Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. I will not attempt to write an article praising his greatness; other writers can do that better than myself. However, a particular group of people need to be addressed as to why Lincoln is considered our greatest President: Conservatives and Conservative Christians who believe that Lincoln and the North were wrong and that the South was right. I had some spirited discussions on this topic in the Mens' Dorm in Seminary. As to why some of these people have a negative opinion toward Lincoln and think the South was right, that will be addressed in a future column to appear in this series. For now I will express my astonishment that some consider the effort to abolish slavery and subdue the South to be on the wrong side of the theological debate. Some believe that because the South is now designated as the "Bible Belt", that the Old South was a bastion of true Christianity fighting a doomed battle to prevent the Godless modernist North from wiping out the last vestiges of the true faith in this nation. Because some plantation owners professed to follow Christ, some have a benign view of what slavery was like. They don't understand slavery's soul-destroying effects upon those held in bondage. The slaves were denied every vestige of human dignity and the effects of slavery caused Southern whites to live in the grossest of sins. One of the best ways to understand Lincoln's greatness is to understand just how evil the system he was instrumental in destroying actually was. For that purpose, we need to hear the testimony of slaves who actually survived the hell that was slavery in the United States. In the following articles we will hear from two former slaves. Both comment not only on the evil deeds they witnessed, but also on the hypocritical religion that called itself Christianity that made their plight even worse. Both were believers in God and were able to distinguish between the true Gospel and the planter's religion that was used as a further pillar to buttress such an evil system. It signifies nothing that many in the North were racists as well; to read the personal testimony of these former slaves shows the justice of its forceful abolition and just who's side God favored in the conflict. God was on the side of the slaves, and any theology that seeks to argue otherwise is at odds with the heart of God.
The first former slave we shall hear from is Frederick Douglass who escaped from slavery in Maryland in the 1830's and wrote Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave in 1845. It is from this work that I will quote from. We will begin by reading some of his earliest childhood memories, and how slave owners did all in their power to destroy all the bonds of family among the slaves:
"I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsbourough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember ever to have met a slave who could tell of his birthday...A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and the evidence of a restless spirit...
"My mother was named Harriet Bailey...My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me . My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant--before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at an early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman too old for field labor. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child's affection towards its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.
"I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night. She was hired by Mr. Stewart, who lived about twelve miles from my home. She made her journeys to see me at night, travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of the day's work. She was a field hand, and a whipping is the penalty of not being in the field at sunrise...I do not recollect ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but before long I waked and she was gone...She died when I was about seven years old...I was not allowed to be present during her illness , at her death, or burial. She was gone long before I knew anything about it. Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.
"...slave holders have ordained, and by law established, that the children of slave women follow the condition of their mothers, and this is done too obviously to administer to their own lusts, and make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable, for by this cunning arrangement, the slave holders, in cases not a few, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father.
"My first master's name was Anthony. I do not remember his first name...His farms and slaves were under the care of an overseer. The overseer's name was Plummer. Mr. Plummer was a miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster. He always went armed with a cowskin and a very heavy cudgel. I have known him to cut and slash the womens' heads so horribly, that even master would be enraged at his cruelty, and would threaten to whip him if he did not mind himself. It required extraordinary barbarity on the part of an overseer to affect him. He was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slave holding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of the day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip to make her scream, and whip to make her hush; and not until overcome with fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood clotted cowskin. I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but remember it well. It was the first of a long series of outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was the most terrible spectacle, I wish I could commit to paper the feelings, with which I beheld it...I was so terrified and horror stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet...I had never seen anything like it before...I had therefore been, until now, out of the way of the bloody scenes that often occurred on the plantation."
I heard a theologian say recently that if Christians disobeyed all the verses in the Bible commanding us to protect the most vulnerable, then Christians would be disobeying 60% of the whole Bible. What kind of theology condemns the Civil War fought by the North which would never have occurred but for slavery which resulted in the destruction of that institution that so brutalized its victims such as Frederick Douglass and his family? Any one care to reply?
Part II will cover more of Frederick Douglass's testimony.