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.

The Bible on Slavery: The Hebrew Scriptures

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

After writing yesterday’s post, I realized that I referred to Biblical passages, as did Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow and many others, and like him neglected to quote or cite them. It would do to rectify that. It might take us far afield from this blog’s usual haunts, and I don’t propose to turn this into a blog about the Ancient Near East or religion, but proslavery propagandists of the nineteenth century had the chapter and verse on hand. They could quote it at will, though in a far more religious time they rarely needed to announce their texts. We don’t live in that world and for very obvious reasons these passages have turned decidedly obscure to many Americans since 1865.

Before I get into it, however, I want to say up front that I take no position at all on what a Christian, Jew, or any other person ought to believe about their religion, which version of it is true, or anything like that. In quoting these lines, I no more intend to lay expectations on the behavior of modern Christians than I lay similar expectations on modern southerners for their ancestors’ beliefs. I intend here only to highlight texts relevant to nineteenth century slavery defenders, not to promote any particular modern theology. I have chosen to refer to the two familiar divisions of the Bible by more neutral terms for the same reason.

For maximum familiarity, both for my audience and to American protestants nineteenth century, I’ve used the King James Version. I have also selected passages that appear most pertinent to a nineteenth century context rather than attempted an exhaustive catalog of all that Bible has to say about slavery.

In the name of his god, Noah curses Canaan in Genesis 9

22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.

23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.

24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.

25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.

26 And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

The sin of Ham justified American slavery to a great many all by itself. They believed that Africans descended from Ham and that settled things.

One could object that Noah spoke out of turn. I take no position on this, considering it a matter of theology. One could also object in that a servant need not necessarily be a slave. The text offers some difficulty for this latter objection in Exodus 21:

21 Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them.

22 If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.

23 If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him.

24 If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself.

You can buy a servant. You own that person for the duration. If that servant gets married, he can take his wife when he goes free. If, however, you buy the wife separately then you get to keep the wife and any children of the union. The colony of Virginia took a key step in changing its system of indentured servitude for black and white people alike into slavery for black people alone by legally adopting the rule that slavery came inherited through the mother. If we can call that slavery, then we can call these servants in the Bible slaves also.

The same chapter of Exodus goes into some detail about other ways one can treat a slave

20 And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.

21 Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.

Even South Carolina forbade, at least on paper, outright murder of a slave. However, the slave codes have no shortage of allowances for slaves who die as a result of violent “correction”.

If a thief could not make restitution for his crime, then Exodus proscribed selling him into slavery:

If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him.

If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be blood shed for him; for he should make full restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.

New Jersey preserved a penalty of that kind for black residents convicted of crimes all the way up to the war. If the jury found you guilty, rather than imprison you New Jersey would sell you South.

One might object to this code on the grounds that you can get out of it a few years down the road. That must make it a bit more like indentured servitude, right? In a way, yes. Not much daylight separates indentured servants from chattel slaves during the term of the indenture. But let me quote the first bit again, from Exodus 21:22:

22 If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.

If a passage extends the seven-year term of slavery to gentile slaves, I haven’t found it. I have read arguments to that effect, but never one that could quote a chapter and verse. If anybody reading this has such a passage, I would be happy to see it.

At any rate, I have no doubt that had Virginia adopted a slavery system for its white residents, they would in most eras have received better treatment in the law than its black residents enjoyed. One need not speculate, as Virginian whites would be the ones writing the law. In fact, they did just that, establishing a harsher regime that lasted lifetimes and went generation to generation for blacks while retaining the older system for whites.

This has run long, so I will return with the Christian Scriptures in another post.

Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part Two

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Full text. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Defense of Slavery, Part 1

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow considered slavery a positive good for white and black alike. The activities to which the Platte County Self-Defense Association and similar groups pledged themselves take on an additional layer of meaning. The men of western Missouri did want to defend themselves, their families, their property in human lives, and their profits. At least some of them also saw themselves as engaged in a project for social betterment in the broader national context. If slavery did so much good, why wouldn’t one want to prevent the establishment of a new free state just for its own sake? Free states become legal mistakes that cause social calamities for both races. For the good of the nation and all its people, decent Americans should unite to abolish them.

To make his case, Stringfellow began where a great many Americans of his age would have begun on a moral question; he opened his Bible. There he found a god who ordained and blessed slavery.

This broad proposition will doubtless cause the abolitionist to sneer — it will strike as bold, the good men of the north who have been so long deceived; it may even seem hard of proof to those in the slave-holding States who have feared to investigate the subject; but we have the evidence at hand. A good lesson has been taught us, and we have profited by it. So long and so oft had it been proclaimed from the pulpit, that slavery was a violation of God’s law, men begun to doubt whether a slaveholder could be a Christian. Men of the world, too little versed in the teachings of the Bible, feared to investigate the question. Our Divines, misled by their text-books, took for granted the dogmas of their Doctors. Yet so soon as one man dared approach, the Holy Book, dared to “search the scriptures,” it was found, that instead of being a violation of God’s holy law, slavery was actually established by that law! The truth was proclaimed; discussion followed; the result was, that investigation fixed beyond controversy the fact, that by the first law given to man by his Maker, the law proclaimed from Sinai, slavery was established! Moses, the divine law-giver, was a slaveholder! Slavery was recognised and regulated by our Saviour! A “fugitive slave,” instead of fleeing aided in his escape, was returned to his master by Paul, the great Apostle, to the Gentiles!

So triumphantly and conclusively was the consistency of slavery with the Christian religion established, that abolitionists were driven to infidelity, to blasphemy: they trampled under foot the Bible, spurned the God and Saviour of slave-holders!

That bears some unpacking. Stringfellow notes that the abolitionists have opened their Bibles too. They’ve made religious cases against slavery. But to do that, they had to look selectively. As the product of a slaveholding time and slaveholding culture, the Christian and Jewish religious works alike acknowledge and support slavery in clear terms. Slavery did not just happen in Biblical texts; those same texts regulated and endorsed it. Submissions on this point appeared so often in DeBow’s Review that the editor published one with a resigned note that they had done the subject to exhaustion.

The question of whether a Christian could hold slaves had divided denominations before Stringfellow wrote and would continue to do so. Some of these divisions remain today, though the slavery issue has long since vanished into the past. The Free Methodists split from the other Methodists because they believed a Christian could not hold slaves and slaveholders ought not rise to positions of leadership in the faith. The Southern Baptists split from the other Baptists because they believed one could and objected to the exclusion of slaveholding leaders. These divisions don’t feature prominently in most surveys of the roots of the Civil War but Calhoun mentioned them in his final speech (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) and they occupied the minds of many Americans at the time. Religions might not have been part of the state apparatus, but they did form threads common national culture that came under strain and in many cases snapped in the years before Fort Sumter.