Slavery and the Bible

   Slavery and the Bible

   Duane McClearn

May, 2020

   Virtually all Americans would agree, I hope, that slavery is morally abhorrent. To own other people as property, to have the right to treat them in any way that one desires even to the point of killing them, strikes the normal person as cruel and barbaric. We hear of stories of modern slavery, for sex or labor, and are repulsed.

Of course, this nation has had its own long history of slavery. From its early days, slavery was a divisive issue. Behind the arguments for and against slavery were appeals to morality. And many of the appeals to morality were supported,in turn, by reference to the Bible.

A modern Christian, or non-Christian, for that matter, might imagine that the Bible would speak clearly about the morality of slavery. Many Christians view the Bible as the foundation of all morality so, ipso facto, they assume, it must speak out forcefully against a practice so repugnant as slavery. Therefore, the reasoning goes, the abolitionists (mostly Northerners) must have stood on pretty firm ground by using the Bible as a weapon against slavery, while the proponents of slavery, mostly Southerners, must have had a pretty hard time of it. Actually, such was not the case.

In 1784 the Virginia Assembly took up the debate on slavery; thousands signed a pro-slavery petition stating that slavery was ordained by God. A saddended Bishop Asbury in 1798 wrote” “I am brought to conclude that slavery will exist in Virginia perhaps for ages; there is not sufficient sense of religion nor of liberty to destroy it; Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, in the highest flights of rapturous piety, still maintain and defend it.” The Richmond Enquirer declared in 1820, ” … whoever believes that the written word of God is [truth] itself, must consequently believe in the absolute rectitude of slave-holding.” Popular evangelist George Whitfield appealed to planters by denying the sinfulness of slavery and supporting the spread of slavery in the Lower South.

In 1831 as Virginia debated slavery, John Thompson Brown of Petersburg asked, “In what code of ethics is it written that slavery is so odious?” Jesus “came into the world to reprove sin. Yet he rebuked not slavery.” Alexander Stephens, who eventually became vice-president of the Confederacy, declared that the morality of slavery was founded “upon a basis as firm as the Bible,’ and would be sustained “until Christianity be overthrown.”  Charles Clark, Mississippi’s governor during the Civil War, stated that the South would not” abandon its cherished and Christian institution of domestic slavery.”

A standard Southern argument came to be that God not only allowed , but commanded the Israelites to hold slaves. Reverend Mr. Crowder of Virginia declared in 1840, “in its moral aspect, slavery was not countenanced, permitted, and regulated by the Bible, but it was positively insituted by God Himself.”–He had, in so many words, enjoined it.” And if slavery was moral for the Israelites, the thinking went, it must be moral for all times. As a candidate for the Texas legislature, Ashbel Smith stated, “That which is once right in the eyes of God is always right.”

Abolitionists, mostly in the North, for antislavery voices in the South were silenced over the years, found it difficult to find passages in the Bible to support their antislavery stance. Usually they bolstered their arguments with references to Enlightenment ideals and the Declaration of Independence. But in terms of appealing to the Bible for moral guidance, renowned historians Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese write, “Proslavery men had much the better of the historical argument. Israelites did hold slaves as well as indentured servants.” And “the historical scholarship of the early nineteenth century had said as much, and by the 1850s [leading thinkers] confidently declared scriptural argument settled in favor of the South.”

In sum, on the issue of slavery many Southerners were absolutely convinced that they were morally right, that their cause was sanctified by God, and that the Bible justified human bondage. It would appear that on the third point, at least, they were correct: the Bible does indeed justify slavery.

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