Thursday, December 8, 2011

From "The Most Famous Man in America" re: slavery and abolition

Reading the book on Henry Beecher is making me think about issues of conscience, civil disobedience, the temporal government and the extent to which it should be obeyed, and the role of the "church" in matters of justice, even if it wades into politics.  We know, of course, Luther's strict and famous distinction between the kingdoms.  This must always be held in mind.  But this distinction did not prevent him from decrying various societal ills and doing his best to "reform" the church and society.

The "Most Famous Man in America", pp. 246-248.

Some antislavery ministers countered Onesimus's story with opposing Scripture, such as Deuteronomy 23:15, God's injunction to Moses:  "Thou shalt not deliver to his master the servant which is escaped from his master to thee."  But most of the clergy followed Paul's ambivalent example, preaching obedience to the Fugitive Salve Laws while admonishing the slaveholders to voluntarily reform.  For the first time, however, a significant number of ministers went whole hog for slavery... 
"Then it was that I flamed,"  Henry said.  the rage he felt toward cowardly businessmen and callous slave owners was dwarfed by his contempt for these clergymen.  to the argument that the apostle Paul sanctioned the fugitive Slave laws, Henry responded that he might accept that claim--if slaveholders followed Paul's instructions by receiving their runaway servants as Christians and family members, educating them, encouraging them to marry and own property.  Of course, Henry noted, that would essentially spell the end of slavery.  In one notable speech Henry hammered home the absurdity of the biblical justification with an imitation of a runaway slave sauntering back into his master's house, "with his broad, black, beaming face," and greeting the shocked whites with a warm, "How d'ye do, my brother? and how d'ye do, my sister?'"
Henry's scriptural and legal arguments were padded with name-calling, motive impugning, and detailed accusations of hypocrisy and immorality  but he was careful to make a distinction between sin and sinners, between the "Slave Conspiracy" or the "Slave Power"--that is, the legal system of bondage and its major public defenders--and the average citizens of the South.  It was a distinction that would remain central to all of Henry's antislavery arguments, although often lost in the vituperation of his language...
It didn't take long for Henry to draw the fire of the leading mercantile mouthpiece, the conservative Journal of Commerce...  Hallock attacked liberal ministers in general, and the Independent and its anonymous "star contributor" [Henry Beecher] in particular, "for prostituting their professions and their pulpits and the Sabbath day to the preaching of Free-Soilism: and other poisonous "Ultraisms."  How dare these fanatics use the pulpit--which businessmen paid for--to denounce their patrons and preach politics."  The role of the clergy was to lead their congregants to personal piety.  Period.  Anything outside the church door was beyond their purview.
"Clergymen ought to understand that while they attend to the proper duties of their calling they will be respected, honored, and beloved,"  Hallock concluded, "but that if they descend to the arena of politics, their black coats will most likely be rolled in the dirt."  Any congregation that didn't want the filth of politics in their midst ought to fire the troublemakers, he suggested.  After all, what would fix a misguided minister faster than snatching away his "bread and butter?"
For some time now, Henry had been drifting fro theology towards practical moral matters, but the fight with the Journal hardened this move into a manifesto.  The Holy Gospel, he averred, is merely medicine for the sick soul.  "It has no intrinsic value as a system.  its end and value are in its power to stimulate the soul, to develop its faculties, to purify the emotions,"  he declared.  Christianity did not exist for the glory of God, he insisted, but for the pleasure and health of mankind.  Nowadays this therapeutic view of religion so thoroughly dominates American culture that it is almost impossible to imagine how shocked people were by Henry's words.
By contrast, Beecher claimed, the Journal of commerce promoted a "Coward's Ethic."  Such men wanted a Gospel "that will snatch away their sins while they are asleep;  some chloroform gospel."  Just what, Henry inquired sarcastically, did the Journal of Commerce consider a suitable topic for discussion in church?  After all, her observed, many modern sins were not mentioned in the Bible.  Should we not preach against drunkienness or swindling or gambling simply because they were not specifically forbidden in Scripture?
Perhaps the problem was merely a matter of distance?  Men like Gerard Hallock gladly gave money to send missionaries to the Far East, Henry noted, yet "a Turkish harem is a cradle of virgin purity" compared with the slave pens of the american south.  "Will the Journal tell us how many leagues off a sin must be before it is prudent and safe for courageous ministers to preach against it?"
... Back and forth they went, citing Scripture and secular law, with each paper reprinting the entire debate in special supplements.  Nasty as it was, the long clash rendered a great public service, challenging common prejudices, laying out statistics, detailing legal ordinances, examining every aspect of the problem.  It also gave a well-needed boost to the struggling Independent.  Subscriptions were increasing at double the previous rate, with hundreds of new readers every week.
... Suddenly Henry was a genuine celebrity, whose colorful sayings and doings were being picked up by newspapers across the country.  Not everyone agreed with Henry Ward Beecher, and nobody agreed with everything he had to say.  But everyone wanted to hear it. 

 Such men wanted a Gospel "that will snatch away their sins while they are asleep;  some chloroform gospel." This is the phrase that is embedding itself in my mind. It reminds me of Pres. Harrison's comment in "Christ have Mercy" regarding the Lord's supper.  We can be in danger that while holding the pristine doctrine of the real presence, we fail to see it as the reality among ourselves, that we have been formed into one body, the physical reality of our communal life. Also in baptism, we have been baptized altogether. 

But we are also reacting against those who in their zeal for "social justice" have let God's Word go and put the Gospel light of forgiveness of sins under the cover. Still forgiveness of "un-real" sins or forgiveness while you are "asleep", just becomes an idea and irrelevant as such. 

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