Machen Did Not Own Slaves

But Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles Hodge and Ben Franklin did.

Philip Jenkins helps us cope:

we need to recall that prior to quite modern times – the mid-eighteenth century, say, mainly after 1770 – campaigns against slavery as an institution are sporadic, scarce, and deeply ambiguous. In the Roman world, for instance, anyone who could afford to own slaves did so without qualms. That included the holders of vast landed estates, but also quite small time people whom we might think of as lower middle class. The overwhelming majority of people who left writings that survive into later times were of the class that owned slaves, even if we can’t point to individuals and definitely assert that they did so. Among other people, that statement includes most of the prominent Christians that we know before (say) the sixth century, and most of the Fathers. If we can’t clearly show that a particular individual in that era did not own slaves, then we should assume that they did. . . .

If that statement sounds controversial, let me elaborate. Delving into Patristic literature produces quite a few sentiments that appear hostile to slave holding or the slave trade. But before reading these through the lens of Victorian-era abolitionism, we need to consider other possible interpretations. Generally, such ancient comments demand a humane and decent approach to slavery, rather than its abolition, or the construction of a slave-free society.

Early Christians advocated plenty of things that would, if implemented, have vastly improved the conditions of slaves. Very, very, few advocated the ending of slavery, or even conceived of such a world, except in an apocalyptic or messianic context. Nor do we have much idea of how widely, if at all, such specific recommendations were out into effect.

Now, we can point out here that slavery in the ancient Mediterranean world was a very different animal from what existed in the Early Modern Atlantic, and that boundaries between slave and free were much more permeable. Ancient slaves were likely to gain freedom in various ways, and had a great deal of latitude to operate on a fairly independent level. But slaves they were. Should we avoid commemorating or celebrating any ancient thinkers or writers who lived in slave societies, and who presumably participated in that slavery system? Which as I say, was basically all advanced societies in that era.

The same comment about the pervasive impact of slavery would also apply to (for instance) all Islamic societies up to very modern times, and many advanced African communities. The Prophet Muhammad often praised the virtue of liberating slaves, which he cited as an act that gave special pleasure to Allah. We should not read that as a warrant for abolitionism. If we are ever attempted to sidestep Euro-American heroes and heroines and replace them with figures from other civilizations, we would be hard put to avoid slave owners, or people who never thought to confront the slavery they saw all around them.

Either the outrage over the past just started or the outraged need to get out of the history business.