Biblical Defense of Slavery

I just finished my big paper on the Biblical defenses for African American slavery.  It was a lot of looking over sermons and writings from the 1840s and 1850s and seeing how many theologians were defending the slave trade and the institution of slavery.  The paper was interesting to write and a lot of fun to research.  I had never dealt that much with primary sources but found it to be a lot of fun.  So, here I will condense the 15-pages into a couple of bullet points for you to glean from.

The Curse of Ham
In Genesis 9, Noah has just gotten off the ark with the animals and his children. He plants vineyards, makes wine, gets drunk, passes out naked.  Well his son Ham sees him lying there naked and asks his other brothers Shem and Japheth to cover him up.  When Noah wakes up, he curses Ham’s son Canaan to be a slave to Shem and Japheth forever. 

Over time in Jewish rabbinical writings as well as in the teachings of the Popes, the sons of Noah become synonymous with the peoples of the world.  Shemmites were said to have gone off to Asia, Japethites were said to be Europeans and Hammites were said to have occupied Africa.  This being the case, when people started pulling slaves from Africa (ca. 1000 A.D.) they said they were merely following God’s will.  There is some evidence that suggests, though it is disputed that Muslims were the first to make this argument.

Divine Acceptance
Several authors take the previous step and move forward with it saying that slavery was accepted by God.  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob all had slaves and had many slaves, yet they were listed as righteous men, God’s go to guys.

Some suggested that God not only accepted it from the patriarchs but legislated it to all of Israel.  One of the ten commandments was not to covet anything of your neighbors (wives, oxen or slaves).  If God wanted to abolish slavery, he could have on Sinai, but instead he just laid down rules not to covet them.

Finally, God says not to make life-long slaves of Israelites, but instead to release Israelite slaves every seven years, or in the year of Jubilee.  If you wanted life-long slaves you were to use Canaanites and surrounding tribes.  They were also instructed to treat their slaves so well that slaves from neighboring nations would run to Israel to be slaves there.  Slavery was an economic institution, but also a way of proselytizing to the people of surrounding nations.

 Conversion
Launching from that last point, many people said it was a duty and responsibility of all christians to own slaves so that they could pass their faith on to them.  The idea of converting your slaves had an interesting history.  The English considered it in the 1650s but said it was pointless since they didn’t belive that blacks had the capacity to comprehend it.  On top of that they felt like converting slaves would lead to them demanding more rights. 

Eventually in the Americas minimal teaching began to take place, mostly just to teach Christian virtues that would make the blacks better workers like duty, obedience, honesty, etc.  But after this a larger more complete mission effort took place reaching out to slaves.  Then near the Civil War there are accounts of some churches losing their white minister and just replacing him with and African minister.  In a relatively short time the whole gambit can be seen in the perception of black capability in Christianity.  In a little over 200 years we went from thinking Africans could not comprehend Christianity to appointing them to be the spiritual leaders of some churches.

As the Civil War came closer and closer the language of many of these theologians became more and more inflated.  Masters were no longer obligated to teach their slaves of Christ, it was their duty to convert all of Africa!  Abolitionists just wanted to keep Africans from becoming Christians therefore they were evil men and instruments of the devil.

I will say this, I started this project thinking that biblical defenses for the slave trade must be some far-flung junk.  But in my research and work, I realized that many of their readings were valid, their hermeneutic wasn’t terrible, little of their discourse was out of context.  It is a strictly literal interpretation, coupled with the mindset of an 1800s southerner that produced many of these arguments. 

Overall I really enjoyed this paper.  I amassed a pretty good bibliography while working on it.  If you’d like the whole paper, just let me know.  I don’t mind sharing.

