Slavery and the Use of Scripture

Scarce had the solemn Sabbath bell ceased quivering in the steeple,  Scarce had the parson to his desk walked stately through his people. When down the summer-shaded street, a wasted female figure,  With dusky brow and naked feet, came rushing wild and eager. She saw the white spire through the trees, she heard the sweet hymn swelling; O! pitying Christ! a refuge give that poor one in thy dwelling. Like a scared fawn before the hounds, right up the aisle she glided, While close behind her, whip in hand, a lank-haired hunter strided. She raised a keen and bitter cry, to Heaven and Earth appealing;  Were manhood’s generous pulses dead? Had woman’s heart no feeling?… “Who dares profane this house and day?” cried out the angry pastor; “Why, bless your soul! The wench’s a slave, and I’m her lord and master! I’ve got the law and Gospel on my side; and who shall dare refuse me?” Down came the parson, bowing low, “My good sir, pray excuse me!  “Of course I know your right divine to own, and work, and whip her; Quick, Deacon, throw that Polyglot before the wench and trip her!” Plump dropped the holy tome, and o’er its sacred pages stumbling, Bound hand and foot, a slave once more the hopeless wretch lay trembling.[1]

One of the disturbing facts that caught my attention as I read through A History of the American People by Sydney Ahlstrom and America’s God by Mark Noll, was the way antebellum Christians used the Scriptures to argue both for and against slavery. While divergent interpretations of the Bible are nothing new, this disagreement led a Christian nation to deny humanity to a race of people created in God’s image and also to destroy hundreds of thousands of kindred souls in a gruesome Civil War. As in Whittier’s poem, the Bible was used to cause a whole race of people to stumble. This paper is an attempt to show the evolution of the biblical abolitionist position compared with the biblical argument for proslavery, and then to make an assessment of the reasons why both existed.

At The Heart of Slavery

If there is one word that lies at the heart of chattel slavery, it is “dehumanization.” It is the tendency to place domestic animals and human slaves at the same level. In most early civilizations slaves, like animals, could be bought, sold, traded, mortgaged, bequeathed, given as a gift, or in payment of a debt. The first African slaves shipped to Lisbon in the mid-1400’s were stripped naked, marketed, and priced exactly like livestock. As Orlando Patterson has pointed out, the key to the “Sambo” stereotype of the typical slave was an ideological imperative of all systems of slavery in which there is a total absence of “any hint of manhood.” [2]

John and Charles Wesley had the opportunity to go to the American colony of Georgia soon after their graduation from Oxford. John went as chaplain to the colony and missionary to the Indians. Charles briefly served as Secretary for Indian Affairs. The experience proved to be their first contact with slavery, not in Georgia, which had banned slavery, but in neighboring Charlestown, South Carolina.

Charles recorded some disturbing observations in his journal, which were among the first documents showing that the brothers were forming strong opposition to the brutal institution. It was the utter inhumanity of it all which Charles could not expunge from his memory. The dehumanizing of it, as in the idea that one child might own another child, as a pet, to be treated as a kitten or puppy— gentle and loving one moment, angry and abusive another. The sheer sadism toward a human being— inflicted by another human being.[3]

John Wesley experienced his own unique perceptions of slavery in the many conversations that he had with slaves who came to church with their masters. He had opportunities to discuss spiritual matters and his typical line of questioning implied an awareness of this dehumanizing perspective which was (and is) at the heart of all slavery.

“I asked her (the slave) what religion was. She said she could not tell. I asked if she knew what a soul was. She answered, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Do you not know there is something in you different from your body? Something you cannot see or feel?’ She replied, ‘I never heard so much before.’ I added, ‘Do you think, then, that a man dies altogether as a horse dies?’ She said, ‘Yes, to be sure.’”[4]

This was a conversational pattern that John Wesley developed and would often repeat in his interviews with slaves. He invariably uncovered a misunderstanding evidenced by these slaves as to their own humanity, as well as their ignorance of God. This shocked and astounded Wesley into journaling: “O God, where are Thy tender mercies? Are they not over all Thy works? When shall the Sun of Righteousness arise on these outcasts of men, with healing in His wings![5]

