Orthodoxy, Orthopraxy, and Puritan Slavery

A (mostly) friendly brouhaha has broken out in the blogosphere over the puritans and slavery. Propaganda, a Christian hip hop artist, released a song titled “Precious Puritans.” The song points out that the puritans ought not to be uncritically adored by white believers because many puritans were slaveholders. Some thoughtful folks resonated with that argument, other insightful brothers pushed back a bit. (Several of them on both sides are friends of mine.) Thabiti Anyabwile and Anthony Bradley have each written summaries of the debate.

As a church historian, I resonate very much with this controversy. Every semester, I teach about some of the most well-known figures in the history of Christianity. Historical integrity, as well as a strong sense of human depravity, compels me to mention not only the good things these men and women said and did, but also their shortcomings. Origen castrated himself. Cyril of Alexandria was a thug. Martin Luther was antisemitic in his later years. A group of Anabaptist anarchists took over the city of Münster. Calvin approved of Servetus being burned at the stake. Puritans persecuted religious dissenters, including Baptists. Antebellum evangelicals owned slaves. Karl Barth probably had a long-term affair with his secretary. W.A. Criswell was a segregationist in his early ministry. Martin Luther King Jr. plagiarized portions of his dissertation. The list could go on.

Different students respond in different ways upon acquiring this sort of knowledge. Some are thankful that their heroes have been humanized, since there is always a temptation to idolize Christian leaders from bygone eras. Others really struggle with this. I can remember one student asking me in front of the entire class if I believed Martin Luther was “really” saved, seeing as he encouraged the nobles to kill anarchic peasants, gave approval to a Lutheran prince’s bigamy, and didn’t care much for Jewish people who didn’t convert to Christianity. Others students have questioned whether nineteenth-century Southern Baptists were “really” regenerate since many owned slaves and most approved of chattel slavery.

I think Thabiti nails part of what’s really going on in these discussions. Note the extended quote from his aforementioned post:

Fifth, good theology does not mechanically lead to good living. We need to understand this. It’s a commonplace Christian assertion that if we believe the right things we ought to do the right things. Then we’re perplexed when either people who believe the right things actually do vile things, or people with supposedly faulty theology actually live better than the orthodox. We’re left groping for explanations and defenses. How did the Puritans “miss it”? Why did “liberals” seem to “get it”? Well, “it” doesn’t follow mechanically, ipso factoex opere operato from some set of solid beliefs. There’s a whole lot of effort, application, resistance to the world, self-examination, and mortification that’s gotta accompany the doctrine in order for the duty to follow. As Flav put it, “They’re blind, baby, because they can’t see.” That’s why they missed it; they couldn’t see it. Their theology wasn’t a corrective lense; it didn’t fix the cataracts. It didn’t fix the degenerative sight of Southern Presbyterians who also missed it, or the Dutch Reformed of South Africa who not only missed it but supported Apartheid, or some of the German Reformed who missed it in Nazi Germany, and so on. And this is why I’m made slightly nervous by the tendency of some Reformed types to advocate “pure” doctrine and demur at “pure” social action. The Puritan movement was a movement in church reform and revival, and some of their heirs (I count myself one) can be too purely concerned about the purity of the church without a commensurate concern about the purity of social witness. We can stack our chips on theology, as though theology inexorably produces the social results we want with little to no attending effort. Mistake, I think. The Puritans prove that.

Exactly. We’re tempted to believe that orthopraxy naturally follows orthodoxy. After all, ideas have consequences. The problem is that we each live in the reality of Romans 7 every day of our lives. We often willfully choose to say and do things that are contrary to our professed beliefs. Every Christian (and sometimes whole “tribes” or generations of believers) also has blind spots when ti comes to certain sins in our own lives and times. Often, believers in other tribes or later generations wonder how in the world it can be that some Christians reconciled a particular sinful behavior or priority with the Scriptures. Many of my mostly white, southern students feel that way about their often segregationist parents and grandparents.

Puritanism really was a movement of sincere and mature believers. (At least this is true of the puritans whose books Reformed publishers choose to reprint for modern consumption.) But as with all groups, they had sinful blind spots where they fell short of God’s best–sometimes seriously so. Slavery is a great example of that. Persecuting Quakers and Baptists is another. I bet they were even guilty of pride, lust, deceitfulness, and gluttony–because they were sinners.

Instead of criticizing Propaganda or criticizing those who raised concerns with “Precious Puritans,” I’d urge us all to do a “speck and log” type of examination on ourselves. What are some areas where we know our orthopraxy doesn’t match up with our orthodoxy? What are some of our own cultural or generational or tribal blinders that are preventing us from honoring God as well as we might? Let’s pray that the Lord would show us these things and grant us the grace, through the power of the Spirit, to daily mortify these sins.

