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.
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.
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.