I’ve read the essay “Southern Slavery as It Was” by Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins (Canon Press, 1996), and it is historically inaccurate and theologically arrogant. Of the hundreds of books on slavery, the authors chose a single volume that fit their purposes: Engerman and Fogel's Time on the Cross. The authors neglect to inform us that Herbert Gutman wrote a critique of this book entitled Slavery and the Numbers Game. A review in the American Historical Review states: "Gutman has destroyed the mathematical mystique of Time on the Cross, punctured its claims of novelty, accuracy, and understanding . . . ."
The Moscow Pullman Daily News (Nov., 8&9) covered Wilson and Wilkins’ misuse of historical documents in some detail, and two University of Idaho historians have weighed in with a devastating critique (www.webs.uidaho.edu/ diversity). Wilson is going to have to do better than correct their spelling errors to prove himself an intellectually honest writer. In a Daily News column (Opinion, Nov. 21), Wilson had a chance to clear his name, but he was as evasive as usual.
Members of Christ Church don’t seem to realize the gravity of their pastor Wilson’s transgressions. Whenever Holocaust denier David Irving speaks, most people wince in emotional pain because of the outrageous claims that he makes. Similarly, when Wilson praises the slave owning South as the greatest multiracial society in world history, all right thinking people are horrified. This is not a matter of having a minority scholarly position on the Civil War. No, this is a gross misuse of historical data to give a perverted theological twist to the “justice” of the Confederate cause.
My training is in theology not history, so let us turn to a few of the astounding claims that Wilson/Wilkins make in this area: “By the time of the [Civil] War, the leadership of the South was conservative, orthodox, and Christian. By contrast, the leadership of the North was radical and Unitarian”(p. 12). In contrast to the righteous Confederates, the abolitionists in the North were “wicked” and were “driven by a zealous hatred for the Word of God” (p. 13).
For pastors such as Wilson and Wilkins who believe in the absolute sovereignty of God, they should be the last ones to take divine judgment into their own hands. Only God chooses who the true Christians are where the wicked live. Wilson and Wilkins, however, are following in the footsteps of Jerry Falwell who once declared that God does not answer the prayers of Jews. Again this is surely for God alone to decide, not mere sinful mortals.
Wilson cannot separate the issues of racism and slavery. Many Americans not only believed that Africans were inferior beings, it was also for a time infamously inscribed in the Constitution. Steve Wilkins is a member of the League of the South, which has been identified as a “white supremacist hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The League of the South believes the Southern States should again leave the the union and establish a Calvinist utopia as the new Confederate States of America.
Wilson/Wilkins propose that the Confederates did not win because they were not godly enough and that some of them did not treat their slaves as nicely as the others did. The authors have special condemnation for masters who had sex with their slaves. They claim that biblical practices were far superior on these points.
Let us test this thesis by looking at Abraham, presumably the most godly man in the Old Testament. Sarah convinced Abraham to have sex with her servant Hagar and that union produced a son named Ishmael. Sarah grew to despise Hagar and persuaded Abraham to cast Hagar and his son out into the desert to die. The Wilson/Wilkin thesis about godly treatment of servants is defeated in one blow. And what is more, Abraham is pushed around by a vengeful wife--hardly a model of patriarchal control and wifely submission that Wilson preaches to his congregation.
But even if the master treats his slaves benevolently, Wilson neglects to confront the fundamental moral question: is it right for a person to own another person? If the Bible speaks universal truth in all of its details, then its deity should have condemned slavery without reference to cultural practices.
Wilson and Wilkins make the incredible claim that since the Bible condones slavery but condemns kidnapping, it was not sinful for people to own Africans that they themselves did not ship from Africa. This is as absurd as Buddhists who rationalize meat eating because they claim they were not involved in the slaughter of the animal itself.
In 1977 conservative evangelical philosopher Stephen Davis wrote a book entitled Debate about the Bible. In this book he expressed his despair about a dilemma that had troubled him for some time. He was taught that the biblical God was good, but he also read that this same God commanded the genocide of the Canaanites. Davis finally concludes that Christians make God a moral monster if they defend the Bible on all points, as Wilson would have them to do. Christians would be held up to ridicule if they supported actions that their own moral sensibilities would reject.
In an open letter to the community, Roy Atwood, dean of New St. Andrews College, rejects “racial slavery—past or present,” but his own pastor Wilson claims that righteous Christians in a racist society had biblical sanction to own slaves. I challenge Atwood to either reconcile this fundamental contradiction or to constitute a hearing board to determine if Doug Wilson, a Senior Fellow of Theology, stands in violation of the college’s principles.
For more on Wilson’s support for racial slavery see www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/wilsononslavery.htm. For more on the League of the South and the neo-Confederate movement see Edward H. Sebesta and Euan Hague, “The US Civil War as a Theological War: Confederate Christian Nationalism and the League of the South,” Canadian Review of American Studies 32:3 (2002), pp. 253-284.