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Battle for the Bible

by Mark A. Noll

Dr. Noll is professor of history at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 2, 2006 pp. 20-25. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


In October 1845, two able theologians debated the Bible’s view of slavery in a public event in Cincinnati that went on for eight hours a day through four long days. Jonathan Blanchard spoke for the abolitionist position, Nathan L. Rice for the position that while the Bible pointed toward the eventual, voluntary elimination of slavery, it nowhere called slavery evil as such.

While Rice methodically tied Blanchard in knots over how to interpret the proslavery implications of specific texts, Blanchard returned repeatedly to "the broad principle of common equity and common sense" that he found in scripture, to "the general principles of the Bible" and "the whole scope of the Bible," where to him it was obvious that "the principles of the Bible are justice and righteousness." Early on in the debate, Blanchard’s exasperation with Rice’s attention to particular passages led him to utter a particularly revealing statement of his own reasoning: "Abolitionists take their stand upon the New Testament doctrine of the natural equity of man. The one-bloodism of human kind [from Acts 17:26]: -- and upon those great principles of human rights, drawn from the New Testament, and announced in the American Declaration of Independence, declaring that all men have natural and inalienable rights to person, property and the pursuit of happiness."

Blanchard’s linkage between themes from scripture and tropes from American republicanism was repeated regularly by abolitionists. But this use of the Bible almost never found support in the South and only rarely among northern moderates and conservatives. In general, it was a use that suffered particular difficulties when, as in the ground rules laid down for Blanchard and Rice in their Cincinnati debate, disputants pledged themselves in good Protestant fashion to base what they said on the Bible as their only authoritative source.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s lightning-rod novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, provided one of the era’s most powerful examples of the abolitionist appeal to the general spirit of the Bible. Stowe, herself a dedicated if romantic partisan for the Bible, nonetheless subtly questioned widespread American notions about the self-interpreting power of scripture. For example, she had one of her slave-owning characters, Augustine St. Clare, suggest that scriptural interpretation was driven more by interest than intellect:

"Suppose that something should bring down the price of cotton once and forever, and make the whole slave property a drug in the market, don’t you think we should have another version of the Scripture doctrine? What a flood of light would pour into the church, all at once, and how immediately it would be discovered that everything in the Bible and reason went the other way!"

Stowe also intimated the cynical conclusion, which would become more common among secularists after the Civil War, that the Bible was easily manipulated to prove anything that readers might desire with regard to a problem like slavery. At one place in the novel, Stowe had passengers on a steamboat, which was carrying slaves down the Ohio River, exchange biblical texts with each other like bird shot. On the one side: "‘It’s undoubtedly the intention of Providence that the African race should be servants -- kept in a low condition,’ said a grave-looking gentleman in black, a clergyman, seated by the cabin door. "‘Cursed be Canaan: a servant of servants shall he be," the scripture says.

On the other side: "A tall, slender young man, with a face expressive of great feeling and intelligence, here broke in, and repeated the words, "‘All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them." I suppose,’ he added, ‘that is scripture, as much as "Cursed be Canaan.""’

In each case, Stowe’s own sentiments obviously lay with the antislavery use of the Bible, but her portrayal of a divided usage could not have reassured those who paused to reflect on how this novel might awaken uncertainty about the supposedly perspicuous authority of the Bible.

Stowe’s most extensive incident featuring an appeal to scripture conveyed a less ambiguous message. After the slave Eliza escapes over the ice-clogged Ohio River with her young son, she comes, exhausted, to the home of Senator and Mrs. Bird just as they have finished discussing the senator’s support for Ohio’s version of the Fugitive Slave Law. When Mary Bird surprises her husband by attacking all such laws as "shameful, wicked, [and] abominable," John Bird replies with arguments paralleling the biblical defense: "But, Mary, just listen to me. Your feelings are all quite right, dear, and interesting, and I love you for them; but, then, dear, we mustn’t suffer our feelings to run away with our judgment."

In response to arguments in favor of fugitive slave laws, which regularly included a proslavery use of the Bible, Mary Bird blows away the equivalent of chapter-and-verse argumentation with a larger gestalt of scriptural sentiment:

"Now, John, I don’t know anything about politics, but I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate; and that Bible I mean to follow."

