Dancing through the Past

I’ll admit it. Some of my ancestors owned slaves. One of them, Henry Woolery, was a carpenter and held several people enslaved when his family moved from Kentucky to Missouri. My guess is that these people did the heavy lifting, and maybe a good deal of skilled work, when Henry plied his trade.

The Woolerys were also among the founders of a church that will celebrate its 200th anniversary next year. Sure slavery remained legal in both Kentucky and Missouri, but shouldn’t good Christian people have seen the problem with chattel slavery? Shouldn’t they have at least said, “No, that’s not for me,” if not turning into strident abolitionists? We’d like to think so, but that would ignore thousands of years of human history.

Yesterday, I took a fairly healthy swipe at Elizabeth A. Johnson and her book Creation and the Cross. Johnson tries to “blame” Christianity’s centuries-long focus on sin being corrected through the cross of Jesus on a social construction by Anselm of Canterbury nearly a thousand years ago. Her thesis is that Anselm’s theology simply reflected the prevailing judicial norms of his day.

While I think she overreaches in that conclusion, we should confess that it is impossible–or at least incredibly difficult–for Christians or anyone to completely transcend their milieu and write objectively (whatever that means). That might explain why Henry Woolery could hold slaves and go to church with a clear conscience.

Here’s a case in point. My own faith community, Baptists, have long been opposed to dancing. There’s an old joke: “Why are Baptists opposed to sex? They’re afraid it’ll lead to dancing.” Supposedly, my alma mater, William Jewell College, had a building constructed around a hundred years ago with the stipulation from the donors that if a dance were ever held on the campus, the building would be razed. Through my years there, we had homecoming concerts rather than dances, with occasional “rhythmic activities” held off campus.

Is the Baptist aversion to dancing Biblical? Where did it come from? I haven’t studied this, but I’d surmise that Baptists of another day saw dancing often associated with misuse of alcohol and problematic romantic encounters. Like the Pharisees before them, these Baptists determined to prevent one sin by eliminating the activity that often led to it. I blame these people for my utter inability to move with grace.

What sort of arrogance would allow me to believe that everybody–and I mean everybody–from history had their worldview, including their theology shaped at least somewhat by the cultural biases and currents of their day? We can laugh at the adherence of Medieval Catholics to the cult of relics. We can shake our heads gravely at the denizens of Massachusetts who erupted into the witch trials. We can smile at the inability of most Baptists to dance. But we fool ourselves when we insist on our own objectivity.

How did Henry Woolery reconcile his slave-holding with his (apparent) Christianity? I find that less urgent than to know what foolish thoughts I’m holding simply because of the intellectual currents of the day.