October 22, 2016

Hermeneutics and Slavery

On a recent drive on the freeway to Chicago, I passed a van regaled with all sorts of stickers bearing religious messages. One of these boldly announced: “The Bible says it! I believe it! That settles it!” Accepting that the owner of this van took the Bible seriously, I nevertheless wondered how much we would really agree on if the two of us, both committed to the Word of God, had the chance to meet and talk. It could be much, but not necessarily so. For apart from the general beliefs that all Christians share, such as that God exists, that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and that Jesus died for our sins and rose again, Bible believers have found plenty to disagree on, enough to even preclude our fellowshipping together as Christians.

Christian history is littered with disagreements over the interpretation of the biblical message that have led to schism, persecution, excommunication, and even slaughter. Nevertheless, people on both sides of these disputes could usually agree, would insist, in fact, that they were basing their particular point of view on the teachings of the Bible.

Explaining Slavery

The causes of the American Civil War are historically complex. Still, there is little doubt that one of those causes, slavery, was informed by religious concerns in the South that flowed from a particular way of reading the Bible. James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862), a prominent Southern Presbyterian minister, theologian and religious writer, persuasively expressed his confidence in biblical authority when he stated that Christian beliefs must be founded only upon the explicit Word of God “and not a speculation.”[1] Other supporting voices declared that the Church “knows nothing of the intuitions of reason or the deductions of philosophy, except those reproduced in the Sacred Canon. . . . Her creed is an authoritative testimony of God, and not a speculation.”[2] Thornwell repudiated abolitionists because they were nothing but “Atheists, Socialists, Communists, Red republicans, Jacobins” who were opposing “the friends of order and regulated freedom.”[3] And he summarized: “In one word, the world is the battleground. Christianity and Atheism the combatants, and progress of humanity is at stake.”[4]

Southern theologians first defended slavery by addressing the argument that it was sinful.

Influential Episcopal bishop Henry Hopkins, saw opponents of slavery, and those who sought to end it, as delusionary and engaged in “a willful or conscious opposition to the truth.” They did not know how to study their Bibles or how to be faithful to its teachings. Consequently, they opened themselves to the influence of “the newspapers, the novel, and the magazine.”[5] The Bible’s teaching on slavery was “plain,” and “who are we, that in our modern wisdom presume to set aside the Word of God, and . . . invent for ourselves a ‘higher law’ than those holy Scriptures which are given to us as ‘a light to our feet and a lamp to our paths,’ in the darkness of a sinful and a polluted world?”[6]

Southern theologians first defended slavery by addressing the argument that it was sinful. The Church had “no authority to declare Slavery to be sinful,” they said, as nowhere did the Bible, “either directly or indirectly, condemn the relation of master and servant as incompatible with the will of God.” To argue the opposite was to hold in contempt the “naked testimony of God.”[7] Rabbi M. J. Raphall contributed a Jewish perspective: “How dare you, in the face of the sanction and protection afforded to slave property in the Ten Commandments–how dare you denounce slaveholding as a sin?”[8]

From the New Testament, pro-slavery theologians observed that while Jesus had many opportunities to speak against slavery, He did not condemn it. In Matthew 8:10, for example, instead of challenging slavery, Jesus healed the slave and commended the centurion’s faith: “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” Furthermore, he often used slavery to illustrate His teachings. For example, “Suppose one of you has a slave (doulos) plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’?” (Luke 17:7). Considering Jesus’ failure to condemn slavery, it is not surprising that slave owners who equated non-condemnation with approval, sometimes used Jesus’ own words to instruct their slaves on obedience to their masters.[9]

Furthermore, the apostles did not condemn slavery. As Paul taught, each person “should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him” (1 Cor. 7:17). He instructed slaves to not “let it trouble” them if they were slaves when “called” by God (v. 21). Rather than being troubled by the plight of slaves, Paul appeared to emphasize spiritual equality among believers, asserting that all were “baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free” (1 Cor. 12:13). Slaves were to “obey [their] earthly masters . . . and serve them wholeheartedly” (Ephesians 6:5-9); to “consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered” (1 Timothy 6:1-2); and to “be subject to their masters . . . so that in every way they [would] make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Titus 2:9-10). “That Christ did give a new law on [polygamy],” argued Charles Hodge, one of Evangelicalism’s most distinguished theologians ever, “is abundantly evident”; however, this certainly was not the case with slavery.[10]

“I cannot conceive of any duty arising from the command to love my neighbor as myself which compels me to inflict a ruinous injury on that neighbor, and such would be immediate freedom to the slave.”

