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Philosophy Then

Evil Overruled

Peter Adamson considers explanations of evil in the context of slavery in nineteenth century America.

Today’s philosophers of religion devote considerable attention to the problem of evil: If God is both perfectly good and all-powerful, why do evil and suffering exist? This poses a considerable challenge to Jewish, Christian and Muslim (a.k.a. ‘Abrahamic’) theism, since if God is good, presumably he’d want to prevent evil and suffering, and if he’s all-powerful, presumably he’d be able to. The attempt to address this problem is called theodicy.

In keeping with the habits of analytic philosophy, the problem is typically discussed in a rather technical and detached fashion. This has its advantages. For instance, philosophers have drawn a useful distinction between a ‘logical’ version of the problem, according to which the existence of evil is flatly inconsistent with an Abrahamic God’s existence, and an ‘evidential’ version, whereby evil simply gives us good evidence that there is no such God.

In the nineteenth century, many thinkers wrestled with the same problem, but with much greater emotion. African American theologians and philosophers had somehow to reconcile their devout belief in the Christian God with the abomination of slavery. How could a good God permit such a thing? This was no mere logical problem, but an agonizing existential dilemma. The first example comes at the very beginning of U.S history, with Lemuel Haynes, who actually fought in the Revolutionary War. He was a devotee of Calvinist Protestantism, and so believed that God predestines everything in life, including ensuring that good prevails over bad. For Haynes it was not enough to blame the wickedness of slavery on the slavers rather than on God. One also had to explain why God would allow their wickedness. His answer may look rather shocking to modern eyes: “those Negroes that are Emigrated into these colonies are brought out of a Land of Darkness under the Light of the Gospel; and so it is a great Blessing instead of a Curse” (Liberty Further Extended, 1776). Thus Haynes dealt with a profound challenge to his religion by invoking that same religion. Africans taken from their native land and brought to America had been gravely mistreated, but they had gained an infinite good in the process, by being Christianized.

However, this was a dangerous justification to offer on God’s behalf, because slaveholders could use it too. Slavery was often rationalized by slave owners as being in the interest of the slaves as well as the masters. This argument, risible and offensive though it is, could not just be dismissed out of hand, since slavery apologists could likewise invoke the benefits of conversion. But critics of slavery gave a powerful response: If God ‘overrules’ sin by using it for a good end, the sin itself is still evil. Slavers act out of greed and inhumanity, and will be punished accordingly, even if they were the instruments of a good outcome. And it was clear that their motives were indeed evil. After all, if the goal was simply to convert Africans, that could be done without enslaving anyone.

This nineteenth century theodicy seems to presuppose that Africans brought to America should be trying to assimilate to the Christian culture there. Yet, the same train of thought could lead in the opposite direction: separatism instead of assimiliationism. Some African American thinkers urged those who won their freedom to abandon America and join newly established colonies in Africa, such as Sierra Leone and Liberia, bringing with them learning, commerce, and Christian piety. It was a controversial idea. David Walker called it a ‘cunningly devised plot of Satan’, seeing it as a white-led scheme to remove freed blacks, leaving the enslaved at the mercy of their oppressors. But defenders of African repatriation argued that America would never offer equality to black people. In the words of Paul Cuffe, it was only in Africa that ‘this People Might rise to be a People’.

After the abolition of slavery, the export of education and Christianity to Africa could be depicted as the beneficial result God must have had in mind all along. Notable here was Alexander Crummell, a priest who devoted himself to, as he saw it, bringing the light of ‘civilization’ to the ‘pagans’ of Africa (The Future of Africa, 1862). For him civilization meant simply schools and religion. He wanted to expand the use of English in Africa, since for him it was the ‘language of freedom’, holding within it ‘ideas of virtue’ and ‘moral truth’, due to its historical connection to Protestantism. A contemporary of Crummell’s, Henry McNeal Turner, likewise saw the ‘‘duty to civilize our fatherland’’ as the plan of divine Providence. He admitted that white support for colonization often had malevolent motives, but for him that was just “another evidence that Providence over-rules evil for good” (The Negro in All Ages, 1873). The colonization of Africa was the means by which “infinite wisdom intended to evolve ultimate good out of a temporary evil.”

Such thinking went out of fashion once it became undeniable that colonialism had, to put it mildly, not been a boon for Africa. An increased appreciation for the value of traditional African culture went along with increased apprehension about the damage being wrought in the name of ‘civilization’. As the pioneering historian Carter G. Woodson remarked in the 1930s, “much of Africa has been conquered and subjugated to save souls. How expensive has been the Negro’s salvation! One of the strong arguments for slavery was that it brought the Negro into the light of salvation. And yet the Negro today is all but lost” (The Mis-Education of the Negro, 1933).

There’s a lesson here that philosophers of religion would do well to heed: any plausible solution to the problem of evil needs to begin its justification of God by admitting that some things are simply unjustifiable.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2021

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1-5, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

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