Slavery and the Difficulty of Interpreting the Bible
Working on a book review of Jon Meacham’s work on Abraham Lincoln piqued my curiosity. Meacham briefly touched on the justification for slavery and the abolitionist response: both sides used the Bible to argue their points. Before there was a “hot” Civil War, a “cold war” raged over the Bible. As I researched the arguments, the biblical interpretations had a surprising contemporary ring. There are important and identifiable parallels between the biblical support for slavery in the nineteenth century and today’s biblical stances on polarizing cultural issues. We may we gain some guidance for our current use of the Bible for moral and social discernment by looking at the arguments over slavery.
Arguments for Slavery Based on the Bible
The Bible was used in public debate in the nineteenth century because of an increasing religiosity in American society in the decades following the adoption of the Constitution. There was a concern that the Founders had based the country’s political and societal foundations on the philosophy of Deism; therefore, evangelicals in both the North and South desired greater orthodoxy. Particularly in the South, the Second Great Awakening translated into a unique Bible culture and revivalist faith. It is not surprising that shapers of public opinion, clergy, academics, and politicians, would appeal to the Bible as a basis for the institution of slavery.
Various clergy in the decades leading up to the Civil War gleaned the Bible for passages which mentioned slavery and found several texts in both Testaments to work with. Pro-slavery preachers would say, “Get a concordance and just read all the verses on slavery!” They pointed out that the patriarchs, the kings, and the prophets of the Old Testament all owned slaves. Indeed, two of the Ten Commandments reference slavery. And Leviticus 25—amid the instructions for the Year of Jubilee–gives license to the holding of foreigners in perpetual bondage.
One of the key Old Testament passages cited as justification for slavery is the cursing of Ham in Genesis 9. Ham sees his father Noah naked, and when Noah awakens, Noah says, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant” (Genesis 9:25-26, KJV). It is a curious story. Why curse Canaan (Ham’s son) rather than Ham? How long does the curse last? And what was so bad about seeing Noah drunk? For our purposes, though, it is because becoming a servant is mentioned, and because this passage occurs so early in the Bible, that it becomes one of the foundational texts justifying slavery. Surely Ham would have had the same skin color as his brothers. But In the popular version of the cursing of Ham the facts were rearranged: Canaan was taken out of the story, Ham was Black, and Ham’s descendants were Africans.
Although the Old Testament was referenced more often to justify slavery than the New Testament, slavery-supporting preachers pointed out that Jesus came face to face with slavery and never condemned it. Those preachers also seized upon passages from the Apostle Paul in Ephesians and Colossians about slavery as a household institution: Paul gives instructions about the treatment of slaves alongside what he says about domestic relationships between husbands, wives, parents, and children. In Paul’s Letter to Philemon, Paul sends the slave Onesimus back to the slave owner Philemon without emancipating Onesimus. Proponents of slavery argued that the apostles and the early church allowed the institution of slavery, and affirmed that slavery had been instituted by God from the beginning of biblical history.
Rather than defend slavery because of its economic benefits, proponents of slavery used the Bible to justify the institution on domestic grounds: passages about slavery were applied to the hierarchical and patriarchal structures of nineteenth century agrarian society. Slaves fulfilled their place in the family, just as a wife gave honor to her husband, and children gave respect to their parents. These hierarchical relationships were understood to have been ordained by God for the well-being of families and society.
Protecting Society and the Bible from Modernism
As the Civil War approached, proponents of slavery argued that abolitionists were not only trying to destroy family and societal norms, they were acting immorally and proposing a path that would eventually lead to atheism. One of the South’s leading theologians, James Henley Thornwell, defended slavery as an older, superior, and permanent patriarchal relationship serving as a bulwark against the evils of an emerging market system. The Methodist minister Augustus Baldwin Longstreet not only drew on the Bible, but on informal sketches of Southern life to reinforce his arguments. His writing celebrated the South’s distinct and superior culture and assumed that a society built on slavery and white supremacy was desirable. Stephen Elliott, Episcopal Bishop of Georgia, compared failed attempts at “civilizing” and Christianizing West Africa to the success of thousands of enslaved people learning the way to heaven and coming to know the savior through slavery.
