The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 46): Enlightenment Odds ‘n Ends–Revolution, Columbus, and the Slave Trade

The last few Ways of the Worldviews posts have been quite heavy in the philosophy department. And it’s true, the philosophers of the Enlightenment have had a tremendous impact on how we in the modern world even view reality itself: God, nature, religion, the state, the church…you name it. That’s all well and good, but what impact does any of this have in day-to-day life and actual historical events?

Well, as it so turns out, there are a number of odds ‘n ends I have come across over the past few years that do touch upon some of these matters, but that I just am not sure how to fit in to this Ways of the Worldviews series. So, I figured, why not just dump it all into one post, and let it be a bit disjointed and possibly messy? It still is rather interesting stuff…Enjoy…

The Difference between the American and French Revolutions
It is rather interesting that the American and French Revolutions, that happened roughly at the same time in history, ended up yielding such different results. The American Revolution led to the establishment of the United States of America, a Constitution that has lasted for over 200 years, a clear separation of Church and State, and as a result, a flourishing of religious freedom to where America is one of the most religious countries in the world (even if in name only).

By contrast, the French Revolution began in 1789, and by 1792, Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety had instituted the Reign of Terror. And by 1804, a mere 15 years after they deposed the monarchy of France, Napoleon declared himself to be its emperor. Why such different results?

To the point, I believe it had to do with how each country dealt with the issue of religion. In America, although many of the Founding Fathers were clearly deists and not traditional Christians, they nevertheless respected the right people had to religious faith and the right they had to express their religious convictions. There was an intentional decision for the government to stay out of church affairs—that, incidentally, was the “wall between Church and State” that Thomas Jefferson was referring to. The “wall” existed so that the State could not impose its will on the Church. At the same time, although it was obvious that the Church was not to run the affairs of the State either, there was no objection for religious men and women to express their religious beliefs in public and attempt to convince people in regards to how the State should be run.

In other words, the religious man was free to argue for his religious convictions in the public square, and if his argument was convincing enough, he had just as much a right to try to shape public policy as anyone else. Therefore, in America, deists, atheists, and Christians of all backgrounds were free to contribute in the public square.

By contrast, in France, the focus was not simply to stamp out the monarchy, but to stamp out Christianity itself. Human rights were not “endowed by the Creator.” Instead, the “Supreme Being” was equaled to the sovereignty of the nation and the general will of the people—and so, the basis for democracy in France essentially came to rest, not on the idea that there are certain inalienable rights endowed by God, but rather the idea that human rights are human rights, because that’s what society wants.

Or to put it another way, in reference to Greek philosophy: in America, the idea of particular rights was rooted in the conviction that God, as the ultimate universal, gives those particular rights meaning. Man is created in God’s image—man has dignity, worth, meaning, and rights, because he is the image of the Creator. By contrast, in France, the particular rights were rooted in…what? There was no universal to root them in—“God” was just the “will of the people.” Human rights are human rights are human rights…let the government enforce the will of the people.

And because of that, the revolutionary government of France, ended up slaughtering thousands in the name of enforcing human rights. They decreed that 1792 be considered “year one” of the new age of Enlightenment; they proclaimed “the goddess of reason” in Notre Dame Cathedral, and even paraded an actress, dressed up as the goddess reason, in a procession into the church, held shoulder-high by men dressed in Roman costumes. In short, they attempted to place finite human reason and the will of the people up as the deity that was to dictate human society.

The result was the Reign of Terror, chaos, and then the installment of an even greater dictator than Louis XVI—Napoleon Bonaparte.

Christopher Columbus
Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492—considerably before the time of the so-called Enlightenment. So why talk about Columbus now? Simple: our accepted narrative about Columbus comes from the time of the Enlightenment—and it couldn’t be more wrong. We all know the story of Columbus: he went about trying to prove that the world was round, despite the Catholic Church’s claim that the world was flat. Ironically, in addition to proving the world was round, Columbus also unwittingly discovered a whole new continent. Right?

