The Faithful Church Abolished Southern Slavery

slave beaten back
The Scourged Back of “Gordon” an escaped slave from Louisiana – McPherson & Oliver, 1863

The Lie:

Bible-believing Christians were slaveholders.

The Truth:

There were two groups of people who carried the name of Jesus during the slave era:

  1. The abolitionists, who studied the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27, ESV) and made a practice of “rightly dividing the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV).
  2. The slaveholders, who cherry-picked Scriptures which seemed to agree with their views on slavery, while ignoring or disobeying Scriptures which disagreed with their views, and who gave precedence to the authority of science or reason over the authority of the Bible.

There are some who argue that the Southern slaveholders were biblical literalists who looked at the “letter of the law,” while those who wanted to abolish slavery could only refer to the “spirit of the law.” They say that Christian abolitionists had to ignore specific words in the Bible concerning slavery in exchange for non-specific commands concerning concepts like love and freedom. Therefore, they insist, the abolitionists were guilty of ignoring the “plain meaning” of the Bible.

Alexander McLeod, in his popular book (eleven editions were printed), Negro Slavery Unjustifiable, directly challenged this view. McLeod says he wrote his argument to counter the “deceptive error” of the slave owners’ biblical claims. He didn’t do this by appealing to love, freedom, or the “spirit,” but by quoting a specific commandment of God:[1]

“Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” – Exodus 21:16, ESV

     This means, if Southern slaveholders would have specifically obeyed the letter of the law, anyone who kidnapped Africans and tried to sell them should have been arrested as soon as their ship came into port with its illegal cargo of human flesh, and any person who possessed that stolen person was also subject to arrest. According to Old Testament law, the penalty for manstealing was death.

Since Southerners defended their so-called “biblical” right to hold slaves, they should have also upheld the biblical command against kidnapping and selling people. If they were actually biblical literalists, Southern slavery would have been shut down immediately, but the slaveholders of the South “cherry-picked” the Scriptures. McCleod also pointed out this literal commandment from God:

“If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.”  – Deuteronomy 23:15-16, KJV.”

     If the Southern slaveholder was actually following biblical law, their cities and homes would have had to become places of refuge for slaves. The Fugitive Slave Act, which was used to round up slaves who escaped from the South, would never be allowed under Old Testament law.

The Underground Railroad was set up by Bible-believing Christians (such as Charles Turner Torrey, who personally freed around 400 slaves)[2] as a way to be obedient, not only to the non-specific commands to love our neighbor or set the captive free, but to a specific law from the Old Testament which commanded the Hebrews to protect runaway slaves from their masters.

Slavery as a Form of Restitution

     McLeod then went on to explain that Old Testament law made a distinction between enslaving innocent people and causing people who had injured others to make restitution. For example, if a person stole money from someone and they couldn’t pay it back, the Hebrew justice system demanded that he/she must work for a period of time to pay the money back. (My kids got in trouble with the law and had to pay restitution by working at our local thrift shop. It’s the same concept.) The condition of the person who was making restitution was called servanthood (or slavery), but it was actually a form of economic justice.[3]

If a person had been robbed, or if they loaned money to someone (interest free, since the Israelites weren’t allowed to charge interest to one another) and the thief/borrower was unwilling, or unable, to compensate for the loss, contractual service was a way to pay the debt back. They could work for a period of up to six years (no more) and at the end of that period, even though they were making up for a debt, the person they served was commanded to supply them liberally with flocks, flour, and wine before they left (Deut. 15:14).

Hebrew slavery wasn’t a way to abuse an innocent person but was used as a way to pay back someone that had been abused.

The Israelites Purchased Slaves

     Even so, there’s no denying that Southern evangelicals (Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, and members of other denominations) believed they had biblical permission to hold slaves, and they pointed to scriptures such as this one, found in Leviticus 25:44-46, KJV (in the Old Testament) to support their case:

“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: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour.”

     These verses seem to give permission to the ancient Israelites to become involved in the slave trade, but the exact opposite is true!

First of all, Old Testament law never allowed Jews to sell slaves. They could only purchase them! I believe God allowed the Hebrews to purchase people from the surrounding tribes in order to give them refuge.

Spiritually, throughout Hebrew history, Gentiles were welcomed into the family of God as long as they were willing to assimilate, worship, and serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Consider these Old Testament laws and how they were applied to both slave and free, Jew and Gentile:

  • Those who were purchased by a priestcould eat of the meats that were offered to God. They were treated as family members.

There shall no stranger eat of the holy thing: a sojourner of the priest, or an hired servant, shall not eat of the holy thing. But if the priest buy any soul with his money, he shall eat of it, and he that is born in his house: they shall eat of his meat.” – Leviticus 22:10-11, KJV

  • Those who were purchased were to be circumcised and become part of the Hebrew covenant.

“He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.” – Genesis 17:13, KJV

  • Purchased slaves could participate in the PassoverFeast if they were circumcised.

“And the LORD said unto Moses and Aaron, “This is the statute of the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it. But every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him.” – Exodus 12:43-44, ESV

     Notice that purchased slaves had a different status than a hired person or a foreigner. A foreign person who worshiped a different god was not allowed to participate in the Passover, and a hireling who merely worked for money wasn’t allowed to participate either but purchased slaves could participate if they converted to the Jewish faith and assimilated into the Hebrew nation.

