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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Evangelicals Attempt to Defend Slavery in 18th and 19th Century America--Part Three

This is part three in a series on attempts by Evangelical Christians in the 18thand 19th centuries to defend the practice of slavery in the United States. In the first post, I showed that the evangelist who led the Great Awakening in the American colonies, George Whitefield, was a slaveholder and a biblical defender of its practice. In the second post, I showed that Charles Hodge, the great theologian of Old Princeton, also believed slavery, as practiced in his lifetime, was biblical. Today, I turn to one of the great Baptist leaders of the 19th century, Richard Furman.

In 1822, Richard Furman (1755-1825), Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina, and the President of the State Baptist Convention of South Carolina, wrote a letter to the governor of South Carolina, The Honorable John L. Wilson. Furman entitled the letter, "EXPOSITION of The Views of the Baptists, RELATIVE TO THE COLOURED POPULATION In the United States IN A COMMUNICATION To the Governor of South-Carolina Charleston, 24th December, 1822." Furman was, arguably, the preeminent Baptist leader of his time. He was the president of the first Baptist convention in America, the Trienniel Convention (from which both the Northern Baptist Convention, today known as the American Baptist Convention, and the Southern Baptist Convention originated). Furman University in Greenville, SC was named after him.

His letter to the governor begins:

His Excellency Gov. JOHN L. WILSON,

. . . because certain writers on politics, morals and religion, and some of them highly respectable, have advanced positions, and inculcated sentiments, very unfriendly to the principle and practice of holding slaves; and by some these sentiments have been advanced among us, tending in their nature, directly to disturb the domestic peace of the State, to produce insubordination and rebellion among the slaves, and to infringe the rights of our citizens; and indirectly, to deprive the slaves of religious privileges, by awakening in the minds of their masters a fear, that acquaintance with the Scriptures, and the enjoyment of these privileges would naturally produce the aforementioned effects; because the sentiments in opposition to the holding of slaves have been attributed, by their advocates, to the Holy Scriptures, and to the genius of Christianity. These sentiments, the Convention, on whose behalf I address your Excellency, cannot think just, or well-founded: for the right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example (emphasis added). In the Old Testament, the Israelites were directed to purchase their bond-men and bond-maids of the Heathen nations; except they were of the Canaanites, for these were to be destroyed. And it is declared, that the persons purchased were to be their "bond-men forever;" and an "inheritance for them and their children." They were not to go out free in the year of jubilee, as the Hebrews, who had been purchased, were: the line being clearly drawn between them.*[See Leviticus XXV. 44, 45, 46] In example, they are presented to our view as existing in the families of the Hebrews as servants, or slaves, born in the house, or bought with money: so that the children born of slaves are here considered slaves as well as their parents. And to this well known state of things, as to its reason and order, as well as to special privileges, St. Paul appears to refer, when he says, "But I was free born."

Furman summarizes the NT's teaching regarding slaves:

The masters are not required to emancipate their slaves; but to give them the things that are just and equal, forbearing threatening; and to remember, they also have a master in Heaven. The "servants under the yoke" (bond-servants or slaves) mentioned by Paul to Timothy, as having "believing masters," are not authorized by him to demand of them emancipation, or to employ violent means to obtain it; but are directed to "account their masters worthy of all honour," and "not to despise them, because they were brethren" in religion; "but the rather to do them service, because they were faithful and beloved partakers of the Christian benefit." Similar directions are given by him in other places, and by other Apostles. And it gives great weight to the argument, that in this place, Paul follows his directions concerning servants with a charge to Timothy, as an Evangelist, to teach and exhort men to observe this doctrine.