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About coleyoakum

My name is Coleman Yoakum. I am formerly a student at Harding University. Today you can find me in Detroit Michigan doing what I can to expand the Kingdom of God and preparing to start an intentional community in Pontiac. I enjoy reading, writing, photography, music and politics. I am sure that all of these things will find their way to this blog from time to time. Twitter: coleyoakum Facebook: Coleman Yoakum Email: coleyoakum@gmail.com Flickr: flickr.com/photos/coleyoakum/

13 responses to “Biblical Defense of Slavery”

  1. gladwellmusau says :

    Hi Cole,

    Quite an interesting research you had. But…what about Africa? Christianity in Africa was not as a direct result of slavery…was it? I am a third generation Christian…from my maternal grandmother who is now almost ninety. Africa was under colonial rule from a little over 100 year ago. What about the spread of Christianity in Africa where there was no direct slavery before the Gospel was passed on.

    I would love to hear your thoughts about this.

    God bless you.

    Gladwell

    • coleyoakum says :

      Gladwell,
      I am a little confused about your question. If you are wondering which came to Africa first, slavery or the Gospel, the answer is slavery.

      When Euopeans arrived in Africa there was already an extensive and heavy slave trade going on. Many tribes in Africa made slaves of other tribes, sometimes through war, sometimes by snatching children out of the woods.

      When europeans came to Africa, they offered to buy the slaves that many chiefs had. When they started buying slaves, the chiefs needed more slaves, which created a cycle. Few people ever taken from Africa were every caught and captured by whites, far more often it was Africans catching Africans to try to sell to white people.

    • gladwellmusau says :

      Cole,

      Thank you for that answer. In my history class, we never dealt in depth about slavery…and the Americas but rather about the Missionary exploration to Africa before Colonial rule. However, you have answered part of my question. Yes, it was the Africans who acted as the middlemen between the slaves and their masters. But what I meant is about the spread of the Gospel not in the Americas where slavery was predominant but in rather in Africa.

      God bless.

  2. Bethany says :

    As you point out, there actually is a lot of biblical support for slavery. This is one of the several things that makes me wonder why educated, knowledgeable, thoughtful, compassionate people continue to look to the bible as a reliable life guide.

    • coleyoakum says :

      Bethany,
      Believe me, I see your point.

      Much of Leviticus goes on about how slaves are to be treated. It says that a master should treat his slaves so well that slaves from the nations around Israel will run to it because they’d be treated so well.

      One of the hangups I had was in taking American slavery which we are taught to think of as a cruel horrible institution where every master beat without reason and raped without care. This isn’t a true picture of American slavery and is not the institution that God was giving rules for, thats for sure.

      When you look at the system that God had set up, it doesn’t seem that bad. Instead it looks like families are living in tents adjacent to their masters, they are being taken care of, they are mostly pastoral people and artisans, they are being treated very well, all their needs are being met and many of them are very close to their masters emotionally. I would say this is more a welfare system than the kind of slavery that we think of today.

      So yes, the Bible advocates slavery, but it is a different breed all together.

  3. Brion Heru'El Ofrika Bey says :

    All of you have been drinking the Kool-Aid!

    The people called the Olmecs are the same people being falsely labeled as black/negro/colored by the Europeans falsely calling themselves Americans. The first civilizations spawned out of TaMaure now called Af-Ra-Ka (Body-Sun-Spirit). The Pharoahs gave permission to a few tribes to settle in a distant land – Al Morroc/Amexema/America. What you all call slaves are really prisoners of war (a race war) between the Asiatic Nations and the 7 tribes of Europe (which is why there are white stripes on the flag). There exist two seals for this nation b/c an agreement was made not to fight and to share the land. Consider, the first Nation to recognize the Republic of the United States of America as a nation was a Moslem nation called Morrocco. Now go read House Resolution 75 1933 where congress revealed the true founders of civilization as being the descendants of the oldest living peoples on the planet whose surnames were replaced with European names to denote ownership. This resolution allowed people being called negro, latino, black, ethiopian, hispanic, indian, etc. within the united states of America to make use of the names of their Fore-Mothers and Fore-Fathers. These names are as follows: Bey, Dey, Dunn, Ali, Al, El, etc. The true names of the mis-labeled Indeginous in the Americas. The Science of My Ancestors is what Europeans call Freemasonry…know that even the Shriner’s know themselves as the offspring of Moslems and pay their respects by wearing the Fez and making use of the symbols -pyramid, G(eometry), 7, Star and crescent, square, compass, hammer, ruler, etc.
    Your idea of history is one based on politics and the continuance of a War that my people don’t even know took place.

