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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“The Crimes of this Guilty Land Will Never be Purged Away but With Blood—John Brown and the Civil War

(See Part 1)

On the day he was to be hanged, A09D9CAD-D6BD-47AB-BFFE-6688D27B3E39John Brown handed a note to a guard written the day before: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” 750,000-person’s worth of blood was spilled in that Civil War.” It was blood spilled in payment for a moral failing, is what John Brown was saying.

Both Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S Grant, the 16th and 18th presidents of the United States, came to hold and express that view. At Lincoln’s second inaguration, after four years of bloody war, the reelected president expressed hope that the fighting would soon end, “yet if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the [slaveholder’s] 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” He did not exempt himself from guilt. It was not an ‘us versus them’ speech. How could he condemn the South for not ending slavery when he knew of no easy solution himself?

Says Ron Chernow, author of Grant, the 18th president, as both general and president, also “deemed the war a punishment for national sins that had to come sooner or later in some shape and probably in blood.” I am reminded of how, at the Martin van Buren home, a National Historical Park site, the hatted ranger told me that no president after Andrew Jackson served more than one term because “the challenges leading up to the Civil War were thought to be unaddressed by those presidents.”

They were “addressed” in that war. Per Brown, Lincoln, and Grant, they were addressed with buckets of blood. As a punishment for sins? You’d get no argument on that from those men. There is such a thing as ‘community responsibility.’

That inaugural address of Lincoln’s was overall praised, though the non-religious persons grumbled at his “substitution of religion for statesmanship." He himself allowed that the address would wear well over time, but not immediately, since “men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them."

Tom Pearlsnswine, the fellow who mortified me by muttering about the ‘wiles of Satan’ when I was dumb enough to invite him to tag along with us on a visit to the dinosaur museum, the fellow who puts the dog into dogmatic, was not at all happy with this above historical discussion. “What does this have to do with the Bible?” he spouted. “These men were all bloodguilty,” he fumed, as he took another bite of his Bible sandwich. “Stay on topic!”

Even given his confidence in preservation of the union, even given his confidence in emancipation, would Lincoln not have agreed with the ‘bloodguilty’ charge? North and South were appalled at the phenomenal loss of life—far eclipsing the walk in the park some had first envisioned the war would be—and Lincoln, a man with a conscience, was commander in chief. Couldn’t he have gotten the job done with less blood? Wasn’t it his fault if he hadn’t? “If there is a worse place than hell,” Lincoln remarked, in the aftermath of a staggering slaughter under the leadership of a particularly incompetent general (Burnside), “I am in it.”

Ten days before his death, Lincoln related a dream to friend and bodyguard Ward Leman. He was in the White House. “There seemed to be a deathlike stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. . . . I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along.” At length, he came upon a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments, surrounded by mourners and guards. He asked who it was. “The President,” was the guard’s answer. “He was killed by an assassin.”

Ten days later Lincoln was killed by an assassin. Ones who regard such premonitions as impossible have denied the dream report, but Lincoln was well-known for relating portentous dreams.


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Sometimes Human Justice Gets in the Way: Lincoln and Grant

I’m no longer reading up on Lincoln. I’m reading up on Grant. Ted Putsch would like both, I think, and may already be well-versed. Both men were raised in lowly circumstances. Both were unusually humble and defenders of the lowly. Both were continually sneered at by elites. Both made emancipation of slaves their chief mission.  Both . . . wait for it  . .  found occasion to suspect habeas corpus. 

A younger relative of mine is libertarian. It motivates everything he does. The first factoid he ever learned about Lincoln was his suspension of habeas corpus. That was enough for him to permanently place Lincoln on his evil-person list. From there, he immediately bought into the invective that Lincoln didn’t give two hoots about freeing slaves—his sole concern was preservation of the union.

In fact, from the very beginning, Lincoln purposed that quenching the ‘rebellion’—such it was called at the time—would go hand in glove with destroying the

institution of slavery. But he could not 
just outright say it. He knew he had to first build a consensus. Many were the northern abolitionists who did outright say it, and they were immediately marginalized into a minority camp. Minorities don’t win at the human game of government. William Seward (by far the front runner leading up to 1860–everyone supposed he would be president, not Lincoln) also did say it, giving a lofty speech invoking a “higher law.” Not only was he marginalized by those to whom the sole mission of freeing slaves was insufficient motivation, but he was also marginalized by those who supposed there was no higher law other than the human experiment of ‘government by the people.’

The only way Lincoln’s Emancipation would fly in all the North, not just with the abolitionists, was for him to sell it as a military strategy. White northern troops fretted over who would mind the household while they were gone. White southern troops had no such concerns; their slaves could keep things humming. Free those slaves and the playing field was leveled. In fact, it was more than leveled: those slaves would begin to conspire against their masters.

Two sacrosanct, as human principles go—standards of justice took front and center stage in the Civil War years: state’s rights and habeas corpus. I can see Putsch railing against any infringement of either:

”Tyranny …. in soft measured voices, done in secret, and with powdered silk gloves is STILL TYRANNY.”

Oh yeah, I can easily see it! And I’d tend to agree, in a relative sense—but only a relative sense. Fact is, such lofty human principles stood squarely in the way of a far greater good: the liberation of hundreds of thousands of enslaved people. Robert E Lee personally loathed slavery. He had never owned a slave. But he took up the call of what he considered even more sacred. ‘State’s rights’ became his clarion call. Consequently, he signed on to command Southern troops, enshrining slavery as the ‘right’ of the state to decide, not some meddling Union to impose their standards from afar.

‘Man is dominating man to his injury’—even (and in this case, due to) when they run by their own self-invented concepts of justice. In the greater removed picture, looked at from our time, only the elimination of slavery matters. One Union should split into two? It’s like what Bud said when he threw away the anti-rattle clip he couldn’t figure out how to reinstall—“What’s more rattle on a Ford?” So it is with human self-government. What’s one more division of mankind in a sea of many divisions?

Here the two bedrock principles of American justice, habeas corpus and state’s rights, stood squarely in the way of real justice for hundreds of thousands of Blacks—for Whites too, for that matter, since Jefferson wrote of the South: “The parent storms [in domination of his slaves]; the child looks on . . . puts on the same airs . . . and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.” 

One is reminded (a bone for science-fiction aficionados) of ‘Childhood’s End, in which the alien overlords paid no attention whatsoever to ‘state’s rights,’ immediately and decisively ending the cruel spectator sport of bullfighting. 

Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus was a measure he deemed essential to preserve the Union, which action would enable the freeing of slaves. Certain journalists were openly encouraging desertion from the Northern army. ‘I should shoot some guileless plowboy deserter and not the guileful propagandist who induced him to do so?’ he posed.

Grant’s suspension of habeas corpus during his presidency is more directly connected with the welfare of Blacks than was Lincoln’s. In the early days of Johnson’s presidency, the Ku Klux Klan arose. Reports were that it commanded the active participation of 2/3 of southern Democrats whites, and the tacit participation of the other third. By many measures, Blacks were worse off than during slavery. The white aristocracy manipulated them into situations just as oppressive but with no obligation to provide for them.

Unspeakable and well-documented atrocities became routine. Not only might Blacks be easily beaten or killed, but also white Republican southerners who aligned with them. Murderers could not be brought to justice. Witnesses were too intimidated to speak out, and with good reason; no jury of peers would convict Klansmen, and the retribution against witnesses would be severe. Grant sent in federal judges, and suspended habeas corpus in enough instances that Klansmen would turn upon each other in efforts to get off or gain lighter sentences for the crimes that a non-federal judge would excuse. Within a few years, he had broken the back of the Klan. It’s later reemergence is in name and ideology only (just as Baal worship kept coming back, even though guys like Elijah would clean it out from time to time.)

Habeas corpus and state’s rights—noble as far as human principles go, but not a guarantee that evil cannot, not only exist, but prevail. 

Anyone thinking that God works through America (or any other country—America being the only topic of consideration here) is invited to look at the Andrew Johnson administration. “Be Like Abe” flies, as does (to a lesser degree, but still doable) “Be Like Ulysses,” but not “Be Like Andrew.”

By the end of the war, Abraham Lincoln succeeded in bringing justice to Blacks. Andrew Johnson undid it all. Grant’s work was to undo the damage that Johnson had wrought and he largely succeeded, but only temporarily. What justice might have prevailed if Lincoln had been immediately succeeded by Grant, with no Johnson in between? 

Like Lincoln and Grant, Johnson too was brought up in lowly circumstances. He too was a self-made man. There the similarities end. Johnson was intensely racist. He was intensely vindictive (at first) to the former Confederacy, favoring severe punishment (akin to that imposed on Germany after WWI?) in contrast, Lincoln had been completely non-vengeful. Worse, vengeance was personal with Johnson. Vengefulness was a way of getting back at the aristocratic elites who had ridiculed and looked down upon him all his life. Northern abolitionists, who also (unlike Lincoln and Grant) favored harsh punishment for the South, at first thought they had found an ally in Johnson. But in fairly short order, he gave up despising the southern white aristocrats, and began kissing up to them, as though hoping to be anointed king of their club, his racist orientation a perfect match for theirs. 

God works through human governments? What if there had been no Johnson, and Lincoln’s ideals carried directly over to Grant. Shortly after the war, General Grant’s man told local transport companies in New Orleans that if they continued their practice of segregation, he would ban all that company’s cars from the road. According to Ron Chernow, author of Grant, “once the original hubbub over desegregated streetcars subsided, the locals had cheerfully adopted the new system and the excitement died out at once.” Chernow cites it as an example of the “startling early revolution in civil rights [that] would be all but forgotten by later generations of Americans.” What if Johnson had not come along to poison the well? Don’t you think if God ran the show through human government, he would not have?

A little bit on roll here. Sorry. I just wanted to kick back a little at those who think human standards of justice from the Founding Fathers are the bee’s knees. They're better than their absence, generally speaking, but sometimes they get in the way of true justice. 

To be continued . . .

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