Mine eyes have seen the glory

Tired of the sanctimonious appropriation of all that is good in American history by the Christian right? Roger Ailes delivers a magnificent denunciation of the WSJ’s attempt to claim the abolitionist movement as a blessedly Christian endeavor by quoting Frederick Douglass.

Revivals in religion, and revivals in the slave trade, go hand in hand together. (Cheers.) The church and the slave prison stand next to each other; the groans and cries of the heartbroken slave are often drowned in the pious devotions of his religious master. (Hear, hear.) The church-going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer’s block stand in the same neighbourhood; while the blood-stained gold goes to support the pulpit, the pulpit covers the infernal business with the garb of Christianity. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support missionaries, and babies sold to buy Bibles and communion services for the churches.

Now that is a fine Sunday sermon.

I fully understand that many individual Christians were active in the abolition and civil rights movements; I assert that their virtues lie in their recognition of the humanity of their fellows, and had absolutely nothing to do with the institution of their religion. Some of our finest moments in history have been those times when people defy the dogma and superstition with which they are smothered from an early age.

(hat tip to Hillary)


  1. Charles 20158 says

    It is always important to note that there is Southern Baptist Convention. There is a reason the Baptist movement broke inot southern & northern strains. Slavery.

  2. Davis says

    Douglass was a remarkable man. He taught himself to read and write, with initial help from his Master’s wife, illegal at the time. His autobiography is the only first person account of slavery, written by one of the greatest writers of the century (and while he was still a fugitive).

  3. says

    Here’s the thing that’s been bugging me lately: do we give the xtians credit for anything? Don’t get me wrong: I wrangle w/theists all the time about ‘original intent’, & I’ve seen them take credit for some of the damnedest things (I even caught 1 out on the NGB for saying that ‘xtians created hospitals’ – yeesh, that was Asoka! An Indian Buddhist!) – but there must be something they’ve done that was semi-attributable. I mean besides the fact that they inadvertently destroyed the Ptolemaic geocentricity concept (they wanted to know when Easter was – that cracks me up every time).
    How do we divvy it up? Does some church have to post orders en masse for us to recognize that religion did something good? Or do we just condemn it en masse, & dispute any & all achievements made as simply done by Man?
    As I understand it, the Quakers were abolitionists in toto, not on an individual basis.
    Where do we draw the line on this? Is there even a line?

  4. says

    Charles 20158 has an interesting point, though I think it actually meshes quite well with PZ’s assertion that Christian abolitionists were dealing more with their own sense of morality than their church teachings. It is… rather telling.

    I don’t know a whole lot about Northern Baptists to be honest, though… all I really think I know is that they’re not fundamentalist…

  5. Pymgy Loris says

    I think the thing with Xians claiming to have abolished slavery is the implication that it was the religion that gave people the idea to do it. That’s simply untrue.

    Some people realized that slavery is degrading, not only to those in bondage, but also to those perpetuating the system and making a living through the bondage of their fellow human beings. By wrapping it up in Xian ideals, the Xians could then urge whole congregations to support abolition.

    Furthermore, there’s a lot more to the abolition movement than people merely thinking slavery is wrong. There’s a whole political climate that changed during the early-mid 19th century in the “civilized” world that gave abolitionists support.

    I don’t think we can give the religion of Christianity credit for abolishing slavery (there is nothing in scripture to support such a move), but we can say many (if not most) of the abolitionists were Christian.

    To me, there’s a big difference in giving credit to individuals who happen to be Xian and giving credit to the religion of Xianity.

  6. klk says

    The equality testimonies of Quakerism did lead many Quakers to work to end slavery, but there were also Quaker slave-owners. One of John Woolman’s callings was to go around convincing other Quakers to give up their slaves.

  7. says

    To me, there’s a big difference in giving credit to individuals who happen to be Xian and giving credit to the religion of Xianity.
    I couldn’t agree more.
    The question remains: has it done ANYTHING remotely worth giving credit to?
    Seriously: there’s gotta be something it did right, as a system. I’m all for consigning it to the junk heap of history. But there should be something of merit (however minuscule).
    & how is that determined? We parse out the individuals, & look at the broader picture.
    (I’m playing Devil’s Advocate here, case anyone’s getting the wrong idea.)

  8. Pygmy Loris says

    Krystalline Apostate,

    I need to think about the religion for awhile. Am I limiting this to Christianity? Islam had some good things going in science during the European Dark Ages.

  9. Caledonian says

    No, Islam did not have good things going in science. The wealthy parts of the Islamic world had good things going in science until they were smothered under a blanket of fundamentalism.

