Guest Post #3 Violence and Holy Writ: Slavery as a Crisis of Biblical Authority in 19th C. America

By Michael Westmoreland-White

Dr. Westmoreland-White’s graduate work was in theological ethics, and he formerly co-chaired the interest group in “Scripture and Ethics” at the Society of Christian Ethics.  He teaches courses in religion and philosophy at Jefferson Community & Technical College, Simmons College of Louisville, Spalding University, and the Kentucky prison system.  He blogs on religion and politics at


Liberator William Lloyd GarrisonIt wasn’t  Darwin’s writings on biological evolution, nor the advent of critical studies of the Bible, but the struggle to abolish chattel slavery which provoked the first crisis of biblical authority in the United States. After all, Darwin did not publish The Origin of Species[1] until 1859, one year before the outbreak of the Civil War and his sequel The Descent of Man[2] wasn’t published until 1871, six years after the end of the war and the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery throughout the nation permanently.  In Europe, critical studies of the Bible had begun in the 18th century(especially by philosophers, Hobbes and Spinoza) and had begun to spread to university theology departments by the beginning of the 19th century, but they did not begin to make an impact in the United States until after the Civil War.  The forced termination of Old Testament scholar Crawford H. Toy from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for teaching Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch didn’t happen until 1879[3]. (In 1880, Toy moved to Harvard University, helped create its Divinity School and created Harvard’s Department of Semitic and Oriental Languages.) The heresy trial of Union Theological Seminary’s Professor of Biblical Theology, Charles A. Briggs, also over historical criticism, didn’t occur until 1891[4]. (Briggs was stripped of his ordination by the Presbytery of New York, Union broke from the Presbyterian Church and became the first free-standing ecumenical seminary in the U.S., and Briggs, who kept his post at Union, was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1899.)

Those developments did lead to crises of biblical authority in the U.S., but they were preceded by the struggle to abolish slavery—which created a crisis from which most of the evangelical churches in the United States have yet to recover.  There had been debates over slavery during the Colonial period and at the Constitutional Convention (though ultimately they created a pro-slavery Constitution), and the Friends/Quakers, under the influence of John Woolman, had abolished slavery within their ranks.  But the main abolitionist movement began with William Lloyd Garrison’s launch of The Liberator in 1831.  By the 1840s, the debate led to regional divisions (North and South) in the Baptists (The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845 after the “Trienniel Baptist Convention” refused to appoint a slaveowner as a home missionary), the Methodists (1844), and Presbyterians (New School Presbyterians split over slavery in 1857, and the Old School Presbyterians in 1861).

The biblical crisis stemmed from the fact that not only did many biblical passages explicitly support slavery (e.g., Ex. 22:1-3), but that in no passage from Genesis to Revelation is there an explicit condemnation of slavery itself.  The closest are the jubilee passages in Leviticus 25:8-11 (which, among other things, demands the release of all Hebrew slaves every 50 years—but it doesn’t apply to foreign slaves captured in war) and Paul’s Epistle to Philemon in which the apostle pleads with Philemon to free Onesimus—but refuses to order him to do so. (The pro-slavery preachers would cite Paul’s return of Onesimus to Philemon in support of the Fugitive Slave Law.) The abolitionists could and did argue that the overall spirit and tenor of the Scriptures undermined slavery and former slaves turned abolitionists like Frederick Douglass applied the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery to their situation.  But, especially from a pre-critical perspective, the pro-slavery forces seemed to have the Bible on their side.[5]

I suggest that the evangelical churches never really solved this crisis.  They stopped supporting slavery because the issue was decided by the war, not because they learned to read Scripture in a way that would allow them to reject slavery out of principle. Many of the abolitionists lost their evangelical faith, becoming Unitarians or even atheists.  Evangelical churches and institutions that had been socially progressive (e.g., Wheaton College) turned socially conservative or even repressive.  Thus, the struggle over slavery set the stage for the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the early 20th century and the division of Christians into “conservatives” or “liberals” ever since—with a loss of prophetic power among the conservatives and a loss of biblical grounding in liberals.  Conservatives have not yet faced either the slave texts, the genocide texts or other “texts of terror” in the canon.[6] Liberals have done so, but have had a hard time retaining a coherent form of biblical authority.

I don’t have a full solution to this crisis.  My concluding thoughts are more challenges for us all than anything else.

  • A “flat Bible” approach, as with most versions of “inerrancy” is simply impossible without endorsing slavery, genocide, and other evils.
  • Critical attention to the complex formation of scripture and all its parts is helpful, but ultimately insufficient.  We must find ways to reject the normativity of pro-slavery (and other violent “terror texts”) passages and strands without denying their presence as part of the warp and woof of the writings that form our Christian canon.
  • My own struggles along this line have been helped immensely by the work of Karl Barth and by reflections on sacramental theology.  I have come to see Scripture not as the Word of God in a simple sense, but as sacramentally conveying the Word of God to the Church in and through the very human words of the texts.
  • This doesn’t solve all hermeneutical problems, nor all problems of authority, but I find it a start.
  • We cannot approach these texts safely from positions of empowerment.  We have to read Scripture in the presence of victims of the abuse of Scripture.  We cannot claim Scripture as the Word of Life to us without sitting and reading it with those for whom it has been a weapon of spiritual (and sometimes physical) destruction.[7]
  • We must read Scripture today in light of the misuses of Scripture—such as the defense of slavery—in the past.  We need humility when we do so.  It is far too easy to think “If I were a19th century Christian, I’d have been a strong abolitionist,” or “If I were an adult during the crisis over segregation in the U.S. or apartheid in South Africa, there is no way I’d read the Bible as supporting oppression,” etc.  But, in fact, many did.  I have both slaveowners and segregationists among my own ancestors.  Without humility, we cannot learn from the mistakes of the past.


[1] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle of Life (London: John Murray, 1859).

[2] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (London: John Murray, 1871).

[3] See Dan G. Kent, “The Saint’s Suitor:  Crawford H. Toy,” Baptist History and Heritage (Winter 2003). Online at;col1

[4] Harvey Hill, “History and Heresy:  Religious Authority and the Trial of Charles Augustus Briggs,” U. S. Catholic Historian 20:3 (Summer 2002), pp. 1-21.  Online at

[5] For the 19th C. debates over slavery, see Willard Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women:  Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1983).

[6] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror:  Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Fortress Press, 1984).

[7] In North America, today, I insist that straight Christians must learn to read Scripture with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered persons.  The “able-bodied” and those without learning disabilities or problems of mental health must read with the differently abled.  The employed and well-housed must read with the unemployed and homeless.  We must read with people of different racial/ethnic groups and men must learn to LISTEN to the readings of women.

* The “Liberator” image originates with this website:

9 thoughts on “Guest Post #3 Violence and Holy Writ: Slavery as a Crisis of Biblical Authority in 19th C. America”

  1. “Conservatives have not yet faced either the slave texts, the genocide texts or other “texts of terror” in the canon.[6] Liberals have done so, but have had a hard time retaining a coherent form of biblical authority.” and “A ‘flat Bible’ approach, as with most versions of “inerrancy” is simply impossible without endorsing slavery, genocide, and other evils.”

    I find these statements to be both helpful and nervewracking (because there ARE flat-liners willing to face/embrace genocidal texts today).

    Since by no means will i endorse slavery or genocide even if it means rejection of God Himself (somehow the patriarchal male image seems appropriate for this statement), i suspect i’ve chosen to embrace a possible abyss of biblical authority as i embark on a exegetical project to explore the topic of divine sanction for genocide in Deuteronomy 20. i anticipate that during this hardwork i will 1) be envious of the simple straightforward method of Thomas Jefferson :) and 2) will be highly appreciative and indebted to those whose hard-exegetical-work will inform my exploration.

    Here’s why i’ve chosen this project:
    Notes from an Adult Bible Study I attended on March 1, 2009 while at the church which was my home church as a child up to young adulthood, a Southern Baptist Church in Arizona. Though now more militant and overt, this class consolidates and mirrors many main themes within which I had been raised.

    Lesson Scripture: Isaiah 5:1-6 (KJV)
    And from that passage emerged these lesson themes (?, illustrates the need for exegetical methods I think!):
    1.Israel was born in a day and that day was in 1948
    2.The U.S. was established on the gospel, is a Christian Nation, and don’t let anyone tell you different
    o Founded on the Gospel and the Ten Commandments
    3. The new continent was like Eden, full of produce and resources, just needed human resources
    o God provided that from the “cream of the crop” from Europe
    4.Problem is – Israel was told to wipe out the other nations and they didn’t, they left some, so now we have these problems today
    5.Discipline and train our children like horses and dogs, nothing wrong with a good spanking
    6.You got to stay on top of ‘em, they’re formed by age 3 so important to discipline our babies and toddlers
    7.Verse about worthless grapes
    o Israel allowed other gods in their land
    o To say nothing is the same as to condone it, take a stand
    o This is our problem today
    o God is taking away (currently, now, or soon) our hedge of protection and will lay waste

    I refrained from speaking out in order to allow the class leader to fully express his thoughts and observe responses from the class. There were zero dissenting voices, several people spoke up in agreement, and several more head nods and other postures which seemed to convey approval. This was a class of about 25 people with a wide age – range, I’d guess, from mid-20-somethings to on up. This class was mostly but not all white. The class leader was a white male, probably 30-something, married and with young children at home (I shudder).

    Given their “flat Bible approach,” I’m curious as to what, if any, Biblical limits exist in carrying out this desire to eliminate other religions in our nation and to extend violent authoritarian control over our kids. The central theme, number 4, seems the most tightly connected to Scripture in the form of obedience to divine sanctioned violence. I suspect he had a passage like Deuteronomy 20 in mind.

  2. Wow, Brenda, your situation is horrifying. It’d be like being a part of a Bible study led by a Crusader or a modern slaveowner. I hope that the lack of dissenting voices may be that others were intimidated or, like you, waiting to see what happened.

    I am aware of the existence of flat-Bible types. They’ve grown in numbers in recent years as evidenced by the huge conservative Christian support for torture in the U.S.–revealed by a Pew study.

    I also suspect that many human traffickers are members of our churches.

    Blessings on your resistance. Such evil has to be denounced–constantly.

  3. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for this post, I enjoyed reading it.

    A few remarks in response:

    (1) It seems to me that a good many “Conservatives” actually have faced the texts of terror and have done so by approving of the (purportedly) divinely inspired acts of violence. For some, approving of slavery and genocide does not actually lead to a crisis of faith. After all, beginning with the later issue, if God is going to commit an unprecedentedly massive act of genocide when (most?) of humanity is damned to hell after the return of Jesus, then it’s no big deal if God wishes to impose something like that judgment against certain groups of people within history (ditto goes for the matter of torture, given that hell is usually taken to be a place of eternal torment). Turning to the former issue, the argument is usually made that slavery in the ANE and in the Graeco-Roman period was something different than the form of slavery that existed in America. Thus, the slavery of blacks can be condemned while other forms of slavery can be considered morally acceptable. We actually see this play out when “Conservatives” speak approvingly of things like sweat-shop labour in the two-thirds world. The historical, social, political, and economic conditions around that matter more closely resemble the conditions that existed around slavery in the biblical contexts and so this may be one of the reasons why more “Conservative” voices are conditioned to accept it as an appropriate practice.

    (One can even make the same point about women and children who are trafficked. I once attended a lecture given by a very prominent Evangelical scholar [who will remain anonymous here] and this person was talking about the passages that refer to slaves being submissive to masters and doing their work as though they were working for the Lord Jesus. I asked this scholar if current day slaves, especially trafficked women, should simply then be the best sex workers they can be and turn tricks to the glory of Jesus. This scholar was somewhat taken aback but then said, yes, in certain contexts today, they should do just that!)

    (2) Regarding what the Bible actually says about slavery, I would like to suggest that the non-disputed Pauline letters actually do take a consistent and strong stance against slavery. Without writing a dissertation on that matter here (I go into this matter in a chapter from my forthcoming book on Paul), I’ll simply say that the lack of an explicit written rejection of the institution of slavery need not be taken as a sign that Paul accepted that institution. In fact, in a context wherein one would be killed for saying that sort of thing, it makes sense that those who worked against slavery would be careful in how they phrased their words (especially in things like letters, which can end of in the hands of the wrong people).

    Instead, read carefully in context, we can see that Paul radically undercuts the slavery system. I’ll briefly highlight two ways in which he does so: First, more than any other image, Paul uses family language to refer to the members of the assemblies of Jesus. What we miss in our context is the implications that language holds. Family members — especially brothers and sisters — were to relate to one another in relationships of mutuality (and a mutuality that was just as economic and material as it was ontological and spiritual). The exceptions to that rule were the father and the first-born, but Paul is careful to remove those positions from any person in the assemblies (thus, God is the father and Jesus is the first-born). One brother could not possess another brother as a slave, one sister could not possess another sister, and so on. Relating to one another within a “fictive kinship” makes slavery impossible. This is why, in the early years of the church, we see Christian communities continuing the trajectory established by Jesus, the Jerusalem church (mentioned in Acts 2 & 4) and the Pauline collection, and pooling resources in order to buy other members out of slavery to their masters.

    Secondly, Paul’s talk of Jesus as Lord (the title he most prefers for Jesus) means that Christians were liberated from other lords. Of course, the title “Lord” was one frequently used by masters in relation to their slaves. When this is paired with the realization that “redemption” language is also slave-based language, we get a strong case against the slavery system. The Greek word for “redemption” (apolytrosis) refers to ransoming a slave, purchasing the slave away from his or her master (often in the context of liberating slaves who have been taken as prisoners of war). Given that the majority of slaves in the imperial Roman era were prisoners of war (or decedents of those prisoners), we can see the explosiveness of this.

