Slavery, Sin, and the Rise of Liberal Protestantism

Ed. note: A lot of you are probably familiar with this book already, but here's a nice review of Molly Oshatz's new book, from Choice.

Oshatz, Molly.  Slavery and sin: the fight against slavery and the rise of liberal Protestantism.    Oxford, 2012.  183p index afp; ISBN 9780199751686, $49.95. Reviewed in 2012may CHOICE.
Oshatz (San Francisco State Univ.) describes the ways in which the antebellum debates over the morality of slavery helped create the foundations for liberal theology. Because so many Christians looked to the words of the Bible to inform moral decisions, the proslavery tenor of its text posed a challenge to those Christians who increasingly opposed slavery. Some abolitionists simply rejected the Bible as an Iron Age relic. But moderates began to approach scripture in a different way than these immediatists or the apologists for slavery, who read the Bible literally. Moderates contended that the Bible reflected the historical times in which it was recorded and that its words masked more eternal principles of justice that could be apprehended through the individual's conscience. As human consciousness evolved, people became better able to understand eternal moral principles behind the plain text. This understanding of morality, rather than the words in the text itself, rendered slaveholding a sinful behavior. In Oshatz's skilled analysis, liberal theology provided an important, if short-lived, haven for those Christians who wished for a biblical rather than a secular morality, but whose evolving moral vision could not countenance the evils of antebellum slavery.

Summing Up:
Recommended. All levels/libraries.
 -- E. R. Crowther, Adams State College


Curtis J. Evans said…
Thanks, Paul. I just finished writing a review of Oshatz's book. Here I'd just like to register my general thoughts. I think Oshatz's book builds in important ways on the works of Mark Noll, E. Brooks Holifield, Eugene and Elizabeth Fox Genovese ("Mind of the Master Class"), etc. It takes seriously the arguments and commitments of the moderate antislavery Protestants. It also seeks to link the rise of liberalism Protestantism to the slavery debates rather than locating its emergence almost exclusively in the post-Civil War context in response to Darwinism, historical criticism of the Bible, and other social and cultural developments. She is careful to say that the slavery debates were one among many other causes for the development of liberal Protestantism, an argument she feels that has heretofore been neglected. The book is a kind of culmination of studies on the impasse reached by both sides claiming support from Scripture for their opposing stances on the morality or sinfulness of slavery. It treats in meticulous detail the various ways in which proslavery proponents pushed the moderates to define precisely how they could label slavery as a sinful institution that was tolerated for so many years and did not find explicit condemnation in Scripture.

For my part, I like the way she tries to emphasize the constraints of an historical moment when she argues that historians have treated moderates as if they had "more intellectual autonomy than they in fact possessed" (though I wish she would have developed this point further). There is a sentence in Oshatz's book that caught my attention (and that of my students who read her earlier article for my Christianity and Slavery class this past fall quarter). She writes: "The slavery debate was a real debate, not just a cloaked defense of interests against ideals." That little word "just" is an important one and I'm curious about its inclusion because I'm unaware of those who claim the biblical debates were "just" or merely about economic interests. To say that they were real in this sense implies that interpretive "difficulties" deeply influenced by and enmeshed in economic and cultural interests and appeals to the Bible and debates about the moral legitimacy of slavery in this social context somehow make them less real. I'm not sure it is all that helpful to treat debates of this kind so discretely or to regard them as so separately set off from broader concerns. Or if in fact interested debates of this sort ever occur in such a vacuum in actual historical circumstances, though one can still appreciate, for the sake of analytical clarity, this kind of intellectual history that Oshatz provides. Despite my quibbles over this and a few other issues, I think Oshatz deepens our knowledge of the intricate and complex ways that the slavery debates played out and the long-term consequences, especially in liberal Protestant conceptions of truth, God's relation to the world, and notions of moral progress. It is a necessary and helpful work.
Paul Harvey said…
Curtis: Thanks -- see, with "comments" like that, much more full and knowledgeable than anything I could have come up with, you really ought to blogging here! Let's hear it, ya'll -- a clamor for Curtis to blog! More seriously, I have not read the work, just wanted to call people's attention to it -- it's high on the summer reading list.
Edward J. Blum said…
I vote for Curtis blogging (second vote I've cast this week; we have a strike vote this week out here)
Robert Mills said…
William Sweet in the 1930s was connecting abolition liberals to Social Gospel liberals--I don't see how this could be a new argument, perhaps she just makes it better than those in the past?
Robert Mills said…
William Sweet in the 1930s was connecting abolition liberals to Social Gospel liberals--I don't see how this could be a new argument, perhaps she just makes it better than those in the past?
Curtis J Evans said…
Robert, it has been a while since I read Sweet so I can't speak to how much he developed this connection between antebellum moderates and SG liberals (it would be interesting if the two are regarded as the same since you use the term "abolition liberals" who are not the same as the moderates Oshatz discusses). Oshatz does mention works by a number of historians who make this link between "antebellum precursors of late-nineteenth century liberalism," but she feels it has not been sufficiently developed, especially in relation to the slavery crisis. I think her chapter on the treatment of slavery as a social sin by the moderates and her discussions of moral progress by the moderates and the new theologians are some of the areas where she really does further and deepen the conversation (and breaks new ground).

Thanks for the note on Sweet. I will have to look at his work again to see what precisely he argued.
Kelly J. Baker said…
Also, I want Curtis to blog for us. Please, pretty please, Curtis!

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