Volume 43 - Issue 1

Reversing the Gospel: Warfield on Race and Racism

By Fred G. Zaspel


The giant of Old Princeton, B. B. Warfield, outspokenly condemned the racism and rigid segregation of American society of his day. His views were remarkably ahead of his time with regard to an understanding of the evil of racism and even somewhat prophetic with regard to the further evil that would result from it. His convictions were explicitly grounded in an understanding and faithful application of the unity of the human race in Adam and the unity and equal standing of believers in Christ. This brief essay surveys Warfield’s arguments within the context of his day.

“Are we today to reverse the inspired declaration that in Christ Jesus there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondman, freeman?” (B. B. Warfield, 1887)

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851–1921) of Old Princeton earned international reputation as the vigorous defender of the historic Christian faith—particularly in its Reformed expression—and it was in the traditional categories of biblical and theological studies that his publishing energies were almost exclusively spent. Social causes crop up only very seldom in his works, but one social cause stands out as one holding his particular interest: the cause of the American blacks. His literary output here was not extensive, to be sure, but it was pointed, revealing a deep sense of urgency about the issue. And though Warfield seldom became involved in any organized efforts outside the seminary, this was the exception—and this even though the position he took was unpopular (to say the least!) both in society and in the church, and even in his own Princeton Seminary. To Warfield, the “wicked caste” society that America then was constituted a moral and theological evil that, if not reversed, would bring only further harm to our nation.

The theological foundation of Warfield’s opposition to racism was two-fold: 1) the unity of the human race created in Adam in God’s image, and 2) the unifying entailments of the gospel of Christ. In his 1911 “On the Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race”1 Warfield famously argued that the age of humanity is not a biblical question. The Bible doesn’t speak to the matter, he argued, and thus it is a question of no theological interest. We may take interest on scientific grounds, but not on biblical grounds. However, the unity of the human race, by contrast, is indeed a theological question and a very important one at that.

The unity of humanity was, in fact, commonly acknowledged by all sides in Warfield’s day. Evolution had removed the motive for denying a common origin to humanity and “rendered it natural to look upon the differences which exist among the various types of man as differentiations of a common stock.”2 He notes that in the past there were various opposing theories, such as co-Adamitism and Pre-Adamitism. And he notes that some early evolutionists had suggested multiple times and places of human origins. Racial pride continued to exist, to be sure, but virtually all sides acknowledged a unity to all humanity that is evident physically as well as psychologically (speech, common traditions, etc.). There were various factors employed in accounting for this unity, but the fact of a common humanity no longer required defense.

The importance of the unity of humanity, for Warfield, could scarcely be overstated, both biblically and theologically. The idea is built into the very structure of the Genesis account of man’s origin: God created a single pair from whom descended the whole race (Gen 1:26). Eve was so named “because she was the mother of all living” (Gen 3:20). Adam himself is so named (“man”) for the first place given him; Warfield notes this and points us accordingly to the biblical expressions “sons of Adam” or “man” as reflective of it. Moreover, at the flood all of humanity, save eight, were destroyed, and humanity begins again, via Shem, Ham, and Japheth, with Noah as their common father, and from Noah’s sons “the whole earth was overspread” (Gen 10:32). The differentiations of peoples, Warfield reminds us, is the result of rebellion and the dispersion following the tower of Babel (Gen 11). “What God had joined together men themselves pulled asunder.” Throughout the Scriptures, all mankind is treated as a unit, sharing “not only in a common nature but in a common sinfulness, not only in a common need but in a common redemption.” 3 The entire structure of biblical teaching regarding sin and salvation, Warfield insists, is built on the assumption of our common unity in Adam. Israel was given privilege, to be sure, but this was not due to anything about them; their privilege was due only to divine mercy. And in the Law’s provisions regarding slaves Israel was reminded of their common humanity. Indeed, Israel’s privileged status was only so designed that, through them, mercy would extend to the whole of humanity.

