Slavery and the Bible
Slavery and the Bible
DOCUMENT #2 – DeBow’s Review – “Slavery and the Bible” September, 1850
This is a description of the moral and religious argument for slavery. It is a rebuttal to abolitionists that claim that slavery is religiously and socially immoral.
A very large party in the United States believe that holding slaves is morally wrong; this party founds its belief upon precepts taught in the Bible, and takes that book as the standard of morality and religion. We, also, look to the same book as our guide in the same matters; yet, we think it right to hold slaves—do hold them, and have held and used them from childhood.
As we come to such opposite conclusions from the same foundation, it may be well to consider, whether the Bible teaches us anything whatever, in regard to slavery; if so, what it is and how is it taught.
The anti-slavery party maintain, that the bible teaches nothing directly upon the subject, but, that it establishes rules and principles of action, from which they infer, that in holding slaves, we are guilty of a moral wrong. This mode of reasoning would be perfectly fair, if the Bible really taught nothing directly upon the subject of slavery; but when that book applies the principles it lays down to the particular subject in controversy, we must take the application to be correct. We think we can show, that the Bible teaches clearly and conclusively that the holding of slaves is right; and if so, no deduction from general principles can make it wrong, if that book is true.
From the earliest period of our time down to the present moment, slavery has existed in some form or under some name, in almost every country of the globe. It existed in every country known, even by name, to any one of the sacred writers, at the time of his writing; yet none of them condemns it in the slightest degree. Would this have been the case had it been wrong in itself? would not someone o the host of sacred writers have spoken of this alleged crime, in such terms as to show, in a manner not to be misunderstood, that God wished all men to be equal?
Abraham, the chosen servant of God, had his bond servants, whose condition was similar to, or worse than, that of our slaves. He considered them as his property, to be bought and sold as any other property which he owned. In Genesis xvii, 13, 23, 27, we are told that God commanded Abraham to circumcise all his bond-servants, “bought with his money,” and that Abraham obeyed God’s commandment on this same day. In Genesis xx, 14, we are told that Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and men servants and women servants, and gave them to Abraham. In chapter xii, verse 14, we are told that Abraham possessed sheep and oxen, and he asses, and men servants and maid servants, and she asses, and camels. Also, in Genesis xxvi, 14, Isaac is said to have had possessions of flocks and herds, and a great store of servants. In other places in Genesis, they are spoken of, but always as property.
Jacob’s sons sold Joseph, their brother, to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. They agreed with each other that they would sell him, when the Ishmaelites were afar off, and before they could have known that the Ishmaelites would buy him; only they knew, that such sales were common in the country at the time. The narrative of Joseph’s life in Egypt, shows that the sale of slaves was common there.
No one can doubt, that Abraham regarded his servants as his property, and that they were so regarded in the country in which he lived. Not only was the bond-servant of Abraham considered his property, but the condition of the bond-servant was hereditary, or his child was a servant. In Genesis xvii, 13, God not only commanded Abraham to circumcise his servants, bought with his money, but also, those born in his house, and those which, at any future time, should be born in his house, or in that of any of his descendants; and in the twenty-third and twenty-seventh verses of the same chapter, we are told that Abraham did circumcise all his male servants, born in his house, on the same day. In chapter xiv of Genesis we are told, that Abraham took three hundred and eighteen trained servants, which had been born in his house, and pursued the kings who had carried off Lot. These three hundred and eighteen servants were born servants.
Let us now see what control Abraham exercised over these servants born in his house and bought with his money. God commanded Abraham to circumcise all his male servants—those born in his house were so numerous, that he had of them three hundred and eighteen men fit for battle. The command was, not that Abraham should use his influence over them and persuade them to be circumcised, but he and all his descendants are commanded to circumcise them—the crime and punishment for disobedience to this command, were to fall on him or his descendants. Now, in order that God could have required this from Abraham, with any degree of justice, it was necessary that Abraham should have had both the power over his servants, which was necessary to enable him to do this, and also, that he should have had the legal and moral right to exercise that power.
