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Christianity and slavery8 min read

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Much has been said and insinuated about the history of Christianity and slavery. Unfortunately, many Christians, especially in the South, defended the abhorrent practice. However, today’s critics of Christianity often have a distorted view of the role the faith played in the turbulent 1800’s and the debate over slavery.

Much of the division (between North and South) was economical instead of religious. The industrialized North had less need for cheap (free) labor. The South with the expansive farms, especially cotton, needed a large labor force. Southern states had already been hindered by tariffs that placed them at a distinct disadvantage to the North. The most economical (not moral) solution was slavery.

Some in the North owned slaves. Some in the South didn’t. Some in the North abused and mistreated the slaves they owned. Some in the South were extremely kind to the slaves allowing them a great deal of freedom.

Despite the existence of slavery across the nation, the prevailing culture in the South was that slavery was needed for the economy to function. The North did not have such worries and they purposely compounded the problem by the tariffs they enacted.

The story of Southerns supporting slavery is less one of Christians defending what they saw as a biblical practice, but one of fallen people trying to use the Bible to defend their culture of sin. To fight against slavery in the South was to fight against the very culture of which you were a part.

You ignore history if you say that all Christians or even all Southern Baptist Christians supported slavery. In the 1700’s many Baptist from the South went on record against slavery as “a violent deprivation of the rights of nature” and that Baptist should “make use of every legal measure to extirpate the horrid evil from the land.” They went against the grain of their culture and fought against what they saw as an evil.

The formation of the Southern Baptist denomination is, like the succession of the South, more complicated than just the issue of slavery. Much like the states in the South, the Baptist churches saw an increase in power being centralized in the Baptist denomination. They were in favor of more local autonomy and did not agree with forced edicts from the denomination. Many were in favor of the denominational split, but for the issue of autonomy not slavery. When the denomination broke away in 1845 it did not formally endorse slavery.

Former Southern Baptist president James Bruton Gambrell (1841-1921) speaking about the split from the Northern Baptist:

There were thousands of men in the South who were Abolitionists – I, myself, was an Abolitionist.

At that time, many of the slaves had become Christians themselves. Many of the most ardent and eloquent of the slaves to speak out against the practice were those that had become Christians. They saw what the Bible had to say and knew that what was happening to them was not Biblical.

You can tell that the “biblical” defense for slavery put forth by the southern defenders was more an excuse than an actual argument. Much of their points were pure fabrications. Suffice it to say, they are not just on shakey ground morally, they are on shifting sand biblically.

Old Testament Arguments

They had such ignorant beliefs as to say that Cain was fathered by the serpent in the garden, resulting in Africans. (Show me that verse!) Many said that when Cain was made black by God as the mark that God placed on him to prevent someone killing him. They may go down to Noah and say his son Ham was cursed and that curse was that he was black, making him lower than his brothers. This too is nonsense. The passage actually refers to Canaan, Ham’s son. It never mentions anything about him being black.

Many fell back on the fact that the Old Testament patriarchs owned slaves, but it is a completely different form than slavery in the 1800’s. The Israelites came out of slavery. They knew what it meant to be treated that way, so their form of “slavery” was completely different. Not to mention the fact that they were to free their slaves every seven years (God took this very seriously, see Jeremiah 34).

New Testament Arguments

They may have also held to the New Testament mentions of slavery, none of which specifically condone slavery. And again this was part of the Old Testament form of slavery. Plus, they ignore numerous passages from Paul. He tells slaves to gain their freedom if they can (1 Corinthians 7:21). He says that we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28), no differences between slave and owner.

Then, the passage that they most likely used more than any other is the one that dooms their position. In Ephesians 6, Paul tells slaves to obey their earthly masters as if they were obeying Christ. Leaving it at that, it sounds like something slavery defenders could hang their hat on. However, Paul commands masters to treat their slaves “in the same way” or like Christ. Each was to regard the other as like Christ. How much abuse and misuse could go on if masters were to treat their slaves as they would treat Christ?

Who Led Abolition?

I may have spent more time than I needed dismantling the biblical defenses of those opposed to abolition, but I wanted to illustrate the point that those in support of American slavery were not holding to the biblical position but rather cherry-picking verses to defend the henious practices of their culture.

As to the question of who ended slavery, or at least contributed to the fall, it is a mixed bag, as usual. Yes many of the more liberal denominations (though they weren’t as “liberal” then as now) contributed to the end of slavery. But it was also dreaded “evangelical Christians” who played a prominent role in the demise of slavery both here and abroad.

Many, including Wheaton professor Mark Noll, argue that there is a tremendous link between the Christian revivals of the 19th century and abolition politics. He said the Civil War can be seen “as the last chapter in the Christian story of the Second Great Awakening.” It was their biblical opposition to slavery that drove Christians into politics, particularly in the North to the Republican party. Historian Richard Carwardine said, “Republicans acquired their essential moral engery” from conservative Protestants.

In England, William Wilberforce was the catalyst behind the elimination of the slave trade. He fought bravely against current culture and his own party to end the slave trade in England and its colonies. Besides that, his faith encouraged him to fight for better treatment of workers who were being exploited.

History is replete with Christians who fought against slavery and other societal ills. The Christian takeover of the Roman Empire led to the end of the slave trade there. Currently Christians are working against poverty, homelessness, AIDS, etc.

You ignore the contribution of Christians to the good of history at your own expense. To deny the contributions they made to the betterment of soceity would be to wrap yourself in ignorance as a blinder, simply because you disagree with a position.

One could say that those who are against gay marriage are the “intellectual heirs” of those who were opposed to abolition. However, one could also aruge that those Christians who are merely suiting their own faith to whims of the current culture are actually the true heirs of the slavery-supporting southern Christians. (The better analogy in my mind is the one of abortion and denying full status as a human to one group or another.)

I would say that neither is the actual, whole truth and that the issues are seperate questions that should be evaluated in their own merit instead of merely using past illustrations as current condemnation.