Early Attitudes Towards Slavery

Prior to the Wesley’s experience in the Colonies, there was little conscience or opposition to the institution of slavery. The New England States had developed a slave economy. Newport merchants were cashing in on the lucrative West Indian trade in molasses, sugar, rum, and slaves. A few voices of protest were raised such as an Anglican clergyman by the name of Morgan Godwin. In 1680 he published a tract titled The Negro’s & Indian’s Advocate, Suing for their Admission into the Church. He did not attack slavery as much as he gave a hearty challenge for Christians to instruct Negroes and Indians in the Christian faith. He put this question to the clergy, “Who made you ministers of the Gospel to white people only and not to the tawnies and blacks also?”[6]

Puritan divine Richard Baxter was much stronger in his condemnation of slavery calling slave traders “pirates” engaged in the “worst kinds of thievery in the world. He criticized colonists who purchased Negroes, to use them as “beasts, for their commodity, and betray, or destroy, or neglect their souls.”[7] However, in spite of his strong opposition to slavery, Baxter called for the liberation of Negroes’ souls, not their bodies. Most Puritan ministers in New England owned slaves as a sign of their social standing. This included such luminaries as Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards.

It was the Puritan layman, Chief Justice Samuel Sewall, who went the farthest in opposing slavery with his little tract, The Selling of Joseph in 1700. He believed that the slave trade violated the basic principles of human liberty based upon Creation. “Ethiopians as black as they are, are sons and daughters of the first Adam… brethren and sisters of the last Adam, and the offspring of God.”[8]

While the Mennonites and the Moravians did not believe in slaveholding, it was the Quakers who had the earliest influence on public policy. This was most likely because of the influence of George Fox who taught the equality of all men in the eyes of God. “God has made all nations of one blood and His gospel should be preached to all because it is the power that giveth liberty and freedom, and is glad tidings to every captivated creature under the whole heaven.”[9] Once again we see that the predominate issue seemed to be the worthiness of the slave to be treated equally in the preaching of the gospel. However, Fox did advocate physical freedom for the slave based upon the Old Testament principle of giving an indentured servant his freedom after a certain number of years.

“It will doubtless be very acceptable to the Lord, if so be that masters of families here would deal so with their servants, the Negroes and blacks, whom they have bought with their money, to let them go free after a considerable term of years, if they have served them faithfully; and when they go, and are made free, let them not go away empty handed. This, I say, will be very acceptable to the Lord.”[10]

Fox’s proposal was not taken seriously even by the Quakers, who continued to believe that Negroes should be taught Christianity, but not emancipated. Such a half-way application of Christian ethics seemed to characterize not only the Quakers, but most people in Colonial America who had an early conscience against slavery, like the Wesleys. However, it can be argued that this viewpoint was a necessary prerequisite for emancipation because it dealt with the issue of “dehumanization.” When slaves as well as whites were recognized as being equal in the sight of God and worthy of hearing the gospel, the next step (hopefully) would be working for that complete liberty which is implied within Christianity.

There was one early Quaker who was the lone voice for emancipation crying in the wilderness of slavery. William Edmundson was far ahead of his class in his opposition to slavery. In 1676 he expressed his views at the New England Quaker center in Newport, Rhode Island. “And it would be acceptable with God, and answer the witness in all, if you did consider their (the Negroes’) condition of perpetual slavery, and make their conditions your own, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For perpetual slavery is an aggravation, and an oppression upon the mind, and hath a ground; and Truth is that which works the remedy, and breaks the yoke, and removes the ground. So it would do well to consider that they (the slaves) may feel, see, and partake of your liberty in the gospel of Christ….[that] they may see and know the difference between you and other people, and your self-denial may be known to all.”[11]

The Quakers of the early eighteenth century continued to support the slave system and to own slaves. A Quaker immigrant from England by the name of Ralph Sandiford had a significant impact on changing the very conscience of the Quakers. Sandiford was a shop keeper in Philadelphia whose market overlooked the slave auctions. He could hardly believe that such things would go on and wrote a tract published by Benjamin Franklin himself, A Brief Examination of the Practice of the Times. He excoriated the Philadelphia Friends by saying that “the eternal love of the Father…should [not] allow his followers [to participate]in the most arbitrary and tyrannical oppression that hell has invented on this globe.”[12] He poignantly leveled criticism at the leadership of the Friends who kept slaves by saying, “How then shall the unrighteous teach, or oversee, or discipline the church, that have not ruled for God in their own houses, but have mixed with the heathen for advantage until they have lost the savor of the gospel?”[13]

Sandiford was ostracized by the Friend’s for his “radical” view. He became a broken man who died at the ripe old age of forty. However, his death unleashed the passion of an Ezekiel-type character by the name of Benjamin Lay, who blasted the leadership of the Friends in an unrelenting way.