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  1. Quincy A. Jones   •  

    good word doc, very good word…may God give us grace to not “think more highly of ourselves (or our “heroes”) than we ought to think”…

  2. Alan Cross   •  

    Yes, we are all sinners and we all have blindspots. But, 350 years of Amerian history on the subject of race and evangelicalism is not a blind spot. It is not a Romans 7 struggle with the flesh or sin issue. I think that we are minimizing it and are not looking at foundational issues. The truth is, evangelicalism in America from the Puritans to the SBC has been fundamentally incapable of challenging the status quo when it comes to economics and supporting a “way of life” that is comfortable for us, and I would suggest that we are still doing the same thing, just in different expressions. We are less racist not because of real repentance when it was costly, but partly because being racist no longer enhances our way of life. There is severe punishment from society for those who are racists. Only when that changed did we begin to rethink our position. It wasn’t really the Word of God but the denuniation of society that caused us to recant on the race issue.

    The problem now is that we continue to value what the larger society values when it comes to our lifestyles, especially in regard to economics and our own standard of living. Have we really thought about why we were racist in the first place and why we subverted Christianity to a devilish doctrine? Have we really thought about why W.A. Criswell was a blatant segregationist but then changed his mind after the height of the controversy was over and it was all good? Did we ever consider what the sin beneath the sin was? I contend that our racist impusle shifted to an individualistic/consumer perspective that we are still playing out on a daily basis as we use our wealth to promote our way of life.

    So, just saying that the sins of the past are past and that everyone has flaws is missing the point, I think. Their 350 year blindspot was so cataclysmic that I think that we are still doing theology and practice out of the sinkhole that they left for us.

  3. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    This is quite a rant, brother. I’m going to respect your right to assume a whole lot of stuff about a whole of people over a whole lot of centuries. Frankly, I do that all the time as a historian, though I try to make those assumptions based upon primary source research (or at least good secondary source research) when possible. But I think you’re dead wrong to push back on the Romans 7 blindspot argument. This is a perennial issue for every Christian in every generation, even if racism is an especially egregious example for American (and perhaps some other) evangelicals. That’s a matter of contextual application of the larger point.

    I agree with you that racism has been a perennial theme and that we haven’t made as much “progress” as we’d like to think. Absolutely, and I think it’s terrible. But I’m not retreating one bit from my main argument, which is that the larger issue is Romans 7, which I think applies beyond the individual to entire cultures, generations, denominations, etc. So just be careful about the speck thing as you point out the obvious log of racism in a whole lot of evangelicals. It’s a terrible log.


  4. Alan Cross   •  

    It was not meant to be a rant. Sorry if I came off terse. That was not my intent. I was simply trying to make an argument that there is a good reason why racism, slavery, and segregation was so prevalent and that it was more than a sin struggle. It was that, but it was more than that, I think. Romans 7 talks about doing the things we don’t want to do. We want to do good, but evil is right there with us. On this issue, there was not a desire to do good because there was not an awareness for many of what good was. Evil was declared good. My point is that this was done because the primary good was a “way of life” that depended upon first, slavery, and then racial segregation in the American colonies and then the American South. The way of life promoted contradicted the “way of the cross” but we could not see it because our theology was not able to pick it up. Propaganda’s critique goes beyond “everyone sins” into a fundamental flaw, I think. I am not ranting here. I am dealing with mountains of source material and years of research from the words and actions of evangelical leaders in America on this issue from the mid 1600’s to approximately 1970. Then, we had a shift from race to other manifestations that protected our way of life. Unless we start to pull back the cover and ask why we consistently think of ourselves first and why our theology often doesn’t challenge that but instead supports that stance (think various versions of proserity gospels), we aren’t dealing with Romans 7 as much as we are dealing with heretical inclinations in our theology.

  5. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    Fair enough. I think we may be talking past each other on some level. I agree with much of what you are saying, I’m just not sure it’s not, on some level, a Romans 7 issue, albeit one that is manifested corporately. FWIW.


  6. Charlie Ali   •  

    We English Separatists have the problem of history like the Jews and our distant cousins, the Arabs. We were blessed by God and failed in many notable and regrettable instances as we hoped to prepare the way for the Lord’s Anointed. I read Revelations 13 his morning and could not help but think of my country as the sea beast with blasphemy of God coming from his mouth. We are the only nation with Godlike power. The devil is crafty enough to fool us socially and nationally. We pray to God not to test us beyond our spiritual status.