    Religions are inherently hostile to science and the practice of science.

  10. Pygmy Loris says

    Maybe I should have said: the oppression of science and rational thought in the Islamic world occurred later than in the Xian world.

    I don’t think that all religions are hostile to science. I do believe that the Abrahamic religions are hostile to advancement in science that directly contradicts the “Truth” as revealed in scriptures and to certain theologians.

  11. says

    This is very on-point. I have just been reading an excellent history book:

    Mark A. Noll (2002). America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. Oxford University Press.

    The book traces American evangelicalism from the colonial days through to the Civil War. The main points of the book are basically:

    1. Once the U.S. First Amendment disestablished government-sponsored religion, a massive popular revival took place in the early-mid 1800s as all denominations and sects were released from traditional constraints (we are talking about White Anglo-Saxon Protestants here, obviously). Evangelism became competitive, everyone with a different religious view was free to start a new church (and many did — Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, etc.).

    2. Just about the only religious authority left in place was the Bible (King James Version), and the “common sense reading of the Bible by the man on the street” became the dominant view of Americans. This was supported by the theologians of the day, the most important ones coming from the Calvinist/presbysterian “Reformed” tradition, wherein the Bible was almost literally considered the “data” on which the “science” of theology operated. We can call this “naive Biblicism.”

    3. This method of Bible interpretation was so deeply ingrained most people didn’t even think it was unusual. But it came apart on the issue of slavery, basically because the proslavery Southerners could make an overwhelming Bible-based case, based on the above assumptions, that the Bible supported slavery. According to Mark Noll, Northern theological responses did exist (e.g., Northerners would say that the overall “spirit” of the Bible trumped the citation of particular passages), but they were basically inadequate within the context of naive Biblicism, and the North won and slavery was abolished despite the Southerners “winning” the theological battle.

    Noll sees this basically as the central tradgedy and failure of 1800s evangelicalism (Noll himself is an evangelical at Wheaton College), and the resulting split of the various Protestant churches into Northern/Southern, liberal/conservative, etc., eventually led to the fundamentalist versus modernist conflicts of the 1920s, with the various bizarre offshoots (creation science, premillenial dispensationalism, King-James-onlyism, etc.).

    It is all more complex than the above and I’ve probably made a hash of it, but that’s the idea. Here is a quote from a Noll article that makes the same point:

    The question of the Bible and slavery in the era of the Civil War was never a simple question. The issue involved the American expression of a Reformed literal hermeneutic, the failure of hermeneutical alternatives to gain cultural authority, and the exercise of deeply entrenched intuitive racism, as well as the presence of Scripture as an authoritative religious book and slavery as an inherited social-economic relationship. The North — forced to fight on unfriendly terrain that it had helped to create — lost the exegetical war. The South certainly lost the shooting war. But constructive orthodox theology was the major loser when American believers allowed bullets instead of hermeneutical self-consciousness to determine what the Bible said about slavery. For the history of theology in America, the great tragedy of the Civil War is that the most persuasive theologians were the Rev. Drs. William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant.

    Regarding the connection to 20th century fundamentalism:

    In the event, none of these hermeneutics prevailed [Noll reviews various anti-slavery theologies that existed but did not succeed, e.g. (1) if the Bible is pro-slavery, ditch the Bible, (2) black churches, (3) Lutheran and high Anglican churches, and (4) anti-slavery positions with the conservative Reformed churches]. None influenced in a substantial way theological reasoning during the era of the Civil War. In addition, none was able to compete after the war with the growing strength of the period’s two primary Protestant positions — a liberalism that separated biblical letter and spirit, and a revamped biblical literalism that soon reconfigured itself as fundamentalist, dispensational, holiness, pentecostal, and Southern conservative forms of populist Protestantism.

    (Noll 2002, p. 415)

    Here are some more quotes from the book.

  12. says

    One more quote and I will stop:

    The third barrier to an orthodox, but nonliteral, view of Scripture was the highest. With relentless pressure, skillful defenders of slavery insisted that any attack on a literalist construction of biblical slavery was an attack on the Bible itself. A clear example of this strategy appeared in James Henley Thornwell’s fast sermon of 21 November 1860. Thornwell (1812-1862) was widely recognized as a theologian of integrity, probably the South’s most highly respected religious thinker. He had been active in his native South Carolina as a pastor, college teacher, and seminary professor from the time of his ordination in 1835. Thornwell was an eclectic thinker whose deep grounding in the Scriptures, commitment to the Westminster standards, and suspicion of generically evangelical voluntary societies was combined with a smattering of Scottish philosophy but also serious reservations about the egalitarian tendencies of the new moral philosophy. When he address a blue-ribbon audience in Columbia in the immediate aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election, a good portion of his sermon was devoted to denouncing the idea that African Americans constituted a species distinct from Caucasians. On this basis he boldly chastised his audience of elite South Carolinians for not treating slaves properly as fellow human beings.