“I know no worse or greater stumbling blocks the devil has to lay in the way of honest inquirers than our ministers and elders keeping slaves; and by straining and perverting Holy Scriptures, preach more to hell than ever they will bring to heaven by their feigned humility and hypocrisy.”[14]

Lay’s eccentricities (like living in a cave) made him notorious. Like an Old Testament prophet, He once stood in the snow outside a Friend’s Meeting House with one foot shoeless to show how slaves suffered in the winter without shoes. At another time he laid down outside the front steps of the Meeting House in the pouring rain making the Quakers step over him to leave the building. He even kidnapped some Quaker children to show how Negro parents felt when separated from their own children. This did not go over well and brought legal repercussions.

Lay retired to his cave and died in 1759, but not until he heard of the decision of the Yearly Meeting of the Friends to disown members who bought and sold slaves. “Thanks-giving and praise be rendered unto the Lord God. I can now die in peace,”[15] exclaimed Lay. The cries of the prophets may have stiffened resistance at first, but ultimately God used their faithful passion to change the heart of His people.

The Use of the Bible and Slavery

What we have seen has been the evolution and development of the American Christian conscience against slavery. It is interesting to note that the Bible was not often quoted, instead Biblical principles or themes served as the basis for the opposition to slavery. However, it was in the nineteenth century leading up to the Civil War that the Bible itself became central to the slavery issue, both pro and con. The well-quoted thought from Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address displayed the difficulty of the era: truly, both the North and the South “read the same Bible.” There was widespread agreement that most Protestants believed the Bible sanctioned slavery in some form. However, the dilemma was how to interpret the Scripture and whether it upheld slavery as it was being practiced in the U.S. or contained the seeds of its abolition. The following is a summary of the major perspectives offered in an effort to interpret the Bible in relationship to the issue of slavery.

The first major perspective was based on the belief that the Bible supported slavery and therefore gave it legitimacy as it existed in the U.S. It was the position of most Southern theologians. As an example of this viewpoint, it is useful to look at an unsigned tract that was written in DeBow’s Review 9 (September, 1850).

“A very large party in the United States believes that holding slaves is morally wrong; this party founds its belief upon precepts taught in the Bible, and takes that book as the standard of morality and religion. We, also, look to the same book as our guide in the same matters; yet, we think it right to hold slaves—do hold them, and have held and used them from childhood. As we come to such opposite conclusions from the same foundation, it may be well to consider, whether the Bible teaches us anything whatever, in regard to slavery; if so, what is it and how is it taught…The anti-slavery party maintain that the Bible teaches nothing directly upon the subject, but, that it establishes rules and principles of action, from which they infer, that in holding slaves, we are guilty of a moral wrong. This mode of reasoning would be perfectly fair, if the Bible really taught nothing directly upon the subject of slavery; but when that book applies the principles it lays down to the particular subject in controversy, we must take the application to be correct. We think we can show, that the Bible teaches clearly and conclusively that the holding of slaves is right; and if so, no deduction from general principles can make it wrong, if that book is true…Would not some one of the host of sacred writers have spoken of this alleged crime, in such terms as to show, in a manner not to be misunderstood, that God wished all men to be equal?”[16]

The tract proceeds to survey the Old Testament showing that the Patriarchs had slaves. Abraham had numerous servants that he purchased as property and who lived under his command. Isaac owned slaves, and the sons of Jacob sold their brother Josephinto slavery. In the New Testament the tract cites that Paul made frequent mention of master and servant, and of their duties. Paul and Timothy, in writing to the Colossians, exhorts slaves to obey their masters in all things, and not with eye-service. Peter also exhorts servants to be obedient to their masters, not only to the good and gentle, but to the mean and difficult.

The tract also mentions Paul and Philemon, who was one of Paul’s disciples as well as a slaveholder. Had the holding of slaves been a crime, Paul’s duty to Philemon would have required him to instruct Philemon, that he had no rights over Onesimus, but hat the attempt to hold him in servitude was criminal. However, Paul sent him back. The tract says,

“Our northern friends think that they manage these matters better than Paul did. We find, then, that both the Old and New Testaments speak of slavery—that they do not condemn the relation, but, on the contrary, expressly allow it or create it; and they give commands and exhortations, which are based upon its legality and propriety. It can not, then, be wrong. What we have written is founded solely upon the Bible, and can have no force, unless it is taken for truth. If that book is of divine origin, the holding of slaves is right: as that which God has permitted, recognized and commanded, cannot be inconsistent with his will”.[17]

