Despite its many hypocrisies, the awful truth is that pro-slavery Protestantism was sincere and consistent. It is less a unique aberration than an example of Protestantism’s protean adaptability. Southern society needed a religious justification for slavery, so Protestants provided it. There was no central religious authority who could tell them that they were wrong, and when their national churches expressed qualms, they simply walked away. Pro-slavery Protestantism did not lose the argument; it lost a war. That catastrophe was accepted by most of slavery’s former religious defenders as divine judgment. The consensus came to be that they had failed to built a truly Christian slavery and had tolerated too many abuses. If some continued quietly to believe that slavery might sometimes be justified, they nevertheless accepted the reality that American slavery was gone.
-Alec Ryrie, Protestants
Quite a paragraph.
Quite a book.
The truth is that the Bible does not prohibit slavery, it regulates it. That’s a controversial statement, but Ryrie runs through the options and arrives at a similar conclusion.
One of the things that impelled the English Evangelicals in their push to abolish slavery was that the Americans won the revolutionary war. Surely a sign that God was not with England, as Ryrie, who likes to point out such ironies, remarks. Not long before, in the French and Indian war, the North American subjects of England had wondered if that moment had not come on them because of national sins. And, as the paragraph above demonstrates, Ryrie is making something of a theme of that idea. When America won the war with England, it meant God was on our side, obviously. He has a persistent, gentle and effective way of mocking what we often do.
Ryrie believes the Gospel ultimately opposes slavery, though the Bible does not. I think that is a statement calculated to make people uneasy. It depends on what you think the Gospel is. One question for Ryrie would be to wonder where he believes the Gospel comes from. Still, the man presents the dilemma neatly: either slavery is wrong and the Bible is too, or the Bible is not wrong and neither is slavery. You can see him running through the options and discarding all but these alternatives if you get the book.
This is the strongest example I’ve encountered of how Ryrie, himself a Protestant, impresses the historical record on his readers in the pages I’ve read. It is a rewarding book just for the challenges it presents. He makes you think, he questions accepted categories, and he makes it hard to argue with him. No doubt on this and other subjects he can be challenged. Here is the thing: he’s making sure the challenges are about consequential and not trivial matters.