The Bible and the Maltreatment of Reverend William C. Clark

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

As he explained in his letter to George Brown, the Reverend William C. Clark visited Kansas in the fall of 1855. He left in September, aiming to go back and spread the good word about the territory in New England. On the way out, he boarded the Polar Star in Kansas City. He found himself in the company of many vocal proslavery passengers and seems to have lived through a steamboat version of Thanksgiving with one’s more deplorable relations. Like most of us, he largely suffered in silence. But just like us, Clark had his limit. He hit it when a fellow passenger laid into the Bible. Said passenger, in words unwittingly echoed by Representative Steve King at the Republican National Convention, that the black race could not share any ancestry with the white because what had they ever accomplished?

Clark, a minister of the Gospel, would not let that one stand. The Bible didn’t tell any stories of parallel or separation creations of man. In standing up there, Clark positioned himself well within the theological mainstream of nineteenth century America. Even diehard proslavery theorists usually, though not always, shrank from the notion of separate creations. To defend Holy Scripture, Clark took recourse to history:

I called his attention to Hannibal the Great, who for years was the terror of Rome and the admiration of the world, he having been of Negro descent, and not of Phenician as most of the Carthaginians were; also to Hamilcar, the great mechanic-to Euclid, the father of mathematics-with some other illustrious minds that belonged to that oppressed race.

In all this, Clark did very much as most of us would probably think to. We live in a culture saturated by race talk scarcely less than Clark’s. The argument, that race as a category is incoherent for any purpose save mistreating people, runs against the grain of nearly our entire discourse. Thus one wants to build up a racial scoreboard, accepting the premise that races exist in a more than social sense and might have morally meaningful distinctions.

Clark and his audience lived in a different time. Racial theory did not fall into disrepute even in the academy until the twentieth century. He and the other people on the Polar Star lived in the heyday of racial science, which frequently involved recourse to the Bible to demonstrate its points. When Clark disputed separate creations, polygenesis, as bad theology he made himself some enemies. To his fellow passengers, he sounded like an abolitionist. They asked him just what he thought about slavery. He confessed:

When questioned upon this point (I have too much frankness in my nature, as well as respect for the honest views I hold, to dissemble on a plain point,) I frankly admitted that I was opposed to the extension of slavery, and in favor of Kansas becoming a Free State.

Since the previous conversation had involved the Bible, the natural response came at once. Didn’t Clark, a man of God, think the Bible approved of slavery? Abraham had slaves, for which “God never rebuked him”.

Yes, Clark said, but God also neglected to rebuke Abraham for having a son with his wife’s maid. David’s numerous vices barely earned a condemnation. But

when the light of Christianity shone more brightly upon the world, wherever it went, servitude, polygamy, &c. were swept away, being suited only to the dark ages.

The Latter-Day Saints of the time would have had something to say to Clark about polygamy and the entire American South could point out how the light of Christianity had not impeded slavery. But likely no one there at the time considered Mormons Christians of any species and antebellum Southerners had heard plenty of Yankees denounce them for living in the dark ages.

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