Theology Thursday - Slavery and the Bible (ca. 1850)

The following essay appeared in the September 1850 issue of DeBow’s Review,​ which was one of the most important antebellum journals in the South. It appeared just as Congress was debating and passing what became known as “the Compromise of 1850.” The author is anonymous, but the piece sums up, in a remarkably straightforward way, the “Biblical argument” for slavery from a pro-Southern perspective. SharperIron does not endorse the conclusions or presuppositions of this article. However, the article stands as a historical marker; an important reminder that, if a man is desperate enough, he can “find” a way to “biblically” support his position on just about anything.1

A very large party in the United states believe that holding slaves is morally wrong; this party founds its belief upon precepts taught in the Bible, and takes that book as the standard of morality and religion. We, also, look to the same book as our guide in the same matters; yet, we think it right to hold slaves—do hold them, and have held and used them from childhood.

As we come to such opposite conclusions from the same foundation, it may be well to consider, whether the Bible teaches us anything whatever, in regard to slavery; if so, what is it and how is it taught. The anti-slavery party maintain, that the bible teaches nothing directly upon the subject, but, that it establishes rules and principles of action, from which they infer, that in holding slaves, we are guilty of a moral wrong. This mode of reasoning would be perfectly fair, if the Bible really taught nothing directly upon the subject of slavery; but when that book applies the principles it lays down to the particular subject in controversy, we must take the application to be correct. We think we can show, that the Bible teaches clearly and conslusively that the holding of slaves is right; and if so, no deduction from general principles can make it wrong, if that book is true.

From the earliest period of our time down to the present moment, slavery has existed in some form or under some name, in almost every country of the globe. It existed in every country known, even by name, to any one of the sacred writers, at the time of his writing; yet none of them condemns it in the slightest degree. Would this have been the case had it been wrong in itself? would not some one o the host of sacred writers have spoken of this alleged crime, in such terms as to show, in a manner not to be misunderstood, that God wished all men to be equal?

Abraham, the chosen servant of God, had his bond servants, whose condition was similar to, or worse than, that of our slaves. He considered them as his property, to be bought and sold as any other property which he owned. In Genesis xvii, 13, 23, 27, we are told that God commanded Abraham to circumcise all his bond-servants, bought with his money, and that Abraham obeyed God’s commandment on this same day. In Genesis xx, 14, we are told that Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and men servants and women servants, and gave them to Abraham.

In chapter xii, verse 14, we are told that Abraham possessed sheep and oxen, and he asses, and men servants and maid servants, and she asses, and camels. Also, in Genesis xxvi, 14, Isaac is said to have had possessions of flocks and herds, and a great store of servants. In other places in Genesis, they are spoken of, but always as property.

Jacob’s sons sold Joseph, their brother, to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. They agreed with each other that they would sell him, when the Ishmaelites were afar off, and before they could have known that the Ishmaelites would buy him; only they knew, that such sales were common in the country at the time. The narrative of Joseph’s life in Egypt, shows that the sale of slaves was common there.

No one can doubt, that Abraham regarded his servants as his property, and that they were so regarded in the country in which he lived. Not only was the bond-servant of Abraham considered his property, but the condition of the bond-servant was hereditary, or his child was a servant. In Genesis xvii, 13, God not only commanded Abraham to circumcise his servants, bought with his money, but also, those born in his house, and those which, at any future time, should be born in his house, or in that of any of his descendants; and in the twenty-third and twenty-seventh verses of the same chapter, we are told that Abraham did circumcise all his male servants, born in his house, on the same day. In chapter xiv of Genesis we are told, that Abraham took three hundred and eighteen trained servants, which had been born in his house, and pursued the kings who had carried off Lot. These three hundred and eighteen servants were born servants.

