How Can I Trust the Bible When It Was Used to Justify Slavery?
Scriptures used to condone slavery hundreds of years ago remain a source of contention & confusion in modern society. We unpack the most common verses used to justify one of the most deplorable institutions created, honing in on 2 key points along the way.
August 2019 marked the 400-year anniversary of when a ship carrying “20 and odd enslaved Negroes” 
arrived on the coast of the British colony of Virginia. Though these subjugated Africans’ legal status was as “servants,” this event is widely recognized in Anglo-American history as the catalyst for what would become one of the most deplorable institutions ever created: American slavery.
The New York Times Magazine recently produced a collection of articles examining the legacy of slavery in America, entitled the “1619 Project.” In one of the articles, Nikole Hannah-Jones recognized, “The shameful paradox of continuing chattel slavery in a nation founded on individual freedom...” While this perspicuous contradiction and its ripple effects on contemporary society are indeed lamentable, a similar enigma has persisted from the pre-Civil War era concerning the character of the God of the Holy Bible. The Africans who were the victims of this “shameful paradox” were habitually read portions of the Bible to substantiate the notion that their inferior status was rooted in a divine mandate. James Pennington, a former slave during the 19th century who became a minister, orator, writer, and abolitionist, codified this concept and its implications in a poignant and impassioned manner in one of his sermons:
“Is the word of God silent on this... greatest of... curses?” he [Pennington] asked. “I, for one, desire to know. My repentance, my faith, my hope, my love, and my perseverance all... turn upon this point... If the word of God does sanction slavery, I want another book, another repentance, another faith, and another hope!”
Pennington’s sentiments were indicative of biblical hermeneutics that yielded an accepted culture of enslavement, torture, rape, kidnapping, family separation, and all manner of exploitation. Many Scriptures and books of the Bible (e.g. Philemon) were used as pro-slavery propaganda in justifying the enslavement of African people. Yet in the midst of these horrid conditions, many slaves still turned toward to Jesus Christ. Instead of merely adopting the heinous eisegesis of racial inferiority endorsed by the enslavers and many ministers, the slaves noticed an incongruity in the doctrinal messaging. One notable former slave, Frederick Douglass, eloquently differentiated between the Christianity that became tethered to antebellum slavery, and the Christianity he (and others) discovered through personal readings:
“...between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love 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... Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.”
Yet in the midst of these horrid conditions, many slaves still turned toward to Jesus Christ.
Though Douglass’ words aligned with the interpretation of many enslaved Africans (and some white abolitionists), the Scriptures used to condone slavery hundreds of years ago remain a source of contention and confusion in modern society. Since there is typically a direct association from the slavery that is described throughout the Bible to pre-Civil War slavery, it is prudent to briefly examine and contrast two of the defining pillars of both of these forms of slavery, namely, the motivation and treatment of the enslaved.
Pillar One: Motivation
The catalyst for both antebellum slavery and slavery throughout the Bible involved economics. The former initially concerned colonists wanting cheap labor to clear forests and cultivate tobacco crops. In order to validate the practice of enslaving Africans to fulfill this fiscal desire, the social construction of racism occurred. In addition, antebellum slavery included the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the grueling method by which slave traders would tightly cram Africans on board ships to transport them to the Americas. This forced migration was so loathsome and dehumanizing that former slave Olaudah Equiano gave the following stirring summation of its abhorrent details, “I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me...” The kidnapping and subsequent enslavement, which was central to this slave trade, meant that pre-Civil War slavery was involuntary.
Yet slavery in the Bible was vastly different. First, according to many scholars, the Hebrew word (ebed or eved) that is often translated as slave in the Old Testament is more reasonably rendered as servant. Furthermore, slavery among the Hebrews in the Old Testament often occurred when individuals sold themselves into servanthood to pay off debt. Therefore, it was voluntary.
The practice of kidnapping in antebellum slavery (during the slave trade and domestically) was actually prohibited in the Bible as shown in Exodus 21:16, which states, “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” It is so serious that capital punishment is the result of the crime. Hebrew scholar Walter Kaiser notes, “Kidnapping is not a property offense since no property offense draws a capital punishment, and this law is not listed under property laws. Instead, it is the theft of a human being.” Of course, this is vastly different from the perspective of the enslaved during the pre-Civil War era when Africans and their descendants were regarded as chattel, or mere property. Douglass provided readers with a small glimpse into what being viewed as property meant:
“We were all ranked together at the valuation... there were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and were all subjected to the same narrow examination... At this moment, I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder.”
The practice of kidnapping in antebellum slavery (during the slave trade and domestically) was actually prohibited in the Bible.
Furthermore, during the pre-Civil War era, Africans and their offspring were bound to lifelong enslavement. However, Hebrew slaves (or servants), were to be released after seven years, thus, it was more of a contractual agreement. Exodus 21:2 states, “When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing.” Even when this person is released there is an extension of compassion and care commanded: “You must supply them generously from your flock, your threshing floor, and your winepress—as the Lord your God has blessed you, you must give to them.” (Deu. 15:14)
Finally, remember that this person likely became a slave out of economic necessity, so furnishing him with some capital encouraged economic independence. As Gary North observed, “This short term indentured servitude was designed to produce long-term independence.”
