Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Wilberforce vs. Dabney

[Noah] said, "Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant." -- Gen 9:26-27

There is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all. -- Col 3:11

I saw the movie Amazing Grace last week on DVD (about the only way I see movies nowadays). While not something that will win an Oscar, it was solidly done.

As other reviewers have pointed out, the movie underplays Wilberforce's evangelical Christianity. It's still there, and viewers will come away with an appreciation for the involvement of "itinerant clergymen" (in the sneering words of their opponent, Lord Tarleton) in England's abolition movement. But Wilberforce's own faith is depicted sentimentally rather than doctrinally.

While I can understand, if not agree, with this portrayal as an effort to make the character more accessible to "mainstream" (ie. secular) audiences, less forgivable is the decision to underplay the hostility of enlightment-era England to the abolitionist movement. The Deists of the day believed that their own manifest racial superiority gave them ample right to enslave less worthy races, and they were particularly hostile to the evangelical Christianity of such as Wilberforce. Lord Melbourne, for instance, in his opposition to the abolitionists, once remarked something to the effect that "It's a sorry thing when religion interferes with matters of state."

This story needs to be told. It is highly ironic that secularists, after opposing Christianity in its effort to abolish the slavery, an institution that predates Christianity, and even Judaism, by millenia, now turn around and blame Christianity for . . . not doing it sooner.

But then, Christianity did not speak with once voice regarding slavery, especially in America. No history of the involvement of religion and slavery would be complete without considering the work of Protestant theologian Robert Dabney. Dabney was a pastor in Virginia when the Civil War broke out, served as a Confederate Chaplain, and eventually became Stonewall Jackson's chief of staff. Two years after the end of the war he wrote A Defense of Virginia in which he laid out the theological case for slavery.

Dabney's non-slavery related theological work is well regarded even today among Protestant theologians, so his book about slavery cannot be summarily dismissed. My goal is to generate a series of posts comparing his work to that of William Wilberforce. This project will probably take the rest of the year (I do not, in fact, have unlimited free time.)

Here are my sources.

Dabney, Robert L., A Defense of Virginia

Wilberforce, William, A Letter on Abolition, 1807

Wilberforce, William, An Appeal in Behalf of the Negro Slaves, 1823.

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