My Response to Slaveholders Who Used the Old Testament to Justify their Practice of Slavery


 Introduction

            In 1619 slavery was initiated in America with about twenty black slaves.[1] By the time the abolition became a reality it is estimated that there were close to four million slaves. Slavery, without a doubt, is a dark and difficult chapter in the history of our great nation. The stronghold of slavery divided our nation and was at the center of our civil war from 1861 to 1865 in what is to this day, the bloodiest war of all.

“Roughly 1,264,000 American soldiers have died in the nation’s wars–620,000 in the Civil War and 644,000 in all other conflicts. It was only as recently as the    Vietnam War that the amount of American deaths in foreign wars eclipsed the  number who died in the Civil War.”[2]

Even as the abolition of slavery took place in 1865, the effects of slavery in American can still be felt today. Slavery found economical benefits and political purpose. These realities have contributed to this deep, open and painful social wound in our culture. There is, however, another factor that has contributed, in a deeper way, in causing such pain and social wound in our culture. This factor has contributed in the process of deepening the confusion in regards to the tragic of slavery. This factor is the darkest chapter of all; the church and many of the most prestigious teachers and theologians in America, supported slavery.

Does the Bible promote slavery? This is a key question because slaveholders commonly used the Bible to justify their proslavery views.[3]

Even as it is historically factual that some of the churches in America and key religious figures were openly proslavery, to accuse the God of the Bible of supporting slavery is a whole different matter.

I can deal with men’s humanity, but did God give these slave masters the biblical backing to do what they did? They seemed to believe God did. The Bible is filled with verses that speak about slavery as if God is in favor of it, but is He really?

On this reflection paper we will take a look at the main arguments for justifying slavery and some of the Bible verses used to make such justification. We will take a look at the hypocrisy behind such claims and we will look at exactly what the Bible refers to when the word slavery is used in the Old Testament.

Slaveholders’ Bible Justifications for Slavery

            The word slave in the Old Testament is mentioned over eight hundred times. With that many biblical references to slavery it should not be a surprise to see how easy it was for slave masters to biblically justify slavery. Opponents of slavery primarily argued that the issue of slavery was an immoral one. It became vitally important for the defense of slavery to make a biblical justification.[4]

To develop a theology around slavery, the slaveholders started with the curse of Cain in Genesis 4:10-12. Slave masters established that such curse was a divine decree of slavery.[5] Genesis 9:20-27 gave the slave master great biblical ammunition as they concluded that the black race was cursed from the days of Noah.

While Noah was sleeping, naked and drunk, Ham saw his father’s nakedness and told his brothers about it. The clear implication is that he made fun of his dad’s nakedness. When Noah found out what happened he proclaimed a curse against Ham’s son, Canaan. Genesis 9:24-25 tells us, “And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.”[6]

In 1823 Frederick Dalcho, an Episcopal clergyman from South Carolina, gave the slave master the perfect theology to explain and justify slavery.

“The prophecy of Noah was the fulfillment, not in the individual named, but         nationally in their descendants. Canaan’s whole race was under malediction. Thus       the descendant of Canaan, the Africans, were to be servants of servants, or the       lowest state of servitude, slaves, to the descendants of Shem and Japeth, the             present day Jews and Christians.”[7]

Dalcho called upon the authority of Bishop Newton to explain this curse. Bishop Newton was right on target regarding Israel’s future restoration, but he also concluded that there is no biblical evidence that the curse of Canaan was to ever be removed. Therefore, it is easy to conclude that there is no time limit on enslaving Africans.

Perhaps no other portion of Scripture was used more than Leviticus 25:44-45, “Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour.”[8]

Perhaps the heart and theology of these slaveholders could not be better expressed than in the words of one of their most passionate colleagues as he wrote for the Virginia newspaper,

“By this decisive, explicit, irrefragable authority of the written work of God, it is evident that servants…are commanded under the Mosaic Law to be bought; and                         that when so bought of alien sojourners, that they and their issues become inheritable property.”[9]

The Great Hypocrisy

            “That Western Christendom turned Africa into a hunting ground for slaves rather than a field for philanthropic and missionary endeavor is one of the world’s great     tragedies. That the New World became the chief arena for the European      exploitation of slaves is an extension of the same tragedy. That the United States  – the first new nation, the elect nation, the nation with the soul of a church, the  great model of modern democracy – moved into the nineteen century with one of  the largest and cruelest of slave systems in its midst with full constitutional           protection is surely one of the world’s greatest ironies.”[10]

            Slaveholders, for the most part, presented themselves as Christians. As you can see, they took the time to put together a solid doctrine on slavery. However, there is an enormous monument of hypocrisy in their seemingly serious commitment to follow Scripture.

