Laudable Linkage

Here’s another installment in my occasional sharing of good reads discovered online.

One of Those Days. “Today is one of those days when I don’t want to pray. I don’t want to open my Bible and read it. I don’t want to turn on worship music and listen to some artist express how Ioved they are by God and how they stand in awe of that love.” Ever been there? Christy shares an excellent response.

Is Anxiety a Sin? HT to Out of the Ordinary. It depends. This is the first article on anxiety I’ve seen that distinguishes between different types.

7 Threats From False Teachers, HT to Challies. “False teachers and abusive leaders need to maintain their power. Therefore, they use a series of threats to keep people quiet and in line.”

Jonathan Edwards and His Support of Slavery: A Lament. HT again to Out of the Ordinary. I’ve read people who think we should toss out all the Puritans because some of them owned slaves. This is a good response.

Old Folks at Home. Kitty has actively ministered in nursing homes even after her own mother’s passing. “Compassion comes in multiple forms, and there are many ways to spend it. But if you happen to be one of those with a heart for the elderly, and if you have the requisite patience and interest in others, you can make an enormous difference in the lives of these most obvious occupants of eternity’s waiting room.”

For those who are considering writing for publication, these posts have been immeasurably helpful to me this week. I’m often distressed at the writing advice so often given wannabe authors that we have to have a platform first, and we can’t even hope for a second look from publishers until our numbers are really high. Yet building a platform seems to be so self-promotional, not to mention taking time away from writing. I’ve been praying for God’s direction about this, and feel these are part of His answer.

No More Platform Anxiety, Please.

I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Platform

How to Build a Tribe (podcast). I appreciate the emphasis on serving others.

And, finally, I love this dog’s “smile.”

Happy Saturday!

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Laudable Linkage

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Here are recent reads that have captivated my attention:

Love Like Birch Trees.

How to Sit at the Table With Those Who Hurt and Offend You, HT to Linda. “Extending love to someone who offended you does not mean you’re accepting such treatment – it means you realize you cannot thrive in a place of anger and resentment.”

What to Say Instead of “I Know How You Feel” to Someone Who Is Struggling, HT to Linda. Sharing our similar experience in an effort to let someone know they’re not alone often just draws attention to ourselves and makes the other person feel unheard. This gives a helpful distinctive.

When Our Heroes Don’t Live Up to Their Theology, HT to Challies. How do we think about spiritual giants who were blind to the wrongness of slavery.

Helping Your Daughter by Being Her Emotional Coach, HT to Story Warren.

You Can’t Have Ethics Without Stories, HT to Story Warren.. “We often forget what the Bible actually is. If not a dictionary or an encyclopedia, what is it? The Bible is, among other things, he writes, ‘a faith-forming narrative.’”

Why Children’s Books Should be a Little Sad, HT to Story Warren.

How DNA Testing Botched My Family’s Heritage, and Probably Yours, too, HT to Challies.

And finally, this dog has a dedicated owner:

Happy Saturday!

(Links do not imply complete endorsement of sites or authors.)

Book Review: Fierce Convictions

I really didn’t know anything about Hannah More when I first saw Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More – Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior making the rounds a couple of years ago, but so many bloggers spoke positively of it that I requested it for the next gift-giving occasion. It turns out I am in good company: in his preface to this book, Eric Metaxas said he hadn’t know much about her, either, until doing research for his book on William Wilberforce, and then he got so excited, he tried to include as much about her as he could. When he met Prior and found out her doctoral dissertation was on More, he urged her to write a book.

Hannah was born to a family of five daughters in 1745. Her father being a teacher and her own thirst for learning led to her receiving an education beyond the norm for girls in that era. She and her sisters established a school together as they got older. Hannah wrote some plays for the students that were well-received. She was engaged for a long period of time, but the marriage never went forward. In a transaction common for the day, her former fiance offered her an annuity “sufficient to allow More to pursue a literary vocation as compensation for the time she devoted to him” (p. 37).

An influential friend sent a copy of one of her plays to David Garrick, a famous actor of the day; thus “the door to the literary capital of England was opened” (p. 49). Hannah became friends with a number of Londoners, including Garrick and his wife, Horace Walpole, Samuel Johnson, William Wilberforce, and a host of others. She was so close to Wilberforce that one of her anonymous publications was thought to be his. She was included in the Bluestocking Circle begun by “one of the wealthiest and most influential women of the day” (p. 76), Elizabeth Montagu. More’s influence and literary career grew.

But for various reasons, More became disenchanted with life in London and moved to Cowslip Green in between two villages.

More had always been bemused–and sometimes amused–by the excesses and superficialities she witnessed [in London]. So while the glistening of the fashionable life grew ever duller over several years, hints of More’s doubts about this fool’s gold can be found even from her earliest seasons there. It is clear that she was undergoing a greater sense of calling to more serious work, to more devotion in her faith, and with it to ministry in serving others (p. 95).

She was given a book of John Newton’s letters which she described as “full of vital, experimental religion” – vital meaning, according to Prior, “‘full of life,’ so opposite the stale, dead religion found in many Church of England members” (p. 105).

The word experimental alluded to the growing emphasis during the eighteenth century on the importance of individual experience in religious practice, the need of each person to have an authentic and personal faith rather than simply to adhere to rote tradition (p. 105).

Wilberforce had originally “thought that being a sincere Christian required withdrawing from the corrupt corners of human business” and was inclined to “retreat from public life in favor of a course devoted to piety.” John Newton encouraged him to “stay at his post, and neither give up work, nor throw away wealth; wait and watch occasions, sure that He, who put him at his post, would find him work to do” (p. 113). Later Wilberforce’s “influence dissuaded [Hannah] from her growing inclination to shrink from the world” (p. 117). Thank God that both of these people “stayed at their post.” “Even John Wesley sent Hannah a message through her sister: ‘Tell her to live in the world; there is the sphere of her usefulness; they will not let us come nigh them” (p. 203). The bishop of London asked her, “Where can we find any but yourself that can make the ‘fashionable world’ read books of morality and religion, and find improvement when they are only looking for amusement?” (p. 202).

More joined with Newton, Wilberforce, and others involved in fighting the slave trade.

As a goldfish swimming in a bowl doesn’t know what water is, so a person living in eighteenth-century Great Britain–immersed in an economic and social structure built on the slave trade–could not easily, if at all, see slavery for what it was. To do so required, it seemed, a certain kind of perceptiveness of mind and spirit. Hannah More was one of the few who possessed it (p. 108).

Even Wilberforce acknowledged that the fight against slavery could not by won in Parliament alone, that “more is to be done out of the House than in it,” that “changing the minds in Parliament would require changing the heart of the nation first” (p. 128).

The battle against slavery was, in many ways, led by the poets–and other writers and artists–who expanded their country’s moral imagination so it might at last see horrors too grave for the rational mind to grasp (p. 128).

Hannah used her influence and her pen to fight against slavery, a fight which took over forty years. She also used it to encourage education, especially for girls and for the poor, and to provide edifying reading material. Prior explained that tracts or pamphlets at that time were like blog posts today, and Hannah used them for educational, religious, and sometimes political causes, eventually leading to the establishment of Cheap Repository Tracts.

But she did more than write. She and her sisters started a number of schools for the poor, financed by Wilberforce, fighting against the opinion of the time that the poor should not be educated or taught to read (some thought the poor would have no use for it: others thought it might disturb the order of things). She became one of the few female members of what was called the Clapham Sect – not a sect as we think of it today, but a group of influential “like-minded believers, ‘bound together by shared moral and spiritual values, by religious mission and social activism, by love for each other, and by marriage,’ [who] changed history as they sought to serve God in every area of their lives, personal and public, at home and abroad” (p. 167). “The efforts of the Clapham community were three-pronged: they aimed at alleviating the suffering and oppression of the lower classes, reforming the excessive and negligent behaviors of the upper classes, and advancing Christianity at home and throughout the world” (pp. 173-174).

She was not flawless. Some of her views would have modern readers scratching their heads, and Prior does an excellent job explaining them in the context of Hannah’s times. But she yielded herself, her influence, her energy, her finances, and her pen to God and was used mightily by Him. One quoted source said, “What Wilberforce was among men, Hannah More was among women” (p. 240).

Somewhere between Birrell’s hatred and Roberts’s hagiography is a woman who was at once ordinary and remarkable. She was a woman with virtues and flaws, faith and fears, vision and blind spots. But she was also one whose unique gifts and fierce convictions transformed first her life and subsequently her world and ours (p. 253).

To Walpole, More was testimony, in the words of one of her early biographers, that “the most implicit faith and the most devoted zeal in Christianity could consist with the highest mental attainments; and that the most devoted piety was no obstacle to cheerfulness and humor” (p. 170).

In the epilogue Prior also shares some reasons why More is not more well-known today, among them the modernist movement, which “rejected the values that most defined the Victorian age: duty, family, piety” (p. 252). In addition, her one novel “is practically unreadable for most readers today. tastes have changed, and the art of the novel has progressed toward more nuance and complexity than the plain didacticism of More’s novel” (p. 235). But I am glad that Prior brought her to our attention and shared her life with us.

It took me just a little while to truly get into the book. I am not sure if it took that long to get into the rhythm of Prior’s style or if it just got more interesting to me around the time that Hannah went to London, and more so when she decided to leave. I especially appreciated Prior’s couching everything into its historical setting so that we weren’t getting just the facts, but truly understanding how historical events and beliefs affected Hannah and how she in turn affected them.

And on a completely separate note, one of Prior’s explanations helped me better understand Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility:

During the so-called long eighteenth century (1660-1830), a “cult of sensibility” arose that exalted the outward manifestations of emotional sensitivity–weeping, fainting, and the like–as the marks of morality and refined character, to the point that sensibility became more important than benevolent or moral actions (p. 185).

In context, Prior said this about More’s writing concerning animal cruelty. She sought to raise awareness of some of the brutal practices of the day in order to stop them yet did not devolve into “emotional indulgence” and “inordinate affection” the “cult of sensibility” employed towards animals (p. 197).

I’ll close with a few favorite quotes from More herself:

It should be held as an eternal truth, that what is morally wrong can never be politically right (p. 136).

I am at this moment as quiet as my heart can wish. Quietness is my definition of happiness (p. 69).

Atrocious deeds should never be called by gentle names (p. 205).

God can carry on his own work, though all such poor tools as I were broken (p. 247).

The more I see of the ‘hounoured, famed, and great,’ the more I see of the littleness, the unsatisfactoriness of all created good; and that no earthly pleasure can fill up the wants of the immortal principle within.

Bible Christianity is what I love…a Christianity practical and pure, which teaches holiness, humility, repentance and faith in Christ; and which after summing up all the Evangelical graces, declares that the greatest of these is charity (p. 155).

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

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The Bible and Slavery

Perhaps you’ve been troubled, as I have, by wondering why the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery outright. Over the years I’ve come across several thoughts and quotes that have helped me in my own understanding of it.

I found that the Bible actually does condemn kidnapping and selling people: “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death,” Exodus 21:16. “Enslavers” (in the ESV, “menstealers” in the KJV), defined by BibleGateway.com as “those who take someone captive in order to sell him into slavery,” were listed alongside liars and immoral people as sinners in 1 Timothy 1:8-11.

The main type of slavery mentioned in the Old Testament came about because of a debt that could not be paid in any other way, something like an indentured servant (which makes more sense than a debtor’s prison, where there is no hope of paying off the debt). In the MacArthur Study Bible notes for 1 Kings 9:21-22, John MacArthur says “The law did not allow Israelites to make fellow-Israelites slaves against their will (Ex. 21:2-11; Lev. 25:44-46; Deut. 15:12-18.)” But people could offer themselves as slaves to pay a debt. Slaves were to be released after 7 years (Deuteronomy 15:12): they weren’t ruined for life. They were not to be sent away empty-handed when they were released: they were to be supplied “liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him” (verses 13-14). Masters were told, ‘You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today” (verse 15).

There were also cases of slavery by one nation conquering another, and there were differences in dealing with slaves from other cultures. One source I read said that when one nation conquered another in those times, the conquered citizens were either killed or enslaved. Thankfully that is no longer the case for the most part, although there are areas of the world where it still is.

Slavery in the NT is usually this latter type. In Be Complete (Colossians): Become the Whole Person God Intends You to Be, Wiersbe says:

Slavery was an established institution in Paul’s day. There were sixty million people in the Roman Empire, and many of them were well-educated people who carried great responsibilities in the homes of the wealthy. In many homes, the slaves helped to educate and discipline the children.

Why didn’t the church of that day openly oppose slavery and seek to destroy it? For one thing, the church was a minority group that had no political power to change an institution that was built into the social order. Paul was careful to instruct Christian slaves to secure their freedom if they could (1 Cor. 7: 21), but he did not advocate rebellion or the overthrow of the existing order.

Something should be noted: The purpose of the early church was to spread the gospel and win souls, not to get involved in social action. Had the first Christians been branded as an anti-government sect, they would have been greatly hindered in their soul winning and their church expansion. While it is good and right for Christians to get involved in the promotion of honesty and morality in government and society, this concern must never replace the mandate to go into all the world and preach the gospel (Mark 16: 15).

He shares how Christian masters and slaves were being instructed to treat each other in the epistles was a radical departure from the way things were in the Roman world at that time. He goes on to say:

The gospel did not immediately destroy slavery, but it did gradually change the relationship between slave and master. Social standards and pressures disagreed with Christian ideals, but the Christian master was to practice those ideals just the same. He was to treat his slave like a person and like a brother in Christ (Gal. 3: 28). He was not to mistreat him; he was to deal with his slave justly and fairly. After all, the Christian slave was a free man in the Lord, and the master was a slave to Christ (1 Cor. 7: 22). In the same way, our social and physical relationships must always be governed by our spiritual relationships.

Similarly, in the introductory notes for Philemon in the MacArthur Study Bible, John MacArthur says:

The NT nowhere directly attacks slavery; had it done so, the resulting slave insurrection would have been brutally suppressed and the message of the gospel hopelessly confused with that of social reform. Instead, Christianity undermined the evils of slavery by changing the hearts of slaves and masters. By stressing the spiritual equality of master and slave (v. 16; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1-2), the Bible did away with slavery’s abuses.

At least, it did away with them in instruction: it condemned mistreatment of other people in general with specific instruction on how slaves and masters were to treat each other, which rose above the standard of the times. But it took many years for the system to change. Some thoughts in regard to that:

1. God does not generally deal with everyone’s sins all at once, individually or as a people. I remember a few years after I became a Christian feeling convicted over something that I would not have thought twice about in my earlier life and being glad that God didn’t show me everything that was wrong right off the bat. That would have been so overwhelming. But as I read more of the Bible and sat under good teaching, I grew in Him, and then became more aware of things that didn’t please Him that I needed to confess and forsake. In the Bible there are things pointed out as sin in Exodus that aren’t mentioned in Genesis. Polygamy was tolerated for a time, though it was not how God designed marriage, and specific instruction was given later. In the gospels, Jesus goes beyond the mere letter of the law (thou shalt nor commit adultery) to the inner workings of the heart (if you look lustfully, you’re guilty. Matthew 5:27-28). As people have had more history and received more light, they’re more responsible.

2. God redeems people, not institutions. A former pastor said this about a different modern-day situation, but it applies here as well. As Warren Wiersbe put it in Be Faithful  (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon): It’s Always Too Soon to Quit!:

Was Paul hinting in Philemon 21 that Philemon should do even more and free Onesimus? For that matter, why did he not come right out and condemn slavery? This letter certainly would have been the ideal place to do it. Paul did not “condemn” slavery in this letter or in any of his letters, though he often had a word of admonition for slaves and their masters (Eph. 6:5–9; Col. 3:22—4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1–2; Titus 2:9–10). In fact, he encouraged Christian slaves to obtain their freedom if they could (1 Cor. 7:21–24).

During the American Civil War, both sides used the same Bible to “prove” their cases for or against slavery. One of the popular arguments was, “If slavery is so wrong, why did Jesus and the apostles say nothing against it? Paul gave instructions to regulate slavery, but he did not condemn it.” One of the best explanations was given by Alexander Maclaren in his commentary on Colossians in The Expositor’s Bible (Eerdmans, 1940; vol. VI, 301):

First, the message of Christianity is primarily to individuals, and only secondarily to society. It leaves the units whom it has influenced to influence the mass. Second, it acts on spiritual and moral sentiment, and only afterwards and consequently on deeds or institutions. Third, it hates violence, and trusts wholly to enlightened conscience. So it meddles directly with no political or social arrangements, but lays down principles which will profoundly affect these, and leaves them to soak into the general mind.

Had the early Christians begun an open crusade against slavery, they would have been crushed by the opposition, and the message of the gospel would have become confused with a social and political program. Think of how difficult it was for people to overcome slavery in England and America, and those two nations had general education and the Christian religion to help prepare the way. Think also of the struggles in the modern Civil Rights movement even within the church. If the battle for freedom was difficult to win in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, what would the struggle have been like back in the first century?

3. God often works from the inside out. Some of the quotes above touch on this concept, but in addition, in Be Faithful, Wiersbe says, “Christians in the Roman Empire could not work through local democratic political structures as we can today, so they really had no political power to bring about change. The change had to come from within, even though it took centuries for slavery to end.”

It does seem that, long before the Civil War, people in general and Christians in particular should have realized the problems with slavery and certainly should have realized that just because slavery was in the Bible doesn’t mean it was an example we should follow. There are examples not to follow in the Bible as well as examples to follow. Someone once said that the “Golden Rule” alone, “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31), should have been enough to stop people from having slaves.

In the Civil War era, and likely before, some people used passages in the Bible about slaves being beaten as justification for their mistreatment of slaves (Solomon Northup tells of a situation like this in Twelve Years a Slave). But I think by and large those passages are just expressing what would happen in those days to disobedient slaves rather than justifying slavery and beatings. To pick out isolated verses to justify slavery as it was before the Civil War is to misuse the Bible: reading the whole Bible and reading in context within the big picture would avoid that problem.

Northup also said of one kind, Christian master, whom some might wonder at having had slaves, “The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different.” Booker T. Washington said something similar in Up From Slavery, not excusing slavery, but understanding that the economic system and years of history had masters firmly enmeshed in the system.

Thankfully God raised up people like William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln and others who worked against slavery until it was finally broken, at least in England and America. Unfortunately it still goes on in other areas, and even in our country people enslave others in other forms, like the horrible sex trafficking trade. I have no idea how to help, but Scripture encourages us to:

Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked. Psalm 82:3-4

Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Isaiah 58:6-7

Before I leave this subject, there is one more aspect I must consider. Throughout the Bible, our relationship with God is described in various aspects: father/child; shepherd/sheep; groom/bride; king/subjects, and others. I wrote more on this here. One of those aspects is a master and slave or bondservant. Some have said that because we’re God’s children, we’re no longer slaves, and there is a sense in which that is true. But all through the New Testament, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude, who very much preached our sonship in Christ, also called themselves servants. Jesus Himself was called a servant and took on a servant’s duty when he washed the disciples’ feet, even though He was the Son of God (Philippians 2:5-8).

In the Old Testament, there was provision for a situation in which a servant who was due for his freedom but wanted to stay with his master because he loved him could be bound to his master forever. I think this is one picture of our relationship with Christ. He doesn’t forcefully snatch us up or forcibly make us obey Him. He wants us willingly to yield ourselves to Him out of love for Him and acknowledgement of Who He is. It is an atrocity for any man to think he has a right to own anyone else, but God does “own” us, because He created us and because He paid the price for our sin. But He wants us to yield ourselves in complete trust and obedience to Him. And He wants us to serve others in love (Galatians 5:13). We were “servants of sin” before believing in Christ; now He wants us to become “servants of righteousness” (Romans 6:17-18).

Studying out what the Bible says about our servanthood would probably take another blog post, but it involves realizing that He is Lord, that He takes care of all our needs, that we owe all to Him, that we really have no rights apart from Him, that He deserves our all.