Warfield surveys the biblical evidence quickly but somewhat comprehensively. He notes, importantly, that Jesus affirmed the origin of humanity in a single pair (Matt 19:4). And he cites the apostle Paul’s plain pronouncement on the subject in Acts 17:26. Mankind’s unity is so obvious in Scripture that it scarcely requires defense: “the whole New Testament is instinct with the brotherhood of mankind as one in origin and in nature, one in need and one in the provision of redemption.”4

The fact of racial sin is basal to the whole Pauline system (Rom. 5:12 ff.; 1 Cor. 15:21 f.), and beneath the fact of racial sin lies the fact of racial unity. It is only because all men were in Adam as their first head that all men share in Adam’s sin and with his sin in his punishment. And it is only because the sin of man is thus one in origin and therefore of the same nature and quality, that the redemption which is suitable and may be made available for one is equally suitable and may be made available for all. It is because the race is one and its need one, Jew and Gentile are alike under sin, that there is no difference between Jew and Gentile in the matter of salvation either, but as the same God is Lord of all, so He is rich in Christ Jesus unto all that call upon Him, and will justify the uncircumcision through faith alone, even as He justifies the circumcision only by faith (Rom. 9:22–24, 28 ff.; 10:12). Jesus Christ therefore, as the last Adam, is the Saviour not of the Jews only but of the world (John 4:42; 1 Tim. 4:10; 1 John 4:14), having been given to this His great work only by the love of the Father for the world (John 3:16). The unity of the human race is therefore made in Scripture not merely the basis of a demand that we shall recognize the dignity of humanity in all its representatives, of however lowly estate or family, since all bear alike the image of God in which man was created and the image of God is deeper than sin and cannot be eradicated by sin (Gen. 5:3; 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7; Heb. 2:5 ff.); but the basis also of the entire scheme of restoration devised by the divine love for the salvation of a lost race.5

The unity of the human race in Adam is not only biblically evident, Warfield insisted—it is of central importance to Christian theology and to Christianity itself.

Moreover, a recognition of our common humanity carries with it a corresponding ethical obligation. Warfield writes,

The unity of the human race is therefore made in Scripture not merely the basis of a demand that we shall recognize the dignity of humanity in all its representatives, of however lowly estate or family, since all bear alike the image of God in which man was created and the image of God is deeper than sin and cannot be eradicated by sin (Gen 5:3; 9:6; 1 Cor 11:7; Heb 2:5ff.); but the basis also of the entire scheme of restoration devised by the divine love for the salvation of a lost race.6

That is to say, our understanding of the essential unity of humanity in Adam carries a moral significance; it is not a question of merely abstract theological interest. Nor did Warfield leave this issue to mere theological discussion, and in his condemning of racial pride Warfield was generations ahead of his time.

Both of Warfield’s parents had come from families of outspoken abolitionists and with important connections to the cause of emancipation. In one letter he seems to boast of it:

John C. Young, the drawer of the resolutions of the Ky. Synod of 1835 was the husband of my mother’s first cousin. My Grandfather R. J. Breckinridge ran on an emancipation ticket in 1849 – at the peril of his life. Cassius M. Clay was the husband of my father’s first cousin. My Mother-in-law was an abolitionist of the Garrison type. My grandparents, parents & the parents of my wife sought in every way to do their duty to those whom they felt themselves sinners to hold in bondage.7

Ironically, Warfield’s family and the families of the grandparents all owned slaves—even with a bad conscience for it, it seems. But (rightly or wrongly) they considered the slaves ill-prepared for life on the outside, and the slaves were evidently treated respectfully and well, and generously so in the family wills.8

However, the post-civil war—even post-reconstruction—society was still deeply segregated, even if the slaves had been freed. Race antagonism was not gone, and in this decidedly segregated society blacks were given little room for self- or social advancement. The plight of the freedmen and their children as Warfield presents it—as “virtually subjects and not citizens, peasants instead of freedmen,”9 though seven million of America’s then fifty million souls10—is disturbingly revealing. “Wicked caste” was not at all overstating the case, Warfield insisted, and when he took up this cause he must have seemed a voice virtually alone.