    Of course, the individual assemblies of Jesus may have lived out Paul’s injunctions more and less well. Thus, while some assemblies began pooling resources to liberate others, there are others who quickly found ways to justify their participation within the slavery system. Thus, within the deutero-Pauline epistles, we see others who latch on to the authoritative voice of Paul in order to co-opt his influence and make it more comfortable with the status quo of Empire.

    (3) This, then, leads to some of the hermeneutical difficulties you mention in relation to the canon of Scripture (as we are stuck reading Paul and, for example, the Pastorals against each other) but I think that what I have written about hermeneutics in Part One of the symposium goes a long way to resolving that matter.

    Okay, I’ve gone on far too long. Many thanks.

  4. Michael,

    A very thoughtful piece- thank you for your contribution. I think that you are spot on in your thesis (and I believe that Mark Noll would agree with how you correlate slavery and the issue of Biblical authority). I am going to be addressing what you call “the flat bible approach” in my forthcoming post. I will propose an alternative reading strategy that, I think, will recover “prophetic power among the conservatives” and a biblical grounding and hermeneutic that is more agreeable to liberals as it pertains to slavery in the OT.

    Best to you!

  5. Dan,

    Once again, I really, really like what you have to say. Let me know when that book is published, as I like a copy–perhaps a review copy, and I’ll post a review of sections on my blog.

    The post that I plan to contribute to this series–after Mr. Whitfield’s post–resonates with your suggestions.

    When I do post my piece, I’d love for you to expand on what you say in your second to last paragraph, as I do not engage any of the pastoral Pauline epistles. I deal only with selected uncontested letters of Paul.

    With all good wishes,

  6. Thanks, Cynthia. I’ll keep you posted on the Paul book (“Paul and the Uprising of the Dead: Eschatology, Ethics and Empires”).

    One point about Lordship language that I didn’t make clearly above is this: slaves could not have multiple and competing masters (just as clients couldn’t serve multiple and competing patrons). Thus, to make Christ the Lord who has bought his followers with a price and to now refer to members of the early assemblies of Jesus as douloi Christou (slaves of Christ), means that all other masters are demoted and replaced (Jesus isn’t being hyperbolic in Mt 6 when he asserts that “no person can serve two masters.” He is stating a known fact).

  7. Dan,
    Nice! Good posts. I like the title of your book! Sounds fascinating.

    Oh, and it was quite the coincidence to have literally just finished reading Mark Noll’s “Civil War as a Theological Crisis” and set it down and the very next thing I do is come here and see Michael’s article.

  8. Dan writes:

    It seems to me that a good many “Conservatives” actually have faced the texts of terror and have done so by approving of the (purportedly) divinely inspired acts of violence.

    I have found this to be the case as well.

  9. Dan, thanks very much for your comments. I think that both the uncontested and deutero-Pauline writings subtly undermine slavery–but that this kind of reading was not available to the 19th C. abolitionists. It requires historical-critical and literary-critical perspectives that were just not available then–and so the pro-slavery folk seemed to “win” most of the biblical arguments. Sometimes the abolitionists would engage in special pleading by saying that “biblical servanthood” was not slavery!

    Actually, the slavery of the ancient world was different in many respects from the race-based chattel slavery that European colonists imposed on the Americas, but we need a hermeneutic that can say that ALL forms of slavery are evil, but the chattel slavery of Africans in the U.S. was ESPECIALLY evil.

    I look forward to your book and to Kyle and Cynthia’s posts.

    But since I have lived and worked for most of my life with at least one foot in the world of American evangelical Protestantism, I still doubt that the majority have truly faced the texts of terror. Yes, prominent leaders of the Religious Right have decided to defend modern slavery and human trafficking, and torture, and genocide, etc. out of a “flat Bible” hermeneutic (and youth are fleeing out of their backdoors as a result!), but I find them to be a vocal minority rather than the majority–who simply work with a selective literalism that avoids even noticing the texts of terror. I do think that the recent upsurge in conservative defenses of the indefensible (which made most squirm even a few years ago) is related to the resurgence of a particular kind of strong (scholastic) Calvinism–of the same kind that allowed Charles Hodge or James Boyce to heartily endorse slavery in the 19th C.

    The broad Reformed tradition has resources for liberation, but what Max Stackhouse called “imperial Calvinism,” has supported slavery, genocide, segregation, apartheid, etc. I think it’s resurgence under the influence of the likes of John Piper & Al Mohler is fueling a violent, imperial, oppressive “Christianity of domination” that is anti-gospel!

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