Is abolition "biblical"?

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
Refuse to Do Nothing.jpg

It may seem like an absurd question, especially given the increasing enthusiasm among evangelical Christians for the abolition of modern-day slavery. (Be sure to check out Refuse to Do Nothing by Shayne Moore and Kimberly McOwen Yim, pictured above.) But it’s a question that haunted our evangelical predecessors in the 19th century as they took to newspapers, pulpits, street corners, and staterooms to debate whether or not the Bible supported the abolition movement to free African slaves in the United States.

“The tree of Abolition is evil,” declared Reverend Henry Van Dyke in 1860, “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.”  

Having lived in the South all my life, I’ve long been aware of the stain of slavery and segregation on our national conscience, and I’ve known for some time that many Christians appealed to Scripture to support their ownership of slaves. (This is why we have the Southern Baptist Convention, for example.) But it wasn’t until picking up Mark Noll’s excellent book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, that I familiarized myself with the rhetoric and logic of the anti-abolition movement. And the results were startling.


I highly recommend reading the book for yourself, but what I found most striking was the familiarity of the various lines of argumentation put forth by evangelicals invested in the debate, particularly the accusation from Christians on the pro-slavery side that Christians who supported abolition were ignoring the particulars of the biblical text in favor of vague generalities regarding love, justice, and progress, thereby discounting the “plain meaning” of the Bible and threatening its authority.

For example, Moses Stuart of Andover Seminary in Massachusetts (who was sympathetic to the eventual emancipation of American slaves, but was against abolition), published a tract in which he pointed to Ephesians 6 and other biblical texts to argue that while slaves should be treated fairly by their owners, abolitionists just didn’t have Scripture on their side and “must give up the New Testament authority, or abandon the fiery course which they are pursuing.”  

Methodist minister J.W. Ticker told a Confederate audience in 1862 that “your cause is the cause of God, the cause of Christ, of humanity. It is a conflict of truth with error—of the Bible with Northern infidelity—of pure Christianity with Northern fanaticism.”

Van Dyke also stated it dramatically: “When the Abolitionist tells me that slaveholding is sin, in the simplicity of my faith in the Holy Scriptures, I point him to this sacred record, and tell him, in all candor, as my text does, that his teaching blasphemes the name of God and His doctrine.”

As you can see, Christians advocating for the preservation of slavery did not characterize their abolitionist opponents as simply disagreeing with them on the interpretation of the biblical text, but instead tended to accuse them of not taking the Bible seriously at all. Christians on both sides, but especially the pro-slavery side, urged followers to simply abide by the “plain meaning” of biblical texts and not allow complicated, nuanced argumentation to cloud their mind.

As Noll observes:

"On the eve of the Civil War, interpretations of the Bible that made the most sense to the broadest public were those that incorporated the defining experiences of America into the hermeneutics used for interpreting what the infallible text actually meant. In this effort, those who like James Henley Thornwell defended the legitimacy of slavery in the Bible had the easiest task. The procedure, which by 1860 had been repeated countless times, was uncomplicated. First, open the Scriptures and read, at say Leviticus 25:45, or, even better, at 1 Corinthians 7:20-21. Second, decide for yourself what these passages mean. Don’t wait for a bishop or a king or a president or a meddling Yankee to tell you what the passage means, but decide for yourself. Third, if anyone tries to convince  you that you are not interpreting such passages in the natural, commonsensical, ordinary meaning of the words, look hard at what such a one believes with respect to other biblical doctrines. If you find in what he or she says about such doctrines the least hint of unorthodoxy, as inevitably you will, then you may rest assured that you are being asked to give up not only the plain meaning of Scripture, but also the entire trust in the Bible that made the country into such a great Christian civilization." [p. 50]

Obviously, this way of looking at things was highly influenced by Enlightenment confidence and its marriage to Christianity, which Noll is quick to point out manifested itself in arguments from both sides.  

But the fact of the matter is, the pro-slavery side had more going for it in the way of proof texts. Slavery apologists could cite passages like Genesis 17:2, Deuteronomy 20:10-11, 1 Corinthians 7:21, Ephesians 6:1-5, Colossians 3:18-25; 4:1, and I Timothy 6:1-2 to support their case. They pointed out that slavery was practiced by the people of Israel and regulated by God, and that Jesus never said a word against slaveholding. Even the apostle Paul instructs an escaped slave, Onesimus, to return to his master, they observed. [Notably, many of the texts in question are the exact same texts—the Household Codes of Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter—that are used today to support gender hierarchy in the home. I touched on this important connection in my post about submission in context and in A Year of Biblical Womanhood.]

