2007August15, Wednesday

One Happy Exception to a Sad State of Affairs

Posted in History, Theology at 0:03 by Trey Austin

Garrett Craw from The Craw offered some friendly criticism about what he called “the Southern thang” and how it was “just way too emotional.” I understand completely how this looks to people outside of the South, and i fully bow to God’s sovereign will in keeping the United States an intact nation—so far. :-/  I’m sure, though, that as an Asian American, Garrett can understand what it is like to be pigeonholed about one’s culture and also what it is like to identify with it and be zealous to keep its rich heritage and traditions (the good ones!) alive. That’s certainly what i seek to do as a Southron, but please do understand that, other than the fact that i currently serve in the PCA, i have no allegiance to the Southern Presbyterian Church in any wise.

I must say, though, that i agree with Garrett totally about the inconsistency of the Southern Presbyterianism. It is a sad fact that they did not live up to the Covenantal principles of Presbyterianism by baptizing and teaching all of those who were either born or purchased into their household, as God’s command was to Abraham. This was, no doubt, due to a terrible inconsistency in Southern Presbyterians about even how to treat their own children (Thornwell was, himself, a perpetrator of what we commonly call today “vipers in Covenant diapers” view).

Beyond even Southern Presbyterianism, i can say without qualification that there was very much lacking in Southern treatment of slaves in general (even if there were many Christians who sought to treat their slaves well and disciple them, which there were). There was much abuse, degradation, and inherent subjugation. Indeed, blacks weren’t viewed even as a subjugated social class within the society at large; they were, by and large, viewed as beasts and property with as many rights. As i said, i believe this had much more to do with a woeful and horrendous view of blacks as a race (i.e., whites viewed them as inherently inferior and inhuman), and not with anything to do with the inherent evil of slavery (i’m not a strict Theonomist, but i agree with R.J. Rushdoony on the issue of slavery, though not necessarily his view of Negro slavery).

But even in spite of all the bad we could dredge up about American slavery (we need to remind ourselves that not only Southrons owned slaves), we can find a few bright spots. I always think of the happy exception that produced the first black elders of the Southern Presbyterian Church (seven of them) in 1869; he was, i believe, the bright spots of the Old School Southern Church: John Girardeau. He pastored a mixed (predominantly black, but with white members) congregation in Charleston (incidentally, in Zion Presbyterian Church, the whites were the ones typically who sat in the balcony, though, it was very common to have whites and blacks integrated in the church).

I love the passion of such a man to make blacks and whites equal in the Kingdom of God–and he was a student of Thornwell! It is said that he had a certain preaching style: extemporaneous; preaching directly from the Greek/Hebrew text; and with his own emotional style, mimicking the Gullah style of story-telling and speech he had grown up around, (he believed it helped the slaves and freed blacks to understand his messages when he gave not only a verbal but also an emotive message in his sermons). Here’s what the PCA historical summary of him (linked above) says about his ministry in Charleston:

In 1858/59 the Anson Street Mission experienced a marvelous revival and in April 1859 they moved into a new building at the prestigious and prime intersection of Meeting and Calhoun Streets. The black membership was given the privilege of naming their church (which was particularized in 1858) and they chose “Zion.” Zion Presbyterian Church became famous for Girardeau’s preaching—he was called “the Spurgeon of America”—, but it was also noteworthy for its diaconal ministry in the community, catechetical training of hundreds in the city, sewing clubs for the women, and missionary activity. The outreach and influence of Zion was of such public notoriety that Girardeau and the session were often criticized and sometimes physically threatened. For example, the catechetical training and teaching of hymns and psalms was so effective that some Charlestonians believed Girardeau was teaching the slaves to read for themselves (which was contrary to state law).  

Girardeau was a strong advocate for Puritan-style worship (i.e., stark liturgy, no accompaniment, psalms only), so i can’t say that i agree with him on everything. I’m sure he wasn’t far away from Thornwell when it came to ecclesiology either. However, he was worlds away from Thornwell and Dabney on the place of blacks in American society and especially in the Church, and he made a big deal about it all over the place. Was he opposed to slavery? Not at all, apparently—not even of race-based slavery, which i believe to be reprehensible. And yet, he was a Christian man who lived out the Gospel principles as they applied to social conventions about race in the face of many even of his own Church who had little, if any, understanding about how King Jesus has changed the world in which we live, and we need to live in light of that Kingdom, and not of the dying city of man all around us. It is that kind of Southron that i want to be.

It is not, fundamentally, a revision of history to note the oft-overlooked issues surrounding the War of Northern Aggression (in case you’re wondering, we really do call it that in normal, everyday conversation). More importantly, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with my remembering and touting my culture for what it was, warts and all. We can and must move forward into the future, but i don’t want to forget the past, and i won’t, as far as i have anything to do with it, let anyone else do their own version of revisionist history with the Southern cause. But as i move forward, i want to live out the kind of exceptional life that Girardeau did, even while remaining close friends with the likes of Dabney and Thornwell.


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