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Does the Bible Support Slavery? Part 2

In my previous post I looked at the biblical proof texts used by slavery supporters in the 18th and 19th centuries. To be sure, proof texts are available for slavery opponents too. Galatians 3:28, for example, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus," or Paul's entire letter to Philemon.

But abolitionists generally took an indirect approach in arguing the Christian case against slavery. Acknowledging that slavery appears in the Bible without an absolute prohibition, they argued from basic Christian principles.

You can see this approach as early as 1715 in John Hepburn's American Defense of the Christian Golden Rule, or you can see it in depth in Albert Barnes' 400-page Inquiry into the Scriptural Views of Slavery.

But today I'm going to focus on John Wesley's tract Thoughts upon SlaveryFor every argument in favor of slavery, Wesley looks at it in the light of basic moral concepts such as justice and mercy, equity and love.

He notes, for example, that many modern slaves were procured by force or by fraud, and were treated so roughly en route to the Americas that many died on the voyage.

In what manner are they procured? Part of them by fraud. Captains of ships from time to time, have invited negroes to come on board, and then carried them away. But far more have been procured by force. The christians landing upon their coasts, seized as many as they found, men, women and children, and transported them to America. It was about 1551, that the English began trading to Guinea: At first, for gold and elephants teeth, but soon after, for men. ...

"England supplies her American colonies with Negro slaves, amounting in number to about an hundred thousand every year." That is, so many are taken on board our ships; but at least ten thousand of them die in the voyage: About a fourth part more die at the different Islands, in what is called the Seasoning. So that at an average, in the passage and seasoning together, thirty thousand die: That is, properly are murdered. O earth, O Sea, cover not thou their blood! ...

Before they are put into the ships, their masters strip them of all they have on their backs: So that they come on board stark naked, women as well as men. It is common for several hundreds of them to be put on board one vessel; where they are stowed together in as little room, as it is possible for them to be crowded. It is easy to suppose what a condition they must soon be in, between heat, thirst, and stench of various kinds. So that it is no wonder, so many should die in the passage; but rather, that any survive it.

Wesley asks rhetorically whether human beings should be subjected to such a fate.

Did the Creator intend, that the noblest creatures in the visible world, should live such a life as this!

"Are these thy glorious works, Parent of Good?"

Wesley considers proponents' argument that slavery is necessary in the Caribbean islands due to the hot climate, but he is not impressed.

I answer, 1. It were better that all those islands should remain uncultivated for ever, yea, it were more desirable that they were all together sunk in the depth of the sea, than that they should be cultivated at so high a price, as the violation of justice, mercy, and truth. But, Secondly, the supposition on which you ground your argument is false. For white men, even Englishmen, are well able to labour in hot climates: provided they are temperate both in meat and drink, and that they inure themselves to it by degrees. I speak no more than I know by experience.

He has sharp words for slaveholders who complain about the slaves' stubbornness and dishonesty.

It may be so:--But do not these, as well as the other, lie at your door? Are not stubbornness, cunning, pilfering, and divers other vices, the natural, necessary fruits of slavery? Is not this an observation which has been made, in every age and nation.--And what means have you used to remove this stubbornness? Have you tried what mildness and gentleness would do?

... What wonder, if they should cut your throat? And if they did, whom could you thank for it, but yourself? You first acted the villain in making them slaves, (whether you stole them or bought them.)

It is only after establishing the injustice of every aspect of slaveholding that Wesley starts quoting scripture, weaving a number of New Testament quotes into his own rhetoric.

May I speak plainly to you? I must. Love constrains me: Love to you, as well as to those you are concerned with. Is there a GOD? you know there is. Is He a just GOD? Then there must be a state of retribution: A state wherein the just GOD will reward every man according to his works. Then what reward will he render to you? O think betimes! Before you drop into eternity! Think now, He shall have judgment without mercy, that shewed no mercy.

Are you a man? Then you should have an human heart. But have you indeed? What is your heart made of? Is there no such principle as compassion there? Do you never feel another's pain? Have you no sympathy? No sense of human woe? No pity for the miserable? When you saw the flowing eyes, the heaving breasts, the bleeding sides and tortured limbs of your fellow-creatures, was you a stone, or a brute? Did you look upon them with the eyes of a tiger? When you squeezed the agonizing creatures down in the ship, or when you threw their poor mangled remains into the sea, had you no relenting? Did not one tear drop from your eye, one sigh escape from your breast? Do you feel no relenting now? If you do not, you must go on, till the measure of your iniquities is full. Then will the great GOD deal with you, as you have dealt with them, and require all their blood at your hands. And at that day it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than for you! But if your heart does relent, though in a small degree, know it is a call from the GOD of love. And to day, if you hear his voice, harden not your heart.--To day resolve, GOD being your helper, to escape for your life.--Regard not money! All that a man hath will he give for his life? Whatever you lose, lose not your soul: nothing can countervail that loss. Immediately quit the horrid trade: At all events, be an honest man.

Rather than mining the Bible for proof-texts as the slavery proponents did, Christian opponents of slavery started from a foundation of the New Testament's core principles of mercy, justice, and love. They compared slaveholders' actions against these principles, and when they turned to the proof-texts, they examined them in light of the same principles.

In my next post I'll offer my assessment of the two approaches.

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