Saturday, September 03, 2011

Slaveowner or Slave liberator -- who burns in Hell?

In 1852, a well-regarded Kentucky clergyman, the perhaps ironically named Reverend Joseph Priest, wrote a popular tract assuring readers that slave-ownership was not simply perfectly Biblically correct, but was itself essentially a holy duty, writing that "the institution of slavery received the sanction of the Almighty". Priest waxed eloquently on slavery, declaring that:

Its legality was recognized, and its relative duties regulated by our Saviour, when upon Earth; that it was established in wisdom, and has been wisely continued through all ages, and handed down to us in mercy; and that the relation of master and servant harmonizes strictly with the best interests of the inferior or African race in particular, in securing to him that protection and support which his native imbecility of intellect disqualifies him from securing for himself.

Other priests may disagree, but this Priest tells us, "the mere fact of being a slaveholder will not, in our humble judgment, debar a man from an entrance into that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." And, Priest thence direly warned that "the existence of free blacks in any community, whether free or slave, is universally admitted to be an evil of no minor consideration. Their removal, therefore, is a matter deeply affecting the interests and well-being of both races."

Priest's book runs to over 500 pages of thoroughly documented and parsed out passages from Old Testament and New, classing American-style race-based slavery not simply as a non-sinful institution, but a positively blessed undertaking brought into being by God directly and carried forth with the promise of God's blessing and certain reward to the slaveowner. The work ends with a thorough condemnation of abolitionists as thieves and fomenters of discord, in other words classing them as sinners whose very agitation for abolition has earned them eternal hellfire. Priest's book ends with pages upon pages of endorsements from various compatriots of the day, praising the correctness of his analysis. Thousands of copies were sought and obtained throughout the American South, to be held up as examples of the proof that God undoubtedly loved slavery and the slavemaster, and condemned opponents of slavery. And this was one of hundreds, if not thousands, of works written by scores of literate and well-versed Christian leaders arriving at the same conclusion.

But naturally, though this be the majority view, there were contradictory works written by Christian leaders as well, though of a different geography. Those mostly Northern voices arrived at quite opposite conclusions, citing chapter and verse to condemn slavery as a sin in the harshest terms, agitating for the liberation of the slaves, and in some instances (though hardly with uniform universality) praising those who would liberate slaves from their owners. And, verily, some of the very authors of abolitionist Biblical readings were no doubt themselves amongst the breakers of chains and the hiders of fugitive slaves.

So here we have a stark divide -- for if Priest and his ilk are correct, than slavery was never any sin but was instead God's own blessed work on Earth. And so the slaveholder who bought slaves on the block, steadfastly worked them every day of his life, whipped them when they were disobedient or chafed for freedom, and died without a drop of remorse for all this, will be rewarded with a clear passage to Heaven; but, those who broke chains and hid fugitives were thieves, who stole slaves which were the property of that or any other slaveowner. And those who stole were scum in the eyes of God, unforgiven, condemned to eternal Hell. And indeed, those who authored tracts condemning slavery were equally hated by God, and equally condemned.

But on the other hand, if it is the abolitionist clerics who are correct, it is then the unrepenting slaveowners who have sinned, and who are spurned by God and descend to the eternal fires of Hell along with those who advocated for slavery as God's word and will. Meanwhile, those who liberated slaves have so earned passage to Heaven, in the view of the abolitionists.

So, as between them, and assuming no other arguably sinful concerns are at issue, who now burns in Hell? Those who owned slaves and believed it rightful to do so? Or those who schemed to free slaves from their masters and believed it rightful to do so? Naturally, in modernity the politically correct answer is surely to put the slaveowners in Hell, and credit instead of condemning the abolitionists.

Now there are, it must be confessed, two other possibilities. One being that both the slaveowner and the slave liberator burn for their respective deeds, just as he steals from a thief becomes a thief as well without absolving the original thief of their thiefdom, and he who murders a murderer is a murderer still; the other being that the whole conceit is a matter of myth, and so neither one is condemned as a matter of course for their part in the grand charade.

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