Slavery and the Creation of a Counterfeit ‘Biblical Civilization’ in America: 1619-1865

You probably weren’t able to get to Oxford University for the 2013 Astor Lecture, delivered by Notre Dame historian Mark Noll. I wasn’t either. But don’t worry — Deane Galbraith has us covered, providing an .mp3 of Noll’s lecture.

“Mark Noll identifies the year 1865 as the year in which the American Bible civilization cracked,” Galbraith writes, teasing Noll’s lecture, titled “Biblical Criticism and the Decline of America’s Biblical Civilisation, 1865-1918.″

Allow me to do a couple of imprudent and dangerous things here. First, I’m going to respond to Noll’s lecture before I’ve had a chance to listen to it. And, second, I’m going to disagree with Mark Noll about the history of Christianity in America. The latter is particularly reckless, since Noll is an incredibly smart and perceptive historian who seems to have read and digested everything about the history of American Christianity and surely knows more about that subject than I ever will.

But, still, this needs to be said: the title of Noll’s lecture is misleading and … well, it’s just wrong. It’s based on a false premise.

Any discussion of “the Decline of America’s Biblical Civilization, 1865-1918” is doomed from the start because it assumes that America was some kind of “biblical civilization” in 1865. It wasn’t. “America’s Biblical Civilization” could not have cracked in 1865 because the possibility of such a thing ever existing had been negated back in 1619.

Perhaps America Christians in 1865 imagined they were living in a “Biblical Civiliation.” After all, the majority of white American Christians in the centuries leading up to 1865 regarded themselves as “biblical” people. They said as much quite a bit.

But if we’re going to understand America and American Christianity, we can’t just take their word for it. We have to evaluate what they meant by this claim, whether that meaning is meaningful, and whether it is in any sense accurate.

I think that claim was accurate, but I do not think it was meaningful. Because slavery.

The existence of slavery — the reliance upon slavery — renders the claim of “America’s Biblical Civilization: 1619-1865” absurd and meaningless, as “any man whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.”

That last bit is from Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” wherein Douglass contends directly with the claim that America was ever, in any meaningful sense, a “biblical civilization”:

The church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines. who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.

Yeah, that.

Those same “eloquent Divines” were not just the foremost proponents of American-style “biblical” Christianity, they were the inventors and creators of the thing. And the thing was invented and created and designed in order to give “the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system.”

Venus
Jonathan Edwards’ receipt for his purchase of “Negro Girle named Venus,” dated June 7, 1731.

Christendom never described itself as “biblical civilization” until the 17th century. For the previous 16 centuries of Christianity, the Bible did not play such a role in the way that Christians and “Christian civilization” identified and imagined itself. Such an idea just wasn’t available or possible before then. The transformation of Christendom from “Christian civilization” into “biblical civilization” was not a thing that could have happened until after the printing press and the widespread availability of non-Latin translations.

And as soon as such a thing became possible — as soon as the English-speaking colonists who would later become “Americans” first had the opportunity to redefine themselves and begin to identify as “biblical” Christians — it began to be shaped by the nearly concurrent rise of the institution of slavery.

The King James Version of the Bible was completed in 1611. The first African slaves were imported into Jamestown in 1619. “Biblical” Christianity and the idea of “biblical civilization” grew up alongside slavery. The latter shaped the former, and the two things have been inextricably intertwined ever since.

The invention of “biblical” Christianity and of the idea of “biblical civilization” was for the purpose of accommodating slavery. That may not have been its exclusive purpose, but it was an essential function of the thing. It was a concept shaped and designed and tailored so that it could and would defend and perpetuate slavery.

In broad terms, it was a mechanism to allow American Christians to avoid the inconveniently unambiguous implications of the question “Is slavery Christian?” Put that way, Christians can offer only one answer. But what if we change the question? What if we begin to ask, instead, “Is slavery biblical?” Ah, now we have room to work. Now we can introduce technicalities and proof-texts. Now we can shift the debate from the damning, insurmountable obstacles of the greatest commandment and the imperative to “do justice,” and we can begin, instead, debating arcane questions involving the exposition of disparate isolated texts.

It was a dodge. And that’s a feature, not a bug. This is what American-style “Bible Christianity” was designed and intended to do.

That’s why the perpetual antebellum “debate” among American Christians over whether or not slavery was “biblical” was rigged from the get-go. “Biblical” was an adjective primarily designed to describe a form of Christianity that had mutated to approve and defend the institution of slavery. “Biblical” may have also meant other things, but that was always a part of its meaning. That’s why those pre-1865 debates over whether or not “slavery is biblical” were ultimately just a form of disingenuous theater.

Of course slavery was “biblical” and of course opposition to slavery was “unbiblical.” That was what those words mean. That was the whole point of declaring that American Christians should think of themselves as a biblical civilization rather than a Christian one.

All of which is why the dominant narrative in historical and theological discussion of pre-1865 American Christian “debates” about slavery get the whole thing backwards and upside-down. I love Mark Noll’s The Civil War as Theological Crisis. You should read it. It’s a terrific, incisive, engaging book full of profound questions and insights. But it also gets the core of its argument backwards and upside-down.

The perverse part of that argument and that narrative is this: It asserts that pre-1865 “biblical” Christians approved of slavery because of the way they read their Bibles. That’s not true. That’s the opposite of what is true. Pre-1865 “biblical” Christians read their Bibles the way they did because they approved of slavery.

 

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