It is the province of statesmen to examine the circumstances under which the Constitution of the United States recognizes the legality of slave-holding; and under what circumstances, if any, it becomes a crime against the law of the land. But the question whether slave-holding is a sin before G-d, is one that belongs to the theologian.
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I have been requested by prominent citizens of other denominations, that I should on this day examine the Bible view of slavery, as the religious mind of the country requires to be enlightened on the subject. In compliance with that request, and after humbly praying that the Father of Truth and of Mercy may enlighten my mind, and direct my words for good, I am about to solicit your earnest attention, my friends, to this serious subject. My discourse will, I fear, take up more of your time than I am in the habit of exacting from you; but this is a day of penitence, and the having to listen to a long and sober discourse must be accounted as a penitential infliction.
It is generally admitted, that slavery had its origin in war, public or private. The victor having it in his power to take the life of his vanquished enemy, prefers to let him live, and reduces him to bondage. The life he has spared, the body he might have mutilated or destroyed, become his absolute property.
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He may dispose of it in any way he pleases. Such was, and through a great part of the world still is, the brutal law of force. When this state of things first began, it is next to impossible to decide. If we consult Sacred Scripture, the oldest and most truthful collection of records now or at any time in existence, we find the word evved "slave" which the English version renders "servant," first used by Noah, who, in Genesis ix.
How came he to know anything of slavery? There existed not at that time any human being on earth except Noah and his family of three sons, apparently by one mother, born free and equal, with their wives and children. Noah had no slaves. From the time that he quitted the ark he could have none. It therefore becomes evident that Noah's acquaintance with the word slave and the nature of slavery must date from before the Flood, and existed in his memory only until the crime of Ham called it forth.
You and I may regret that in his anger Noah should from beneath the waters of wrath again have fished up the idea and practice of slavery; but that he did so is a fact which rests on the authority of Scripture.
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I am therefore justified when tracing slavery as far back as it can be traced, I arrive at the conclusion, that next to the domestic relations of husband and wife, parents and children, the oldest relation of society with which we are acquainted is that of master and slave. Let us for an instant stop at this curse by Noah with which slavery after the Flood is recalled into existence.
Among the many prophecies contained in the Bible and having reference to particular times, persons, and events, there are three singular predictions referring to three distinct races or peoples, which seem to be intended for all times, and accordingly remain in full force to this day. The first of these is the doom of Ham's descendants, the African race, pronounced upwards of 4, years ago. The second is the character of the descendants of Ishmael, the Arabs, pronounced nearly 4, years ago; and the third and last is the promise of continued and indestructible nationality promised to us, Israelites, full years ago.
It has been said that the knowledge that a particular prophecy exists, helped to work out its fulfillment, and I am quite willing to allow that with us, Israelites, such is the fact. The knowledge we have of G-d's gracious promises renders us imperishable, even though the greatest and most powerful nations of the olden time have utterly perished.
It may be doubted whether the fanatic Arab of the desert ever heard of the prophecy that he is to be a "wild man, his hand against every man, and every man's hand against him. Not even when the followers of Mahomet rushed forth to spread his doctrines, the Koran in one hand and the sword in the other, and when Arab conquest rendered the fairest portion of the Old World subject to the empire of their Caliph, did the descendants of Ishmael renounce their characteristics.
Even the boasted civilization of the present century, and frequent intercourse with Western travellers, still leave the Arab a wild man, "his hand against everybody, and every man's hand against him," a most convincing and durable proof that the Word of G-d is true, and that the prophecies of the Bible were dictated by the Spirit of the Most High. But though, in the case of the Arab, it is barely possible that he may be acquainted with the prediction made to Hagar, yet we may be sure that the fetish-serving benighted African has no knowledge of Noah's prediction; which, however, is nowhere more fully or more atrociously carried out than in the native home of the African.
Witness the horrid fact, that the King of Dahomey is, at this very time, filling a large and deep trench with human blood, sufficient to float a good-sized boat; that the victims are innocent men, murdered to satisfy some freak of what he calls his religion; and that this monstrous and most fiendish act has met with no opposition, either from the pious indignation of Great Britain, or from the zealous humanity of our country.
No, I am well aware that the Biblical critics called Rationalists, who deny the possibility of prophecy, have taken upon themselves to assert, that the prediction of which I have spoken was never uttered by Noah, but was made up many centuries after him by the Hebrew writer of the Bible, in order to smoothe over the extermination of the Canaanites, whose land was conquered by the Israelites. With superhuman knowledge like that of the Rationalists, who claim to sit in judgement on the Word of G-d, I do not think it worth while to argue.
Noah, on the occasion in question, bestows on his son Shem a spiritual blessing: "Blessed be the L-rd, the G-d of Shem," and to this day it remains a fact which cannot be denied, that whatever knowledge of G-d and of religious truth is possessed by the human race, has been promulgated by the descendants of Shem.
Christian views on slavery
Noah bestows on his son Japheth a blessing, chiefly temporal, but partaking also of spiritual good. Noah did not bestow any blessing on his son Ham, but uttered a bitter curse against his descendants, and to this day it remains a fact which cannot be gainsaid that in his own native home, and generally throughout the world, the unfortunate negro is indeed the meanest of slaves. Much has been said respecting the inferiority of his intellectual powers, and that no man of his race has ever inscribed his name on the Pantheon of human excellence, either mental or moral.
But this is a subject I will not discuss. I do not attempt to build up a theory, not yet to defend the moral government of Providence. I state facts; and having done so, I remind you that our own fathers were slaves in Egypt, and afflicted four hundred years; and then I bid you reflect on the words of inspired Isaiah lv. Having thus, on the authority of the sacred Scripture, traced slavery back to the remotest period, I next request your attention to the question, "Is slaveholding condemned as a sin in sacred Scripture?
But we live in times when we must not be surprised at anything. Last Sunday an eminent preacher is reported to have declared from the pulpit, "The Old Testament requirements served their purpose during the physical and social development of mankind, and were rendered no longer necessary now when we were to be guided by the superior doctrines of the New in the moral instruction of the race. But it appears I was mistaken. But when I remember that the "now" refers to a period of which you all, though no very aged men, witnessed the rise; when, moreover, I remember that the "WE" the reverend preacher speaks of, is limited to a few impulsive declaimers, gifted with great zeal, but little knowledge; more eloquent than learned; better able to excite our passions than to satisfy our reason; and when, lastly, I remember the scorn with which sacred Scripture Deut.
But as that reverend gentleman takes a lead among those who most loudly and most vehemently denounce slaveholding as a sin, I wished to convince myself whether he had any Scripture warranty for so doing; and whether such denunciation was one of those "requirements for moral instruction" advanced by the New Testament. I have accordingly examined the various books of Christian Scripture, and find that they afford the reverend gentleman and his compeers no authority whatever for his and their declamations.
The New Testament nowhere, directly or indirectly, condemns slaveholding, which, indeed, is proved by the universal practice of all Christian nations during many centuries. Receiving slavery as one of the conditions of society, the New Testament nowhere interferes with or contradicts the slave code of Moses; it even preserves a letter written by one of the most eminent Christian teachers to a slaveowner on sending back to him his runaway slave. There where His finger scorched, the tablet shone; There where His shadow on his people shone His glory, shrouded in its garb of fire, Himself no eye might see and not expire.
Even on that most solemn and most holy occasion, slaveholding is not only recognized and sanctioned as an integral part of the social structure, when it is commanded that the Sabbath of the L-rd is to bring rest to Avdecha ve'Amasecha , "Thy male slave and thy female slave" Exod. But the property in slaves is placed under the same protection as any other species of lawful property, when it is said, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, or his field, or his male slave, or his female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or aught that belongeth to thy neighbor" Ibid.
That the male slave and the female slave here spoken of do not designate the Hebrew bondman, but the heathen slave, I shall presently show you. That the Ten Commandments are the word of G-d, and as such, of the very highest authority, is acknowledged by Christians as well as by Jews.
And if you answer me, "Oh, in their time slaveholding was lawful, but now it has become a sin," I in my turn ask you, "When and by what authority you draw the line? What right have you to place yonder grey-headed philanthropist on a level with a murderer, or yonder mother of a family on a line with an adulteress, or yonder honorable and honest man in one rank with a thief, and all this solely because they exercise a right which your own fathers and progenitors, during many generations, held and exercised without reproach or compunction. I am no friend to slavery in the abstract, and still less friendly to the practical working of slavery.
But I stand here as a teacher in Israel; not to place before you my own feelings and opinions, but to propound to you the word of G-d, the Bible view of slavery. With a due sense of my responsibility, I must state to you the truth and nothing but the truth, however unpalatable or unpopular that truth may be. It remains for me now to examine what was the condition of the slave in Biblical times and among the Hebrews. And here at once we must distinguish between the Hebrew bondman and the heathen slave. The former could only be reduced to bondage from two causes. If he had committed theft and had not wherewithal to make full restitution, he was "sold for his theft.
Or if he became so miserably poor that he could not sustain life except by begging, he had permission to "sell" or bind himself in servitude. But in either case his servitude was limited in duration and character. And if even the bondman preferred bondage to freedom, he could not, under any circumstances, be held to servitude longer than the jubilee then next coming. At that period the estate which had originally belonged to his father, or remoter ancestor, reverted to his possession, so that he went forth at once a freeman and a landed proprietor.
