What Have the Clergy to do with Politics?

In 1854 Stephen Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would have permitted the expansion of slavery into the western territories, breaking the compromises over slavery between north and south that had been enshrined in the U.S. Constitution (1787) and the Missouri Compromise (1820). As the proposed Act made its way through Congress, previously moderate clergy began to speak out, some for the first time. They had been silent when anti-slavery activists began organizing in the 1830s; they had resisted attempts to break fellowship with the slaveholders in the 1840s; but now in the 1850s, they realized that “the Slave Power” of the south intended to expand its reach through the entire country, and they finally began to speak out against the evils of slavery.

On March 7 a group of clergy in Providence, Rhode Island organized a meeting to protest “the Nebraska Bill,” to memorialize their opposition in a series of resolutions, to publish them, and to send them to Congress (“Nebraska Meeting in Providence,” Christian Watchman and Reflector, March 23, 1854). The meeting included addresses by several clergy, including Baptist pastor and educator Francis Wayland (“Dr. Wayland on the moral and religious aspects of the Nebraska bill. Speech at Providence, R. I., March 7“). A writer for The Liberator seemed pleasantly surprised that those who had previously “done what they could to put a stop to the agitation of the subject of Slavery, and have never been known as sympathizing with the movement against Slavery,” were now giving speeches “as radical Anti-Slavery as could be wished” (“Nebraska Meeting in Providence, Rhode Island,” The Liberator, March 17, 1854).

3,000 of the New England clergy signed the resolutions, and they were presented on the Senate floor. Douglas and others responded vociferously, declaring that the memorial was “disrespectful to the Senate, an atrocious slander” and that these New England clergy were “slanderers and demagogues” (“Congress,” Christian Watchman and Reflector, March 23, 1854).

The following week, the Baptist newspaper Christian Watchman and Reflector published a response titled “What Have the Clergy to do with Politics?” The piece is excellent is quoted here in full:

“We alluded cursorily, in our last week’s congressional summary, to the greeting which the protest of the New England clergy against the Nebraska bill received in the Senate. Except as an indication of the soreness which the striking manifestations of public sentiment have produced in the minds of those who are most responsible for the measure, the affair would hardly be worth a second reference. If the fathers and sponsors of that most audacious iniquity think that they will help it, or help themselves, by their intemperate abuse of men who represent the all but unanimous feeling of the ministers of religion in six States,—if they suppose that the moral and religious sentiment of the people will thus be more easily conciliated or subdued—they will not have to live many years to discover their error.

Whether the document was sufficiently respectful to the Senate, the first issue raised in the debate, is not now a material question, as the point was waived by the reception of the memorial. We are willing to concede that it might have been better expressed, not because there was anything intrinsically objec­tionable in its phraseology, but from its liability to misconstruction. 

But since this incident has been made the occasion for reproducing, in and out of the Senate, the old and mischievous notion that ministers transcend their proper sphere whenever they interest themselves in political questions, we can do no less than endeavor to expose it, more especially as it has been counte­nanced by many excellent people, for very different reasons, however, from those that we believe actuate politicians. 

We do not care to insist on the right of ministers of the gospel, as citizens equally with others interested in the welfare of the state, to have a voice in the discussion of public measures, nor on their ability to do this as intelligently, to say the least, as some who aspire to be thought statesmen. We assert their duty, as ministers, charged to “ declare the whole counsel of God,” in certain circumstances to weigh schemes of public policy in the balance of the sanctuary. 

There are questions frequently arising, and always liable to arise, in the sphere of political action, over which the conscience asserts a clear and express juris­diction, and the ministers of Him who is lord of the conscience cannot refuse to speak in his name with­ out faithlessness to their mission.

There may be those who are atheistical enough to deny that any moral responsibility attaches to their political action. But all who believe that there are such things as political duties, we suppose, will agree that there is also a moral obligation in respect of the manner in which they are discharged. Is there any species of moral obligation to which the sanctions of religion do not apply? And by what process are ministers exempted, or prohibited, from applying the sanctions of religion to any subject within the appoint­ed limits of its application? If it be admitted that men may do wrong in their political capacity, who can rebuke the wrong more fitly than those who are commissioned for the very purpose of “ warning every man, and teaching every man,” that they “may pre­sent every man perfect in Christ Jesus?”