Another example of the position that the Bible sanctioned slavery was found in the writings of a Baptist minister from Richmond, Thornton Stringfellow. He employed some of the same arguments as were mentioned in DeBow’s Review along with these additional points:

  1. God decreed that the posterity of Shem and Japheth should enslave the posterity of Canaan (Genesis 9:25-27). 
  2. God ordained slavery by law for Israel’s captives (Deuteronomy 20:10-11).
  3. The Apostles ordained that the legislative authority of government should be honored and obeyed (Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:17-18).
  4. Paul declared that anyone in the Church who profanes this relationship to government should be treated as seditious and dangerous to the gospel dispensation (1 Timothy 6:2-5).

Stringfellow then made a summative statement after his lengthy exposition of Scripture:

“He who believes the Bible to be of divine authority, believes that these laws were given by the Holy Ghost to Moses [and other biblical authors]. I understand the modern abolitionist sentiments to be sentiments of moral hatred against such laws; to be sentiments which would hold God himself in abhorrence, if he were to give such laws his sanction; but he has given them his sanction, therefore, they must be in harmony with his moral character.”[18]

Francis Asbury, the first bishop of the Methodist Church in America was not asupporter of slavery. However, he recognized the entrenched commitment to slavery of the religious, especially in Virginia, because of a perceived divine sanction. And thereason for this divine sanction was that slavery was seen not as an institution, but as a domestic relation. In other words, southern clergy taught that slavery was within the realm of household relationships just as husband and wife, parent and child, and was therefore part of the God-ordained social order.

By 1810 all Virginia’s major denominations had reached an informal consensus on slavery that effectively silenced, even if it did not totally eliminate, antislavery sentiments and focused on infusing relations between masters and slaves with Christian notions of duty, obedience, and order…Proslavery Christianity did not develop because of attacks by northern abolitionists, the spread of cotton cultivation, or the cynical capitulation of antislavery ministers to the reality of southern life. Proslavery Christianity instead developed organically out of and remained grounded in a system of relations that prevailed in the households of Virginians, slaveholders and non slaveholders alike.[19]

The second major perspective on the Bible’s relationship to slavery was based upon a reaction to the first. In other words, if the Bible did sanction slavery, then it was necessary to abandon the Bible or at least a blind allegiance to its divine inspiration. While this was the least popular alternative, it did enjoy the most publicity. William Lloyd Garrison held this position largely following Tom Paine’s’ conclusions about the Bible and slavery. Garrison said:

“To say that everything contained within the lids of the Bible is divinely inspired, and to insist upon the dogma as fundamentally important, is to give utterance to a bold fiction, and to require the suspension of the reasoning faculties. To say that everything in the Bible is to be believed, simply because it is found in that volume, is equally absurd and pernicious.”[20]  

Instead, Garrison proposed what he called the “province of reason” to rule in interpreting Scripture: we should discriminate between those things which are probable (in keeping with the happiness of mankind) and those things that are destructive and pernicious. A similar line of reasoning was used by the abolitionist Gerrit Smith. He decried attempts to prove the anti-slavery position from the Bible because he believed that human rights found their very charter in human nature and not the Bible. It should be noted that there was a dilemma created for those evangelicals who supported the abolitionist position while disagreeing with these radicals on their perspective of Scripture.

The Unitarian abolitionist Theodore Parker, for example, not only accepted David Friedrich Strauss’ liberal theories about the historical Jesus, but rejected the Bible as God’s Word. Southerners could accuse northern evangelical abolitionists of being one step away from Parker’s infidelity. These evangelicals could also be accused of hypocrisy in claiming the inspiration of Scripture while choosing to believe in the spirit of the Scriptures rather than dealing with the plain meaning of the text itself.   

This leads us to the third major perspective, a mediating one, which viewed the Bible as opposing the kind of slavery America had come to practice in the nineteenth century. At the core of this argument was the interpretation that the simple presence of slavery in the Bible did not give a warrant to practice the kind of slavery that existed in the U.S. It was believed that the Hebrew understanding of slavery was a different institution altogether from the American version. 

