With grad school and work and the beautiful summertime outdoors, I haven’t found much time for blogging. I didn’t however want to abandon this subject as it is such an important revelation in our nation’s Christian history. After reading the book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark A. Noll, I knew I had to write about this phenomenon, the one where Christian history reveals continuity in its ability to interpret scriptures as condoning oppression and persecution of different people groups. As I stated in my previous post, the point of this blog is not to compare the American slave system to the persecution of gay people. The two are incomparable in scope and severity. They are not the same and they are not the point of the blog. Please read those last few sentences again. The comparison I want to bring to light is not between slavery and homosexuality. The comparison I want to make is between the conservative Christian biblical justification used in the 16th and 17th century to justify slavery and eventually the Civil War, and the modern day conservative Christian justification for condemning the gay community.
While reading this book, I made many notes that I wanted to eventually include in this blog. I compiled quote after quote, sorted these quotes by specific topic, color-coded, highlighted sections, and organized them to accompany each blog. This particular blog will look at the pro-slavery stance of the Bible as seen by many Southern conservative pastors and citizens. You might want to be sitting down for this…
The first common argument from many Christians about “homosexuality” being wrong, is that the bible is clear. (I put homosexuality in quotes because we have many different definitions of what this means. Is it same sex orientation? Same sex, sex? Men acting effeminate? You get the point.) Christians across the country, around the world, and of course, on the internet, are convinced that the bible is clear on this homosexuality issue. In the same exact way, Christians, according to this book and according to history believed the same thing about slavery. The book states,
The Bible, or so a host of ministers affirmed, was clear as a bell about slavery.
And the clear as a bell stance was that it was 100% permissible and the way God ordained the world to function. The thing about this simplicity argument is that it is base, dishonoring intelligent thought, prayer, critical evaluation, and human dignity. But, it works. The simpler we think the issues are, the less likely we are to disagree with the moral majority (the Christian majority opinion in this case).
The power of the proslavery scriptural position- especially in a Protestant world of widespread intuitive belief in the plenary inspiration of the whole Bible- lay in its simplicity.
Thompson’s defense could not have been more direct. In effect: open the Bible, read it, believe it.
During the years of conflict, countless believers illustrated such [pro-slavery] convictions by assuming that moral or spiritual perceptions could be crystal clear and that the means of moral action lay entirely within the grasp of well-meaning individuals.
The reason this common argument embodies such strength is because of the surface language used in scriptures. Both slavery and homosexuality are words used in modern translations of the bible. These words and similar sounding phrases are used multiple times (slavery more than homosexuality though mind you) by highly respected biblical characters, prophets, apostles, and those we now enshrine as saints.
Slavery as such could not be condemned absolutely, especially given the fact that the apostles Paul and Peter both counseled slaves on how they should act with respect to masters.
With increasing frequency as the sectional conflict heated up, biblical defenders of slavery were even more likely to perceive doubt about the biblical defense of slavery as doubt about the authority of the Bible itself.
Below I have linked eleven (this is not even an exhaustive list) of the scripture passages that promote, endorse, speak positively of, or otherwise do NOT condemn slavery.
“there is not a word in the New Testament to prohibit slavery, but…on the contrary, plain and evident approbations of it.” It also critiqued abolitionism as having “no foundation whatever in nature or morality or the word of God, either in the Old or New Testament, or in the enactments of law-givers of the religious or political order.”
Armed with clear verses such as these, many Christians and pastors believed that any disagreement with a pro-slavery position was simply ungodly. This is actually a common form of argumentation. Debaters have been using it for centuries. Step one: Convince people that the issues is clear, black and white. Step two: Present seemingly substantial findings that support your position. Step three: Accuse anyone who disagrees with your position of being a bad person, refusing to see obvious truth. Step four: pose an ultimatum between my view and a terrible alternative.
Christians and well-known ministers laid out the clear nature of the pro-slavery position, presented these passages as proof, and subsequently accused anyone who disagreed with their position as being ungodly, arrogant, disobedient, anti-bible, unorthodox, and a threat to Christianity. They rounded out the argument by posing the ultimatum; will you follow God, or your own sinful way? This argument sounds painfully familiar to gay people everywhere.
Those who saw in Scripture a sanction for slavery were both more insistent on pointing to the passages that seemed so transparently to support their position and more confident in decrying the wanton disregard for divine revelation that seemed so willfully to dismiss biblical truths.
First, open the Scriptures and read, at say Leviticus 25:45, or, even better at 1 Corinthians 7:20-21. Second, decide for yourself what these passages mean. Don’t wait for a bishop or a king or a president or a meddling Yankee to tell you what the passage means, but decide for yourself. Third, if anyone tries to convince you that you are not interpreting such passages in the natural, commonsensical, ordinary meaning of the words, look hard at what such a one believes with respect to other biblical doctrines. If you find in what he or she says about such doctrines that least hint of unorthodoxy, as inevitably you will, then you may rest assured that you are being asked to give up not only the plain meaning of Scripture, but also the entire trust in the Bible that made the country into such a great Christian civilization. – James Henley Thornwell
This is actually quite genius. Christians over the ages have typically always upheld the bible as authoritative, central to their faith, and infallible. No Christian during this time period wanted to be seen as opposing the bible or God (which was and is often seen as synonymous). So, even if Christians were starting to see the light of the abolitionists’ perspective, all a pastor had to do was accuse them of being bad Christians, disobedient to God, and many people fell back into the pro-slavery line.
Most important, many earnest Christians (both North and South) who would gladly have welcomed a sure biblical word against slavery concluded reluctantly that allegiance to Scripture simply had to override murmurs of conscience against the peculiar institution [of slavery].
So clear to Van Dyke were the biblical sanctions for slavery that he could only conclude that willful abolitionists like Beecher were scoffing at the Bible’s authority.
“Is slaveholding condemned as a sin in sacred Scripture?…How this question can at all arise in the mind of any man that has received a religious education, and is acquainted with the history of the Bible, is a phenomenon I cannot explain to myself” – Rabbi Morris J. Raphall
My original thoughts while reading this were, surely these were ignorant small town pastors attempting to maintain the status quo of slavery for economic gain. That was not, however, always, or even usually, the case. Many of these Christians were well educated, well studied, highly respected, and often famous pastors. They were experts also at what Mark Noll, the book’s author, refers to as orthodox fidelity, or determining what theology aligned with their ideas of being faithful to the bible.
[Moses] Stuart’s reputation as America’s most competent Bible scholar, which was based on a parade of learned grammars, commentaries, and treatises published from the 1810’s into the 1850s, was well earned.
The most skillful use of the Bible in defending slavery came from Americans like Richard Fuller, Thomas Stringfellow, or even Moses Stuart who were careful exegetes of individual passages but who also knew how to pose the question of orthodox fidelity: will you follow God’s faithful word in the Bible or the deliverances of your own finite and easily swayed conscience?
Thompson’s message was straightforward: if God through divine revelation so clearly sanctioned slavery, and even the trade in “strangers,” how could genuine Christians attack modern slavery, or even the slave trade, as an evil?
Thus in 1860 the Kentucky Presbyterian Robert Breckinridge told readers how they could discover the essence of a Christian church: “If the world, and more especially the children of Christ, would follow simply and earnestly the light of reason…and the teachings of that divine word, which he has given to be a map unto our feet…, it is not easy to imagine how the least obscurity could hang over such a question.”
As a last resort, some Christians and ministers threw the final punch by promoting the idea that dissenters were in essence blasphemers.
In 1861 the Brooklyn Presbyterian Henry Van Dyke expressed bewilderment when he pondered how abolitionists could read the Bible as they professed to read it: “When the Abolitionist tells me that slaveholding is sin, in the simplicity of my faith in the Holy Scriptures, I point him to this sacred record, and tell him, in all candor, as my text does, that his teaching blasphemes the name of God and His doctrine.”
Abolitionists “must give up the New Testament authority, or abandon the fiery course which they are pursuing.” – Moses Stuart
What exactly has changed in in over 150 years? Slavery was made illegal. But, this was not because American Christians came to the moral conclusion that it was biblically wrong; it happened because the South lost the Civil War. I know the issue is much more complex than that. And, I know that there were many Christians active in the fight against slavery. But the point remains that a Christian biblical argument and worldview kept slavery alive and it’s the same argument and worldview that is keeping persecution alive for the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) community today.
The American Civil War generated a first-order theological crisis over how to interpret the Bible, how to understand the work of God in the world, and how to exercise the authority of theology in a democratic society.
I am not suggesting that we throw out the bible. It is too full of rich history and revelation about who Jesus is to be disregarded. I am suggesting that we take a sobering look at how easily it has been used as a weapon, as a tool for judgment, and an excuse for shameful acts of discrimination. How about we ask ourselves, are we open enough to consider not repeating our argumentative style history? Are we ok with the ambiguity in the bible? Do we trust God enough to act on our instincts toward love before we act on supposed clear scripture verses that have drastic implications for people’s lives? If we are going to hold a belief on an issue impacting someone’s entire life we owe it to God, ourselves, but especially to the people it impacts to consider the implications of our belief, consider the motive behind our belief, and consider the love from which our belief should come (and I don’t mean, “In Christian love, I have to hit you with these bible verses” crap). Can we do that? If we do, it could change the world.