Among his recent initiatives as a first-term member of the United States Senate, Tom Cotton has recently gained some attention for his efforts to control the historical record about slavery. He has proposed legislation
to remove federal funding from school districts in the nation that use The New York Times
“1619 Project” as a resource in teaching American history. In an interview
with The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
on July 26 about the legislation, Cotton insisted that America’s founders called the enslavement of human beings a “necessary evil.”
He has since distanced himself from the “necessary evil” line, claiming
that he was simply quoting the general opinion of the founding fathers rather than endorsing it. But regardless of whether it is Sen. Cotton or a nameless founding father who thought of slavery as a “necessary evil,” the 1619 project is bad according to Cotton because it teaches school children to hate America.
While Sen. Cotton has been kept busy clarifying his remarks as well as castigating those who took offense at his words and calling his critics purveyors of fake news, he has not likely taken much time to review actual documents from the founding era or to examine the intensity of the debates in Philadelphia during the 1770’s and 1780’s about abolishing slavery as part of establishing a new nation. Surely a brief study of those decades would show that the founding fathers he so reveres displayed a healthy willingness to criticize their country and its brutally oppressive institutions. If and when he undertakes such research, Mr. Cotton, who is a member of the United Methodist Church, might also look at what the ecclesiastical founders of his own denomination said of slavery. The documents are quite clear that the leaders who established Methodism as a church considered the enslavement of other human beings to be evil. They rejected a notion that slavery was necessary, and were quite adamant in denouncing their country’s complacent accommodation of the institution.
In 1774, John Wesley published his “Thoughts Upon Slavery
,” where the founder of the Methodist movement described the horrific evils of the slave trade and denied that it was acceptable for anyone to be excused from judgment simply on the basis that one had not personally been a slave-owner. Merely tolerating the existence of a system of enslavement, Wesley wrote, was an accommodation with evil. In 1780, the Methodists in Virginia enacted a church law requiring preachers to deliver sermons against the evils of slavery (Richey et. al., 1:50). In 1784, at a conference where Methodist preachers from the new states of the new nation established a new denomination, the founders enacted a piece of legislation, which said any church member who buys or sells slaves is “immediately to be expelled” from membership, “unless they buy them on purpose to free them” (2:66-86). And in 1800, the General Conference of the denomination issued a “Pastoral Letter on Slavery” that directed that annual conferences—the bodies of church government that evaluate all the preachers and decide who could be ordained—appeal to the legislatures in their respective states for the emancipation of slaves (2:134-36).
Mr. Cotton is accountable to the voters of Arkansas, who will decide whether to send him back to the Senate for another term. He has no Democratic opponent. He may cling to his own opinions about the necessity of slavery in the nation’s history.
But it would be far better if he as well as other political and religious leaders in the land filled the lacunae in their knowledge of what the people in America’s founding generation actually said and did. Those who teach, preach, or write laws in the twenty-first century should consult the resources of the eighteenth century rather than malign the people who locate them. Moreover, those who claim to revere the ideals at the foundation of our nation would be ill-advised to neglect the critical example the founding fathers set or the historical witness of their own church. To protest against the injustices America commits against Black bodies is not a betrayal of America, but an enactment of its foundational virtues.
Tragically, too many religious minds let the word of the faith be suppressed by the economic and political power of enslavement in the nineteenth century. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the church did not faithfully pursue its antislavery mission. It found ways to accept the unacceptable, to accommodate itself to evil, to dishonor its founders, and to ignore the suffering of the enslaved. Eventually, the denomination decided to divide in 1844. King Cotton created a cause for many Methodists to forsake their antislavery foundations.
Tragically, too many in the church today let the word of the Lord be controlled by the partisan politics of the twenty-first century. Some seek safety within the confines of homogeneous religious communities. Others seek silence from preachers and teachers on matters of public policy, because political issues are too divisive. Few find the time to study the texts and the tenets on which the church was founded.
Silence and separateness led the church to forget its foundations and surrender to King Cotton in one era. It is essential to know that past if the church is to avoid the same sort of forgetfulness in the present, let alone have any hope for the future.