An Israelite could sell themselves to others as a form of contractual employment (due to poverty or restitution), but they could never sell each other. The “kinsman redeemer” could deliver a family member who was in financial trouble out of slavery, but a Jew could never sell another Jew on the slave market. Even more amazing, a Jew could never sell a foreign slave. Once a slave was purchased, they were secure in the Hebrew family.

Even the future offspring of those who were purchased were promised security under the safety of the Hebrew God. They would remain a Hebrew possession and couldn’t be sold back to the foreign slave market.

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.” – Leviticus 25:46a, KJV

     Notice the word “forever” in the above verse. This word was used by Jesus when he discussed slavery:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” – John 8:34-36, ESV

     Jesus compared his work to that of setting a slave free, and he distinguished between a slave and a son by using the word “forever.” He said slaves didn’t remain in a household forever, but a son will. Restitution/debt slaves (who were already Jews) were either relieved from their labor after six years or redeemed by a family member (the kinsman-redeemer), but the word “forever” in Lev. 25:46 is an indication that slaves who were purchased from the surrounding nations could be converted and become family!

The law indicated that slaves could assimilate to the beliefs of the Hebrews by becoming circumcised, sharing in the Passover Feast, forsaking the idol worship of their past, and like Ruth, loving the God of the Hebrews (Ruth 1:16). When they did this, they were no longer subject to the cruel bondage of those slave traders in the surrounding nations who trafficked in human flesh. They had a place of safety where they and their children could remain if they wanted.

Could it be that when a slave escaped to Israel that they would be purchased and given refuge? This verse seems to indicate that this was the will of God:

You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.” – Deuteronomy 23:15, ESV 

     The Israelites would not be allowed to take another person’s property without compensation. Slaves were a form of money (Exod. 21:21). To not purchase the slave would be a form of robbery. Could this be why Israel was allowed to purchase slaves from the surrounding nations—not in order to hold them in cruel bondage, but to set them free?

Hebrew Slavery as a Picture of Christ’s Redemption

     Throughout Hebrew history, Gentiles were welcomed into the Abrahamic family. Isn’t this the same picture of salvation given to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ? Jesus said he came to set the captives free. How would he do this? As foreigners and strangers, we have been purchased (“bought with a price”) by the blood of Jesus (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Consequently, we have been grafted into the Hebrew family (Romans 11). We come as bondservants (Romans 1:1, Philippians 1:1, James 1:1, 2 Peter 1:1, Jude 1:1), slaves to sin (John 8:34, Romans 6), but Jesus sets us free (John 8:36) and says we are now family who can cry out “Abba!” to the heavenly Father (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6), and just as purchased slaves and their children were secure in the Hebrew household, Christians are secure in Christ. No one can “snatch” us away from Jesus (John 10:28, ESV).

Jesus said he came to “fulfill the law and the prophets” (Matt. 5:17).  I am convinced, especially after studying the great mission movements, that the Jewish purchase of slaves was a type and shadow of what Jesus did to deliver the Gentiles who were in bondage and darkness throughout the world.

It was only when foreign slaves were purchased by the Israelites that they were set free from the cruel ways of those involved in false religion. In the same way, it was only when missionaries came to the Gentile nations that they overcame the same bondages that were found in those tribes surrounding Israel: idol worship, human sacrifice, forced slavery, cannibalism, tribal warfare, widow-burning, and infanticide (just to name a few). As Isaiah 9:2, KJV says:

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

Adding to the Word

     But what about the contrast found in Leviticus 25:44-46? It says the Israelites could purchase slaves from the surrounding nations, but they must not treat their fellow Israelites with “rigour.” Doesn’t this imply that they were allowed to treat their foreign-purchased slaves with “rigour” (Lev. 25:46)?

In the Hebrew translation of the text, the word “but” doesn’t appear in verse 46. The English translators added the word into the text. What if the word “but” was removed and a new paragraph was started?

 “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.

 [Remove the word “but” and start a new paragraph.]

“Over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour. And if a sojourner or stranger wax rich by thee, and thy brother that dwelleth by him wax poor, and sell himself unto the stranger or sojourner by thee, or to the stock of the stranger’s family: After that he is sold he may be redeemed again; one of his brethren may redeem him: Either his uncle, or his uncle’s son, may redeem him, or any that is nigh of kin unto him of his family may redeem him; or if he be able, he may redeem himself . . . And as a yearly hired servant shall he be with him: and the other shall not rule with rigour over him in thy sight.” Leviticus 25:47-53

     Do you see how the first sentence (verse 46) in these verses ties in with the final sentence (verse 53)? What if verse 46 was a lead-in to the idea in the following paragraph which commanded Israelites to treat each other with kindness? Not that foreigners were allowed to be treated harshly, but just a reminder that there was an expectation that Jews were to be kind to one another. Verse 53 says just that.

The addition of just one little word (“but”) changes the entire flow and meaning of the text. Could this be an example of how a small addition, when added to the text, could be the cause of so much human suffering and cruelty?[4] (Perhaps this is why Prov. 30:6, ESV says, “Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.”)

In fact, if verse 46 is applied to foreign slaves (to allow them to be treated with “rigour”) then it would counter Exodus 23:9 which commands the Israelites not to oppress a stranger (a foreigner) because they were once strangers in the land of Egypt. (They were slaves!)

“Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Leviticus 19:34, KJV, makes the same assertion:

“But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

The Hebrews were specifically commanded to treat foreigners/slaves with kindness because they could relate to being oppressed by cruel masters in Egypt.

Some may think that my argument is a stretch, but when I look at the rest of the Scriptures, I see only kindness toward those who have been poor, orphaned, or victimized. It seems out of character to have this harsh Scripture sitting right in the middle of all the other laws that were formulated to be blessings to humanity—or types and shadows of Christ.

Types and Shadows

     An example of the law being a type and shadow that points to Jesus is the Old Testament law that demands a blood sacrifice to atone for sin (Lev. 1:1-4). When John the Baptist cried out, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world! (John 1:29, ESV) he was making a reference to Old Testament law and declaring that Jesus was our sacrificial lamb who would atone for our sin. He was also pointing to Jesus as the Passover Lamb, which was commemorated by the Passover Feast (Exodus 12:14).

Another example would be that the Old Testament law prohibited the Hebrews from eating unclean meat, such as pigs or shrimp (Lev. 11). We know, after Peter’s vision (Acts 10:9-16), that unclean meat was a symbol for the Gentiles, who were considered to be unclean, but now were able to come into the family of God because they were purchased and cleansed by the blood of Christ.

Each of the Old Testament laws pointed to some aspect of the gospel and symbolized something precious. The slave laws in the Old Testament were fulfilled by Jesus. He is our Redeemer. He purchased us with his blood. He sets us free.   How is the ability to take slaves from the surrounding nations and hold them with “rigour” as a generational possession in any way a type and shadow that points us to Christ? I believe the only way Leviticus 25:44-46 can be interpreted correctly is to look at it as though it’s a type and shadow of Gentile redemption.

The Canaanites

     The Jews were allowed to purchase slaves from all of the surrounding nations, except for the Canaanites, whom God commanded the Israelites to completely destroy (Deut. 20). The Canaanite tribes were involved in all the sins of Leviticus 18: incest, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and homosexuality. They also worshiped gods who demanded human sacrifice, especially of babies. In verse 25, it says these things “defiled” the land.

The Hebrew word for defile is tame. According to Strong’s Concordance it means “to be foul—especially in a moral sense (contaminated): defile (self), pollute (self), be (make, make self, pronounce) unclean, utterly.”[5] The sins of the Canaanites had left the people so polluted by disease, genetic abnormalities, and hardness of heart toward people and God that the Israelites were instructed to wipe them out as a form of physical, moral, and spiritual protection.[6]

The specific tribes that were commanded to be destroyed were the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perrizites, Hivites, and Jebusites (Deut. 20:17). According to Genesis 15:16 God waited 400 years before judging the Canaanites—until the iniquity of the Amorites (in particular) was “full.”

There were other tribes that God didn’t command to be destroyed. These tribes were further away from the wicked tribes found in central Canaan. God told the Israelites to offer these outlying tribes terms of peace. In exchange, the people would have to pay a tribute to the Israelites. On the other hand, if they refused, when God gave the Israelites the victory, then all the men were to be killed, but Israel was commanded to take in the women and “little ones” (Deut. 20:14, KJV) and care for them.

Israel wanted peace! They wanted to assimilate the men too, but when the men of the enemy tribes refused to pay tribute (a form of temple tax), the heathen tribes were rejecting the God of Israel. Because they preferred their cruel idols, God knew these tribes would never live as peaceful neighbors and it would expose Israel to the constant dangers of subversion and war. When God gave the Hebrew nation the victory, the women and children of the defeated tribes were taken in and cared for, eventually assimilating into the Hebrew family.

The Hebrew Family

     People were continually grafted into the Hebrew family. The Hebrews were never a pure race. They were made up of stragglers and slaves. The nation started when Abraham was called out of Babylon and told by God to travel to a faraway place and he gathered some people from Haran to go with him (Genesis 12:5). In one incident, Pharaoh gave servants to Abraham to make up for taking Sarah (Genesis 12:16). This is probably how Hagar and many other servants became part of Abraham’s clan.

(Abraham’s servants are an example of tribal loyalty. Genesis 14:14 says 318 of them, who were born in his household, were armed and went into battle. If they were held against their will, couldn’t they have used their weapons to lead a slave rebellion against Abraham?)

Jacob was a servant to Laban in exchange for his daughter Rachel’s hand in marriage. Without going into all the details, Rachel and Leah (her sister) were foreigners (they came from Mesopotamia), yet they became the mothers of the twelve tribes of Israel. Moses married a Midianite. Rahab, the Gentile prostitute who helped the Jews at Jericho, married Salmon, an Israelite from the tribe of Judah. Their son was Boaz, the husband of Ruth, a Moabite who would receive the Hebrew God. Both of these Gentile women are in the lineage of Jesus Christ.

God is not exclusive. He is looking for hearts that are open to him, that will assimilate into his ways, and love his Word, but he wasn’t open to every Gentile. If there was no repentance and no desire to change, to love and obey his commandments, then God didn’t open the way for them to become part of Israel.

This love for God and his commandments also applied to the Israelites! If they turned away from him to foreign idols, forsaking his commandments, then they were judged by God. This warning was conveyed to the Hebrew people over and over through the ministry of the prophets.

