One of the claims of many in the USA is that slavery is America’s original sin, and that like the impact of original sin on the human race, so slavery has impacted all of American life. This is the subject that sets off the 9th chp of Alan Jacobs, Original Sin. Is the project of “starting all over again,” which animated many who came to America, a tacit denial of the idea of original sin? The answer found itself going in two different directions.
At Lane Theological Seminary in 1834, prodded by the American Colonization Society — dedicated to shipping slaves back to Africa to form Liberia, students battled the Southern position on slavery for 18 consecutive nights of public debate. They pressured the seminary president, Lyman Beecher, and his daughter wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a result. (A book I’m embarrassed to say I have not read.) Lyman’s decision was regrettable — he did not permit African American students into Lane. The board banned the antislavery association. Shortly thereafter that crowd formed Oberlin College. John Jay Shipherd coaxed Charles Finney to Oberlin and the rest is history.
Finney fought slavery and original sin. Jacobs connects him to Pelagius. Finney fully believed in sin, but not in original sin, fearing it would give humans an excuse.
Then Jacobs turns to the Harvard scientist, Louis Agassiz, a Swiss immigrant, who when he met African Americans came to believe the traditional story of the “confraternity of the human type” — that we are all alike — could not be true. He created scientific racism.
This gives Jacob the opportunity to explore what it is that unites us and the imagination that the doctrine of original sin provides. We see our shortfalling and that of others and original sin helps explain our connection. Oddly of course, if we confess the image of God and cannot seem to embrace it, does that not provide a backhanded compliment of original sin?
African Americans, the better side of this embarrassing and yet unfolding episode in American history teaches, are not only derived from the same parents — Adam and Eve — but also share the same corrupted nature deriving from original sin. Such was one of the most influential arguments against slavery.
Here we go then — Finney against it in order to push for human striving and perfection; others against original sin because it establishes that the white man and the black man are the same. In the same century. A Christian house divided in a country trying to start all over again.