An example of this is an article written by John Rankin, a Presbyterian minister from Tennessee who became an abolitionist as early as 1815. He also served as one of a group of anti-slavery agents called “The Seventy,” who spread the abolitionist message of the American Anti-Slavery Society in the face of great persecution.  In his article, Rankin made two major points. First, he answered the southern theologian’s argument of basing slavery on the curse of Ham. He easily made the observation that the curse of Noah was not on Ham (traditionally the father of the African people), but on one of Ham’s sons, Canaan (Genesis 9:25). Second, Rankin tried to address the argument that slavery must be legitimate because Abraham owned slaves. His rebuttal here was weak, a fact that he all but admitted and covered it by concluding:

“Indeed Abraham manifested so much benevolence in several instances, as might lead us to the conclusion that he was wholly indisposed to the practice of involuntary slavery. And his whole conduct towards his servants shows that he considered them to be merely subjects, and not slaves. Hence we find him bringing his eldest servant under solemn oath not to take a wife to Isaac from the daughters of the Canaanites. (Genesis 24:2, 3) This same servant had all his master’s property in his hand, and even had authority over Isaac. Does this look like modern slavery? Thus a variety of circumstances make it evident to me that Abraham did not hold involuntary slaves. But again even if Abraham did practice involuntary slavery, still the argument adduced from his example must be inconclusive. He was an imperfect man, and therefore his example cannot be a standard of moral rectitude. He had two wives at a time, but who will argue from his example that polygamy is right? And it must be equally absurd to argue from his example that slavery is right. Such an argument evidences a bad cause.”[21]    

Another variant of this mediating perspective against slavery was the interpretation distinguishing between the letter of the Bible, which allowed slavery, and the spirit of the Bible, which promoted liberty and freedom from oppression. The interpretation that Hebrew slavery was different than practiced in America was exegetically weak and vulnerable to attack by the theologians in the south. However, it was the interpretation which distinguished the letter from the spirit of slavery that seemed to be the standard bearer of the biblical abolitionists. 

Albert Barnes, the New School Presbyterian scholar, was an example of someone who originally held to the position that slavery in the Bible was different than the form practiced in America. However, thirteen years later he changed his opinion by distinguishing the Bible’s spirit from its letter. [22]  What was developing, therefore, was a view of Scripture that was not based upon proof texts and interpretive minutia. Rather, there was a more magisterial biblical perspective that saw grand themes and ethical principles flowing out of the nature and character of God.

This developing sense of what the Bible really meant amounted to a triumph of the moral conviction of Christians sustained by the majesty and power of God’s onward-marching providence over such studied efforts to make God the supporter of wrong and oppression.[23]

This magisterial biblical perspective is hallmarked by historian Mark Noll who points out that the pro-slavery biblical position carried a more powerful argument into the public square than did the anti-slavery position based upon the Bible. He cited an 1845 debate in Cincinnati between Jonathan Blanchard, founder of Wheaton College (IL) and local Presbyterian minister N.L. Rice. Blanchard argued that the rights of the poor and the anti-slave principle: 

“…blazes on every page of the Bible…yet he [Rice] vaunts his eagerness to bring this discussion to the Holy Scripture, as if that blessed book contained no justice for men compelled to work without hire.” [24]

 Blanchard went on to expound:

“Oh, thou blessed charter of human hope! Thou sweet pole-star to the voyager of life! [addressing the Bible which lay on the stand before the speakers] though bright beam of ineffable effulgence of God! would they dive into thy glorious brightness to draw from this charter of human liberty, their title deed of slavery?”[25] (brackets mine)

Rice was not at all moved by the argument and proceeded to ridicule Blanchard’s so-called biblical argument against slavery:

“Let him shew from the Bible, that the Patriarchs did not hold slaves: let him prove from that authority, that there were no slaves in the apostolic church; that the Apostles excluded slaveholders from the church of God. Let him prove these things and we will give up the question. After debating twelve hours, this has not been done. Nothing bearing on the question we are discussing has been adduced from the Old Testament or from the New.”[26]

    This was the difficulty faced by anyone before the Civil War used the Bible to argue against slavery. On the one hand, while they claimed their position was biblical, they could not point to specific biblical texts which supported their view, like the pro-slavery position could. On the other hand, the biblical abolitionists had to distinguish themselves from the anti-biblical abolitionists. This two-pronged dilemma was illustrated by the assessment of a pro-slavery Presbyterian clergyman, Henry J. Van Dyke:

“This tree of Abolitionism is evil, and only evil – root and branch, flower and leaf, and fruit…Abolitionism leads, in multitudes of cases, and by a logical process, to utter infidelity.”[27]

         It may seem utterly amazing to us that a biblical approach to such an important issue would become impaled on the horns of this biblicist dilemma. It may seem equally amazing to us that anyone would ever justify anything as horrible as chattel slavery and call themselves a biblical Christian. However, it demonstrates that every Christian is apart of a specific culture and is influenced in their application of Scripture by a cultural hermeneutic. As philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff has said:  

“The interpretation of Scripture is always caught up within a broader interpretation of reality and experience and responsibility, in one way or another grounding that larger interpretation. What is handed over and appropriated always constitutes a vision of meaning as well as a set of specific readings from the Bible.”[28]  

An Assessment           

         I would like to think that if I lived in that antebellum era, I would have interpreted the Scriptures fairly and would therefore have been an abolitionist clergyman. Yet I was not raised in Protestant nineteenth century America where national culture was based upon a “Reformed literal hermeneutic” (Mark Noll) and where there was a consensus that the Bible could be applied as seemed most reasonable to the common man. Even the great Henry Ward Beecher believed that the Bible, if left alone, could interpret itself. There was a spirit of independence and individualism which fed America’s republicanism and fear of Roman Catholicism. Many of today’s evangelicals would and have idealized this era where we just let the Bible speak for itself. Yet this cultural setting produced a literal hermeneutic that would tragically lead a Christian nation to settle its differences on the battlefield. 

         To the contemporary reader, the Bible’s position on slavery is ambiguous. Many passages seem to paint the institution in a bad light; most notably are the Exodus passages which set a definite theme that moves from slavery to freedom. Deuteronomy 24:7 condemns “man-stealing” as a capital offence and in 23:15-16, the law forbids the return of an escaped slave to his master. However, there are also passages that indicate a tolerance for slavery in a culture where slavery was interwoven into the fabric of life. Most obvious of all is the fact that the institution of slavery is nowhere condemned in the Bible, not even by Jesus (although we must be careful of this argument from silence). And the Apostle Paul enjoins the obedience of slaves to their masters. It is not difficult to see how pro- and anti-slavery perspectives could lob exegetical mortar shells at each other, matching each other verse for verse and interpretation for interpretation, convincing only themselves of the rightness of their own position.     

          Many modern historians have admitted the intellectual and theological superiority of those who defended slavery over those who were against it. One professor, Eugene Genovese has gone so far as to offer an “A” on the spot to any student who can point to a single passage in the Bible that condemns slavery.[29]   Historian Forrest Wood made the statement that “English North Americans embraced slavery because they were Christians, not in spite of it.”[30] In other words, in Wood’s estimation the pro-slavery position was the clearest articulation of the character and values of American society.

        However, I agree with Robert Forbes that such a line of reasoning illustrates “the enormous condescension of posterity.”[31]  Forbes believes that modern historians have treated with condescension those Americans who agonized over the complexity of the slavery question without finding an effective or consistent answer. 

“We can hardly expect that reformers should have persuaded southern planters to give up their slaves. Even in times of crisis, no other group of planters accepted emancipation except when coerced by a central government of the slaves themselves. The failure of Christian principles to effect the peaceful end of slavery should hardly be taken as proof that Christianity sanctioned slavery”.[32]

       Reductionist historians, who see the Bible to blame for slavery and every other human ill, often accompany such criticism with reproachful comments on how Christians misuse Scripture to gain their secular desires.  Forbes responds:

“But such an interpretation is patently unhistorical in the context of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a period when it was still impossible to make a sharp distinction between “secular” and “religious” aspects of life. While there clearly may be alternative ways of reading Scripture, we can be much more specific about how Americans of the early republic, particularly those who actively identified themselves as Christians, interpreted it, and about aspects upon which they agreed.”[33]

          Once again we return to the idea of a “cultural hermeneutic.” The question of what the Bible teaches on a particular subject or issue must be partly determined by a set of values that exist outside of the text and in the culture itself. What one considers the truth of Scripture also reflects certain assumptions and biases that have shaped the interpreter.Mark Noll quotes a former Protestant freethinker by the name of Orestes Brownson, who became a Roman Catholic[34] and challenged American Bible-believers by saying,

“For the most part, when we do come to study the Bible, we find little else in it than the faith we brought to it, so that it may be said we put our faith into the Bible not obtain our faith from it…Our prepossessions determine, even with the best intentions on our part, the meaning we attach to the words we read.”[35]

          While this sounds harsh and bordering on liberalism, even the conservative Presbyterian William G.T. Shedd would say in 1890: “The appeal to Scripture is only anappeal to Scripture as the reviser understands it. ‘Scripture’ properly means the interpretation of Scripture; that is, the contents of Scripture as reached by human investigation and exegesis.”[36]   