"But in cases where your doing so would involve a great public evil -- "

"Obeying God never brings on public evils. I know it can’t. It’s always safest, all round, to do as He bids us."

"Now, listen to me, Mary, and I can state to you a very clear argument to show -- "

"O, nonsense, John! You can talk all night, but you wouldn’t do it, I put it to you, John -- would you now turn away a poor, shivering, hungry creature from your door, because he was a runaway? Would you now?"

At that very point the fugitive slave Eliza arrives at their door, and the senator proves his mettle by setting aside his arguments and moving Eliza in the dead of night away from danger.

The significance of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the biblical debate over slavery lay in the novel’s emotive power. Stowe exemplified -- rather than just announced -- the persuasive force of what she regarded as the Bible’s overarching general message.

The fact that a novelist brought off this task more effectively than the exegetes did not stop abolitionist scholars and preachers from continuing the battle in their chosen media. On the eve of conflict, George Cheever, a Congregationalist minister from upstate New York, published one of the era’s most elaborate biblical attacks on slavery. Cheever labored diligently, if not too convincingly, to show that Old Testament "bondmen" and New Testament "servants" were not slaves at all. He certainly scored points in using biblical prohibitions against "manstealing" when he excoriated the internal trade in slaves and, by implication, all slaveholding. Yet over and over again he appealed to the inconsistency between slavery and "the benevolence commanded in the Scriptures." At the end he brought his book to a climax by moving from the biblical "letter" to a much broader basis: "The moral argument from Scripture on the subject appeals to the common conscience of all mankind, and at every step enlists the common sense of humanity in its behalf."

So also did Henry Ward Beecher reason in his climactic public statement on the eve of conflict. Maybe, he conceded, a defense of slavery could be teased out of obscure, individual texts of scripture, but surely the defining message of the Bible was something else entirely. In his fast day sermon of January 4, 1861, Beecher strenuously appealed to the general meaning of the Bible as opposed to the pedantic literalism that undergirded the proslavery view: "‘I came to open the prison-doors,’ said Christ; and that is the text on which men justify shutting them and locking them. ‘I came to loose those that are bound’; and that is the text out of which men spin cords to bind men, women, and children. ‘I came to carry light to them that are in darkness and deliverance to the oppressed’; and that is the Book from out of which they argue, with amazing ingenuity, all the infernal meshes and snares by which to keep men in bondage. It is pitiful."

Such use of the Bible doubtless carries more weight today than it did in 1860, when the way that Beecher reasoned disturbed broad reaches of American religious opinion. At the time, however, the conviction that he could easily separate the Bible’s antislavery "spirit" from its proslavery "letter" was not only a minority position; it was also widely perceived as a theologically dangerous position.

A devastating theological weakness of this position made many who were otherwise sympathetic shy away. As early as 1846, the Connecticut Congregationalist Leonard Bacon, who very much wanted to oppose slavery as a sin, nonetheless hung back. His analysis of the spirit-over-the-letter argument caught the dilemma exactly: "The evidence that there were both slaves and masters of slaves in the churches founded and directed by the apostles, cannot begot rid of without resorting to methods of interpretation which will get rid of everything." In Bacon’s view, the well-intentioned souls who "torture the Scriptures into saying that which the anti-slavery theory requires them to say" did great damage to the scriptures themselves.

To Bacon and many others who were tempted to make a move from the Bible’s letter of sanction for slavery to its spirit of universal liberation, the facts of American experience may have been the great stumbling block. Precisely by following the Bible strictly, by tending to its letter when heretics of various kinds were running after its spirit, the churches had prospered, and the balm of the gospel had reached unprecedented numbers of spiritually needy men and women.

This consideration did not deter abolitionists like Cheever and the Beechers. Yet the stronger their arguments based on general humanitarian principles became, the weaker the Bible looked in any traditional sense. By contrast, rebuttal of such arguments from biblical principle increasingly came to look like a defense of scripture itself.

Bacon and those who, like him, wanted both to preserve traditional biblical authority and to oppose slavery still had one more argument to advance. They could concede that the Bible never did in fact condemn slavery per se, but they could also contend that, when properly interpreted, scripture did condemn the kind of slavery practiced in the American South. With a substantial history behind it, this was an argument of some subtlety, and one that Bacon himself, along with a sizable number of other earnest Bible believers, tried to make in the years before war broke out.

In 1808 one of the first and best biblical arguments against the southern system of slavery was published by David Barrow. His Involuntary, Unmerited, Perpetual, Absolute, Hereditary Slavery, Examined; on the Principles of Nature, Reason, Justice, Policy and Scripture featured arguments denying that the descendants of Canaan were Africans. More generally, he held that the precedents for slavery found by paying close attention to Abraham’s life and Mosaic law were, for American experience, irrelevant. If all cotton growers and owners of rice plantations were Hebrews, if they could locate Canaanites for slaves, and if they would then transport their operations to the Middle East, then Barrow would concede a biblical warrant for slavery.

Francis Wayland went over Barrow’s argument, only with more erudition and with more detail from the Hebrew language and Old Testament history. To Wayland, in an argument that also loomed large in African-American biblical exegesis, the fact that Abraham circumcised his slaves (Gen. 17:12), and so included them in all the blessings God promised to "his people," set up a very different situation than prevailed in the South. So it was as well with the Mosaic legislation that provided for manumission if a master harmed a slave in any way (such as knocking out a tooth; Exod. 21:27) or if a slave escaped to a Hebrew town (Deut. 23:15-16).

Wayland did not believe that Old Testament slavery provided a legitimate rationale for slavery in other times and places. But even if it did, he held that to follow the Bible meant that Americans would have to abandon the slave system that then existed in their land: "Suppose ... that whatever was sanctioned to the Hebrews is sanctioned to all men at all times,. . . I do not see in what manner it could justify slavery in the United States. It is, I presume, conceded that a permission of this kind is to be understood according to the utmost strictness of application. If slavery be justified by the law of Moses, it is, of course, only justified in the manner and with the restrictions under which it was placed by that law."

A few years later a Baptist preacher with far less of a reputation made Wayland’s points even more sharply, and he did so in Kentucky, where such opinions could be dangerous. James M. Pendleton was a hard-nosed defender of the Bible’s inerrancy as well as of Baptist distinctives, but that cast of mind did not prevent him from mounting a strong case against slavery as practiced in Kentucky at a time when legislation concerning slavery was being considered by a state constitutional convention. Pendleton turned to the standard passages about Abraham and his slaves and observed "that there are points of material dissimilarity between that system and our system of slavery." Unlike owners in the southern states, where it was usually illegal for slaves to be armed, Abraham gave weapons to his slaves, and Abraham was prepared, before his son Isaac was born, to make a slave his heir. The only conclusion that Pendleton could draw was that "it does not follow necessarily that Abraham’s servants were slaves in the American acceptation of the word."

Bible scholar Tayler Lewis made an even more extensive case in response to proslavery use of the Bible. He began by arguing that "the Patriarchal Servitude" in ancient times was very different from the slavery found in the American South. And he asserted that, regardless of the social system in place, scripture never speaks of servants as mere property.

Lewis then expounded at length on what he held to be a key feature of Old Testament teaching -- yes, there was divine approval for buying non-Jews as slaves, but never for selling them. More important, since this provision for servitude depended on the distinction in ancient Israel between the people of God and "the heathen," it was imperative to recognize the great change inaugurated by the coming of Jesus Christ. If, as Christians believe, Jesus opened the doorway of salvation to all people everywhere, who then were the heathen of modem times? In Lewis’s words, "We still speak of heathen, using the term geographically, and, to some extent, ethnologically; but theologically, ecclesiastically, Christianly, there are no heathen." Rather, because the work of Christ accentuated what Lewis called "the blood unity of the race," it was necessary to recognize that there were no longer any heathen whom it was acceptable for the people of God to enslave.

To drive his point home, he asked why, if proslavery advocates were so faithful in believing the Bible, slaves who became Christians (who, that is, stopped being heathen even in the illegitimate sense in which the term was still being used) were not manumitted immediately. Finally, Lewis returned at the end of his long argument to repeat that the slave system practiced in the U.S. could not by any means be considered the same as anything practiced in the ancient world, In his view, even the brutal Roman system was not as degenerate by biblical standards as the American: ‘No Roman court ever made a decision so casting a man out of the state, and out of the pale of humanity, as the Dred Scott [case]." In sum, Lewis argued that the Bible nowhere legitimated racially defined slavery and everywhere condemned social systems beset with the evils that in fact attended the practice of slavery in the U.S.

Promising as the arguments made by Lewis might now seem, they failed in late 1860 to make much headway in American public debate. Three reasons explain why this nuanced biblical attack on American slavery was so relatively ineffective. The first was that biblical defenders of slavery found it easy to lump Lewis’s kind of nuanced biblicism with the arguments of radical abolitionists who claimed that the Bible condemned slavery per se as a sin. Since these radical arguments seemed so obviously to lead to the overthrow of the Bible, the more nuanced position probably did too.

The other two reasons for the failure of a nuanced biblical antislavery concerned the weighty issues of race and common sense. As indicated in Lewis’s arguments, an inability to countenance "the blood unity of the race" provided strong support for biblical defenses of slavery.

On the other front, nuanced biblical attacks on American slavery faced rough going precisely because they were nuanced. This position could not simply be read out of any one biblical text; it could not be lifted directly from the page. Rather, it needed patient reflection on the entirety of the scriptures; it required expert knowledge of the historical circumstances of ancient Near Eastern and Roman slave systems as well as of the actually existing conditions in the slave states; and it demanded that sophisticated interpretative practice replace a commonsensically literal approach to the sacred text. In short, this was an argument of elites requiring that the populace defer to its intellectual betters. As such, it contradicted democratic and republican intellectual instincts. In the culture of the U.S., as that culture had been constructed by three generations of evangelical Bible believers, the nuanced biblical argument was doomed.

The question of scripture and slavery constituted a great problem in 1860 because a biblically inspired people had done so much to construct the country they were now pulling apart. The interpretative practices that had grown up with the great antebellum denominations favored democratic, republican, antitraditional and commonsensical exegesis. Against this historical background, the biblical proslavery argument seemed very strong, the biblical antislavery argument seemed religiously dangerous, and the nuanced biblical argument against slavery in its American form did not comport well with democratic practice and republican theory. Yet many in the North who because of their commonsensical interpretation of the Bible opposed any use of scripture to attack slavery were nonetheless uneasy with the system. They were joined by at least a few from the South. Though conservative in their attachment to traditional views of the Bible, they continued to struggle against the all-out proslavery biblicism of the South’s great champions.

On the eve of the Civil War, interpretations of the Bible that made the most sense to the broadest public were those that incorporated the defining experiences of America into the hermeneutics used for interpreting what the infallible text actually meant. In this effort, those who, like James Henley Thornwell, defended the legitimacy of slavery in the Bible had the easiest task. The procedure, which by 1860 had been repeated countless times, was uncomplicated. First, open the scriptures and read -- at, say, Leviticus 25:45, or, even better, at 1 Corinthians 7:20-21. Second, decide for yourself what these passages mean. Don’t wait for a bishop or a king or a president or a meddling Yankee to tell you what the passage means, but decide for yourself. Third, if anyone tries to convince you that you are not interpreting such passages in the commonsensical, ordinary meaning of the words, look hard at what such a one believes with respect to other biblical doctrines. If you find in what he or she says about such doctrines the least hint of unorthodoxy, as inevitably you will, then you may rest assured that you are being asked to give up not only the plain meaning of scripture, but also the entire trust in the Bible that made the country into such a great Christian civilization.

With debate over the Bible and slavery at such a pass, and especially with the success of the proslavery biblical argument manifestly (if also uncomfortably) convincing to most southerners and many in the North, difficulties abounded. The country had a problem because its most trusted religious authority, the Bible, was sounding an uncertain note. The evangelical Protestant churches had a problem because the mere fact of trusting implicitly in the Bible was not solving disagreements about what the Bible taught concerning slavery. The country and the churches were both in trouble because the remedy that finally solved the question of how to interpret the Bible was recourse to arms. The supreme crisis over the Bible was that there existed no apparent biblical resolution to the crisis. It was left to those consummate theologians, the reverend doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant.


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