“The general result was that by the 1840s American debates over the Bible and slavery had assumed a critical new gravity,” writes Noll. “In particular, those who saw in Scripture a sanction for slavery were both more insistent on pointing to the passages that seemed so transparently to support their position and more confident in decrying the wanton disregard for divine revelation that seemed so willfully to dismiss biblical truths.”

Noll explains that abolitionists had a far more challenging task, for they had to appeal instead to the “broad sweep of Scripture” and to generalities regarding justice, love, and common humanity. As abolitionist Gerrit Smith put it,  “the religion taught by Jesus is not a letter but a life.”

Noll points to an 1845 public debate between Nathaniel Rice (pro-slavery) and Jonathan Blanchard (anti-slavery) which lasted for eight hours a day, for four days! Rice “methodically tied Blanchard in knots over how to interpret the proslavery implications of specific texts” while “Blanchard returned repeatedly to ‘the broad principle of common equity and common sense’ that he found in Scripture, to ‘the general principles of the Bible’ and ‘the whole scope of the Bible’” rather than specifics.

Many Bible-believing Christians, including those who were uncomfortable with slavery, just weren’t buying the abolitionist argument that placed the “spirit of the law” over the “letter of the law.” As Connecticut Congregationalist Leonard Bacon put it: “The evidence that there were both slaves and masters of slaves in churches founded and directed by the apostles, cannot be got rid of without resorting to methods of interpretation that will get rid of everything.”

I see Bacon’s dilemma, don’t you? Frankly, I’m glad I wasn’t trying to make a biblical case for abolition in the 19th century. I’m not sure I could have…or would have. Which is kind of sobering, right?

[Noll also points to arguments put forth by some abolitionists that said that while the Bible never condemns slavery per se, it does condemn the kind of slavery practiced in the American South. This was a strong argument, but suffered because of its nuance. “This position could not simply be read out of any one biblical text,” Noll says. “It could not be lifted directly from the page. Rather, it needed patient reflection on the entirety of the Scriptures; it required expert knowledge of historical circumstances of ancient Near Eastern and Roman slave systems as well as of the actually existing conditions in the slave states; and it demanded that sophisticated interpretative practice replace a commonsensically literal approach to the sacred text.”  Thus, that argument never  took off.]

Things didn’t really turn around until the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which struck an emotional chord with readers and once again appealed to the general sweep of Scripture rather than the letter.

Noll points to a great scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which Mary Bird tries to make the case for taking in runaway slaves based on Christ’s teachings in Matthew 25. John Bird’s response to his wife’s perspective made me laugh out loud: “But, Mary, just listen to me. Your feelings are all quite right, dear, and interesting, and I love you for them; but, then, dear, we mustn’t suffer our feelings to run away without our judgment.”

I underlined that bit and wrote in the margins of my book, “sounds familiar!” Reminds me of a few book reviews I've received.

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis is a short but dense book, and I’m only halfway through it. (The next chapter deals specifically with race, which was a profoundly important element in the theological debate surrounding slavery.) But I wanted to share these initial thoughts because I think it’s important to remind ourselves now and then that we’ve been wrong before, and that sometimes it’s not about the number of proof texts we can line up or about the most simplistic reading of the text, but rather some deep, intrinsic sense of right and wrong, some movement of the Spirit, that points us toward truth and to a better understanding of what Scripture really says. 

The clearest association I make, of course, is with the gender equality discussion within evangelicalism—not only because it’s an issue near to my heart, but also because we are dealing with many of the same biblical texts. But I wonder about other things too—about homosexuality, for example—and I confess I spend some nights lying awake, watching the lights from passing cars make strange shapes on my walls, wondering if we’ve done it again, if we’ve marginalized another group of people because we believed the Bible told us to.  

Now, to be clear, I’m NOT saying that slavery is the same as the gender debates or homosexuality. So please don't hear that. Each situation is different, and each should be discussed and debated on their own terms. It’s not fair to the people involved to treat them all the same or to make an unqualified comparison. 

But the impassioned, Bible-based rhetoric delivered by both the abolitionists and those who opposed them sure does sound familiar. 

And that should give us pause.


See also: “Alright, Then, I’ll Go to Hell

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