Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion

By Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. IVP Books, 2018. 192 pages. $20/hardcover; $19.99/eBook.

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Back in 1968, I was a 13-year-old seeker and new to the Quaker movement. After one of my first meetings for worship, a longtime member of Galesburg (Ill.) Meeting walked up to me and introduced himself. As we got talking, he picked up that I was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black freedom movement. With great pride in his voice, this man told me that Quakers were the first Christian denomination in the American colonies to give up owning slaves because, after 100 years of spiritual struggle and discernment, they decided slavery was sinful and an oppressive institution. This man thought I would be impressed. Yet, before he could elaborate, I had spit out the tea in my mouth and shouted, “Quakers owned slaves?!” I was shocked and heartbroken.

As a teenager, I was attracted to the Quaker movement because it had rejected the oppressive Christianity of its day—what early Quaker theologian Robert Barclay called “imperial Christianity.” Early Quakers sought instead to revive a more “primitive Christianity,” which for them meant becoming a radical band of faithful friends and followers of Jesus, that prophetic Jewish upstart and nonviolent revolutionary spiritual leader in first-century Palestine whose life and teachings testified to the power of living in solidarity and communion with the Spirit of a liberating and compassionate God. I too wanted to escape an imperial, superstitious, and slaveholding religion to be part of a transformed spiritual community that loves justice, practices compassion, and walks humbly with the liberating Spirit of God.

As Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove notes in his book Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion, most of contemporary U.S. Christianity is still wounded and twisted to a greater or lesser degree by the oppressive legacy of an imperial slaveholder religion. This, he believes, is certainly true of the White evangelical Southern Baptist faith tradition he grew up in and, too often, even in his own heart. As I read his book, I had to ask if this is also true of modern Quakers, including me.

Wilson-Hartgrove frames his book by telling the story of how Frederick Douglass wrote an appendix to his famous slave narrative; Douglass was worried that readers would mistake his book as a complete rejection of Jesus, God, and Scripture. In his appendix, Douglass therefore drew a Quaker-like distinction between the oppressive faith and practice of Christian slaveholders and racists on the one hand and the liberating faith of those who seek to follow the teachings and example of a radical and revolutionary Jesus on the other.

Wilson-Hartgrove builds on this. The first half of the book is a powerful critique of today’s slaveholder religion, which is deeply rooted in the United States’ “original sin” of White supremacy. The second half of the book focuses on reconstructing the gospel and our spiritual communities to live out the good news of learning to live in a repentant and liberated spirit of confession; resistance; and tough, nonviolent love.

Wilson-Hartgrove brings to this discussion a compassionate spirit by noting the tendency of all religious traditions to twist themselves into an increasingly conformist image of the institutionalized sins of the world. He asks us to have the spiritual maturity to admit this, face it fully, and commit to radical faithfulness and liberation.

Wilson-Hartgrove frequently mentions Quaker abolitionists as an embodiment of this radical faithfulness. There is truth in this, but having read Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship by Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye, I also know that Quaker faithfulness to racial justice has too often been muted or thwarted by White supremacy, White fragility, and White passivity in the face of ongoing racist oppression. Too many of us still settle for not being overtly hateful or cruel to people of color, without looking at how we routinely benefit from an institutionalized system of White privilege or loving our neighbors enough to take the risks of joining their struggles for justice.

There is actually much in this book that will challenge and enlighten contemporary Quakers. As the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II wrote in his foreword to the book, we Quakers also need to ask ourselves, “Is our God greater than America’s racism?”

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