The Bible and American Slavery

Less one gets confused about what this paper sets forth, let me say from the outset:  I emphatically condemn the American slavery institution that once existed and any lingering support for it; I in no way condone it or justify its implementation.  The overall implementation of slavery and related racism in America was unbiblical and sinful.  To the extent racism still exists, it is still unbiblical and sinful.
America began during the time of the New Covenant/Testament not the Old.
In this document slavery is involuntary servitude and voluntary servitude with harsh strings attached such as in Exodus 21:4-6.  Involuntary means the person did not voluntary subject himself to serve one called a Master.  One who is a voluntary servant is called a hired servant.

Indeed, in a document by Benjamin Franklin entitled “Observations concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries” in which he addresses how nations populate he writes in paragraph #12: “Why then will Americans purchase Slaves? Because Slaves may be kept as long as a Man pleases, or has Occasion for their Labour; while hired Men are continually leaving their Master (often in the midst of his Business,) and setting up for themselves.”

I find this sentence of 1751 by Benjamin Franklin instructive as to language used to distinguish enslaved servants (involuntary servitude) from hired servants (voluntary servitude). Note that with respect to the hired servants the word Master is used. So then this usage of the word Master in relations to the hired servants indicates to me that the master/servant mentioning scriptures of the New Testament considers the master/servant relationship to at least include that of the employer/employee relationship where employer/employee are words we use today more often instead of master/servant but yet captures a principle of obligation broader than the present day concept of employer/employee and is more akin to the independent contractor concept where one is under contract enforceable in a court of law whereas an employee generally can leave at will.

The purpose of the Article is to speak about scientific aspects of populating nations.  In the article Franklin notes that the worldwide population of pure Whites is proportionally very smaller than that of non-Whites. In the article Franklin explores the scientific differences between Whites and non-Whites which he gets extremely wrong perhaps due not to his heart but to flawed institutional and societal political, socio-economic, and scientific education and a lack of experience with non-Whites in general and Blacks in particular. Franklin lists non-Whites as Africans, Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes and Native American. It is noteworthy that he lists Native Americans as non-Whites mostly so if not altogether exclusively. Franklin using the three terms to refer to non-White skin complexions: black, tawny, and swarthy. Tawny is brown and I suppose swarthy means not white, not black and not brown as a distinction. He lists Africans as exclusively black or tawny (brown); Asians as chiefly tawny. He says Americans except for the new comers which seems to refer to whites like himself are black or tawny; this suggest to me he observed Native Americans or Indians to be non-white but black or brown/tawny. He lists Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, Swedes, and Germans as swarthy meaning he did not see them as white. He does except the German Saxons from being swarthy but instead count them among the whites. In other words, he sees the British, Saxons, and Americans like himself as white and all others as non-white.

Franklin sums it up by dividing people skin colors into two composite categories: (1) Black and Tawny/Brown and (2) White and Red. Thus, he seems to equate the word swarthy with the word red in this context. He makes this division in declaring that he views black and browns as inferior and less desirable than whites and red. Yet he says it is his natural human tendency to view those like him as more desirable and superior to those unlike him. Thus, he indicates that the inferiority of others in not necessarily scientifically so but emotionally so. Of course, we know and history has proven it is not scientifically so as no race is scientifically superior to another race.

Indeed, in paragraph #24 he concludes by saying the following:

“24. Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.”

In Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson also speaks to the issue of slavery and emancipation seemingly using the word red to include Native Americans or Indians. This shows the imprecision and historical uncertainty of such words as they were seemingly used in differing ways by differing people and even across contexts.

In 1858 before the Presidency, Abraham Lincoln in a debate with Stephen Douglas before the Illinois General Assembly Lincoln responded to the question of slavery and liberty which he had been trying to avoid.  He said he was not in favor of slaves ever having social and political equality; but, he was in favor of giving them their freedom.  Now one should remember Lincoln was a politician and politicians sometimes strategically make a first step which they think people may go for while waiting to make more steps.  I don’t know for sure but I would think that Lincoln was intelligent enough to know that once slaves received their freedom they would eventually demand social and political equality.