The truth is, as we have had occasion more than once to observe, what is commonly called the inter­ference of clergymen with politics is generally an interference of politicians with religion, and ministers are only defending their proper domain, against in­truders. Questions of policy and expediency, merely as of political economy, and what are called in gene­ral public interests, do not concern the clergy as such. As citizens, having a common stake in the general welfare, they have a right to entertain and express opinions on these matters. But when politicians con­coct any project at war with morality and the pre­cepts of religion, it is no longer a question of right; it is their manifest duty to denounce it. It is their duty to the country, placed in peril;—to our public men, who are in danger of staining their own souls; —to the whole people, whom these political schemers are leading into temptation. Iniquity proposed in the capital cannot generally be executed without support at the ballot box. Every man who so votes as to fur­ther it, makes himself a consenting party to the wrong. Yet we are told that a minister must not warn the people of his own charge from the pulpit, nor remon­strate with others through the press, against acts of public wickedness. An ambitious aspirant for power tempts them to evil, and their spiritual guide must hold his peace. He must not interfere.

Many very worthy people reason that as the gospel is to renovate society, ministers must content them­selves with preaching that, and thus “ leaven” the whole community. That is to say, they must aim exclusively at the conversion of men, in the confi­dence that, being made the subjects of regeneration, they will not fail of grace to do everything uprightly. Just as if the Bible were not full of instances in which good men committed grave errors! Nathan did not preach to David, generally, the duties of faith and piety, but charged his conscience with the sin that had awakened the divine displeasure. Now, the American people possess the attribute of sovereignty. As the prophet before the king, as the  apostle before the procurator Felix, so the American minister before the American people, should fearlessly rebuke the abuses of, their power.

It should be remembered that piety and its fruits require cultivation, and that there is nothing so injurious to it as inattention to the claims and distinctions of moral duty. Tenderness of conscience, a quick susceptibility that shrinks from the least contamina­tion of evil, is essential to Christian virtue. Men are peculiarly liable to fail in this respect when they act in masses. It is very easy to lose the sense of individual accountability in matters of co-operative action. This is an age of combinations and associations, that invite men to cast their resources and their ability into common stock, and the temptation is strong to allow themselves, their minds and hearts and consciences, to be lost on the crowd. Political parties are the most extensive and powerful combinations known among us, for they embrace between them, nearly the whole people. Interest, prejudice, patriotism, combine to swell the tide of excitement. Men are hurried along with such speed that it requires more than common steadiness of mind to pause long enough to consider whither they are going. Moral thoughtlessness leads to moral blindness, and those who think to promote  “spirituality,” while, careless of moral impressions, will find their work drive heavily. Minis­ters need great discretion as to how they shall exert their influence; undue zeal in political questions is to be avoided; but to require that, for whatever motives, they should withdraw from their consideration, is to require them to neglect the souls of men just where they are in peculiar danger.” 

What Have the Clergy to Do with Politics?” Christian Watchman and Reflector, March 30, 1854 (2).

(Image: “Reynolds’s Political Map of the United States” (1856) from the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, Public Domain, Link)

The Slave’s Cause: A Review

Most people don’t know very much about abolitionism in America. Perhaps the name that springs most often to mind is Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. A few more know of figures like Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman, with little sense of the details of their lives or how they fit in their historical context. Some with an interest in America’s Civil War may know a little bit about William Lloyd Garrison and of course there is the field of scholarship covering the history of American slave-holding and its converse, the anti-slavery movements. Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition has something for every one of these groups, from the most barely acquainted to the seasoned scholar.

Sinha’s book is “a comprehensive new history of the abolition movement” (1) It is indeed comprehensive, and highly synthetic, challenging a number of “long-standing interpretive binaries” that have sprung up in the study of the movement (5). On a macro-level, this synthetic work is seen in the basic structure of the book, in two parts: The First Wave and The Second Wave. Where many think of mid-nineteenth-century figures like Garrison as typical of the abolitionism, Sinha documents how “the American abolitionist movement unfolded in a hundred-year drama in law, politics, literature, and on-the-ground activism. To reduce emancipation to an event precipitated by military crisis is to miss that long history” (2). The book opens with a rough sketch of slavery and anti-slavery in Europe and the “Pioneers” like Bartolomé de las Casas, before focusing attention on American and British abolitionists. This review could be filled (as Sinha’s book is) with names and dates of partly-known, little-known, or utterly unknown figures in the “hundred-year drama.” Worth mentioning in the first wave are Anthony Benezet, “an eighteenth-century abolitionist who matched the pivotal role of William Lloyd Garrison in the nineteenth century” (20) Benezet’s active life involved writing, publishing, and correspondence which “created an antislavery network” (24). His correspondents included Granville Sharp, Benezet’s “British Counterpart” and Selena Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, known for her support of Wesley, Whitefield, and the evangelical awakenings (22, 24). It is striking that when a different story is told with a different plot line (i.e., the story of slavery v. abolitionism versus the story of evangelicalism, or “revivals”) many of the same characters appear, but in entirely different roles. This book offers a vitally necessary retelling of history that is especially appropriate for evangelicals seeking to know more about their heritage.

