Does the Bible Condone Slavery? Part 2–Frederick Douglass

(See Part 1)

The poster tells it all at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park as to John Brown’s motivation. But does it tell it accurately? You would think so—it is the National Historical Park Service, after all. So one is inclined to take at face value the interpretive text on one display:

“Although slavery is often condoned in the Bible, [John] Brown believed that the ‘Golden Rule’ Do unto others as you would have them do unto you implicitly condemned slavery.”

Is it? We hear it all the time that the Bible condones slavery, but does it? Or is it merely the pop atheist philosophy of today that drives research, that holds that if you’re not nagging about something 24/7, that means you condone it? After all, the ‘Golden Rule’ is also in the Bible. That doesn’t condone slavery, does it?

Of course, the topic of slavery does come up in the Bible. If you’re doing any overview of history, as the Bible does, it is going to come up a lot. It was a universal human degradation, present from the earliest reaches of history, and ‘natural law’ holds it as an advancement in societal evolution; making captives of war slaves was surely an advance over killing them, wasn’t it?

With regard to slaves among the Hebrews, their Law turns an historical degradation into something not degrading at all. A Jew might sell himself to his wealthy neighbor as a last resort should his debts overwhelm him. Harsh treatment of such slaves was not allowed and—wait for it—at the end of a seven-year Jubilee period, that slave was freed. And freed with a gift, so as to start life anew. Thus, the economic system universal to the ancient world, and not much less so today, that of the ‘rich getting richer while the poor get poorer’ was not allowed to take root in ancient Israel.

Now, any scholar worth his diploma knows this. But secular atheist scholars may not know it because they have majored in topics divorced from what has historically driven humankind. ‘Science’ is the Great Father. ‘Religion’ is the enemy. They don’t look as deeply into the enemy camp as they do into their own.

If anyone should be quoted in that Harpers Ferry display on what the Bible does or does not ‘condone,’ it should be Frederick Douglass—the escaped slave who became their voice until his death in 1895. He did not once say it in his first autobiography, written in 1845. (He wrote three autobiographies, each an update, incorporating his doings as history unfolded. It did not unfold his way. Post Civil War reconstruction fizzled within a decade or two. Notwithstanding that with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments freed slaves, guaranteed them citizenship and the right to vote, an intransigent South found ways to defang them all. Douglass would come to feel that the Civil War had been fought for nothing. Grant, the victorious general who became President, would say the same.

He didn’t say—not once—that the Bible condones slavery. And please don’t suggest that maybe he didn’t know the Bible well. His allusions to it are constant. He particularly was drawn to passages from the Old Testament on ‘setting the captives free.’ When in his old age he visited Jerusalem, he was especially interested in tracing the doings of Paul, his favorite apostle, the one who said ,‘And he [God] made out of one man every nation of men to dwell on the entire surface of the earth.”

At the end of his first autobiography he inserts an appendix? Why? In view of certain harsh things he has said, he fears some may conclude he is “an opponent of all religion.” So he will correct the impression forthwith. Does he mutter that ‘the Bible condones slavery?’ No. But, Wowwhee! Does he ever let loose on the religionists of his day (and our day?)!

No, he didn’t mean the Christianity of Christ. He meant “the slaveholding religion of this land and with no possible reference to Christianity proper.” He “recognize[d] the widest possible difference—so wide that to receive the one as good pure and holy is of necessity to reject the other as bad corrupt and wicked. To be the friend of the one is of necessity to be the enemy of the other.”

He “love[s] the pure peaceable and impartial Christianity of Christ. I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”

Then he goes on to quote almost the entirety of Matthew 23, Jesus’ denunciations of the religionist of his day, applying it to his own time.

“They bind up heavy loads and put them on the shoulders of men, but they themselves are not willing to budge them with their finger. All the works they do, they do to be seen by men, for they broaden the scripture-containing cases that they wear as safeguards and lengthen the fringes of their garments. They like the most prominent place at evening meals and the front seats in the synagogues and the greetings in the marketplaces and to be called Rabbi by men.” …. and so forth.

He’s already, at this point in his autobiography, related his experiences with both religious and non-religious owners. By far, he says, religious owners were the worst. He finishes up with his own ‘Christian’ slaveholder poem, set to the cadence of a popular hymn of the time: 

Come, saints and sinners, hear me tell
How pious priests whip Jack and Nell,
And women buy and children sell,
And preach all sinners down to hell,
And sing of heavenly union. . . 

It runs thirteen stanzas.

Nowhere does he indict the Bible, much less take up the modern shallow cry of its enemies that it ‘condone’s slavery.’ He’s wise enough—I mean, it was more or less a no-brainer at one time—to see the problem is not the with the Bible but with the hypocrites who don’t follow it. Atheistic scholars come along in modern times—the National Historical Park Service apparently got stuck with some of them—to tell the Harpers Ferry exhibit that the Bible condones slavery. And yet the fault is not primarily theirs. The fault is with those claiming Christianity who so blatantly forsake its principles that the non-participant, who isn’t paying all that close attention, figures the problem must be the book itself.

He should read Paul’s caution to Titus of the ones in his time who “publicly declare that they know God, but they disown him by their works, because they are detestable and disobedient and not approved for good work of any sort.” (1 Titus 3:16) Depend upon it. When those professing Christ behave outrageously, “the way of the truth will be spoken of abusively.” (1 Peter 2:2) It’s not the enemies of God that are the problem. It’s his ‘friends.’

Southern slavery ended long ago but the Jim Crow system of laws (strict segregation) kept the prejudices that fueled it alive and well for 100 years. Two blacks in the movie Sounder (setting: 1933) pass the packed-out white church. One recalls how he had naively entered once and was quickly thrown out. So he “took it up with the good Lord,” he tells his friend. “And what did the good Lord say to you?” the friend wants to know. “The good Lord said to me, ‘Why, Willie, what are you fretting about? You are doing better than me. I’ve been trying to get in there for two hundred years!”

And in 1975, I visited North Carolina and spent time in the house-to-house ministry. I worked a lot with a certain black brother, completely at ease in the rurals. But for some reason I forget, we drove into the big city 60 miles away. There I found myself lost. Roll down the window, I said to my Black companion (also named Thomas), ask that strolling white woman for directions. He wouldn’t do it. I repeated my request, to no avail. I wondered why he had gone deaf. But after we drove on he told me that I didn’t really understand how it worked in the place I was visiting.


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