The abolition of slavery had  been long grappled with perhaps even in the minds of the founders when they established the no importation of slaves would cease after 1808.  Perhaps even then they knew the American form of slavery was anti-Christian but lacked the faith to do away with it fully but instead thought of politics and economics.  For as the scripture says the love of money (materialism) is the root of all evil.  Yet, perhaps they were thinking along the lines of population control as Franklin indicates more than the evil of slavery to the enslaved or perhaps both thoughts entered their mind.  Indeed, historical motivations as now are complex and not easily determined with certainty.

Indeed, Henry Berry in 1832 gave a speech before the Virginia House of Delegates on the abolition and evil of slavery in advocating for a gradual rather than rather sudden abolishment of slavery in America. An extract from he afore cited record of the speech follows:

“MR. berry rose and addressed the house. Mr. Speaker — Coming from a county in which there are about 4000 slaves, being myself a slave-holder;…That slavery is a grinding curse upon this state, I had supposed would have been admitted by all, and that the only question for debate here, would have been, the possibility of removing the evil. But, sir, in this I have been disappointed. I have been astonished to find that there are advocates here for slavery, with all its effects…But, sir, the plea of necessity will not answer in bar to a scheme for the future gradual emancipation and removal of this class — that measure is within our power. The evil was gradually entailed upon us, and can only be gradually removed. I admit that we are not to be blamed for the origin of this evil among us; we are not to be blamed for its existence now, but we shall deserve the severest censure if we do not take measures as soon as possibly, to remove it. Sir, every obligation of justice and humanity demands — the safety of the republic demands the adoption of a system which shall produce the certain, gradual emancipation and removal of this whole class. To liberate the after-born, is obviously practicable; it has been recommended by the immortal Jefferson, whose counsels we have followed in so many things, with such signal benefits, but have totally disregarded in this….”

I spent a somewhat significant amount of time on Franklin and founding founders and subsequent leaders because it informs us as to the thinking, inner conflicts and contradictions of the soul as well as conflicts between persons regarding earlier Americans and the institution, promulgation, sustainment, and eventual abolishment of slavery in America.

The Bible distinguishes between involuntary servitude and voluntary servitude. In this document, voluntary servitude refers to hired servitude not qualifying as involuntary servitude as defined above.

The Bible clearly allows a form of slavery (e.g., Genesis 47:1-26; Exodus 12:43-44; Exodus 21:2-11; Deuteronomy 15:12-18; Leviticus 25:39-55).  Indeed, Genesis 47:23-26 says Joseph engaged in a kind of enslavement on the behalf of Pharaoh though certainly not of the kind practiced in historical America.  Leviticus, especially Leviticus 25:44, seems to forbid holding fellow Israelites in bonds whereas this condition is seemingly absent in Exodus and Deuteronomy.  Perhaps, Leviticus may be interpreted as applying only to those Hebrew/Israelites who sold themselves into slavery because they were extremely poor (Leviticus 25:25) and were later sold to another; it was that other who was to help him and release him rather than further enslave him, not the first.  Indeed Deuteronomy 15:12 allows enslavement of those Hebrews who were slaves in Egypt (Deuteronomy 15:15).  That is, the Israelites so called in Egypt (Exodus 9:7).  This means Deuteronomy 15:12 reference to Hebrew brothers is a reference to Israelites which means Deuteronomy 12 allows Israelites to enslave Israelites at least under some conditions.

In the Old Testament, God cautions and regulates against killing (i.e., things like hanging) and abusing slaves (Exodus 21:20-27) to the point of severely harsh treatment. Exodus 21 does not give a penalty if a slave is physically punished and dies on the third day. I suppose this is because one may not be humanly able to sufficiently establish a nexus between the death and the punishment after some significant time has passed. God established 3+ days to be too much time. Parents are allowed to use the rod on children; but certainly God does not expect them to abuse the children (Proverbs 13:24).

Enslavement is to be in bondage to another. There are different degrees and forms of enslavement. There is both voluntary and involuntary enslavement. Indentured Servitude is a form of enslavement even to the point that the owner has the right to sell the indentured servant to another even if the servant does not want to go.

The Bible does not outrightly condemn all forms of enslavement; to do so would condemn imprisonment of people for crimes as imprisonment is a form of enslavement or bondage against one’s will and is therefore a kind of involuntary enslavement/bondage. Also, Paul in Philemon speaks of being a prisoner of Christ not because he had violated the law but that he  was in bonds to Christ for ministry and life.  So then Paul is saying he was enslaved to Christ though he uses a different Greek word than say Ephesians 6:5 when talking about bond-servants.