Pillar Two: Treatment
Another defining difference between slavery described throughout the Bible and pre-Civil War slavery is the treatment of the enslaved. As previously mentioned, the African captives during the antebellum period were regarded as chattel and treated as such. They could be beaten, maimed, and tortured with impunity. The following is one of thousands of accounts of brutal, inhumane treatment within this institution: “Mr. Long would tie them up by the wrist, so high that their toes would just touch the ground, and then with a cow-hide lay the lash upon the naked back, until he was exhausted, when he would sit down and rest. As soon as he had rested sufficiently, he would ply the cow-hide again, thus he would continue until the whole back of the poor victim was lacerated into one uniform coat of blood.” There are too many other unspeakable types of violence to account for, but one that deserves specific mention is the often under-recognized sexual violence. Former slave Harriet Jacobs called this manner of brutality “the most intimate form of humiliation.” These sorts of conduct were commonplace as there were no laws to protect the enslaved Africans.
But in the Bible we find a revolutionary concept of slave treatment where the enslaved were to be treated with dignity—not as mere property, like the slavery on display in pre-Civil War times or other cultures of the Ancient Near East.
In the Bible we find a revolutionary concept of slave treatment where the enslaved were to be treated with dignity—not as mere property, like the slavery on display in pre-Civil War times or other cultures of the Ancient Near East.
This novel idea was rooted in two factors:
1. All humans beings, in spite of one’s social status or ethnicity, are made in the image of God. The Old Testament character Job affirms this idea of equality when speaking of the master/slave relationship: “Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers? (Job 13:15)
2. Israel’s own history of enslavement in Egypt served as a reminder of how it should treat others. Old Testament scholar Christopher J. H. Wright notes: “Israel... looked back to four centuries of slavery in a foreign land, which had become increasingly oppressive, inhumane and unbearable. The experience coloured their subsequent attitude to slavery enormously.”
In the first chapter of Exodus, following the deaths of Joseph and his generation, a new king ruled Egypt. Due to the vast number of Israelites, he decided to enslave them through forced labor. The Egyptians “oppressed” them and worked them “ruthlessly.” The Israelites cried out to the Lord for deliverance and their groans “ascended to God.” This ascension was acknowledged in Exodus 3:7 when the Lord said to Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people in Egypt, and have heard them crying out because of their oppressors... I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians...” This set of events established the fertile ground that would blossom into the aforementioned mandate for the Israelites’ ethical treatment of its slaves/servants, including foreign, or non-Hebrew slaves: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.”
For example, Leviticus 25:53-54 notes that the Israelite “master” is to treat his slave/servant “as a worker hired year by year,” that “he shall not rule ruthlessly over him,” and that he and his children should be released in the year of jubilee. Furthermore, we find standards for the cases when harm is caused, so in Exodus 21:20 the same level of harm that is caused to the slave/servant will be reciprocated to the master. This is completely contrary to pre-Civil War slavery where masters were given carte blanche to treat their “property” as they pleased.
Admittedly, other Old Testament verses can be initially jarring to our 21st century sensibilities. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember two things: 1. The type of slavery described throughout the Bible vastly differed from that of pre-Civil War times, and 2. In an Ancient Near East culture, even the mention of a difference in regulations for native or foreign slaves, meant that the Bible was providing a clear safeguard against the mistreatment of people regardless of ethnicity or religion. What we find here are the building blocks for universal human rights.
New Testament Issues
Though many times the tension of understanding slavery in the Bible is bound up in Old Testament texts, there is also much debate that circulates around some New Testament texts, such as the book of Philemon.
This short letter is of particular concern because it is written by New Testament writer Paul, to a slave owner, Philemon, about a slave, Onesimus. Paul writes the letter from jail but had a previous encounter with Onesimus where he became a Christian. Paul is writing this letter to Philemon, who is also a Christian, to receive Onesimus back as a brother in the faith, and not simply a slave.
Pre-Civil War pro slavery advocates used this letter as leverage for their cause. Philemon became a representative for the modern day so-called “Christian” slave owner, and it was used as political propaganda and motivation in such cases as the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which mandated that all escaped slaves be returned to their masters.
The argument is sometimes made that since Paul did not explicitly condemn slavery and demand Onesimus’ freedom, he therefore must be pro slavery. But this conclusion has several issues.
The argument is sometimes made that since Paul did not explicitly condemn slavery and demand Onesimus’ freedom, he therefore must be pro slavery. But this conclusion has several issues: For one thing, an argument from silence isn’t an argument of complicity. Secondly, Paul’s use of language is overtly establishing a bond of familial love, or a type of family love, between Philemon and Onesimus. He uses words like son, child, father, and brother all during his pleas to Philemon. For example, in Philemon 1:15-16 Paul states, “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” This kind of language was never used to characterize a “relationship” between a slave and master during pre-Civil War slavery.
