The Bible and slavery
From a review of a pro-slavery pamphlet by ‘Evangelicus’ in the Boston Emancipator in 1843.
The second part of the essay is occupied in proving that the slavery in the Roman world, at the time of our Saviour, was similar in all essential features to American slavery at the present day; and the third and concluding part is devoted to an examination of the apostolical directions to slaves and masters, as applicable to the same classes in the United States. He thinks the command to give to servants that which is just and equal means simply that the masters should treat their slaves with equity, and that while the servant is to be profitable to the master, the latter is bound in ‘a fair and equitable manner to provide for the slave’s subsistence and happiness.’ Although he professes to believe that a faithful adherence to Scriptural injunctions on this point would eventually terminate in the emancipation of the slaves, he thinks it not necessary to inquire whether the New Testament does or does not ‘tolerate slavery as a permanent institution’!
From the foregoing synopsis it will be seen at once that whatever may have been the motives of the writer, the effect of his publication, so far as it is at all felt, will be to strengthen the oppressor in his guilt, and hold him back from the performance of his immediate duty in respect to his slaves, and to shield his conscience from the reproofs of that class who, according to ‘Evangelicus,’ have ‘no personal acquaintance with the actual domestic state or the social and political connections of their Southern fellow-citizens.’ We look upon it only as another vain attempt to strike a balance between Christian duty and criminal policy, to reconcile Christ and Belial, the holy philanthropy of Him who went about doing good with the most abhorrent manifestation of human selfishness, lust, and hatred which ever provoked the divine displeasure. There is a grave-stone coldness about it. The author manifests as little feeling as if he were solving a question in algebra. No sigh of sympathy breathes through its frozen pages for the dumb, chained millions, no evidence of a feeling akin to that of Him who at the grave of Lazarus
Wept, and forgot His power to save; no outburst of that indignant reproof with which the Divine Master rebuked the devourers of widows’ houses and the oppressors of the poor is called forth by the writer’s stoical contemplation of the tyranny of his ‘Christian brethren’ at the South.
‘It is not necessary,’ says Evangelicus, ‘to inquire whether the New Testament does not tolerate slavery as a permanent institution.’ And this is said when the entire slave-holding church has sheltered its abominations under the pretended sanction of the gospel; when slavery, including within itself a violation of every command uttered amidst the thunders of Sinai, a system which has filled the whole South with the oppression of Egypt and the pollutions of Sodom, is declared to be an institution of the Most High. With all due deference to the author, we tell him, and we tell the church, North and South, that this question must be met. Once more we repeat the solemn inquiry which has been already made in our columns, ‘Is the Bible to enslave the world’ Has it been but a vain dream of ours that the mission of the Author of the gospel was to undo the heavy burdens, to open the prison doors, and to break the yoke of the captive? Let Andover and Princeton answer. If the gospel does sanction the vilest wrong which man can inflict upon his fellow-man, if it does rivet the chains which humanity, left to itself, would otherwise cast off, then, in humanity’s name, let it perish forever from the face of the earth. Let the Bible societies dissolve; let not another sheet issue from their presses. Scatter not its leaves abroad over the dark places of the earth; they are not for the healing of the nations. Leave rather to the Persian his Zendavesta, to the Mussulman his Koran. We repeat it, this question must be met. Already we have heard infidelity exulting over the astute discoveries of bespectacled theological professors, that the great Head of the Christian Church tolerated the horrible atrocities of Roman slavery, and that His most favored apostle combined slave-catching with his missionary labors. And why should it not exult? Fouler blasphemy than this was never uttered. A more monstrous libel upon the Divine Author of Christianity was never propagated by Paine or Voltaire, Kneeland or Owen; and we are constrained to regard the professor of theology or the doctor of divinity who tasks his sophistry and learning in an attempt to show that the Divine Mind looks with complacency upon chattel slavery as the most dangerous enemy with which Christianity has to contend. The friends of pure and undefiled religion must awake to this danger. The Northern church must shake itself clean from its present connection with blasphemers and slave-holders, or perish with them.
1 John 3, 1 Peter, 1 Peter 1, Acts 17:26, Ben Witherington III, Church History, Conversion, Ecclesiology, Fellowship, Galatians, Galatians 3:27-29, John Wesley, love, Love, Precious Puritans, Propoganda, Puritan, Puritans, race, racism, Repentance, Self-Examination, slavery
Witherington writes of 1 Peter 1:22:
The basis of Christian community and brother/sisterhood is conversion, not patriarchy or ethnicity. What Elliot [a commentator on 1 Peter] misses altogether is that the fatherhood of God as here enunciated has nothing to do with propping up patriarchy in the physical family’s household or in the empire. It has to do with the intimate relationship of God with Christ in the first place and with those who are in Christ in the second place….Here we see the connection between love and holiness: love, if it is to be real and sincere and wholehearted must be pure and coming from a pure heart. Conversion leads to holiness which produces love in the believer, though the converse is also true — loving sanctifies the lover. Thus, Wesley stressed that holiness was a loving of God with whole heart and neighbor as self.
Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, vol. 2, 110.
Love and holiness must flow from a right understanding of oneself, the other and God. The love and holiness commended and commanded, flows out of an understanding of one’s primary identity flowing from conversion — the new life in Christ:
27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
Gal. 3:27-29. Our new status in Christ overcomes and supplants our prior status as determined by our culture. In Christ, our new status dictates love for one-another, based upon the love of God for us and thus our love for others (1 John 3).
The discussion concerning Propoganda’s “Precious Puritans” seems in some places to have missed this point. That slaveholding based upon kidnapping was (and is) a grave sin cannot be denied. That we must understand that even men and women otherwise as careful Christians as the Puritans failed miserably in this respect must be admitted.
Here is the point which is missing in much (though not all) of the discussion. The premise of the discussion has been that the Puritans somehow more belong to Christians of European descent than to Christians of African descent (largely marked by skin — what is to be thought of Christians of descent from more than one place is not clear). Yet, as Peter and Paul make clear, the Puritans are more closely related to Propoganda than the African slaves who did not know Christ.
And the matter works in the direction: the African slaves belong to the Christians of European descent. First, there is only one race (Acts 17:26). Thus, when a man with white skin sees a slave with black skin, he must think, like me. Those who were enslaved where my family; that they differ from me in skin color tells me nothing more than members of a family may differ in skin color. Second, Jesus explains that when we come across the weak we must see them as Christ. Matthew 25:40. And while this applies most plainly to those who are in Christ; it is difficult to think of one who is more “least of these” than a man or woman enslaved – bought and sold like a chair or a cow. One should shudder at the wickedness of such disregard for the image of God.
Thus, the entire premise of much of the discussion is wrong. The slaves belong to us all, because we are all related in Adam. There is only one race. Second, the Puritans belong to all Christians. In short, my brothers and sisters (in Adam and often in Christ) were enslaved by my brothers and sisters (in Adam and often in Christ). Thus, even though my skin is white, when I see men and women enslaved, I must think my family, at least in Adam if not also in Christ. And when a man with black sin sees a slaveholder, he must think my family; at least in Adam, if not also in Christ.
One final point: The parable should frighten us all. That Christians could catch their culture sin so grotesquely means that we all stand in danger of catching our culture (1 Peter 1:18; Rom. 12:1-2). Were the Puritans to come to us, what sins would we be blindly accepting as somehow normal and acceptable. What of Christians from some other time or place: how deeply would they see our sin and shudder and wonder how anyone could be a Christian and sin so blindly.
This is not to make the sin of slaveholding less onerous; quite the contrary. Rather, we must own the sin more deeply. The fact that much of the discussion presumes that slaves belong more to the Africans and the slaveholders belong more to the Europeans shows how little even Christians have moved. To see the slaves and slaveholders as ours should only cause us to see the horror of the slavery with greater clarity — and spur us on to greater love.
We realize too little how conversion, how new birth has made us different, has made us new in Christ. This lack of understanding necessarily defeats our love and thus our holiness.
Here are some places to get started in looking through the Precious Puritan discussions: