Book Review: “Black and Tan” by Douglas Wilson

Posted: September 8, 2009 by Scott Kistler in Book Reviews, Politics, Slavery, Social Issues

While looking at Doug Wilson’s blog one day, I happened to notice that he wrote a book on slavery and culture wars.  Black and Tan: Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America seemed to be a great book to pair with America’s God, since both books discuss 19th-century American Christianity.

The story of this book begins in the 1990s when Wilson and his fellow Presbyterian minister Steve Wilkins wrote a pamphlet called “Southern Slavery as It Was.”  Controversy erupted when they argued that the abuses of Southern slavery were exaggerated.

Black and Tan reiterates the main points of that pamphlet and discusses the controversy that resulted from it.  The central points might be listed as follows:

  • The Bible does allow for slavery within certain guidelines, although as the gospel does its work within nations, slavery will be abolished because the institution of slavery is against the logic of the gospel
  • Racism and the slave trade are roundly condemned by the Bible
  • Slavery was abolished in the United States in a radical and unbiblical way rather than that gradual way that it should have been if the gospel had done its work in American culture
  • The Civil War empowered the federal government in such a way that it overthrew the truly federal system of government that the Constitution provided for, and this empowerment of humanistic instead of Christian values (which he compares to the French Revolution) paved the way for the current culture wars over abortion and gay marriage by, for example, giving the Supreme Court the power to overturn all states’ abortion laws

This blog post by Wilson also gives a good insight into his purposes.

In my view, there are great strengths and important weaknesses in this book, and I’ll discuss the strengths first.  Wilson’s explanation of the biblical view of racism leaves no doubt that God’s will is to replace racial hatred with racial reconciliation in Christ.  Wilson is emphatic and convincing that racism is sinful.  His discussion of slavery is also good.  Wilson is careful to state that he does not miss slavery and believes that God judged the South for its sins by handing it defeat in the Civil War.

He also does not defend the Southern practice of slavery as biblical, although he does believe that the conditions have been exaggerated.  Wilson believes that Southern slavery was more humane than ancient Roman slavery or slavery in the Caribbean plantations.  This is something that I don’t have the expertise to weigh in on before reading more about it, and the details are not discussed much in this book.  I believe that it is discussed more in the original pamphlet, and this portion became part of the plagiarism controversy that enveloped it because Wilkins did not footnote material that he had taken from a book called Time on the Cross.  I hope to check out the full pamphlet sometime.  For now, it is enough to say that I was impressed with Wilson’s principles and exegesis on slavery, the slave trade, and racism.  An honest look at the Bible will show that slavery with limits appears in the Bible, and I think that Wilson does an admirable job interpreting what it means.

There are some weaknesses that need discussion too.  His characterization of the American Revolution against Britain as “not a true revolution in the modern sense of the word,” with the true revolution coming with the Civil War, is useful but also too simple.  Much of the leadership of the American Revolution indeed did not want anything like the French Revolution, but the Revolution also unleashed democratic, anti-authoritarian forces in such a way that they frightened some of the Founders (see Federalist No. 10, for example, where Madison openly says that democracy is bad).  Mark Noll’s America’s God and Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution discuss this trend well.  Peter Leithart commented on the radical nature of the American Revolution recently when he said, in response to a review of a book on aristocracy and revolution:

Different as France and America were, the example of America was key for French revolutionaries, since the US (in Doyle’s words) “showed the European world beyond America that a society without nobles was possible, and could work.”   American opposition to nobility is enshrined in the Constitution (Article 1, sections 9-10).  For all the “conservatism” of the American revolutionaries, Armitage’s review neatly captures just how radical the American experiment was.  To European conservatives, the US – with its rejection of throne, throne and altar, and nobility – must have appeared to be an effort to change the operating system of human society.

I think that most historians would argue that there was a democratizing trend that continued from the Revolutionary period through the 19th century.

One example of revolutionary nature of the American Revolution is its most famous document, The Declaration of Independence, which is hardly anti-revolutionary.  It traces government’s authority to “consent of the governed” rather than God, and has its intellectual heritage in Enlightenment deism rather than traditional Christianity.  I think it’s far better to see the American Revolution as supported by different people for different and overlapping reasons rather than as simply conservative or radical, Christian or deist.

Also, although Wilson writes that the North was not monolithic, he tends to identify the North with secular humanism because of people like radical abolitionists and Harvard’s Unitarian leadership.  His view doesn’t allow for enough nuance in viewing Northern society in the 19th century.

He also refers to the inferiority of African culture when compared with European culture without much description of why.  Now, it’s important to say that he does not do this on a racial basis.  He gives some details on European barbarism before Christianization, and he says that he looks forward to the day when Christianized Africans will produce the magnificent cultural achievements that European culture has.  For him, the key is the gospel’s influence in culture rather than any notion of innate European superiority.

Because I have secular training in the discipline of history, I’m sure that I have my own blind spots on this.  To me, though, his easy assignment of inferior African culture didn’t seem particularly reflective.  I’m not so sure that a traditional culture, once Christianized, has to take the same route as European culture.  The key is faithful Christian living, which will certainly change the culture, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will produce the cathedrals and grand musical compositions that Wilson expects.  Secondly, his point of view doesn’t do very well in explaining Mesopotamia, Egypt, or China, which all had quite “advanced civilizations,” by most people’s standards, without the gospel.  I’d like to hear more from Wilson on this point, but I think what he has in Black and Tan is too simplistic.

At not much more than 100 pages, Black and Tan is worth reading.  Wilson’s a great writer, discussing important ideas with clarity and an economy of words.  His sense of humor is outstanding as well.  It will make you think about the origins of the culture wars and the trajectory of American history, even if you can’t agree with him on everything.  As he points out in the introduction, one needn’t be a professional historian to write about history.  And though I have disagreements with the book, I’m glad that he didn’t keep his opinions to himself.

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Comments
  1. great review Scott, double posted here on Endued. I agree with wanting more info. on Wilson’s claim that African culture is inferior to Europe. I think such a claim needs better qualification. You are also perceptive in noting the advancement of culture in China, etc. We are agreed that “faithful Christian living” is the bedrock for any “Christian” culture.

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