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What, then, is the church?

Special Committee hears from a scholar who’s studied Christian antebellum efforts to justify enslaving people

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Special Committee on Racism, Truth, and Reconciliation. (Photo by the Office of the General Assembly)

LOUISVILLE — The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Special Committee on Racism, Truth, and Reconciliation continued its work Thursday by hearing from a Columbia Theological Seminary faculty member who’s studied the work of James Henley Thornwell, a Columbia Seminary professor during the mid-1800s who defended slavery in his essay, “What, then, is the church?”

Dr. William Yoo, associate professor of American Religious and Cultural History and director of CTS’s Master of Divinity program, told the committee it has “hard, heartbreaking yet important work to do.” View Thursday’s Facebook live event here.

The Special Committee on Racism Truth and Reconciliation was created by the 222nd General Assembly (2016) as a special commission and reconstituted as a special committee by the 223rd General Assembly (2018). It’s scheduled to report to the 225th General Assembly (2022).

The magnitude of slavery — in 1860, about 4 million people were enslaved — did not trouble Thornwell, Yoo wrote in his essay. “Slavery, after all, had existed throughout history, with clear, direct, and numerous references to it in the biblical record,” he wrote. “Thornwell found the Bible addressed slavery in ‘cool, dispassioned, [and] didactic’ language and treated it as a hierarchical relation alongside husbands and wives, parents and children, and magistrates and subjects.”

In a sermon from 1850, Yoo noted, Thornwell understood slavery as “a part of the curse which sin has introduced into the world” and compared it to poverty and war as earthly phenomena that would persist until the eschaton.”

Dr. William Yoo

“Christians were therefore responsible for exhibiting righteousness and extending mercy at an interpersonal level, from individual to individual, but they were not called to social engagement that sought to upend larger structures and systems,” Yoo wrote, describing Thornwell’s views. “Although the increasing slave population alarmed abolitionists, Thornwell’s gaze was fixed on defending the practice of slavery and encouraging individual slaveholders to treat enslaved persons humanely and grant them access to Sabbath rest and Christian worship.”

Citing the work of Professor Caitlin C. Rosenthal of the University of California, Berkeley, author of “Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management,” Yoo noted three requirements for having success in business: land, labor and capital. In the antebellum South, enslaved people accounted for two of the three, land and capital. A healthy male person who was enslaved in the mid-1800s could be purchased for $1,500 — which in 2020 represents nearly $50,000.

In response to a question on whether slavers found cover in the notion of the spirituality of the church — the distinction between secular affairs and church matters, a question that came from committee member the Rev. Joe Scrivner of Tuscaloosa, Alabama  — Yoo discussed the sharply-defined role many southern Presbyterians saw for the their clergy: teach the Bible and offer the sacraments.

“These are what God endowed the church to do,” Yoo said of their belief. “Don’t move into political endeavors … If I am a minister, our job is to teach doctrine and baptize infants, but we are not a school. We can’t do what a teacher does better than a teacher. Sick people go to the local hospital, not to us. Go to a law office or a court with your legal problem. It is unwise for a church to delve into those affairs.”

There’s a shadow side to that notion, he said. “Slavery created the doctrine more than the doctrine influenced how Presbyterians should deal with slavery.” The doctrine, he said, was conceived “to keep Presbyterians from being more active in racial and social justice.”

While slavery is no longer with the PC(USA), “the theologies undergirding it are still with us,” Yoo said. “How preachers can preach and how sessions can lead, those still abound.”

In considering biblical accounts of enslaved people, we’re not wrestling with the Bible, he said — we’re wrestling with how we interpret God’s word.

To slavers who professed to be Christians, the question was, “Can what God has given us be that evil, that awful?” Yoo asked. “God permitted slavery for more than 200 years. What does that say about God and who we are? 170 years later, those are the questions we wrestle with today.”

Thornwell talked about plantation owners providing enslaved people with “the armor of salvation,” allowing for Sabbath rest and Christian worship.

Asked whether the PC(USA) should consider adding a confession to the Book of Confessions “to speak to our own” about the lingering effects of Americans enslaving people, Yoo said, “That’s for you all to answer.”

However, “There needs to be a way to look at racism that was happening here,” Yoo said. “Perhaps we need to look inward at the injustices that have shaped us.”

Black theologians and abolitionists said, “Let’s apply the Bible to what’s going on. Let’s be honest about rape, violence, dehumanization, policing and slave patrols. Sometimes Christian slavers were the most cruel,” Yoo said. “There are so many things Black theologians can teach us.”

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