Robert Lewis Dabney showed how the Golden Rule applied to slavery: “I cannot conceive of any duty arising from the command to love my neighbor as myself which compels me to inflict a ruinous injury on that neighbor, and such would be immediate freedom to the slave.”[11] In sum, slaves were to be grateful for their role in the grand scheme established by the “perfectly just God.”[12] America’s Africans, along with “minors, imbeciles, and uncivilized persons, have a right to be governed and protected, and to such means of physical comfort and moral improvement as are necessary and compatible with their providential condition.”[13]

Pro-slavery Christians’ quintessential statement of their biblical case appears in the document called “A Southern Address to Christendom,” issued the same year the Civil War began. There they show the continuity of their slave-holding theology with the fathers and saints of all ages—“from Abraham to Moses, from Moses to Christ, from Christ to the Reformers, and from the Reformers to ourselves.” Modifying their position on slavery would be requiring them “to corrupt the Word of God to suit the intuitions of an infidel philosophy.” It would be asking them to repudiate “the noble army of confessors who have gone to glory from slave-holding countries and from a slave-holding Church.”[14]

Opposing Slavery

The Christian fight against slavery was also based on the Bible. The modern abolitionist movement emerged among English Quakers and other evangelical groups.[15] William Wilberforce, star of the British anti-slavery movement, was a born-again Christian.[16] In the United States, Evangelicalism’s Second Great Awakening gave anti-slavery sentiments a significant boost. The movement “aimed at perfecting both the social order and the individual so that the millennium could begin.”[17] Authors of the Annual Report of the prominent Sheffield Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society insisted: “the Bible, and the Bible alone is the touch stone to which we would bring slavery.”[18] Their focus was on Scripture’s grand themes, such as the love of God, His moral law, creation in the image of God, freedom, equality, redemption and restoration—“abstract principles” reviled by their pro-slavery colleagues.[19] Appreciating these principles showed slavery to be an utterly repulsive instrument of satanic oppression. Bible-based “principles of humanity and religion”[20] showed them that “God ha[d] no attribute in favor of slavery,” and that a God of love and grace “can not love slavery.”[21]

Furthermore, the biblical teaching that all humans were created in the image of God means that “nothing can annul the birth-right charter, which God has bequeathed to every being upon which he has stamped his own image.”[22] Man was “never was put under the feet of man, by that first charter of human rights which was given by God . . . therefore this doctrine of equality is based on the Bible.”[23] And in any case, no aspect of biblical servitude resembled the slavery practiced in the American South.[24]

That Jesus and the apostles did not condemn slavery does not mean that they condoned it. Nineteenth century writer, Ellen White would have us know that “It was not the apostle’s work to overturn arbitrarily or suddenly the established order of society. To attempt this would be to prevent the success of the gospel. But he taught principles which struck at the very foundation of slavery and which, if carried into effect, would surely undermine the whole system.”[25]

The Magna Carta of the anti-slavery movement was Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” For slavers, the message of this passage is that regardless of social standing, all have access to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. In dramatic contrast, their Bible believing opponents in the anti-slavery camp enthused over this text that meant that “[I]f all masters and all slaves became Christians, slavery would at once cease” and no oppression of human by another human would continue.[26] The liberating hermeneutic of the “abstract principles” so reviled by pro-slavery theologians enthralled believing slaves. Their masters avoided educating them lest they imbibe such “abstract principles” and buy into the “liberating hermeneutic” of the Gospel of Christ.[27] To which Charles Elliott offered the intriguing rejoinder:

“If the relation of the master and slave is one recognized in the Bible, then the Bible is the right book to put into the hands of the slaves; and the slave should immediately be taught to read, that he may read the Bible, which, they say, sanctions slavery. If the Bible never speaks of slavery as sinful, then the best thing that could be done to support slavery would be to teach all the slaves to read it, that slavery may have the sanction of the Bible, as some pretend to affirm that it has.”[28]

Hermeneutics: Contrasting, Or Complementary?

