“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.”

Douglas Wilson and the Association of Christian Classical Schools

(NOTE [2022-06-21]: a version of this post was originally written while the author was on staff at Bethlehem College & Seminary, as part of a request for the school and its leadership to reconsider their affiliation with Douglas Wilson; see “Bethlehem College & Seminary, Ethnic Harmony, and Doug Wilson.” The material has since been significantly expanded in the form presented here. Since the original posting, the ACCS appears to have updated their website, re-organized, and even removed some of the previous content. Original links are provided via Wayback Machine where possible)

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“).

As of March 2021, there were over 300 schools listed in their nationwide directory. A number of colleges are listed as “affiliates” of ACCS, including Bethlehem College & Seminary, Colorado Christian University, Grove City College, and Reformation Bible College. Affiliate businesses include The Davenant Latin Institute and Veritas Press. Additionally, a number of prominent evangelical figures “stand with ACCS” including Albert Mohler, Os Guinness, Chuck Colson, Eric Metaxas, John Piper, and Rod Dreher, as well as ministries like the Nehemiah Institute, and Desiring God.

Background: “Christian Reconstruction,” Neo-Confederacy, and Education

Douglas Wilson founded Logos Classical School in 1981 in Moscow, Idaho. Though Wilson has resisted adopting the labels of “theonomy” or “Christian Reconstruction,” his views fit squarely within those movements, especially on education, history, and race (for more on this movement, and their views on education, history, and race, see “A “Man of Faith and Courage”: Robert Lewis Dabney in the Journal of Christian Reconstruction, 1974–1999” and the works cited there).

Thomas Roche recounts how in the 1980s, while Wilson was developing a number of idiosyncratic views, it was his role in the “classical Christian school” movement that exposed “him and his teachings to a wider audience of Christians” (Roche, “Meet the Theonomists” (2000); to find the sections devoted to Wilson, do a page search: “Wilson”). Roche notes the prominence of neo-confederates in the Christian Reconstruction movement, including PCA minister J. Steven Wilkins, who served as a leader in the League of the South, and hosted a number Confederate Heritage Conferences in the 1990s. Wilson and Wilkins were closely affiliated in those years, and their neo-confederate views were propagated through the Classical Christian School network:

…in recent years, the two men’s association has grown quite close, with all the signs pointing to a wholesale, uncritical acceptance by Wilson, of Wilkinsism. Wilson is already co-hosting Wilkinsite “American History” conferences in Moscow/elsewhere, heavily promoted to his C/A and Canon Press as well as his “Classical Christian School” clienteles.

Indeed, during the same years that Wilson was publishing his first books on education (Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning : an approach to distinctively Christian education, (1991); Repairing the Ruins : the classical and Christian challenge to modern education (1996)), he was also a featured speaker at the “Confederate Heritage Conference” which included fellow neo-confederates Michael Hill (president of The League of the South) and Steven Wilkins.

https://web.archive.org/web/20090105182211/http://www.pointsouth.com/southernheritage/5th.html

At this conference, Wilson gave a talk on “Why the War Never Ended” (see “CONFEDERATE HERITAGE CONFERENCE REVIEW: REVIEWING AND RENEWING OUR SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN HERITAGE“). In the talk, Wilson connected the themes of neo-Confederacy and education:

Mr. Wilson rejected the notion that history as recorded by men is unbiased. This is no less true in the history of the War Between the States…

He said that remembering God’s faithfulness in the past not only gives hope in the present but also provides us with a link covenantally to our fathers – one we need to pass down to our children. They need to be anticipating God’s hand in their lives through the study of history.

As his lecture title suggested, he argued that the War, in its real issues (i.e. state sovereignty vs. strong central government, etc.), is still being waged. He pointed out the “Tenth Amendment Movement” in many of the Western states and said that the federal government is weakening under its own weight.

As you can see already, the contemporary relevance of the meeting became clear from the beginning. The ideas presented as the speeches went forward grew into a living vision with potential to reshape the country into what our forefathers planted.

In his second speech., “The Blue and Grey in Black and White,” Mr. Wilson delineated the issues of the War and how the War should be fought today. Our battle is now a battle of ideas, he said.

Though Douglas Wilson has often protested that he is not a “neo-confederate” preferring instead the label “paleo-confederate.” See, for example, his interview with Molly Worthen at Christianity Today (“The Controversialist”):

Although he believes that “the South was right on all the essential constitutional and cultural issues surrounding the war,” Wilson has repeatedly declared that he is no neo-Confederate. He prefers the label paleo-Confederate.

“You’re not going to scare me away from the word Confederate like you just said ‘Boo!'”Wilson says. “I would define a neo-Confederate as someone who thinks we are still fighting that war. Instead, I would say we’re fighting in a long war, and that [the Civil War] was one battle that we lost.”

Worthen, “The Controversialist” (2009)

Note again the title of Wilson’s lecture at the Confederate Heritage Conference: “Why the War Never Ended.” By Wilson’s own definition, this is neo-confederacy.

Back in 2000, Thomas Roche made a prediction that has since proved true:

If I had to call odds on it, I would say that Wilson and his associates, being somewhat more mainstream and very much more connected to a mass audience through his Christian education work, will end up the most powerful player, and will not use the term “theonomy.”

“Most Parents Aren’t Aware”

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.” (For a detailed refutation of Wilson/Wilkins, see “Southern Slavery as it Wasn’t: Coming to Grips with Neo-Confederate Historical Misinformation“; see also the references to Douglas Wilson and Steve Wilkins in Euan Hague, Heidi Beirich, and Edward Sebesta, Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction (University of Texas Press, 2008).

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.”

ACCS Denied Accreditation (2016)

In 2016 ACCS was denied accreditation in the state of Tennessee specifically because of Douglas 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 was listed as an “Educator in Residence” at ACCS until October 2021 (Wayback Machine: “ACCS Leadership“)
  • Wilson is featured as a plenary speaker every year at their national “Repairing the Ruins” conference (here’s the 2022 lineup, which includes Voddie Baucham, Carl Trueman, Joe Rigney, alongside Douglas Wilson; 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.”
  • At least as recently as May 2021, Douglas Wilson’s affection for the white-supremacist Robert Lewis Dabney was also reflected in ACCS book recommendations (see Wayback Machine: “Recommended Readings”), 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 (see “Robert Lewis Dabney, White Supremacy, and Public Schools“). 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 (NOTE: as of this date [2022-06-21] it appears that ACCS has removed all references to Dabney from their site).
  • Douglas Wilson’s Omnibus curriculum is used in a number of ACCS schools (a quick search [in 2021] 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).

Conclusion

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 Douglas Wilson before entrusting the formation of their children to an ACCS school.

(Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash)