In listening to Niall Ferguson’s Empire (on audiobook) lately, I’ve encountered some rather depressing anecdotes about evangelicalism, which show that its recent complicity with injustice is nothing new.
Consider this: We all know about John Newton, right? Author of “Amazing Grace” and other hymns, great evangelical preacher, former slave trader who converted and became a leader of the anti-slavery movement. Great story, right? Well, except for one little detail. Newton’s evangelical conversion took place before he became the captain of a slave ship. It was only after several years as a slave trader that it occurred to him that his Christian duties might conflict with his occupation. Modern evangelical blindness on the Third World Debt problem seems to have plenty of historical precedent.
In another depressing episode, Ferguson tells the story of the great Sepoy Mutiny in India in 1857, which was largely a response to the missionary movement; the Indians felt that their religion was threatened, and so they rose in rebellion against the British. Now, I have no problem with the missionaries making the Indians feel threatened about their religion, but it is the response to the rebellion that is deeply troubling. The missionary societies and the evangelicals were the loudest voices calling for vengeance without mercy against the rebels. “In churches all over the country, the theme of the Sunday sermon shifted from redemption to revenge,” Ferguson says. He offers an extended quote from a sermon at the time by none other than Charles Spurgon, which he characterizes as a “call to holy war: “The Hindus’ worship necessitates all that is evil, and morality must put it down. The sword must be taken out of its sheath, to cut off our fellow subjects by their thousands.”
It was all chillingly reminiscent of the evangelical response to 9/11, in which the part of the US population that most fervently claimed to be washed by the blood of Jesus became the most bloodthirsty part.