The Bible, Slavery, and Sin

I have been reading Molly Oshatz’s thought-provoking new book Slavery and Sin: The Fight against Slavery and the Rise of Liberal Protestantism. Oshatz argues that the theological difficulties surrounding antebellum slavery gave rise to beliefs that became “hallmarks of liberal Protestant theology: God’s revelation unfolded progressively through human history, moral action had to be considered in its historical and social context, and the ultimate source of Protestant truth was the shared experience of believers rather than the letter of the biblical text.” These beliefs, of course, clashed with stronger views of biblical inspiration and inerrancy, a doctrine I discussed in a recent post.

There’s no more difficult topic in American theological history than the antebellum slavery debates. As Eugene Genovese, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Mark Noll, and others have shown, conservative Protestants employed a “commonsense, literal hermeneutic” that made it hard for them to condemn slavery “in the abstract.” On the face of it, the Bible seemed to tacitly accept slavery. But many northerners believed they could craft an antislavery argument by focusing on the “golden rule,” the equality of all humankind before God, and the specific abuses inherent in the American slave system.

Oshatz offers an empathetic  portrayal of moderate northern antislavery advocates – like Brown University’s Francis Wayland – who sought to make this argument without denigrating the literal authority of Scripture, as some radical abolitionists like Gerrit Smith and William Lloyd Garrison did. Smith insisted that the ideals of liberty trumped the text of Scripture. “Slavery is not to be tried by the Bible, but the Bible by freedom,” he said.

Oshatz shows that proslavery advocates wanted to keep all the focus on slavery “in the abstract,” and not quibble about the immoral practices endemic to the slave system, from violence to the indiscriminate breakup of families. If the Bible accepted any form of slavery, then southern Christian slave masters could practice that acceptable form, proslavery theorists said. Slaveholders only needed to obey God’s commands and treat their slaves well. Abuses were possible in any social system, they acknowledged, but that only spoke to the universality of human sin, not the inherent immorality of slave owning.

Wayland and other antislavery moderates were forced to argue on the basis of the “principles” and “spirit” of the Bible, as much as its actual text, to call for an end to slavery. (Proslavery writers such as Thornton Stringfellow called these “feelings and sentiments unknown to the Bible.”) Yet questions remained – if slavery per se is an immoral system, why did the Bible not explicitly say so? Where’s the “Thou shalt not own slaves” verse? Why did so few Christians realize slavery was immoral until the 18th century?

The antislavery Christians contended that God, in His providence, knew that ending slavery in the apostolic period was impossible, and trying to do so would have hampered the expansion of the gospel. Instead, God revealed principles such as the golden rule that did not immediately abolish slavery, but would eventually inspire its eradication. In that appeal to moral progress over time, Oshatz argues, lay the seeds of liberal Protestantism.

Mark Noll has argued that the chief difficulty in the commonsense, literal hermeneutic was the fallenness of “common sense.” We often fail to see how time, place, and prejudice shape common sense. And even the most conservative Bible interpreter must interpret and infer from Scripture regarding issues on which it is largely silent (abortion, for instance). Applying a system of ethics from Scripture does not entail liberalism. But the crisis over slavery, and American interpreters’ inability to achieve consensus on that pressing topic prior to the Civil War, was a shock to the American biblicist mind. It was a shock from which American Christians have never fully recovered.

For more on this topic, see among others Noll’s America’s God and The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, and the Genoveses’ The Mind of the Master Class


  • kierkegaard71

    And here’s another question in the same vein: does the BIble give us a sufficient sexual ontology for men and for women? That is, can you look at the Bible and get a distinct portrait of what it means to be a man? and what it means to be a woman? If you say “yes”, then you have the “dreaded” patriarchy that remains enshrined even in the New Testament, with husbands being call “lord” and women barred from pastoral leadership. If you say “no”, then you have Walter Wink, who declared that there is no such thing as a “biblical sexual ethic” (polygamy, monogamy, no explicit ban on pre-marital sex, etc.). For Wink, the only thing that counts is “love”. But, like most people, you land somewhere in the middle. But certainly what you no longer have is Bible as “rule book” with clear, unalterable instructions for human relationships.

  • kierkegaard71

    A follow-up related to liberal Protestantism and slavery: which came first…the chicken or the egg? Was the view of the uniqueness of the Bible already being undercut within Protestantism before the slavery issue achieved prominence? Or did the rise of the anti-slavery movement knock an initial chink out of the orthodox “armor”, that then unraveled as people were confronted by the challenges of “higher criticism” of the Bible?

    • Thomas Kidd

      Higher criticism was already beginning to emerge at the same time as the slavery debates, but I think that Noll and others see the slavery debates and Civil War as uniquely devastating debacle.

  • Grotoff

    The parallel to gay marriage is fascinating. The liberals were right, but they had to abandon the literal text of the Bible to get there. Perhaps those Christians that are left in the 22nd century will ask the same questions about our era that we ask now about those who fought for an end to slavery.

    • Jonathan Balmer

      The parallels to gay marriage are limited.

      I’d say the parallels are more like that of women’s ordination: Gay marriage in the Church, at least, is about acceptability in God’s eyes not civil or human rights in the culture at large. Just as one can believe in the inherit human dignity and right for a person to choose a religion (i.e. the RIGHT to be a heretic) even if they would NOT accept such a practice by the members of the Church, so can one advocate for the Civil rights of gay folk without blessing it in the Church through gay marriage. (And most of the gay civil rights issues ARE secular).

      Six generations after denominations started ordaining women (give or take) there’s still denominations (including the largest Christian communions which do not). This will probably be the case with gay marriage too. The orthopraxy of liberal denominations will probably seem so similar to the culture that the liberal Christians will decide to drop the bible reading and prayer as extraneous and simply become non-Church attenders akin with the culture at large which shares their views to a “t”–so to speak.

      The moral equivalence with scripture’s treatment of slavery and homosexuality is a poor one. While the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery outright it DOES give us reasons to abolish it because of its insistence on how we treat our fellow person (and the most fervent abolitionists- going against the grain of the culture- were Christians). While we are recognizing that we can do better in treating gay citizens right civillly there are no grounds biblically for a blessing of a same-sex marriage within the Church. And this is in the Bible. It’s not like the comparatively and very recent ideas of race which justified colonial chattel slavery.

      That’s the difference. The “spirit of the Bible” can’t be referenced here as marriage isn’t something the Bible is silent about– in new or old testaments.

  • John C. Gardner

    Which of the Noll books would be most relevant to this post to begin reading?Genovese and his wife certainly made important changes in their lives during the years prior to their deaths by moving to Christ and returning to the Catholic church. I read several of their books while in graduate school many decades ago.

    • Thomas Kidd

      I’d go for The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, simply because it is more focused on this particular question. America’s God is one of the greatest books ever written in this field, but it is a bit of an undertaking to read!


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