That same Bible they used to justify slavery has very specific rules. Lets start with Exodus 21:16, “And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.”[11] In the 17th century Africans were hunted, captured and brought to America against their will. This same kidnapping concept is made clear even in the New Testament,  “But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully; Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine;”[12]

Notice that in this list, menstealers14 are mentioned; that word is actually stealers of men with the purpose of enslaving. It is obvious that slave masters “overlooked” the fact that what they were doing was a part of this list.

There are two biblical rules concerning slavery that were constantly violated by slaveholders, 1. Killing a slave was illegal and punishable by law according to Exodus 21:20.[13] 2. 2. Physical punishment was not allowed, especially physical punishment that resulted in serious injury according to Exodus 21:26-27[14].

As it seems to be a fact of history, the great majority of men picked and chose what to believe and what to follow in God’s Word. The slave masters were no different; however their ignorance affected close to four million African souls and its effects can still be felt today.

The slave masters focus on the curse of Ham, however Scripture is clear concerning the reason such overtaking of their land was allow and supported by God. “Speak not thou in thine heart, after that the Lord thy God hath cast them out from before thee, saying, For my righteousness the Lord hath brought me in to possess this land: but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord doth drive them out from before thee. Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that he may perform the word which the Lord sware unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Understand therefore, that the Lord thy God giveth thee not this good land to possess it for thy righteousness; for thou art a stiffnecked people.”[15]

A curse was not the reason why God released this land to the Israelites, but sin was the reason. Furthermore, later Israel also lost this land and was taken captive by the Syrians and Babylonians because of sin also. It is clear that God will punish sin and there is no discrimination there.

Slavery & Bondage

            The slaveholder’s theology failed to point out the fact that there was a difference between the word slave in the Bible and our idea of a slave. According to the New Bible Dictionary there are essentially five different categories of slavery. 1. Slaves by Capture: These were prisoners of war. 2. Slave by purchase: These were slaves bought from another owner. 3. Slave by birth: Children born of slave parents. 4. Slaves by default or debt: These were slaves that work for somebody else in order to be able to pay a debt own to that person. 5. A Voluntary Slave: A slave who, after being able to be free decides to continue to serve his master. [16]

A slave by default or debt was indeed the most common one in the Old Testament. It is important to point out that in the great majority of times that the word slave is used; that is in the eight hundred times that is mentioned, it is translated Servant. It is also important to point out that the law only allowed a slave to be a servant for six years and be released from his duties on the seventh year.[17]

On the other hand, Israel was in bondage under Egypt. God released them from the house of bondage.[18] Later, as the Israelites were taken by the Syrian and later by Babylon, their return to bondage as the result of their sin proving that God was not operating based on curses, but based on the sins of the people themselves.

Conclusion

            I conclude that the hands of our founding fathers are stained with the tragedy of slavery. The great Thomas Jefferson as he wrote about all men being created equal, the pursued of happiness and freedom, apparently did not realize that the slaves he owned were humans also. So I speak to Thomas Jefferson!

We can also conclude that the hands of the church in America are stained with the tragedy of slavery. Godly men such as the caliber of the great revivalist and evangelist George Whitefield and, Jonathan Edwards, who I consider our best theologians in America, did not walk innocently, but actually contributed to the atrocity of slavery. I am thankful, however, that George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards allowed God to used them so powerfully in our first awakening, but I speak to them also!

In all, the greatest tragedies of slavery go beyond the chains, the long hours of barbarian and animalistic labor. The greatest tragedies of slavery go beyond the emotional and physical humiliation, the rapes, the taking away of a man’s dignity, and all the rest of the horrible adjectives of slavery.

