I serve in a seminary founded by slaveholders as part of a denomination that began so that slaveholders could be sent as missionaries. Not only did early Southern Baptists practice slavery, but they also distorted Scripture to support the continued enslavement of African Americans. The Confederate States of America were seen by Baptists in the American South as God’s chosen instrument to preserve the institution of slavery.
According to an editorial in the 1863 Christian Index that supported the pro-slavery position among Southern Baptists,
The war which has been forced upon us by our assailants, is grounded in opposition to an institution which is sustained by the sanctions of religion. [Our assailants] assume that slavery is a sin and therefore ought to be abolished. We contend that it is a Scriptural institution. The very nature of the contest takes the point in dispute out of the category of politics, and delegates it to the sphere of Christianity. We are really contending for the precepts of religion, against the devices of the wisdom of this world, and it is, therefore, not only the policy, but the duty of religious bodies to define their position in this great contest. The [Southern Baptist Convention] has done well in giving unambiguous utterance to its sentiments on this subject.
In 1864, one Virginia Baptist newspaper referred to any attempt to abolish slavery as “the Final Antichrist.”
Such declarations stand as a horrific blot on the history of Christianity. Our African-American brothers and sisters suffer still today from the effects of this sickening distortion of Scripture to support racially-based chattel slavery. As a result of this system, black lives and black bodies were treated as if their sole value was their economic benefit to those in power over them. Black community and black education were seen not as opportunities for advancement but as threats to oppressive but economically profitable systems.
I find that I am unable to explain this heritage to my bi-racial daughter without weeping at the awfulness of it and yet simultaneously standing in awe of the amazing resilience of African-American communities in the face of crushing dehumanization. Black lives don’t simply matter; black lives are beautiful, and black history is an awe-inspiring amalgamation of brokenness and beauty.
In the midst of this mingling of brokenness and beauty, it should be remembered that there is another side to this story of oppression justified by the distortion of Scripture. Many of those who worked hardest to abolish slavery were driven by a deep desire to be faithful to the teachings of Scripture.
Puritan pastor Richard Baxter declared that slave-traders were “fitter to be called devils than Christians,” and another Puritan named Samuel Sewall wrote the first antislavery tract to be published in the American colonies. In the late eighteenth century, the Christian values of Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce drove them to work tirelessly to bring an end to the British slave trade.
An Ancient Christian Polemic Against Slavery
This pattern was not, however, limited to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In fact, the recognition that the institution of slavery is difficult to reconcile with the creation of every human in God’s image can be found at least as early as the fourth century, in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory was the overseer of churches in the village of Nyssa in the fourth century. The systems that Gregory addressed were, of course, not identical to the racially-based slavery that infected the American experiment from the very beginning. Nevertheless, many of Gregory’s arguments anticipated the ones that American abolitionists would make in the nineteenth century. Coleman Michael Ford writes these words regarding Gregory’s fourth sermon from the book of Ecclesiastes:
[Gregory of Nyssa’s] polemic against slavery is a remarkable…historical anomaly. The New Testament, while maintaining that believers (including slaves) are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28), never sets forth a parameter for emancipation. … Gregory continues in his homily informed by a distinctly Christian anthropology. Man is made in the image of God and therefore is ultimately God’s property, not belonging to another person. … Gregory states, “God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?” Gregory deplores the idea of allowing a piece of paper (a contract to purchase another man) to take the place of man’s image-bearing characteristics. Gregory can see no difference between the slave and owner, for both … share the same “pains and pleasures, merriment and distress, sorrows and delights, rages and terrors, sickness and death.” After death, both return to dust. A contract cannot distinguish the differences between one man and another.
Gregory of Nyssa—no less than Christian abolitionists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—saw the truth that the creation of all people in God’s image called the institution of slavery into question. This same theological truth is what calls us to work and to sacrifice for the sake of racial reconciliation still today.
To learn more about the history of Christianity, take a look at my book and video series Christian History Made Easy. To learn more about the abolition of the British slave trade, I recommend this book.
Discuss in the Comments:
Many Christians in the American South remained blind to the injustice of the system of slavery that they had created. To what issues of injustice might Christians today be blind? What might we do to see these issues more clearly? How can we be shaped by Scripture and by the gospel, not by social whims, as we seek to diminish injustice in our world?