    Again, if you think it’s a joke; just go look up the Barbary Treaties (Friendship and Peace Treaties between the Moorish Nations who santioned the development of The Republic) where Washington states that this is not a Christian Nation and admits to being a servant of Allah.

    ISLAM.

    • coleyoakum says :

      This folks, is why I think running ablog is so entertaining.

    • Lars33 says :

      While I always admire dissenting views in an intellectual forum, and while on the surface your argument seems to be fairly well formulated and supported, for such a radical view, unfortunately upon further examination you make two completely inaccurate references to texts.
      First you mention “House Resolution 75 1933,” which was indeed a real Resolution, adopted in 1933, and dealing with the issue of Moorish Americans. It even makes mention, and supports, those names you mentioned, namely “Eli or Ali or Bey”. However, you completely misrepresent this Resolution. Nowhere does it reveal “the true founders of civilization as being the descendants of the oldest living peoples on the planet whose surnames were replaced with European names to denote ownership.” That’s a total fabrication on your part. What this Resolution does do is actually quite clearly state that these Moors have been absorbed in American culture (not that they somehow founded American culture), and so have missed the use of their traditional surnames, and then commends a particular organization in Philadelphia that has helped speed along the Americanization of Moorish-Americans while still recognizing their right to use their more comfortable names.
      For anyone interested, the original text of said Resolution can be found here: http://rvbeypublications.com/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/resolution75.pdf

      You reference also the Treaty of Tripoli, or “the Barbary Treaties,” and correctly state that they represent an agreement of friendship between Moorish nations in North Africa (namely Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli) and the fledgling United States, which had been first recognized as an independent nation by these Moorish states (Morocco was indeed the first to do so, in 1777). And, very interestingly, it is stated in this treaty, in Article 11, that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.” Now I myself have always found this particular line fascinating, but it in no way constitutes an admission to servitude to Allah. I’m afraid there’s no amount of reading in between the lines that will get you reasonably to that conclusion. It’s simply absurd. These treaties, and the traditional offers of gifts that accompanied them, were offers of friendship and goodwill, following the goodwill opening of ports by these Moorish states, and so used conciliatory language, and nothing more.
      Original text of that particular treaty (Treaty of Tripoli) can be found here: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/bar1796t.asp

      I would like to also make a quick comment about the reference to slavery in the Bible. I like the way you (Cole) rightfully point out that the cruelty of slavery is often over-dramatized, which was of course practical for any movement seeking the abolition of slavery. But I also think it’s dangerous to infer a blanket opinion on a specific practice such as slavery from the Bible, because it’s a vast book, a hodgepodge collection of sorts, and there are many contradictory (or at least ‘able-to-be-interpreted-in-many-ways) viewpoints expressed within its pages. And so I tend to share your sentiment Bethany, and generally take the view that the Bible should be approached cautiously as a literal life guide. There are obviously and unquestionably many reliable morals and rules of living that can be extracted from the Bible, but there are also a lot of ways it can be misinterpreted, and so a little critical treatment, as in anything, is crucial.

      Also, if you do happen to get a chance to read this, I would love to be able to read your whole paper. I’m taking a Religion class right now and we just had some discussion today on this very topic, specifically about the invocation of the myth of the Curse of Ham as a defense against slavery, and it’d be interesting to delve into the topic in my spare time with a little more depth.

  4. sara mccauley says :

    Hey I am wondering if you would mind giving me some references to some good sources on this topic. I am currently writing a paper on a similar subject. Thanks much!

  5. Skylar says :

    I appreciate this post – I have my 11th graders examine this topic briefly, but there aren’t many sites that address the topic with the right combination of simplicity, depth, and clarity. Thanks!

  6. Ch3st3r says :

    Thanks for writing this Cole, now myself and the rest of my class have to read this stuff and write a paper!

  7. Teresa Meehan says :

    I would love to read your paper. Can you email it to me at teresa4208@gmail.com

    Teresa Meehan

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