Some Things Change, Some Things Stay the Same

Thoughts on Race and the Evangelical Pulpit

by David Prince October 11, 2018

Some things change and other things remain the same in every age. 

In 1857, a congregationalist pastor, George B. Cheever, published a book titled, God Against Slavery: And the Freedom and Duty of the Pulpit to Rebuke It as Sin Against God. In the preface Cheever wrote, “I am more than ever convinced of the right and duty of every preacher of God’s word to preach on this subject, as contained in His word, as contained in His word, and to show the people how he regards it” (v). 

Abolition and rights for black people was not his only social cause. One biographer, Robert M. York, wrote a book titled, George B. Cheever, Religious and Social Reformer. One of the fiery preachers other social causes was defending the death penalty against those who sought to abolish it. In 1842, Cheever published, Punishment by Death. Theologically, Cheever was conservative and Calvinistic. 

Cheever possessed a courageous willingness to stand where he thought the Bible stood no matter who who it offended, even other theologically like-minded pastors and Christian leaders. In fact, he mocked Christian leaders who consistently preached on matters of social concern but when someone else raised a social concern they did not want addressed, particularly slavery and race, they would selectively denounce what they pejoratively deemed as political preachingand label it as a threat to the gospel. 

Rebuking fellow theological conservatives, he writes:

But those men who prefer slavery along with freedom, slavery for others and freedom for themselves, and whose plan is to combine both, and give them the same sanction and the same rights everywhere, would be glad to find some support of slavery, some shield for it was in God’s word; and, if anyone could demonstrate from God’s word that slavery is right, he might do thatfrom the pulpit ad infinitum, and they would not regard it at all as political preaching, but as simply the genuine meekness of wisdom preaching peace by Jesus Christ, and the very perfection of gospel conservatism. There are many who, without the least wincing, will hear you preach about the slavery of sin, but not one word will they endure about the sin of slavery (iv, v).

Cheever also noted that it was younger believers in whom he found encouragement because of their biblical courage on matters of social justice. He explains, “[Young people] have but little sympathy with those who make political or commercial expediency, in regard to great questions of right and wrong”(v). He adds, that the young people refused to be silent “in dealing with the iniquity of oppression” and they would not conceal their “native sense of justice” (v). 

Cheever writes, “Our young men look in vain to our pulpits for that sympathy with the oppressed, and affinity with the native impulses of the human heart for freedom, which true religion always possesses, and which the true gospel cultivates” (86). He explains in his dedication in God Against Slavery, “The volume is affectionately and respectfully dedicated to the young men of my own congregation, and to all lovers of freedom and truth in all places” (vi).

Cheever holds nothing back in rebuking what he saw as hypocrisy in fellow theological conservatives who appealed to the absolute and final authority of God’s word but at the same time denounced rebuking slavery as “political preaching” and a threat to the gospel. He repudiated their position: “The providence that directs and overrules all things is manifesting more clearly than ever the wickedness of the attempt to shield slavery from the reprobation of God’s word, by denouncing every mention of it as political preaching” (v).

Cheever exposes the superficial absurdity of refusing to denounce social sins in the name of staying focused on the gospel. He asserts, “But at the present time, the simplest announcement of divine truth in regard to national guilt is asserted to be an invasion , forsooth, of political rights of the congregation, and an unwarranted intrusion of themes adapted to excite angry feeling, where there ought to be nothing mentioned but Christ and him crucified” (53-54). He continues, “Many are willing to hear about Christ crucified for them, who will not listen for a moment to the proposed crucifixion of their sins for him” (54). 

He adds that pulpit capitulation is especially common in regard to culturally accepted corporate sins, and sins it would be costly, unpopular, and hazardous to condemn. Cheever avers, “But for what purpose was the gospel given, but to turn men from their iniquities, disclosing and condemning them in light of the cross?” (54). He thunders, “The gospel is not to be perverted as a political lullaby, and shall not be muzzled at the mandate of intriguing politicians and oppressors”(55-56).

I would encourage all to read God Against Slavery and marvel at the courage and gospel conviction of Cheever in his time. But even if you do not, I hope this article would give you courage in our time. It does not take much mental effort to see that some things change and other things are the same in every age. Cheever was right: God is against slavery and racism, as well as oppression and injustice of every kind, in every age. In 1857, Cheever wrote, “I tell you, no wonder that the modern pulpit has lost its power, when men are afraid of the application of that power, and tremble at its consequences” (55).

Some things are the same in every age.