Christian author Randy Alcorn published two articles last week addressing abolitionism; the first of which being a reprint of Scott Klusnedorf’s recent Gospel Coalition article with a short preface from Alcorn, and the second a more extended exposition of Alcorn’s own perspective.
There is much to take issue with ideologically which we will discuss in this article, but Alcorn’s disposition and curiosity toward the issue are admirable. Alcorn appears to be seeking to ask questions and understand. He writes: “I have been reading abortion abolitionist comments on my Facebook page and the articles they’ve linked to, and watching videos they sent me. I had hoped to write about those today, but it might be several weeks before I can put my thoughts together. We’ll see… [W]hy am I looking over abortion abolitionist material? Because I want to be fair and open to the possibility that I’m wrong, whether entirely or partially. Obviously, I don’t think I’ve been wrong (do any of us?), but I’m asking God to give me insight in the knowledge that sometimes I certainly have been wrong. If I want others to be open to my viewpoints, I should be open to theirs.”
As pastor and Rescue Those founder Brett Baggett has said, “Give me 30 minutes and an open Bible and you’ll be an abolitionist.” Someone indwelt by the Spirit of God who honestly assesses the principles we espouse with an open mind is on a path to abolitionism. Pray for Alcorn as he examines and processes abolitionist arguments.
With that said, let’s get to his recent piece.
Blue State Abolitionism
Alcorn writes that abolishing abortion is not realistic in certain areas: “In many places (such as where I live outside of Portland, Oregon) there is no hope of passing such bills when they advocate eliminating all abortions by criminalizing them.”
It is not that abolitionists are unaware of or refuse to acknowledge political realities such as the pro-abortion control of the Oregon state government. It is that we ask different questions than pro-lifers and have different solutions.
The problem in Oregon is that people who hate God and love child sacrifice control the government. Abolition bills can’t pass. Pro-life bills can’t pass. This is the political reality. The question an Oregon Christian must ask is “What has the power to change this political reality?” But instead, the pro-lifer asks “How can I cater to this political reality?”
One of the fundamental differences between pro-lifers and abolitionists is that pro-lifers cater their strategy and messaging to their audience while abolitionists cater our strategy and messaging to Christ. Pro-life activism will look very different depending on the setting, but abolitionists will always and everywhere be proclaiming repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and submission to His Word which outlaws murder and commands the establishment of justice without partiality.
A pro-lifer might object to our strategy by saying this is not pragmatic. In a worldly sense, they are right. Every pollster and “political expert” on earth will advise you to meet voters and politicians where they are. Don’t be controversial. Tell people what they want to hear, or as close to it as you can. This is worldly wisdom and utter foolishness. Stop working within the political reality by watering down your message, and start changing the political reality by proclaiming the truth boldly.
No pro-life or abolition bill is passing in Oregon without revival. Telling a culture that loves child sacrifice what they want to hear will not bring revival. Asking for inconsistent, unbiblical abortion regulations which teach the culture dehumanizing misinformation about preborn children will not bring revival. In fact, the Church making compromised demands will stunt revival. The Spirit moving through the uncompromising proclamation of the Word of God brings revival. Stop asking political questions and playing political games. Ask Biblical questions and come to Biblical solutions.
This is God’s world. It operates according to His rules. We cannot scheme our way to revival. We must faithfully proclaim His truth without compromise and only then can we expect Him to work powerfully through us. He may, in His sovereignty, elect not to bring repentance to Oregon or America. Maybe He will glorify Himself and purify His Church by bringing judgement to us. These outcomes belong to Him. The duty to be faithful in every setting is ours.
For more on blue state abolitionism, see episode #47 of The Liberator Podcast.
Willing to Be Radical
Alcorn writes: “I keep hearing from abortion abolitionists that those who aren’t part of their movement are unwilling to take radical steps on behalf of the unborn. Because of my prolife efforts, I lost my job as a pastor, went to jail, and couldn’t make more than minimum wage for twenty years. That’s very small suffering in the larger scheme of things, but I think I can say I am not casual in my dedication to stopping abortions (which is saving children) nor am I inherently opposed to radical thinking and action.”