      There is one final question that we must ask. Could slavery have been abolished without a national catastrophe, but simply on a common agreement that the Bible refuted slavery? I ask that question not to diminish the importance of the Bible, but once again to illustrate the essential impact of culture. Nineteenth century Americans had recently fought a Revolution for the idea that “all men are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable rights…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Also, the Common Sense philosophers of Scotland which ruled the day in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century America were notoriously anti-slavery. Thus the inconsistency of a people asserting their inalienable rights to liberty while denying liberty to a select population caused philosopher John Millar to reflect,

“Fortune perhaps never produced a situation more calculated to ridicule a liberal hypothesis, or to show how little the conduct of men is at the bottom directed by any philosophical principles.”[37]

      Perhaps the same could be said for Scripture: “How little the conduct of men is at the bottom directed by any biblical principles.” The reason for this inconsistency is, I believe, that even deeper than the slave issue was (and is) the race issue. Racism was the reason why the nation could read the same Bible and come up with such divergent views. Racism was sanctified by biblicism (a literal interpretation of the Bible) and hidden by it at the same time. Proslavery arguments were closely cropped with Scripture verse and text, yet there were no exegetical arguments used to justify the enslavement of a certain race of people. In other words, there was an automatic equation of “slave” with the African American. 

      This was true even with those theologians that supported the proslavery position, such as Charles Hodge. He claimed that blacks “could not consistently with the public welfare, be entrusted with the exercise of political power.” The reason? “Because the slaves of this country were of a different race from their masters.” [38]  Mark Noll responds to this by saying,

“If Hodge, the most perceptive Old School Presbyterian in the North, could not tell the difference between slavery in general and the enslavement of one race in particular, it is little wonder that the distinction between slavery and the enslavement of African Americans was completely lost on his Southern counterparts.”[39]    

      Thus it was not the Bible, but a version of sinful human nature called “racism” that caused a literal interpretation of the Bible to become a warrant for chattel slavery. It is this same racism that still infects the hearts of many Christians in white America towards the African American. 

      The painful lesson to be learned from this tragic national experience of slavery is that because of our own sinful natures as well as the biases of our own culture, our interpretation of Scripture must be based upon prayerful and careful historical exegesis and not merely on what makes sense to us. How many of us have a party-line interpretation of Scripture based upon a denominational distinctive, or the way we have been raised, or the viewpoint of a famous pastor or author rather than our own exegetical study? I am not advocating an independent attitude toward Scripture as much as a careful, personal study that is opposed to a “party line” approach.  For if the “party line” is wrong from the beginning, truth could become nothing but error grown old.     

David P McDowell

April 2014


Ambrose, Douglas. Of Stations and Relations: Proslavery Christianity in Early National Virginia. “Religion and the Antebellum Debate Over Slavery,” ed. John R. McKivigan and Mitchel Snay, 35-67. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1998.

Anonymous. DeBow’s Review: “Slavery and the Bible.” [Online] Fair Use repository, 1850. Cited 11 May 2007. Available from <;.

Baxter, Richard. A Christian Directory, or, a Summ of Practical Theologie, and Cases of Conscience. London, 1673.

Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975.

Drake, Thomas. Quakers and Slavery in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950.

Forbes, Robert P. Slavery and the Evangelical Enlightenment. In “Religion and the Antebellum Debate Over Slavery,” ed. John R. McKivigan and Mitchel Snay, 68-106. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1998.

Fox, George. A Collection of Many Select and Christian Epistles, Letters and Testimonies. London: Epistle No. 153, 1698.

Garrison, William Lloyd, 1805-1879: The story of His Life as Told by His Children 4 vols. New York, 1885-89.

M.E.F. “Does the Bible Sustain Slavery?” Christian Review, no. 27 (Oct 1862).

Millar, John. The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks; Or, an inquiry into the Circumstances which Give Rise to Influence and Authority in the Different Members of Society. Basle, 1793.

Noll. Mark. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Rankin, John. John Rankin Asserts That Religious Teaching is Against Slavery. William H. Pease, ed. “The Antislavery Argument”. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1965.

Sandiford, Ralph. A Brief Examination of the Practice of the Times. Philadelphia, 1729.

Smith, Warren Thomas. John Wesley and Slavery. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986.

Stringfellow, Thornton. The Bible Argument, or, Slavery in the Light of Divine Revelation. “Cotton is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments,” ed. E.N. Elliott.  Augusta, Georgia, 1860.

