Of all the civil rights movements that have swept across America in its history, none is so intimately connected with religion in the popular consciousness as the struggle against racism. Civil rights leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were famous for their use of biblical allusions to demand liberty for all human beings, and from their writings, many believers today have gotten the idea that the Bible teaches the equality of all people. But nothing could be farther from the truth, as we can see from a set of little-known Bible verses.
The so-called Good Book explicitly, repeatedly and unequivocally endorses and approves of slavery, presenting it as an institution directly sanctioned by God. Consider the following passage from Leviticus, which is one of a long list of instructions spoken by God to Moses:
“Thy bond-men and thy bond-maids which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you: of them shall ye buy bond-men and bond-maids. Moreover, of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land. And they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession, they shall be your bond-man forever.”
The idea that human beings can be bought and sold like possessions, and that this state should last in perpetuity, is a repugnant one that lies at the root of all the cruelties and inhumanities associated with slavery. But perhaps the Bible teaches that slaveowners should be kind and gentle to their servants, and the cruelty is a later development? Not quite:
“When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be punished; for the slave is his money.”
—Exodus 21:20-21 (RSV)
Not only does the Bible explicitly allow beating your slaves, it allows you to beat them to death, just as long as the slave does not immediately expire from the beating but lingers for a few days before dying. Can anyone dispute the savagery of such a law? Can anyone dispute that a book that teaches such things deserves the allegiance of no good person?
But the verses cited so far are all from the Old Testament. Surely Jesus, who taught a gospel of love and compassion, would have cast aside these cruel laws just as he nullified many other parts of the Mosaic law?
If you think so, you’re bound to be disappointed. Although Jesus abrogates the Old Testament provisions on kosher dining and not working on Sabbath days, he has not a word to say about the injustice of slavery. In fact, on one occasion he works slavery into a parable as if it were the most natural thing in the world, favorably comparing God to a slaveholder who beats his slaves for not obeying him:
“The lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.”
But even if the Bible does not explicitly condemn slavery in general, surely it commands Christians not to personally participate in this cruel custom, and to set free any slaves they may own? Nope:
“Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their masters worthy of all honor, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit.”
—1 Timothy 6:1-2
In fact, as the above passage shows, the biblical authors considered it blasphemous for a slave to disobey or dishonor his owner – as if rebelling against slavery was sin against God.
These verses and others like them were not overlooked by slaveholders of the American antebellum. On the contrary, in the period leading up to the American Civil War, Southern slaveholders repeatedly cited these verses against abolitionists, as proof that slavery was a just and proper institution sanctioned by God. (Indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention – the largest Protestant denomination in the United States – was formed expressly to defend the continued practice of slavery.) Consider the following sermon, “Mutual Relation of Masters and Slaves as Taught in the Bible“, which was preached by one Joseph Wilson in the First Presbyterian Church of Augusta, Georgia in January 1861:
Now, we have already seen that the Holy Spirit employs words which He [sic] has intended to be understood as distinctly enunciating the existence of domestic servitude—that He has sent to all the world a volume of truth, which is indisputably addressed to men who hold slaves and to the slaves who possess masters—and that, from the connections in which these highly suggestive words occur, He has included slavery as an organizing element in that family order which lies at the very foundation of Church and State.
Wilson’s sermon argues at length for the scriptural foundation of slavery, and the truth is, he is absolutely correct. Slavery unequivocally is taught throughout the Bible. The abolitionists who opposed it – who were both religious and secular – were on the right side morally, as everyone now recognizes; but theologically, the slaveholders had the upper hand. Only by sweeping these verses under the carpet could a religious case be made for abolition.
In the era in which the Bible was written, slavery was a common and natural part of society. But humanity has progressed morally, and we now recognize that slavery is a cruel and inhumane institution that deserves only eradication. If the biblical authors had access to a source of revelation not limited by human ignorance, we might have expected them to see what was truly right and condemn this harsh practice in no uncertain terms. But they do no such thing. Instead, they treat slavery as if it were natural and normal, working it into parables and teachings and even defending it as God’s will. The best explanation for these facts and others like them is that the Bible is simply a human creation, forged in the popular beliefs and prejudices of its time, and not informed by revelation from a being with a higher perspective.
Other posts in this series: