In writing about Christians and slavery (Guest column, ET January 2018), I suggested that men and women from an earlier era were, like us, people of their time. Therefore, cultural and social factors affected their view of many things, including slavery. So, we should not judge them by 21st century standards.
Some were eminently godly Christians, even though they defended slavery. We can understand why some today find that hard to accept, since slavery is wrong and the slave trade wicked in the extreme.
In an attempt to explain this apparent contradiction, I offer this brief sketch of one such man, Benjamin Morgan Palmer.
Benjamin Palmer was born in 1818 in Charleston, South Carolina, (10 years after the slave trade was abolished in America). The strong-willed son of a pastor, he was converted in 1836.
Feeling a call to the ministry, he studied at Columbia Seminary, where later he was Professor of Ecclesiastical History. He was pre-eminently a preacher of the gospel, ranking, according to his biographer, ‘with the great preachers of the ages’. The record shows him to have been a loving Christian and a wise, tender-hearted pastor.
Palmer pastored two churches in South Carolina before, in 1856, accepting a call to the pastorate of First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans, Louisiana, where he remained, pastoring until shortly before his death in 1902. His gifts and godly character were demonstrated in fruitful ministries in South Carolina. But, New Orleans was the place of his major life’s work.
Much of what we know about Palmer and his ministry comes from The life and letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer, by T. C. Johnson, published by the Banner of Truth. Johnson paints a sympathetic portrait, at times a deeply moving one.
What is moving is the record of such a deeply devoted servant of Christ. Palmer came to New Orleans when the city was suffering successive attacks of yellow fever. Disregarding his own safety, his ministry to the sick and dying won him the admiration and affection, not only of his own people, but the city as a whole.
He conducted an extensive programme of visitation, while preaching or teaching five times a week. His preaching and writing gifts were in great demand by the wider church. He was a leader in his Presbyterian denomination. What is also moving, in addition to his works, are the words of Palmer himself, in his letters, sermons and addresses.
Palmer’s ministry and concerns always went beyond simply his own flock. When Jews in Russia were suffering bitter persecution, Palmer’s was a powerful voice on their behalf. Speaking at a public gathering called to protest Russia’s actions, he said, ‘When a Hebrew suffers, I suffer with him’. The Jewish community in New Orleans had a deep affection and respect for Palmer. A noted rabbi paid tribute to him at his memorial service.
In spite of his views on slavery, Palmer had a genuine concern for both the spiritual and temporal welfare of black people. While mixed race congregations probably did not exist at that time in the South, Palmer and his church in New Orleans gave permission for their building to be used as the regular meeting place of a black congregation in the city
He was a deeply patriotic man. He loved the southern states, her ways and traditions. He was ‘one of her most devoted sons’. And South Carolina seems to have been the home of the most southern of the South.
His devotion to the South was seen clearly in a famous Thanksgiving address he gave on 29 November 1860, shortly after the election of Abraham Lincoln as president.
Nearing the end of his address, in which he defended slavery, he proclaimed, ‘Whatever be the fortunes of the South, I accept them for my own … I shall die upon her bosom; she shall know no peril, but it is my peril, no conflict, but it is my conflict’.
It was a clarion call, which moved and strengthened many in their resolve to secede and fight, and, if necessary, die. Within three weeks, South Carolina was the first state to secede, with ten others to follow.
Because of that speech, when the war between the American states started, Palmer was known by the North as a ‘fomenter of treason’. When the North captured New Orleans in 1862, Palmer and his family had to find other places to live for the duration of the war. Palmer travelled at times with Confederate forces, sometimes at the risk of his life, preaching and encouraging the men.
Palmer was not an especially attractive man, physically. But he was a powerfully moving speaker. The account was relayed of two men sitting on the platform with Palmer when he was giving a commencement address.
Before he began speaking, one man said to the other, ‘He is the ugliest man I have ever seen, sir’. After ten minutes of Palmer speaking, he said, ‘He’s getting better looking’. By the time he was about two-thirds of the way through his address, the man, struggling to control his emotions, said, ‘He’s the handsomest man I have ever seen, sir’.
Palmer loved his family and family life. But, that is also where he knew intense personal suffering. Two of his sisters died before he was five. His oldest daughter died in 1863. ‘Since she was 12 years old I could find nothing in her to amend … nothing to correct’.
He describes the agony of ‘turning away and leaving her’ at the grave. By 1875 he had buried five of his six children. He writes to his sister about the last to die, ‘It nearly kills me to give her up’. Finally, he buried his wife in 1888. All of this helped to make him a deeply effective comforter of those who suffered.
At the age of 84 Palmer was struck by a street car. He went to be with the Lord three weeks later, on 25 May 1902. The church was overflowing for the funeral. Crowds lined the streets to the cemetery, as New Orleans and the whole South grieved the loss of a beloved leader.
In assessing the man, Palmer’s biographer speaks of his ‘Christlike humility, his transparent simplicity, honesty and honour, his broad and intense love for his fellow men, regardless of race or condition, his noble devotion to God’.
We have to say he was both a loving Christian and yet a defender of slavery that hurt people. It would be hard to read Johnson’s biography with an open mind and say otherwise.
As hard as it may be for us to accept, sometimes Christians can be wrong about important matters and yet walk closely with Jesus Christ. There also seems sometimes to be blind spots that you and I have, that, for some good and wise reason, God chooses not to remove.
Without excusing sin, that fact should make us slow to condemn, quicker to sympathise and understand. If someone seems truly to love Jesus Christ and believe his Word, he may be wrong on some important matters, but he’s right on the most important matters.
We only know ‘in part’, especially when it comes to our own hearts, and so need to pray with David: ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting’ (Psalm 139:23-24).
Dennis Hill is minister of Kingston Evangelical Church, Hull