In 1885 Warfield became a member of the Presbyterian Board of Missions to Freedmen and worked for their betterment. As noted above, Warfield was not given to social activism, and he was not disposed to serve on committees. But this was the exception, and his passion for the cause is evident.

In 1887 and 1888 he published articles decrying the accepted state of affairs and pleading for Christians to consider more seriously the doctrine they profess to believe. In his 1887 “A Calm View of the Freedman’s Case” he argued that the “elevation and civilization” of blacks was “the greatest work before American people today,” and that “the terrible legacy of evil which generations of slavery have left to our freedmen is scarcely appreciated by any of us.”11 He acknowledges that remedying the problem is easier said than done, but he balks at those who think that they had done what they could, and he foresees only a very difficult future for the freedmen. Individual potential among them was no doubt felt by them all, but with so many obstacles the outlook seemed bleak.

As for slavery itself, Warfield characterizes it as “the most potent of demoralizers,” having disallowed the slave a will of his own. It is a “curse” that “eats to the roots of all of life,” a “false and perverted system”12 that has only a demoralizing effect on those who were once captive to it. And by 1887 (the date of Warfield’s article) the society in which the children of freedmen were brought up, now without the artificial restraints imposed by slavery, had a still further demoralizing and even immoralizing effect.13 Moorhead’s observation here is helpful: “Like most other whites, Warfield assumed that African Americans had experienced a moral declension since emancipation. However, unlike many others, he did not attribute this fact to some moral defect in African Americans themselves.”14 White society was largely to blame, and Warfield pleas:

What pressure can we bring to bear on these wandering souls to draw them within the formative influences of a true and sound morality? The strongest motive with most men is the hope of rising. The most degraded immigrant that reaches our shores is under this spell: the lure of hope dances ever before his eyes. However high above him others may stand, he has but to lift his eyes to see that the plain pathway runs from his feet to theirs, and it is only a question as to whether he is willing to climb — whether he will not stand by their sides tomorrow. If he has no ambition for himself, he has for his children; and it is rare indeed that the civilizing influences of this single hope is not the sufficient excitement to endeavor, self-respect, and growth. But this is lost for the African. The class to which he belongs by birth is the class with which he must make his home until death sets him free. He bears a brand on his brow that closes all avenues of advance before him, and the despondency of his heart, that makes him reckless of public opinion as to his deeds, is but the inward answer to the stern outward fact that, become what he individually may, he cannot rise into the classes above him. It is probably impossible for any of us to realize the deadening burden of this hopelessness. It clips the wings of every soaring spirit, and drives every ambition back to gnaw its own tongue in unavailing pain. Yet an adequate appreciation of it is one of the conditions of our understanding the gravity of the problem that is before us, in our efforts to raise and educate the blacks to take their proper place in our Christian civilization.15

Illiteracy among the blacks was increasing, which was only further demoralizing. They had been “freed” yet left virtually without hope, “paralyzed” in a “wicked caste” society. Warfield used the term advisedly, insisting that it cannot be called anything less: it could not be denied that it was, in fact, a caste society, and that this caste society was wicked was obvious to all who would look. And so Warfield pressed the responsibility of society—and especially Christians—to help the freedmen and their children in their cause, to come to their aid, and to allow them to rise to their full potential in society.