God was not a racist. He wanted all people to come to him in love and obedience. The Jews and the Gentiles were treated equally in this way. He did not approve of the slave trade, either. Over and over he commanded justice for the oppressed. He made provision in the law for any person who felt that they were being mistreated to have a way of escape.

That is why I believe if the word “but”  in Leviticus 25:46 were to be removed from modern translations, and the concept of purchasing those in bondage was understood, the Old Testament law, instead of being able to be used as a justification for slavery, would become a beautiful testimony of the kindness and goodness of God.

Slavery in the New Testament

     The apostle Paul, writing in the New Testament, carries on this Hebrew antislavery ethic. He lists slave trading (or manstealing) in his list of sins, describing it as something practiced by lawless, disobedient, ungodly, unholy, and profane sinners, and that it’s “contrary to sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:10, KJV). He encourages Onesimus to release his slave, Philemon, and receive him “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother (Phlm. 1:16, KJV). He even offers to pay any debt that Philemon might owe (Phlm. 1:18-19), showing that Paul wanted to redeem Philemon. (It also reveals the Old Testament process of conversion from slave to family member.)

Skeptics point to Ephesians 6:5 (“Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ…”) as proof that the New Testament supports slavery, but just because slaves received the gift of salvation and became part of the church doesn’t mean that God endorsed slavery. Paul was merely teaching the church how to function in a monstrous empire that could easily crush any organized insurrection against slavery. In fact, as explained in the previous chapter on the Inquisition, a slave rebellion had recently been tried by a group of gladiators! Spartacus and his followers lost their battle and the Romans crucified them by the thousands, lining the Appian Way (a road to Rome) for miles.

The early church may not have been able to overthrow the Roman slave empire, but they could undermine it. Those who served the One who came to “preach deliverance to the captives” (Luke 4:18, KJV) would spread throughout the empire and (as mentioned in chapter 2) redeem slaves by the thousands. The early church would also put slaves in positions of leadership and honor them as equals in Christ (Gal. 3:28).

The Curse of Ham

     The Southerners also pointed to the so-called “curse of Ham” as a biblical justification to hold slaves. Here is the story as it’s found in Genesis 9:18-27, KJV:

And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan. These are the three sons of Noah: and of them was the whole earth overspread. And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.’ And he said, ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.’”

     Those who believed slavery should be abolished made passionate arguments against the supporters of slavery, who claimed that the “cursed” descendants of Ham had settled in Africa, were dark-skinned, and destined to subjugation.

When James A. Sloane published his pro-slavery treatise, The Great Question Answered; or Is Slavery a Sin in Itself? Answered According to the Teaching of the Scriptures, David R. Kerr, editor of The United Presbyterian Quarterly Review, gave Sloane credit for making the Bible “the only rule for faith and practice,” but then he slammed him for his weak biblical arguments concerning the curse of Ham. At one point he laughed at the absurdity of Sloane’s position and proclaimed: “Risum teneatis, amici?!” (Can you help laughing, my friends?!)[7]

Why was the pro-slavery teaching on the biblical “curse of Ham” so laughable to abolitionists?

For one thing, only the descendant of Ham (Canaan) was cursed. Genesis 9:25 says, “Cursed be Canaan.” It doesn’t even say, “cursed be Ham.” According to Josiah Priest, writing in his book, Bible Defence [sic]of Slavery, the authority to expand the curse to Ham came from the Arabic translation of the Bible, not the Hebrew Bible itself:

But lest the reader should become perplexed, respecting the application of this anathema, on account of the text above referred to being, in the English, “cursed Canaan” instead of “cursed Ham,” as it should have been translated; we state that the Arabic copy of the book of Genesis, which is a language of equal authority with the Hebrew, and originally the very same, reads “cursed Ham,” [emphasis added] the father of Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.[8]

The pro-slavery defense took liberty with the Scriptures by using the Arabic copy of Genesis as their authority for changing the word Canaan into Ham!

Secondly, according to Genesis 10:6-20, Ham’s sons were Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. The sons of Cush settled in Babylon (his son was Nimrod, the builder of the Tower of Babel), Egypt would become the father of the Egyptians and the Philistines, and Canaan would become the father of the tribes that spread from Sidon to Gaza to Sodom and Gomorrah (the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perrizites, Hivites, and Jebusites, etc. . .). Put settled in modern Libya and northern Africa. None of Ham’s descendants even settled in sub-Saharan Africa, the place from where Southern slaves were taken.

Finally, according to Sloane, the name Ham meant “black,” but Kerr argued that this was untrue. The word Ham is never used for the word black. Instead the Hebrew word used for black is shachar or shachor. The Hebrew word for Ham is cham and it means “hot.”

The Bible was abused by Southern theologians. They weren’t literalists! There is no “curse of Ham” found in the Scriptures. Those who wanted to hold slaves for their own profit had to become biblical contortionists.

There were two groups of “Christians” involved in the debate over slavery. One group was “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, ESV) while the other distorted the Bible and used it as “a means of gain” (1 Tim. 6:5, ESV).

Science and Slavery

     If the Christians of the South believed they were right with God, even though they attained their slaves through the biblically-forbidden practice of kidnapping Africans (manstealing), how did they justify it?

