The work of Gospel-centered racial reconciliation presents unique challenges for Christians as they seek both truth and charity. The truth is that Reformed Evangelicalism has a disastrous history regarding the treatment—cultural, ecclesiological, and social—of African Americans. For Reformed Evangelicals, especially those who live in and understandably celebrate cultural distinctives of the American South, this is somewhat difficult, for it requires a number of uncomfortable confrontations. Evangelicals’ racial history is a sad one, but one that ought to be confronted in truth and yes even in charity.
Most southern Presbyterian divines bemoaned the Slave South’s military defeat at Appomattox 151 years ago. Thomas Cary Johnson, a Presbyterian minister and seminary professor, noted that prominent Presbyterian Evangelicals like Robert L. Dabney “loathed” the post-war settlement “with all the strength of an honest man whose very life it was to love the good and hate the wrong, as he saw it.” They despised the very thought of being governed “governed by aliens.” Appomattox was, for that generation of southern Evangelicals, “as the bitterness of death.” Most galling to all were the provisions that granted freedom to enslaved African-Americans—many of whom were good standing in orthodox Protestant churches. Dabney, for his part, saw government by “the semi-civilized freedmen” as infinitely worse than government by the northern armies. 1
But Southern Evangelicals weren’t alone in supporting social and cultural practices that actively marginalized African Americans. Northern Presbyterian luminary Charles Hodge, a passionate supporter of Abraham Lincoln, reacted violently to the egalitarian program of Reconstruction instituted by Radical Republicans in the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination. Hodge privately and publicly supported the virulently racist presidency of Andrew Johnson. In that Fall of 1865, Hodge told a Princeton faculty member, “How wonderfully God has controlled and guided President Johnson.” “Johnson,” Hodge said, “acted with consummate wisdom, and I think his annual message one of the best I ever read. Pennsylvania ought to be ashamed of such a representative as Thaddeus Stevens.” Stevens’ famous insistence on actual equality for African Americans earned him the derision of well-known conservatives across confessional lines.
Hodge’s conservatism led him to declare that before the war he “was equally out of sympathy with the pro-slavery men who regarded the institution divine and to be perpetuated as good in itself.” He was also out of sympathy with abolitionists “who held the holding of slaves to be a sin in itself, to be in every case visited with Christian condemnation and ecclesiastical discipline. He was, on the other hand, in hearty sympathy with the many Southern Christians who strove to follow the will of Christ under the providential conditions He had imposed upon them.” 2
These are uncomfortable truths for tradition-minded Presbyterians, but a truth that is uncomfortable for others is that, while it is easy to demonize Dabney and Hodge for their obviously racist views, both proved to be vitally important to the continuation of the gospel in the United States during the nineteenth century. They maintained orthodoxy during a time when the cultural and intellectual trends were moving in different directions. This was the dilemma of the day— the best men and the worst men could sometimes be the same men.
Southern traditionalists in the Presbyterian Church often rushed to defend southerners as honorable Christians, ignoring the more unpalatable aspects of their support for human bondage. Speaking before a dinner hosted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 2009, Harry L. Reeder III, pastor of one the most prominent Presbyterian churches in Alabama told his audiences that Robert Lee was “probably the most thoughtful, consistent Christian I’ve ever studied other than Jackson. Secondly, he’s obviously a brilliant military commander. Third, his family life was exemplary. He was constantly engaged in his church.” Lee was also, according to Reeder, “ahead of his time in dealing with the slavery issue. He was part of a group (whose) point was the slaves needed to be educated, given marketable skills and property ownership in order to have total assimilation.” Reeder rightly identified Lee as a devout Episcopalian, good father, chaste husband, and observant churchman (who became Evangelical in tone through the influence of his initially more pious wife). 3
But again, the uncomfortable truth is that Lee actively continued maintaining slavery on his wife’s plantation even after his father-in-law’s will stipulated the release of enslaved people at Arlington. Lee allowed his slaves to be whipped, and never enjoyed a reputation for leniency among bound persons in the neighborhood. Lee also felt that the races should be separated and never proposed actual assimilation for African Americans in white southern society. Reeder’s attempt to praise Lee fell short of an accurate reading of historical truth, and moments like this undoubtedly contributed to the continued perception of Reformed Evangelicalism as more or less exclusively white and committed to an adulatory or at least affirmational narrative of the pro-slavery Old South. 4
The alternative to hagiography is to erase men like Dabney and Hodge from history and ignore their place as historical believers altogether. Indeed, this is already happening in some degree. Dabney is rarely, if ever, read in Reformed seminaries today. But by doing this, we forget or ignore that both men were (and will be again) embodied image-bearers baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ. Both men proclaimed Reformed orthodoxy. And both lived lives devoted to worship in word and sacrament. Dabney, far from being a crotchety racist crank, was in fact considered one of the foremost preachers of salvation by grace through faith. He was also grounded in the classical tradition of arts and letters, as is evident by his book, Evangelical Eloquence. Moreover, Dabney stretched the limits of some of the more rigid practices in the southern Old School Presbyterian Church, argued for union with the “New School” Presbyterians, served as a sort of seeker-sensitive minister, wore the label of Evangelical proudly, and proved vital to making Presbyterian orthodoxy available to a largely uneducated audience hitherto attracted to sensational revivalist of often heterodox beliefs. He argued convincingly that the Church should be involved in the work of the kingdom, and he rejected the notion that scripture didn’t speak to social improvement and the amelioration of poverty. 5 Hodge’s reputation is well-known. According to his most recent scholarly biographer, he famously served as an imperfect but important “guardian” of Christian orthodoxy. He is perhaps the greatest of the Princeton divines. 6
As Reformed Evangelicals pursue Gospel Reconciliation, it is imperative that we tell the full truth about the full horrors of southern slavery. Until then, churches will continue to believe a historical fantasy that slavery was a fluke, and not a systemic violation of African Americans’ status as human beings created in the image of the triune God. Appomattox should rightly be celebrated. The Confederate army was constituted to militarily sustaining a state explicitly committed to maintaining enslaved African Americans—many of whom were Christians in good standing in orthodox Protestant churches—in a legal bondage entirely inconsistent with Christian orthopraxy and which often violated Christian sacraments in a blasphemous fashion. Downplaying or ignoring this is no virtue, and God has no interest in hanging hagiographical portraits in our ecclesiastical foyer. Yet God is also not interested in purging the record-books so that we can defend our records as spotless or always on the “right side of history.” We need to own our ancestors, in both appreciation and, when necessary, regret. But they are ours, and we would not be who we are without them. We should learn from them, and we should learn the whole story.
Yes, we should study the mistakes of the past in order to build for the Kingdom. Ignoring our past racial reality marginalizes the real history that has deeply affected and caused real pain to black brothers in sisters, leaving them alienated from the work of the Kingdom. Despite all their sinful racism, Reformed Evangelicals from the past must be loved—yes, loved—in Christian charity. The Lord’s Prayer tells us to pray that the Kingdom of Heaven will come. Christians black and white will be in eternal communion with each other. Young black evangelicals committed to racial reconciliation will inhabit a resurrected realm that includes former white slaveholders. They will, undoubtedly, meet and enjoy perfect communion with each other. And, in a great twist of divine irony, at the Resurrection, it will be the Old South and Confederate Christians who will be utterly uninterested in maintaining the legacy of the Old South or the Confederacy.