Christian Theological Arguments for and Against Slavery (and their relevance today)

When someone suggested that we read a book by Mark Noll (the famous Evangelical Church Historian who spent much of his career at Wheaton) on theological arguments for and against slavery before and during the American Civil War, I expected that it would be an interesting although merely academic historical investigation of a topic which there is obviously no debate about now– namely, whether or not slavery is Biblical.  (We did not realize ahead of time that we would be reading it during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which did give it added relevance)

But this book has turned out to help me think about a lot of contemporary issues– how we deal with divorce in the church, debates about whether or not Christians should drink or smoke, debates about women’s roles in ministry, debates about the literal account of Genesis 1 (creation), debates about hell, about what happens to those who haven’t heard the gospel, etc.   It also highlights how that we often interpret Scripture to meet our own ends, and so, we need to be cautious in how we interpret Scripture.   Many southerners couldn’t imagine how their way of life could be contrary to the will of God, which led them to argue from Scripture for slavery and the racism that slavery in the south implicitly relied on.

In the book Noll examines various aspects of the debate– how scripture was used, how both sides claimed Providence on their side, how American slavery was peculiarly racially biased, and how those outside the US viewed the debate.

The pro-slavery southerners often claimed to be more faithful to scripture, holding up passages which seem to implicitly accept slavery, and pointing out that slavery is nowhere explicitly condemned in scripture.  They accused abolitionists of not being faithful to scripture.  On the other side, in fact some abolitionists were willing to say, “I don’t care what Scripture seems to say, we know that slavery is obviously wrong!” which smacked of a liberal denial of the authority of Scripture.  But many other abolitionists argued that the general message of Scripture (Love, kindness, gentleness, seeking the well being of others, etc) pointed us clearly to abolition of slavery, even if Scripture did not condemn it in so many words.   Some of the abolitionist preachers used more logic than Scripture to make their case.  In one argument, a preacher showed the absurdity of the idea that darker skinned people should be enslaved to lighter skinned people.  He pointed out that on that view, the lightest skinned person in the world should get to have everyone else as their slaves.

There were also debates about the contextual nature of slavery– while the pro slavery supporters argued that Scripture seems to accept slavery, abolitionists pointed out that the type of slavery in Scripture was different.  For one, it was not racially oriented, as it was in the south.  Southerners scoffed at the idea that whites could be slaves, although Scriptural examples of slavery were rarely racially oriented (sometimes darker peoples owned lighter skinned slaves– and the word slave comes from “slavik” as in the slavik people, who are fair skinned (thanks abbey for that point! :))  Some said that southern slavery was evil if only for the ways that female slaves were usually abused sexually.  At any rate, the ‘negro question’ was central in the debate, and most of the pro-slavery people in the US could not seperate the slavery issue from the race issue, since in their minds only blacks were slaves.

Both sides both claimed to have providence on their side.  Even when the south lost, some southerners rested in the fact that sometimes God lets the righteous fail a war for a greater purpose He has in mind.  One very interesting section was about Abraham Lincolns lack of confidence that God was on his side, and his humble hope that he was doing right by following his conscience. 

Also interesting were the outsider perspectives.  Both Protestants and Catholics from Europe saw the slavery issue as a dead issue– both liberal and conservative Christians from Europe had long been convinced that slavery was wrong and not in accord with Christian principles.  What comes out as well in this European-American difference is that American Christianity was much more democratic in nature– while the Europeans tended to follow their church leaders and listen to authority (even in the Protestant churches this was by and large true).  So Europeans found it odd that nearly anyone who could attract enough attention to their argument could get a hearing in the discussion– for them, these matters were decided by authorities of the church, not by mere congregants.   

And this general difference led us to discuss how that, for example, Joseph Smith who founded the Mormon church probably would have had a much more difficult time doing so in Europe.  Startup churches are everywhere in American history– it is the American way to start a new franchise, and we see these franchises sometimes grow dramatically in a short while (consider the Acts 29 Church movement or the earlier willow-creek and saddle-back church startups across the country who have easily outstripped traditional denominations energy and growth rates).   Europe has generally been more resistant to the franchise model, for better or for worse. 

And when it came to the arguments based on ‘literal interpretations’ of Scripture, the Europeans generally felt that the Americans (on both sides) tended to use Scripture with little contextual understanding.  For example,  even the abolitionist Americans often failed to try to make a distinction between American slavery and the slavery refered to in the Bible.  There was often an assumption that slavery is slavery, with no attempt to get at the nuanced differences that perhaps would make the direct application of passages on slavery irrelevant to Southern slavery.   

So these issues are interesting in themselves, but also for the way they mirror debates today.  Oftentimes the gradual shift in views happens with a mixture of cultural pressure and logical argument, as well as different readings or applications of scripture winning the day.   Divorce, which was at one time looked down upon in Church, is less so now.  Views of drinking and smoking have changed, including at many flagship Christian schools in recent years.  Views of women in ministry are shifting, and to some outside of that live debate the debate seems strange (my presbyterian minister friend said to me when I was discussing a book on egalitarianism vs complimentarianism, “we haven’t worried much about that debate since 1956 when we accepted womens role as teachers and preachers in our congregations”)    Other debates are still going, such as debates about the nature of hell, the fate of those who do not hear the gospel, attitudes and actions towards homosexuals, etc.  For some outsiders, these debates seem strangely foreign.  Of course that doesn’t mean they aren’t important debates– but the outsider perspective gives us just that– some perspective– on the debate at hand.

So we still have two weeks left, but I have felt very blessed to get to be in on this bookklub discussion.  The others have had thoughtful insights, and we have been able to think about things much more far-reaching than the historical arguments on both sides of the theological debate regarding slavery before and around the civil war. 

May God have mercy on us all…



One response to “Christian Theological Arguments for and Against Slavery (and their relevance today)

  1. Thank you for the topic, Andy. This has been a major issue for me ministering in the south for over 20 years! It may be of interest to you that one of the earliest Circuit Riders, Francis Asbury, was vehemently against slavery. He, in fact, confronted George Washington before his was President and asked him to make a law against slavery. Francis Asbury had rocks thrown through stained glass windows that would hit his pulpit and he just kept on preaching. He put in 270,000 miles on horseback and prayed that he wouldn’t bruise his horses backs! He came through our area and I believe our church is at least indirectly the result of his efforts (we go back to 1858). I look forward to having a “Circuit Rider Series” with slavery being one of the topics. Two of my guests so far are Judge Preston Grissom and Dr. Nathan Riles (my Black doctor). Hopefully, Congressman Randy Forbes (who attended our church as a child) will be part of the panel as well. I have read some of the “scriptural justifications” of slavery based on the curse of Canaan/Ham. Utterly absurd. Enjoyed Mark Noll’s discussion. Mark was a student while Sue and I were at Trinity. Keep up the good work on making us think, Andy, and pray for the McDs in Virginia!!!

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