In continuing studies on Southern slavery and racism, a nugget jumped out last night that one would hope would put a nail in the coffin of these modern, radical two kingdoms proponents. The employment, as so often is the case, of that doctrine to silence the pulpit on social sin is so obvious in this case that not even a Westminster West professor could avoid it.
The instance arises in the excellent work by Ronald Takaki, A Pro-Slavery Crusade: The Agitation to Reopen the Slave Trade (New York: The Free Press, 1971), who focuses upon the work and influence of the Southern “fire eaters.” These were the men who presented the most radical case in the press defending not only their peculiar institution, but more radical measures such as actually resuming the Atlantic trade in slaves.
Many readers may not know the important timeline here. While slavery was still practiced throughout the South within the South, the actual importation of slaves had been outlawed once the twenty-year protection granted in the Constitution lapsed in 1808. (Wilberforce had prevailed in Britain only the year before, lending certain moral impetus to the U.S. Congress to act.)
Of course, where there is demand, there will always be a black market, and there was tremendous demand for slaves still in the deep South. By 1820, Congress saw the need to crack down on the smuggling. It passed an Act which formally defined an offender as “a pirate” and assigned the death penalty.
This development created very public association of the continued practice of slavery with kidnapping and piracy, and the moral burden was soon felt throughout the South. As sectional controversy increased over the decades, this burden was pressed, and southern spokesmen forced to react. It was a hot topic in the heyday of the fire eaters. Governor Adams of South Carolina noted the moral tension in 1856, “if the trade be piracy, the slave must be plunder.” The editor of one Mississippi newspaper complained of the logic: “If it is wrong to buy and sell negroes with an intention to enslave them, IS IT NOT WRONG TO HOLD THEM IN SLAVERY?”1
These calculations were not admissions of guilt; they were warnings that the Federal government had positioned itself to attack the institution pro-slavers held dear. As attacks from abolitionism and northern political forces mounted, the defenders of slavery entrenched themselves. Some of these not only defended the institution, but longed to reopen the Atlantic to a legal trade in African slaves with hopes that a fresh influx of supply would drive down prices, increase slave ownership. This would not only make the institution more profitable, but spread slave ownership more broadly among even the poorer whites, increasing the slave-dependent voting bloc.
The more radical of these proponents even desired to annex Cuba as a permanent American source of black slaves. Others even dreamed of a full-on slave empire encompassing all of Mexico and Central America, parts of South America and all of the Caribbean—a huge circumference of slave-power to be known as “The Golden Circle.”
Aside from the various political ideas, one common aim of the fire eaters was to win back the hearts and minds of Southerners who had wavered in their loyalty to slavery due to attacks from religious leaders as well as the influence of the 1820 anti-piracy legislation.
And this is precisely where the two kingdoms doctrine was brought into play.
The Methodist menace
From its earliest days, the Methodist ethic followed the influence of its founder John Wesley, who had encouraged Wilberforce mightily: “Go in the name of God, and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”2 Even Whitefield was originally against slavery. He changed his mind, however, when he moved to Savannah: after tending his own garden in the Georgia heat, he quickly agreed with the typical Southern argument that blacks were more suited for such work in such climate. He purchased a black slave.
The Southern church adopted the reasoning and practice of Whitfield, and many southern Methodist ministers and laymen owned slaves.3 This practice existed in tension with the denomination’s General Conference position against slavery expressed in 1784, and the tension led eventually to a full North-South split in 1844.
But a remnant of the General sentiment still existed in the General Rules of the southern churches. In 1858, the southern Methodists in Conference found themselves faced with the question of expunging an old rule that forbid “the buying and selling of men, women and children, with the intention to enslave them”4—language that appears to have been influenced directly by the legislation of 1820. The southern church had no problem with this task: the vote was in favor of striking the Rule, 143 to 8.