    Yet Thornwell’s additional concern was to make a point for Northern readers. When he described the opinion that humanity was made up of several species, each with its own origin, and then denounced this view as heresy, his more distant target came into view: “It is idle to charge the responsibility of the doctrine about the diversity of species upon slaveholders, as to load them with the guilt of questioning the geological accuracy of Moses.” He then drove home the polemical dagger. Heretical teachings questioning the Bible’s account of the age of the earth indicated clearly the kind of teaching that questioned the slavery found in both Old and New Testaments. Heresies concerning Adam and Eve as well as on the geological record “are assaults of infidel science upon the records of our faith, and both have found their warmest advocates among the opponents of slavery.” [36] To audiences predisposed toward biblical literalism, Thornwell’s reasoning was persuasive. To propose for whatever reason that the Bible did not sanction slavery was to attack not just slavery but the Bible as well.

    The theological crisis occasioned by reasoning like Thornwell’s was acute. Many Northern Bible-readers and not a few in the South felt that slavery was evil. They somehow knew the Bible supported them in that feeling. Yet when it came to using the Bible as it had been used with such success to evangelize and civilize the United States, the sacred page was snatched out of their hands. Trust in the Bible and reliance upon a Reformed, literal hermeneutic had created a crisis that only bullets, not arguments, could resolve.

    [Note 36, p. 547: Thornwell, “Our National Sins,” 50. For a modern explanation of how Thornwell’s defense of a common sense race (and hence his defense of African Americans as fully human) was linked to his biblical defense of slavery, see Eugene D. Genovese, A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South (Athens, Ga., 1998), 4, 80-88.]

    (Noll 2002, pp. 399-400, italics original)

  13. Ichthyic says

    indeed, very interesting reading Nick!

    I think I will refer the europeans who keep asking me how the situation with evangelicals got so bad in the US to this reference.

  14. says

    Robert K. Greenleaf told the story of John Woolman, a Quaker who, well before the American Revolution, determined that slavery damaged the slave-holder as well as the slave (don’t mistake that for “as much as”). He realized that it was a corruption of life, and it was a corruption that he did not wish to leave as a heritage for his children. He freed his slaves, then spent much of the rest of his life traveling to talk to other Quakers, asking them whether slavery was the heritage they wished to pass along to their children. By 1770 by some accounts, by 1776 at the latest, Quakers were out of the slave business and well on the road to becoming the great advocates of abolition of slavery we know them for today.

    But it wasn’t Christian scripture that persuaded them, and in fact many Christians regarded Quakers as not Christian at that time.

    It’s important to recall, too, that the Wedgewood family fortune, including that of the young Charles Darwin, was dedicated to eradicating slavery in England. Darwin himself was opposed to slavery, recognizing that slaves are human, too.

    I wonder whether Darwin gets a mention in the movie, or whether the support of the Wedgewood family is mentioned.

  15. says

    I think I will refer the europeans who keep asking me how the situation with evangelicals got so bad in the US to this reference.

    Yes, it opened my eyes on this topic. The modern culture wars, and the creation/evolution issue, have very deep roots in American history.

  16. says

    Frederick Douglass was himself an evangelical Christian I believe, so we can’t get carried away just by focusing on the role of the “naive Biblicists” in the Southern Churchs. Noll discusses the black churches in some depth in the book.

    Other interesting points:

    1. Few of the founding fathers were evangelicals, according to Noll

    2. Noll concludes that Abraham Lincoln, who he says never belonged to a church, was the most penetrating theologian of the Civil War area (I think in part because he observed Bible-quoters going at each other’s throats).

    There is more at The Ambiguous Religion of President Abraham Lincoln by Mark Noll.

  17. JohnnieCanuck says

    For me, the telling observation was by Roger Ailes in that post PZ linked to above.

    There was nothing uniquely Christian about the abolitionist movement. In a time where only white Christian men (and a few women) are allowed to speak and deemed worthy of hearing on the Question of Slavery, you’re going to have Christian abolitionists. And you’ll find them opposed by a hell of a lot of devout Christian slaveholders.