From the very first chapter, however, another synthesis is evident, and that is the connection between black and white, male and female abolitionists. Immediately after highlighting the prominent white figures like Benezet, Sinha shifts focus to the “Origins of Black Antislavery” (24). Here, for example, she highlights figures like Phillis Wheatley and offers a correction. While Wheatley “is often portrayed as a lone genius,” she was “in fact representative of an emerging African American antislavery critique of revolutionary republicanism” (31). This opening chapter is typical of the entire work: “it centers African Americans in it” (1). Throughout the entire drama, there was deep interplay between slaves, slave-rebellions, escaped slaves, freed men and women, and their ongoing struggle for liberty in a land torn by that question. White abolitionists have figured prominently in previous tellings of this history, but Sinha gives us here a truly comprehensive account.

Subsequent chapters detail the revolutionary era (both American and Haitian) (Chapter 2: “Revolutionary Antislavery in Black and White”) the drawn out legal battles for emancipation in northern states (Chapter 3: “The Long Northern Emancipation”), the black and white transatlantic developments (Chapter 4: “The Anglo-American Abolition Movement”), and figures like Richard Allen and the African Episcopal Church (Chapter 5: “Black Abolitionists in the Slaveholding Republic”). The First Wave concludes with “The Neglected Period of Antislavery,” a crucial link between two acts in the drama that have often been considered separately, including the growing tension between colonizationists and abolitionists. Between The First Wave and the Second is a 24 page insert of pictures of abolitionists, literally granting visibility to figures, including black men and women who have been invisible to this point.

The Second Wave is much longer and more familiar. Overturning the caricature of abolitionists as “extremists,” Sinha highlights how “proslavery extremism predated radical abolitionism” (226). Abolitionism pressed for “immediatism” due to the influence of black protest against this aggressive “slave power” (Chapter 7: “Interracial Immediatism”) She explores in great detail the emergence of the abolition movement as we know it, including its inherent tensions (Chapter 8: “Abolition Emergent”). Especially fascinating was her take on “The Woman Question” (Chapter 9), documenting women as “abolition’s most effective foot soldiers,” the tension this caused for the movement, and the birth of the women’s suffrage movement out of abolitionism (226). Black abolitionism is studied as its own distinct phenomena in this era (Chapter 10: “The Black Man’s Burden”),  as well as the relationship between American abolitionism and the revolutionary movements in Europe in the mid 19th century (Chapter 11: “The Abolitionist International”). “Slave Resistance” (Chapter 12) was always the front lines of abolitionism, and the activity of fugitive slaves continued to fuel the growing movement through addresses and published narratives (Chapter 13: “Fugitive Slave Abolitionism”). The final chapters are a whirlwind leading up to war, on “The Politics of Abolition” (Chapter 14), “Revolutionary Abolition” (Chapter 15), and “Abolition War” (Chapter 16). The book ends at the start of the war, though Dr. Sinha is presently working on a book on the succeeding era, Reconstruction (https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/people/manisha-sinha).

The body of the book runs to 591 pages, with over 130 additional pages of detailed endnotes documenting primary and secondary sources. As such, this book functions extremely well as a sourcebook for additional research. The index is very thorough, so when one wishes to know where a particular person or movement fits within the broader scope, and find additional sources for further information. For example, this reviewer wished to know more about the scholarship and source material on Harriet Tubman after seeing the recent film devoted to her. The index and the footnotes were easily navigable, which is to say nothing of Sinha’s own careful treatment of Tubman in the work itself.

Though not a Christian herself, this evangelical found Sinha to be very careful and fair in her treatment of Christianity and even evangelicalism. At no point did she resort to caricatures or unbalanced criticism. Throughout the work Dr. Sinha does the work of a careful historian walking us through the complex and messy history that a “century long drama” necessarily is. This book is quite possibly the book on abolitionism in America. Evangelicals who are interested in American history need to read this work to understand our movement in its greater context. Anyone interested in abolitionism, at any scholarly level, needs to read this new comprehensive account in order to get the full picture for the first time.

A Marvelous Ministry: How the All-Round Ministry of Charles Spurgeon Speaks to Us Today

A Marvelous Ministry (Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1993) is a multi-author volume with chapters by Geoff Thomas (Wales), David Kingdon (South Africa), Tim Curnow (England) and Erroll Hulse (England). The book includes a biographical overview of Spurgeon’s life and ministry (ch. 2), as well as focused treatments on his “Gospel Invitations” (ch. 2), his “Social Concern (ch. 4), the “Downgrade Controversy” (ch. 5), and his “Activity in Politics” (ch. 6). The thesis of the book is that even though Spurgeon lived and ministered 150 years ago, his life is still relevant for us today to learn many instructive lessons. In fact, one author suggests that, “Spurgeon’s sermons should be returned to throughout one’s life and picked up and read, one a day, for some period, before other things break that plan… A student fresh out of theological seminary could make a study of Spurgeon, read the biographies and as many of his 150 books as he can find” (47).

