A Review of
What Kind of Christianity: A History of Slavery and Anti-Black Racism in the Presbyterian Church
Reviewed by Andrew C. Stout
Why single out Presbyterians? It’s a question that’s fair to ask. The complicity of the American church in slavery, Jim Crow laws, and continuing Black oppression have been well documented, most notably in Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise (2019). Tisby and others have chronicled the sins of Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, and yes, Presbyterian enslavers. The stain of America’s “original sin” of slavery knows no denominational boundaries.
So why does William Yoo, Associate Professor of American Religious and Cultural History at Columbia Theological Seminary, find it important to bring particular attention to the anti-Black racism of his own Presbyterian tradition? Yoo himself claims that “There is nothing inherent in the Reformed faith, such as its doctrines of human depravity or original sin, or distinctive about Presbyterian approaches to biblical interpretation, to explain the capitulation of white Presbyterians to American slavery” (112). So if Reformed theology plays no unique role in providing a rationale for Black oppression, why should the Presbyterian church be singled out in particular?
For Yoo, the answer is more historical and cultural than explicitly theological. He notes that the first half of the nineteenth century – a period that “concurred with the rise of Black enslavement”– was a period of flourishing and growth for Presbyterians (23). Recent books like Joseph S. Moore’s Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ in the Constitution (2016) and Robert M. Copeland and D. Ray Wilcox’s A Candle Against the Dark: Reformed Presbyterians and the Struggle Against Slavery in the United States (2022) have highlighted streams of early American Presbyterianism, descending directly from the Scottish Covenanters, that were fiercely antiracist. While he acknowledges this stream of the tradition, Yoo writes to correct an imbalance. He fears that too many have the impression that the Presbyterianism of the nineteenth century was more or less evenly divided between abolitionists and enslavers. The story he tells is one in which American Presbyterianism as a whole was corrupted by the expanding institution of slavery. Yes, there were individual abolitionist voices within Presbyterianism, but the structures of the Reformed tradition in America were overwhelmingly racist.
What Kind of Christianity is divided into three parts. The first, “The Tragedy,” focuses on the development of Black enslavement in the colonial period and through the first half of the nineteenth century. The second, “The Indictment,” hones in on the specific offenses of white Presbyterians. The third, “The Reckoning,” investigates just how deeply the sin of anti-Black racism has corroded the Presbyterian church in America. The trajectory of Yoo’s history moves toward his own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), but the history and its implications are shared by all Presbyterian denominations, mainline or evangelical.
One of the more striking features of Yoo’s analysis is his critique of the way that divisions within the Presbyterianism of this era have been framed. In some narratives of the divide between northern and southern Presbyterian communions, “Black enslavement is presented as a barrier to church unity rather than a tragedy” (14). Instead of attending to the injustice of the church’s history of enslaving Black people, Presbyterians have treated slavery as an “issue” which sadly presented an obstacle to ecclesiastical unity. Yoo reframes these divisions in order to highlight the actual evil done to enslaved human beings rather than focus on the residual effects of divisions within denominations.
Through extensive historical documentation, Yoo demonstrates attempts by Presbyterians, both clergy and laity, to justify the cruelty of slavery, mask its evils, and treat it as an established good. Yoo effectively counters the objection that the evils of slavery are only clear in hindsight. The slave narratives of the day and the witness of Black Presbyterians like Samuel Cornish and Henry Highland Garnett make clear that voices of protest were always present. More than that, white Presbyterian abolitionists like Jacob Green and James Duncan were confronting their church with the absolute contradiction of enslavement and the confession that human beings are created in the image of God. Yet despite these vocal minorities, the biblical justification for slavery and Black inferiority articulated by the Confederate theologians James Henley Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney held far more sway within the tradition.
Yoo effectively argues that Presbyterian defenses of slavery had far more to do with the centrality of the institution to the southern economy than they did theological arguments or calls for ecclesial unity. Another factor that informed attempts to offer biblical rationales for slavery is what Yoo refers to as “anti-Black racism without white fragility” (131). White Christians, including Presbyterians across Old School/New School and northern/southern divides, often assumed the truth of Black inferiority. The argument from Genesis 9:25-27 that the curse of Noah’s son Ham was a curse on all people with black skin took on plausibility. This interpretation was never uncontested, but its plausibility to so many in the Presbyterian tradition speaks to the corrosive power of cultural assumptions on biblical interpretation.
Presbyterians were not unique in their willingness to ignore the contradiction of owning human beings while also confessing that all people are made in the image of God. However, their tradition – as a Presbyterian myself, I should say our tradition – was uniquely corrupted by it. Even a northern theologian like Charles Hodge would defend the permissibility of slavery when the “unity” of the denomination appeared to be at stake.
When the slaveholding or racist views of beloved historical figures are uncovered, many will appeal to the defense that the offender was “a man of his time.” If that excuse can be claimed for an individual, how much easier for a tradition? After all, we all have blind spots, don’t we? But Yoo exposes such defenses for the deflections that they are. He summarizes a crucial thesis of the book when he states that his condemnation of white Presbyterian racism “is neither a new criticism nor the product of a present perspective aided by the benefit of time” (177). Yoo simply joins the chorus of the prophetic, antiracist, Presbyterian voices that he documents. He doesn’t wade into contemporary controversies surrounding culturally conservative Christian attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement or Critical Race Theory. However, Yoo does point out that we are no less captive than antebellum Presbyterians to the worst elements of American culture.
Some will object that Yoo does not give enough space to abolitionist and antiracist figures within the Presbyterian tradition. And there is a fuller history of both white and Black antiracist Presbyterians yet to be written. However, Yoo sets out to answer the question posed by womanist Presbyterian, Katie Geneva Cannon: “What kind of Christianity allowed white Christians to deny basic human rights and simple dignity to Blacks, these same rights which had been given to others without question?” (1). Answering this question requires that Yoo focus on the context that made such antiracist Presbyterians anomalies within their own tradition. It is a hard and tragic history that he details. It is also part of the work of repentance that leads to a kind of Christianity that more fully reflects the welcome of Jesus and the justice of God.
Andrew C. Stout
Andrew C. Stout is the Access Services Librarian at the University of Missouri - St. Louis. He has also worked as a librarian at Covenant Theological Seminary. His writing has appeared in the journals Religion and the Arts, Pro Ecclesia, Presbyterion, and The Journal of Reformed Theology. Find him on Twitter: @ThomasACStout
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