For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Mark 10:45

And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Mark 9:35

If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.John 12:26

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth. 2 Timothy 2:24-25.

For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 1 Peter 2:15-16.

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. Galatians 5:13.

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 1 Peter 4:10-11.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:5-8

Some other good sources on this issue:

Does the Bible Allow For Slavery?
Why Was Slavery Allowed in the Old Testament?
Why Was Slavery Allowed in the New Testament?
A Bondservant of Jesus from My Utmost For His Highest

(Sharing with Inspire me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Testimony Tuesday, Tell His Story), Woman to Woman Word-Filled Wednesday, Faith on Fire)

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Book Review: Twelve Years a Slave

12-years-a-slaveSolomon Northup was a free black man living in New York in the early 1800s. His father had been a slave and was freed, and his mother was free. His father became a farmer, eventually owned his own land, had the right to vote, and educated his children. Solomon married Anne Hampton and they had three children. Anne was a noted cook and worked for different hotels and taverns. Solomon was a professional violinist, but the inconsistency of his opportunities to play led him to supplement his income by a variety of other jobs, often carpentry.

When he was 32, he met a couple of men who said they were circus performers on their way back to Washington, D.C. They planned to give several performances along the way and asked him to come with them and play his violin. Anne was away and he thought he would be home soon, so he didn’t notify her. Slavery was legal in Washington, so they advised him along the way to obtain papers declaring his freedom.

One afternoon after the group stopped in a saloon he became terribly ill. He went back to his hotel room in not a very good state (probably drugged). “The memory of that night of horrible suffering will follow me to the grave,” he later wrote. During the night some men came to his room and said they were taking him to a doctor. On the way he became “insensible” for an unknown period of time, and “when consciousness returned, I found myself alone, in utter darkness, and in chains.” His papers and everything else were gone.

He later discovered he was in a slave pen within sight of the US Capitol building. When someone finally came into his cell and he protested that he was a free man, he was severely beaten.

He was eventually taken to Louisiana, his name was changed to Platt and those holding him said he was from GA. He was bought for $1,000 by a farmer named Ford who later became a preacher.

In many northern minds, perhaps, the idea of a man holding his brother man in servitude, and the traffic in human flesh, may seem altogether incompatible with their conceptions of a moral or religious life. From descriptions of such men as Burch and Freeman [those who sold him], and others hereinafter mentioned, they are led to despise and execrate the whole class of slaveholders, indiscriminately. But I was sometime his slave, and had an opportunity of learning well his character and disposition, and it is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession.

This, especially the parts I highlighted, helped me in understanding why a professing Christian could ever hold a slave. Someone once said that though the Bible doesn’t expressly forbid slavery, applying Jesus’ admonition to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” would nip it in the bud. I don’t know why it took Christians so long to realize this.

Ford and Northup had a good working relationship. The latter was able to use his carpentry skills in a variety of ways and knew he was appreciated. Ford took time to instruct his slaves spiritually. But when he came into debt, he had to sell several of them, Northup included.

After his severe beating for maintaining his freedom, Northup kept quiet about it, and with his name change, it was impossible for anyone he knew in his previous life to find him. The next two masters he was sold to were cruel and unreasonable. He was beaten, unjustly charged, worked to exhaustion for the majority of his time in slavery.One of his masters taught slaves Scripture as well, but took passages about slaves out of context and misused them to justify his beating of them.

Finally when his master had a visitor, Bass, who argued with him about the justice of slavery, Northup took a huge chance to talk with him privately to ask if he would send a letter in his behalf to friends in NY who might be able to advocate for his freedom. It’s amazing that the letter got where it needed to go and then that those who worked to liberate Northup found him, as Bass had not signed his name (fearing repercussions) and Norhthup’s name had been changed. A whole series of seeming coincidences (or, as I prefer, signs of God’s providence) worked together, and the scene where Northup realizes who the men are who have come for him is priceless.

