What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Slavery/Civil Rights II (What If—19)

In the United States, the anti-slavery movement picked up steam around the time slavery was abolished in the British Empire. A major galvanizing development was John Rankin’s book Letter on American Slavery, published in 1826. It was a series of letters he wrote to his slave-holding brother Thomas. Rankin was very clear on his motivation: “If you really want to follow Jesus, you need to free your slaves.” These letters convinced Thomas to free his slaves and join the anti-slavery movement. The book also inspired William Lloyd Garrison to begin publishing his magazine The Liberator. The masthead of the magazine included the language of Scripture: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt 19:19; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27), and “I come to break the bonds of the oppressor” (based on Luke 4:18). The illustration connected with the latter quote is a black man kneeling before Jesus and the cross and a white man cowering in fear. Both are equal at the foot of the cross. Rankin’s book also inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose later book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had a major anti-slavery influence on the American public in the years leading up to the Civil War.

In 1833, the same year in which the slavery was abolished in the British Empire, the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded, under the leadership of William Lloyd Garrison. 75% of the founders were Christian ministers. A short time later Elijah Parish Lovejoy (1802-1837) was murdered by a pro-slavery mob. Trained as a pastor, he moved to the slave state of Missouri and started an anti-slavery newspaper. Repeatedly attacked for his views he moved across the Mississippi River to Alton, Illinois, which was a free state. Nevertheless, he continued to be attacked by pro-slavery mobs until at the age of 35 he was killed by a gunshot while defending his printing press. What motivated Lovejoy to take so many risks in order to advance the abolition of slavery? He confessed: “I am impelled to the course I have taken because I fear God.”

Born into slavery in Maryland, Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) escaped to Philadelphia in 1849 and became a key figure in the establishment of the so-called “Underground Railroad” which rescued many slaves from the grip of the American South in the years leading up to the American Civil War (1861-1865). She too was motivated by the teachings of Jesus. This is witnessed by her own prayer for her slave master: “O dear Lord, change dat man’s heart, and make him a Christian”. For her, Christianity was about following Jesus, not just attending church.

Like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) escaped from slavery in Maryland to become a leader of the abolitionist movement in the North. A key element in his anti-slavery work was his conversion to Christianity. Because of his conversion he said, “I loved all mankind, slaveholders not excepted, though I abhorred slavery more than ever.” When one looks deeply into the abolitionist movement, every significant abolitionist, black or white, was a committed Christian. Prominent in more recent times was Martin Luther King (1929B1968). Like the others we have mentioned, he was motivated to do what he did by Jesus and Scripture. In one of his famous sermons he uttered: “Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries, ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.’ This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.”

I would argue that if Jesus had never been born, open slavery would likely be condoned and practiced today. After all, slavery has been the norm for the human race throughout history. It took a massive effort in England and the United States, motivated by Jesus, to turn that norm around and make slavery a despised institution. But that leaves the question unanswered, Why the more than thousand-year delay between the time of Jesus and the arrival of Daniel Pastorius? Why did it take so long for Christians to demand the abolition of the institution? To be continued . . .

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