Poor White Trash

Poor White Trash

Poor White Trash

This is the third of a series of blogs reviewing the book, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, by John Stauffer. Chapter one, “Privileged Slave and Poor White Trash,” illuminates the physical hardship of young Douglass and Lincoln. In this blog post, my focus is on Abraham Lincoln.

I range the fields with pensive tread,

And pace the hollow rooms,

And feel (companion of the dead)

I’m living in the tombs.

Penned by Abraham Lincoln, this poem is about about Pigeon Creek where

…his mother died from “milk sickness” (brucellosis) when he was eight; his sister and only sibling died in childbirth; he almost died after being kicked by a horse and was for a while assumed dead; and the skills he had learned consisted of farming, fence-making, and a little carpentry, which he hated.

When Lincoln turned twenty-one, he became a free citizen.

…for the first time in his life, he could not only vote but legally keep his earnings rather than give them to his father. […] Time and again, [Lincoln’s father] Thomas had rented out Abraham, much as Thomas Auld rented out Frederick. Abraham had to plow fields, split rails, and harvest wheat, and at the end of the week turn over every penny. Worse still, his father yanked him out of school to rent him as a way to ease his own financial burdens. “I used to be a slave,” Abraham recalled, “but now I am… free.” Until he turned twenty-one, he felt little different from the black boys: “we were all slaves one time or another,” he noted. But if Abraham were now free, why was he still following his father, working for him for nothing?

Unfortunately Stauffer never answers the question.

Perhaps Lincoln felt obligated to help with the move. It’s not as if they could just rent a U-haul and sign a new lease. The move involved covered wagons, oxen, and mud. Once they arrived, they had to build a log cabin, where they spent the harsh winter. But in the spring, Lincoln wasted no time getting on with his life.

Lincoln moved to the frontier town of New Salem, a place with people “more refined than those at Pigeon Creek; there were more books around, and not quite as much drunkenness and fighting.” Nevertheless, Lincoln found himself in a wrestling match with Jack Armstrong, “strong as an ox,” and “a regular bully.” Although the fight was a draw, it “immediately established Lincoln as a leader,” and he earned the respect of Armstrong and the community and eventually ran for state legislature.


Stauffer draws a brilliant contrast between the Lincoln-Armstrong fight and Douglass-Covey fight and how these events shaped Lincoln and Douglass in their positions of influence during the Civil War:

Lincoln’s fight and subsequent friendship with Jack Armstrong taught him something that would remain a central aspect of this career: “if you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his friend,” as he said a few years after the fight. Conciliate with your enemy, up to a point, and then put your foot down and fight. While Lincoln was willing to sacrifice principles for friendship, the young Frederick Bailey [he later took the name Douglass] had learned a quite different lesson from his fight with Covey: never befriend an enemy unless he first converts to your side, for friendship depends upon common cause and shared principles. They would later apply these lessons in the testing years of the Civil War.

For Lincoln, the hope for a common cause is what drives him to make a friend of an enemy, whereas for Douglass, common cause is a prerequisite for friendship.

When it comes to friendship among believers, many believers take Douglass’s approach.

Seeking unity (friendship) through unity (common cause) may produce instant gratification, but it is false, because it automatically excludes anyone with an opposing cause. It doesn’t produce the kind of unity God would have for us.

Consider the words of Christ:

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

Consider the example of Christ:

Very few people will die to save the life of someone else, even if it is for a good person. Someone might be willing to die for an especially good person. But Christ died for us while we were still sinners, and by this God showed how much he loves us. (Romans 5:7-8 ERV)

Love is our common cause with Christ.

We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. Hence, he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbor. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. That duty may be a hobby; it may even be a dissipation. We may work in the East End because we are peculiarly fitted to work in the East End, or because we think we are; we may fight for the cause of international peace because we are very fond of fighting. The most monstrous martyrdom, the most repulsive experience, may be the result of choice of a kind of taste. […] But we have to love our neighbour because he is there—a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. (G.K. Chesterton, Heretics and Orthodoxy)

Going on a mission trip might cause a certain kind of pleasurable discomfort, being away from home, sacrificing time and money, going without indoor plumbing or familiar foods, etc., but this kind of self-sacrifice also enables one to earn the respect of his or her peers, gain the satisfaction of making a positive difference in the lives of others, and experience something different and adventurous compared to the regular daily routines at home. There’s nothing wrong with mission trips, homeless ministries, community outreach, hospital visitations, baking casseroles for new mothers, and the like. These activities are a form of the cause of Christ, because they demonstrate love and result in good. By all means, go, minister, outreach, visit, and bake. But this is not the depth or extent of the kind of self-sacrifice Christ demonstrates to us and calls us to demonstrate to others.

Demonstrating love to someone that you, personally consider other, enemy, or otherwise unworthy — this is the common cause with Christ.

The cause may require the sacrifice of comfort in relationships with family or friends or fellowship with other believers. When you demonstrate love to someone known for having betrayed trust through adultery, violence, theft, deception, hateful words, sexual misconduct, false accusations, racism, jealousy, addiction, cruelty, etc., people will be surprised that you don’t treat the wrongdoer with the same contempt they do, likely because they see any goodwill or grace toward such a person as an act of agreement with what they have done. If everyone showed forgiveness and grace toward those who don’t deserve it, this could eventually lead to social upheaval, they assume.

But couldn’t the world use some social upheaval?

