Voices: There is no biblical defense for American slavery

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A debate about slavery recently erupted within the Baptist and Reformed “wings” of Twitter. Shamefully, some voices have argued that American slavery was not necessarily sinful.

The folks making these arguments are attempting to defend legendary pastors and theologians like Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge and the founders of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—all of whom owned slaves and defended slavery.

The Bible, these Twitter users argue, does not explicitly condemn slavery. If masters treat their slaves well, slavery is not necessarily sinful, they contend. But I believe viewing American slavery through this lens is wrong and dangerous.

The Bible and slavery

What Scripture teaches about slavery is notoriously difficult to process. There is no question the Old and New Testaments both presuppose the existence of slavery and do not altogether condemn it.

This understandably causes modern Christians much consternation, especially Christians whose ancestors were slaves and Christians who might themselves be slaves. White American Christians often have used biblical passages such as Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-4:1 and Philemon against people of color.

A full exegetical and hermeneutical treatment of slavery in the Bible is impossible in this space, but one of the best brief treatments I’ve read is in David Garland’s volume on Colossians and Philemon in the NIV Application Commentary, pages 248-252 and 341-359.

However, there is one key text I believe makes all the difference in the debate about American slavery: 1 Timothy 1:10. This verse absolutely and unequivocally condemns andrapodistēs. While this word sometimes is translated generically as “kidnappers” or “man-stealers,” it refers more specifically to those who kidnap and sell people into slavery. It should be translated as “slavers” or “slave traders.”

The reality of American slavery

Why is 1 Timothy 1:10 so important in this debate about American slavery? Because the entire edifice of American slavery, from top to bottom, was built on “man-stealing.” American slavery could not have existed without the kidnapping and sale of black Africans.

People like Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge and the founders of Southern Seminary bought and sold people who had been kidnapped and their descendants, who had themselves been kept in captivity. These Christian leaders were willingly and knowingly complicit in mass kidnapping. Ironically, Edwards condemned the cruelty of the Atlantic slave trade yet still took advantage of it.

But there are other ways American slaveholders directly disobeyed the Bible. Slaves who converted to Christianity almost never were granted equal treatment or standing within the local church. Most congregations were segregated at every level, which is not only a sin but also a functional denial of the gospel (Galatians 2:11-14; James 2:1-7).

Moreover, there is abundant evidence Christian slaveholders did not treat their slaves well. In fact, Frederick Douglass claims “Christian” slaveholders were the harshest and cruelest of all. Even if we grant the controversial premise that it is OK to own slaves if you treat them well, American slaveholders still failed in that regard.

But ultimately, the entire enterprise of American slavery was rendered illegitimate and sinful at its very root by 1 Timothy 1:10. “The peculiar institution” has no biblical defense or excuse.

Men of their time?

Another popular defense of slaveholders like Edwards and Hodge is the excuse that they were “men of their time.” This defense fails under even the briefest historical analysis. It was not only slaves who recognized the injustice of their situation.

Before Jonathan Edwards was even born, the English Puritan Richard Baxter wrote an excoriating condemnation of slaveholders. In his 1673 work, Directions to Slave-Holders, Revived, Baxter wrote:

“Is not this your practice? Do you not buy them and use them merely to the same end as you do your horses; to labour for your commodity, as if they were baser than you and made to serve you? Do you not see how you reproach and condemn yourselves, while you vilify them as savages and barbarous wretches?” (5)

Baxter, an influential Puritan forebear of Edwards, clearly recognized the evils of slavery. What excuse did Edwards have? What excuse did others have?

Another prominent white Christian who opposed slavery was Charles Spurgeon. Spurgeon was infamous in the American South for his fierce, unwavering condemnation of slavery. White “Christians” in the South publicly burned Spurgeon’s sermons and leveled death threats against the Baptist preacher.

If even a white Christian like Spurgeon could see clearly the damnable evil of American slavery as a “man of his time,” what excuse did his slaveholding contemporaries have?

To his credit, Charles Hodge did condemn the mistreatment of slaves and over time became more critical of slavery as an institution. Yet he still owned slaves himself, regularly equivocated on the issue, and had racist and paternalistic attitudes toward people of color.

Being honest

Edwards, Hodge, the founders of Southern Seminary and countless others sinned grievously against their fellow human beings, against their brothers and sisters in Christ and against God by participating in slavery. To ignore or gloss over their sin, as many modern evangelicals do, is wrong. To defend their slaveholding is even worse.

It is no secret that race relations in the United States are near the breaking point. Racial justice still has a long way to go. Christians who excuse or defend the slaveholding of past American Christians are working actively against racial justice and racial reconciliation, whether they mean to or not.

Southern Seminary’s right to exist is not invalidated by its founders’ sins. It is not wrong to study and glean insight from the works of Edwards and Hodge. But we must reckon honestly with their failures.

We must also, however, reckon with ours. It is easy for modern Americans to condemn slavery as a past evil. But it is not. Slavery still exists in our world. Much of the foreign labor that makes American products is involuntary, unpaid slave labor. We have not abolished slavery; we only have outsourced it. What will God say to us about this when we stand before the throne?

Joshua Sharp is a Master of Divinity student and graduate assistant in the Office of Ministry Connections at Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. The views expressed are those solely of the author.

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