After my mother died in 1994, I found her mother’s handwritten family history. It pointed me to the right states, counties and dates for her grandparents, who lived before and after the Civil War (1861-1865)–the Great Divide.
So I wrote the courthouses or a local researcher for the records. I was stunned at what I got back in the mail a few weeks later.
We have to deal with this topic.
A BRIEF OUTLINE OF THE EVIDENCE
After I wrote the courthouses, my first exposure to the family lines owning slaves was Thomas Gray, who married into the Wilbourns. His slaves were described in his Inventory and Appraisement, in Bienville Parish, Louisiana. This document means men were sworn to go out to his plantation and look at every item, small or big, animate or inanimate, and put a dollar value on them. Of course the slaves came first because they were the most valuable.
Next, William Wilbourn, living in Edgefield District (County), South Carolina, owned about twenty slaves, the most of all our ancestors. When the Wilbourns left South Carolina, at least one slave was left behind, attending a white church. He is cited as being formerly owned by William. Clearly he was freed.
Other lines owned them too. Even some early Quakers did, except the original immigrant, William Clayton. William Clopton owned several, according to this record.
How should I respond to the historical fact of slavery? I knew before any family documents were found that the institution was evil, yes; the people back then had drunk too deeply of their historical context. And by comparison, other family lines, particularly the Rylands and the lines that “feed” into them, were not slave owners, yet they were prosperous.
One didn’t need to own slaves to be prosperous in Antebellum (pre-Civil War) America.
As more records came in, I gradually learned that the people in our family lines who owned slaves tried to keep family groups together. A specific case is Barnett. He was born in 1778, and appears in William Hudson’s 1790 tax list in Virginia. William bequeaths him to his daughter Polly and son-in-law Jeremiah Wilbourn. While living with them, he was baptized at Bethany Baptist Church, led by whites. So the church was biracial to some degree. Then Jeremiah and his family moved to Georgia, but Barnet did not go with them. He joined our line of Wilbourns: William and Cairy, in South Carolina. We don’t know when he died, but he was probably disabled, so he may not have lived into old age.
The main point: yes, slavery was evil, but people could work within the bad institution and find some positives, like family togetherness and church.
I choose to focus on the positives in the Wilbourn, family, for instance:
• The ones who owned slaves (not all did) were part of their historical context;
• They kept the black families together, as best they could;
• At least one slave got his freedom;
• Blacks and whites went to church together in Edgefield, South Carolina, in the early 1830s;
• They got baptized together;
• They seemed to live together in peace.
I like to read American history, and a few years back I was working my way through a college sophomore textbook and discovered these facts. I had never heard of them before. I was as stunned as I had been when I first learned my ancestors were slave owners.
- All the major nations traded in slaves; it still goes on in some parts of the world;
- From 1526 to 1810, 12 million slaves were transported to the New World, but only 427,000 reached British North America, less than five percent;
- The vast majority of Americans—more than eighty percent—did not own slaves;
- Compared to Latin American slaves, American slaves were better fed;
- Compared to Latin American slaves, American slaves lived longer. In 1850 in the Antebellum South, life expectancy was 21.4 years for blacks, 25.5 for whites; in other parts of the New World the numbers were much lower;
- Therefore the general conditions say that American slaves’ chances of survival were much better than those in Brazil and the West Indies, for example.
I had never heard of those facts before. Had any of you? Of course, that list does not excuse the evil institution, but they do put things in comparative perspective. America was not a uniquely evil place on the world stage back then, as some would have us believe, and she still isn’t today.
A LITTLE BIBLE STUDY
This post wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t express my love for Scripture, properly interpreted. This is a little Biblical theology to get a perspective, after 160 years of distance from slavery.
This quick Bible study seeks to answer only one question: Should I feel guilty about this evil institution that was officially abolished in 1865?
In the Old Covenant, God promises to punish the children for the sins of their fathers, of those who hate him (i.e. those who reject his covenant), down to three or four generations (Exodus 20:5). In owning slaves our ancestors did not walk in the fullest revelation of God’s love for humanity, though I won’t go so far as to say no slave owner made it into heaven; anyone can, by God’s grace through faith in Christ. Do their sins transfer down to me?
The rest of the passage in Exodus reads:
. . . but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:6)
We have a better covenant than the old one. We understand that keeping God’s commandments is impossible. Therefore, God set up an exchange system. Through the cross and Christ’s death on it we give him our law-breaking, and God imputes Christ’s law-keeping to us. So only on that basis can we say we keep his commandments. Therefore, in Christ, God show us love for a thousand generations. Therefore, our ancestors’ sins don’t transfer to us.
But things get even better.
In another passage – later than the law laid down in Exodus – God says we don’t have to suffer or pay for the sins of the father.
1 The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel:
“‘The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?
3 “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. 4 For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son—both alike belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die. (Ezekiel 18:1-4)
Ezekiel was written much later than the law. And God is moving in a new direction than the belief that the children pay for the sins of the father. Now every soul belongs to God, meaning we stand before him for our own actions, not those of our fathers.
Now we get to the best part.
Judicially, God will not remember our past sins and iniquities, now or at any time.
Quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34, the author of the New Testament epistle called Hebrews writes:
12 “For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
13 By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear. (Hebrews 8:12-13)
The Old has been made obsolete, except the promises and blessings, and the New is here.
Here’s how I apply these truths today to my concerns about slavery. Under the New Covenant I don’t have to pay for the Wilbourns’ sins or carry their guilt. Jesus paid for my sins (and theirs) and took my guilt (and theirs) on himself, during the crucifixion, which inaugurated and ratified the New Covenant.
In the Old law, God punishes children for their fathers’ sins. In the New, God shows love to those who love him, for a thousand generations. We do not have to suffer punishment for sins that were committed 160 years ago.
APPLICATION FOR TODAY
So, after many documents and years of family research and thinking about things, my view on slavery is as follows:
Of course it was a great evil, but America was certainly not unique in practicing it so long ago.
I personally don’t feel guilty today because I don’t have to pay for other people’s sins who lived in the past. Christ paid for their sins (and yours and mine).
The good news is that slavery ended with the Thirteenth Amendment, in 1865. If there is such a thing as national penance, the Civil War was it.
I look at slavery as history, an historical fact; some (not all) of the family lines were following their historical context back then, though that context was shortsighted and misguided and just plain wrong.
I have chosen to move forward and do historical research as objectively as possible. I focus on the positive. I leave behind the bad, after learning from it, and take the good forward and do what I can with it.
I’m grateful to live in America. I don’t live back then. I live today. I have an attitude of gratitude about America.
This post was originally published on August 22, 2015.