There is a part of me that wants to run from this topic….slavery. Just saying the word invokes thoughts of anger, indignation and unbelief.
To give an example of my inner resentment towards slave-owners (and racism), I watched The Help with my wife (a recent movie about a white woman chronicling the stories of African-American maids) and made this comment to her during the final credits, “I have never wanted to punch so many white women in my life.”
By the way, just so the readers are clear…..I HAVE NEVER HIT A WOMAN….EVER (white, black or any other ethnic group)!
So why write about it? Two reasons: 1) Charles Hodge wrote about it and 2) he lived through the Civil War era.
Charles Hodge grew up in the most volatile time in America’s history. The Civil War claimed thousands of lives and the issue of slavery could not be avoided. As a Christian, a theologian and a churchman, Dr. Hodge knew it was his responsibility to help Presbyterians (and Christians in general) think through this issue.
What was Dr. Hodge’s position on slavery? Well, I would define it as the title suggests: He was a moderate and a gradualist.
During Hodge’s lifetime, there were three approaches to the slavery issue. Either you were pro-slavery, a gradualist or an abolitionist.
Now for most of us, anything position other than the abolitionist stance is reprehensible. So how did Dr. Hodge defend his position? Let’s hear from the man himself:
“How did they (Christ and the apostles) treat it (the issue of slavery)? Not by denunciation of slave-holding as necessarily and universally sinful. Not by declaring that all slaveholders were men-stealers and robbers, and consequently to be excluded from the church and the kingdom of heaven. Not by insisting on immediate emancipation.”
We must remember that Hodge, like many others during his day, believed the issue of slavery was predominately a state issue and therefore, the role of the church was to simply promote the gospel. Regarding the influence of the church, Hodge states:
“The South (the side that was predominately pro-slavery) therefore, has to choose between emancipation to the silent and holy influence of the gospel, securing the elevation of the slave to the stature and character of freemen, or abide the issue of a long continued conflict against the law of God.”
Past and present critics of Dr. Hodge have asserted that the gradualist approach was too passive. They interpreted his approach as indifference to the created purpose of man or the imago dei (i.e. humans are made in the image of God). For Hodge, though, it was more complex than simply releasing slaves. He believed that immediate emancipation would cause civil, societal and cultural chaos.
What did Dr. Hodge propose through the lens of the gradualist approach? His biographer writes:
“To achieve the goal of producing freedom for blacks gradually, Hodge proposed means by which they could achieve that freedom within a generation. He endorsed the emancipation of all those born in slavery when they reached their twenty-fifth birthday. He urged adoption of educational practices that would elevate slaves.” (p. 176)
At this point, though most readers would agree that “immediate emancipation is the best option”, Hodge’s propositions would (to most readers) seem reasonable and realistic. But the following solution brought the most criticism against Hodge when he urged the extradition of freed slaves. His biographer continues,
“(Extraditing the freed slaves) to the republic of Liberia would offer the opportunity for freed slaves not only to live out their freedom productively but to engage in an evangelistic mission—to ‘carry with them the seeds of religion, civilization and liberty to an entire continent’.
Again, it would be easy at this point to condemn Hodge. Critics argued that the extradition of freed slaves would not solve the issue of racism, if anything it reinforces the thinking that races cannot or (even worse) should not co-exist.
But was Dr. Hodge being racist or just being realistic? History tells us that 100 years will pass until the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., bringing our country to its knees, finally causing us to deal with the issue of racism. Advocates of colonization would argue that slaves would have not only freedom, but freedom from the tension (and violence) of white-black racial relations. In other words, colonization would at least have brought a temporary fix.
***It should be noted the solution of colonization was never implemented in American history for economic and pragmatic reasons.
Now it is probably time to defend the actions of Dr. Hodge.
Here is my defense: Dr. Hodge was trying to be biblical.
There is no getting around this hard fact: THE AUTHORS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT NEVER COMMANDED THE IMMEDIATE EMANCIPATION OF SLAVES. Instead, the apostles seemed to encourage slaves to remain in their current state.
1 Corinthians 7:21-24 Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
Many Christians have struggled with the silence of the apostles on this issue. Yet the reason is simple: The gospel frees the individual of their spiritual bondage, but not necessarily the temporary bondage of a sin-cursed world. Jesus came to “seek and save those who were (spiritually) lost”, not necessarily rescue those who are in a bad marriage, oppressed by an evil government (Romans 13:1-5) or from an earthly slave owner (Philemon 1:10-14). It seems that the apostles believed that as the gospel permeates society, whether through the salvation of slave owners or those who are in government or through the people themselves, heart change will produce and promote moral, ethical and (in theory) societal reformation. Therefore, let every Christian take seriously the command to “be His witnesses” while He is away (Acts 1:8-11).
In conclusion, is slavery wrong? Yes. Is racism wrong? Yes.
What is the answer? The gospel. Charles Hodge knew this and advocated the gradualist approach because of it.