When we think of the American slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries, we often gasp at what a horrifying and brutal time this was. Africans were traded on the open international market like manufactured goods — machinery used to increase the production of the American slave owner. Worse, they were in many cases treated like animals, like oxen purchased for no other purpose than to work the cotton field until exhaustion. Trained by the whip and beaten into submission, one thing is for certain, the American slave trade was no pretty sight to behold.
Yet, while lamenting over the horrific history of American chattel slavery, Christians often overlook the grace and providence of God in the slave trade.
During the time of the American slave trade — and even today — much of Africa remains unreached with the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. Even parts of Africa that are considered “reached” are reached with the false gospels of Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.
Despite the common rhetoric of the religious left, Western civilization was undoubtedly a product of a revitalization of true Christianity. The Protestant Reformation, a grace bestowed upon humanity, which began in 1517 not only liberated those religiously enslaved to the Roman Catholic Church but sparked an outpouring of technological breakthroughs which practically ended the era Roman Catholic authority. Advancements in science and education further increased the reach of Western civilization which ultimately became the European colonization of much of the world.
With much of Western colonialism came with it the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no doubt that the colonized lands around the world by Protestant England are far more advanced in civilization, even today than the lands that were colonized by Catholic nations. North America, namely, the United States, stands as the flagship of Western Colonization which, despite the onslaught of liberal oppression and the constant attack against the Constitution, America still stands as a country founded on the liberating principles of biblical Christianity — at least for now.
American Chattel Slavery
Yet, despite the positive cultural, technological, and religious advancement afforded Western society, there is no doubt that humanity was still affected by the fall of Adam and sin would prevail in many ways. As with so many societies throughout history, slavery began to take shape in North America which ultimately led to one of the greatest sins that ever plagued this great nation.
Though not unique to America, America was certainly prime land to benefit from the works of what seemed an endless supply of free labor. Lining the pockets of the plantation owners, slaves would work endlessly at little to no benefit to themselves. They would, in many cases, work to live. There is no denying that American slavery was an affront to God’s design for humanity.
Yet, despite this horrific plague, Christians must understand that in God’s sovereignty, American slavery was ultimately God’s blessing on so many Africans. From a Christian perspective, it cannot, in any circumstances, be argued that anyone, including Africans, didn’t deserve far worse than American chattel slavery. Instead, in God’s mercy, so many heard the gospel they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to hear.
Through American slavery, countless Africans who had never heard the gospel would be made Sons of Glory through their suffering. A gospel that was practically nonexistent in Africa — a continent overwhelmed with the worst kind of idolatry there is — millions of Africans were captured and shipped to Western nations which, for whatever God’s purpose was in it, at least had the gospel.
We do not know why God chose Martin Luther, a Caucasian European man, to spark the Protestant Reformation. We do not know why God chose the predominantly white European nations to revive the gospel from its Roman Catholic grave. He could have chosen to revive the gospel anywhere, including Africa (He did, in fact, choose an African to be one of the greatest theologians of all time) — but he chose Europe. And he primarily chose European colonialism to spread the newly revived gospel around the world. And, in his good, sovereign purpose, he chose American chattel slavery to advance the gospel to a lost and dying African peoples who would have otherwise never had the opportunity to hear the gospel and come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.
While so many people continue to complain about the oppression of Africans in America today, from a Christian perspective, we should first acknowledge that in chattel slavery, we see both the righteousness and the grace of God. We see God’s righteousness demonstrated clearly in that he poured out wrath on idolaters who blasphemed his name. At the very same time, in that demonstration of God’s righteousness, as is so often the case, we see the grace of God extended to the undeserving idolater as he gifts them with the most amazing gift of all: the gospel of Jesus Christ. Slavery was God’s will. And in God’s will, we witness the profound mystery of both divine grace and divine justice in the one event of American Chattel Slavery.
And we thank God for that.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.Romans 8:28
[by Jeff Maples, edited by Ed Dingess]