This month marks the 400th anniversary of the first shipment of enslaved Africans in the colonies which became the United State. In August of 1619, the ship known as the White Lion entered the fateful history of white supremacy and tyranny in America, the legacy of which still affects us today in many ways.
The saddest part of the story to me, as a Christian, is that the churches and ministers played a central role in this tragedy from day one. Worse, when other Christians later argued it was all immoral and wrong, proslavery Christians (the vast majority) called them liberals, “Jacobins” (the “cultural Marxists” and “SJWs” of the day). They said they themselves MUST defend the institution because if they did not, they would be surrendering to forces that were attacking the Bible, historic Christian values, the Church itself, the faith, and the traditional American way of life.
While it is now acknowledged that there is actually a good amount of black history to consider in America before this legendary Jamestown incident 400 years ago this month, this occasion should still give us pause as a monument to the great tragedies committed in the name of Christ and the Bible, just how easily it was for Christians to defend such a failure, and how powerfully the forces of anti-leftism can blind us to even the most basic of biblical truths before us—all still today even.
These issues are a big reason why I wrote The Problem of Slavery in Christian America. Let’s review a few of the historic notes of how the churches and ministers were involved from day one:
The Mission that Never Happened*
From its earliest days, the Atlantic slave trade consisted of an unholy traffic in souls covered by the thinnest veneer of Christian sanctity. . . .
The now-infamous Sir Thomas Hawkins, with his unfortunately-named ship Jesus of Lübec, had no thought of “saving black men’s souls. He saw only an opportunity of extending his business,” as he conducted the first voyages of the British slave trade. He then proposed his business to the crown precisely on these terms. The story goes that when Elizabeth I first heard of Hawkins’ deed, her Christian principles held some sway: “it was detestable and would call down vengeance from heaven upon the undertakers.” But it did not take much to change her mind: “(W)hen Hawkins came to see her and showed her his profit sheet, ‘not only did she forgive him but she became a shareholder in his second slaving voyage.’” Whether her initial protest was for plausible deniability or not matters less than the fact that profit was the dominant concern, and the Crown financed and encouraged it. (All footnotes and references are in the book!)
Profits and Protestants had just as direct a hand in American slavery from its very inception as well. Those very first twenty blacks delivered to Jamestown in 1619 were the fruit of nothing less than a crusade on the sea led by Calvinist minister John Colyn Jope and his ship, the White Lion, partnered with another, the Treasurer. On orders of Robert Rich, Second Earl of Warwick, via John Rolfe himself, the two ships lurked the Caribbean for Spanish gold ships to “privateer.” The fact, however, that Treasurer’s commission had expired, along with an intervening peace treaty, meant the duo were actually engaging in good old-fashioned piracy. When they finally cornered a Spanish frigate off the coast of Mexico, their hopes deflated somewhat when besides gold they found a cargo of Africans. Not to leave completely empty handed, they loaded as many as they could on their small corsairs—about 30 each—and left the rest. Jope’s White Lion landed in Jamestown first, and disembarked its fateful cargo.
Not only had this story simply involved a Calvinist pastor, but it developed as a direct outworking of a clash of empires built on Protestant theology—particularly the eschatology of historicism. Men such as Jope and Lord Rich, perhaps Rolfe as well, “saw themselves as engaged in the climactic war between Satan and the saints foretold in Revelation and the book of Daniel, and considered the establishment of Jamestown not merely as a commercial venture but as the opening of a new front that would contribute to the ultimate defeat of the ‘popish’ antichrist and his chief minion in Madrid by serving as a base for preying on the Spanish Main.” With this very “apocalyptic vision” in mind, they launched their raids on Spanish cargo ships. As so often happens, however, those fighting a monster turned into a monster in the process—a problem only exacerbated when one is allegedly fighting Antichrist. Many earnest Protestants would otherwise have been at pains to distinguish themselves from the Mother of Harlots in her specialty of trafficking in slaves and the souls of men (Rev. 18:13); yet in fighting the great contest against her, these men licensed themselves to plunder the bounty of Portugal and Spain, counted in Africans, and instead of despising her sins, rather envied and partook of them instead, counting it gain for the Kingdom of God, ignoring the Book’s very warning, “Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues” (Rev. 18:4). Gain thus remained the dominant concern.
Not only had this story simply involved a Calvinist pastor, but it developed as a direct outworking of a clash of empires built on Protestant theology—particularly the eschatology of historicism. — @JoelMcDurmon
The dominant concern, however, did not make up an equal measure of the public justification. Instead, virtually every western force that engaged in the trade did so with missionary intentions on their lips. Yet as soon as colonial slaveowners feared that conversion could lead to emancipation and thus end of their free labor source, they simply neglected to evangelize their slaves or instruct them in Christianity in general. This led to the acts declaring that baptism does not change the status of slaves, designed to ameliorate the planters’ fears, beginning in 1664 and continuing until at least six colonies passed such acts by 1706. Even then, however, the authorities had to punctuate their efforts with further encouragements, such as Charles II’s in 1660, to baptize and teach the slaves Christianity. “But the doubts persisted, and many colonial slaveholders continued to resist the baptism of their bondsmen, because they feared their slaves would become ‘saucy.’ Apparently convinced that Christianity had a dangerously liberating effect, many slaveholders believe that ‘a Slave is ten times worse when a Xn, than in his State of Paganism.’” . . . .
Planters routinely expressed fears that Christianity would inspire thoughts of freedom and equality among slaves. Kalm’s travel journals stated that the masters prevented evangelization and catechism “partly by thinking that they should not be able to keep their negroes so meanly afterwards; and partly through fear of the negroes growing too proud, on seeing themselves upon a level with their masters in religious matters.” . . .
We could continue with such history and sources almost infinitely, it seems. It only gets worse as we continue through the 18th and 19th centuries, and indeed on into the 20th. In fact, we do so for almost 500 pages in the book; but we end with a few hopeful notes as to how we can change our thinking as Christians and reverse the remaining vestiges of racial inequality, oppression, insensitivity, and even injustices. Loving our neighbors needs to reign supreme, and for real.
There is much work to be done yet. Learning the mistakes of the past is a necessary part of this. We do not often realize how much they are still with us! The memorial of this month is a great place to start. Four hundred years of neglect is enough, especially among Christians. We had a central role in creating the problem. We must take a central role in destroying its legacy as well.