The Surprising Relevance of James R. Willson

jr-willson1One of my tasks as Editorial Assistant this week was to pull excerpts from our new book, Political Danger, by James R. Willson. The articles published in this book were written on the political controversies of early 19th century America and, at first glance, the book looks intimidatingly dry. I thus prepared myself for something old-fashioned and tedious—material intended for theologians and scholars, and not for everyday Christians like myself.

What I found instead was a man deeply concerned with the very same issues that plague our nation today. In the broader context of the Mediatorial Kingship of Jesus Christ, the book provides a collection of articles that address the issues of cultural tolerance, power-hungry governments, the treatment of veterans, and a thoroughly surprising section on the abolishment of prayer in the New York House of Representatives written in 1835. (Yes, they were arguing about the constitutionality of state prayer 175 years ago.) As Gordon Keddie, editor of this collection said, “In all of these papers there are passages that could have been written yesterday.”

The sections that most interested me most were those on slavery. To many of us (including myself, until of late) this is a dead topic. Slavery was abolished years ago, and few of us would question its immorality or willingly countenance its existence. Nevertheless, in speaking to 19th century slavery, Willson also speaks to two burning issues of our day.

The first is modern-day slavery and human trafficking, in which millions of our fellow humans worldwide are bought and sold daily. (I am not referring to sweat shops here, but the slavery, the real thing). As Christians we are still responsible for the emancipation of our brothers and sisters in chains–as I’m sure Willson would agree! But that is a subject for a different post.

The second important parallel controversy of today that Willson illuminates is that of abortion. I was surprised to realize the many similarities between the Emancipation Movement and the Pro-Life Movement of today. Both are passionately opposed to injustice and determined to champion the victims. After all, slaves were considered subhuman conveniences (or inconveniences). They were treated like property, and deprived of the freedom of choice so prized by their masters. Effectively they were told “it is best for you if we decide how, and if, you live.” Sound familiar?

Society and the government of the 1830’s were not all that different from that of today. Those in favor of immediate emancipation (like Willson) were told loudly that slavery was a constitutional right, that to act (or even merely speak) against it was fanatical and irrational. Attempts were made to muzzle the press and “make it criminal to utter doctrines adverse to Negro slavery.” The President himself (Andrew Jackson) gave a speech in which he condemned the abolitionists as inflammatory and misguided, and accused them of seeking to foment a civil war. Circulation of “incendiary” material in the southern states was prohibited, under severe penalties.

“There is not the remotest hint,” says Willson, “that…liberty of speech…is guaranteed by the federal Constitution…that people have been deprived of any right, or that it is any evil either physical or moral to hold them, unoffending as they are…there is no suggestion that the two million slaves are objects of compassion…”

Again, does this sound familiar?

I hope that one day as a nation we will look back at abortion as an unnatural, evil blot on our nation’s history, much as we look back on slavery. I hope our children will be shocked that the government and society at large allowed it to continue for so long! Willson’s book may provide some impetus to, and perspective on, our struggle for the rights of the unborn.

Throughout all of this, Willson returns over and over to his ruling theme, the Kingship of Christ. Indeed it is emphasized that the answers to our controversies can be resolved only through Christ Himself. Though a disturbing read, it is also a comforting one when we remember with the psalmist that the Lord is in His holy place, observing, intervening, and judging.

I’m glad I was obliged to read parts of this marvelous book, and once it is available I would recommend it for everyone–not just scholars and theologians. Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes 1:9 “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” In Political Danger, Willson gives us a window into the immediate truth contained in those words.