Along with telling his own tale, Northup tells of several others he encountered along the way. Slave women had  a particularly hard time of it: when the master made sexual advances toward them, they could not refuse, at least not without beatings; when the master’s wife knew of it, then she was jealous and dished out her own punishment. One such woman with two children was sold with him: her master’s wife sold her and her children when the master was out of town, and the scene of her separation from her children was heart-wrenching (one was sold to someone else; the seller just out of spite  would not let Ford buy her child). She was ever after a broken woman.

He also writes of moral dilemmas he found himself in. At one time he was “promoted” to a driver, and part of his responsibility was to whip other slaves who were not performing up to par. “If Epps was present, I dared not show any lenity, not having the Christian fortitude of a certain well-known Uncle Tom sufficiently to brave his wrath by refusing to perform the office.” Instead, he got proficient with the whip to make it look like he was beating them, yet not letting it actually touch them, and they writhed as if beaten. Another time he secretly obtained paper, made ink, and wrote a letter to friends up North, and took a chance by asking someone to send it. But that someone told his master, though he didn’t give a name. His master confronted him, and he knew it would mean a beating, if not death, to have been found out. He asked how he could write a letter with no supplies and suggested that the man, who had been working temporarily for Epps, was trying to scare him with the thought of runaway slaves so Epps would hire him as an overseer. Epps believed him.

One of the conversations Bass had with Northup’s last owner was the following:

These n…. are human beings. If they don’t know as much as their masters, whose fault is it? They are not allowed to know anything. You have books and papers, and can go where you please, and gather intelligence in a thousand ways. But your slaves have no privileges. You’d whip one of them if caught reading a book. They are held in bondage, generation after generation, deprived of mental improvement, and who can expect them to possess much knowledge? If they are not brought down to a level with the brute creation, you slaveholders will never be blamed for it. If they are baboons, or stand no higher in the scale of intelligence than such animals, you and men like you will have to answer for it. There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet—yes, Epps, there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just.

Later he asks, “What difference is there in the color of a soul?” Indeed.

After he was united with his family, Northup wrote of his experience in 12 Years a Slave  The book ends fairly soon after his reunion with his family, and afterward, according to Wikipedia he worked “again as a carpenter. He became active in the abolitionist movement and lectured on slavery.” He was uniquely gifted and qualified to write this book and shed light on a horrible institution and give voice to others who could not share theirs.

In the “enhanced edition” of the book, which is supplemented by the research of Dr. Sue Eakin, she writes, “In 1853, Solomon’s autobiography brought immediate reaction from New York newspapers, and his first-hand account was perceived as validation of Stowe’s portrayal of Southern slavery. Twelve Years A Slave was published less than a year after Stowe’s spectacularly successful fiction.” Her own story of discovering the book as a child and then spending decades of her life researching it is pretty interesting as well.

I listened to the audiobook based on Eakin’s version very ably read by Louis Gossett, Jr. and read parts in the Kindle version as well.

Genre: Classic non-fiction
My rating: 10 out of 10

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Carole’s Books You Loved, Literary Musing Monday)

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Book Review: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

F. DouglassFrederick Douglass was originally named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey around 1817 or 1818–he was never sure of the exact date and year. He was born in Maryland to a black slave mother and an unknown white father, rumored to be his master but never confirmed. It was common practice in that time and place to remove slave children from their mothers at a young age, so his mother was sent away and he lived with his grandmother.

As he grew up, he witnessed the whole gamut of slavery, from kind masters to cruel ones, of savage beatings and even murders with no recourse or help for the slave against an unfair master. Any beatings were felt to be deserved because of something the slave had done or needed to keep him in his place. His master could pass him around to other relatives or even renters. When one master died, Frederick and all the other slaves owned by the master were reckoned up as property alongside the animals. One of his masters bought a slave woman specifically for breeding purposes. Under one of the worst masters, with inadequate clothing, food, and shelter, and being worked beyond endurance all hours of the day, he “was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” During that time he spent Sundays, his only free time, “in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree.”