Finally, although Paul does not explicitly condemn slavery, he implicitly denounces it through his appeals. You see, Paul made it clear that he could have asserted his authority with Philemon, but he did not think the best way was through coercion: “Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.” Love is not truly love when forced. Paul had a bigger goal in mind, and that was the transformation of Philemon’s heart... and the transformation of his heart, and the heart of other slave owners, would cause systems like slavery to crumble.
Paul had a bigger goal in mind, and that was the transformation of Philemon’s heart... and the transformation of his heart, and the heart of other slave owners, would cause systems like slavery to crumble.
Yet Philemon was not the only New Testament text used to corroborate the pre-Civil War institution of slavery. Howard Thurman, an African American philosopher, theologian, and civil rights leader, wrote a book called Jesus and the Disinherited. In it, he details a conversation with his grandmother, former slave Nancy Ambrose, in which she recalls painful memories in which the words of the New Testament writer Paul were used as reinforcement for her enslavement:
“During the days of slavery... the master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves... At least four or five times a year he used as a text: ‘Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters...’ I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.”
Ambrose is likely referring to Colossians 3:22 or Ephesians 6:5: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” Like Philemon, this verse was used as further support for slavery and to create a docility among the enslaved. When read in isolation, it seems to support the pro slavery advocate’s cause. But reading in isolation does not provide clarification. This method yields faulty interpretations and therefore, faulty conclusions. Context is key to coherent and consistent biblical interpretation. When this principle is applied to this example, we find contrary information only several verses later. In verse 9, masters are commanded to treat slaves in the same way slaves are told to treat their masters and to not threaten them. Paul then uses language reminiscent of Job’s statements on equality: “...since you know that he who is both their Master and yours in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.”
Context is key to coherent and consistent biblical interpretation.
Four hundred years since “20 and odd enslaved Negroes” arrived on the coast of the British colony of Virginia. Four hundred years since this event sparked over two centuries of the enslavement of Africans and their descendants. Four hundred years... and the message from the God of the Holy Bible has remained the same.
Though told that their current condition of captivity was a prophetic proclamation, the enslaved Africans did not buy it. They came to know a God who the psalmist said was close to the brokenhearted and saved those whose spirits was crushed. A God who cared about justice and freed the Israelites from the bondage of the Egyptians. A God filled with compassion, who literally wept at man’s misery. A God who chose an enslaved people to be his people. A God who was not aloof, but could intimately understand their suffering because his Son, Jesus, suffered a great deal as well.
James Watkins, a former slave turned abolitionist recalled the movement when these truths led to his Christian conversion:
“Gradually as the truths of Christianity broke in upon my mind, I felt a new man, and I yearned for freedom with the most intense anxiety. The truths of the gospel filled my heart with excess of joy... I became filled with the love of Jesus. Teach the slave the gospel, and you will make him free. Teach him that there is a God that loves him, that cares for him, that died for him to cleanse him from earthly sin, and all the task masters and slave owners in the Land of Stripes... cannot retain that infamous power which the present system grants them—Property in man. Christianity is life, and light, and freedom, instill this into the slave, and you burst his bonds asunder forever.”
Four hundred years is a time of lament over grave sins of racism and one of its offspring, antebellum slavery, which has left an indelible stain on our country’s history and the church’s reputation. It is a time to mourn with those who mourn, and weep with those who weep. It is a time to reflect the brotherhood and sisterhood that is intrinsic to co-image-bearers of God—a relationship that echoes the beautiful mosaic of his people. Israel was chosen by God to be a priestly nation and a light to help others desire their God. Perhaps it is time that we remember this original call, so that the glory and salvation of the God who shows no favoritism will reach the ends of the earth.
 This phrase derived from the journal of colonist John Rolfe, famous for his marriage to Matoaka, better known as Pocahontas. Rolfe was accounting for the number of Africans aboard the ship when it arrived.
 “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true,” The New York Times Magazine, accessed August 19, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html.
 In United States history this term refers to the period prior to the Civil War.
 Gene Andrew Jarrett, ed., The Wiley Blackwell Anthology of African American Literature: Volume 1: 1746-1920 (UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2014), 205.
 Jarrett, ed., American Literature, 66.
 Non-Hebrew or foreign slaves did not apply, but regulations were still in place to maintain their dignity as human beings.
 Kaiser, W. C., Jr. Exodus. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 2: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1990. 432.
 Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Hard Press Publishing. Kindle Edition, Location 719.
 Gary North, “Tools of Dominion: The Case Laws of Exodus,” accessed August 26, 2019, https://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/pdf/tools_of_dominion.pdf, p. 127
 Equal Justice Initiative. Slavery In America: The Montgomery Slave Trade (Alabama: Equal Justice Initiative, 2018), 18-19.
 For example, in Babylon’s Hammurabi code you will find laws based on one’s social status. In the cases of slaves who would be regarded as being on the lowest rungs of society, harm was not restricted, but actually promoted. This included physical harm such as rape and mutilation.
 Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 334.
 Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), 20.
 Emerson B. Powery and Rodney S. Sadler, The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved, (Kentucky: Westminster John Know Press, 2016), 147.