The Bible on Slavery: The Christian Scriptures

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Yesterday, I ran through examples that Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow and other antebellum defenders of slavery could and did use to defend the institution on religious grounds. When engaging the text this way, I often note a kind of implicit bias against the Hebrew Scriptures. When one must talk about the parts of the Bible that modern morality finds wanting, the citations tend to dry up right at the time the Gospels start. This practice implies very strongly that while the Bible has difficult parts that few people today feel great swells of pride or inspiration in reading, all of those parts belong to some other person’s Bible. They, those Jewish people, had all the bad stuff but Jesus came along and corrected it all for the benefit of Christians.

The comparison fits into an ancient and infamous narrative that holds Judaism and Jews as inferior quasi-Christians, morally suspect and rightly excluded from the community of decent people. I don’t think that everyone who does this means that consciously, but it still happens. The proslavery passages one finds in the Christian Scriptures generally exhibit less explicit endorsement and regulation of slavery. Any fair count will probably find fewer such passages in absolute number as well.

But these facts compare some apples to oranges. The Hebrew Scriptures include legal codes that the Christian Scriptures did not replicate. They had little need to reinvent the wheel for the parts they kept. Furthermore, the Christian canon contains many personal letters that do not aspire to describe society and history in the same way as the Jewish histories did. In addition, the Christian canon simply has fewer works, by fewer authors, who wrote over a shorter span of time, than the Jewish canon in which to find examples.

This does not mean, however, that no examples exist. Paul, the very opposite of an obscure and unimportant figure in Christian history, opines on slavery in Ephesians 6:5

Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ;

Slaves ought to obey their masters as they obey Christ. The power of the slaveholder appears just as righteous as the power of Christ.

The theme returns in Colossians 3:22

Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God;

And 1 Timothy 6

Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed.

And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit. These things teach and exhort.

But what if you have a terrible master? What then should a slave do? 1 Peter 2 has an answer:

18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.

19 For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.

20 For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.

One can’t get much more explicit than that.

It would do to repeat what I said about this post and the last yesterday. I have no theological agenda to press here. I intend solely to highlight parts of the Bible that slaveholders like Stringfellow read as endorsing and blessing slavery. Just as abolitionists sincerely viewed slavery as religiously abhorrent based on their reading of the Bible, so did their opponents have a reading that supported the institution wholeheartedly. They need not have invented or imagine it. The words speak for themselves. I could dig up passages the abolitionists used, and might someday do so, but I suspect that the modern reader would have no difficulty finding the obvious sentiments at apparent odds with holding slaves. They remain quite familiar even in our more secular times.

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