During my time @ CCT (last week) I visited the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum in downtown Memphis. The museum is a house on the former estate of Jacob Burkle. Burkle immigrated to the United States from Germany in the 1840s. He initially settled in Arkansas. In fact, the place where he settled was Stuttgart. If you guessed that this was a destination for many German immigrants you would be right. Now, the irony of this little factoid is that my mother, and her Freeman family, were all residents of Stuttgart going back to some time in the 19th century. I have childhood memories from the 1950s in Stuttgart. It was called "The Rice Growing Capital of the United States." It was also famous for duck hunting, even billing itself, if memory is right, as "The Duck Hunting Capital of the World." (Don't ask me how they got that claim.) I still remember being awakened in the early morning at the Riceland Hotel by duck hunters leaving before daylight quacking on their duck callers as they walked merrily down the hallways oblivious to anyone who was lodging at the Riceland and not a duck hunter. (Is this the way hunters are when they get into their "zone" and get up so early to pursue their sport?) You can guess that I never got into ducks! For that matter I never wanted to rice farm either but I did love getting boxes of rice for Christmas every year.
Back to the Jacob Burkle story. In 1856 he moved to Tennessee and bought a farm just a few city blocks (in today's Memphis) from the Mississippi River. Burkle was a well-respected citizen and owned the Memphis Stockyards. This thriving business gave him a good income so he lived on a very large plantation.
When Burkle built his family home he did something no one else in Memphis had a clue he was doing. He build a special basement, with unique entrance/exist points. His home was designed and built to help runaway slaves get their freedom. Burkle become the single most significant Underground Railroad leader in one of the two or three largest slaves trading cities in America. Slaves would come and go through his home weekly, escaping at night to get into the bottom of boats headed north on the Mississippi River. The goal was to get to the Ohio River in the North and then on to Canada and real freedom! The risks were great, for the slaves and for Jacob Burkle. But he pulled it off, even buying slaves in the Memphis market to fool his neighbors. He would then treat these African slaves as brothers and sisters in private and eventually release them. (In these actions Burkle was much like Corrie ten Boom, the famous Christian rescuer of Jews in Holland.) Burkle was a Lutheran and slavery profoundly troubled him. He left Germany to find freedom in America but here he encountered chattel slavery and it deeply distressed him enough to prompt him to break laws in order to rescue people.
Rescuing slaves was not only risky business but costly. And of course Burkle broke the law, as I've already mentioned. Should Christians ever break the law? You bet they should. Should they have rescued slaves? You bet. Hindsight is 20-20 here, and I doubt I would have had Burkle's courage, but I can tell you that I am persuaded that he obeyed God, not man's foolish and desperately evil laws about slaves.
This story raises a host of issues that most of us do not like to think about, much less draw definitive conclusions about what we should actually do. It is easy to admire Burkle in 2012 but what would you do? What about immigrants who are being harassed by unjust laws and their families torn apart in the middle of the night? What about the racism that is still impacting our country at so many (less obvious) levels? What about the life of the unborn or the rights of African-Americans, and the poor in general? And what about those who die in disproportionately large numbers through the legal abuse of capital punishment?
Christians then, and now, have used the Bible to defend all kinds of unjust practices and laws. If justice and mercy is our highest priority (Micah 6:8) then perhaps we should seriously question how we have reached some of our conclusions. Some of our conclusions (ethics) are based on an utter certitude that what we believe is clearly rooted in biblical texts. My Southern family believed this about slavery and was even willing to die for these "biblical convictions" even if they did not personally own slaves.
This question raises all manner of related questions about the claims of biblicism, the idea that the Bible speaks clearly and definitively to a whole host of questions that have clearly divided people of real Christian faith for centuries. (More on this problem of biblicism in later blogs!)
Burkle House provided unique insights into the secret activities of a German Christian who loved African slaves as brothers and sisters in Christ. Burkle was a Lutheran, like Bonhoeffer. Both men understood when to obey God and when to obey man. His life, and this antebellum home which has been open to the public as a museum since 1978, stands as a holy witness to the power of the gospel. If you get time in Memphis visit Burkle House at 826 N. Second Street. The Slave Haven web site is helpful.
For the record Wheaton College, my alma mater (B.A. '71 and M.A '73), began as an institution that actively supported abolition. Wheaton also supported the Underground Railroad. I am particularly pleased to know this history. I bless the life and memory of Jonathan Blanchard for his courage and leadership in founding a unique college on the prairie of Illinois. My life straddles both sides of this great American debate over slavery. I have a Freeman relative who fought for the Confederate States of America (CSA) in the Civil War. I am much more proud of my Armstrong family, and my Wheaton connection, at least on this count.
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