Many people also question how Thomas Jefferson could claim that all men are created equal, and still be a slaveholder, especially after penning these beautiful words from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

     Like most of the intelligentsia of his time, Jefferson was a scientific racist. He believed that people of color were of a sub-human species. Racism was supported by the brightest scientists of the slave era, and most of the Enlightenment philosophers were scientific racists! Jefferson thought that blacks were different than whites. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, he described blacks in scientific language (reticular membrane, secretion, transpiration, etc. . .):

The first difference which strikes us is that of colour. Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? . . .  Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites.[9]


While Jefferson’s reasoning may seem archaic to us, he believed he was merely using empirical methodology and scientific observation to develop his views.

Jefferson was also a deist. This spiritual view resulted from the blending of Christianity with the latest science. He believed that God was Isaac Newton’s “First Cause” of creation and that He merely wound the universe up like a clock and put it in motion. Therefore, God didn’t interject himself into the affairs of men. Jesus, to Jefferson, was a great teacher, but since he rejected the possibility of miracles (because that meant God was intervening in the physical world), he cut out all the scriptures in his Bible that had to do with the miraculous. Unfortunately, Jefferson put more faith in “science” than in the Word of God, and now we look back on his scientific views with disdain.

David Hume, the Enlightenment philosopher and empiricist, who relied on “reason” and scientific observation for his views (rejecting faith and biblical revelation as a source of knowledge), had this to say about people of color:


I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, no sciences…such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men.[10]

     Immanuel Kant, another Enlightenment philosopher who thought reason could be a source for morality, would make this scientific observation, in agreement with Hume:

The Negroes of Africa have received from nature no intelligence that rises above the foolish. Hume invites anyone to quote a single example of a Negro who has exhibited talents. He asserts that among the hundred thousands of blacks who have been seduced away from their own countries, although very many of them have been set free, yet not a single one has ever been found that has performed anything great whether in art or science or in any other laudable subject; but among the whites, people constantly rise up from the lowest rabble and acquire esteem through their superior gifts.[11]

     The Enlightenment emphasis on reason and science over biblical revelation would be exemplified in the person of Voltaire, and he had this to say about the black race:

Their round eyes, their flat nose, their lips which are always thick, their differently shaped ears, the wool on their head, the measure even of their intelligence establishes between them and other species of men prodigious differences. If their understanding is not of a different nature from ours, it is at least greatly inferior. They are not capable of any great application of ideas, and seemed formed neither in the advantages nor the abuses of our philosophy.[12]

     Another name for scientific racism is polygenism. This was the belief that each race had different parents. Instead of one set of parents (Adam and Eve, according to the Bible), the polygenists claimed there were many sets of parents who birthed the different races. This wasn’t the obscure work of mad scientists. It was the cutting-edge science of its day. It was promoted by Samuel George Morton, a believer in phrenology and well-respected president of the Academy of Natural Sciences, who attempted to develop a racial theory based on the measurement of skull size. He had a collection of skulls from around the world, and in his opinion, the skulls found near the Caucasus Mountains in the Near East were the most perfect. These were the skulls of white people, and Europeans would eventually get lumped together with Caucasians, which led to the term Caucasian being used in reference to the white race. Morton’s book, Crania Americana, would describe the black man in a way similar to other Enlightenment thinkers:

Characterized by black complexion, and black, woolly hair; the eyes are large and prominent, the nose broad and flat, the lips thick, and the mouth wide; the head is long and narrow, the forehead low, the cheekbones prominent, the jaws protruding, and the chin small.[13]

     Morton was an ethnologist. This was just another name for a person who studied scientific racism during the slave era. His disciples, George Glidden and Josiah Nott, would write Types of Mankind (or Ethnological Research), which was used by Southern slaveholders as a scientific justification for slavery.

The Abolitionists Used the Scriptures

     Opposing the scientific ethnologists/phrenologists were the abolitionists. They stood on the words of the Bible as the truth and argued that all races came from Adam and Eve; therefore, they were all equal. They were monogenists rather than polygenists. They declared that God’s Word had more authority than science and proclaimed:

“And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;” – Acts 17:26, KJV

     The history of the Christian battle against scientific racism isn’t very well known, but it should be! The battle was fought in both England and America. The abolitionists argued that since all races descended from Adam, they were all brothers. They believed in the brotherhood of men because they all had one father (Adam).

In England, as traders and explorers went out into the world, Christians began to hear stories of how the people of darker races were being abused and taken into slavery, so in order to defend people of color from the abuse of white colonizers, Christians set up the Aborigines Protection Society. Out of this group, the Ethnological Society of London would form. Their motto was ab uno sanguine (from one blood).

Members would also join the Clapham Sect, which was founded by John Newton, the former slave trader and writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” William Wilberforce, who repeatedly presented antislavery bills to the British Parliament, was also a member of the Clapham Sect. Their tireless efforts to overcome scientific racism by using the Word of God finally led to the abolition of all slavery in the British Empire.

In America, abolitionists such as John Rankin, whose home was a major stop on the Underground Railroad, would proclaim, based on his literal reading of the Scriptures:

It must be admitted that the Africans and the rest of mankind have all sprung from one common father [emphasis added]; and consequently all, originally were alike free. The right to freedom belongs to the Africans.[14]

     John Bird Sumner, who argued against polygenism in his book, A Treatise in the Records of the Creation, would end up being ridiculed as an evangelical whose trust in Scriptures made him blind to scientific facts.

Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist who was a former slave, would also battle scientific racism. He mockingly referred to the ethnologists Morton, Gliddon, Nott, and Agassiz[15] as a “phalanx of learned men.”[16] In a speech given at Western Reserve College entitled, “The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered,” he asked that the truthfulness of a scientific theory be judged by its fruit. He understood the limits of science in determining truth and argued that . . .

“. . . viewed apart from the authority of the Bible, neither unity [monogenism] or diversity [polygenism] of origin of the human family, can be demonstrated.”[17]

     He also pointed out the hypocrisy of those “Christians” who beat their slaves and mocked the scientific and religious justifications used by the Southerners. He said he personally knew of a “pious” Methodist who would whip his cousin until he bled.

Look at your hard, horny hands—see how nicely they are adapted to the labor you have to perform! Look at our delicate fingers, so exactly fitted for our station, and see how manifest it is that God designed us to be his thinkers, and you the workers—Oh! The wisdom of God!—I used to attend a Methodist church, in which my master was a class leader; he would talk most sanctimoniously about the dear Redeemer, who was sent “to preach deliverance to the captives, and set at liberty them that are bruised”— he could pray at morning, pray at noon, and pray at night, yet he could lash up my poor cousin by his two thumbs, and inflict stripes and blows upon his bare back, till the blood streamed to the ground! All the time quoting scripture for his authority and appealing to that passage of the Holy Bible which says, “He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes! Such was the amount of this good Methodist’s piety.”[18]

     There were two battlefronts in the war waged against men like Frederick Douglass:

  1. Science was given authority over the Scriptures. Instead of tethering science to the truth of the Word, when a conflict arose, the Bible was mocked and/or set aside.
  2. Some Christians refused to rightly divide the Word of truth. They needed the Bible to accommodate their views, so in places where there was a clear command, they either resorted to extra-biblical sources, contorted the scriptural arguments, or ignored specific Scriptures completely.

The battle to uphold God’s Word as an authority over scientific authority raged during the slave era. In 1833, Richard H. Colfax would write a pamphlet, Evidence Against the Views of the Abolitionists, which would cite Jefferson, Voltaire, Gibbon, and others, asserting the polygenist view that the black race was inferior. The Charleston Medical Journal published a debate between Dr. Morton, who held a polygenist view, and Rev. John Bachman, who held a monogenist view. The Southern Presbyterian Review held a monogenist view, while De-Bow’s Review and Southern Quarterly Review both held a polygenist view. We can look back now and see the wisdom and truth in the views of those who upheld the Scriptures.

“Reason” Inadequate to Overturn Slavery

     Skeptics point to the ability of humans to “reason” that Southern slavery was wrong, but Merle Curti, in his immense Pulitzer Prize-winning historical study, The Growth of American Thought, said at least fourteen pro-slavery novels appeared in response to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin,[19] and “each made use of one or more of the arguments from the Bible, from expediency, from ethnology, and from example.”[20] A list of some of these reasons would include:

  • Slaves are better off than the Northern employees of the industrial capitalists.
  • The Haitian uprising could happen here; therefore, we need to keep them under control.
  • The Southern climate necessitates using blacks.
  • Blacks are incapable of being educated. (This was part of the polygenism)
  • Slavery existed in great civilizations of the past (especially Greece and Rome).
  • The slaves are not unhappy.
  • Until they are prepared for freedom, we need to care for them.
  • They’re better off here than they were in Africa. At least here they can hear the gospel.
  • Slavery is a “necessary evil.”
  • The U.S. Constitution doesn’t outlaw slavery.
  • The overseas slave trade has been protected by the U.S. government for decades.
  • The “Fugitive Slave Act” mandates that slaves be returned if they’ve escaped.
  • Letting the slaves go could mean the South would be ravaged by African savages.
  • The slave system domesticates and civilizesthe black heathens.
  • The government is the one who enslaved the Africans, not individuals.
  • The laws of slaveholding states prohibit the liberation of the slaves.

John C. Calhoun, who served as vice president of the United States under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and was a U.S. senator from South Carolina, presented a combination of political, scientific, historical, and philosophical thought as embodied in Enlightenment thought to justify slavery. His polygenist views can easily be discerned in this speech on the Senate floor:

In the meantime, the white or European race, has not degenerated. It has kept pace with its brethren in other sections of the Union where slavery does not exist. It is odious to make comparison; but I appeal to all sides whether the South is not equal in virtue, intelligence, patriotism, courage, disinterestedness, and all the high qualities which adorn our nature.

But I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin [emphasis added], and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good.[21]

     Calhoun’s polygenism contributed greatly to the suffering of humanity. He opposed abolitionism, and his political and scientific views led to the belief that the South should secede from the Union, a view which, ultimately, caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Civil War.

