I am appearing on a panel at the FIU law school today to discuss the application of faith to the practice of law. The organizers of the event circulated some questions that the moderator may ask us. To help prepare myself for this (to me) very unusual event, I wrote out answers to most of them. The title of this post is the first question. Here's what I wrote.
As an undergraduate, I majored in history and focused on the history of religion in America, more particularly in the antebellum South. With a sort of righteous indignation, I pursued the question of how people in the South who called themselves Christians could tolerate a slaveholding society.
In the course of the pursuit, I came across a minister from a slave-owning family who pastored a church in Midway, Georgia, during the 1830s. He founded an association called the Association for the Religious Instruction of the Negroes in Liberty County, Georgia. This minister, whose name was Charles Jones, promoted not only religious instruction but also literacy among the slaves, the provision, recognition, and protection of marriage among those people, their freedom to assemble, and their freedom to move from place to place. He condemned selling off members of slave families and, finally, he asserted that slaves were human beings who were so worthwhile to God that he sent his only begotten son, Jesus, to die for them, just as he had for everyone else.
I found this to be a surprising and potentially subversive application of the Gospel, and I explored how he got away with such a ministry. There were several factors. He came from what appeared to be a wealthy and economically secure family, so there was power there. In addition, the congregation at Midway Church had been founded by New Englanders two generations or so before, so there was probably a different intellectual tradition still at work. Furthermore, a reform movement was sweeping the country generally. Finally, about 50 years before Mr. Jones’ ministry, a Midway Church member had established a foundation, and that entity helped support the ministry. In other words, there was a means of financial support independent of the contemporary situation.
It interested me that this foundation, a creature of the law, in the hands of a Christian minister who fully understood the implications of the Gospel, could work within a repressive culture and make a positive impact. This study helped push me to the decision to go to law school and not to graduate school, which was the other choice that seemed to be open to me at the time. It was not the only factor in my going to law school, but it was an important one. I had the idea that I could make a more positive impact on the culture as a lawyer than as a scholar cloistered in the university. My faith holds that God calls us to make such an impact.