Wrong. The only reason why such a story has been largely accepted as true in our day and age is certain writers during the Enlightenment put forth this yarn as an attempt to discredit the Catholic Church and to convince people that Christianity was simply an anti-intellectual, superstitious religion. But as I’ve mentioned numerous times in the course of these posts, the Enlightenment had this really bad habit of making things up and telling complete historical falsehoods.

I first learned about this almost 20 years ago, when I saw a BBC special by Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) about the Middle Ages. In one of the episodes he touched upon the common misunderstanding regarding Columbus. You can watch the entire episode here. The specific part about Columbus begins around minute 16.

The fact is that the story of Columbus’ clash with the Catholic Church over the claim that the world was, in fact, round, was a complete fiction, written by Washington Irving in the early 19th century. As soon as Irving published his biography of Columbus, it quickly was snatched up by people who already held an animus against Christianity (or particularly the Catholic Church), and promptly used it as yet another weapon in their arsenal to attack Christianity.

Later on, men like Andrew Dickson White promulgated and embellished the already fictitious story in his attempt to show that there was an ever-raging war between the ignorant superstitions of Christianity and the enlightened, rationalism of science. But the fact had been, and indeed still is, that there had never been a war between science and Christianity. As Rodney Stark points out, “Long before the fifteenth century, every educated European including Roman Catholic prelates, knew the earth was round” (Triumph of Christianity, 274). In fact, as Ronald Numbers points out, “From the seventh century to the fourteenth, every important medieval thinker concerned about the natural world stated more or less explicitly that the world was a round globe, many of them incorporating Ptolemy’s astronomy and Aristotle’s physics into their work” (Galileo Goes to Jail, 31). Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Albert Magnus—not to mention every single solitary sailor—knew that the earth was round.

Slavery: Enlightenment Thinkers vs. Christian Thinkers
There is one key issue that infected Western Europe and pre-Civil War America that must be addressed: slavery. It was stated earlier that it was Christianity that successfully put an end to the ancient pagan institution of slavery. It was because of the revolutionary Christian conviction that all human beings were made in the image of God, and were therefore created equal, that the ancient pagan institution of slavery was ended. But if that was the case, how did slavery revive in Western Europe? The answer is simple: colonialism. With the discovery of “the new world” came the European push to colonize it in order to expand markets of trade. And what better way to insure high profits than to secure a workforce for virtually nothing—i.e. let’s enslave Africans and send them to work in the sugar cane fields in the Caribbean!

Yet the question thus becomes, “If Christianity had long before condemned slavery as immoral and anti-Christian, who were the people in Europe who advocated for slavery?” Although the full answer is far more complex than can be discussed here, the simple answer is that slavery was promoted and advocated by prominent Enlightenment thinkers. Furthermore, slavery was not only condemned by the Catholic Church from the outset of its revival in the colonies, but it was the tireless work of countless Christian abolitionists who eventually were able to once again, both in England and in the United States, to abolish slavery for the second time in Western history.

One such Enlightenment thinker who advocated for slavery was none other than David Hume. He argued that blacks were “naturally inferior to whites,” and once compared an articulate black Jamaican to “a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.” Indeed, other prominent men of the Enlightenment like Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire and John Locke all defended the practice of racial slavery. And what was the basis upon which they argued for slavery? None other than human reason, nature, and supposed science—the result was justification for the inhumane practice of slavery, and the subsequent enslavement, torture, and ultimate death of millions of African slaves.

By contrast, it was Christians who were speaking out forcefully against the practice of slavery right from the outset. In his book, Christianity on Trial, Vincent Carroll tells us that in 1774, John Wesley wrote Thoughts on Slavery, and “posed a rhetorical question to the captains of slave ships: ‘Do you never feel another’s pain? Have you no sympathy? …When you saw the flowing eyes, the heaving breasts, or the bleeding sides or tortured limbs of your fellow human beings, were you a stone or a brute?’” (32). Incidentally, Wesley was no fan of David Hume.  He called Hume, “the most insolent despiser of truth and virtue who ever appeared in the world.”

And then there was George Whitefield. Carroll tells us that Whitefield “went so far as to ask whites to consider the children of slaves as equal to their own. ‘Think your children are in any way better by nature than the poor Negroes? No! In no wise! Blacks are just as much, and no more, conceived and born in sin, as white men are; and both, if born and bred up here, I am persuaded, are naturally capable of the same improvement’” (32).

There was also John Newton, the former slave ship captain who eventually repented of his sins and became a follower of Christ. He wrote perhaps the most famous hymn in history, Amazing Grace. He greatly influenced William Wilberforce who, along with William Pitt, eventually was able to abolish the slave trade throughout the British Empire. It was because of his deeply-rooted faith in Christ that Wilberforce dedicated his life to the betterment of humanity. He famously said, “Almighty God has set before me two great objectives: the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” His dream was initially realized when Parliament voted to make the slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire, and then was finally realized with the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1834. Over the course of his career in Parliament, Wilberforce introduced countless anti-slavery bills that brought him nothing but scorn.

In fact, early on in his political career, he was ridiculed for trying to “impose religion” into public life. Carroll tells us that Lord Melbourne sneered at Wilberforce and said, “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life” (36). Nevertheless, his persistence, along with the ground-swell of support from Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, eventually was able, for the second time in Western history, to put an end to slavery.

Of course, while Wilberforce was able to end slavery in the British Empire without firing a single shot, the United States ended up having to fight a war over the issue. Slavery was established in the colonies in Virginia in 1619. Almost immediately there were Christians who objected to the practice. Sadly though, as the practice became firmly entrenched in the colonies, even Christians came to be split on the issue. Even though Quakers actually banned anyone who was involved in the slave trade from church membership, a large number of Baptists in the south came to endorse supposed biblical justifications for slavery.

Despite the fact that from the days of the early Church, Christians had always opposed slavery, after a few generations, southern Christians had simply adapted to the slave-culture of the south, and sought to justify the truly horrible practice with passages from the Bible (Lev. 25:44-46; I Cor. 7:20-24; Eph. 6:5-8; I Peter 2:18-21). This certainly was a tragedy. But we must not falsely assume that it was Christianity that encouraged the slave trade and the continuation of slavery in America. In fact, the leading abolitionists in America were non-other than evangelical Christians, predominantly Baptists and Methodists. In fact, the reason why there are considerably more predominantly black Baptist and Methodist congregations around the country, as opposed to Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or any other denomination, is because it was Baptist and Methodist churches who led the abolitionist movement. Consequently, it is no wonder why so many black people and former slaves ended up joining those denominations—they were the ones who helped secure their freedom.

And the Indians…
Christians in America didn’t just concern themselves with the plight of black slaves. Vincent Carroll writes that Christians also “organized the most determined effort of the early nineteenth century to defend Indian rights: a national campaign against President Andrew Jackson’s brutal plan to confiscate the Cherokee Territory in Georgia and expel the natives from their land” (196). In addition, “It was evangelical missionaries, too, who defied the law against residing on Cherokee lands and choose to be arrested at the point of bayonets in order to push the Indians’ case before the U.S. Supreme Court” (196). And finally, “The Cherokee bill was controversial to begin with only because of the evangelical campaign, a grassroots effort that came within five votes in the House of defeating Jackson’s scheme” [Trail of Tears] (196).

The point should be obvious, throughout the history of America, it was Christians who led the way in striving for the freedom and fair treatment of “the least of these”—be it black African slaves or Native American Indians.

Next on the “Ways of the Worldviews” series: we’re journeying on into the 19th century—what I call “The Age of the Modern Nephilim.” If you don’t know what that is, check back in a few days.

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