  7. Alan Cross   •  

    I don’t at all disagree with your premise that we all have blind spots and that we all justify sin on some level and that is it easy to condemn our ancestors without considering how we do the same thing. You are absolutely right and your call to examine ourselves before we throw stones is a good one. It is easy to justify ourselves while condemning others. We all do this, myself included.

    A corporate manifestation of Romans 7? That would require a desire to do good but a succumbing to the evil that is right there with us. Its an interesting thought and one worth considering. I guess that is one way to look at our history – we have desired to do good, but we kept giving into evil in that area. If so, then it would presuppose the question of “Why?” Perhaps the answer to that question might help us see how we positioned ourselves theologically, socially, and politically in America and how we continue to do so, albeit in different ways.

    Thanks for the discussion and the thought provoking post.

  8. Joe B   •  

    Thank you for a good laugh. Conservative economic policies are not racist nor are they discriminatory towards the poor. Poverty isn’t a racial issue. People in this country who are poor fall into 3 basic categories.
    There are people who are poor because they, for one reason or another, are not able to work (age, sickness, etc). I think having a government provided safety net for these people is good and right. I think the church should be doing more so that safety net is not necessary.
    There are people who are poor because they have limited their options by stupid choices they made in their past (drugs, gang/criminal activity, etc). I don’t mind the government helping folks out like this, to the minimum extent required (i.e. beans and rice, baloney sammiches, and water so they won’t starve). The church can help out more and should but these people made their choice and choices have consequences.
    Then, there are the people who work, but not enough for the life style they want and they feel like “The Man” is just trying to “keep them down” because they think it’s the governments job to provide for them. An example of this would be a single mother working at McD’s as a cashier who doesn’t earn enough to support her 3 baby and she doesn’t get child support from any of the 4 baby daddys (She’s not sure who #3’s father is). Now, I have sympathy for this woman if she wants to go back to school or something to get a job that pays enough to live on which McD’s was NEVER intended to. I’m good with helping her out. Now, if she’s fine with collecting her food stamps, section 8 housing (but she still go that iPhone 5, tho) and spends her time about how Republicans hate her and don’t nobody want to help her get ahead, I have no sympathy for her whatsoever and would love to see her get nothing. Not one single bit of help from the government. I wouldn’t lift the business end of my pinky finger to help her out myself.

  9. Adam Shields   •  

    And it takes 8 comments before we get to structural sin which is the heart of what both this post and the song are suggesting are real.

    Structural sins are real, and Evangelicals in particular seem to want to deny they exist.

    At the very least, to stay on the same theme, poverty, there are external influences on poverty. For instance Thomas Sowell has section in one of his books on how geography influences poverty. Africa does not have many rivers that can be navigated. So that hinders trade.

    But institutional sin take those systems and reinforce them. So school systems are primarily funded through local taxes. Local taxes reflect the wealth of a community. Rich communities have better schools. Poor schools have lower results for their students which reinforce the weakness of the system. We can argue about whether personal sin and responsibility is more important than structural sin, but JoeB is essentially saying there is no such things as structural sin, which is a rejection of much of the message of the prophets of the Old Testament.

  10. Kris Blanchard   •  

    Great article. Thoughtful, informative, and done in a spirit of humility. May we remember that even the most venerated of Christian leaders throughout the history of the Church were not only humble sinners seeking to advance the gospel; even more so they were struggling sinners in daily need of repentance of sin in the same way we are today in our efforts to rightly understand and faithfully apply the Scriptures to our own lives. We must also realize that controversy will always surround the efforts of men and women who are trying to integrate the implications of the Christian message into cultures and societies that naturally will be inclined away from accepting truth. The reality is right belief does not always result in proper application. In ancient Christianity, orthodoxy wasn’t right practice, it was right worship. It’s not about things we proclaim intellectually, it’s about how we worship God. This is the definition of a Christian. Too often we easily forget this simple truth that lies at the base of our faith.

    Dr. Finn, articles like these are why I have such respect for you and the passion you exemplify for a strong embrace of rightly understanding church history.

  11. dr. james willingham   •  

    Well, even the Baptists fall to the bottom of the barrel, when we look at our history and slavery. MY propectus for a doctoral dissertation at Columbia University was on the subject, “The Baptists & Slavery.” The record is not pretty. I could mention the Baptist pastor (I came across this in some records years ago) who slugged a woman slave who was crying and protesting selling of her baby. I also found a Methodist pastor who did the same. And then there were Baptists who started an abolitionist movement, the Friends of Humanity. Some like the Quakers gave up their property and set them free. But here is the amazing part. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the British Historian, Arnold Toynbee offered the thought that the former slaves, the African Americans could be the folks who lead the spiritual renewal of Western Civilization. And did they become the template for the spiritual Israel of God? Consider the irony and epigram of Zeph.2:11,12.

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