It is unquestionable that Christian leaders of the past have been on both sides of the race issue. Evangelist George Whitfield, though he advocated for the gentle treatment and evangelism of slaves, also lobbied for slavery to be allowed in Georgia, an English colony that had been established “slave-free.”
The antithesis to Whitfield was another great evangelist, Charles Finney. Influenced by his theology, Finney was an abolitionist and saw slavery as an evil of American society that had to be rooted out before Christ’s return. His Rochester revival was the catalyst for a juggernaut of abolitionist activity that spread throughout the North and wouldn’t stop until the Civil War.
Statements or records could be pulled from good men like J. Gresham Machen and John R. Rice that, read in today’s light, sound viciously racist. Yet, these men accomplished great things for the cause of Christ, and worked with people of color throughout their ministries.
We should never try to defend what is indefensible; but when these paradoxes are found, we should give careful thought to the lessons we can learn rather than the judgment we can hurl.
What lessons should Christians today learn from these errors of the past?
We should all be prudent with how we judge the past.
As noted above, good men of the past have been inconsistent as it relates to the Bible and matters of race. These inconsistencies cause many to judge these men (perhaps too harshly). These men deserve a fair hearing with their historical and cultural contexts in view. So much is misconstrued when we do not consider those influences on their lives and words.
How much text have you put out into the world of social media that could be lifted and made to say something you did not intend? What if opinions you hold today are proven to be incorrect or wrong in the future?
If we consider (1) that the men who came before us were good men who happened to be wrong about this, (2) that we have the benefit of historical development and hindsight to reflect on their errors, and that (3) those who come after us will also have the benefit of historical development and hindsight to reflect on us, we can learn to be a little more cautious in our estimation of them (without condoning their wrong).
Furthermore, judging someone from the past based merely on the perspective of today is what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” We should hope that men will not judge us as carelessly as we sometimes judge those who came before us.
We should all be careful that we do not confuse national interests with religious ones.
Applying the previous point, we can see that tying national and religious interests was Whitefield’s downfall on the slavery issue. He was building an orphanage in Georgia (a vital component for evangelism as he saw it), and yet the costs of labor would have “hurt” the British Empire (whose well-being allowed for further evangelism). His solution? Lobby for slave labor!
Of course, Whitefield was wrong to do so. Though you and I might not lobby for slavery, we could very well believe that the success of our country equates to the success of Christianity. German Lutheranism faced the same conflict with the rise of Hitler.
The success of our nation and the success of Christianity are not one and the same. Christianity can and will thrive apart from even our nation’s continued existence.
But what would we be prepared to do “for our country” that we should not do because of our faith? George Whitefield apparently never asked himself that question, but because of his failure, we can learn to.
We should all be thoughtful regarding our own acceptance of cultural norms.
Positions on race held by these men were commonplace in the societies of their day. That they were widely accepted did not make them right. However, knowing that such good men could accept cultural norms that were wrong can help us have some perspective about ourselves.
Whether we like to admit it or not, we are all children of our age. All of us are influenced by postmodernism. We have a suspicion of authority (especially government) and a skepticism about the claims of science (especially medical science). Has it ever occurred to you that these attitudes were not prevalent in previous generations?
Probably not. And that goes to show that there are cultural norms we have just accepted with a that’s-how-things-are perspective.
Were those who supported segregation, racism, and slavery wrong? Yes. But rather than judging them for it, we should be careful to learn lessons from it lest we fall into the same misguided thinking that they did.