It is not that Alcorn is opposed to radical thinking or action. It’s that when it comes to the political applications of abolishing abortion, he and the Pro-Life Establishment do not ask Biblical questions or arrive at Biblical solutions. I have no doubts as to the sincerity of Alcorn’s conviction nor his willingness to be considered a radical by society. He has proven both decisively and should be commended for it. The questions regarding Alcorn are:
- Will he ask Biblical questions and come to Biblical solutions in the political context?
- Is he willing to risk losing relationships with other pro-life leaders upon discovering the Biblical fidelity of abolitionism?
All or Nothing?
Alcorn writes: “Their ‘save all babies’ approach sounds pure and undefiled, but in my opinion their utter opposition to incremental prolife efforts amounts to ‘Save all babies, and unless we can, let’s not save any.’ (I realize they would never say it that way, but that’s what it sounds like.)”
This gets us back to the importance of asking Biblical questions. The abolitionist does not ask, “Does this save babies?” The abolitionist asks, “Is this just? Is this in accordance with God’s word?” The abolitionist saves babies one-by-one at abortion mills and by other activism and evangelism. But we will not do evil (support laws which regulate when, where, and how babies can be murdered) that good may come. Good ends don’t justify immoral means.
The kicker is that making just demands of our magistrates is what will lead to the saving of the most babies, because that is the demand that is powerful to move culture and politics. Pragmatically, incrementalism has shown over 49 years to be a complete failure.
Every abolition bill filed so far but one was filed in a state completely controlled by Republican pro-life politicians and lobbyists who oppose immediate abolition. In these states, it is not that abolitionists are choosing to save none instead of saving some; it’s that the pro-life leaders are choosing to regulate abortion instead of abolish it.
Slavery Abolished Incrementally in Virginia
Alcorn cites the incremental nature of the abolition of slavery in certain places to argue that historical abolitionists have gone about abolishing evils in different ways. He similarly argues later in the article that we are all incrementalists who can’t help but function incrementally because social change happens over time. This is a common misunderstanding of immediatism. We are not saying that abortion will be abolished over night. We are not saying that there won’t be gradual progress made toward the objective. We are saying that our demands must be as uncompromising as justice.
We understand, as our 19th century abolitionist predecessors did, that the fight to abolish a great societal evil is a struggle that will likely take years. As William Lloyd Garrison wrote in the August 13, 1831 edition of The Liberator, “Urge immediate abolition as earnestly as we may, it will alas! be gradual abolition in the end. We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought to be we shall always contend.” The immediatism-incrementalism debate does not revolve around how long the battle takes (though the immediatist strategy will certainly achieve the desired end more quickly). The debate revolves around what our demand should be.
The immediatist demands the immediate abolition of the evil. They call the evil what it is, watering nothing down and grounding their demands in God’s word. The incrementalist asks for a compromise with the evil. The tragic consequence of this is that the incrementalist cannot ground their argument in anything substantial.
For instance, the immediatist demand for abortion to be abolished can be grounded in God’s word (You shall not murder) and in the US Constitution (“[No state shall] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”) An incrementalist’s demand for a 20-week abortion ban or a heartbeat bill cannot be defended from God’s word or the Constitution, as these laws – by implying the legality of abortion prior to the arbitrary standard they set for who counts as fully human – violate both.
Because incremental laws and the incremental arguments made in favor of them cannot be grounded in anything substantial, they are weak and impotent to change culture. In some cases, these bills and arguments actually serve to change culture in the wrong direction by dehumanizing the preborn children left unprotected or classified as non-humans by the arbitrary law. Compromise bills and arguments mean compromised foundations, compromised foundations mean no powerful prophetic witness from our demands, and no powerful prophetic witness from our demands means no positive cultural change from our demands. This is one of the many reasons immediatists demand the immediate, and not the gradual, abolition of the evil.
Wilberforce, Immediate Abolitionist
Alcorn then transitions to arguing that William Wilberforce was an incrementalist, and it is here that I humbly ask Alcorn to retract the misinformation he has spread. Granted, he is not the originator of the misinformation. Alcorn cites Tim Challies who is citing Paul Chamberlain who is likely working from Clarke Forsythe’s book Politics for the Greatest Good.
Alcorn quotes Challies, who wrote: “Wilberforce, then, was willing to accept incremental improvements. For example, at one point he supported a bill, passed on a trial basis, that would regulate the number of slaves that were permitted to be transported on a single ship… The British Parliament had given approval to [incremental bills like this] that Wilberforce knew would lead to nothing short of abolition. And of course his beliefs proved to be correct. The incremental changes for which he lobbied proved to be the starting point for the eventual abolition of slavery.”
