Of all the issues in America history since its founding, slavery cuts the deepest. This is probably because slavery is a political, economic, social, moral, and spiritual issue all at the same time. Our founding Fathers, so creatively inspired in laying the foundation for this great nation, could not resolve this issue. So they kicked the can down the road.
Baptists in the south began expressing their conviction that slavery was inconsistent with the Christian faith in the early 1800s. That is later than some groups, but certainly earlier than others. But Baptists, like many other religious bodies in America, where unsure how to deal with an issue that our political class refused to deal with.
The Boston board of the Baptist foreign mission society was under tremendous pressure in the mid-1800s. Abolitionists wanted them to take a stand against slavery. Faithful Baptists wanted them to stick to their one mission of world evangelism. In 1834 the Board expressed in a resolution that they would not allow slavery, or any other issue, to affect the business of appointing missionaries and raising funds to support them. However, the Boston Board was unable to sustain that approach.
During this same period many Baptist associations and conventions, mostly but not exclusively in the south, pleaded with the Board and with other Baptists to be patient. They called for a search for economic and social solutions to slavery that would allow slavery to gradually be abolished.
Mom and Pop Baptist across America, and particularly in the South, were not wealthy and had no direct investment in the institution of slavery. Many saw it as morally evil. They favored gradualism, something the abolitionist would not tolerate. The die was cast. War came.
But think about this. Could it be that if the tremendous energy and investment of capital and human lives made in the Civil War had been instead invested in finding that gradual path, perhaps slavery would have been eliminated and a foundation for justice laid in our society that would have averted the need for the Civil Rights movement?
The British model certainly suggests so. William Wilberforce introduced a measure in Parliament every year for 20 years before Parliament finally found the will to abolish the slave trade in 1807. The abolition of slavery itself naturally followed, though it took another 26 years. Evangelical Christians, including British Baptists, championed this cause.
It is a shame that the same path was not followed by American politicians. Perhaps 620,000 American lives would not have been sacrificed on the battlefields, and the bitterness of reconstruction, the emergence of the KKK and of Jim Crow laws would have never happened.
Some say Baptists have been on the wrong side of history concerning slavery and Civil Rights. I certainly hope so, because the history of these issues has been brutal, hateful and murderous. We Baptists have and continue to repent of our sins, which are many. We also seek to live out our creed to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is not the role of the government to tell any of us how or if we should love God or how or if we should love our neighbor. That is a matter of conscience.
Baptists have consistently stood for, and continue to stand for, freedom of conscience. And if that is once again on the wrong side of history, so be it.