In reading this, I was encouraged again to emulate Spurgeon’s example of integrity. Thomas notes that “Spurgeon was an open, guileless man. He told a would-be biographer, ‘You may write my life across the sky; I have nothing to conceal’” (68). This is an honesty and integrity that I aspire to in every aspect of life and ministry. (see: Why I Admire Spurgeon’s Position on Cigars and Brandy)

A chapter particular interest was Chapter 4: “Spurgeon and his Social Concern.” Spurgeon said in one sermon, “I would that we who have a purer faith, could remember a little more the intimate connection between the body and the soul… It seems an idle tale to a poor man if you talk to him of spiritual things and cruelly refuse to help him as to temporals” (91–92). Spurgeon never allowed himself to become so narrowly focused on “just preaching the gospel” that he ignored the real social evils going on around him. In the same sermon, he said “We want to be educated into the knowledge of our national poverty; we want to be taught and trained, to know more of what our fellow men can and do suffer” (93). Becoming directly “educated” and acquainted with the real suffering of people around was important to Spurgeon and should be important to us.

Interestingly, Spurgeon gives us a fascinating example of someone with regard to his political convictions in our day when we are told not to get too entangled with politics.  Spurgeon “was an unashamed Liberal who was not prepared to hide his political creed under a pastoral bushel” (95). “Liberal” was one of the political parties of the time in contrast with the Tories:

“As a Dissenter and a Liberal, Spurgeon stood against the power and privilege of the political establishment which found its expression in the Tory party… He was emphatically on the side of those who were excluded from the corridors of power because they were Dissenters in religion and as emphatically against those who looked down upon the poor from basins of privilege acquired either by inheritance or wealth.”

All in all, Spurgeon is a model of someone who “did not read his Bible as a pietist who separated religion off into a private realm removed from social and political life.” His activism was widespread: he founded an orphanage and supported it his whole life; this orphanage had its own school; he started an evening school at his church for adults to learn ‘Science, English Language and Literature, Elementary Mathematics, and Bookkeeping” (106).

In all of this, I find myself inspired to put no limits on the kinds of ways to “do good to all” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” The kinds of challenges that people face today: poverty, unemployment, homelessness, are all fair game for anyone in ministry to seek to address, and Spurgeon gives a model for doing so.

The chapter on the “Downgrade Controversy” demonstrates that such effort to address social concerns does not have to come at the expense of orthodox theology whatsoever. This controversy was due to other Baptist ministers beginning to compromise on the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell. Spurgeon fought hard within the Baptist union to fight this theological drift, and in the end withdrew from their fellowship over this issue. However, Hulse points out that even when Spurgeon disagreed deeply with others’ theological convictions, he did so charitably:

He sought to maintain personal contact and sustain a personal relationship with evangelical ministers who compromised and were too weak to uphold the biblical position as outlined above. He reasoned with them. He was patient with them. He broke fellowship with them as far as cooperation was concerned, but he did no sever lines of personal communication with fellow ministers who compromised. He was sorrowful and reluctant in separating from brother ministers who refused to take a stand. (p. 9)

Spurgeon is a model for us of how to engage controversy. “We need to hold the truth and contend for it in a loving manner as he did” (10).

Spurgeon is thus indeed a model of an “all-round ministry.” I don’t have to choose between extensive engagement on social issues and evangelistic preaching of the Gospel: Spurgeon did both exceptionally well. I don’t have to choose to compromise on theology in order to pursue greater good in the community: Spurgeon fought against theological drift while being actively engaged in these other issues. I don’t have to stay out of politics when political realities affect so many aspects the life of my people: Spurgeon was unashamed to wade into political questions and took the side of the marginalized. And finally, I don’t have to do any of these things in fear of what other people will think: Spurgeon lived his life completely in the open, willing to be completely known by all for who he truly was. His life truly speaks to us today.

Quote: D.A. Carson on Democracy

I’ve had this thought in scattered glimpses over the years, never as cogently as Carson puts it here.

From Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson, p. 127

“Christians cannot possibly view democracy as “the cure” for the world’s ills.  For many pragmatic and moral reasons, we may concur that, granted attendant structures and liberties, it is the form of government least unaccountable to the people and least likely to brutalize its citizens without some eventual accounting.  It is a form of government most likely to foster personal freedoms, including, usually, freedoms for Christians to practice and propagate their faith.  But it has also proved proficient at throwing off a sense of obligation to God the Creator, let alone the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is another way of saying that it is proficient at fostering idolatry.