The Second Great Awakening

     Most historians agree that the greatest contribution to the antislavery crusade was the Second Great Awakening, led by the evangelical preacher Charles Finney. Starting in upstate New York, the revival would spread across the United States, reaching into small villages, farmlands, forests, frontiers, and cities. Circuit riders would go from place to place preaching in tents and cornfields. As a result, the United States would become an “evangelical empire.” Finney taught that Christianity wasn’t only about escaping hell, but it was also about living a life of benevolence (kindness). This led many Christians to get involved with the great reform movements of the time. One of the greatest of these reform movements was the antislavery movement.

Abolitionists had been active in writing and lobbying against slavery for years, but the masses weren’t prepared to act against slavery until they were influenced by Finney’s teachings. According to the antislavery historian Dwight Lowell Dumond, “evangelism and the antislavery movement were inseparable” and Finney’s revival provided a group of young men with the “greatest combination of moral and intellectual power ever assembled in support of any cause before or since.”[22] To help them in this endeavor, Dumond says:

They had the Bible. They had the great charters of Western liberalism [this is referring to classical liberalism, not modern liberalism]. They had the writings of Woolman, Benezet, Rush, Hopkins, Cooper, Rice, Branagan, Barrow, Duncan, Rankin, and a host of British liberals such as Sharp, Clarkson, and Wilberforce. They needed all this and more to beat down and destroy the doctrine of racial inequality, enshrined in slavery, and upheld by the courts, the churches, and the political parties.[23]

     One of Finney’s converts was Theodore Dwight Weld, who would become an articulate and passionate abolitionist alongside William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the antislavery newspaper, The Liberator. After Weld convinced several students at Lane Seminary to work to abolish slavery, the faculty rebuked him, and he, along with many other students moved to an unknown little school known as Oberlin College, which would become a base for the antislavery movement. He trained seventy students in the abolitionist cause and sent them out, only to be insulted, tarred and feathered, and have their meetings shut down.

Thomas Paine

     Weld, like Garrison, and unlike Thomas Paine, supported “immediate emancipation.” Thomas Paine was an Enlightenment philosopher and a deist who supported “gradual emancipation.” In fact, in 1780, he authored the “Pennsylvania Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.” Because he was a deist and didn’t believe God interfered in the affairs of the world, he thought that slavery would eventually be worked out in the course of history.

I mention Thomas Paine because many skeptics are quick to point out that he founded the first antislavery society in America. Because he was a proponent of “reason,” they think this means that skeptics were on the cutting edge of abolishing slavery, but most of his antislavery views came from the Bible! (Just as much of his call for revolution in the pamphlet Common Sense was based on the Bible.)[24]

In his argument against slavery, Paine referred to God as being the “Lord of all” (a reference to Acts 17:26 “one blood”) and reminded Christians of Jesus’ admonition to love their neighbor. He also argued that manstealing was prohibited by the Bible and that Christians must obey the Golden Rule.    While his views against slavery had their source in the Bible, his views on when and how the slaves would obtain freedom came from his deist views. On the other hand, the revivalists, who would plead with people to receive Christ because “Today is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor. 6:2) would apply the same reasoning to their views on immediate emancipation.

The Effort to Purchase Slaves

     Just as the Hebrews purchased slaves and the early church redeemed slaves, during the era of Southern slavery there was also a movement to purchase (or redeem) slaves. Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, redeemed slaves. Levi Coffin, one of the main conductors on the Underground Railroad said that “in the face of such appeals, it was hard to refuse . . .”[25] James Russell Lowe would admit in a letter written in 1849 that even though he didn’t have much money, still “if a man comes and asks us to help him buy a wife or child what are we to do?”[26]

Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, would take Milly Edmundson on a tour of New England churches which resulted in enough money to redeem her two children. And Garrison would print notices in The Liberator, such as this one, which appeared in January of 1837:

George Potter and Rosella, his wife, would take this opportunity to express their gratitude to God, and under him, to the benevolent individuals, who generously contributed to aiding them to redeem their two children from Slavery. They have the unspeakable happiness of informing the generous donors that, on the 12th . . . they received their children, aged eleven and seven years, raised from the degradation of Slavery to the rank of Freemen.[27]

A Higher Law

     In the same way that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego would refuse to bow to King Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, and Peter and Paul would continue to preach the gospel despite it being outlawed (because they would all rather obey the Higher Law of God), Charles Beecher would implore Christians to disobey the Fugitive Slave Act. He appealed to the teachings of the Scriptures and the heart of Jesus:

Suppose . . . a fugitive mother and child should come knocking at your door on a winter night pleading for aid. What does the law require of you? What must you do, to obey the law? What is obedience to law? You must shut your door in her face, or you must take her captive, and shut her up until the hounds of officers can come up. This is obedience, and if you do not do this you are a lawbreaker. If you give her a crust of bread, you break the law. If you give her a shawl, a cloak; if you let her warm herself by your fire an hour, and depart, you break the law. If you give her a night’s rest, and let her go, you break the law. If you show her any kindness, any mercy, if you treat her as Christ treated you, if you do to her as you would wish to be done by, you have broken the law.[28]


Beecher went on to explain that he could not obey the Fugitive Slave Act because it “commands me, when fully obeyed, to deny Christ, to renounce and abjure Christ’s law, to trample under foot Christ’s spirit, and to remand Christ’s flesh and blood into cruel bondage.”[29]

Frederick Douglass would also claim to be a lawbreaker when he opened his speech at a meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1842 with these words:

I appear before the immense assembly this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master, and I ran off with them.[30]

     And Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, also appealed to the Higher Law of God when she asserted:

God willed us free.

