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Independent action

(Luke Fildes, photo by Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images)


Independent action

Baptists, poverty-fighting, and slavery in early America

Aaron Menikoff’s Politics and Piety (Pickwick, 2014) focuses on Baptist churches from 1770 to 1860 and clearly shows that those evangelicals had a range of views on social reform, slavery, poverty, temperance, and even delivery of mail on the Sabbath: Rarely did all come to one “Christian position.” 

Many Baptists saw help to the poor as a regular part of church budgets, with generosity a prime directive: “It is the duty of the rich, and in proportion of their means, ought to be their pride and pleasure, to meliorate the condition and relieve the distresses of the deserving and suffering poor.” They also called for prudent help: “Gratuitous aid, while it affords but a transient support, offers no stimulus to exertion, and when the temporary supply is exhausted, the unhappy sufferer is again reduced to want, or to the degradation of beggary.”

Menikoff points out that “Baptists saw no disjunction between evangelism and poverty relief.” Their long-term answer for social problems was Christian faith, which brought “virtue, peace, industry, social order”; but some saw their enemy as indiscriminate giving, which would lead the poor “to depend upon the aid which they may thence expect to receive … and thus become idle and intemperate.” 

Menikoff’s chapter on slavery shows why alternatives to continued bondage and eventual civil war regularly fell short. He shows the Virginia Baptist General Committee in 1790 resolving, “That slavery is a violent depravation of the rights of nature,” and proposing emancipation—but five years later the committee reversed itself. Baptists both north and south from 1800 to 1830 often supported projects to send slaves “back to Africa” to create American colonies there, but with the exception of the small Liberian efforts those plans faded. Some Southern Baptists opposed slavery in theory but didn’t see a practical way out, or didn’t want to. 

Many did support evangelism among slaves. Richard Furman, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Charleston, told South Carolina’s governor in 1822 that “though they are slaves, they are also men; and are with ourselves accountable creatures; having immortal souls, and being destined to future eternal award. Their religious interests claim a regard from their masters of the most serious nature.” 

Even as Civil War loomed the Religious Herald in 1856 reported what one Southern Baptist association had concluded: Just as fathers had to teach their sons and daughter, so masters had to treat slaves as “family servants” and instruct them similarly. That emphasis was too little, too late. 

Short stops

Encounter Books offers important warnings. Charles Rubin’s Eclipse of Man is a thoughtful warning about “transhumanists” who aspire to make man immortal. A new edition of James Burnham’s Suicide of the West, first published in 1964, is a good reminder that liberalism is unable to stand up to dedicated and persistent opponents. What Adam Smith Knew, edited by James Otteson, includes essays by Locke, Rousseau, Marx, and others who praised or damned capitalism. 

In The Miracle of the Kurds (Worthy, 2014) Stephen Mansfield profiles the “people without a friend” and explains why the United States should be their friend. The Kurds are our best friends within Islam and certainly deserve support, but in the long run the title of Nabeel Qureshi’s book indicates their true hope—Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity (Zondervan, 2014).

Michael Morton’s Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey From Prison to Peace (Simon & Schuster, 2014) is a well-written memoir by a man imprisoned for murdering his wife until DNA evidence showed another man committed the crime. Morton in prison came to believe in God after “a bright, blinding, golden light” burst into his cell: His ears were filled “with an incomprehensible roar” as he felt “infinite peace and joy … nothing less than God’s perfect, boundless love.” 

Benjamin Mast’s Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel During Alzheimer’s Disease (Zondervan, 2014) rightly emphasizes that God remembers even when we forget: Reminding ourselves of His faithfulness is one of several practical steps we can take. —M.O.