Let us now see what control Abraham exercised over these servants born in his house and bought with his money. God commanded Abraham to circumcise all his male servants—those born in his house were so numerous, that he had of them three hundred and eighteen men fit for battle. The command was, not that Abraham should use his influence over them and persuade them to be circumcised, but he and all his descendants are commanded to circumcise them—the crime and punishment for disobedience to this command, were to fall on him or his descendants. Now, in order that God could have required this from Abraham, with any degree of justice, it was necessary that Abraham should have had both the power over his servants, which was necessary to enable him to do this, and also, that he should have had the legal and moral right to exercise that power.

Circumcision was a requirement, until then, totally unknown. Abraham’s servants must have regarded it as a foolish whim of his own. Nothing else could have been considered more degrading to them, or more absurd to him. Yet, no one of all the immense number of his servants, refused to permit the circumcision to be performed. We may well suppose, that Abraham might have required anything else which his fancy dictated, and equally have enforced obedience, if it were not more absurd, painful or degrading.

When Sarai, Abraham’s wife, complained to him of the conduct of Hagar, her maid servant, he answered, thy maid is in thy hand, do to her as it pleaseth thee, showing that she wanted only her husband’s consent to punish Hagar as she pleased. We are then told, that, when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face into the wilderness—there the angel of the Lord found her; but, instead of relieving her distress, and sending her to some free country, he told her to return and submit herself to her mistress.

When Abraham pursued Chederlaomer, the king of Elam, he took his three hundred and eighteen servants, and his three friends, Aner, Eschol and Mamre, and recaptured a large amount of property which had been carried away from Sodom. But when the king of Sodom offered him all the property which he had taken, he refused everything, except what his servants had eaten and the portion of his three friends—answering immediately for himself and his servants, and refusing everything, but reserving the right to his friends to answer for themselves.

From the passages which I have recited and referred to, we can obtain some idea of the conditions of Abraham’s servants. They were property bought and sold for money; their services belonged to him, and was disposed of without their consent. Their condition was hereditary—the master could punish or chastise the slave, and even maim him, at his pleasure. He exercised rights which no southern planter would dare to exercise, and which a southern negro would not submit to.

Abraham was a worshiper of God; he had direct and immediate communication with him. He showed his willingness to obey God’s commands, even in offering his only son a sacrifice to God. He is spoken of by all the sacred writers, as one who was selected, from the whole human race, as the father of the faithful. God would not have so highly honored him, had he been living in constant and habitual violation of his laws: nor would he have required from him the performance of immaterial ceremonies, or of painful things not required by the moral law, and left him ignorantly to continue to violate his duties to his fellow men. Had our abolition friends been in God’s stead, they would have certainly acted in a very different manner. Is there one of them who will dare to say, he would have done better than God did?

But God, instead of teaching Abraham, his chosen servant, that it was immoral to use and buy his slaves, demanded from him the performance of certain things, which required that the relation of master and slave should be kept up, not only during Abraham’s time, but in all future ages. And when the angel of the Lord interfered between Sarai and Hagar, it was to cause the slave to submit to punishment inflicted by her mistress. Under like circumstances, our slaves are persuaded to go to Canada.

From what I have written, if it stood alone, I would infer that the holding of slaves was right, in some cases. But this is, by no means, all that is found in the Bible upon the subject.

​to be continued …

Notes

1 This article is in the public domain, and was taken from Paul Finkelman, Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South – A Brief History with Documents (New York, NY: St. Martins, 2003), 109-114.

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There are 37 Comments

josh p's picture

Isn't it a single party contract though? If they sold themselves to payoff debt or something it's different. If I make a contract that all your stuff belongs to me that would be wrong no matter how lovingly I treated you otherwise (and a good many slaves in the US for example were treated reasonably well). However a single party contract is null and void. 

JNoël's picture

josh p wrote:

Isn't it a single party contract though? If they sold themselves to payoff debt or something it's different. If I make a contract that all your stuff belongs to me that would be wrong no matter how lovingly I treated you otherwise (and a good many slaves in the US for example were treated reasonably well). However a single party contract is null and void. 

Not sure what you mean by "single party contract." Explain?

Regarding your other statement, though - I answer "no" it is not wrong: if you write a contract with that language and I agree to it/sign the contract, then why is it wrong?

If that's not what you meant, if you mean to say it is wrong for one person to have ownership over all of the stuff that you believe should belong to another, then I ask where does God prohibit that; stated the other way, does the Bible tell us that humans have a right to private property?

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

Bert Perry's picture

I would say some sorts of bond-servitude are prohibited simply because the terms of the contract are against God's Word.  For example, a bond-servitude that includes sexual use or maiming is prohibited by the Torah, and one that includes recurrent physical abuse/whipping is forbidden by Paul's commands to masters.   

It also strikes me that, in light of the stigma attached to the word slavery, that in discussion we ought to separate it by using some term like "bond-servitude".  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

josh p's picture

Jnoel,

in the case of American slavery, the slaves themselves had no choice and thus it was wrong. I would say that unless commanded by God (Israelites OT) to capture and keep slaves it is always sin. I guess I don't understand what you mean about a contract. 

JNoël's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

I would say some sorts of bond-servitude are prohibited simply because the terms of the contract are against God's Word.  For example, a bond-servitude that includes sexual use or maiming is prohibited by the Torah, and one that includes recurrent physical abuse/whipping is forbidden by Paul's commands to masters.   

It also strikes me that, in light of the stigma attached to the word slavery, that in discussion we ought to separate it by using some term like "bond-servitude".  

I agree. My question is not regarding the terms of the contract, it is regarding the basic idea itself: that of the question of ownership of one human over another. If a human can ever have ownership over another human and do so in a manner that is in line with biblical commands of the master-servant relationship, then perhaps it can be said that slavery is not sin. The slavery itself is not the sin, but the manner in which it is done, that is, the manner in which a master rules the slave, certainly can be sin. So my question is still only that: is ownership of another human sin. I realize this is probably coming across as puerile, but my point is to simply help us, as Americans, recognize that our views of slavery may have been skewed by the history of our own country. We should wholeheartedly condemn American slavery, but we must still rightly consider the thing presented in the Bible that is often translated as "slave" ("bond-servant", whatever term you wish to use - but the terms all point to a common factor: someone owns someone else, at least in some way).

 

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

David R. Brumbelow's picture

“Does the Bible tell us that humans have a right to private property?”

Yes.  

You shall not steal.  -Exodus 20:15

If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall restore five oxen for an ox and four sheep for a sheep.  -Exodus 22:1

Many other verses prohibit theft of private property.  Thereby, they also justify the concept of private property.  

David R. Brumbelow

JNoël's picture

David R. Brumbelow wrote:

“Does the Bible tell us that humans have a right to private property?”

Yes.  

You shall not steal.  -Exodus 20:15

The right to something and the reality of something are not the same thing. I have property. It is mine; if someone takes it, they have stolen it from me. Of course, that is sin.

But does man have a right to obtain property in the first place? That's what I am referring to when I ask the question "does a man have a right to private property."

What if a homeless person (we'll call him a "subject") agrees to become subject to some individual-of-means (we'll call him a "master"). He chooses to be under the authority of a master. The master feeds and clothes him, thereby meeting the subject's basic life-needs. The master rightly expects the subject to work for him. If the subject does not, then the "contract" is null and void, and the subject no longer is "owned" by the master - he must then return to being homeless. In that conversation, does the subject have any rights of owning anything? Is the master required to pay the subject anything so that the subject has some means of purchasing private property for himself? Can that kind of master love his subject and treat him in a God-pleasing way, and can that subject serve his master well, also pleasing God? Is not such an arrangement an example of master-slave ownership?

Private property assumes the individual already has property to himself. I am not condoning theft, and obviously I agree that that which rightly belongs to a man is indeed his rightly to own, and, if taken by another, demands justice.

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

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