Even joining the military is a degree of enslavement; for example, you cannot just decide to leave and quit as it would be cause to lock you up in jail or otherwise punish you so it is a kind of voluntary enslavement/bondage. This differs from a regular job where if  you give your employer two weeks notice you can leave and go to another job whenever you wish to do so as a matter of the norm. The Bible does regulate enslavement to some degree in both the Old and New Testaments.

The key difference between biblical slavery and American slavery is that the bible does not allow killing the enslaved such as hanging them as was routinely done during the American form of slavery.  The Bible also does not allow the kind of physical abuse and dehumanization that American form of slavery inflicted upon blacks (Exodus 21:20-27).

The Old Covenant allowed harsh treatment of persons in some cases whereas the New Covenant removed such harsh treatment.  For example, if a woman committed adultery under the Old Covenant, she was to be stoned to death.  However, Jesus taught us that this was not to be under the New Covenant.  Similarly, the harsh treatment of servants was removed under the New Covenant as illustrated in Ephesians 6:5-9.

There are many definitions of bondage that are largely rooted in degree, type, and implementation.  In general, bondage is a word used to refer to a physical relationship between one person (the servant) and another person (the master) such that the master owns the servant as property.  Moreover, usually all that the servant owns the master also owns.  Levels or degrees of bondage range from being forced physically or by necessity to work for unreasonable wages to being forced to work without the physical power to say no and walk away from such work.  Some of these degrees or levels are righteous and some are not.

Fundamentally, the bible speaks of five types or degrees of biblical servitude:

  • Indentured servitude (those who voluntarily sell themselves for labor into constrained servitude) of Hebrews for a set period of time (Exodus 21:2-6)
  • Selling one’s Hebrew daughter as a maidservant for optional marriage to the man, his son or non-marriage (Exodus 21:7-11)
  • Buying heathen nation foreigners and their children as bondmen and bondmaids as property for life (Leviticus 25:44-46)
  • Putting an entire nation under tribute if they accept such peaceful subjugation (Deuteronomy 21:10-11)
  • Capturing and taking foreign women and children as plunder, after killing the men if a nation does not accept tribute (Deuteronomy 20:12-15; 21:10-14; Numbers 31:15)

The Holy Bible does not condemn bondage.  Indeed, Leviticus explicitly permits the buying and therefore selling of servants (Lev. 25:44-46).

Leviticus 19:20 says:  “And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to an husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; she shall be scourged; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free”. Leviticus 19:21-22 goes on to give the punishment for the man that lieth with the bondmaid.  The punishment is not death as is the case apparently regarding non-bondpersons in Deuteronomy 22:22-27.

Paul does exhort release of Onesimus in Philemon (Philemon 1:16) where Onesimus is a bond-servant who had apparently left his master.  However, he does not use the opportunity to say all servants should be released but his request is specific to Onesimus only.  Moreover,  the Bible does regulate bondage to some degree.  Even the New Testament recognizes righteous bondage and regulates it.  For indeed a servant in bonds is a slave as delineated by use of the words servant and bond (Ephesians 6:5-9) in verses 5 and 8, respectively, as well as the distinction between a bondservant and a hired servant as delineated in Leviticus 25:39-40. The Holy Bible also provides guidance concerning the spiritual responsibilities the master has to the servant and the servant has to the master.  The concept of bondage is not unbiblical or sinful; a specific implementation of bondage may be unbiblical and sinful as was the case for the American slavery institution.

Since the Holy Bible speaks about bondage without condemning it as sinful, we must conclude that bondage is not sinful.  Yet, the Holy Bible speaks about freedom without condemning freedom as sinful, so then we also must conclude that freedom is not sinful.  Since neither bondage nor freedom is sinful, we must conclude that every individual has the right to seek to be a bond-servant or to seek to be free and no other individual has the right to deny a person the right to seek either.  Thus, we conclude the following:

  1. A person has the biblical right to sell himself into righteous bondage if he is able to do so.
  2. A person has the biblical right to buy another into righteous bondage if he is able to do so (Leviticus 25:44-46).
  3. A person has the biblical right to seek his freedom if he is able to do so.
  4. A person has the biblical right to force his freedom from unrighteous enslavement if he is able to do so.
  5. A government has the biblical right to take a prisoner of war or for a crime into righteous bondage at least for a time is a reasonable observation (2 Samuel 8:1-2).</span.
  6. A nation’s government has the biblical right, responsibility, and obligation to regulate bondage and related activities, and the people of that nation have the right, responsibility, and obligation to establish and change such regulations over time, in order to ensure righteous behavior and opportunity of all concerned.
  7. The people have the biblical right to rebel against governments so as to effect desired changes even to the point of enduring suffering in the hope that even if change does not come now it will come later, perhaps even if only for others of a later generation.
  8. A person A has the biblical right to exhort person B to free person C at person B’s discretion (Philemon 1:10-19).

All of the aforementioned rights refer to God given rights.  All of which is to be done within the spirit of and consistent with the New Covenant of the New Testament.  Under the New Covenant the prevailing spirit regarding human relationships is freedom rather than bondage such that one major purpose of legal laws is to protect the weak against the strong.

The overall implementation of bondage and related racism in America was unbiblical and sinful. American slaves were sometimes if not most of the times purchased by slave traders from other people including African Chiefs and other Africans; such Africans sometimes if not most of the time had captured other Africans in war or specifically for sell/trading with the slave traders.  The Bible permits the buying and selling of servants.  However, American slavery as an institution far too often involved killing, extreme dehumanization, and unwarranted harsh treatment of a single race of people namely blacks or which was/is sometimes called colored people or Afro-Americans; such extreme activities are not permitted by the Bible.  Thus, American slavery was rooted in racism.  Racism is sinful since it presumes one race to be superior to another race.  God is not a respecter of races and does not consider one race superior to another race (Ephesians 6:9).  American slavery was rooted in racism; therefore it was sinful.

Exodus 21:20, 26, and 27 speak against killing and long term disabling of servants. Exodus 21:21 says that the master may chastise the servant with a rod since the servant is the master’s money.  American slavery violated Exodus.  Section 2 of Article 1 of the US Constitution counts slaves as three fifths of a person with regards to establishing the number of representatives from each state for the House of Representatives.  This of course was a form of extreme dehumanization.

In the beginning of America, slavery in America was not unconstitutional or at least was not perceived as unconstitutional.  However, even the framers of the US Constitution recognized slavery as inconsistent with the ideas on which the nation was being founded that “all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Article I Section 9 of the US Constitution contains this recognition and deferred national correction because of the fear (weakened faith) of hindering or hampering the effective formation of the new nation.  Amendments 13, 14 and 15 completed this correction and clarification in the US Constitution regarding the undesirability and sinfulness of the specific implementation of slavery as done in America overall.  Moreover, legally sanctioned discrimination, the consequence of slavery, was not largely rooted out of our nation until the arrival of the civil rights protests led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others and the passing of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

So then Blacks in America had the God given right to petition and rebel against America, its laws, and its people who supported slavery so as to obtain the freedom that Blacks in America desires and deserves. That which the founders of the nation knew in their soul and heart was best for America has come to be in America with respect to most if not all public policy and laws even if not so in the heart and soul of all Americans.  Praise God for that! Yet, the struggle continues; we must ensure progress continues both in attitudes and laws rather than regress, however open or subtle, to the ways of old.

The Civil Rights movement led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as supported by those who fought before him, with him, and after him, was about exercising our God-given right to seek and gain freedom from unrighteous bondage, racism, discrimination, and related unrighteousness activities (Deuteronomy 23:15-16, I Corinthians 7:21).

Scriptural References:

Exodus chapter 7 through chapter 11 (Israel in Egypt);  21:1-32; Leviticus 25:35-55; Deuteronomy 15:12-18; 20:10-14; 23:15-16; 24:7; Joel 3:8

Matthew 8:5-13; 10:24-25; Luke 12:36-48; 19:11-27; John 13:16; Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22; 4:1,  I Timothy 1:10; 6:1-3; Titus 2:9-10; I Corinthians 7:1-24; II Corinthians 3:17 ; I Peter 2:18-21

Other References

Why Doesn’t the New Testament Condemn Slavery and
Does the Bible
Say It is Okay to Beat Slaves If They Don’t Die?

Slavery in Bible Times

Christian Questions Podcast: Why Did God Allow Slavery

 To God Be the Glory!




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