Westminster John Knox Press, 238 pages | Published August 30, 2022
William Yoo’s work is one of reckoning. In his writing and teaching as the professor of American Religious and Cultural History at Columbia Theological Seminary, he has already made a significant contribution to the canon of American Presbyterian historiography. In What Kind of Christianity, he offers a distinctive addition to the current church’s discourse on the legacy of slavery and anti-Black racism.
Drawing deeply on a wide range of primary sources including published sermons, memoirs and General Assembly minutes (largely from the 1800s), Yoo makes a multidimensional case that both deepens our understanding of the practice of slavery and explores the lives of those engaged in it. We hear many voices: those who were enslaved, those who enslaved, those who supported and defended slavery, those who ignored it or denied its significance and those – Black and White – who worked for its abolition.
Yoo’s three-fold framework of tragedy, indictment and reckoning first details the cruel brutality of slavery: physical abuse, sexual violence, family separation and spiritual oppression (including withholding Christian instruction from those who were enslaved or teaching only a distorted version of the faith). White Presbyterians – ministers, elders and members – engaged in slavery. It was practiced in the South and variously supported, defended, ignored or downplayed in the North.
Yoo persistently debunks the myth that White Presbyterians would not have known the brutal details of slavery, arguing the practices were common knowledge. Ignorance was no excuse, because ignorance was implausible. He relies heavily on primary sources to argue they actively defended and supported slavery. Driven by anti-Black racism and economic self-interest, White Presbyterians mounted convoluted biblical and theological arguments, falling back on scriptural tropes, even claiming enslavement was beneficial to those enslaved. Yoo is also critical of the ecclesial strategy of unity, that is, repeated General Assemblies’ refusal to confront slavery, all in the name of avoiding disruption of the status quo.
A small minority of White and Black Presbyterians did work for emancipation, and Yoo recounts their stories. Some favored gradual emancipation, while others favored colonization (sending enslaved persons to places like Liberia). Those strategies were seen as deflections of the core strategy — immediate emancipation. True abolitionists were few and far between, and were often ignored, silenced, ostracized or removed from their pulpits. The myth of a strong Presbyterian abolitionist voice remains just that: a myth.
The connection from Yoo’s accounting to this present moment is clear and compelling. Knowing the anti-Black racism that fueled slavery, what was the church’s response? And understanding the ongoing reality of structural and systemic racism in the 21st century, what is the church’s response now? It can be informed by Yoo’s narrative of past sins, including denial, complicity, self-interest, biblical rationalization, words with no action and the insistence that the church’s work is spiritual, not political.
Ours is a tradition that takes its history seriously. Yoo’s important work does just that, while reframing our very misunderstandings of that history. How will memory function? Like our Presbyterian forbears, we have power to act and the capacity to make decisions. What will repentance look like? What will reckoning look like?
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