Slavery and Sin: The Fight Against Slavery and the Rise of Liberal Protestantism (review)
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Slavery, Abolition, Antislavery, Sin, Religion, Protestantism, Theology, Liberalism

Slavery and Sin: The Fight Against Slavery and the Rise of Liberal Protestantism. By Molly Oshatz. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. 183. Cloth, $49.95.)

Molly Oshatz’s Slavery and Sin begins with the dilemma facing antislavery Protestants: Although they believed slavery was wrong, they could not easily denounce it as a sin in itself, because the Bible, far from explicitly condemning slavery, seemed to support it. If, as Mark Noll demonstrated, the intractability of the biblical debate precipitated a theological crisis, Oshatz shows how this crisis inspired creativity. Oshatz studies a handful of “antislavery moderates,” including William Ellery Channing, Horace Bushnell, Francis Wayland, Leonard Bacon, and Edward Beecher, who were caught between proslavery polemicists who insisted that the Bible supported slavery and abolitionists who either discarded biblical testimony or unconvincingly argued that it condemned slavery. Torn between their rejection of slavery and faith in the Bible, moderates were [End Page 163] pushed into concluding that morality took shape historically through human experience. God’s will was not only declared in the Bible’s words, but was progressively revealed through time and the experience of believers.

By historicizing morality and revelation, antislavery moderates helped create postwar theological liberalism. While historians have previously suggested links between antislavery and the rise of liberal theology, Oshatz traces those connections, adding nuance by arguing that moderates, not abolitionists, contributed most directly to theological liberalism; abolitionism fed into the moral absolutism of fundamentalism, free thought, or secularism.

The crisis grew out of antebellum debates over whether slavery was sinful in itself. Earlier generations, she suggests, avoided the dilemma; eighteenth-century reformers condemned slavery’s immorality without defining slavery as a sin in itself. Instead, they attacked the slave trade, condemned slavery’s racism or incompatibility with republicanism, or argued that American slavery did not meet the criteria for lawful servitude. Such arguments, however, became “irrelevant” (42) in the polarized antebellum debate. Antislavery moderates criticized slavery’s abuses but, Oshatz contends, their arguments failed because abolitionists and slaveholders focused the debate on slavery’s inherent sinfulness. Slavery’s defenders thus did not need to justify its practices; they just needed to prove that slavery was not in itself sinful—which it could not be if the Bible tolerated it. Moderates were thus pushed into theological innovation: Over time, moral progress revealed slavery’s wrongness, but the South’s slower progress prevented many slaveholders from recognizing slavery’s sinfulness. Thus, while slavery was a sin, not all slaveholders were sinners, a significant distinction.

Calling all slaveholders sinners meant breaking fellowship with— and excommunicating—unrepentant slaveholders (as abolitionists demanded). Oshatz insightfully shows these tensions in a chapter on the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, whose missions to the Cherokees and Choctaws sparked a fierce debate. Abolitionists demanded that the Board denounce slavery and exclude slaveholders; the Board’s moderates called for patience with slaveholders. Moderates developed the notion of the social sin, concluding that, unlike individual sins of drunkenness, theft, or fornication, the sin of slavery grew organically in society and could not be fully attributed to individuals. Thus, while slavery was sinful, slaveholders could remain, giving Christianity [End Page 164] time to produce individual and social moral progress. Abolitionists and slaveholders denounced this idea as morally dangerous; what counted as sin could not vary over time and place. Although moderates initially lost, in the long term many Christians interpreted the Civil War as signifying God’s providential will; if God and the Bible once tolerated slavery, God no longer did. This historiciziation of morality and revelation was a key piece of theological liberalism. God’s will was not revealed only in the Bible’s words, but also through human experience, and that experience— not the Bible’s words—provided the final test of moral truth.

There is much to admire in this book, and at the core Oshatz makes an important argument. The book would be enriched by broader contextualization. First, Oshatz acknowledges that other intellectual currents (including historical biblical criticism) contributed to theological liberalism. But while she nicely shows how the slavery debate made liberalism attractive, she could...