    As he says, it would have been a surprise if the abolitionists who spoke out were not Christians, at least in public. Elsewhere in his Douglass quote we see that it was a common tactic of the anti-abolitionists to slur their opponents as being infidels. This of course was because they were opposing the Biblical passages that were used to support slavery.

    So now the WSJ tries to rewrite history? Lovely, though it’s not very Christian to lie and deceive like that.

  18. Molly, NYC says

    . . . do we give the xtians credit for anything?

    Krystalline Apostate (at #3) – Here’s one: When apartheid in South Africa was circling the drain, I was honest-to-Pete positive it was going to end in a wholesale bloodbath. Tortured-to-death bodies stacked in piles. Itchy-and-Scratchy Land (“the violentest place on Earth!”).

    I was wrong. Instead they had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Confess and be forgiven–how Christian is that? And while it wasn’t perfect, it beat the hell out of what I figured was going to happen.

  19. No, your other left says

    “Just about the only religious authority left in place was the Bible (King James Version), and the “common sense reading of the Bible by the man on the street” became the dominant view of Americans”

    It still is, in certain areas. My son saw a bumper sticker here in NC that read “If it ain’t King James, it ain’t bible!”

  20. BlueIndependent says

    I can’t get enough of this historical correction. It gives me hope that the word will get out somehow.

    This past week I saw one of those bumper stickers: “Jesus said it; I believe Him”

    Well doesn’t that make it real easy?

  21. Kseniya says

    “If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for Texas!”

    Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson, Governor of Texas (circa 1920), on why foreign languages should not be taught in schools.

  22. Anton Mates says

    Here’s the thing that’s been bugging me lately: do we give the xtians credit for anything?

    They were responsible for de-legitimizing infanticide in Greco-Roman society, I believe. And even though they didn’t invent hospitals–nor even introduce them to the Roman world– they did push to have lots more of them built and opened (for the first time) to widows, orphans and the poor.

    So that’s something.

  23. raj says

    . . . do we give the xtians credit for anything?

    Yes, we do. But not because they were Xians. Because they were people. People who did the correct thing.

    There’s a big difference. One that seems to be lost on a lot of Xians now who don’t deserve credit for much of anything, but who try to claim credit anyway–merely because they’re Xians.

  24. VMartin says

    Yes, abolishment of slavery perpetrated by Christians – that’s the topic. Anyway You should better first abolish your own ban to John Davison. Or discuss with him some up-to-date issues like prescribed biological evolution on Brainstorm.

    “Random Ejaculation” of your liberal cronies about neo-darwinistic gradualism are wellcomed too.

  25. bernarda says

    Another Frederick Douglass quote,

    “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”

    There is also this one,

    “In an appendix to his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, published in 1845, Douglass clarified that he was not opposed to all religion, but only the Christianity of a slaveholding America: “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels�”

    More information on Douglass at,


  26. G. Tingey says

    Anyone here read the book “Rough Crossings” by Simon Schama …
    Which recounts how many American slves fought against Washington and his slaveowning friends, and for us (the British) because, even then, slave-owning and trading was becoming less and lees popular in the UK and empire (outside the special cse of the West Indies …..)

    And there was a theological split in the UK as well, but the low-church Anglicans, the Quakers and Dissenters won, and the “high tory” slaveowners lost the theological argument – probably because they centred on Jesus’ teachings, rather than the “Bible” as a whole.

  27. says

    Yes, we do. But not because they were Xians. Because they were people. People who did the correct thing.
    I understood that the 1st time. 2 people on this thread came forward w/some examples.
    Can we say that religion (in the broader sense) refined & improved social networking to some degree?
    Let’s flip the coin. Has atheism contributed? Do we give credit to atheism for select items, or was it the atheist his/herself that made the contribution?
    Good for the goose, & all that…

  28. Ichthyic says

    Yes, abolishment of slavery perpetrated by Christians – that’s the topic. Anyway You should better first abolish your own ban to John Davison.

    fair warning, several of us over on PT/ATBC have attempted to have a rational discussion with “VMartin” before. Our conclusion was that if he isn’t merely a JAD sockpuppet, he must be a roommate of his at the insane asylum where JAD currently resides.

    bottom line:

    don’t bother trying to respond to his posts.

  29. Anton Mates says

    2 people on this thread came forward w/some examples.
    Can we say that religion (in the broader sense) refined & improved social networking to some degree?

    Probably, although a) I wouldn’t say Christianity is dramatically better at that than other religions, and b) more effective social networking is a pretty morally-neutral “contribution”–more charity here, more wars there.