By 1850, proponents of slavery classified abolition as a form of “modernism.” Other signs of modernism were European scholarship of higher Biblical criticism, which was said to have seeped into Northern theological institutions. Protecting slavery was linked to conserving a literal reading of the Book of Genesis and a six-day creation. Questioning the Genesis creation account would lead to tampering with family, social, economic, and political relationships. The wave of reform sweeping the Northern states included socialism, feminism, and abolitionism, all indicating that humanity was already eating the forbidden fruit and thought it knew better than God.
Arguments Against Slavery Were More Complicated
The biblical and theological objection to the owning of another human being required considerable reflection that went beyond merely citing scripture. Because of the texts that supported slavery, anti-slavery theologians, pastors, and churches had a more arduous journey to arrive at the conclusion that slavery was an inherently immoral institution against the will of God.
Historian Mark Noll suggests that the Civil War, for both the North and the South, created a theological crisis, which played out in a number of ways.
Plain Reading of the Bible: Faced with opponents who moved beyond the simple citing of various texts, some pastors resisted and doubled down on the plain reading of scripture. Consider the words of the Rev. John Henry Hopkins, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, in 1861: “If it were a matter to be determined by my personal sympathies, tastes, or feelings, I would be as ready as any man to condemn the institution of slavery; for all my prejudices of education, habit and social position stand entirely opposed to it. But as a Christian, I am solemnly warned not to be wise in my own conceit, and not to lean unto my own understanding.”
Moving Beyond the Bible: The abolitionists, for whom personal freedom was paramount, were willing to move beyond the Bible’s verses on slavery. William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionist publisher of the Liberator, retained a belief in God as the moral judge of the universe, but no longer looked to the scriptures as God’s definitive revelation. Garrison jettisoned passages in the Bible on slavery that he believed were contrary to moral reason. In 1845, Garrison wrote, “To discard a portion of scripture is not necessarily to reject the truth but may be the highest evidence that one can give of his love of truth.”
Overall Scriptural Principles Combined with American Ideals: Not wanting to go that far, some pastors argued an overall scriptural principle lay beyond the specific texts, which they combined with the American ideal that “all men are created equal.” A public debate took place in 1845 between Nathaniel Rice, a moderate abolitionist, and Jonathan Blanchard (later the first President of Wheaton College), a proponent of immediate abolition. Rice tied Blanchard in knots citing specific texts which accepted slavery. Blanchard responded with exasperation that the Bible’s overall theme is the natural equality of man and “the one-bloodism” of humankind, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence.
Southern Slavery is different from Slavery in the Bible: A nuanced argument against slavery was articulated by James Pendleton, a Baptist preacher from Kentucky. Pendleton examined the story of Abraham and his slaves and observed, “there are points of material dissimilarity between that system and our system of slavery.” He pointed out American slavery broke up marriages, which is against the commandments, and that Southern slavery offered no possibility of freedom, which violated Old Testament law.
Conflict Avoidance: In 1855, a North Carolina German Reformed Classis petitioned to become part of the Dutch Reformed Church (RCA). Some of the clergy and laity of the North Carolina Classis owned slaves. The General Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church did not accept the petition for entrance into the denomination. Although some in the RCA argued that it was wrong for Christians to own slaves, others quoted the Bible in support of slavery. In the end, the North Carolinians were not received into the denomination because doing so would stir up strife. This desire to avoid conflict was appealed to often–many in the church said they resisted abolition because it would lead to national and denominational disunity.
African American Reading of the Bible: Prior to the Civil War, there was a considerable body of biblical commentary by African American preachers, despite limitations of education. The use of biblical imagery in black spirituals and preaching provides evidence of how deeply scripture had entered African American consciousness. Scriptural antislavery had become intrinsic to the African American community.
Personal Reflection on What This Means for My Reading of the Bible Today:
I believe my historical distance from the nineteen century biblical arguments can shed light on my current use of the Bible for moral discernment, both in the church and for public theology. One side quoting the Bible to another side resolves nothing, and as Shakespeare put it, “Even the devil can cite scripture verses for his purpose.” Here are my personal reflections on the use of scripture for moral discernment:
The use of the Bible in the moral debate about slavery and abolition in the nineteenth century led to a biblical and theological crisis of authority. We are in a similar biblical and theological crisis as congregations and denominations sort and sift over matters of human sexuality.