Circumcision was a requirement, until then, totally unknown. Abraham’s servants must have regarded it as a foolish whim of his own. Nothing else could have been considered more degrading to them, or more absurd to him. Yet, no one of all the immense number of his servants, refused to permit the circumcision to be performed. We may well suppose, that Abraham might have required anything else which his fancy dictated, and equally have enforced obedience, if it were not more absurd, painful or degrading.
When Sarai, Abraham’s wife, complained to him of the conduct of Hagar, her maid servant, he answered, “thy maid is in thy hand, do to her as it pleaseth thee,” showing that she wanted only her husband’s consent to punish Hagar as she pleased. We are then told, that, when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face into the wilderness—there the angel of the Lord found her; but, instead of relieving her distress, and sending her to some free country, he told her to return and submit herself to her mistress.
When Abraham pursued Chederlaomer, the king of Elam, he took his three hundred and eighteen servants, and his three friends, Aner, Eschol and Mamre, and recaptured a large amount of property which had been carried away from Sodom. But when the king of Sodom offered him all the property which he had taken, he refused everything, except what his servants had eaten and the portion of his three friends—answering immediately for himself and his servants, and refusing everything, but reserving the right to his friends to answer for themselves.
From the passages which I have recited and referred to, we can obtain some idea of the conditions of Abraham’s servants. They were property bought and sold for money; their services belonged to him, and was disposed of without their consent. Their condition was hereditary—the master could punish or chastise the slave, and even maim him, at his pleasure. He exercised rights which no southern planter would dare to exercise, and which a southern negro would not submit to.
Abraham was a worshiper of God; he had direct and immediate communication with him. He showed his willingness to obey God’s commands, even in offering his only son a sacrifice to God. He is spoken of by all the sacred writers, as one who was selected, from the whole human race, as the father of the faithful. God would not have so highly honored him, had he been living in constant and habitual violation of his laws: nor would he have required from him the performance of immaterial ceremonies, or of painful things not required by the moral law, and left him ignorantly to continue to violate his duties to his fellow men. Had our abolition friends been in God’s stead, they would have certainly acted in a very different manner. Is there one of them who will dare to say, he would have done better than God did?
But God, instead of teaching Abraham, his chosen servant, that it was immoral to use and buy his slaves, demanded from him the performance of certain things, which required that the relation of master and slave should be kept up, not only during Abraham’s time, but in all future ages. And when the angel of the Lord interfered between Sarai and Hagar, it was to cause the slave to submit to punishment inflicted by her mistress. Under like circumstances, our slaves are persuaded to go to Canada.
From what I have written, if it stood alone, I would infer that the holding of slaves was right, in some cases. But this is, by no means, all that is found in the Bible upon the subject. After the Israelites had been a long time in Egypt, they became servants to the Egyptians. At this time, God sent Moses, as a messenger, to bring them out of Egypt. Through Moses, God gave them laws by which they were to be governed. No law which came directly from him (the fountain of morality), can be considered morally wrong; it might be imperfect, in not providing for circumstances not then existing—but, so far as it does provide, the provisions are correct. Nothing which God ordained can be a crime, and nothing for which he gave express permission can be considered wrong.
In Leviticus xxv, we are told, that the Lord spake to Moses, saying: “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them”—after various provisions of the law, the 39th verse reads as follows, in regard to servitude: “If thy brother that dwelleth by thee be waxen poor, and be sold unto thee, then shalt not compel him to serve as a bond-servant, but as an hired servant,” &c.—clearly showing that there was a distinction between bond-servant and hired-servant. After providing for the case of a Hebrew servant, verses 44, 45, and 46, of the same law, read as follows: “Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. 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 bondmen forever.”
In Exodus xxi, 20, 21, we find this law: “And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand, he shall be surely punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.”
