Given our current state of race relations, the whole question of what exactly constitutes racism, and the (it seems to me) current tendency to judge figures from the past (Andrew Jackson, Robert E. Lee, et al) by the standards of the hyper-present, it may be profitable to recall that the particular Christian brotherhood in which I minister (The Restoration Movement) was born just prior to the Civil War and grew to a national movement in the shadow of that conflict. Thus, the questions of race relations and slavery were woven deep into the fabric of the movement. I will do my best here to consider the good, the bad and the ugly and perhaps we will understand the past a little better and in so doing, understand ourselves better as well.
The primary leaders in the founding of the Restoration Movement were Thomas and Alexander Campbell (father and son) and Barton W. Stone. And, of course, all three men had definite opinions.
In 1801 Barton W. Stone freed the one slave he owned – a slave inherited along with a small farm. As Stone preached his message of religious freedom (A Christianity free from the conventions of society and denominational hierarchy, guided by the Bible, particularly the New Testament, alone) he urged all who heard his message to follow his example and free their slaves. He saw slavery as another of the many societal conventions which were at odds with the teachings of Christ and the apostles. To use Stone’s own language – Slavery does not harmonize with the principles of the kingdom. We view the period, not far distant, when African slavery shall no more be known in our happy country – when mercy and truth shall meet together and righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Still, Stone’s views would not pass the test of political correctness today. It is uncertain whether Stone had a low view of the character of the African slaves or whether he thought the situation had simply been rendered impossible by the cruelty of our national circumstances, but he did not believe the slaves could be successfully integrated into American society. He favored an organized Federal program to free the slaves and return them (if they could or would not return to their native tribes) to a colony to be founded for the purpose in Africa. There was this difference from today – the arrival of the slaves from Africa was much more recent. The idea was also favored by Andrew Jackson, James Monroe, and others. In fact, something on the order was tried though it was managed by a private foundation rather than the federal government. Research the American Colonization Society. The first group of slaves were taken by ship to a strip of land purchased in Sierra Leone in 1820. There were also several black led ‘Back to Africa’ movements. But the vast majority of the freed slaves wanted to stay here.
Again, whether from a low view of slave character or a despairing view of the situation is unknown, but Stone’s views on the subject were so strong he vowed that if the slaves were freed to live among the general population of America he would quickly move somewhere else to be beyond their reach. This statement prompts many to think Stone’s chief fear was that freed slaves would seek vengeance on their former oppressors.
As it turned out, Stone did not move to another country or move on account of freed slaves at large in society. After some years of being frustrated that the vast majority of his southern Christian brothers would not free their slaves, and dealing with the backlash of being considered an abolitionist trouble maker, he moved to Illinois to escape that tension – in other words, not to escape freed slaves but to escape intransigent white slave owners.
Thomas Campbell, operating a little ahead of Stone but in the same locale (Kentucky) organized special religious services and Sunday School classes for slaves. He was quickly confronted by the white members of his congregation and the larger community and informed that it was illegal to educate slaves except in the presence of several white witnesses to make sure rebellion was not being fomented. Campbell protested that surely such societal shackles were not intended to be placed on the simple teaching of the gospel. He was sternly told otherwise. Warned of penalty to come if he did not discontinue the slave services, Campbell moved to Pennsylvania where (he thought – another story) he could “teach all men freely”.
Following several other adventures, Thomas and his now adult son, Alexander settled in Bethany, VA – around 1811. Alexander, like Stone a decade earlier, inherited slaves (several) along with a large farm from his father in law. Campbell immediately freed the slaves, gave each family a little property and educated any who wished in his own school, alongside his own children. Campbell also thought the Federal Government should organize and fund a program to free and return all the slaves to Africa – but that was, he thought, the government’s job. These freed slaves were here and he would do what he could.
In 1829 Campbell became a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention. He had two connected aims – to prevent the split of Virginia and West Virginia and to advocate for the Abolition of slavery. In both cases, he wished more than anything else to prevent the Civil War which even then he saw as a distinct possibility. Incidentally, both his aims for the convention and his desire to prevent the war were epic failures.
In 1830 Campbell began to shape his appeal against slavery in the terms for which he has become famous/infamous – Enlightened White Self Interest. Campbell, though against slavery was also against radical or militant abolitionist views. Consider a few of his published quotations.
Slavery is … The largest and blackest blot upon our national escutcheon, that many headed monster, that pandora’s box, that bitter root, that blighting and blasting curse under which so fair and so large a portion of our beloved country groans.
As sure as the Ohio winds its way to the gulph(sic) of Mexico will slavery desolate and blast our political existence unless effectual measures be adopted to bring it to a close while it is still in the nation’s power to do so.
Regarding radical/militant abolition – It shall only be realized in the light of burning palaces, cities and temples amidst the roar of cannon, the clangor of trumpets, the shrieks of the dying, the horrid din and clash of a broken confederacy and the agonizing throes of the last and best republics on earth.
Back to Enlightened White Self Interest – Campbell taught and wrote that slave holders were, themselves, slaves to the system of slavery. Often linking the idea to Romans 6:16, Campbell pictured slavery as a societal system which actually reduced innovation, restricted the economy, and held slave holders back. Apart from the immediate economic shortfalls of slavery, Campbell taught that slave states had to spend an inordinate amount of time and resources on legislation to prop up their failing system – an effort which must ultimately be in vain. In all these ways and others, Campbell appealed to white slave owners to give up slavery for their own sake and for the sake of increased prosperity which, he assured them, would follow.
Campbell’s primary proposal was for the government to set aside about $15,000,000 per year for a few years, the money to be used to reimburse white slave owners the calculated value of any slaves they freed and pay the way for the freed slaves to return to Africa. Campbell predicted that by the end of the three to four years, slavery would have vanished and the wounds be healed for $45,000,000 to $60,000,000 – a tiny fraction of what an otherwise coming war would cost the nation.
Whether or not one agrees with the practicality of Campbell’s proposed solution, the main problem people have with him today is that he appealed only to ‘enlightened white self-interest’ and never spoke (publicly anyway) of the tragedy of slavery for the slaves. It was just that all those poor white slave owners were cheating themselves!
Many argue that Campbell did feel the horror of slavery for enslaved blacks but that his public campaign was directed to those he thought capable of solving the problem and framed so as to give those who could solve it the motivation to do so. Certainly, the way Campbell treated his own inherited slaves may back that narrative. And Campbell did give this one other hint – he taught that radical abolitionists missed exactly one half of the point in that they loved the slaves but hated the slave owners, many of whom were culturally trapped in their flawed position. Beyond that, Campbell is not here to defend himself. And, at any rate, his efforts failed and the Civil War happened,
By 1845, Restoration Movement churches existed in several states but were splintered along with the rest of the nation. Congregations in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania tended toward radical/militant abolition. Congregations in states further south tended to be pro-slavery (more on that in a moment). Campbell and the cluster of congregations in Virginia tried to walk the middle path he had laid out.
As to those pro-slavery southern congregations, a minister by name of James Shannon was the most outspoken leader, defending slavery on the basis of Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 2:22-4:1 and the book of Philemon. What Shannon never asked (out loud) was whether there was a difference between presenting a moral justification of slavery and giving spiritual rather than political advice to unfortunates who found themselves trapped in slavery as a condition of the fallen world rather than the kingdom of God.
As with every time and every human movement, there was right and wrong – things wisely understood and things sadly missed. Many of today’s sages would be surprised if they knew how they will be judged by the standards of days to come. For myself, I choose to appreciate the wisdom and compassion of men like Campbell while understanding that they were men of another time, shaped by and dealing with a culture vastly different than our own.