Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Slavery and the Church
The debate over slavery often moved from the houses of government to the houses of God. The abolitionist tract, “The American Churches, the Bulwarks of American Slavery,” claims, “The extent to which most of the Churches in America are involved in the guilt of supporting the slave system is known to but few in this country,” (page 3).
Some of the ways in which the Church supported slavery are blatant. In “A Scriptural View of the Moral Relations of African Slavery,” passages such as Isaiah, Chapter 14:2 (“And the people shall take them . . . and the house of Israel shall possess them . . . and they shall rule over their oppressors.”) are interpreted as describing slavery that is “sanctioned by God himself,” (page 7). Reverend John Hopkins presents a similar case in “Bible View of Slavery” when he cites a number of passages that he claims distinguish between temporary servitude and perpetual bondage:
“Both thy bondmen and bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you . . . And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; THEY SHALL BE YOUR BONDMEN FOR EVER; but over your brethren, the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigor . . .” (Lev. 25:40--46, with v. 55.)
The distinction here made between the temporary servitude of the Israelite and the perpetual bondage of the heathen race, is too plain for controversy.
- How might these scriptural texts, such as Hopkins used, have contributed to perceptions of African Americans and the relationship between master and slave, and thus between the races?
- What does the equation of slaves with heathens imply about the conversion of slaves to Christianity? What was the actual effect of the Christianization of slaves?
- How might the equation of slaves with heathens have influenced the African-American experience of Christianity?
“An Address to the Anti-Slavery Christians of the United States”challenges the notion that the American slave trade is justified because people in Biblical times held non-Christians as slaves: “[I]t is wholly immaterial whether the Jews held slaves or not, since . . . they acted by virtue of a special and express permission from God, while it is equally admitted that no such permission has been given to us,” (page 4)
Searches on terms such as Bible, church, and scripture offer a number of other pamphlets that use biblical passages to make their case. Direct responses to Hopkins’s claims are also available in pamphlets such as “Remarks on Bishop Hopkins' Letter on the Bible View of Slavery” and “Review of Bishop Hopkins' Bible View of Slavery.” The latter tract argues that “Bishop Hopkins' pamphlet is made up of several groundless assumptions and assertions, and of attempted answers to certain objections made against the advocates of slavery,” (page 4).
- What was the potential benefit of using the Bible to accept or condemn the institution of slavery?
- Who was the intended audience of these pamphlets?
- What was the importance of the “Address to the Anti-Slavery Christians” and its effort to refute the precedent of slavery that appears in the Bible?
- When two parties interpret a work differently, is either side necessarily wrong? Why or why not?
For some Christians, the ethical questions surrounding slavery were as open to interpretation as the biblical passages they cited. In “The Church, The Ministry, and Slavery,” Reverend George Fisher attempts to distinguish between the sin of slavery and the Christian slaveholder who commits that sin. When describing an encounter that he had with a slaveholding friend, Fisher explains that this man was a good Christian despite his moral flaw:
If he could have seen the wrong, he would have forsaken it . . . He has always dwelt in the midst of slavery, and of course been under its blinding influence . . . That brother, though a slaveholder, I believe was a christian . . . and I regard him in that light now . . . You may charge me with countenancing and fellowshipping slavery, but I can bear that, knowing how baseless . . . the charge would be.
- How does Fisher justify the actions and beliefs of his companion?
- Why does Fisher emphasize the Christian nature of this person?
- What does this stance imply about his concepts of social and religious obligations?
- Do you think that Fisher is “countenancing and fellowshipping slavery”?
- In what ways might "most of the Churches in America" have been "involved in the guilt of supporting the slave system?"