At one time when he was a child, he was sent to a mistress who had never had slaves before, and she treated him more kindly that any white woman had ever treated him. He was to help take care of her son, and she started to teach him to read alongside her son. But her husband stopped her,

…telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a n—– an inch, he will take an ell. A n—– should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best n—– in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that n—– (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

He used any means and methods he could to learn to read and write, including asking other white boys to help him:

The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. When I was sent of errands, I always took my book with me, and by going one part of my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson before my return. I used also to carry bread with me, enough of which was always in the house, and to which I was always welcome; for I was much better off in this regard than many of the poor white children in our neighborhood. This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge. I am strongly tempted to give the names of two or three of those little boys, as a testimonial of the gratitude and affection I bear them; but prudence forbids;—not that it would injure me, but it might embarrass them; for it is almost an unpardonable offence to teach slaves to read in this Christian country.

When he was older and working at a shipyard, he noted that the different boards were marked with the letter for the part of the ship they were meant for (“S” for starboard, etc.). He learned to make those letters, and “After that, when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, ‘I don’t believe you. Let me see you try it.’ I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which it is quite possible I should never have gotten in any other way. During this time, my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk.”

His harshest words were for masters who professed to be Christians, because, sadly, they were often the worst, and because, if they were Christians, they should have known better than to treat people the way they did. In fact, he spoke so strongly against them that at the end of a book he felt he should put an appendix explaining

I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

Earlier in the book he says of his being sent to the mistress who began to teach him to read:

It is possible, and even quite probable, that but for the mere circumstance of being removed from that plantation to Baltimore, I should have to-day, instead of being here seated by my own table, in the enjoyment of freedom and the happiness of home, writing this Narrative, been confined in the galling chains of slavery. Going to live at Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity. I have ever regarded it as the first plain manifestation of that kind providence which has ever since attended me, and marked my life with so many favors. I regarded the selection of myself as being somewhat remarkable. There were a number of slave children that might have been sent from the plantation to Baltimore. There were those younger, those older, and those of the same age. I was chosen from among them all, and was the first, last, and only choice.

I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor. But I should be false to the earliest sentiments of my soul, if I suppressed the opinion. I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence. From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise.

This quote about singing especially touched me:

I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.

He tells of a failed attempt to escape, but shares little detail about the time he succeeded, both to protect those who helped him and to avoid letting masters in on ways that a slave could escape. In his early twenties at this time, he settled in New York, doing any kind of work he could find. Besides feeling”gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil,” he noted when visiting a shipyard, “almost every body seemed to be at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore. There were no loud songs heard from those engaged in loading and unloading ships. I heard no deep oaths or horrid curses on the laborer. I saw no whipping of men; but all seemed to go smoothly on. Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man. To me this looked exceedingly strange.” All the wealthy, refined people in the places he had been all had had slaves, so he had thought the North, with no slaves, would be poor and rough. He was surprised to find that was not the case.

He married, changed his last name to Douglass, and got involved in the abolitionist movement. At one meeting he was asked to speak, and people were so taken by his oratory and articulation that some didn’t feel that he could have been a slave. That led to the writing of A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Written by Himself when he was 27 or 28. This narrative stops at about this time in his life. I wish, when I decided I wanted to read about him, that I had checked into his other writings, because he wrote two later autobiographies which included his life beyond this time. I did enjoy reading about it on the Wikipedia article about him. He spent the rest of his life fighting for freedom for slaves, and after the Civil War, fought for fairness for them as well as others who did not have equal rights.

Several things stood out to me in this book. In reading about slavery, treatment of POWs, and things like this, I am astonished at man’s inhumanity to man and the depths it will go. Just utterly astonished. And sadly it’s still not vanquished: there is still slavery in other parts of the world, and though we have come a long way since this era, there are still negative attitudes that cling to society that need to change.

Douglass’s passion for education and his value of being able to work for himself when he was free also spoke to me. We who have free education and opportunities for work take those gifts so for granted.

I agree with his assessment that “kind providence” led him in the way he should go and gave him opportunities to learn, and then he made the most of them. It was thought at that time by some that slaves couldn’t learn, and he disproved that abundantly. Then he used the rest of his life and his gifts to give a voice to those who were oppressed and to help them. I highly recommend the reading of this inspiring life. The text of this book is free online through Project Gutenberg and is also available as a free Kindle book. I listened to the audiobook but also reread many portion in the Kindle version.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)