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Friday, October 15, 2010

Using the Same Bible, Some Christians Defend Slavery and Others Decry It

As I pointed out in previous posts, slavery was defended by many conservative Christians in the 18th and 19th centuries. These Christians were not only southerners. Charles Hodge, for example, from Princeton Seminary defended the practice. It seems that most Calvinists did defend it. Three vocal Calvinist defenders were George Whitefield, R. L. Dabney and James Petigru Boyce. Those who spoke out against slavery tended to be non-Calvinists, for example John Wesley, Charles Finney, George Fox, and so-on.

Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address said:  Both [the pro-slavery side and the abolitionists] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.

My point is that the Bible was not really clear on this important moral issue, just as it is not clear on much of what it teaches, including how one is to be saved. It seems that if the Bible were actually a divine revelation, an omniscient being could have done a better job of making himself clear.

Below is a 15 minute section from the documentary, God in America, which details how American Christians used the same Bible to both defend and condemn slavery.

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.


  1. Isn't this just illustrative of the fact that theology is not, in fact, a valid intellectual discipline? Accomodationists claim that science and religion answer different questions. Fine, but that poses a logical query: how do you get your answers? Science has a rigorous methodology rooted in independently verifiable observation and prediction; over time, this allows scientists to discard erroneous ideas and build consensus on truth.

    What is religion's methodology? As Richard Dawkins asked in TGD, what is the criteria for interpreting the Bible? Who demarcates what the correct interpretation is, or what the correct version of Christianity is?

    Obviously the Biblical God thinks slavery is awesome, since he often commanded and/or condoned it and never once in the Bible explicitly reprimands it.

  2. It's an interesting thing to see how slavery is used. I've heard slavery in the Bible, or rather the lack of denunciation thereof, defended via the "it wasn't as bad as American slavery" argument. But when you go back and read (for example) the Christian arguments defending American slavery at the time you see American slavery defended via "it's not as bad as ancient slavery."

    The common theme seems to be an inability or unwillingness to denounce something if it is "in the Bible". The institution of slavery appears in the text so somehow it must be o.k. The concept of one person *owning* another can't be criticized directly, only how you go about it.

    Stringfellow himself goes even further and says, "Now, I propose to show from the Scriptures, that this state, condition, or relation, did exist in the patriarchal age, and that the persons most extensively involved in the sin, if it be a sin, are the very persons who have been singled out by the Almighty, as the objects of his special regard--whose character and conduct he has caused to be held up as models for future generations."

    I had a pastor once say there can't be anything wrong with violence itself because "it's in the Bible." It's an odd hermeneutic to me. It seems to preclude any sort of critical reflection on history and ignore the critical reflection within the text itself. But that's starting to make more sense now, given the larger context of how some people think about God.

  3. Quiona,

    You are exactly right. Some Christians will defend anything that is in the Bible regardless of how wrong it seems.

  4. "...which details how American Christians used the same Bible to both defend and condemn slavery."

    Not to mention how American Christians still defend slavery...

    From the description of the pamphlet:
    "It explains Scripture's defense of a form of slavery against evangelicals who are embarrassed by it."