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Our Southern Zion and the Sovereign Grace of God

November 5, 2012

Did you know that churches owned slaves?  No doubt we are familiar with the unfortunate truth that Christians owned slaves. But were you aware that churches own property that included black men, women, and children?  According to historian Eskine Clark, this is a regrettable truth in the history of the church in America. In his book, Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Caroline Low Country, 1690 – 1990, Clark describes the situation in South Carolina where Presbyterian Churches actually owned slaves and received revenue from their services.  Clark writes:

From early in the eighteenth century, however, some blacks belonged to the churches in a distinctive way – they were owned by the churches, and their status as church property tells us much about the social character of the congregations.

The labor of black slaves on glebe lands or in the rice fields of neighboring plantations provided income for the ministers and for the upkeep of the meetinghouses. At Bethel Pon Pon, for example, the congregation bought in the 1730s eight slaves to be employed in planting. Others were purchased in later years. These, “hewers of wood and drawers of water” were usually hired out to one or two planters, often to members of the congregation, for one year or more at a time. In return the planters, after having put up a bond for the slaves, agreed to pay in barrels of rice for the use of the slaves and to provide them with “Good Cloths, Shoes, Blankets, and Tools.” By 1748 the congregation’s slaves included July, Phillis, Charity, Cyrus, Quarterman, Chloe, June, and Prime plus their six children…

The danger to slaves of being “hired out” in such a way is clear in the Bethel session minutes. The person who hired the slaves in 1748 was Robert Oswald, a deacon of the church. In May 1750 the session refused him admission to the Lord’s Supper because he had murdered one of his slaves during the preceding winter. He acknowledged the murder but did so with such indifference that the elders declared their “nonapprobation of so Superficial an acknowledgement of so heinous a Crime as that of Murder and declared it not Satisfactory to the Chh.” Oswald “flew into a great rage” and said he would not bear with this “insinuation and that he ad only set as an officer in the Chh. for the advancement of his Worldly Interest.”  After accusing the session of “Priestcraft,” Oswald abruptly left, and the elders declared him no longer a member of the church. When in September 1751 the time came for Oswald to return the slaves of the church he had hired, he refused to do so. It was only after the church had established trustees the following year, with power to act on its behalf, that Oswald returned them. The slave Prime, however, was not listed among them, and it is possible that he was the one murdered. Oswald apparently continued a stormy relationship with the church, voting for but refusing “to sign with those who sign here” a call for a new minister in 1752.

Recently, the rapper Propaganda released the much-debated song Precious Puritans. Before you run out and try to out perform Propaganda (which is not likely) and write about the Precious Presbyterians, let me encourage you to consider carefully your judgments. Rather than doing the easy thing and judging those men and women who engaged in the horrific sin of the slave trade (such actions judge themselves), I would encourage us to seek to understand the more difficult and yet more glorious truth of what God was doing in the midst of human depravity.

Interestingly, the slaves brought to the South Carolina Low Country, though enduring much indignity and suffering, were exposed to the biblical and evangelistic preaching of men like George Whitfield and remarkably and almost inexplicably embraced the faith of many of those who enslaved them and became, according to Clark, “the oldest and largest African-American Calvinistic community in America.”

It seems obvious, with the benefit of hindsight, that God had greater and more glorious purposes, despite the oppressive and sinful intentions of many. Never (and mean “Never!”) to excuse the sinful, hard-heartedness of humanity, we again, however, are reminded of God’s sovereign grace in seeing what many meant for evil, God once again meant for good.

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