Last week in Adult Forum, we watched another segment of Traces of the Trade.
In this segment, the people the film focuses on – descendants of the DeWolf family – visit the port in Ghana where the bulk of the Atlantic slave trade was controlled out of. The DeWolfs were America’s largest slave-trading family.
One of the most challenging things to understand and grapple with in this segment, especially as we watch this film in church, is the close relationship between slavery and Christianity. We learn that after people were kidnapped and transported inland to what is known as the “slave castle” at Elmina, they were immediately baptized. We learn that located right above the dungeon, where people were held before being loaded on to the ships that would take them to the Americas, was the chapel. It has been passed down that as church services were held, one could hear the moaning of people captured in the dungeon below.
This is a cruel irony that runs throughout European and American history, and also specifically in the history of the UCC. While religious Northerners are often perceived as having been on the right side of history by the time of the Civil War, they were in fact central in developing some of the deep religious and religious justifications for participation in and perpetuation of the slave trade. The Puritans and their descendants that controlled commerce in New England experienced great profit from the cotton produced by enslaved people in the South – and Massachusetts became the heart of the booming textile industry.
For a very early look at the debate over slavery on the Congregationalist side, read these two essays– written in 1700 – by two Puritans in Boston. The one on the left, by Samuel Sewell, says slavery is evil and against the ideals of Christianity, and is the earliest published anti-slavery statement written on American soil. The other, by a local merchant, buys into the theological – and inherently racist – worldview that God “hath set different Orders and Degrees of Men in the World”, in which all are of “use, but not equal.”
The power of the former’s arguments, and arguments like it, helped assuage white Christians’ complicity in slavery with their religion, not just in the South but in the North too – making us confront, as is mentioned in the movie, the “heroic history of abolitionism” that the North tends to get credit for.
As we finish the film this week, and then next week have a fuller discussion of our reactions, we will delve further into this tension. We’ll talk about the wisdom from our faiths that guide us into standing up to evil – and also the dangers of how we can use our religiosity to become blind to or even perpetuate it.
Thank you to all who have joined us so far. Your courage and curiosity in discussion and watching the film has been powerful, and is so important.