This is exactly opposite of the truth. If the truth is the North Pole, Alcorn and Challies are on the South Pole. If the truth is black, Alcorn and Challies are white. If the truth is hot, Alcorn and Challies are ice cold. Maybe I went overboard with analogies there, but it has to be adequately communicated how scandalously false the common pro-life historical narrative of Wilberforce of is.
Wilberforce vehemently opposed the slave ship regulation bill, contesting that its passage actually helped the slave traders. In A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Wilberforce explains that “the Slave-carrying bill [was] a measure which a very few years after was acknowledged, as it is still universally confessed, to have been beneficial to [the West Indian Body] [p. 275].”
Further, Wilberforce argued the exact opposite of incremental bills “leading to nothing short of abolition.” He refers to them as “half measures” which helped the slave traders by causing complacency in the Parliament, and argues that the gradualists were the most effective upholders of the slave system:
[L]et me most seriously urge on the conscientious deliberations of those who…by their fatal proposal of gradual, instead of immediate abolition, dashed the cup of happiness from the lips of the wretched African, at the very moment when at last he appeared likely to taste it, and who thus proved in fact the most efficient supporters of the Slave Trade. A vast majority in Parliament were then so much alive to the principles of justice and humanity, that all direct opposition would have been utterly ineffectual. But this kind of half measure, however unintentionally, exactly answered the purpose of our enemies, by giving time for the zeal of men to cool, and providing an expedient by which, aided by a little of that self deception which we are all apt to practice on ourselves on suitable occasions, they might feel the complacencies arising from an act of justice and humanity, without paying the price or making the sacrifice which those principles required.
Let me be forgiven if I speak strongly, where I feel so very deeply. It is not only because the gradual Abolitionists have been, in fact, the only real stay of that system of wickedness and cruelty which we wish to abolish; though that assertion is unquestionably true; but it is trying beyond expression that they should be the real maintainers of the Slave Trade [p. 294-295].
Again, Alcorn and Challies did not come up with this falsehood. They are merely spreading it without doing proper research. As far as I can tell, the misinformation stems from Forsythe’s historical fiction which was published in 2012. Since then, incrementalists everywhere have parroted the falsehood that Wilberforce was an incrementalist who supported regulating slave ships.
This claim is slanderous because Wilberforce spoke forcefully against the accusation that he was inconsistent in his immediatism, calling it “sophistry” that “can only be accounted for by the supposition, that [those calling him an inconsistent immediatist] are utterly unacquainted with the circumstances of the case [p. 257].” Wilberforce was appalled by his contemporaries’ suggestion that he was an incrementalist, indicating that he would be appalled by the pro-life leaders making the same accusation.
While the claim that the pro-life leaders are following in Wilberforce’s footsteps is proven demonstrably false by Wilberforce’s writings on the subject, pro-life leaders do hold much in common with another important character from the story of abolition in Britain – Henry Dundas.
On April 2, 1792, the House of Commons debated the abolition of the slave trade. Wilberforce put forth a motion for immediate abolition. When it was Dundas’ turn to speak, it was into the early hours of April 3:
“My honourable friends… have very known that I have long entertained the same opinion with them as to the Abolition of the Slave Trade, though I have differed from them as to the mode of effecting it. I have felt equally warm with themselves in the pursuit of the general object, and I feel so at the present moment… My opinion has been always against the Slave Trade. I will not, therefore, vote against his motion. I may, however, think it proper to qualify it…
“In all of these great leading questions [regarding abolition] I concur with my Honourable Friend; it may then be asked, Do you not agree then, to the Abolition of the Trade? I answer, that neither do I differ in this opinion. But, the point of difference between us is this: I cannot help doubting as to the prudence or practicability of the mode of abolishing it, as proposed by my friend… If ever there was a heart purer than any other – if ever there was a man that acted upon the purest motives that ever can actuate human nature, I believe I may justly say that my Honourable Friend [Wilberforce] is that man; but still, with respect to the prosecution of his object, and the manner which prudence would suggest with a view to the practicability of it, he must excuse my stating that there is a shade of difference between us.”
