Most white Southern evangelicals were at least passively proslavery prior to the Civil War. But surprising numbers of white evangelicals in the North were silent about slavery in those years, too. (The idea of a unified antislavery white North is a myth.) This passivity was exasperating to abolitionists such as the great African American writer Frederick Douglass.

For example, Douglass and his abolitionist allies viewed the U.S. war against Mexico in the late 1840s as a craven attempt by Southern interests to secure more plantation territory in the American Southwest. Following the annexation of Texas in 1845, the Mexican War seemed designed to extend slavery and the Cotton Kingdom all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Even many Christians in the North believed that the U.S. conquest of northern Mexico was part of America’s “manifest destiny” and thus God’s providential plan. Douglass found this notion revolting, and in an 1848 editorial Douglass commented on a conversation he overheard in New York on the topic.

While traveling from Rochester to Victor a few days ago we listened to a conversation between two persons of apparent gentility and intelligence, on the subject of the United States’ war against Mexico. A wide difference of opinion appeared between them; the one contending for the rightfulness of the war, and the other against it. The main argument in favor of the war was the meanness and wickedness of the Mexican people; and, to cap the climax, he gave it as his solemn conviction, that the hand of the Lord was in the world, that the cup of Mexican iniquity was full, and that God was now making use of the Anglo Saxon race as a rod to chastise them! The effect of this religious outburst was to stun his opponent into silence: he seemed speechless; the ground was too high and holy for him; he did not dare reply to it; and thus the conversation ended.

What particularly bothered Douglass was how the argument used Christianity to defend the war and the expansion of slavery:

We have religion coupled with our murderous designs. We are, in the hands of the great God, a rod to chastise this rebellious people! What say our evangelical clergy to this blasphemy? That clergy seem as silent as the grave; and their silence is the greatest sanction of the crime. [bold added] They have seen the blood of the innocent poured out like water, and are dumb; they have seen the truth trampled in the dust—right sought by pursuing the wrong—peace sought by prosecuting the war—honor sought by dishonorable means,—and have not raised a whisper against it: they float down with the multitude in the filthy current of crime, and are hand in hand with the guilty. Had the pulpit been faithful, we might have been saved from this withering curse.

Too often in American history, white evangelicals have either been silent or complicit regarding issues of pressing concern to African Americans, from slavery to lynching to the civil-rights movement. We should stop and ask ourselves why. And that history should humble white evangelicals, making us more eager to listen to the perspectives and concerns of people of color, especially (though not only) people of color who are also brothers and sisters in Christ.

Sign up here for the Thomas S. Kidd newsletter. It delivers weekly unique content only to subscribers.