“Fraternal” to Whom? White Evangelicalism’s Centuries-long Problem with Race

For hundreds of years white American evangelicalism has been a compromised group, like oil and water, or “iron mixed with clay” that struggles to “adhere together” (Daniel 2:43). Issues of race and slavery have been at the core of what has plagued the movement from the very beginning, and they are still plaguing us today, as black and brown Christians who bit on the promise of “multi-ethnic” churches and ministries began yet another “silent exodus” in recent years and are now “leaving loud” and shaking the dust off of their feet.

One of the factors that has caused this exodus has been the fact that time and time again “white Christians in the U.S. constantly and continually choosing whiteness over brothers and sisters in Christ” (Michael Emerson, The Grand Betrayal). Under the banner of “unity” with fellow Christians, otherwise well-intentioned Christians have remained silent in the face of divisive racialized rhetoric from their fellows. Though they maybe wouldn’t “say it that way” or “differ in some particulars” nevertheless, for the sake of “gospel unity” it is determined important to retain “fraternal relations” with their brothers in Christ.

But a crucial question remains unasked: “fraternal” to whom? Because when one “brother” begins attacking another, one is faced with a choice — will you refrain from rebuking a divisive and contentious brother in order to maintain “unity,” while permitting another brother to be attacked and not coming to their defense? In so doing, you have chosen “fraternal relations” with one brother at the expense of another, and we have seen this play out time and time again. Jemar Tisby’s testimony is just one more example of this (see: “Leave Loud: Jemar Tisby’s Story”).

None of this is new. This consistent choice to compromise in the name of “unity” has plagued white evangelicalism for centuries. One particular controversy from the 1850s seems instructive for navigating our times now, the controversy surrounding one of the largest white evangelical ministries of the day, the American Tract Society. In their effort to maintain ties to “both sides” they failed to take any clear moral stand, and the end result was a split. The lukewarm position of the “white moderate” has always proved dissatisfactory on any issue demanding moral clarity, but it has never satisfied the white-supremacist side either. Eventually iron and clay must separate and the idol topple over. (For an account of William Lloyd Garrison’s engagement with the ATS, see “We have much theology, but what does it amount to?”: William Lloyd Garrison’s critique of the American Tract Society”).

Here is a paper further exploring this controversy and the various compromises displayed in it:

Here are a few quotes from the paper:

The Weymouth and Braintree Female Anti-Slavery Society held the conviction that separation from fellowship with slave-holders was “an essential requisite of Christian character. ‘If any man love not his brother whom he hath seen, he cannot love God whom he hath not seen. No man can love his brother and enslave him, or connive at his being enslaved, or apologize for or commune with the enslavers… By this rule do we judge and reject the majority of the American churches, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and the American Tract Society and other kindred societies. By this rule, too, do we judge the so-called evangelical churches of this town.”

The ATS adopted five resolutions, including, that, “the political aspects of slavery lie entirely without the proper sphere of this Society, and cannot be discussed in its publications; but that those moral duties which grow out of the existence of slavery, as well as those moral evils and vices which it is known to promote, and which are condemned in Scripture, and so much deplored by evangelical Christians undoubtedly do fall within the province of this Society, and can and ought to be discussed in a fraternal and Christian spirit.”

“William Lloyd Garrison introduced a series of resolutions condemning the ATS yet again, for pretending to move on the issue, while not moving at all. He mocked the resolution passed by the special committee of the ATS. They were now willing to discuss “those moral duties which grow out of the existence of slavery.” Imagine a tract on  “‘The moral duties growing out of the existence’ of piracy, high­way robbery, and burglary ! Why, these are sins to be exterminated at once, and the moral duty is to slay them at once.”

“Does any moral duty throw out of drunkenness, to the drunkard, except that of immediately turning from it? Does any moral duty grow out of adultery, to the adulterer, except that of immediately turning from it? Does any moral duty grow out of either of these sins, to those in the community who have not committed them, except utter opposition to them, at all times and in all places? It is utterly absurd to speak of any moral duty but this growing out of a sin!”

“The society wished to discuss slavery, and all other issues, “in a fraternal spirit.” But Charles K. Whipple posed the crucial question: “Fraternal to whom? To the slave, sympathizing with his bondage ‘as bound with him’ [Hebrews 13:3]? Is there the slightest probability that Rev. Baron Stow, with those members of his ‘respectable white’ church who have a vote in the Tract Society, had this in their minds when they voted?”

On the contrary, “fraternity” and “Christian spirit” had always been extended toward slave-holders, not to the slaves nor to anyone too ardently anti-slavery. Whipple’s judgment was that the Boston society was gaining “the reputation” of opposing slavery without having taken any real steps to actually do so, and that the majority of people were being deluded into believing that they had done their duty by supporting Boston and not New York. Whipple concluded that this belief was “pernicious,” was “an acceptance of something false as true,” and as “a direct, and gross, misleading of the minds of men in regard to the actual truth.”

