Reflections after reading Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Slavery was the original American sin.

I don’t know anyone who justifies race-based slavery, but I have known seemingly good folk with more than a dollop of sympathy for the Confederacy. Growing centralized government makes “states’ rights” look good, and self-determination is a popular modern cause.

If the South wanted to be free, why use brutal force to bring it back within the Union?



Lincoln makes the case for the Union better than anyone, but the slaves themselves wrote eloquent testimonies as to why the Confederacy does not deserve a moment of Christian pity. Harriet Jacobs (who wrote under the pseudonym “Linda Brent”) witnesses to the incompatibility of slavery with the Christian ethic of love. Her intelligent, calm account makes hash of the idea that there was anything ennobling about the “peculiar institution.”

The Old South is dead—for which all Americans should feel profound gratitude. The reason is instructive to some of our current political debates. Some crimes against humanity are so horrible that they taint every person associated with them. They bring down brutal judgment from God on any nation that tolerates their presence.

Take an evening and purge your soul of any sympathy for the Southern cause by reading the profoundly Christian story of an enslaved woman: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. There is no way for me to describe the ugliness of what was done to a Christian, to a woman, to a human, in the name of race based slavery. Often the evil was done by professing Christians who abused their religion as a cover for their abuse. Sadly, her story is not unique, but representative of hundreds of years of torment tolerated first by colonial Britain and then by the American Constitution.

A certain sort of conservative has too much sympathy for the Lost Cause, but no Cause that defends the institutionalization of violence and evil that slavery produced in the entire South deserves pity. For a Christian one of the most sickening aspects of Jacobs’ powerful book are the twisted justifications of immoral conduct by believers.

Make no mistake: Americans had created an institution that was peculiar to their particular time. It depended on the pseudo-scientific notion of “race” which is utterly incompatible with Christian understandings of humankind.

Race-based slavery is an assault on Christian anthropology, because it denies the basic equality of all human beings before God. While a person may be given a different function in the divine economy, this difference must be based on real distinctions and be implemented with charity. Slavery was based on an irrelevant distinction (skin color) made important through self-serving lies.

It had no basis in history, biology, or religion.

Slavery based on economics or warfare made a certain kind of sense for ancient times, but race-based slavery is utterly intolerable. Racism made a child of God less than human. The only possible moral justification for race based slavery collapsed the moment a slave was baptized. The only possible economic benefit from slavery became impossible with the application of the Golden Rule to slaves who wanted to be free.

How could a Christian brother deny liberty to a brother or sister who longed for it?

Enslaved women faced unique problems as this book’s powerful testimony makes clear.

Humanity cannot be trusted with the absolute power of one human being over another. Christians traditionally favor small government for this very reason, but there is no use keeping a tyrant out of the Capitol if one creates a worse one on the plantation. Limited government applies to family and to church as well as to the state.

Prelates and patriarchs cannot be trusted any more than potentates.

Nothing can justify the Southern cause, because the taint of race-based slavery pollutes the noblest motivations. Good men like Robert E. Lee should have known better, because Christian moral understanding had advanced to the point where there was no excuse for a reasonable man to miss the point. Of course, courage was shown in an ignoble cause and brave men died for an evil system, but that only makes it worse.

Slavery, hundreds of years of slavery, was so horrible it taints the American experiment. It made a mockery of the ideals in the Declaration. Our marvelous Constitution was polluted by slavers who desired votes in Congress for their slaves without acknowledging their humanity.

It is no shock that those who profited by slavery justified it. More horrifying in Jacobs’ book are those Northerners who tolerated it, profited from it, and allowed themselves to be used by it.

Why should we care today? We should care because 1865 was not so long ago . . . and Southern states wickedly imposed slavery in all but name for many for decades longer. Segregation could only be sustained by the force of law, and the law was misused in its name even in my lifetime.

What is worse is that this nation, so long hurt by the sin of slavery does so little to end the slave trade globally. Today Christian brothers and sisters are enslaved in the Sudan. All the many horrors, and more, that Jacobs wrote about are happening now. Some of the nations that perpetuate or justify such abuse receive huge amounts of American aid.

It is a crime so horrible; it taints all near it. Direct support for any regime that is implicated in the slave trade must end. The United States is not called to be the world’s policeman or pastor, but we are also not called to be the paymasters for slavers. Britain decided not to support Southern slavers for cheap cotton and we should deny any aid to soft-on-slavery sheiks with oil.

Advocacy of abolition is a particular moral obligation on Americans. Support for slavers or their willing accomplices would fatally taint any global work we do.

Articles by John Mark Reynolds

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