It cannot be too strongly emphasized that it is not he who feels persuaded that the Negro was made a little lower than man, and who is graciously willing to train him into fitness for such a position, who can educate him into true and self-centered manhood. It is only he who is thoroughly persuaded that God has made of one blood all the nations of the earth, that has the missionary spirit, or that can serve as the hand of the Most High in elevating the lowly and rescuing the oppressed.16

Warfield criticizes the caste society of both North and South. He relays the story of a negro women he knew who went to attend a revival meeting at a church. When she arrived, the elders of the church asked her to leave. He relays another story of Episcopalians boasting that they have done well with regard to race relations in their church, cheerfully affirming that blacks were allowed to attend their services: “seats have been set aside for them in all the churches.” In virtually every corner of society, Warfield laments, they are taught to know “their place.” Even in the congregation of the saints, their place was not in the midst of God’s children but off to the side. To all this Warfield abruptly exclaims, “Are we today to reverse the inspired declaration that in Christ Jesus there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondman, freeman?”17 Sustained treatment of this kind destroys hope, paralyzes effort, and cuts away all inducement to self-advancement. In light of all this Warfield calls for Christians to provide needed help on every level:

If it is a true moralization of the blacks that is needed, this can be secured only by a careful moral teaching such as can be furnished only by religious organizations which will educate as well as preach. Secular training will do small good; simple preaching of the gospel does not reach deep enough. We must have Christian schools everywhere, where Christianity as a revealed system of truth and of practice is daily taught by men and women whose hearts are aglow with missionary fervor—who find in every creature of God the promise and potency of all higher life.18

Warfield begins his 1888 “Drawing the Color Line” with a reference to two newspaper articles professing that race relations had been much improved, a claim Warfield found stunningly incredible. Instead, Warfield charges, “emancipation has abolished only private but not public subjugation” and has “made the ex-slave not a free man but only a free Negro.”19 Then, in words that seem prophetic, Warfield writes,

The black masses, who, taken as a class, emerged from slavery with no sense of wrongs to avenge, but rather with a lively appreciation of the kindnesses which they had received from their masters, and with a true gratitude for the elevation which they had obtained at their hands through the generation or two that separated them from the dimly remembered savagery of Africa, have been gradually becoming, under the irritation of continually repeated injustices, great and small, more and more compacted into a sullen mass of muttered discontent, which promises to develop into full-fledged race-antagonism on their side also.20

Warfield foresaw that the despising treatment of blacks in that caste society would breed only resentment and hatred in return. The social upheavals and race riots America would witness only decades later would not have surprised Warfield—he predicted it.

Warfield recites the actions of Episcopal and Presbyterian denominations with regard to “the color line” and observes that there are no black pastors of white congregations and that there are so many separate churches for blacks. The depth of his convictions here are revealed in his remarks related to the proposed reunion with the Southern Presbyterians. Reunion with the Southern Presbyterians—with its luminaries such as Robert Louis Dabney—was a move Warfield would otherwise have favored, but not if it meant condoning the continued segregation that was “practically universal” in the Southern body.21

Can the story imbedded in such examples be missed? Christian men, under the pressure of their race antipathy, desert the fundamental law of the Church of the Living God, that in Christ Jesus there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondman, freeman.22

In the above-mentioned letter to Joseph William Torrence, Warfield speaks more pointedly: “that [the Southern Church] is not awake to its duty to the Freedmen & that organic union with it would injure if not destroy our work among them makes me deprecate & pray against reunion in any near future.”23

Again, Warfield’s convictions on this score had a two-fold theological grounding: 1) the unity of humanity in Adam, created in God’s image, and 2) the leveling entailments of the gospel. His position may have been unpopular, but it was firmly grounded. And for him there was only one just option: the caste system, and the very “spirit of caste,” must be utterly repudiated by all. No kind of racism is a Christian option, and there is no Christian room for toleration of it at any level.

Predictably, Warfield’s published remarks drew opposition. We find this in his correspondence, as the already-cited Torrence letter implies. Another minister responds with fears of what would come if Warfield’s counsel were to be followed: equality of black and white ministers, black pastors in positions of denominational leadership, equal respect to black as well as to white women, and—most unthinkable of all—interracial marriage. Surely Warfield had just not thought through the implications of his position!

In his response Warfield, typically, turns to Scripture—in this case James 2:1–13, Ephesians 3:1, and 1Timothy 3:15—and writes with a corresponding exhortation,

All this is no concern of yours & mine. For, just because the Church is the pillar & ground of the Truth by which the world is to be saved, the Lord has not left its advising to us but has given us instruction as to how it ought to be behaved in the Church of the Living God…. I cannot help believing that there is no line so wise or well or so loyal as simply to let God order his own house in his own way & gladly range ourselves by his side. Let us beware lest, in arranging things for oneself & so as to fit our personal prejudices, we build up a kingdom indeed, but not to God or one which He will neither own nor bless.24

Warfield’s blunt message was clear: we must not pretend to be wiser than God. If these concerns that you have expressed are not concerns of God’s, then they should not be concerns of ours.

In 1907 Warfield published his plea in a poem entitled, “Wanted—A Samaritan.” Here he applies the parable of the Good Samaritan to contemporary sensitivities and behavior. The application—the punch line, we may call it—is reserved for the last line, but the punch was hard-hitting:

Prone in the road he lay,
Wounded and sore bested:
Priests, Levites past that way
And turned aside the head.

They were not hardened men
In human service slack:
His need was great: but then,
His face, you see, was black.25

In 1913, while Warfield was acting president of the seminary, he acted on these convictions administratively. The faculty had maintained that whites and blacks should remain socially separate, and Machen, Warfield’s junior colleague at the time, complains in a letter to his mother that Warfield unilaterally overruled the protest and allowed a black student to live in the student dormitory at Alexander Hall.26 Warfield practiced what he preached.

In a 1918 review of Hastings’s Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics27 Warfield takes issue with an article on “Negroes in the United States” by William O. Carver of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Warfield characterizes Carver’s article as cheerfully endorsing a permanently segregated America—“two races, separated from one another by impassible social barriers, each possessed of an ever more intensified race-consciousness and following without regard to the other its own race-ideals.”28

Warfield objects, and argues instead for an integrationist position:

This [Carver’s viewpoint expressed in the encyclopedia article] is to look upon the negro as (according to one current theory of the nature of cancerous growth, at any rate) just a permanent cancer in the body politic. We may suspect that it is not an unaccountable feeling of race repulsion that impels Dr. Carver to repel with sharp decision the forecast that amalgamation of the races must be the ultimate issue. With continued white immigration and the large death rate of the blacks working a progressive decrease in the proportion of the black population to the white, is it not natural to look forward to its ultimate absorption? That is to say, in a half a millennium or so? That is not, however, our problem: for us and our children and children’s children the two races in well-marked differentiation will form but disproportionate elements in the one State. What we have to do, clearly, is to learn to live together in mutual amity and respect and helpfulness, and to work together for the achievement of our national ideals and the attainment of the goal of a truly Christian civilization.29

Again, Warfield calls for an end to segregation.

Carver concluded his article with a call to live together for common goals, and so here Warfield gives a more favorable comment: “It is to this that Dr. Carver rightly exhorts us in his closing words. It is in effect an exhortation to political and social, – if not yet racial – amalgamation. After all, we are, for better, for worse, bound up together in one bundle of life.”30

Warfield nowhere expounds his convictions regarding racism at length. But his several references to the question are both explicit and pungent. He decries segregation at any level, both in society at large and especially in the church. Racial pride is a denial of our unity in Adam and our shared creation in God’s image. And racial pride in the church entails a further evil—a denial of our unity and shared status in Christ; this, for Warfield, constitutes a denial of the gospel and is ground for ecclesiastical separation.

It is impossible to measure what influence Warfield may or may not have had with regard to racial attitudes, but we have no evidence that his voice was widely heard. And some could argue that we find even in Warfield traces of paternalistic sentiments that still bound him to his day. Even so, Warfield’s convictions were ahead of his time. He was a needed corrective for his day whose voice was certainly not heeded enough. And he serves as a guide for us still today. He condemns racism on the two most fundamental levels—creation and redemption—and he insists that we allow the full implications of these biblical teachings to work their way out in a fully integrated society and a fully integrated church, with equal rights and privileges to all.

The “wicked caste” society that Warfield deplored is, thankfully, not today’s America. Slavery is behind us, as are reconstruction and the Jim Crow laws. But it has all left a scar of racism that remains. Few would argue that we have arrived, as recent events in America attest. Prejudice and resentment remain. Yet the way forward is so simple, if only pride were not in the way: once we acknowledge our unity in Adam (and Noah!), created in the image of God, and once we acknowledge the necessary entailments of the gospel by which we are united to one another in our Redeemer, it is left only to submit our minds, our decisions, our attitudes, and our mutual behavior accordingly.

[1] Benjamin B. Warfield, Studies in Theology: The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 235–58.

[2] Ibid., 9:252.

[3] Ibid., 9:256.

[4] Ibid., 9:257.

[5] Ibid., 9:257–58.

[6] Ibid., 9:258.

[7] B. B. Warfield, Letter to Joseph William Torrence, 7 January, 1887 (Princeton Theological Seminary Archives, Warfield Papers, box 17). Bradley Gundlach provides the most complete background for this generally available. See his “‘Wicked Caste’: Warfield, Biblical Authority, and Jim Crow,” in Gary L. W. Johnson, ed., B. B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), ch. 6, esp. pp. 139–47. See also James H. Moorhead, Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 252–55.

[8] There is, however, a story from the Warfield family of Robert Jefferson Breckinridge who, upon turning age 16, beat up an older family slave—to prove his manhood, it seems—an offense for which he received due punishment. In fairness, it should also be pointed out that as an older man Breckinridge championed emancipation.

[9] B. B. Warfield, Benjamin B. Warfield: Selected Shorter Writings, ed. John E. Meeter, 2 vols. (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 2:743.

[10] Ibid., 2:735.

[11] Ibid., 2:735.

[12] Ibid., 2:736–37.

[13] Ibid., 2:737–40.

[14] Moorhead, Princeton Seminary, 253.

[15] Selected Shorter Writings, 2:738–39.

[16] Ibid., 2:740.

[17] Ibid., 2:739–41.

[18] Ibid., 2:742.

[19] Ibid., 2:744.

[20] Ibid., 2:744.

[21] Ibid., 2:740, 746–48.

[22] Ibid., 2:748.

[23] Cf. Gundlach, “Wicked Caste,” 163–65; Moorhead, Princeton Seminary, 253–55.

[24] B. B. Warfield, Letter to R. M. Carson, 3 March 1887 (Princeton Theological Seminary Archives, Warfield Papers, box 17). See Gundlach, “Wicked Caste,” 157.

[25] “Wanted–A Samaritan,” in The Independent LXII (31 January 1907), 251; republished in B. B. Warfield, Four Hymns and Some Religious Verses (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1910), 11. See David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, vol. 2: The Majestic Testimony 1869–1929 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1996), 326, 505.

[26] Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, 505.

[27] B. B. Warfield, review of Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics by James Hastings, PTR 16 (1918): 110–15.

[28] Ibid., 114–15.

[29] Ibid., 115.

[30] Ibid.

Fred G. Zaspel

Fred G. Zaspel is a pastor of Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, Pennsylvania, adjunct professor of theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and executive editor at Books at a Glance.

Other Articles in this Issue

This article considers the emergence of an evangelical endorsement of the Two-Source Hypothesis as a solution to the Synoptic Problem in the first half of the twentieth century...

Brian Simmons has made a new translation of the Psalms (and now the whole New Testament) which aims to ‘re-introduce the passion and fire of the Bible to the English reader...

Nearly three hundred fifty years after Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the castle church door in Wittenburg, Charles Haddon Spurgeon confronted the growing influence of Roman Catholic teaching within the Church of England...

Philip Rieff’s sociological analyses explore the implications of Western Civilization’s unprecedented attempt to maintain society and culture without reference to God...

B. B. Warfield’s 1915 ISBE article on the Trinity presents the Princeton theologian’s mature thinking on the biblical bases and meaning of the doctrine and offers a revisionist interpretation of the personal names of “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit...