Kendi on Perkins on Slavery


Ibram X Kendi writes in Stamped From the Beginning,

The Puritans believed, too, in civilizing and Christianizing the world, but their approach to the project was slightly different from that of most explorers and expedition sponsors. For the others, it was about economic returns or political power. For Puritan preachers, it was about bringing social order to the world. Cambridge professor William Perkins rested at the cornerstone of British Puritanism in the late sixteenth century. “Though the servant in regard of faith and the inner man be equal to his master, in regard of the outward man… the master is above the servant,” he explained in Ordering a Familie, published in 1590. In paraphrasing St. Paul, Perkins became one of the first major English theorists—or assimilationist theologians, to be more precise—to mask the exploitative master/servant or master/slave relationship as a loving family relationship. […] It was Perkins’s family ordering that Puritan leaders like John Cotton and Richard Mather used to sanction slavery in Massachusetts a generation later. And it was Perkins’s claim of equal souls and unequal bodies that led Puritan preachers like Cotton and Mather to minister to African souls and not challenge the enslavement of their bodies. (Kindle location 581)

This is 100% true and a powerful point necessary for understanding the genesis, development, and justification of American chattel slavery. But, like a good little student of Kendi, I went back to the primary source, Perkins’ A SHORT SURVEY OF THE RIGHT MANNER OF ERECTING and ordering a Familie, according to the Scriptures.

What I found is that Perkins did indeed argue that holding Christian servants was allowable, but explicitly not because he assumed a natural hierarchy among men, giving a right to enslave to one people-group at the expense of the other. On the contrary, he writes,

[S]ervitude proceedeth not of nature, but hath his original from the laws of nations, and is a consequent of the fall. For all men by nature are equally & indifferently free, none more or less then others.

That is strike one against American chattel slavery, which would have a race-based system in place by the mid 17th century. But even more, William Perkins gave seven provisos for lawful Christian indenture, literally none of which were to be followed by American law or custom. He writes,

I. That the master have not over his servant the power of life and death; for this takes away the lawful power of the Magistrate, to whom only the Lord hath committed the sword of justice.

II. That there be not liberty granted him, to use his servant at his own will and pleasure in all things; for this was not granted by the law of God to his own people: Exod. 21. 26. If a man smite his servant or his maid in the eye, and hath perished it, he shall let him go free for his eye: Also if he smite out his servants or his maids tooth, he shall let him go out free for his tooth.

III. That the power be not enlarged to the commanding of things against piety or justice; for in these cases a man must rather obey God then man, Act. 4. 19.

IV. That masters do not take liberty to make separation of those their servants that be married, the one from the other, or of those that be parents from their children; considering that God himself hath made these societies, and joined such persons together, and therefore man may not separate them.

V. That the masters do not take liberty to put over their servants to ungodly and unbelieving masters, for that is an unkind and cruel liberty, & may be an occasion to make the servant fall away from religion, and renounce the true God.

VI. That they do not bind them to perpetual slavery, & never make them free. Exo. 21. 5. But if the servant say thus, I love my master, my wife and my children, I will not go out free.

VII. That the servitude be not procured and retained by force; for it is a more grievous crime to spoil a man of his liberty, then of his riches.

All of these provisos were violated by American chattel slavery. It truly was a “Peculiar Institution,” as the South would later call it. And further, if both ignoring Perkins’ natural egalitarianism as well as his seven provisos was not enough, Perkins concluded his section on servants with one more overarching limitation:

Nevertheless where this kind of servitude is abolished, it is not to be again received or entertained amongst Christians, especially considering, it is a far more mild and moderate course to have hired servants.

(Paging Whitfield.)

What is my point here? My point is that the narrative of Puritan slavery might be even more bleak than Kendi lets on. It appears that American Puritans ably absorbed the “yes you can have indentured servants—they’re like family!” from Perkins, but completely ignored the conditions under which he said it was allowable; i.e., not race-based, not by force, never life-long, families protected, servants not property, no abuse, and—last but not least—don’t even introduce it to begin with.

To be clear, none of this is to defend or condemn William Perkins. Rather, it is to show the hypocrisy, inconsistency, and culpability of his ideological children.

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