Douglas Wilson on Slavery and racism

In some up coming posts, I’m going to try and outline the issues concerning Douglas Wilson’s teaching in order to show why it is unhealthy.  But to do so, we need to engage properly with what Wilson is actually saying rather than hearsay or exaggeration and that means we need to take a little time to understand where he is coming from. In fact, I think Wilson has been misunderstood because people cannot get beyond the surface accusations that he is a slavery supporting racist and mysoginistic apologist for rape and paedophilia. 

Wilson himself would, and has, denied and defended himself against such accusations and so it is important to make sure we’ve heard what he actually is saying.  So on racism, Wilson is adamant that we have been made equal in God’s image.  He writes at length in Black and Tan on this about his friendship with Afro-Americans as a child and his experience of seeing the horrors of segregation at work.[1]

However, he goes on to argue that whilst all humanity is equal, he argues that not all cultures are.  He argues that we must value progress in terms of science, technology, academic learning and culture.

“In reaction to the legacy of racism that has long been directed toward blacks, many liberals have adopted the emotionally secure (but intellectually indefensible) position of egalitarianism, the view that equality in the sight of God means sameness in the sight of man. This is the facts-be-damned approach. But there is no effective way to address racial hatreds by insisting that everyone (all together now) start denying the obvious. All men exhibit the image of God equally, but all cultures are not equal. As we look at all the tribes of men, we see some that have landed a man on the moon, and some that have not yet worked out the concept of the wheel. We have some with one whole row in the supermarket dedicated to shampoo, while in another tribe hair is washed in cow urine. We have orchestras playing The Brandenburg Concertos compared to someone beating on a hollow log with a couple of sticks.”[2]

  He insists though that where we see such developments, they are not a cause for cultural and ethnic pride because they reflect the influence of the Gospel on cultures.

“But there are such disparities, and they are present because of the uneven progress of the gospel throughout the world. Everything that we enjoy culturally is simply the grace of God. What do we of “the West” have that we did not receive as a gift? And if as a gift, then why do we boast as though it were not a gift (1 Cor. 4:7)? Before the gospel came to my ancestors, what were we whites (with our alleged soo-perior genetics) doing with ourselves? Well, we were painting ourselves blue…”[3]

At this point, I want to challenge Wilson’s view. The rhetoric here is impressive but I think that there are a couple of questionable moves in his logic. First of all, we do need to recognise that common grace has resulted in technological developments and indeed cultural developments in un-Christianised contexts, so we cannot simply say that it is solely a Gospel consequence.[4] Secondly, we would need to account for the way in which western cultures used the benefit of  technological developments in transportation and military warfare in order to exploit and constrain other cultures.

Thirdly, I believe that Wilson in a way that is unhealthy and unhelpful,  conflates cultural maturity and technological maturity. In the examples he gives of soap and cosmetics or music, it is clear that the two cultures exemplified share a mature and positive concern for hygiene, art and aesthetics. The difference is in the technological execution of those concerns. Furthermore, Wilson does not allow for the negative aspects of technological development on a culture and its morality.  The same developments that enabled a culture to produce medicine, cosmetics, advanced musical instruments etc also enabled it to produce bombs, nuclear weapons and the gas chambers of Auschwitz. 

There is therefore in Wilson’s approach, a western-centric view of how we evaluate cultures which I do not find in Scripture.

On slavery, Wilson insists that it is a positive thing that slavery has been abolished, it is not something he wants to go back to, particularly in the race based form that was prevalent in the States prior to the civil war. He writes:

“The slave trade was an abomination, and those evangelicals in England like William Wilberforce who led the fight against it are rightly considered heroes of the faith.”[5]

He further writes:

“American slavery had the additional complication of its racial basis. And so we as Christians, and especially as American Christians, must denounce as a matter of biblical principle every form of racism, racial animosity, or racial vainglory.”[6]

However, he wants to make the following arguments.  First of all, that in so far as slavery was sinful, the sin was against God and not against the State.[7] Secondly, that the experience of slavery in the southern states was much more benign than has been claimed.[8] Thirdly, that the Bible did allow for and regulate slavery because whilst the result of the Gospel should have been a gradual ending of the slave trade and slave ownership, this was intended to be gradual and evolutionary rather than revolutionary. [9] This means that in his view, attacks on those like Edwards who held slaves and Dabney who resisted abolition are unfair.

I want to come back to the specifics of Wilson’s argument shortly but I think it is helpful to understand first of all what underpins his position because his argument is not primarily to do with race and slavery. Rather we need to remember these four things about Wilson.

  1. He is a post-millennialist who believes we should be optimist about he future because over a lengthy period of history we can expect God’s kingdom to gain ground and transform politics and culture.
  2. Linked to this, he believes in something called Theonomism which is the belief that as a country becomes progressively Christianised, it should conform more and more to God’s Law.
  3. There is a strongly related view held by those from this background that we are protected against tyranny by limiting authority to specific spheres (This is part of the concept of Lex Rex – The Rule of Law). Those spheres are family, church and state.
  4. These things come together so that Wilson claims to be a confederate. In other words, he believes that the southern states were right in the American Civil War in that they were resisting the imposition of an overbearing federal government, the result of which he considers to have been the introduction of such evils and legalised abortion.[10]

At this point, we can see what his issue with the abolition of slavery was.  He believes that this was about the State overstepping its legitimate powers and interfering into another sphere. The matter of slave ownership for him was a private/household and family sphere issue and a sin issue so that it should have been dealt with by the preaching of the Gospel through the church enabling families to respond and to reform household life in conformity with the Gospel. He writes:

“That our nation did not remove slavery in the way it ought to have been removed helps to explain many of our nation’s problems in dealing with contemporary social evils. Those evils include abortion-on-demand, radical feminism, and rampant sodomy. In the pursuit of our constitutional rights, we have legally executed over forty million unborn children in this nation, and we are about to be oppressed with sodomite marriage.”[11]

So, here are the problems I have with Wilson’s position. First of all, I think he is seeking Biblical cover for a particular political position and I’m not sure it is there. I don’t think a Federal Government in the States is any less Biblical than a confederate one.  Secondly, whilst sin is against the Lord, and him alone, because, as we acknowledge that sin also brings harm to others that does mean that the State does has a role in stepping in to protect against harm, hurt and exploitation, in those contexts we talk about crime rather than as well as sin and I do not buy into the notion that the church or the family can shut their doors and say that the state has no jurisdiction there. The point about the spheres of responsibility are to do with what you are responsible for, not where you are responsible for.  This means that abuse of spouses and of children rightly comes under the criminal law too.

Now as to whether or not the African Slave Trade and its consequences in terms of ownership were benign, I would make two simple points. The first is that you can go and read the eyewitness accounts and quite rightly the abolitionists at the time gave short shrift to the notion. Secondly, the act of depriving someone of their liberty, compelling them to work for you without pay and denying them access to things like education, treating them as chattels is in and of itself anything but benign and should be recognised for the unjustifiable abuse that it was.

With regard to Christian slave owners of that time, the argument that they were justified or at least excused in holding to their position for Biblical reasons is refuted by three standards. First of all, that there were evangelical Christians carefully taking the time to show them Biblically why they were wrong. Secondly, a prominent argument of the abolitionists was that it was the enslavers who were innovators so that church history was on the side of the abolitionists. Thirdly, whilst people like Whitfield and Edwards may have argued that the issue was debatable in their day, those supporting slavery by the time of the American Civil war could no longer make that argument.

Furthermore, in suggesting that scripture isn’t categorically pushing for immediate abolition, Wilson concedes far too much to liberal theological hermeneutics. I have argued elsewhere that the redemptive movement hermeneutic which sees the Gospel of creating a trajectory towards abolition does not stand up to scrutiny and yet Wilson in effect endorses it.  Furthermore, within the context of Christians not having control over state power at the time Paul writes, it is clear that he is insisting that Christians voluntarily dismantle the instruments of slave ownership. He does so by insisting that slaves are given their reward.

Wilson argues that in the 1st century, a slave owner would not have been denied membership of a church and therefore he implies that slavery is not on the same level as abortion.  Yet, ironically, he chooses as his example Philemon.

“Suppose a man presented himself for membership in your church. Upon inquiring as to what he did for a living, you learned that he was an abortionist. Should he be admitted into membership? Of course not. Now suppose this same church was moved back in time, and a man presented himself for membership along with three of his slaves. Now what do you do? If he is admitted to membership, then it is clear that abortion and slavery cannot be considered to be ethically equivalent. And if he is refused membership, then what are you going to do when he (his name was Philemon) goes back and tells the apostle Paul what you did to him? For the year was not a.d. 1860 but rather a.d. 60.”[12]

This means we know what Paul would have said to Philemon when he showed up looking for church membership. He would say “okay -but you need to treat those slaves as sons now.”

Wilson is adamant that he neither endorses slavery nor racism and yet I want to suggest that his position on both issues is extremely unhealthy and out of line with what the Bible calls us to. There may not be examples of overt racism and yet his approach gives cover to the kind of ideologies that enable racism to breed.  In that respect whilst his position may seem more nuanced and subtle, I would argue that it is more dangerous. 


[1] See especially Wilson, Douglas . Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America . Canon Press. Kindle Edition. (l444-681).

[2] Wilson, Douglas . Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America . Canon Press. Kindle Edition (l630).

[3] Wilson, Douglas . Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America . Canon Press. Kindle Edition (l644)

[4] Wilson argues that pastors should be amateur historians. Well if we are going to do that we need to be good  ones too. As great as his comment about his ancestors painting themselves blue may work as a rhetorical flourish, it rather misses the point that it wasn’t so much the arrival of the Gospel on these shores that put a stop to that so much as the arrival of the Roman legions. I have great delight in the benefits the Gospel brought but because of that and because I see God’s common grace at work, I don’t need to overclaim for it.

[5] Wilson, Douglas . Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America . Canon Press. Kindle Edition (l689).

[6] Wilson, Douglas . Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America . Canon Press. Kindle Edition (l703)

[7] Wilson, Douglas . Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America . Canon Press. Kindle Edition. (l342).

[8] Wilson, Douglas . Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America . Canon Press. Kindle Edition (l741).

[9] Wilson, Douglas . Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America . Canon Press. Kindle Edition (l718)

[10] See Wilson, Douglas . Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America . Canon Press. Kindle Edition. (l309)

[11] Wilson, Douglas . Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America . Canon Press. Kindle Edition. (l129)

[12] Wilson, Douglas . Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America . Canon Press. Kindle Edition (L783)