With the eyes of history, it’s easy to see that those arguing for slavery did not come to the Bible with a blank slate. My distance from the nineteenth century helps me realize that I also do not come to the Bible with a blank slate. I cannot avoid the reality that I read the Bible with cultural and social blinders. A humble listening to the sinned against, the exploited, the socially dislocated, and Christians around the world helps me read the Bible with fresh eyes.
The Bible tells of the living God encountering Israel in the context of an ancient culture. God took up the language of that time and place so the ancient people of Israel might understand the divine will. I should be careful about transporting their institutions and culture into my time and place. The Bible points to the living Christ. Where is the living Christ, through the Holy Spirit, seeking to transform us in the time and place we live?
As with the apologists for slavery in the nineteenth century, sometimes when I am surest of my position morally and scripturally, I am most outside the will of God. The current lack of consensus in our moral positions and how to manage the changes taking place in our culture and churches is a sign that God is not done with us yet.
When I listen to fellow pastors and church members say to me, “The Apostle Paul in Romans 1 is very clear about same-sex relationships,” I hear echoes of the way many cited scripture to justify slavery. This has caused me to revisit my own plain and literal reading of the Bible. To do so is not to be lost in the sea of relativism, nor a failure of moral formation, nor a failure to take the Bible seriously, nor a reduction of moral decision-making to only personal experience. As Richard Hayes said in another context, “The early church experienced the gentiles coming to faith in Jesus, which sent them back into the scriptures to discover what was there all along.”
Prior to the Civil War, Americans assumed that a plain reading of the Bible could lead to a clear understanding of the will of God. Yet the scriptures are complex. Our understanding of them is aided by creedal and catechetical traditions. But the creeds and catechisms are also from a different time and place. For example, our Reformed confessions do not emphasize social justice. Recently, the Western church has been helped by the spiritual and prophetic resources of the Black church of South Africa in the Belhar Confession.
There is much to learn from studying how the Bible was interpreted in other historical contexts. For example, in the sixteenth century, some in the church said the Copernican model of the universe does not cohere with the words of the Bible which read, “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved” (Psalm 104:5 KJV). But Copernicus and Galileo help me to read the Bible for its real intention rather than turning the Bible into a scientific textbook. The task of biblical interpretation should be approached with humility and openness.
Bruggink, Donald & Baker, Kim. By Grace Alone. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2004.
Daly, John Patrick. “Pro Slavery Writing,” in American History Through Literature 1820-1870, Volume 2, edited by Janet Gabler-Hover & Robert Sattelmeyer. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2006.
Kennedy, Earl Wm. “Slaveholding: The Dutch Reformed Debates of 1855,” in Sharing Pasts: Dutch Americans Through Four Centuries, edited by Henk Aay, Janny Venema, and Dennis N. Voskuil. (Holland, MI: Van Raalte Press, 2017).
Meacham, Jon. And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle. New York: Random House, 2022.
 John Patrick Daly, “Pro-Slavery Writing,” 922.
 Noel Rae, “How Christian Slaveholders Used the Bible to Justify Slavery,” 2.
 John Patrick Daly, “Pro-slavery Writing,” 923-924.
 Noel Rae, How Christian Slaveholders Used the Bible to Justify Slavery, 4.
 Edward Crowther, “Religion Has Something… to Do with Politics,” 319.
 Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 1-16.
 Hopkins, John Henry. A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery, from the Days of the Patriarch Abraham to the Nineteenth Century, 1864, 5-12.
 Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 32.
 Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 41.
 Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 47.
 Eugene Heideman, “Reformed Ecumenicity,” 18. Also see an accessible discussion by Donald Bruggink and Kim Baker, By Grace Alone (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2004) 78-80, and a thorough discussion about 1855, Earl Wm. Kennedy, “Slaveholding: The Dutch Reformed Church Debate,” in Sharing Pasts: Dutch Americans Through Four Centuries, (Holland, MI: Van Raalte Press, 2017) 185-215.
 Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 64.
 Richard B. Hayes, Moral Vision of the New Testament, 383.