Bible students are constantly moving between these two hermeneutics. The challenge arises when individuals or groups of people apply different hermeneutics to the same text or passage. The real issue then is: What is it that makes two of us apply contrasting hermeneutical approaches to the same Bible passage?

The hermeneutics exposed above may be labeled as “static” and “dynamic.” A “static” hermeneutic stops at the level of the text and gives it universal application in a literalistic manner. Jiři Moskala explains the difference between this “literalistic” approach and a “literal” approach: “‘Literal’ reading lets context enlighten application, while ‘literalistic’ reading takes up the biblical text in a narrow, dogmatic way “without applying its contextual and larger theological considerations.”[29] Dynamic interpretation reads Scripture according to biblical principles and overarching themes, such as “God is Love,” “back to Creation narrative,” “love your neighbor as yourself,” “do unto others,” “be holy because I am holy,” etc. Engaged by a lawyer who was probing Him for an answer, Jesus responded: “What is written in the law?” – a question that, on its own, would seem to support a literalistic approach; however, Jesus immediately moved on to ask, “How do you read it?” – a process that required interpretation in view of the context. Only in light of this second step, in which the meaning of the passage was understood, does Christ urge the expert to put His teaching into practice (v. 37). Jesus is here pointing to a holistic way of interpreting Scripture: we read the text; then we situate it within the frame of appropriate biblical principle, giving the passage “meaning” (Neh. 8:8); finally, we apply the message. Pro-slavery theologians ignored or disrespected the step of “biblical principle,” and moved directly from a literalistic reading to literalistic application.

Bible students are constantly moving between these two hermeneutics. The challenge arises when individuals or groups of people apply different hermeneutics to the same text or passage. The real issue then is: What is it that makes two of us apply contrasting hermeneutical approaches to the same Bible passage?

The answer may be our worldview, our way of seeing the world and explaining reality. Now, having a worldview is necessary if we want to approach Scripture or existence in a meaningful way. Everyone uses some particular lens through which they look at life as it goes on around them. Surrounded by slave nannies, slave cooks, slave housekeepers and slave plantation workers, children in the antebellum South were taught that slavery was an inherent part of the economy, that their wellbeing depended on slave labor, and that God had ordained it this way. Slaves were a “permanently inferior and brutish separate human species” [30] that needed slavery to bring out their best. Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s Founding Fathers, believed that “blacks ability to reason was much inferior to the whites, while in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous and inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind.”[31] To many Southern Christians Abraham Lincoln was not as a hero, but a crazy hypocrite whose efforts would destroy divinely established social order.


Intra-church disagreements today do not come close to the inhumanity of such conflicts as the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, or the genocide in Rwanda. But in the disagreement this article examines, Christian participants in American slavery partook of a horror equal with those, based on what they believed were the “plain” teachings of the Bible. To miss the lesson this tragedy implies is to risk the danger of fulfilling George Santayana’s aphorism: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

What lesson should we learn? We may learn that all readers approach the Bible with a variety of presuppositions that are shaped by our prenatal and childhood experiences, our personalities, our interactions with families and friends, our education and by the media. With regard to hermeneutics, no two of us are perfectly aligned. So that while we must all adhere to some fundamental positions, and while agreement on these identifies us as God’s united people, it is both futile and harmful to the community to expect that everyone agree on the interpretation of all scriptural passages. “We cannot then take a position,” wrote Ellen G. White, “that the unity of the church consists in viewing every text of the Scripture in the very same shade of light.”[32] Acknowledging this divinely designed diversity within a unity of basic doctrines, Christians who appreciate the grand themes of God’s love for us, and ours for God and for one another (John 3:16; Matt. 22:37-39) should celebrate a certain degree of hermeneutical nonalignment.

One of the more peculiar lessons that Christians may learn from faith in slavery in the antebellum South, is that God can use culture to help, lead, teach, and even shame us. Northern anti-slavery culture, whether influenced by the Bible or secular humanism, ultimately prevailed in the South and throughout the Western world. A testimony to this fact is that, today, atheists and Christians alike agree that slavery was an inhumane institution and a stain upon the fabric of the American nation.

This article summarizes a full length treatment of the topic “Hermeneutics of Slavery:A 'Bible-Alone' Faith and the Problem of Human Enslavement,” to be found at http://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/theology-christian-philosophy-pubs/135.

