A Deep Sore in His Heart: B.B. Warfield on Racism and Responsibility

B.B. Warfield (1851-1921) is best known for his strident defense of biblical inerrancy. So much so that he is sometimes referred to as the theologian of biblical inerrancy. Warfield’s work stands as a touchstone for all seeking to combat the danger of theological liberalism in the church. Whether one affirms or rejects biblical inerrancy, he or she has to deal with Warfield’s arguments. 

Of course, Warfield was a prolific writer whose keen analytical mind provided formidable arguments on many topics. Recently, as I was reading through the two volumes of his Selected Shorter Writings, edited by John E. Meeter, I came across Warfield’s prophetic thoughts on race, slavery, segregation, and post-emancipation Christian responsibility.

Warfield, a son of the South whose uncle was secretary of war for the Confederacy, was thirteen years old when the American Civil War ended in 1865. Twenty-two years later, during his first year as a professor at Princeton Seminary, Warfield wrote an article for The Church at Home and Abroad (Jan. 1887) titled “A Calm View of the Freedmen’s Case.”[1] In the article, Warfield phrases a few things in ways that offend our 2020 sensibilities, but when understood in its historical context, it is remarkably bold, insightful, and prophetic.  

He attempts to awaken the American church to its responsibility in the wake of what he calls “the terrible legacy of evil which generations of slavery have left to our freedmen,” he adds, this responsibility “is scarcely appreciated by any of us” (735). He acknowledges that the freedmen had significant obstacles to their rising and thriving because of “so great a weight of prejudice, evil custom, and sad fate” (735). 

According to Warfield, most American Christians refused to acknowledge that “the very fact of slavery was the most potent of demoralizers” and that “the curse of slavery eats to the very roots of all life” (736-37). He added, “The task now before us would be easier had slavery only demoralized. As a matter of fact, it did worse: it moralized on a false and perverted system” (737). 

Warfield feared for the future of freedmen. Like most of his contemporaries, Warfield believed that the post-emancipation period had not led to a moral strengthening among former slaves and their families but rather a sharp declension. What is remarkable is Warfield assigns the primary blame for the declension, not to the freedmen, but to White society. 

White American culture, according to Warfield, would not honestly reckon with the fact that “slavery, so far from fitting its victims for freedom, unfitted them for it” (737). Emancipation had only freed subjugated Black Americans on the private level, not on the public level. If anything, racial segregation, animosity and hatred had increased throughout White society, as did the perceived need to keep the freedmen in his subjugated place. 

According to Warfield, what remained was a wicked caste system that faulted freedmen for not rising while keeping all impediments to their rising firmly in place. He explains, “But this [hope of rising] is lost for the African. The class to which he belongs by birth is the class with which he must make his home until death sets him free.” Warfield avers, “Those who expect, in such circumstances, the freedmen to elevate themselves are building castles in Spain with a vengeance” (739).

Warfield summarizes, 

The harm that caste does towards those whom we would elevate cannot be overestimated. It kills hope; it paralyzes effort; it cuts away all of those excitements to endeavor that come of intimacy with those above us, and the example of those who, having trodden where our feet now walk, have passed into the regions beyond, leaving footprints for us to follow. It is a marvel to me that its dangers too are not more fully appreciated. Apart from all question of religion and the kingdom of God, is it good public policy to compact a lower class, escape from which, by reason of the indelible stain of color, cannot be had, into a solid phalanx of opposition to the ruling class, and by heaping, year after year, petty injustices and insults upon it, to beget undying hatred in its heart and to perpetuate all the evils of race alienation into an indefinite future, if not even to treasure up for ourselves wrath against a day of wrath? (741)

Finally, Warfield offered a somber warning. One I fear that White Christian America, in large part, failed to heed.

For after a while this blind Samson must awake, and the issues which depend on these two things—that when he awakes he shall not be still unmoral, and that he shall not awake with a deep sore in his heart against his fellow citizens of another color—are simply tremendous, for the South and for the nation. (741)

Warfield argued that the church must act to lift freedmen up and remove the obstacles that had been put in their way. According to him, “Secular training will do small good; simple preaching of the gospel does not reach deep enough. We must have Christian schools everywhere, where Christianity as a revealed system of truth and of practice is daily taught by men and women whose hearts are aglow with missionary fervor —who find in every creature of God the promise and potency of all higher life” (742). 

It is also interesting to note, Warfield spent little time on social issues in his writings with the exception of this particular topic. It would seem to me that contemporary heirs of Warfield’s commitment to biblical inerrancy are his opposite in this respect. 

[1] John E. Meeter, “A Calm View of the Freedmen’s Case,” Benjamin B. Warfield: Selected Shorter Writings (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1970), 735-42.

By |December 18th, 2020|Categories: Blog, Featured|

About the Author:

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, the BGEA and Preaching Today