For me, the greatest tragedies of slavery are 1) how they denied my ancestors of even basic education, 2) how they filled the hearts of my people with hate and roots of bitterness that can still be felt today; 3) they gave our children the image of a weak earthly father who did not know the concept of protecting his family, 4) they destroyed our family structure and, 5) the worst theology of all, they gave my fathers and mothers an image of God that was not loving, but chose to treat them as less than human.

Perhaps Fredrick Douglas spoke prophetically when he stated, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”[19] The violence in our ghettos all over America serve as an echo of the weeping of our slaves, their anger, their fears and their pain.

One hundred years later Dr. Martin Luther King described his dream to us. Our nation continues to be divided by race; but we have indeed come a long way. It is time now, in Jesus name, to come against the demonic agenda of the slaveholders that were at the heart of our bloody fight against each other. Yes, if I could speak to a slave master I would tell him these things; but I would also tell him… I forgive you; for that is indeed my ultimate freedom second only to the saving grace I found in Jesus.

I pray for unity, I pray for God to restore in us all of those years we intellectually lost. I pray that God restores in us a love for the truth that will truly make us free and decontaminate us from the lies of the slaveholders. I pray for understanding, I pray for forgiveness and I pray for a new and united America under the banner of God’s love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Sydney E. Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. Yale University: Yale University Press, 2004.

 

Slavery and the Churches, accessed 11/24/2015, http://www.christianchronicler.com/history1/slavery_and_the_churches.htm

 

Civil War Facts, accessed 11/24/2015, http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/faq/

 

Morrison, Larry R. The Religious Defense of American Slavery Before 1830. American Theological Library Association.

 

Wood, D. R. W. New Bible Dictionary, Third Edition. Leicester: Inter – Varsity press.

 

Brainy Quotes, Date Accessed 11/25/2015. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/f/frederickd163959.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Slavery and the Churches, accessed 11/24/2015, http://www.christianchronicler.com/history1/slavery_and_the_churches.htm

[2] Civil War Facts, accessed 11/24/2015, http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/faq/

[3] Larry R. Morrison, The Religious Defense of American Slavery Before 1830, (American Theological Library Association), 16

[4] Larry R. Morison, The Religious Defense of American Slavery Before 1830, 16

[5] IBID., 17

[6] All Bible verses use for this paper will be taken out of the King James Version

[7] Larry R. Morrison, The Religious Defense of American Slavery Before 1830, 17-18

[8] KJV Bible

[9] Larry R. Morrison, The Religious Defense of American Slavery Before 1830, 19

[10] Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, (Yale University: Yale University Press, 2004), 635

[11] KJV Bible

[12] I Timothy 1:8-10 KJV Bible

14 andrapodistḗs; gen. andrapodistoú, masc. noun from andrapodízō (n.f.), to enslave, which is from andrápodon (n.f.), a slave. A man stealer, kidnapper, one who steals men to make them slaves or sell them into slavery.

[13]  “And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished.” (NKJV)

[14] “If a man strikes the eye of his male or female servant, and destroys it, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free for the sake of his tooth.” (NKJV)

[15] KJV Bible

[16] D. R. W. Wood, New Bible Dictionary, Third Edition (Leicester: Inter – Varsity press), 1110 – 1111

[17] If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. Exodus 21:22 (KJV)

[18] Exodus 20:2

[19] Brainy Quotes, Date Accessed 11/25/2015, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/f/frederickd163959.html

 

One thought on “My Response to Slaveholders Who Used the Old Testament to Justify their Practice of Slavery

  1. A M E N ! ! !
    WE WERE RECENTLY GUESTS OF A PASTOR IN UGANDA. WE HAVE
    SUCH PRECIOUS MEMORIES TO
    SHARE WITH OTHERS.
    WE HAVE MUCH TO LEARN IN
    HUMILITY AND THE LOVE OF
    SHARING.
    THEY ARE FILLED WITH THE LOVE
    OF JESUS AND TRULY LIVE IT.
    WE RETURNED WITH MORE COMMITMENT TO

    Like

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