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 http://pilgrimpathways.wordpress.com.
It 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 until 1859, one year before the outbreak of the Civil War and his sequel The Descent of Man 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. (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. (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.
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. 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.
- 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.
 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).
 Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (London: John Murray, 1871).
 See Dan G. Kent, “The Saint’s Suitor: Crawford H. Toy,” Baptist History and Heritage (Winter 2003). Online at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0NXG/is_1_38/ai_99430502/pg_9/?tag=content;col1
 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 http://www.jstor.org/pss/25154815
 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).
 Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Fortress Press, 1984).
 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: theliberatorfiles.com.