24 Jan 2020

James Shannon: Women, Slavery, and New Creation

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Black History, Church, Church History, Contemporary Ethics, Hermeneutics, Race Relations, Restoration History, Women
James Shannon

Or how slavery and women’s equality are linked historically.

James Shannon (1799-1859) was one of the most educated men of the Stone-Campbell Movement prior to the Civil War. He served as president of the first college among in the Stone-Campbell Movement, Bacon College, and other institutions. He was recognized as a scholar as part of the American Bible Union and edited its critical edition of the Gospel of Luke.

However, Shannon utterly bought into the Southern way of life as the ideal human society. He would become a vocal and passionate defender of slavery. In 1849, he delivered a speech, then published it, “The Philosophy of Slavery as Identified with the Philosophy of Human Happiness, An Essay.” He won lots of kudos for this essay. He would go on and debate John C. Young, himself a slave holder who believed in “gradual emancipation” (and did emancipate some of his slaves). Shannon rejected the notion of even gradual emancipation because people of color were ordained by God to be slaves.

Against the backdrop of the “Bleeding of Kansas” (where the Civil War began long before Ft. Sumter) he addressed the Missouri Pro-Slavery Convention in 1855. His An Address … On Domestic Slavery amounted to a declaration of war on abolitionists for trying to “steal our property.”

a persistent violation of that right [to own slaves], even by government, is as villainous as highway robbery; and when peaceable modes of redress are exhausted, IS A JUST CAUSE OF WAR BETWEEN SEPARATE STATES, AND OF REVOLUTION IN THE SAME STATE.” (emphasis in original).

Those who dream the Civil War was not about slavery live in delusion.

Shannon argued that God instituted “various grades of bondage.” It will probably offend a lot of white women today to know that men of that day made no bones about women also being in “bondage” to men. Shannon appeals to women’s subjugation to justify, and explain, black subjugation through slavery to whites.

Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and, more importantly, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth, realized the link between race and gender in the fight for justice in the United States. Garrison, Douglass and Truth promoted women’s equality while fighting for abolition of slavery for blacks.

This riled up white men in many ways. Many do not realize the deep roots of the Suffrage Movement in the Abolition Movement. This movement for women’s right to vote was, according to Shannon, certain symptoms of “politico-religious fanaticism and infidelity of the age” that if left unchecked results in “anarchy” and “speedily overthrow our liberties.” He continues,

The attempt, which is being made in these United States, to elevate the wife to a POLITICAL EQUALITY with her husband [i.e. the right to vote, right to divorce, right to property, etc], or to change in any respect the relation established between them by God himself is rank infidelity, no matter what specious disguise it may assume; and it cannot fail to be replete with mischief to both parties, and to the best interest of the family, the State, and the Church. For the PUNISHMENT, then, as well as for the CURE of her sin, she was put in bondage to her husband. And though infidel fanaticism may blaspheme, enlightened Christian philanthropy will always say amen.” [emphasis in original].

Women are in “bondage” to men. For Shannon it was the crystal clear. The man, a father or husband, has complete control by the design of God over women. Shannon moves from the wife bondage, slavery, to black slavery for the next twenty-eight pages or so.

Today the same passages (1 Cor 14.34-35 & 1 Tim 2.12) folks hijack, out of both historical context and literary context, to claim women can do nothing are the same ones used in previous generations to say a woman was held in bondage, slavery, to her husband, could not vote, could not do anything without permission … she could even be physically abused. Consider the words of R. C. Bell in The Way in 1903, p. 776 (The Way was edited by James A. Harding).

woman is not permitted to exercise dominion over man in any calling of life. When a woman gets her diploma to practice medicine, every Bible student knows that she is violating God’s holy law. When a woman secures a license to practice law, she is guilty of the same offense. When a woman mounts the lecture platform or steps into the pulpit or the public school room, she is disobeying God’s law and disobeying the the promptings of her inner nature. When God gives his reason for women’s subjection and quietness, he covers the whole ground and forbids her to work in any public capacity … She is not fitted to do anything publicly … Every public woman – lawyer, doctor, lecturer, preacher, teacher, clerk, sales girl and all – would then step from their post of public work into their father’s or husband’s home, where most of them prefer to be, and where God puts them … You are no longer a public slave, but a companion and home-maker for man; you are now in the only place where your womanly influence has full play and power.

