Does the Bible sanction American slavery?
DOES THE BIBLE SANCTION
The following pages are an expansion of a lecture delivered at the Manchester Athenæum, and the author has to plead as his justification for printing them, the wishes of some of his audience on that occasion.
They treat of the subject stated on the title-page; not of the justice or wisdom of the present war, nor of the conduct of any American party.
The argument is as much historical as theological: and the question whether the Book, which Christendom regards as the rule of conduct, is favourable to Slavery or to Free Labour, to the degradation or to the independence and dignity of the labouring class, is interesting to the statesman and economist as well as to the divine.
It will be remembered that we have no longer to deal with the question between immediate and gradual emancipation, as to which the greatest enemies of Slavery may fairly differ; nor with the excuses which may be made for those who have inherited a bad system not of their own creating, and which no reasonable man would desire to withhold. A complete change has of late taken place in the sentiments and language of the Southern States on the subject of Slavery. That which was regarded and spoken of by Washington and the statesmen of his time as a transient evil, is now declared to be a permanent good, and not only a permanent good, but the best of all social institutions. Mr. Stephens, the Vice-President of the Slave States, avows that “the foundations of the new Government are laid upon the great truth, that Slavery—subordination to the superior race—is the Negro’s natural and moral condition; that it is the first Government in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth; and that the stone which was rejected by the first builders is in the new edifice become the chief stone of the corner.” Those who hold and proclaim such sentiments as these may naturally proceed to still more extensive and startling doctrines affecting the position of the labourer, without regard to the colour of his skin, in all the countries of the world.
With regard to the part of the argument turning upon the Laws of Moses, Michaelis has long since made us familiar with the fact that these Laws were not a new Code, but a revision of the old customary law of the nation. But since his time much light has been thrown upon this subject by eminent writers on the philosophy of history and on the history of the Jews.
Many of the points here mentioned have been mentioned before in various works; but the author is not aware that the question has been placed as a whole exactly in the light in which he wished and has here endeavoured to place it.
In this discussion the authority of the Pentateuch is taken for granted on both sides. In using, therefore, the common language on the subject, the author is not presuming to pass any opinion upon the questions respecting the date and authorship of the Books which divide great Hebraists and theologians, and which, he is perfectly aware, can be decided only by free inquiry, carried on by men learned in the subject, with absolute faith in the God of Truth.
DOES THE BIBLE SANCTION AMERICAN SLAVERY?
When a New World was peopled, strange things were sure to be seen. And strange things are seen in America. By the side of the Great Salt Lake is a community basing itself upon Polygamy. In the Southern States is a community basing itself upon Slavery. Each of these communities confidently appeals to the Bible as its sanction; and each of them, in virtue of that warrant, declares its peculiar institution to be universal and divine. The plea of the slave-owner is accepted. Perhaps if the Mormonite were equally an object of political interest to a large party, his plea might be accepted also.
It is important in more ways than one to determine whether the slave-owner’s plea is true. The character of the Bible is threatened; and so is the character of the English law and nation. The Times says that slavery is only wrong as luxury is wrong, and that the Bible enjoins the slave at the present day to return to his master. If so, the law of England, which takes away the slave from his master directly his feet touch English soil, is a robber’s law. If so, the great Act of Emancipation, of which we speak so proudly, was a robber’s act; for though a partial compensation for their loss was granted to the West Indian slave-owners, they were forced to give up their slaves notoriously against their will.
- No less a person than Luther was in fact led, by his irrational treatment of the Bible, into both errors. He preached the doctrine that a slave had no right to escape even from a heathen master, (see his Heer-Predigt wider die Türken,) and he brought an eternal scandal on Protestantism by sanctioning the double marriage of the Elector of Hesse.