For centuries, the Scriptures were twisted and distorted to provide support for racism and race-based slavery.
It is no exaggeration to state that the enslavement of African Americans would never have persisted as long as it did without the support of persons who claimed to follow Scripture. At the same time, Christian ethics were also one of the key factors that reshaped imaginations and sparked the social transformations that ended slavery—and it wasn’t only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the Word of God turned Christians’ minds against the enslavement of human beings. Even in the early centuries of Christianity, some Christians already glimpsed the unavoidable clash between slavery and the creation of every human being in God’s image, equal in value and dignity.
Many of these arguments are as relevant in the continuing battle against racial injustice today as they were centuries ago—but, before taking a look at the many Christians who spoke against these injustices, it’s important to acknowledge the ways in which generations of church leaders misused Scripture to support racism and slavery.
Who Used Scripture to Support Racism and Slavery, and Why
Decades before the United States became a nation, church leaders such as Jonathan Edwards owned slaves, and George Whitefield was instrumental in spreading African slavery by encouraging the introduction of this practice into Georgia. In a letter dated March 22, 1751, Whitefield admitted his rationale for the enslavement of Africans:
Hot countries cannot be cultivated without Negroes. … How many white people have been destroyed for want of them, and how many thousands of pounds spent to no purpose at all?
These words from Whitefield reek of racial prejudice, and they reveal the ungodly ranking of races that provided a veneer of justification for the American system of slavery.
By the nineteenth century, slaveowners who claimed to be faithful Christians could be found throughout the American South. These individuals defended the practice of slavery by twisting Scripture to support their existing economic and political commitments. When the American Civil War began, the Confederacy was declared by Southern Baptists to be God’s chosen instrument to preserve the institution of slavery. According to an 1863 editorial in Christian Index,
slavery … is a Scriptural institution. The very nature of the contest [between North and South] 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.
In 1864, one Virginia Baptist newspaper even identified those who wished to abolish slavery as minions of the end-times antichrist.
What is clear from these claims is that certain expressions of Christian theology were so committed to the subjugation of African Americans that they depicted those who wished to end slavery as persons who were allied with the devil and arrayed against the authority of Scripture.
Such declarations stand as a horrific blot on the history of Christianity. African Americans today are still impacted by the systemic effects of these distortions of Scripture to support race-based chattel slavery. For centuries, black lives and black bodies were treated as if their primary value was their economic benefit to those in power over them. Black education and economic enterprise were seen as threats to oppressive but economically profitable systems—and all of this was defended on the basis of Scripture and institutionalized in churches.
Brokenness, Beauty, and Why Black Lives Matter
I find that I am unable to explain this heritage to my two daughters whose heritage is African without being choked by tears at the awfulness of it and yet, at the same time, being driven toward awe at the resilience of African-American communities in the face of such crushing dehumanization. For centuries, black lives—souls and bodies crafted in the very image of God—were treated as if their worth was limited to the wealth they could produce. When Reconstruction collapsed and the sinister injustice of Jim Crow arose to take its place, black lives that could not be subjugated were perceived as a liability and a threat. As a result, black bodies became the targets of lynchings, degradation, and marginalization that prevented access to economic growth and education.
Between then and now, much has changed, but far too much has stayed the same—and that’s why it is good and right for us to declare unambiguously that black lives matter. To speak these words is not to affirm any particular organization that carries this clause as its name, and there is nothing wrong with making that clarification or in distancing oneself from certain aspects of a movement. And yet, because black lives specifically have been treated as if they don’t matter, it makes good sense to declare with specificity that black lives do matter.
Nineteenth-century abolitionists didn’t limit their rhetoric to broad declarations to the effect that all Americans should be free. The general freedom of Americans was not, after all, the dilemma they were facing. They spoke with specificity about who should be freed. They demanded without apology that black Americans should be set free. Frederick Douglass called for “the long oppressed black man” to be liberated and placed in a position where he “may honorably fall or gloriously flourish.”
In the same way, we can unapologetically declare the value of black lives today—but as Christians, we can speak an even better word than the world around us. Black lives don’t merely matter. Because black lives are crafted in the image of God, they are beautiful, and what God is accomplishing through black history is an awe-inspiring amalgamation of brokenness and beauty. When Christians declare that black lives matter and that they are beautiful, we are saying far more than our culture with its incomplete understanding ever can. We are pressing back against the weight of our own history, lamenting the church’s complicity and doing what we can to set right the wrongs of history.
How the Scriptures Became Part of the Story that Set the Captives Free
There is much to lament in the history of Christianity regarding racism—but there is also great cause for gratitude and hope. There is, after all, another side to the story of slavery and the church. When we press back against the wrongs of the past, our outcry against injustice is not unprecedented in the history of Christianity. 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, for example, 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 bring an end to the British slave trade, and it was a Christian worldview that drove much of the American abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century.
Abolitionist leaders like Angelina Grimke recognized the complicity of white churches in the perpetuation of slavery. And yet, Angelina also spoke with hope for the future, imploring her hearers in Philadelphia with these words:
Cast out first the spirit of slavery from your own hearts, and then lend your aid to convert the South. … The church will never do it. A desire to please the world, to keep the favor of all parties and of all conditions, makes them dumb on this and every other unpopular subject.
Even as many white churches were silent, African-American church leaders spoke boldly against slavery and racism. Bishop Richard Allen once declared to slaveholders, “If you love your children, if you love your country, if you love the God of love, clear your hands from slaves, burden not your children or country with them.”
Across the Atlantic from America, Baptist pastor Charles Haddon Spurgeon was one of the most eloquent critics of slavery and racism. In his 1860 sermon “Separating the Precious from the Vile,” Spurgeon challenged not only the institution of slavery but also the underlying racism in white churches that made it possible:
By what means think you [that] the fetters were riveted on the wrist of our friend who sits there, a man like ourselves, though of a black skin? It is the church of Christ that keeps his brethren under bondage; if it were not for that church, the system of slavery would go back to the hell from which it sprung. … And so Christ’s free church, bought with his blood, must bear the shame of cursing Africa, and keeping her sons in bondage.
This pattern of recognizing the contradiction between chattel slavery and a Christian worldview was not, however, limited to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In fact, this repudiation of racism and slavery has a long history in Christianity. The recognition that chattel slavery in particular is virtually impossible 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.
The systems that Gregory addressed were, of course, not identical to the racially-based slavery that has 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 Ford writes these words regarding Gregory’s fourth sermon from the book of Ecclesiastes:
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. Many of Gregory’s arguments anticipate ones that Christians would make again in the nineteenth century.
These same theological truths are the ones that call us to work and to sacrifice for the sake of racial equity and social justice still today. “Injustice is reprehensible not simply because it is anti-human,” Carl F.H. Henry pointed out in 1971, “but because it is anti-God. … It is God’s will and demand that is flouted by social injustice.”
For a brief engagement with “black lives matter” from 2019, listen to this episode of Three Chords and the Truth: The Apologetics Podcast: “Why Everyone Needs Creeds.”