The 26th and 27th verses of the same chapter provide, that if the servant have lost an eye or a tooth, by a blow from the master, the servant should go free.
The 29th, 30th, 31st, and 32d verses provide, that if an ox was known to be vicious and killed a freeman, the ox and his owner were both put to death; but if he gored a bond-servant, the ox should be killed and the master should pay thirty shekels of silver: showing the distinction between bond and freemen.
The law given to the Israelites, in regard to circumcision, required the master to circumcise his male servant, bought with his money or born in his house; and, of course, it presupposes the right and power to enforce the circumcision.
Thus, we see that at a time when the Israelites had no slaves, but were themselves, in a manner, fugitive slaves, and when they had no use for slaves, being wanderers in a wilderness, and fed by God’s own hand, he provided laws for bringing in, buying, inheriting and governing, slaves, in the land unto which they were to be brought at the end of forty years. He made laws recognizing the right of property, in man and in his descendants, forever—the right to trade in that property, without any limit, except that the Israelites could not buy each other; and the right to punish the slave, with no limitation, except that if the slave should die under his master’s hand, the master should be punished—and if maimed, in certain ways, he had a right to freedom. These laws are worse, for the slave, than the laws of any southern State. They were provided, by God himself, for his chosen people. To any man, who admits that the Bible is given by inspiration from God, they prove that, in buying, selling, holding and using slaves, there is no moral guilt. Like all the institutions of the Deity, the holding of slaves may become criminal, by abuse of the slave; but the relation, in itself, is good and moral.
In the New Testament I find frequent mention of master and servant, and of their duties. Paul and Timothy, in writing to the Colossians, in the third chapter and twenty-second to twenty-fifth verses, exhort servants to obey their masters in all things, and not with eye-service; and in the fourth chapter and first verse, they exhort masters to give their servants what is just and equal.
Paul, in writing to Timothy, tells him to teach the same doctrine; and says, if any man teach otherwise, he is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words: see 1 Timothy vi, 1–6. Peter, also (1 Peter ii, 18–24), exhorts servants to be obedient to their masters, not only to the good and gentle, but to the forward.
Now, we all know, that the condition of the servant of the Roman Empire, was much less free than that of the southern negro. His master had a more unlimited control over him; yet, the apostles say to servants, to submit to their masters—not only to the good and gentle, but to the forward; and to masters to give to their servants what is just and equal. Now, had they considered the relation of master and slave, one criminal or immoral, in itself, they must either have omitted to speak of it at all, or have condemned the relation altogether.
Paul wrote an epistle to Philemon, a Christian, a disciple of his, and a slaveholder. He sent it to him by Onesimus, also a convert, a slave of Philemon, who was a fugitive. In it, he prays Philemon to charge the fault of Onesimus to him, saying he would repay it, unless Philemon forgave it for his sake.
Now, had the holding of slaves been a crime, Paul’s duty to Philemon would have required him to instruct Philemon, that he had no rights over Onesimus, but that the attempt to hold him in servitude was criminal; and his duty to Onesimus would have been, in such case, to send him to some foreign free country, whereby he might have escaped from oppression. But Paul sent him back. Our northern friends think that they manage these matters better than Paul did.
We find, then, that both the Old and New Testaments speak of slavery—that they do not condemn the relation, but, on the contrary, expressly allow it or create it; and they give commands and exhortations, which are based upon its legality and propriety. It cannot, then, be wrong.
What we have written is founded solely upon the Bible, and can have no force, unless it is taken for truth. If that book is of divine origin, the holding of slaves is right: as that which God has permitted, recognized and commanded, cannot be inconsistent with his will.
1. What was the main argument the author made throughout this work? Is it a convincing argument? Why or why not?
2. Is it proper to compare a document written so many years before (2,000 years before 1850) to try to justify problems in a modern era? In other words, can something so old still provide relevance to the social problems of the time? Do you believe this was the case in 1850 when this review was written? Why or why not?