I want to begin this post by saying that much of what I’m going to have to say is going to be misunderstood at best. At worst, I’m going to be tarred with the broad brush accusation of being a closet racist.
That disclaimer aside, I have found few theologians as consistently useful, confessionally rigorous, and Biblically faithful as the old Southern Presbyterians. Of course, in our own day, the few Southern Presbyterian theologians that are widely remembered are recalled primarily for their support of slavery. It is this issue that has so overshadowed their memory that when they are mentioned, it is as cautionary tales.
There are two aspects to the Southern Presbyterian theologians support for the South’s “peculiar institution.” One is cultural, the other, theological. I should note that I do not intend to defend the cultural piece in this post. Some of the theological reasons that led the Southern church to separate from their Northern brethren are ably expressed by Morton H. Smith and Preston Graham.
In the period leading up to the War Between the States, the Southern Presbyterians resisted every attempt to have owning slaves denounced as sinful, noting that the Bible itself never (not even once) calls owning slaves sin (see James Henley Thornwell, Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, vol. 4, Ecclesiastical [1870; reprint, Carlisle, Pa: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974]).
Again and again, we have allowed our violent hatred for slavery to obscure the fact that there is a system of slavery revealed in Scripture that God does not condemn. The Southern Presbyterians, like James Henley Thornwell and Charles C. Jones, knew this fact quite well and used it to defend the institution of Southern slavery. Ironically, that’s where they went wrong.
Where the Southern Presbyterians failed theologically was in this: they never once stopped to examine the Biblical standards for slavery and compare that system to the system as it was practiced in the South. For instance, the slavery that the Bible regulates was not primarily race based. In fact, in practically every area, you cannot make the two practices align.
Furthermore, given that the Old and New Testaments both explicitly condemn the act of “man stealing (Exodus 21; Deuteronomy 24: 1 Timothy), it boggles the mind as to how our Southern Presbyterian forebearers could have condoned the slavery practiced in the South. That is where the cultural piece comes in, which I have no intention of dealing with.
While many of the Southern Presbyterians got it horribly wrong on slavery (i.e., Robert Lewis Dabney) others were light-years ahead of their time. An excellent example of one such pastor and theologian is John L. Girardeau. In fact, Girardeau was (to my knowledge) the first white minister to ordain black ruling elders:
“Upon the recommendation of the Session, the following African-American men were nominated to serve in the office of Ruling Elder–Paul Trescot, William Price, Jacky Morrison, Samuel Robinson, William Spencer, and John Warren. On ‘Sabbath August 15, 1869’ the congregation of Zion Presbyterian Church (Colored) met for worship and the ordination and installatino of their Ruling Elders. Girardeau chose for his text on this occasion Acts 14:23. The record tells us, ‘Session did then with prayer and the imposition of their hands ordain the persons…and install them in the same.’ Thus, Zion became the first Southern church governed by African-American elders. Girardeau had done what Dabney and a host of other Southern churchmen would not consider doing. He had admitted that black men could be qualified to rule in the church. He had exhibited his approbation by participating in the holy service, even the laying on of hands. What Dabney had doubted possible, Girardeau confirmed as real.” – C.N. Willborn, “John L. Girardeau (1825-1898) Pastor to Slave and Theologian of Causes: A Historical Account of the Life and Contributions of An often Neglected Southern Presbyterian Minister and Theologian” (PhD diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 2003).
The lesson we should learn from this is that it is foolish to reject all of the Southern Presbyterians out of hand, because they supported an indefensible institution. There is much that these men can still teach us.
I just hope we have the humility to listen.