[1] James Henley Thornwell, quoted in Mark Noll, “The Bible and Slavery,” in Religion and the American Civil War, ed. by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, Charles Reagan Wilson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 64. Thornwell also served as a professor of theology in the Presbyterian Theological Seminary at Columbia, South Carolina.

[2] “A Southern Address to Christendom,” in American Christianity: An Historical Interpretation With Representative Documents, ed., H. Shelton Smith, Robert T. Handy and Lefferts A. Loetschner (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963), p. 206.

[3] James Henley Thornwell, quoted in Eugene Genovese, “James Henley Thornwell,” in The Southern Front: History and Politics in the Cultural War (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995), p. 37.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John Henry Hopkins, Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery (New York: W. I. Pooley & Co., 1864), p. 17.

[6] Ibid., p. 16.

[7] James Henley Thornwell, “Relation of the Church to Slavery,” in The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, vol. 4., eds., John B. Adger and John L. Girardeu (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1873), p. 384.

[8] M. J. Raphall, Bible View of Slavery (New York: Rudd & Carleton, 1859), pp. 28, 29.

[9] Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968), p. 94.

[10] Charles Hodge, “Bible Argument on Slavery,” in Cotton Is King, ed., E. N. Elliott (Augusta: Pritchard, Abbott & Loomis, 1860), p. 860.

[11] Thomas Cary Johnson, The Life and Letters of Lewis Dabney, vol. 3 (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1903), p. 68.

[12] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 622.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Southern Address to Christianity,” in Smith, Handy and Loetschner, pp. 206-210. James Henley Thornwell composed the first draft of this document.

[15] Clare Midgley, Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780-1870 (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 15.

[16] William Wilberforce, Private Letters of William Wilberforce (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1897), p. 178.

[17] George Knight, A Search for Identity (Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 2000), 36-37; cf., John Bicknell, American 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election that Transformed the Nation (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2015), p. 19.

[18] Sheffield Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, Annual Report, 1827, 11, quoted by Alison Twells, “‘We Ought to Obey God Rather than Man’: Women, Anti-Slavery, and Nonconformist Religious Cultures,” in Women, Dissent and Anti-Slavery in Britain and America, 1790-1865, eds., Elizabeth J. Clapp, and Julie Roy Jeffrey, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 75.

[19] See David Torbett, Theology and Slavery: Charles Hodge and Horace Bushnell (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2006), p. 75.

[20] “Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America,” in American Christianity: An Historical Interpretation with Representative Documents, ed., H. Shelton Smith, Roberth T. Handy and Lefferts A. Loetschner (2New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963), pp. 179-180.

[21] Charles Elliott, The Bible and Slavery (Cincinnati: LK. Swormstedt & A. Poe, 1857), p. 121.

[22] John F. Kilner, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), p. 11.

[23] Angelina E. Grimké, Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, p. 3; full text may be found at: http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/abolitn/abesaegat.html

[24] Grimké, p. 4.

[25] Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1911), pp. 459-460.

[26] Albert Barnes, Notes, Explanatory and Practical, on the New Testament: II Corinthians and Galatians (Glasgow: Blackie and Son, 1844), p. 354.

[27] James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 19-20.

[28] Charles Elliott, Sinfulness of American Slavery, vol. 1 (Cincinnati: L. Swormstedt & J. H. Power, 1850), p. 127 (emphasis in the original).

[29] Jiři Moskala, “Back to Creation: Toward a Consistent Adventist Creation—Fall—Re-Creation Hermeneutic,” paper presented to the Theology of Ordination Study Committee in July 2013. The full text of the paper is available here: https://www.adventistarchives.org/back-to-creation.pdf (accessed on June 16, 2016).

[30] Waldo E. Martin, The Mind of Frederick Douglass (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 231. Frederick Douglass dedicated his life to counter such misconceptions; cf., Discussions on American Slavery: In Dr. Wardlow’s Chaper, Between Mr. George Thompson and the Rev., R. J. Breckinridge (Glasgow: George Gallie Publisher, 1836), p. 136.

[31] Paul Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson (London: M. E. Sharpe, 2014), p. 197.

[32] Ellen G. White, “Biblical Counsel on Solving Church Difficulties,” in Manuscript Release 15, no. 1158 (Silver Spring: E. G. White Estate, 1993), 150; cf., Ellen White, Selected Messages, vol.1 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1958), p. 22.