On June 11 of this year Robert W. Fogel died. Sadly few Christians know who he is. In an age when Christianity is attacked by the likes of Richard Dawkins, when Christians are routinely labeled bigots and oppressors, when Christianity itself is blamed for retarding progress, even for championing slavery, it’s tragic that so few know of Robert W. Fogel, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Economics. It’s tragic because Fogel was likely the world’s greatest expert on slavery and he found that slavery ended because of Christians.
Robert W. Fogel was born in 1922 in New York City, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. At Cornell University he became president of the campus branch of the communist American Youth for Democracy and then spent eight years as a professional organizer for the Communist Party. In 1949 married Enid Cassandra Morgan, an African-American woman and so suffered from the official anti-miscegenation laws and the unofficial disapproval of interracial marriages. Eventually, he finally rejected communism. The data, apparently, didn’t support it.
Fogel pioneered an approach to history, called “cliometrics” that relied on empirical data; that is, countable, documented evidence. For example, a traditional historian would look to Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Fanny Kemble, a British actress who married a Southern Plantation owner, to ascertain the relationship of slaves to each other and to their “masters”. That kind of history is highly subject to bias and exceptional anecdotes. Cliometrians, on the other hand, seek concrete information, like government records or the business ledgers of plantations, to document the facts of slave life and the profitability of slavery.
Time on the Cross
Fogel came to some unconventional findings about slavery, first released in his controversial book, Time on the Cross. It received a fire-storm of criticism upon its release because some readers took it to be a defense of slavery. For example, Fogel found that plantations, with their “Gang System” of division of labor, created a system of agriculture with assembly line-like efficiency. This made Southern slavery fantastically profitable. Because of these superficially positive findings about slavery, some critics misunderstood the book and attacked it. But it with-stood the criticism eventually earning Fogel a Nobel Prize in economics in 1993.
So the question begs to be asked: if Southern slavery was profitable then why was it evil? Economists usually believe if something is profitable, it is good. What’s wrong with slavery then? Because it relied on unrestrained domination. One group of people was allowed to determine, in a God-like fashion, the fate of another group of people. Slavery was, for Fogel, a “Time on the Cross”. This was the original objection of Christian abolitionists and that caught Fogel’s eye. Christians provided the other-worldly ethics that ended a system that worked in this world. They believed it had to end because it offended the next world.
I knew Professor Fogel personally, first as my professor and then my boss when I was his teaching assistant for him at the University of Chicago. Professor Fogel, a self-confessed secular Jew, told me that he was amazed, as he began to discover, that it was evangelicals who are to be credited with ending slavery. He said something like, “Here I was, a professor in some of America’s leading universities and I had no idea that evangelicals had done that.” Fogel concluded that it was not economic forces that brought about the end of slavery but a revolution in moral sentiment with its roots in Puritanism. He believed in the role of Christianity for good in American history so strongly, he saw the faith as behind the spiritual and moral "great awakenings" of our history and looked to it as the source for further improvements in egalitarianism.
Today increasingly vitriolic anti-Christian crusaders, like Christopher Hitches, indict Christianity for history’s greatest atrocities, including slavery. Hitchens claimed, in his diatribe “God is Not Great”, that the Bible contains a warrant for slavery. Ah, but not the racist, perpetual slavery of the US South. If so, then why was it Christians who launched the campaign that ended slavery? Today, many Christians don’t know enough to respond with that rhetorical question. They feel ashamed and often respond with a meek apology, implicitly pleading guilty to the charge, while begging for another chance. This time, they say, we’ll provide clean water for poor tribes and keep quiet against “marriage equality”. All because we don’t know what Fogel proved. We have a great legacy. We just don’t know it.
You may have indirectly heard of Professor Fogel too. Douglas Wilson’s booklet “Southern Slavery: As it Was” is partly based on Fogel’s Time on the Cross. Wilson concluded that Fogel showed that slavery wasn’t so bad, after all, and therefore the US could have waited patiently to solve the slavery problem peacefully. The Civil War, he says, was unnecessary. He believes this so strongly that he calls himself a “paleo-Confederate”.
However, Wilson’s use of Fogel is classic “cherry-picking”. While it’s true that Fogel found that slavery wasn’t as harsh as some abolitionists had portrayed it, Fogel also found that slavery was on the ascendancy prior to the war. It wasn’t going away without a fight. This is the tragic irony of Douglas Wilson’s defense of why Christianity has been good for humanity: evangelicals ended slavery; it is one of our greatest material contributions to the world and now we have evangelical leaders telling us it was all a mistake – and, to add a twist to the irony, the one doing it has taken the lead in arguing for Christianity’s contributions to progress. It’s simply bizarre: a secular Jew, one of the greatest experts on American slavery, praises evangelicals for bringing it down while an evangelical leader, renown for skillfully defending the faith against atheist Christopher Hitchens, wishes we could take it all back. The former communist becoming an unintentional apologist to prove how Christianity is good for the world.
The abolition of slavery was one of evangelical Christianity’s greatest social contributions. We owe to Robert Fogel the discovery of how difficult, indeed even supernatural, that moral achievement was.
By John Carpenter, Ph.D.
Covenant Reformed Baptist Church