    Let’s flip the coin. Has atheism contributed? Do we give credit to atheism for select items, or was it the atheist his/herself that made the contribution?

    I would say the latter, since atheism is not a belief but the lack of one. An atheist is more likely to be gay-friendly not because they’re an atheist, but because they’re not a believer. Carl Sagan’s atheism didn’t make him a good scientist, but his not-being-a-fundamentalist-creationist certainly helped.

    Atheism simply implies the absence of various belief systems which might otherwise contribute negatively.

  30. BlueIndependent says

    The US has historically been a very fruitful place for the advancement of free societies, the current leadership culture notwithstanding. The US produced some of the very best thinkers in history, and we continue to be a beacon. Times are definitely a lot tougher with Bush in office though, and I can understand why people in other countries see us so starkly. Many people in other countries know what it’s like to live under someone’s thumb, be it that of a king, a dictator, or a royal family. My guess is they’re sad to see unfortunate trends happening to one of the still few places left to migrate to.

    Any student of history knows that a country’s decline into the depths of iniquity starts with a resurgence of native exceptionalism, and open and outward distrust of others. It happened in Japan, a country that was openly embracing Western culture before its own homegrown exceptionalists deemed the incoming ideas corrosive to what they saw as Japan’s future. This exceptionalism led to their vengeful oppression and exploitation of other Asian peoples.

    It happened in Germany to a similar ring from Hitler’s co-opted National Socialist party. The effects are the most glaring example, and the one most exemplified as the horror of a humanity driven on self-destructive and unhindered hubris.

    It’s pretty obvious that the hard-right here in the US present the very same historical challenge to the future of our society. The hard right (part of which is religiously motivated) behaves in very similar ways: rewriting American history to downplay the effects of slavery and other actions hypocritical of free and moral society, whites feeling that inclusion of other racial groups in the corrected historical account presents a very negative and reciprocally racist view of them (I’ve heard as much from friends), open distrust of the cultures of its own global allies (the unrelenting anti-French undercurrents for example), advocacy for American global exceptionalism in almost all things and open condemnation of facts/criticisms to the contrary, distrust of the educated and the encouragement of opinion-based interpretations of reality.

    This is the recipe for any country to give up its mantle of greatness, and the US (the greatest in history, I still think) is as vulnerable as any. Now is the time that history tests our forefathers’ design for its true resiliency.

  31. Nick Valvo says

    PZ, with all due respect, you’re tripping.

    If you were to read the biographies of the movers and shakers of the abolition movement, you would see, as you acknowledge, that many (or really pretty much all) of them were way-out devout Christians of an extremist bent. You said as much above: but where I disagree with you is that their faith was somehow distinct from their politics. White abolition in the United States was not only a Christian movement, it was by and large a racist one, too, by today’s standards; a certain paternalism and queasiness towards actual flesh and blood blacks complicated their fetishized suffering bondsman. (And one could make an argument that this head-in-the-clouds rejection of reality is what made these people so effective — I mean, John Brown was certifiable). It is also worth noting that the major abolitionist association (the American Anti-Slavery Society) split over the question of whether or not to tackle women’s issues as well as the slave question. Abolition really was, in its time, a political movement like the pro-life movement (as they argue), a realization that is disquieting for those of us who agree that abolition was one of the high points of our grisly history and yet believe that abortion rights are important.

    These are not necessarily people we should be looking to emulate, although obviously their accomplishments were very important.

    Atheism in the way that you espouse likely did not exist in the 1840s except as an insult. Those who were accused of atheism were likely to be adherents of the various weird (and very spiritual) theisms of New England Unitarianism like Emerson, or earlier, crazy Spinozan monists — the philosophical whipping boy that kept the whole game of European Intellectual History afoot for a couple of centuries by means of fervent efforts to disavow it. Darwin’s contemporaries really may have been the first real atheists.

    You have a lot of great points to make in this culture war we have going on. I would advise you not to dilute your message and arm your enemies with off-base historical polemic.

  32. Nick Valvo says

    I got so caught up in one of those paragraphs I forgot to add:

    Douglass’ quote (which is of course a correct assessment) serves as an important corrective to those of us who are interested in the pursuit of political ends today. Don’t, Douglass admonishes us, let yourself get too high off your own self-righteousness. (Freud, also, was quite skeptical about such “disinterested” “sacrifice” — enjoy your symptom! Of course, this skepticism was shared by some forward-thinking Puritan theologians…)

    At any rate, it is precisely in this perverse enjoyment that we recognize the pro-lifers of our time in the abolitionists of Douglass’ day.