And by what theological standard did these 143 delegates support their decision? Biblical law? Gospel? Scripture? You can see it in the conclusion itself:
Whereas, The rule in the General Rules of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, forbidding “the buying and selling of men, women, and children with an intention to enslave them” is ambiguous in its phraseology and liable to be construed as antagonistic to the institution of slavery, in regard to which the church has no right to meddle, except in enforcing the duties of masters and servants as set forth in the Holy Scriptures; and whereas, a strong desire for the expunction of said rule has been expressed in nearly all parts of our ecclesiastical connection; therefore,
Resolved, 1. . . . that the rule forbidding “the buying and selling of men . . .” be expunged from the General Rules of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
Resolved, 2. That, in adopting the foregoing resolution, this conference expresses no opinion in regard to the African slave-trade, to which the rule in question has been “understood” to refer.5
The reader can detect easily that it was the two kingdoms divide which allowed these ministers and delegates to turn a blind eye to the evils of slavery—evils that their own tradition’s interpretation of Scripture had earlier condemned. By relegating “the institution of slavery” to a purely political matter, the church excused itself of any responsibility to pronounce upon it, and in fact made explicit that the church was not even taking a position on the African slave-trade itself (!) as a moral evil.
In explaining this development, Bishop George Pierce made the two-kingdoms connection even clearer, declaring slavery to be “a purely civil institution.”6 Takaki notes that six southern Methodist bishops took to the pulpit to declare that “slavery was a subject belonging to Caesar, and ecclesiastical legislation upon it was contrary to the teachings of Christ and the examples of the apostles.”7
Yet the fire eaters’ call to reopen the African slave trade had so gripped the public mind, that the bishops could not keep from pronouncing some upon this “purely civil institution.” Their pastoral address included the following pronouncement:
And if, contrary to expectation, the African slave trade should ever be revived in the face of the law which declares it to be piracy, we have rule and authority enough by which to hold our membership to rigid responsibility. Nor would we fail in this, sustained as we would be by our own convictions of duty, the law of the land, and what we know to be the moral sentiment of the people among whom we dwell.
This statement is, of course, morally and politically ambiguous, and thus “safe.” When and if the trade were ever again legalized, the “law of the land” would thus exonerate the bishops should they tend to cave on it; and likewise, the “moral sentiment of the people” was being much more powerfully molded by pro-slave-trade arguments than anything else. So, when the time came, the two kingdoms ethic would easily have allowed these men to adopt whatever transpired, no matter how radical and evil.
Indeed, the decision of the church to expunge the rule was immediately seized upon by the fire eaters as justification for their cause to reopen the slave trade. One Richmond paper immediately pronounced:
When a whole Christian denomination sees nothing wrong, or immoral, or improper in the “buying and selling of men, women and children, with an intent to enslave them,” why should mere politicians presume to pronounce as wicked and atrocious the re-opening of the African slave trade?8
Multiple publications and statements make clear that this sentiment was spreading within the church.9
The danger of two kingdoms ethics
As we explored before with its role in Nazism, the greatest danger of two kingdoms ethics is that it creates a safe space for tyranny by silencing the pulpits and intimidating Christians into passivity on the Bible’s position on “political” topics. It creates a happy agreement between proponents of social evil and church leaders who want a safe, comfortable path forward and a good hand-washing while their society shouts for Barabbas. This was clear under Nazism, and it is now clear, in at least one glaring example, in the Christian defenders of Southern slavery in America.
These particular southern Christians moved to protect their own interests in slaveholding, while forbidding, through official ecclesiastical authority and power, any proclamation otherwise from those who either had doubts about the institution, or certainly opposed it. Worse, their work to undo the ecclesiastical channels that protected dissent went so far as to open up a justification for the most radical position of reopening the actual trade. The opening was seized immediately by the most radical forces with the most radical message, and the imposition of the two-kingdoms ethic forced every southern Methodist, who wished to remain a southern Methodist, into silence on the matter.
In fact, the influence of this two kingdoms-backed censorship was so powerful that a fierce attack upon Methodist dissenters was allowed throughout the South. In Texas, dissenting ministers were given 60 days to leave the state! In Mississippi, the dissenting minority was hounded publicly in the newspapers as “negro worshippers” and “vile reptiles, who ought to be driven from the land.”10 I have not seen where any of the Bishops wielded their “rule and authority . . . to hold our membership to rigid responsibility” in regard to this moral evil, even though it was obviously due.
Now, modern two kingdoms proponents have responded to the slavery issue, albeit not with cognizance of the information here presented, I don’t think. I will address their arguments more directly tomorrow. For now, let it suffice to see how the doctrine was employed in history in direct support of a moral evil, to suppress dissenters within the church, and to open the door to even greater evils while it forced the church to sit silently.