The Legacy of the Bible in Justifying Slavery
Does the Bible justify slavery?
Slavery in the ancient world was a part of everyday life, and, unfortunately, the Bible accepts this tragic reality as a given. Indeed, the Bible not only does not unequivocally condemn slavery, but at points it endorses it. For example, in the Hebrew Bible, Moses tells the Israelites on the way to the Promised Land how they should acquire and keep slaves (
For much of North American history from the 1600s to the end of the US Civil War, biblical passages were commonly used to affirm the institution of slavery. In colonial Boston, Cotton Mather, the celebrated American intellectual and Puritan minister, frequently turned to the Bible to affirm the enslavement of Africans. He justified his position by exhorting white slavers to “use” the practice to “Christianize” those whom they enslaved. In the antebellum South, well-respected ministers such as Thornton Stringfellow (1788–1869) wrote influential and widely read treatises to demonstrate the Bible’s support for slavery. Scholars of religion such as Charles C. Jones (1804–1863), who was educated at Princeton Theological Seminary, spent much time using Ephesians to exhort enslaved people in Liberty County, GA to be obedient to their “masters.”
Translation is itself interpretive work and translators of the KJV, the commonly used Bible of this era, also participated in the politics of enslavement. Even their translations of passages that have been read as advocating for more “humane” treatment of enslaved persons reveal their bias: “When you buy a male Hebrew slave [’ebed], he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt” (
Since modern Western slave regimes saw Africans as chattel with no relationship to the enslaved in the biblical text, even practices such as those described in
How did people of African descent respond to these passages?
During the same period, African Americans responded to a world shaped by white supremacy by honing a sophisticated and self-reflective hermeneutics that refused to accept arguments for biblical affirmations of slavery. Confronted with endless exhortations from Ephesians and the commonly held notion that they were enslaved because they were despised by God, interpreters such as Absalom Jones, Maria Stewart, David Walker, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Sojourner Truth among others nonetheless took up the Bible, particularly the book of Exodus, and summoned courage, vision, and hermeneutical creativity to arrive at a different truth: because they were enslaved, God would rescue them. Their interpretations were driven by a belief in God’s ultimate advocacy of liberation. So, while the Bible could not speak unequivocally about slavery, they did—because their faith resided in a God who unequivocally affirmed their humanity.