/ Barry York

Candle in the Dark: Robert Copeland on the RPCNA's Anti-Slavery History

In a class in my congregation, we are blessed to hear currently a series of lectures by Dr. Robert Copeland on our denomination's history in the anti-slavery movement. Bob, a retired professor from Geneva College and ruling elder in the RPCNA, has put together a well-researched, fascinating presentation of the involvement, accounts, and teachings of Reformed Presbyterian ministers and members in their work to see American chattel slavery overthrown.

In his work Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution, Joseph Moore summarizes this stance:

The Covenanters mounted a witness against the sin of slavery unlike any other in both North and South. First, their antislavery ideals antedated even the Quaker abolitionist movement; Covenanters were some of the first people in Britain or America to take a public stand against the institution. Second, they created a unique biblical interpretation that did what neither abolitionists in the North nor pro-slavery Christians in the South were able to accomplish: they reconciled biblical literalism, with its clear sanction of slavery, and abolitionism...

A key document that demonstrates this "unique biblical interpretation" is Alexander McLeod’s 1802 tract, Negro Slavery Unjustifiable. As Michael LeFebvre explains regarding McLeod's exegesis,

McLeod begins that tract with the sober warning in Exodus 21:16, “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” From there, McLeod assembles a thoroughly biblical argument that ably addresses the objections and difficult Bible passages on slavery to show how the pro-slavery movement misconstrued key texts. The clear statement of Exodus 21:16 is consistently upheld throughout the rest of Scripture. “I plant myself upon the inspired Word,” McLeod asserted. From that foundation, in the words of Moore, McLeod “argued that American slavery failed the biblical test, text by text. The Hebrew experience of servitude was dramatically different from the American institution of slavery.

Given the racial tensions in our day, combined with the dullness in the white evangelical church to hear our black brothers (and even modern efforts by some in the Reformed camp to put forward a defense of America's history regarding slavery), listening to these lectures is attitude altering. Rivers of thought and generational actions have brought us to our present day confluence. Tracing back those influences helps one gain a greater undertsanding of where we are today and where we need to see tomorrow take us. More particularly, I am generally grateful for my denomination's history in this regard. However, more urgently, as we have remained mostly a monochromatic church with currently no black ministers in our midst, looking at this history makes me realize how much further we still have yet to go.

These lessons were recorded at another congregation where Dr. Copeland taught this material. You can listen to those talks at the links below.

Candle in the Dark 1
Candle in the Dark 2
Candle in the Dark 3
Candle in the Dark 4
Candle in the Dark 5
Candle in the Dark 6

Barry York

Barry York

Sinner by Nature - Saved by Grace. Husband of Miriam - Grateful for Privilege. Father of Six - Blessed by God. President of RPTS - Serve with Thankfulness. Author - Hitting the Marks.

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