That Subversive Social Gospel

In chapter 2 of his fascinating book, Exodus and Liberation, John Coffey recounts the use of Exodus imagery in the English Civil War(s) and the American Revolution. English Parliamentarians, Protestants, and Puritans and American Patriots deployed it purposefully to link liberation from spiritual slavery with liberation from political slavery.

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In the following chapter, Coffey describes how those who put the imagery and language of Exodus to such effective use quickly sought to limit its deployment by those arguing for the liberation of actual slaves—those held in bondage by the very same people who had achieved their political liberation.

Quoting another scholar, Coffey writes:

[T]he revolutionaries’ critique of political slavery created an “infectious” “contagion of liberty”: “The movement of thought was rapid, irreversible, and irresistible. It swept past boundaries few had set out to cross, into regions few had wished to enter.” Above all, it threw into question the legitimacy of black chattel slavery.

That is, the rhetoric of liberation from bondage was so pervasive and so effective that it was inevitable that slaves forcibly taken from Africa would put it to use to advocate for their own freedom.

Despite the obvious inconsistency, “[d]efenders of slavery worked very hard to quarantine the infectious biblical language of freedom by insisting that ‘the Liberty of Christianity is entirely spiritual’” (p. 80).

He then tells the story of the Quaker Anthony Benezet, of which the following is an excerpt:

It is telling that Benezet sought out allies who would share this prophetic ethos. He labored assiduously to establish a transatlantic antislavery movement, both by publishing tracts and writing letters to religious and political leaders. In particular, he targeted key Evangelicals, whose religious zeal and rising influence made them a strategic force. He republished Whitefield’s 1740 letter to the slaveholders of the South, but lamented the fact that “after residing in Georgia” the revivalist had become so “habituated to the sights & use of Slaves” that he had defended slaveholding. Despite challenging Whitefield “repeatedly, with brotherly freedom,” he made little headway. Whitefield’s patron, Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, was no more responsive. Benezet told her that Christians had a duty to work for “the deliverance of their fellow-men, from outward as well as spiritual oppression and distress.” The countess, despite being the patron of several black writers on both sides of the Atlantic, was wary of this potentially subversive social gospel. The first generation of Evangelicals—led by Whitefield and the Moravians—helped to create a new black Christianity by taking the message of redemption to slaves, but like Luther they insisted that spiritual liberty would not undercut earthly subservience” (pp. 87-88).

Protestants instinctively felt that their Gospel was incompatible with political slavery; it would prove harder to persuade them that it was incompatible with black slavery (p. 86).

Coffey exposes the shameful hypocrisy (my word, not Coffey’s) of those who repeatedly pressed the implications of the Christian gospel for their own political gain, but then stressed its purely spiritual quality in order to prevent the liberation of others.

As the story continues, evangelicals soon became vigorous advocates for the abolition of slavery.

There’s much that can be said here, but I’ll simply note that I was struck by this historical parallel to contemporary American evangelical ambivalence when it comes to the social implications of the gospel.

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3 responses to “That Subversive Social Gospel

  • Peter

    This book looks fascinating. As an English evangelical, I’ve always erred toward overemphasis on the “social” (I was actually a social worker for quite a number of years). As I have gotten older and learned more, I’ve tried to be more careful with the unhelpful “left” and “right” labels. But this historical insight is really interesting.

    • timgombis

      Thanks for this, Peter. It surely is a universal phenomenon that Christians struggle to know how to live out the gospel, but it’s a particularly American phenomenon that has allied the gospel’s “freedom” with a variety of Enlightenment-oriented values wrapped up in personal liberty, rights, etc.

      And certainly it’s a perversion to ally the gospel with causes of “right” or “left,” as you say, but there’s a persistent resistance to the gospel’s call to put off selfishness and try on practices of sharing and self-giving love.

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