What about consequences? you may ask. We can’t permit violence and sexual misconduct and that sort of thing! you may say. We don’t want social upheaval. And to this I would wholeheartedly agree, because I’m talking about a different kind of upheaval — one that has the potential to prevent someone from harming others by freeing them from the power of the Accuser.

Similarly, among many believers, one who questions or opposes orthodoxy is counted as a betrayer of God Himself and all that is good and right with His Church. To allow such a person to continue in fellowship might result in spiritual upheaval, they assume.

But couldn’t the church use some real spiritual upheaval?

What about consequences? you may ask. We can’t permit heresy and divisive behavior and that sort of thing! you may say. We don’t want spiritual upheaval. And to this I would wholeheartedly agree, because I’m talking about a different kind of upheaval — one that has the potential to bring spiritual maturity and unity, even among believers with opposing views, by freeing them from the power of a religious social construct that demands we behave like the Accuser. Just as G.K. Chesterton said of loving your neighbor, “He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us,” even so, in the Church, the so-called heretic or spiritual trouble-maker is the sample of humanity given by God to love.

Let me explain what I mean by upheaval.

Christ submitted to death on the cross as the penalty for radical, reckless love rather than preserve His own life for the sake of acceptance within a religious social construct that demanded contempt toward wrong-doers. We believers ought to do the same. If we actually did the same, it would be an incredible…

coup d’état over spiritual naiveté.

anarchy against pseudo-authority.

disordering of deception.

influx of innovation.

metamorphosis of methods.

revolt against religious red tape.

outbreak of objectivity.

reformation of relationships.

shake-up of status quo.

uproar of understanding.

Stauffer asks his readers, “But if Abraham were now free, why was he still following his father, working for him for nothing?” We should ask ourselves, if we are now free, why do we still follow the Accuser, working for him for nothing? Do we trudge through the mud like oxen because we feel obligated to build his house? Winter is over. Spring has come. We should waste no time getting on with life in Christ, wrestling with bullies to make them our frienemies. We aren’t privileged slaves or poor white trash, we are conquerers.

Demonstrating the love of Christ is more than fulfilling some obligation to human decency. In fact, it goes against human decency sometimes, that is, if human decency were defined as shunning those who have proven themselves unworthy. Jesus walked this earth for only thirty-three years and actively ministered for only three of those years, yet His life and ministry caused more social and spiritual upheaval than in all recorded history — it’s still in the process of upheaving! Loving your neighbor has the potential to be the “most monstrous martyrdom, the most repulsive experience,” but “we were all slaves one time or another.” In this internal Civil War between the law of the Spirit of the life in Christ Jesus and the law of the sin and of the death, love is freedom.

  • Stephen Helbig March 28, 2015 at 4:26 am

    “different kind of upheaval” ~ R[̲̅ə̲̅٨̲̅٥̲̅٦̲̅]ution ~ “love is freedom” ~ 🙂


    freeing “who is my neighbor” from the power of the Accuser

    R[̲̅ə̲̅٨̲̅٥̲̅٦̲̅]utionary, ~ world-shattering ~ ,wonderful original spiritual upheaval ~ 🙂

    • Stephen Helbig March 28, 2015 at 5:19 am

      p.s. Alice, ~ I love the poem marked by parallel congruity ~ 😉

      God’s poiēma created in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2: 10)

      coup d’état over spiritual naiveté.
      anarchy against pseudo-authority.
      disordering of deception.
      influx of innovation.
      metamorphosis of methods.
      revolt against religious red tape.
      outbreak of objectivity.
      reformation of relationships.
      shake-up of status quo.
      uproar of understanding.

    • Alice Spicer March 31, 2015 at 5:17 pm

      that’s cool

  • Mary Vanderplas March 28, 2015 at 6:23 am

    I like the observation about Lincoln seeking to make friends out of enemies in the hope of winning them over to his point-of-view. I think, though, that the motives behind his actions likely were more complex than the desire to win others to his side, that he possessed a remarkable capacity for empathy which enabled him to reach out to those who opposed him. (See Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln for a discussion of his magnanimity.)

    I agree that true unity as God intends is not merely a matter of reaching out to those who are like us, who share our beliefs and values, but a matter of demonstrating acceptance and love toward those who are different from us and even opposed to what we think is true and right. I love what you say, echoing G.K. Chesterton, about Christian love being more radical than self-chosen acts of service and sacrifice, about it entailing showing love and mercy to neighbors who hurt and offend us – which includes acknowledging and rooting out the hatred that lurks in our own hearts. I like what you say about acceptance of the offending other being interpreted as condoning of the offensive behavior and being perceived by many as a threat to the moral order of society. And I love what you say about the power of love to revolutionize the social order by freeing offenders from the fear that expresses itself in hostile or defensive behaviors. I love what you say about following the way of Jesus, the way of radical, inclusive love, and about the revolutionary consequences of such living, both in the Church and in the world. I appreciate the challenge-invitation to embrace life in Christ wholeheartedly and experience the freedom and joy that this life, defined by love, brings.

    Thanks for a terrific blog!

    • Alice Spicer March 31, 2015 at 5:16 pm

      Thanks for a terrific comment! I’ll have to check out that book one of these days.

  • Mary Vanderplas March 29, 2015 at 7:19 am

    I really like the Chesterton quote – making the point that the love that God commands is specific and concrete, not a general and abstract “love for everyone,” but a response reflective of the nature of God to this person who is right in front of me, in all of his or her terrifying otherness. Conceived of in this way, rather than in abstract terms, the command to love is an invitation to human relatedness that, as you point out, is at once difficult and capable of producing tremendous social change.

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