After this statement professing agreement with the abolitionists’ end goal, Dundas successfully motioned to amend Wilberforce’s abolition bill so that it merely removed the right of slave owners to possess the children of their slaves while compensating slave owners for any financial losses. This was Dundas’ first public action on the matter and began his campaigning for the gradual abolition of the slave trade, which, during the coming years, would compete for support against Wilberforce’s efforts for immediate abolition.
This is precisely the scheme pro-life politicians and lobbyists have concocted wherever an abolition bill has been introduced. The pro-lifers kill the abolition bill and pursue the incremental strategy with more gusto than they ever have before. In some cases, like those of Oklahoma Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat and Texas State Rep. Jeff Leach, it is the very pro-life legislators responsible for preventing abolition who make certain to author pro-life legislation at the time of their treachery in an attempt to maintain credibility.
Further, the pro-life organizations give the politicians cover as they carry out this depraved scheme. Despite being primarily responsible for keeping abortion legal in Texas in 2019, Leach was given Texas Alliance for Life’s Courageous Defense of Life award for his born-alive infant protection act. Oklahoma State Senator Greg McCortney, who denied the Abolition of Abortion in Oklahoma Act a hearing in 2020, was given a full endorsement in the last year’s Republican primary and called a 100% pro-lifer by National Right to Life. The Pro-Life Movement, very clearly, is Henry Dundas, not William Wilberforce.
American Abolitionism Was Even More Hardcore Immediatist
Alcorn writes: “Imagine if one group stepped forward and said, “We will stand against all incremental efforts to end slavery in America. We will oppose all laws that free some slaves and not others, and we will fight all legislation that increases the rights of slaves but fails to give them absolutely equal rights. Though these idealists might have had pure motives, and perhaps would have slept better at night knowing they didn’t tolerate compromise, judge for yourself how effective they would or would not have been in actually ending slavery.”
That is exactly what the American abolitionists said. The American Anti-Slavery Society’s 1832 declaration of sentiments stated, “We regard as delusive, cruel and dangerous, any scheme of expatriation which pretends to aid, either directly or indirectly, in the emancipation of the slaves, or to be a substitute for the immediate and total abolition of slavery.” William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, John Greenleaf Whittier, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, Sojourner Truth, Anthony Benezet, Wendell Phillips, Elijah Lovejoy, George Bourne, Thomas Garrett, Beriah Green, Isaac Knapp, et al. — all of the leading abolitionists were immediatists.
This is indisputable historical record. Pulitzer prize-winning civil war historian James McPherson defines abolitionist “as one who before the Civil War had agitated for the immediate, unconditional, and total abolition of slavery in the United States.” History.com defines abolitionist as “a person who sought to abolish slavery during the 19th century. More specifically, these individuals sought the immediate and full emancipation of all enslaved people.” “Immediatist” and “abolitionist” are two ways of saying the same thing.
It is false for Alcorn to say that “the true abolitionists in countries such as England and America normally favored, embraced, and frequently used innumerable incremental means to bring about their ultimate goal, the end of slavery.” The majority of British abolitionists (Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson included) and all of the American abolitionists utterly rejected incrementalism, ie. the philosophy of demanding change by degrees. Again, as a matter of reporting true history, Alcorn should retract his historical claims.
Drowning Children Analogy
Alcorn closes with an analogy of a man trying to save five drowning children after a boating accident. He argues that it would be wrong to let two children who are within reach die simply because he can’t save all five. This assertion is correct, but irrelevent to the abolitionist-incrementalist discussion because of his category error. Taking personal action to save children (jumping in the water, going to the abortion mill) is inherently good. Doing evil that good may come by legally regulating which preborn children can be drowned or murdered in the womb is not.
Alcorn is not a hardened anti-abolitionist. He is dipping his toe in the abolitionism-incrementalism debate, but is still considering for the first time the case for abolitionism. In the comments a recent posts, Alcorn asked an abolitionist for links on abolitionism and was sent former Free the States intern Michael Lockwood’s incrementalist-to-abolitionist testimony and our podcast response to the Scott Klusendorf article which Alcorn republished. I will add the following foundational links for the consideration of Alcorn or anyone else new to abolitionism:
- Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition of Abortion
- The Five Tenets of Abolitionism
- Why We Oppose the Pro-Life Movement
- 47 Years of False Hope
- The Difference Between a Pro-Life Bill and an Abolition Bill
As Alcorn processes this information, the Free the States team will be praying for him. We ask you to join us.
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