As his privilege of Hebrew citizen was thus only suspended, and the law, in permitting him to be sold, contemplated his restoration to his full rights, it took care that during his servitude his mind should not be crushed to the abject and cringing condition of a slave. Thus he is fenced round with protection against any abuse of power on the part of his employer; and tradition so strictly interpreted the letter of the law in his favor, that it was a common saying of Biblical times and homes, which Maimonides has preserved to us, that "he who buys an Hebrew bondman gets himself a master.
Therefore it is not for him or his that the Ten Commandments stipulated for rest on the Sabbath of the L-rd; for his employer could not compel him to work on that day; and if he did work of his own accord, he became guilty of death, like any other Sabbath-breaker. Neither does the prohibition, "thou shalt not covet the property of thy neighbor," apply to him, for he was not the property of his employer. In fact, between the Hebrew bondman and the Southern slave there is no point of resemblance.
There were, however, slaves among the Hebrews, whose general condition was analogous to that of their Southern fellow sufferers. That was the heathen slave, who was to be bought "from the heathens that were round about the land of Israel, or from the heathen strangers that sojourned in the land; they should be a possession, to be bequeathed as an inheritance to the owner's children, after his death, for ever" Levit.
Over these heathen slaves the owner's property was absolute; he could put them to hard labor, to the utmost extent of their physical strength; he could inflict on them any degree of chastisement short of injury to life and limb. If his heathen slave ran away or strayed from home, every Israelite was bound to bring or send him back, as he would have to do with any other portion of his neighbor's property that had been lost or strayed.
Now, you may, perhaps, ask me how I can reconcile this statement with the text of Scripture so frequently quoted against the Fugitive Slave Law, "Thou shalt not surrender unto his master the slave who has escaped from his master unto thee: Deut.
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I answer you that, according to all legists, this text applies to a heathen slave, who, from any foreign country escapes from his master, even though that master be an Hebrew, residing out of the land of Israel. This interpretation is fully borne out by the words of the precept. The pronoun "thou," is not here used in the same sense as in the Ten Commandments.
There it designates every soul in Israel individually; since every one has it in his power, and is in duty bound to obey the commandments. But as the security and protection to be bestowed on the runaway slaves are beyond the power of any individual, and require the consent and concurrence of the whole community, the pronoun "thou" here means the whole of the people, and not one portion in opposition to any other portion of the people.
The king himself is a servant of their God. This generally leads to inconsistency in translation and it becomes hard for readers not to read into the word ideas from subsequent, very different systems of slavery eg. In the patriarchal system, the work in someone's household was carried out by herdsmen and domestic servants, but if Abraham had had no offspring one of his servants would inherit all he had Genesis Servants were trusted with money and weapons. There is no approval for selling people, although Abraham 'acquired' people for silver.
Deuteronomy forbids returning a runaway slave to his master. This contrasts to former slavery laws in America or even in the ancient lawcode of the Babylonian king Hammurabi law Exodus contains laws on how to treat slaves. Verses deal with guidance in cases of injury. Verses give the consequences of injuring slaves. Verse 21 seems to suggest that the slave is a possession: "for the slave is his money" ESV. This does not indicate that the master owns the slave and can do what he likes, as the rest of the Old Testament shows that that is clearly not the case, but the "for" indicates the reason that the slave is not to be avenged: it is because the slave is the master's "money" literally "silver".
In other words, because the master benefits from the slave being alive, it is to be presumed that when he struck the slave, he did not intend to kill the slave. The consequences of striking and injuring a slave are given in verses It is a pledge of future work, temporarily, for a meal today. The selling of a daughter is also related to marriage and dowries. In interpreting the Old Testament, it is often helpful to go back first to what Creation teaches rather than to start with what the Law stipulates as Jesus did in relation to questions about divorce.
Often the Old Testament Law is a matter of permitting or regulating something, rather than saying that it is good. The Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt is not so much about God setting the Israelites free eg. Christians could not change the legal system. A slave rebellion would have led to the execution of the rebels. There were also legal restrictions concerning the number of slaves who could be freed and freeing them early before the age of 30 could bar them from becoming Roman citizens Lex Fufia Caninia and Lex Aelia Sentia.
Commanding Christians to free their slaves would not therefore have been legal, nor would it have worked as, by state law, some of those slaves would still not have been free. But Christians were commanded to love others as Christ loved us. That meant that people could no longer be treated as slaves, but Christians would then become the servants of all, as Christ was Philippians In their letters, Paul and Peter mention Christians exchanging a holy kiss.
For the general culture, a kiss was a greeting for family only. It was not how people generally greeted each other. The runaway slave Philemon is received back "above a slave" Philemon Jesus is called Lord because he is their Master and so no-one else could claim to be someone's master. Although Christians could not abolish Roman slavery, they started a new form of society, a new 'race', within the Roman Empire in which they lived, and this effectively challenged the status of human beings either as masters or as slaves to other human beings.
This lecture was given at the Lanier Theological Library on 30th October A Scholars' Conference on the same topic, including a panel discussion with Peter Williams, was held earlier in the day.