Had the holding of slaves been a moral evil, it cannot be supposed, that the inspired Apostles, who feared not the faces of men, and were ready to lay down their lives in the cause of their God, would have tolerated it, for a moment, in the Christian Church. If they had done so on a principle of accommodation, in cases where the masters remained heathen, to avoid offences and civil commotion; yet, surely, where both master and servant were Christian, as in the case before us, they would have enforced the law of Christ, and required, that the master should liberate his slave in the first instance. But, instead of this, they let the relationship remain untouched, as being lawful and right, and insist on the relative duties.

Furman then argues that the African slaves had voluntarily consented to being slaves:

In proving this subject justifiable by Scriptural authority, its morality is also proved; for the Divine Law never sanctions immoral actions. . . . by which it will appear, that the Africans brought to America were, slaves, by their own consent (empahsis added), before they came from their own country, or fell into the hands of white men. Their law of nations, or general usage, having, by common consent the force of law, justified them, while carrying on their petty wars, in killing their prisoners or reducing them to slavery; consequently, in selling them, and these ends they appear to have proposed to themselves; the nation, therefore, or individual, which was overcome, reduced to slavery, and sold would have done the same by the enemy, had victory declared on their, or his side. Consequently, the man made slave in this manner, might be said to be made so by his own consent, and by the indulgence of barbarous principles.

Furman next argues that the slaves in America are better off than they were in Africa:

. . .when they have come into the hands of humane masters here, has been greatly bettered by the change; if it is, ordinarily, really better, as many assert, than that of thousands of the poorer classes in countries reputed civilized and free; and, if, in addition to all other considerations, the translation from their native country to this has been the means of their mental and religious improvement, and so of obtaining salvation, as many of themselves have joyfully and thankfully confessed--then may the just and humane master, who rules his slaves and provides for them, according to Christian principles, rest satisfied, that he is not, in holding them, chargeable with moral evil, nor with acting, in this respect, contrary to the genius of Christianity.

Society, and the slaves themselves, are better off under the current arrangement, according to Furman:

It is, therefore, firmly believed, that general emancipation to the Negroes in this country, would not, in present circumstances, be for their own happiness, as a body; while it would be extremely injurious to the community at large in various ways: And, if so, then it is not required even by benevolence.

Furman says there might come a day when the African slaves can be granted their freedom:

Should, however, a time arrive, when the Africans in our country might be found qualified to enjoy freedom; and, when they might obtain it in a manner consistent with the interest and peace of the community at large, the Convention would be happy in seeing them free: And so they would, in seeing the state of the poor, the ignorant and the oppressed of every description, and of every country meliorated; so that the reputed free might be free indeed, and happy. But there seems to be just reason to conclude that a considerable part of the human race, whether they bear openly the character of slaves or are reputed freemen, will continue in such circumstances, with mere shades of variation, while the world continues.

Furman summarizes his conclusions for the governor:

. . .the following conclusions:--That the holding of slaves is justifiable by the doctrine and example contained in Holy writ; and is; therefore consistent with Christian uprightness, both in sentiment and conduct. That all things considered, the Citizens of America have in general obtained the African slaves, which they possess, on principles, which can be justified; though much cruelty has indeed been exercised towards them by many, who have been concerned in the slave-trade, and by others who have held them here, as slaves in their service; for which the authors of this cruelty are accountable. That slavery, when tempered with humanity and justice, is a state of tolerable happiness; equal, if not superior, to that which many poor enjoy in countries reputed free. That a master has a scriptural right to govern his slaves so as to keep it in subjection; to demand and receive from them a reasonable service; and to correct them for the neglect of duty, for their vices and transgressions; but that to impose on them unreasonable, rigorous services, or to inflict on them cruel punishment, he has neither a scriptural nor a moral right. At the same time it must be remembered, that, while he is receiving from them their uniform and best services, he is required by the Divine Law, to afford them protection, and such necessaries and conveniencies of life as are proper to their condition as servants; so far as he is enabled by their services to afford them these comforts, on just and rational principles. That it is the positive duty of servants to reverence their master, to be obedient, industrious, faithful to him, and careful of his interests; and without being so, they can neither be the faithful servants of God, nor be held as regular members of the Christian Church. That as claims to freedom as a right, when that right is forfeited, or has been lost, in such a manner as has been represented, would be unjust; and as all attempts to obtain it by violence and fraud would be wicked; so all representations made to them by others, on such censurable principles, or in a manner tending to make them discontented; and finally, to produce such unhappy effects and consequences, as been before noticed, cannot be friendly to them (as they certainly are not to the community at large,) nor consistent with righteousness: Nor can the conduct be justified, however in some it may be palliated by pleading benevolence in intention, as the motive. That masters having the disposal of the persons, time and labour of their servants, and being the heads of families, are bound, on principles of moral and religious duty, to give these servants religious instruction; or at least, to afford them opportunities, under proper regulations to obtain it:

Sir, your very obedient and humble servant,
President of the Baptist State Convention.

So, it is indisputable that Evangelical Christian leaders, leaders who were highly educated in the Scriptures and highly respected in the country, defended the justice and morality of antebellum Slavery in the United States. They did so on the basis of the teaching of "God's Holy Word." This same Word that we are told today by Christian apologists provides the only "objective morality."


  1. These same people who (rightly) claim biblical sanction of slavery were probably appalled when Mormons practiced plural marriage ... even though that practice is also upheld in the Bible and never abrogated by the NT.

  2. ---

    I wonder if these Evangelical Christian leaders would have so vigorously defended slavery if they were the slaves and the Africans were the masters. I HIGHLY doubt it.

    Even if we grant his argument, and even if we concede something as outrageous as his argument that slavery, in principle, isn't immoral; even if we grant all that, for God to support a practice that gave itself over so easily to mistreatment and inhumane practices that masters routinely performed immediately calls Yahweh's moral character into question.

    A poor analogy, but all I could think of: It isn't, in principle, immoral to force men and women to share the same public restroom. If the patrons are honorable, then everyone's privacy will be respected and there will no problems. But, for obvious reasons, public facilities separate the restrooms, because the possibility of persons (especially women) being violated an assaulted are greatly increased once we restrict public restrooms to being unisex restrooms (And yes, I know certain societies have unisex public restrooms, but I think you get my point).

    I'm sure there were certain slave/master relationships that were genuinely benevolent and reciprocally loving, but that doesn't change the fact that slavery, as an institution, has such arbitrary standards, that even allowing the mere possibility of slavery to be a moral practice is untenable.

    For example, he says that masters can discipline their slaves, but that it shouldn't be cruel. Well, what is cruel and what is not cruel? What is "reasonable service"? How many rights do the slaves have, if any? How many hours must they work in a day to adhere to this ever so ambiguous "morally acceptable slave/master relationship"?

    After you examine the issue logically, you realize that slavery HAS TO BE IMMORAL by any moral system. The fact that these men surrendered their reason so completely to their "holy book" is incredibly sad and a black mark in the history of our species.

  3. I have been on a Christian forum (you know the one) where believers all said they would not have accepted these arguments on behalf of slavery, that it was condemned in the Bible.

    Balderdash! Such ignorance. We are children of our times.

    Did you know Hector Avalos is finishing up a book on the topic of slavery now? I can't wait to read it.

  4. Hi Mr. Pulliam... this is a good series.

    It's always astonished me when I read something by advocates for the abolition of slavery and then by those who were against it. They're able to read the same source and come to different conclusions. Though at least the literalists were consistent and honest about what the bible said. I've read some arguments by Christian apologists who argue that it was the bible that inspired christians to free the slaves but that is only one side of the coin. Christians on both sides of the debate cited scripture, though I believe that it was mostly the idea of natural rights that influenced abolitionists, and they simply used their bible to support their beliefs about abolition that they got from other sources outside of religion. They just used religion to support their views.

    Thanks for the heads up about Avolos' book Mr. Loftus. It sounds interesting.