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The Bible as Engine of Extremism, Continued

In my previous post on “Southern Slavery As It Was”, I cited two modern-day Christian pastors who claim that black slavery was a positive and beneficial institution. To throw some cold water on their rosy claims, in this post we’ll hear from a person with firsthand experience of it: Frederick Douglass, the great American abolitionist and orator who himself escaped from bondage and later chronicled his experiences. I’ll cite passages from Wilson and Wilkins’ book asserting the gentle and benevolent character of slavery, and then quote a corresponding passage from Douglass’ autobiography. Be warned, some of these are hard to read:

“In the first place slavery, as it existed in the South, was patriarchal in its character; the slaves (servants, as we called them) were regarded and treated as members of the families to which they severally belonged; with rare exceptions, they were treated with kindness and consideration, and frequently the relations between the slave and his owner, were those of real affection and confidence.”

“He was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood.”

* * *

“The typical slave cabin probably contained more sleeping space per person than was available to most of New York City’s working-class in 1900.”

“The clothing of slaves, though not lavish, was fairly standard for what the average free white man would have had. Many slaves had far better clothes than poor whites.”

“I suffered much from hunger, but much more from cold. In hottest summer and coldest winter, I was kept almost naked — no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt, reaching only to my knees. I had no bed. I must have perished with cold, but that, the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and feet out. My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.”

* * *

“Normally these [tasks] were light enough so that a worker could complete them in three or four hours. His time was his own when his task was done, and it was not uncommon for slaves, in their free time, to work the acres that were uniformly allotted to them by their masters and thereby to accumulate personal property. It was more common for slaves to double up on their work — to do two or even three tasks in a day — and then to take several days off, during which they might travel many miles by horse or boat to visit friends, family, or lovers on other plantations.”

“There were no beds given the slaves, unless one coarse blanket be considered such, and none but the men and women had these. This, however, is not considered a very great privation. They find less difficulty from the want of beds, than from the want of time to sleep; for when their day’s work in the field is done, the most of them having their washing, mending, and cooking to do, and having few or none of the ordinary facilities for doing either of these, very many of their sleeping hours are consumed in preparing for the field the coming day; and when this is done, old and young, male and female, married and single, drop down side by side, on one common bed,—the cold, damp floor,—each covering himself or herself with their miserable blankets; and here they sleep till they are summoned to the field by the driver’s horn.”

* * *

“The belief that the typical slave was poorly fed is without foundation in fact. There was no deficiency in the amount of meat allotted to slaves. On average, they consumed six ounces of meat per day, just an ounce less than the average quantity of meat consumed by the free population. The high consumption of meat, sweet potatoes, and peas made the slave diet not only adequate, but it actually exceeded modern recommended daily levels of the chief nutrients.”

“We were not regularly allowanced. Our food was coarse corn meal boiled. This was called MUSH. It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oyster-shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons. He that ate fastest got most; he that was strongest secured the best place; and few left the trough satisfied.”

* * *

Now, I grant that Douglass’ testimony, however stomach-turning, is only one person’s experience. I have no doubt that Wilson and Wilkins would argue that he must have been unusually unlucky, to pass through a succession of cruel masters who were far from the norm. But any argument that most masters treated their slaves well is implausible on its face.

Why, for example, would a slaveowner give a slave only three or four hours of work per day? If they worked longer, the slaveowner would make more money, at no additional cost. What incentive would he have to give his slaves any more than the cheapest and most minimal diet necessary to keep them alive? It wasn’t as if slaves who were dissatisfied with their working conditions could leave and seek employment elsewhere. And when one person has the power to physically beat, torture and even kill another at his whim, how can that ever be the basis for a relationship of genuine love and affection?

People who are granted arbitrary and unchecked power will abuse it. To argue that slavery is benevolent, Christians must deny this clear truth of human nature, and not just in the case of a few exceptional saints, but on a massive, industrial scale. And there’s one more point that shouldn’t be passed up. Wilson and Wilkins claim not to be racist, but there’s a Mount Everest-sized point they try to tiptoe around: if slavery was so beneficial, why were only black people enslaved? Shouldn’t the wonderful benefits of slavery have been extended to white people as well? This is a point they never even glance at throughout their entire essay.

The reason I chose to write about this is not because I believe that Wilson and Wilkins represent anything like the mainstream of Christian thought, but precisely because they don’t. And the reason they’re so far from the mainstream is that they, unlike the vast majority of Christians, actually take the Bible literally and listen to what it says. Most Christians, thankfully, have absorbed the ethical and humanistic arguments against slavery, and either haven’t read or have learned to gloss over the dark and disturbing parts of their text. But those parts are still there; and as long as we hail the Bible as a sacred book, even if we treat it non-literally, there will always be those who rediscover and attempt to resurrect them. Christianity and the other major religions of the world drag this unsavory history of violence with them, and as long as they exert so much power, the evils of the past can never be fully banished.

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