It is no accident that Shannon and men generally saw gender equality as a natural progression of racial equality. He, and many others, believed that God had set up grades of bondage. If a woman can be in “bondage” to a male though the “image of God” based on sex organs then one can enslave the “image of God” based on color. There is little evidence however that Shannon truly believed Blacks were the image of God. (See footnote on this paragraph).

What makes the example of Shannon so tragic is that 150 years later … so many Christians are still such horrific readers of Scripture. Race and Gender are still linked … we are equal images of God or we are nothing.

While many today would balk – and distance themselves – at Shannon’s honest forthrightness, the views of many are not substantively different today.

The great images of the Messianic age in Scripture show a return to and glorification of the Adamic state of humanity. The Adam was not exclusively “male” but both “male and female” (Gen 1.27-28) and equally servant rulers of God’s creation (Gen 1.28). Dominion, ruling in God’s stead, is given to both male and female, not to the male alone.

The Adam is all humanity; male and female; white, black and all shades in between. The Adam is not merely the guys or even the white guys. Joel (2.28), Peter (Acts 2.16-18) and Paul (1 Cor 12.13; Gal 3.28) all indicate that when the Fall is undone then the degradation of images of God will cease. That “new creation” has already begun through the Messiah and is a present reality through his People. For we are “new creation” which means there is no white and black but it also means there is no male nor female that is the basis of relationship and service to God.

We need to learn the lesson of horrific exegesis from our ancestors.

Seeking Shalom.


I am adding this Footnote on Bondage. I rewrote the paragraph above and want to add this note. Historically the women’s suffrage movement grew out of the abolition movement. Women made up a large portion of the anti-slavery movement in the United States. Julie Roy Jeffrey has amply demonstrated this in her wonderful study The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement (University of North Carolina Press, 1998). Many of the same women involved would later be in the Temperance Movement too. On the other hand, while it is true that men typically viewed women as essentially property, white women often had great privilege and power over Black women and men especially in, but not limited to, the South.

Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, a Black scholar at the University of California (Berkeley) published an outstanding study called They Where Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South. She has shown beyond doubt that many white women in the South were rabidly pro-slavery and could be the cruelest “masters.” Indeed slaves were often viewed as her property. Even in the Suffrage Movement women’s rights were thought of in terms of rights for white women. Thus Sojourner Truth’s speech at the Fourth National Woman’s Rights Convention in 1853 where she famously said “ar’nt I a woman?” (see her entire speech in Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, pp. 566-572). Truth sought the rights of all women, which included herself and Black women. Douglass also sought the rights of all women, including Black women. They were hardly the only African Americans arguing for such. In any ways the struggle continues to this very day for genuine respect and equality for Black women. So in spite of the rhetoric of James Shannon and the sexist, even misogynist, views of many men of the day, there is neither a moral equivalency between slavery and the experience of white women nor a practical day to day equivalency. I do not want to leave the impression that I think there is any such equivalency.

3 Responses to “James Shannon: Women, Slavery, and New Creation”

  1. Jennifer Says:

    Frederick Douglass didn’t equate the two. He demanded that the abolition of slavery take precedence over women’s suffrage. This caused division among the women, and led to the formation of two rival organizations. The women’s movement suffered because its leaders gave everything to the abolition and got nothing in return. Success finally came only after Susan B. Anthony decided to unite all women – regardless of political views, race, religion, etc. – to give women the vote. She gained the support of Southern women longing for the antebellum days and former slave women by giving them a common cause.

  2. Ray Hawk Says:

    Appreciate the information. Not diagreeing, just wondering if you have an article on slavery commands of Paul and why the NT regulates but does not condemn the practice. Slavery then was not black, but nationalities subservient to Rome.

  3. Ed Dodds Says:

    Why Southern women were not ordained or allowed to prophesy with their heads covered antebellum [calling out slave owners raping their slaves “just like in the Bible”; also tre embarrassing to the women of the Big Houses]. Caveat: in MN we genocided Native Americans for their land and instigated forced relocation #ShedimWars

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