Men willed us slaves.

We will do as God wills.[31]

     With so many societal strongholds lined up against the abolitionists, how was it that they were able to see the light of truth in the midst of so much cruel darkness? The atheist, Hume, wasn’t able to discern evil. The scientists, Morton, Gliddon, Nott, and Agassiz weren’t able to discern evil. The Enlightenment philosophers weren’t able to discern evil. The rationalist, who relied on “reason,” wasn’t able to discern evil. The Southern slaveholder, who cherry-picked the Scriptures that were conducive to his wants and desires, while ignoring others, wasn’t able to discern evil.

But those Bible-believing Christians who faithfully stood on the Word of truth were able to discern good from evil—even when every hardship hounded them because of their position. They refused to compromise, and consequently, they formed a bulwark of kindness that the slave could run to for safety and help. As a result of their efforts, the institution of Southern slavery would be destroyed, liberty would finally come to the captives, and these men and women who were once mocked and persecuted for their views would be remembered by future generations as heroes.


[1] Alexander McLeod, Negro Slavery Unjustifiable, A Discourse (New York: T. & J. Swords, 1802), 8.

[2] J.G. Wilson and J. Fiske, eds., “Torrey, Charles Turner,” Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography (New York: D. Appleton, 1889).

[3] For a great teaching on slavery and the Hebrew justice system, see Paul Copan, “Did God Sanction Slavery in the Old Testament?” Sept. 14, 2003. YouTube. Accessed July 22, 2019.

[4] The Hebrew word ach (brother) appears in Leviticus 25:46 twice. The first time, the word “but” is added (“but over your brethren”). The second time it appears in the sentence it simply says “over another” and the word “but” isn’t used.

[5] “H2930 – tame’ – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Accessed May 31, 2018.

[6] See Diana Lesperance, “The Walking Dead and the Conquest of the Canaanites,” Nov. 15, 2014. The Faithful Church.

[7] David R. Kerr. “Article II: Sloan on Color and Slavery” The United Presbyterian Review, Volume 2. (Pittsburgh, PA: Publication Office, No. 76 Thirds St., 1861), 336.

[8] Josiah Priest, Bible Defense of Slavery (Louisville, KY: J. F. Brennan, 1851), 91.

[9] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia. (Richmond, VA: J.W. Randolph, 1853), 149-150.

[10] David Hume, The Philosophical Works of David Hume, cont. Henry Maudsley (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1854), 228.

[11] Immanuel Kant, “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime,” as quoted by David Brion in the book Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2006), 75.

[12] Voltaire, “Essai sur les mouers,” as quoted by David Brion in the book Inhuman Bondage. Ibid.

[13] Samuel Morton, Crania Americana; or A Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America to Which is Prefixed an Essay on the Varieties of Human Species. (Philadelphia: J. Dobson, 1839), 25.

[14] Rev. John Rankin, Letters on American Slavery, Addressed to Mr. Thomas Rankin (Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1838), 70-71.

[15] Louis Agassiz was a Harvard professor whose most famous contribution to science was the development of the glacial theory, but he was also a proponent of scientific racism, leading Douglass to include him in his “phalanx of learned men.”

[16] Frederick Douglass, “The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered,” an Address Before the Literary Societies of Western Reserve College, At Commencement, July 12, 1854. The Frederick Douglass Papers, 10, The Library of Congress. Accessed July 22, 2019.

[17] Ibid, 11.

[18] Frederick Douglass, “The Church and Prejudice” speech delivered at the Plymouth Church Antislavery Society, Dec. 23, 1841. University of Rochester. Frederick Douglass Project. Accessed July 22, 2019.

[19] Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an emotional novel about the difficult lives of slaves. The themes of Christian piety and compassion run through the whole story. It was the best-selling book (besides the Bible) of the 19th century and was so influential that when Harriet Beecher Stowe visited Abraham Lincoln, he was reported to have said, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”

[20] Merle Curti, The Growth of American Thought, 3rd ed. (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2003), 435.

[21]Calhoun, John C. “Slavery A Positive Good” Speech Delivered to the United States Senate, February 6, 1837. WikiSource. Accessed July 7, 2019.


[22] Dwight L. Dumond, Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc. 1961), 158.

[23] Ibid, 159.

[24] For more information on how Thomas Paine use the scriptures to influence the American people, see Diana Lesperance, “Thomas Paine’s Use of the Bible,” Nov. 29, 2011. The Faithful Church. Accessed July 22, 2019.

[25] Herbert Aptheker, Abolitionism: A Revolutionary Movement (Boston: Twayne, 1989), 62.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Potter, George and Rosella, “Card,” The Liberator, ed. William Lloyd Garrison, Vol. VII, No. 2, p. 4, Jan. 2, 1837. Boston, MA: Isaac Knapp. Library of Congress. Accessed October 14, 2019.

[28] Dumond, Antislavery, 310.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Raymond Bial, The Underground Railroad (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 1999), 38.

[31] Ibid.



  1. Wow! You really have put some work into this. I’ll come back and read it at some point when I have the time to engage fully with it. For now though, this is just to let you know that I replied to your comment on my blog. Only fourteen months late! CoughCough.

    Anyways, I hope you and yours are well.


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