Bible-believing Christians were NOT the perpetrators of Southern slavery and abuse. They were the heroes who opposed the white supremacist “science” that contradicted the scriptures and supported slavery. When polygenism (the belief that each race had a separate parentage and were, therefore, a sub-species of the white race) was promoted by Enlightenment philosophers, Harvard scientists, and the National Academy of Science, the abolitionists (who were mocked and called “anti-scientific”) insisted that the Bible was the truth, and argued that all races came from Adam and Eve, therefore, they were all equal and all human. They declared that God’s Word had more authority than science and that the Bible proclaimed:
“[God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth . . . ” – Acts 17:26a, KJV
The history of the Christian battle against scientific racism isn’t very well known, but it should be! The battle was fought in both England and America. The abolitionists argued that since all races descended from Adam, they were all brothers. They believed in the brotherhood of men because they all had one father (Adam).
In England, as traders and explorers went out into the world, Christians began to hear stories of how the darker races were being abused and/or taken into slavery, so in order to defend people of color from the abuse of white colonizers, Christians set up the Aborigines Protection Society. Out of this group, the Ethnological Society of London would form. Their motto, ab uno sanguine (“from one blood”) came directly from Acts 17:26 and was a direct affront to polygenism. Some members would become part of the Clapham Sect, an evangelical antislavery group which included William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian whose perseverance is credited with abolishing slavery in the entire British Empire. John Newton, the former slave trader and writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace” was a spiritual mentor to William Wilberforce.
In America, Reverend John Rankin, upon discovering that his brother had just purchased slaves, wrote a series of letters using appeals to compassion and arguments from the scriptures to successfully convince him that slavery was wrong. When those letters were gathered and put into book form, they became one of the most influential tools of the antislavery movement. Rankin joined with William Lloyd Garrison to help create the American Antislavery Society. He would often be attacked by mobs. Rankin’s home was also a major stop on the Underground Railroad. He would proclaim, based on his reading of the Scriptures:
It must be admitted that the Africans and the rest of mankind have all sprung from one common father; and consequently all, originally were alike free. The right to freedom belongs to the Africans. (1)
John Bird Sumner, the Archbishop of Canterbury and cousin of William Wilberforce, argued against polygenism in his book, A Treatise in the Records of the Creation. He would be ridiculed as an evangelical whose trust in the scriptures made him blind to scientific facts.
Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave turned abolitionist, also battled scientific racism. He mockingly referred to the ethnologists/phrenologists Samuel Morton, George Gliddon, Josiah Nott, and Louis Agassiz as a “phalanx of learned men.” In a speech given at Western Reserve College entitled, “The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered,” he asked that the truthfulness of a scientific theory be judged by its fruit. He understood the limits of science in determining truth and argued that . . .
. . . viewed apart from the authority of the Bible, neither unity [monogenism] or diversity [polygenism] of origin of the human family, can be demonstrated. (2)
He also mocked the “scientific” and “religious” justifications used by the Southerners. Notice the appeal to polygenism in the following statement of the slaveholder. Even though the Bible doesn’t say anything about God designing whites to be the “thinkers” and blacks to be the “workers,” Douglass described how the slaveholders expressed a “scientific” view by wrapping it up in spiritualized language.
Look at your hard, horny hands—see how nicely they are adapted to the labor you have to perform! Look at our delicate fingers, so exactly fitted for our station, and see how manifest it is that God designed us to be his thinkers, and you the workers—Oh! The wisdom of God! (3)
The battle to uphold God’s Word as an authority over scientific authority raged during the slave era. In 1833, Richard H. Colfax would write a pamphlet, Evidence Against the Views of the Abolitionists, which would cite Jefferson, Voltaire, Gibbon, and others, asserting the polygenist view that the black race was inferior. The Charleston Medical Journal published a debate between Dr. Morton, who held a polygenist view, and Rev. John Bachman, who held a monogenist (one parental origin of the species) view. The Southern Presbyterian Review held a monogenist view, while De-Bow’s Review and Southern Quarterly Review both held a polygenist view. We can look back now and see the wisdom and truth in the views of those who upheld the scriptures.
It is a perversion of history to argue that Bible-believing evangelicals were responsible for white supremacy. There were two groups of Christians during the slave era–one that blended their Christianity with pseudoscientific views which conflicted with the scriptures and who cherry-picked the verses they wanted to obey (much like the progressive Christians who cherry-pick the Word concerning sexuality or add unbiblical Critical Race Theory to their Christian beliefs)–and one that faithfully stood on the Word of God even when it meant they would be attacked by mobs and rejected by the intelligentsia.
- Rev. John Rankin, Letters on American Slavery, Addressed to Mr. Thomas Rankin (Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1838), 70-71.
- Frederick Douglass, “’The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered,’ an Address Before the Literary Societies of Western Reserve College, At Commencement, July 12, 1854.” The Frederick Douglass Papers, 10, The Library of Congress. Accessed 22 July 2019. https://www.loc.gov/resource/rbaapc.07900/?sp=12.
- Frederick Douglass, “The Church and Prejudice” speech delivered at the Plymouth Church Antislavery Society, Dec. 23, 1841. University of Rochester. Frederick Douglass Project. Accessed July 22, 2019. https://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/4369.