible-quoting abolitionist fanatic John Brown. Rev. H. D. King once talked with Brown about his religious beliefs, which Brown summarized as “anti-slavery” rather than Christian.
On April 22, 1863, ninety-five Southern pastors representing all the principal Protestant denominations signed and published “An Appeal of Southern clergymen to Christians throughout the world.” It was initially published in Richmond but also appeared in other periodicals in the South, England, and Scotland, including the Edinburgh Review. Here is a slightly abbreviated portion of this document:
“We are aware that in respect to the moral aspects of the question of slavery, we differ from those who conceive of emancipation as a measure of benevolence, and on that account we suffer much reproach which we are conscious of not deserving.”
“With all the facts of the system of slavery before us, as eye witnesses and ministers of the word--- we may surely claim respect for our opinions and statements.”
“Most of us have grown up from childhood among the slaves; all of us have preached to and taught them the word of life; have administered to them the ordinances of the Christian Church; sincerely love them as souls for whom Christ died; we go among them freely and know them in health and sickness, in labor and rest, from infancy to old age. We are familiar with their physical and moral condition, and alive to all their interests, and we testify in the sight of God, that the relation of master and slave among us, however we may deplore abuses in this, as in other relations of mankind, is not incompatible with our holy Christianity, and that the presence of the African in our land is an occasion of gratitude on their behalf, before God; seeing that thereby Divine Providence has brought them where missionaries of the Cross may freely proclaim to them the word of salvation, and the work is not interrupted by agitating fanaticism. The South has done more than any people on earth for the Christianization of the African race. The condition of slaves here is not wretched, as Northern fictions would have men believe, but prosperous and happy, and would have been yet more so but for the mistaken zeal of abolitionists. Can emancipation obtain for them a better portion? The practicable plan for benefiting the African race must be the providential plan—the scriptural plan. We adopt that plan in the South, and while the State should seek by wholesome legislation to regard the interests of master and slave, we as ministers would preach the word to both as we are commanded of God. This war has not benefited the slaves…”
“We regard abolitionism as an interference with the plans of Divine Providence. It has not the sign of the Lord’s blessing. It is a fanaticism which puts forth no good fruit; instead of blessing, it has brought forth cursing; instead of love, hatred; instead of life, death—bitterness and sorrow and pain and infidelity and moral degeneracy follow its labors We remember how the Apostle [Paul] has taught the minister of Jesus [Timothy, Bishop of Ephesus] upon this subject, saying [1 Timothy 6:1-5], ‘Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, that the name of God and his doctrine not be blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit. These things teach and exhort. If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, heresies, disputing of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness; from such withdraw thyself’ This is what we teach.”
It is important for our understanding of the slavery issue to understand the extremely important Christian doctrine of Providence. A whole Chapter of the Westminster Confession of 1646 is devoted to it, but I offer a few brief modern quotes for the readers’ understanding.
“God’s providence is the unceasing activity of the Creator whereby, in overflowing bounty and goodwill, He upholds His creatures in ordered existence, guides, and governs all events, circumstances, and free acts of angels and men, and directs everything to its appointed goal, for His own glory.”—J. I. Packer
“Nothing is too large or small to escape God’s governing hand. The spider building its web in the corner and Napoleon marching his army across Europe are both under God’s control.”—Jerry Bridges
“As God’s rule is incomprehensible, so is it invincible. His throne is not moved. He breaks through all resistance, and makes the universe servant to the coming of his kingdom. The rule of God is the gladness of his people.”—G. C. Berkouwer
“God is the cause of causes.”—Christopher Nesse
Earlier, in the 16th century, John Calvin had summarized the comprehensive and proactive character of God’s rule: “There is no such thing as fortune or chance.”
The huge differences between the Providential view of slavery and the radical abolitionist view of slavery were in timing and the use of violence. The radical abolitionists wanted immediate emancipation of all slaves regardless of the consequences to slaves, masters, or the impact on society. Moreover, they believed initiating aggressive violence was justified to achieve their goal. They were characterized by violence and a lack of moral and practical wisdom. Rejecting the wisdom of Scripture, they had exalted the wisdom of their own imaginations and were carried away with delusions and false doctrines.
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets; the evangelists; the shepherds, and teachers to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God , to mature manhood, to measure the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children tossed to and from by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
The Providential view of slavery was also held by Northern clergy who also stood fast for the Authority of Scripture. The Irish-born Episcopal Bishop of Vermont, J. H. Hopkins, was for the eventual abolition of slavery, which he believed would come by gradual, just, and kindly means and persuasion through divine Providence. He rejected “ultra-abolitionism” because it was contrary and hostile to Scripture, divine authority, the Church, the best interests of the slaves themselves, and the safety and prosperity of the country. He considered the wild unscriptural heresy that slaveholders and masters were per se guilty of sin and deserving of rejection, violence, and punishment utterly abhorrent to the principles of Christianity and the Constitution. He thus defended the appeal of Southern pastors for understanding, knowing that the way of truth is not a path to popularity.