Doug Wilson and the Association of Christian Classical Schools

The Association of Christian Classical Schools is a national organization headquartered in Moscow, Idaho. It was founded by Douglas Wilson in 1994, and “provides accreditation for CCE [Classical Christian Education] schools” (see “Classical Christian Education and Doug Wilson” and the Christianity Today September 2019 cover story “The Rise of the Bible-Teaching, Plato-Loving, Homeschool Elitists“).

At present (March 2021) there are over 300 schools listed in their nationwide directory. A number of colleges and businesses are listed as “affiliates” and number of prominent evangelical figures “stand with ACCS” in including Albert Mohler, Eric Metaxas, John Piper, and Rod Dreher, as well as ministries like the Nehemiah Institute, and Desiring God.

In 2002, Preston Jones, professor of history at John Brown University, published an article on classical Christian schools (“Christian Classical Learning” pp. 12–13). Jones noted Wilson’s role in the classical Christian education movement and the founding of ACCS, but suggested that “If the Christian classical schools movement is going to be taken seriously in the academic world in the long run, its members would probably do well to distance themselves from some of their current leaders.” He noted Wilson’s views on southern slavery, and the book Southern Slavery as it Was, co-authored by “a neo-Confederate Presbyterian minister and League of the South leader named J. Steven Wilkins.” This book, published by Wilson’s publishing house Canon Press, “maintains, among other things, that the antebellum South was, literally, a holy land and that slavery bred mutual respect between the races— indeed, that relations between blacks and whites were never better than in the South before the Civil War.”

Jones noted that “Wilkins has been a speaker at major conferences of the ACCS, and at their national conference in Memphis last June were featured the wares of a neo-Confederate vendor.” He did note that “most of the parents who send their children to schools affiliated with the ACCS aren’t aware of the nature of some of the leaders’ views.”

In 2016 ACCS was denied accreditation in the state of Tennessee specifically because of Doug Wilson and his views on race, slavery, and other issues (“Bill yanked after school group founder’s views on slavery, homosexuals, adultery revealed”). However, it appears that in 2019, Tennessee reversed course and granted accreditation to ACCS member schools (Tennessee HB1392).

In 2016, the current president, David Goodwin, tried to address some of the controversy surrounding Wilson and create some distance between the organization and its founder (“A Response to ‘Classical Christian Education and Doug Wilson’”). Though Rachel Miller’s article explicitly references Wilson’s views on “theology, history, slavery, patriarchy, marriage, and sex,” Goodwin chose to sidestep these issues, referring only generally to the “theological debates that have involved Mr. Wilson” and noting that “Mr. Wilson certainly offers food for thought.”

Goodwin says that Wilson, “takes specific care not to exert influence on the ACCS.” However, it is interesting to note that:

  • Wilson is listed as an “Educator in Residence” at ACCS.
  • Wilson is featured as a plenary speaker every year at their national “Repairing the Ruins” conference (here’s the 2021 lineup; past and future speakers include Al Mohler, Rosaria Butterfield, and Joel Beeke)
  • Three out of their top five  recommended books are by Wilson, more than any other author on the page. 
  • If you wish to know “What is CCE [Classical Christian Education]?” and click “Read About It” one of Wilson’s books is considered “Foundational for new teachers and parents.”
  • Doug Wilson’s affection for the white-supremacist Robert Lewis Dabney is also reflected in ACCS book recommendations, which includes the Canon Press republication of Dabney’s “Secularized Education.” (For those needing to get caught up, here’s “What’s So Bad About R.L. Dabney?”). However, some might think “just because someone has bad ideas in one area (white supremacy) doesn’t mean they can’t have good ideas in another (education).” Unfortunately, Dabney’s views of education were thoroughly influenced by his white supremacy. Sean Michael Lucas notes in his biography of Dabney that after the Civil War, Dabney opposed public education and particularly the education of the formerly enslaved people of the south. He thought public education was “heretical” because of its “leveling impulse” because “God had ordained a hierarchy of superiors and inferiors.” He also objected “for fears of racial mixing” and opposed the philosophy that “claims to make the blacks equal, socially and politically, to the most respectable whites” (Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 182–86). It’s disturbing to see Dabney’s work on education recommended by the ACCS, though I’m sure this has been edited of any overtly racist sentiment before republishing.
  • Doug Wilson’s Omnibus curriculum is used in a number of ACCS schools (a quick search of of the school listing found schools from California, to Minnesota, to Missouri, to Maine using this curriculum). Consistent with Wilson’s views of southern slavery, the curriculum includes an assignment asking students to: “Write a letter to a friend in the North who thinks that all slaves are mistreated and beaten. Explain how your family treats your slaves well.” (Omnibus III).

Nearly twenty years after Preston Jones wondered if the Classical Christian Education movement might want to “distance themselves from some of their current leaders,” there are no signs of that happening. In fact, ACCS has become more and more mainstream and has found support from several prominent figures. Back in 2002, Jones assumed that Wilson’s views “aren’t widely taught in ACCS schools.” That may be true. Parents, however, may wish to do a little homework of their own, asking about the level of affiliation and influence of Doug Wilson before entrusting the formation of their children to an ACCS school.

(Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash)