by Doug Ward

APRIL 2010-Today there is general agreement that the Bible does not support the practice of slavery. In the Bible the God of Israel, who created all human beings in his image (Gen 1:26), gives the instruction to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:18), where one's neighbors include people of all nationalities (Lev 19:34; Luke 10:25-37). The Bible also condemns human trafficking (Exod 21:16; Deut 24:7) and enjoins generosity toward the poor (Deut 15:7-11).


Yet in the United States, a nation whose Declaration of Independence asserts that "all men are created equal," the Bible's teaching on slavery was a hotly debated topic between 1830 and 1865. To many Americans of that era, in the North as well as the South, it was not at all clear that slavery was categorically ruled out by the Bible. The debate divided churches, and failure to resolve it helped lead to an agonizing and bloody Civil War.


Why did nineteenth century Americans have so much difficulty with an issue that today seems entirely straightforward? What can we learn from their experience? One scholar who has pondered these questions is Dr. Mark A. Noll, a distinguished historian of American evangelical Christianity. Noll, the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, analyzes the nineteenth century slavery debate in his book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2006). On March 20, 2010, Noll summarized his findings in a lecture delivered at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.


A Cacophony of Opinion

With the southern states threatening to secede from the Union, U.S. President James Buchanan called a national day of fasting for January 4, 1861. Biblical teaching on slavery was, understandably, a major topic in sermons given on that day.1 To illustrate the diversity of opinion on this subject, Noll began his lecture by surveying what some prominent American clergymen taught about it.


At Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, Henry Ward Beecher, the best known preacher in the North, called on the United States to repent of its national sins, especially slavery. Noting that Jesus had come to open the prison doors and free the captives (a reference to Luke 4), Beecher declared that the Bible clearly denounced slavery. He said that when people read the Bible "with the illumination of God's Spirit in their hearts; where the Bible has been in the household, and read without hindrance by parents and children together-there you have had an indomitable yeomanry, a state that would not have a tyrant on the throne, a government that would not have a slave or a serf in the field."2


On a South Carolina fast day six weeks earlier, Presbyterian J.H. Thornwell, the most respected minister in the South, expressed different views in a sermon given in Columbia. Thornwell asserted, "That the relation betwixt the slave and his master is not inconsistent with the word of God, we have long since settled. Our consciences are not troubled, and have no reason to be troubled, on this score." For Thornwell no detailed scriptural discussion was necessary. The matter was "long since settled."


It is not surprising that northern and southern clergymen had widely divergent outlooks on this subject. Certainly there were strong economic incentives for Southerners to discover justification for slavery in the Bible. More remarkable is the fact that Northerners were sharply divided with regard to biblical teaching on slavery.


For example, on December 9, 1860, a sermon entitled "The Character and Influence of Abolitionism" was given by Rev. Henry J. Van Dyke at Brooklyn's First Presbyterian Church, just down the street from Beecher's congregation. In that sermon Van Dyke denounced abolitionism, which he defined as the doctrine that slaveholding is sinful. He stated,


"I am here tonight, in God's name, and by His help, to show that this tree of Abolitionism is evil, and only evil-root and branch, flower, and leaf, and fruit; that it springs from, and is nourished by, an utter rejection of the Scriptures; that it produces no real benefit to the enslaved, and is the fruitful source of division and strife, and infidelity, in both Church and State."3


In his scriptural argument against abolitionism, Van Dyke focused on two passages, one each from the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament passage was Lev 25:44-46, which allows Israelites to take slaves from other nations and hold them in perpetual servitude. The New Testament passage was I Tim 6:1-5, which instructs slaves to honor their masters and also makes clear that slaveholders were accepted as part of the early church without being required to release their slaves.


Another contrast to Beecher is a fast day message given at the Jewish Synagogue of New York by Rabbi Morris J. Raphall. Rabbi Raphall remarked that he was no friend of slavery but felt a duty to accurately convey the biblical teaching on the subject. In response to the question, "Is slaveholding condemned as a sin in sacred Scripture?", he stated, " How this question can at all arise in the mind of any man that has received a religious education, and is acquainted with the history of the Bible, is a phenomenon I cannot explain to myself, and which fifty years ago no man dreamed of."4


Like Van Dyke, Raphall pointed to Lev 25:44-46 to show that enslavement of foreigners captured in war was allowed in Israel. Citing Deut 21:14, Exod 21:26-27, and Exod 20:10, he added that slaves were to be treated humanely and criticized Southern slaveowners for not following these biblical principles.


Analyzing the Debate

As this small sample indicates, many Americans in 1860 were not at all sure that the Bible taught against slavery, even if they wished that it did. Noll provided some helpful explanation of the reasons for America's struggles over this issue.


One reason that many Bible-believing Americans hesitated to adopt abolitionism was the fact that leading abolitionists often questioned the truth and authority of the Bible. For instance, Raphall took great exception when Beecher dismissed the commandments of the Torah as outmoded. Similarly, Van Dyke objected to an assertion by abolitionist Albert Barnes that no book which sanctioned slavery could rightly be considered a revelation from God.5 To Van Dyke, Barnes had things entirely backwards. One should not presume to correct the Bible; instead, one should take correction from it.


Another factor that limited the effectiveness of abolitionist arguments is that antislavery writers often "talked past" their opponents. When discussing the biblical evidence, these writers tended to appeal to general principles like the golden rule (Matt 7:12) or Jesus' statement that he was sent to proclaim freedom to the captives (Luke 4:18) instead of directly addressing passages like Lev 25:44-46 and I Tim 6:1-5 that seemed to cause problems for their position.


A further reason that Americans wrestled with the biblical teaching on slavery involves both some prevailing attitudes of American Christianity and the nature of the biblical evidence. In the Protestant mindset of the early years of the American Republic, there was a strong tendency to distrust religious tradition and appeal directly to the Bible for authority. There was also a widespread confidence in the simplicity of God's revelation and in the capacity of the ordinary Christian believer to be able to open the Bible and readily grasp its message.


For people with such a mindset, a quick proslavery argument based on Lev. 25:44-46 and I Tim 6:1-5 was often persuasive. A careful, nuanced exegesis of these passages in historical context could lead to different answers, but this sort of in-depth study was difficult without formal training unavailable to most ordinary believers. Moreover, an anti-intellectual bias was prevalent in American Christianity. To people who held such a bias, scholarly commentary on the Bible could seem like a way to "reason around" the Scriptures rather than to explicate them. In this environment, superficial arguments based on prooftexting could carry greater weight than more careful but more complex arguments.


Finally, there were some commonly held assumptions that tended to skew the way that many Americans interpreted and applied the Bible. One of these assumptions, a part of America's Puritan legacy, was a conviction that Americans were in a special covenant relationship with God. A second, even more widely held assumption was the view that Europeans were innately superior to Africans.


White Americans in 1860 would never have considered the possibility that lifelong servitude might be a suitable destiny for themselves. But coming to the Bible with the two aforementioned assumptions, they read Lev 25:44-46 and automatically plugged in themselves for the children of Israel and African Americans for "the heathen that are round about you." In this way, they saw biblical precedent for the race-based slavery practiced in the United States.


Another passage used to justify the enslavement of Africans was Gen 9:25-27, which was widely seen as a prophecy that Ham's descendants, identified as Africans, were destined to be enslaved. Rabbi Raphall, for example, gave this interpretation in his fast day sermon.6


African Americans, unhindered by these assumptions, could evaluate the biblical teaching on slavery more accurately. Noll found one of the most profound and insightful discussions of the subject in the writings of Daniel Coker, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In his Dialogue between a Virginian and an African Minister (1810), Coker observed that when Abraham, the father of the faithful, circumcised his slaves according to God's command (Gen 17:13), those slaves were included in the covenant of God. Similarly, when Israel enslaved foreigners who were defeated in battle, those slaves would have been given every opportunity to follow God and become part of the people of Israel-for example, they would have participated in the Sabbath rest (Deut 5:14). Any slave who chose to follow God would no longer be a foreigner, and thus that slave's family would no longer be subject to the perpetual servitude described in Lev 25:44-46. Analogously, American slaves who became Christians were part of God's New Covenant people and should therefore be set free. One wonders how Henry Van Dyke would have responded to Coker's incisive argument.



Noll identified two lessons to be learned from the American slavery debate. The first is that we should be wary of things that seem "obvious" in the realm of popular level Bible teaching. It was obvious to many nineteenth century Americans that slavery was sanctioned by the Bible, but Bible students in 2010 see this issue much differently.


Second, the truth is available in the Bible to those who are willing to really search for it. Although Daniel Coker did not have the opportunity to pursue a seminary degree, God led him to a deep insight concerning the biblical teaching on slavery.


These lessons have additional applications. Here are two that readily come to mind:

Today there are many sincere Bible students to whom it is obvious that Gen 1 dates the beginning of the universe to less than ten thousand years ago, although that is not the only possible way to interpret Gen 1.

Popular Bible teachers can attract large followings with predictions about the fulfillment of biblical prophecies. Popular prophetic scenarios that initially appear very convincing often are based on faulty assumptions and prove to be fallacious.

In both these instances, careful study of the Scriptures in historical context can be the key to separating truth from error.


1Several of these sermons, along with some given in the weeks leading up to that day, were collected and published in the book Fast Day Sermons: or the Pulpit on the State of the Country (Rudd & Carlton, New York, 1861).

2Fast Day Sermons, p. 289.

3Ibid., p. 137.

4Ibid., pp. 235-236.

5Ibid., pp. 236-238; 163-164.

6Ibid., pp. 232-234. For further discussion of Gen 9:25-27, see the article "Watch Your Antecedents!" in Issue 10 of Grace and Knowledge.



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On 12 May 2010, 14:20.