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Sundays With The Christianists: American History Textbooks For Children In Peculiar Institutions
As we mentioned last week, slavery is a difficult topic for our fundamentalist textbooks to dance around. Written as an antidote to perceived liberal bias in education, these books are certainly not going to dwell on the cruelties of slavery like America-hating liberals, but they don't go so far as to justify it, either. Whenever possible, they mostly address slavery as a divisive political issue that complicated westward expansion and led to the Civil War, while not going into too much detail about the actual conditions of being enslaved. These are two American history books that are untainted by that deck plan of a slave ship that we all know from secular schools. There's no danger that anyone reading these books will come away supporting reparations for slavery. Which was definitely bad, but not as bad as the liberals want children to think. Fill up your coffee mugs, kids, there's a lot to cover this week.
Where a secular textbook might have a full chapter on slavery, our 11th/12th-grade textbook from Bob Jones University Press, United States History for Christian Schools, relegates its discussion to a 2-page text box. It starts off by calling slavery "One of the most offensive features of American society between the Revolution and the Civil War," but quickly slides toward equivocation. The book is at least honest enough to admit that many slave owners used Biblical justifications for slavery, although it does not of course endorse such views, and says that while
the Bible does not specifically condemn slavery, it was difficult to reconcile the practice with the admonition to "love thy neighbour as thyself" (Matt. 22: 39)
For a Christian textbook, U.S. History finds moral relativism fairly easy:
Yet many times moral arguments had to overcome economic and political motives for keeping slavery. In New England, for example, economic reasons helped change attitudes. As the region became more mercantile and less agricultural, slaves became a nuisance rather than an asset ...
In the South. however, the situation was different. First, Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793 made slavery vital to the economy of the lower South. Second, the high percentage of blacks in the South (over a third of the population) caused Southerners to fear the effects of freed slaves on Southern culture and society. Though rare, the violence of slave uprisings, such as Nat Turner's Rebellion, only reinforced these fears. Unfortunately, many Southerners convinced themselves that slavery was the only system that enabled whites and blacks to live together in harmony.
The echoes of Jim Crow in that last line are utterly lost on the editors. But it was pretty harmonious if you weren't a slave, so sure. The book's single paragraph on the physical conditions of slavery gives only an executive summary:
Physical treatment of slaves varied. Some slave holders were undeniably cruel. Examples of slaves beaten to death were not common. but neither were they unknown. Much more common was the use of flogging and other physical punishment to ensure obedience. The large majority of slave holders fed their slaves enough to sustain them in their work, housed them well enough to keep them dry, and clothed them well enough to keep them warm. For most owners. this was simply good business; slaves cost too much to mistreat.
And some "humanitarian" slave owners even took their property to church and taught their property to read and write. There's no mention of how they often raped their property, because this is a polite textbook.
Still, the book admits that "physical mistreatment was only part of the offense of American slavery," and explains that the greatest offense was the complete denial of freedom, giving the slave owner power over all decisions:
As far as most black Americans were concerned, the slavery system sacrificed the rights and responsibilities that God granted to the family.
Yes, even in a discussion of slavery and basic human freedom, we get a shout-out for family values.
After a paragraph explaining that nobody had any good ideas for solving the problems of slavery, and that the South "would not abolish slavery until compelled to do so by military force and constitutional amendment," we get to the homily:
The story of slavery in America is an excellent example of the far-reaching consequences of sin. The sin in this case was greed -- greed on the part of African tribal leaders, on the part of slave traders, and on the part of slave owners, all of whom allowed their love for profit to outweigh their love for their fellow man. The consequences of such greed and racism extended across society and far into the future. It resulted in untold suffering -- most obviously for the black race but for the white race as well. It led at least in part, to the division of a nation and a bloody civil war to reunite it. It instilled a tension and even bitterness between the races in the United States. The Lord has never exaggerated in warning us of sin's devastating consequences -- for us and for our descendants (Exod. 34: 7).
Slavery was bad, so don't sin.
If U.S. History is myopic on the conditions of slavery, our 8th-grade text from A Beka Book, America: Land I Love cheerfully puts on a blindfold. It constantly downplays the impact and extent of slavery, insisting at one point that "Only 6000 families in the entire South had over 50 slaves in 1850." It doesn't bother with boring details about slave auctions or families being divided; in fact, the longest sustained discussion of slavery is embedded in a chapter on the Second Great Awakening, the wave of evangelism that ran through the early decades of the 19th century. Here, we learn that
Although the slaves faced great difficulties, many found faith in Christ and learned to look to God for strength. By 1860, most slave holders provided Christian instruction on their plantations.
Strangely, there's no mention of what that "Christian instruction" consisted of; we're betting there was a lot of emphasis on Ephesians 6: 5 -- "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear." But the emphasis here is on inspirational stories of great slave preachers, such as Caesar McLemore, whose preaching so impressed the Alabama Baptist Convention that "they purchased him from his master" and sent him to "serve as a missionary to plantation workers." You know, the hired hands, probably. The book also does not actually bother to tell us whether they freed him, but it's implied in this incredible line: "Throughout the South, men like Caesar McLemore were given the freedom and opportunity to preach." Yep, freedom and opportunity.
Land I Love uses the story of Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, to emphasize that Jesus made slavery a whole lot better for everyone:
As a young slave, Richard Allen was saved through the preaching of a Methodist circuit rider and immediately began to witness for the Lord. After seeing the wonderful change in Allen’s life, his master became a Christian and gave Allen the option of working extra hours to purchase his freedom.
What a sweetheart -- we're feeling inspired already! Just so there's no misunderstanding about how slaves felt about being owned, the book quotes Allen's own account of gaining his freedom:
We left our master’s house, and I may truly say it was like leaving our father’s house; for he was a kind, affectionate, and tender-hearted master, and told us to make his house our home when we were out of a place or sick. While living with him we had family prayers in the kitchen, to which he would frequently come out himself at the time of prayer, and my mistress with him. At length he invited us from the kitchen to the parlor to hold family prayers, which we attended to.
From the kitchen to the parlor -- makes you wonder why anyone ever wanted slavery to end, doesn't it?
The section closes with a jaw-dropping discussion of the role that music played in the lives of slaves. You may want to have a bucket handy before reading.
To help His children endure the difficulties of slavery, God gave the Christian slaves the ability to spiritually combine the African heritage of song with the dignity and power of Christian praise. Through theNegro spiritual, the slaves developed the patience to wait on the Lord and discovered that the truest freedom is freedom from the bondage of sin. Today, the spiritual is recognized asAmerica’s greatest contribution to the field of music.
This God fellow doesn't really seem to have gotten the point. "You're suffering and in bondage? I'm omnipotent and want you to be free! So let me give you the gift of song -- you should find it a great comfort." But the tone deafness is only getting started:
The song "Go Down Moses" illustrates the comparison made between the slavery of the Hebrew children and that of the African Americans. With a slow and haunting melody, the first verse says:
Go down Moses --
'Way down in Egypt land,
Tell ole Pharaoh,
To let my people go!
Now, this is where a secular textbook would talk about Harriet Tubman, the use of spirituals as code to encourage escape, and the spiritual's not exactly subtle critique of slavery. Not Land I Love. Tubman and the Underground Railroad do get mentioned elsewhere, but according to this textbook, this song had little to do with mere physical slavery:
In these songs, freedom often referred to the spiritual freedom of life with the Savior. The slave who knew Christ had more freedom than a free person who did not know the Savior. By first giving them spiritual freedom, God prepared the slaves for their coming physical freedom.
Wasn't that nice of Him?
Next Week: The Second Great Awakening, the blasphemies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the cult of Mormonism.