Van Dyke, Henry. The Character and Influence of Abolitionism, Fast Day Sermons, 129.

Vaux, Robert. Memoirs of the Lives of Benjamin Lay and Ralph Sandiford; Two of the Earliest Advocates for the Emancipation of the Enslaved Africans. Philadelphia, 1815.

Wesley, John. “The Works of John Wesley (3rd edition).” Journal I. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979. 

Whittier, John Greenleaf. Platform of the American Anti-Slavery Society and its AuxiliariesA Sabbath Scene. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1855.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. “The Art of Remembering.” Journal of the Irish Christian Study Centre 5 (1994): 2.

Wood, Forest G. The Arrogance of Faith: Christianity and Race in America from the Colonial Period to the Twentieth Century. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

[1] John Greenleaf Whittier, “A Sabbath Scene” in Platform of the American Anti-Slavery Society and its Auxiliaries (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1855), 34, 35.

[2] Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1982), 96.

[3] Warren Thomas Smith, John Wesley and Slavery (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986), 42.

[4] John Wesley, “The Works of John Wesley” (3rd edition), Journal I, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), 40.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Quote found in Thomas Drake, Quakers and Slavery in America (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1950), 2.

[7] Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory, or, a Summ of Practical Theologie, and Cases of Conscience (London: 1673), 557.

[8] Quoted in Thomas Drake, Quakers and Slavery in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), 3.

[9] George Fox, A Collection of Many Select and Christian Epistles, Letters and Testimonies (London: 1698), 117, Epistle No. 153.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Thomas Drake, 10.

[12] Ralph Sandiford, A Brief Examination of the Practice of the Times (Philadelphia:1729), 9.

[13] Ibid, 67. [Benjamin Franklin was careful not to put his name as the printer on the front page, although sixty years later when anti-slavery was more acceptable, he revealed that he had been the printer… as cited in Thomas Drake, 40.]  

[14] Drake, 45.

[15] Robert Vaux, Memoirs of the Lives of Benjamin Lay and Ralph Sandiford (Philadelphia:1815), 50.

[16] Anonymous, DeBow’s Review: “Slavery and the Bible,” [online] Fair Use repository, 1850, cited 11 May 2007, available from <;.

[17] Ibid, 286.

[18] Thornton Stringfellow, “The Bible Argument, or, Slavery in the Light of Divine Revelation,” in Cotton is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments, ed. E.N. Elliott (Augusta, Georgia: 1860), 477.

[19] Douglas Ambrose, “Of Stations and Relations: Proslavery Christianity in Early National Virginia,” in Religion and the Antebellum Debate Over Slavery, ed. John R. McKivigan and Mitchel Snay (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 36.

[20] William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879: The Story of His Life as Told by His Children 4 vols. (New York:1885-89), 3:145-6.

[21] John Rankin, John Rankin Asserts That Religious Teaching is Against Slavery, William H. Pease, ed. “The Antislavery Argument” (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1965), 122-123.

[22] Noll. Mark, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 390.

[23] M.E.F, “Does the Bible Sustain Slavery?” Christian Review 27 (Oct 1862): 584-85.

[24] Noll, 392.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Henry Van Dyke, The Character and Influence of Abolitionism, Fast Day Sermons, 163.

[28] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Art of Remembering,” Journal of the Irish Christian Study Centre 5 (1994), 43.

[29] Genovese made this comment at the 1993 meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early Republic, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. 

[30] Forest G. Wood, The Arrogance of Faith: Christianity and Race in America from the Colonial Period to the Twentieth Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), 38.

[31] Robert P. Forbes, “Slavery and the Evangelical Enlightenment,” seligion and the Antebellum Debate Over Slavery, ed. John R. McKivigan and Mitchel Snay (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 70,71.

[32] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975), 256.

[33] Forbes, 71.

[34] I have chosen to focus on the three major views of slavery that were based upon the Reformed literalistic interpretation of the Bible. There were four other views based upon the Bible that were alternatives to the dominant hermeneutic: The African American narrative theology, the Roman Catholic appeal to authority, the Continental Protestant historical exegesis, and the orthodox Reformed hermeneutic. None of these prevailed or influenced the debate in any substantial way.

[35] Noll, 403.

[36] Ibid.

[37] John Millar, The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks; Or, an inquiry into the Circumstances which Give Rise to Influence and Authority in the Different Members of Society (Basle:1793), 282-83.

[38] Quoted in Noll, 421.

[39] Noll, 420.