Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Great Awakening, Missions, Slavery, and Paternalism: Part 3

This is the third part of a series on the first American Foreign Mission Board:

Critique of ABCFM 
ABCFM and Slavery

There are no doubt hundreds, if not thousands, of stories of how the ABCFM was used to propagate the gospel to the ends of the earth. Those who risked their lives for the sake of the gospel are to be admired and esteemed. However, they should not always be admired in an uncritical manner. One area in particular that is in need of a critical assessment is the perpetuation of slavery by the ABCFM.

There are numerous documents from the first several decades of the eighteenth century that point to the ABCFM’s complacent attitude toward slavery. One such document gives an account of the response of the ABCFM to those who complained that the institution of slavery in America was “a hindrance to their missionary work.” The missionaries desired for the ABCFM to take a firm stance against slavery and yet the Board responded by saying:

The Board cannot be expected to pass resolutions, or adopt measures against this system [slavery], any more than against other specific forms of evil existing in the community. For we are met at once with the question, why we should express and proclaim our opinion in regard to one particular evil, in distinction from others, which are equally obvious and prevalent?

The Board was claiming that if they began to focus on particular issues rather than the preaching of the gospel that their work would be compromised. However, as Charles Whipple observes, in previous Annual Reports the Board had passed resolutions prohibiting “the use of opium...against caste—in Siam...and against the smoking of tobacco.”   In other words, the Board was perfectly comfortable with passing resolutions against “specific forms of evil,” but with regards to American slavery they sought to be politically suave and remain silent.

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