The Problem of Slavery in Christian America: An Ethical-Judicial History of American Slavery and Racism by Joel McDurmon

The Problem of Slavery in Christian America: An Ethical-Judicial History of American Slavery and Racism cover imageSummary: A legal and historical look at the development of slavery in the US written and oriented toward theonomist leaning Christians. 

I honestly am not sure how to talk about The Problem of Slavery in Christian America.  The history is very good and helpful. But the political and theological bias of the author, primarily coming out in later sections makes it hard to completely recommend the book.

Part One is focused on the judicial and legal history of the development of slavery in the US, and it is excellent. I learned a ton, and I have over a hundred highlights to show how helpful I found this part. The most helpful is the close reading of the legal development of slavery and how that development undercuts some of the Lost Cause historical revisionism about the reality of slavery.

There has been a very long history of Christians opposing slavery, from very early, out of broad concerns about the love of neighbor and the golden rule reasoning and opposition to the cruelty of slave systems. Even though the British Common Law system did allow for slavery, there was a reasonably strict understanding that other Christians could not be enslaved and that limitations to slavery. The American (and Caribbean) development of slavery rejected British laws to be freer to enslave people.

In part, this desire to enslave was a counter to the system of indentured servitude (which was time-limited but still a form of slavery). Indentured servitude was, in many cases (but not all) a voluntary system where a person agreed to enter service for an agreed period in exchange for payment of the passage to America and room and board during the time of service. But indentured service was not producing enough workers at the rates that tobacco planters were willing to pay. Also, once free, indentured servants could become planters and compete with other planters. Indentured service was a type of apprenticeship at its best where a person would learn a trade and be set up for a future career. (Many indentured servants were very much abused, but there was legal recourse in the system even if it was still often a brutal system.)

Within 40 years of the first African people being brought to Virginia, the slave system was more clearly established. Virginia House of Burgesses created tax breaks (tariff reductions) for ships that would bring Africans to be enslaved, which created a supply. And the House of Burgesses gave land to anyone that purchased newly enslaved people, which created a demand. And it created systems that discouraged indentured servants from working to escape with enslaved Africans by making white indentured servants (or others) liable for the total value of escaped enslaved people as well as a criminal penalty. It was about the same time that mixed-race children were addressed in the legal system. Under British Common Law, a child born out of wedlock became the state’s obligation, who could then investigate to find the father and hold the father liable for the economic costs of raising the child. In that British system, the father’s status determined the status of the child. A free father meant that the child was free regardless of the mother’s status. The combination meant that enslaved women who were not legally married required the state to determine and punish the father and free the child. The House of Burgesses changed the law to make the child’s status follow the mother (the Roman system, where “the offspring follows the womb”), which in the context was what applied to livestock within the British Common Law system. Legally, slave children moved from the human legal system to the livestock legal system. And illegitimate children of enslaved people not only were no longer a legal liability for the state but became an asset to their enslaver (and often rapist). It took a couple more decades to make interracial marriage illegal formally and to establish punishments for white women who had mixed-race children (regardless of marital status), but before 1700 most states both legally and culturally prohibited miscegenation while removing any legal restrictions against the rape of enslaved women. Even where there were laws against the rape of enslaved (or free) Black women, there were virtually universal prohibitions against any Black people testifying against White citizens, in part because the enslaves were legally chattel and free Black people were not considered citizens.

McDurmon also details how slavery was a problem for the northern states as well. Within 25 years of creating the Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies, there was a legal establishment of slave systems that could capture and sell Native Americans locally and to the Caribbean and import enslaved Africans. Most slave ships that brought enslaved people to the English colonies and were owned by people within the English colonies were from New England. And New England’s primary exports were provisions and food for the Caribbean slave colonies, which were not self-sufficient for their foodstuff. Rhode Island, in particular, was essential to the slave trade. And as McDurmon makes the case, “Between the transatlantic slave trade and West Indian provisioning trade, it is hard to imagine any eighteenth-century Rhode Islander whose livelihood was not entangled, directly or indirectly, with slavery.”

Abolitionists started working against slavery reasonably early. The first abolitionist pamphlet appears to have been written by 1645. By 1723, Virginia made it illegal to free enslaved people for almost any reason. And those few reasons which were allowed required the owner to deport the newly freed person from the state. It also made it illegal for church groups to purchase enslaved people to free them. But as abolitionists began to raise concerns, the chattel nature of American slavery was made more explicit. A 1754 Act included this line, “WHEREAS, by the laws of this Province, negroes and other slaves are deemed to be chattels personal, and are, in every respect, as much the property of their owners, as any other goods or chattels are.”

I have already spent too much time on the parts of the book that I thought were very helpful. I need to at least mention where I am more concerned. First, I did not know when I picked the book up that Joel McDurmon is a Theonomist, and for four years, was the head of American Vision, a local to me non-profit that promotes Christian Reconstructionism.  Many but not all, Theonomists and Christian Reconstructionists are overt Christian Nationalists in the sociological sense of that term. The Classical Christian homeschool movement attached to Doug Wilson is heavily invested in a problematic approach to nationalism and ethnocentrism, if not outright racism. Joel McDurmon is trying to oppose the type of Neo-confederate whitewashing of the history of Doug Wilson while still maintaining his theonomist orientation. So part two of the book, where McDurmon directly addresses Christian involvement, is very mixed. The section that addresses Lost Cause theologians like Robert Dabney is helpful because he writes as an insider to groups that frequently use Dabney’s biblicist theology to defend the bible. But as McDurmon points out, the biblicism of Dabney was used primarily to support white supremacy, not to defend against theological liberalism. It isn’t just more fringe groups like Douglas Wilson that continue to recommend Robert Dabney, the Gospel Coalition and John Piper still recommend Robert Dabney’s books and cite him positively. So I do want to affirm McDurmon’s work to point out the white supremacy of theologians that continue to be cited today.

But the final section of the book McDurmon uses his libertarian thinking and citations of Thomas Sowell to oppose structural redress of slavery and racism. He is very aware of the actual long-term results of racism and slavery. He has no problem using the words “white supremacy” to detail the cultural belief of racial superiority within the broader culture and the church. But he opposes all structural, especially governmental redress. Why does he do this, because he opposes all government social programs, not just social programs around racial redress of wrong, but even public schooling. “Lest there be any confusion, no one has written more forcefully than myself opposing the state and statist, socialist programs, including public schools.” Ignoring the origin of public schooling by the Puritans so that all could read the Bible, he views public schooling as a leftist threat, which has only spread because of the sin of Christians to not step up to right wrongs in other ways.

There is also a stylistic problem which was grating, but I know it is stylistic. Current academic and stylistic bias is not to use Black or White as a noun but an adjective. In other words, do not say, ‘The blacks did x.” But instead, say, “Black citizens of the United States did x.” Several older books do this, but this is not an older book; the Problem of Slavery in Christian America was published in 2019.

My notes and highlights can be found here

The Problem of Slavery in Christian America: An Ethical-Judicial History of American Slavery and Racism by Joel McDurmon Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

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