Note: I've decided that three blogs are too many for me. So I've decided to combine my History Thoughts and As I see It. So I will be transferring all my History posts over to here. Below is the first transfer
Christianity, Slavery and the Antebellum South
Slavery is an ancient institution and for millennia it’s moral, political and cultural legitimacy was unquestioned. This was the case when a Dutch ship brought the first African slaves to the English colony of Virginia in 1619. However most slaves in the British American colonies during the first half of the 17th century were of European and not African ancestry. We know these slaves as indentured servants.
The British, like all of historic Christians, believed that Christians were as a people heirs of God’s promises that He made to Abraham and were thereby the true Israel of God. As such they looked to the Law’s of the Old Covenant as a basis for many of their own laws. In the Old Covenant an Israelite could not hold a fellow Israelite in permanent slavery, unless the individual voluntarily made himself a slave for life, which included the sign of piercing his ear, this act testified that he was in permanent subjection. In the Old Testament under normal circumstances an Israelite could not be held in bondage for more than six ears. A Hebrew slave of a fellow Israelite was to be released during the Sabbath year.
The English during the colonial era, still viewed Christians and the church covenantally, they therefore applied the same Old Covenant law about slavery to their times. They did not allow for the permanent or generational enslavement of fellow Christians. A Britain or other European, almost all of whom were baptised in infancy, could sell himself into slavery for a period of years, usually four or five, to obtain passage to the New World. Then after the designated period of time he was released from service, because a baptised brother could not be held in continual slavery.
These indentured servants were the majority of slaves in the colonies for most of the 1600’s, In the later half of the 1600’s the number of African slaves began to increase dramatically, and the number of indentured servants fell off just as dramatically. The Africans were pagans and not a baptised Christian people, and so there was no obligation to free from bondage these unbaptised people.
But the Africans brought to the New World soon came into contact with the Gospel and some turned to Christ and were baptised. This brought about a problem. The planter could not keep a baptised European in perpetual slavery, but what about the African who converted to the Christian faith or more importantly still, his or her children who were baptised in infancy?
Some planters were hesitant to allow the Gospel to reach their African slaves, because they believed (rightly) that if they were baptised then they, or certainly their children would have to be freed.
The Virginia House of Burgesses addressed this concern in 1667. Act III of that year was titled “An act declaring that baptisme of slaves doth not exempt them from bondage” and reads thus:
Whereas some doubts have risen whether children that are slaves by birth, and by the charity and piety of their owners made pertakers of the blessed sacrament of baptisme, should by vertue of their baptisme be made ffree; It is enacted and declared by this grand assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or ffreedome; that diverse masters, ffreed from this doubt, may more carefully endeavor the propagation of christianity by permitting children, though slaves, or those of greater growth if capable to be admitted to that sacrament. (Original spelling)
Maryland shortly after followed Virginia’s example. This was a major change in the thinking and law of the English. They had understood that baptised peoples could not be held in perpetual and generational slavery. Now for pragmatic reasons, and to make certain that African slaves were not prevented from hearing the Gospel, they made a dramatic and important change in the Law. They mad an exception for the baptised Africans, these people because of this law could be kept in a permanent and generational state of enslavement.
In America it now became the case that Christians could keep fellow Christians in perpetual slavery so long as the fellow Christians were of Black African descent. With the passing of this fatal law slavery in British North America became race-based slavery. Even the pagan American Indian could not be held in perpetual, much less generational, slavery. We see this in a 1670 Virginia law. Act XII of that year titled “What tyme Indians to serve” says this:
Whereas some dispute have arisen whither Indians taken in warr by any other nation, and by that nation that taketh thern sold to the English, are servants for life or terme of yeares, It is resolved and enacted that all servants not being christians imported into this colony by shipping shalbe slaves for their lives; but what shall come by land shall serve, if boyes or girles, untill thirty yeares of age, if men or women twelve yeares and no longer.
The non-Christian Indian was to be held as a slave only for a given number of years, but the African who arrived “by shipping shalbe slaves for their lives.” So it is clear that his or her perpetual slavery was now based exclusively on race.
Slavery had been seen as a necessary part of life by almost every culture on earth for most of human history. But in the 18th century this began to change. By the time of the American Revolution most of the Founding Fathers, North and South, considered slavery to be an evil. Some saw it as a necessary evil, but an evil all the same. This was true of Washington, Madison, Jefferson etc., all of whom were slaveholders.
Patrick Henry, who was also a slaveholder, likewise saw slavery as an evil. In a letter dated January 18, 1773 he wrote “Every thing we can do is to improve it [Note: it = emancipation] , if it happens in our day, if not, let us transmit to our descendants together with our Slaves, a pity for their unhappy Lot, & an abhorrence for Slavery. If we cannot reduce this wished for Reformation to practice, let us treat the unhappy victims with lenity, it is ye. Furthest advance we can make toward Justice [We owe to the] purity of our Religion to shew that it is at variance with that Law which warrants Slavery.”
Henry, like most of the founders, hoped that African slavery could be ended, but at the same time they had doubts that both free Europeans and free Africans could peacefully live together without one group slaughtering the other. Thomas Jefferson expressed this in a famous letter. In regard to slavery in the South he wrote “[A]s it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”
In the early part of the 19th century most abolitionist/emancipation societies were in the South, but they feared that the two races could not both inhabit the same land in a peaceful coexistence . So they sought to transplant the Africans either to Africa, the West or elsewhere in the Americas.
The Southern view changed dramatically in the 1830’s. This was brought about by the rise of radical abolitionists in the North. The new abolitionists movement’s founders came out of the Unitarian and Transcendentalists ranks, and were staunchly anti-Christian. These Abolitionists did not just see slavery as an evil, they declared slavery to be sin and said the slaveholders themselves were evil as well.
The attack from the Unitarian and Transcendentalist abolitionist movement sent the Christians in the South to their Bibles to prove biblically that Slavery was certainly allowed by God and was therefore not necessarily sinful. They pointed out that the Father of the faith Abraham was a slaveholder. Southerners also pointed to the Old Testament and showed where slavery is regulated by God’s law and is by no means condemned.
The Southerners pointed out that Jesus lived in a society where slavery was a normal everyday thing. They correctly argued that Jesus never condemned nor argued against slavery. The Southerners could even point to the New Testament epistle of St. Paul to Philemon. Philemon was a Christian and a slaveholder.
During this period of time the South was becoming a more overtly Christian culture, while in the North Unitarians, Transcendentalists, cultists and revivalists were eroding the Christian foundations of that region. The Abolitionists arguments were mostly humanistic and emotional and it was easy for the Southerners to counter with Scripture. Slavery was clearly allowed and regulated by God in the Bible and it was easy to point that out to Americans North and South.
Before the rise of the more radical abolitionists movements in the North, Southerners had generally considered slavery an evil that they had inherited, but now they defended and also presented it as a positive institution.
Rev. Robert Lewis Dabney, a strong defender of the South and Southern slavery, pointed out this change in attitude in a letter he wrote in 1840. Dabney wrote “Before the abolitionists began to meddle with our affairs, with which they have no business, I remember that it was the common opinion that domestic slavery was at least injudicious…I do believe that if these mad fanatics had let us alone, in twenty years we should have made Virginia a free state. AS it is their unauthorised attempt to strike off the fetters of our slaves have but riveted them on the faster. Does this fact arise from the perversity of our nature? I believe that it does in part. We are less inclined to do that which we know to be our duty because persons, who have no right to interfere, demand it of us.”
Southern attitudes changed, as Dabney points out, in reaction to the abolitionist onslaught. At the same time pastors like Dabney and countless others, even while defending slavery against Northern Abolitionists attacks, wrote and preached to their Southern brethren that much of Southern slavery fell far short of the standards set forth in the Bible. The preachers warned that unless they reformed the institutions and brought it in line with the Word of God that God would bring judgement upon them.
Yet they failed to address the grievous error of 1667. They never addressed the fact that they had discarded the covenantal aspects of their theology so as to maintain the Africans in life long and generational slavery. Southern slavery, despite it numerous failings was far more benign than slavery in other parts of the New World. Only five percent of the people taken from Africa ever made it to the United States. The Africans reproduced and thrived in here, while in other parts of the New World the slaves had to be constantly resupplied because of the high mortality and the lack of children.
The South had nearly two hundred years to correct their horrible misjudgement of 1667. The Africans had been, from an early time, presented the Gospel in the America. They had become a baptised Christian people and if biblical law is valid, as they certainly believed, then they were obligated to set these people free.
On a constitutional level the Southerners were correct. The South could secede from the Union, but biblically Southern slavery failed to ever address the great sin of making Christian brethren perpetual slaves based on the colour of their skin. Had Southerners been true to their own doctrinal understanding of the Word of God, then the Africans would have been emancipated long before the War Between the States.
It took a tragic war, in which many Christians on both sides died, to correct the decision of Act III made by the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1667.