Bible Open

Slavery and Black Religion

Reproduced from A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction
by William C. Placher, © 1983 William C. Placher

In those decades just before the Civil War a Hartford minister named Horace Bushnell was also attacking individualism and the emphasis on revivals and raising questions about rationalism in religion. ... For over two hundred years the United States had permitted slavery; now thousands had died in this terrible war. Somehow, people can and do die for the sins of others, and sometimes reconciliation and redemption can emerge out of such tragedy.

The atonement will not have a living meaning for us, Bushnell suggested, unless we can relate it to such general patterns of human experience. In seeking to bring doctrine alive by tying it to human experience, and in moving from individualism to a renewed sense of humanity's corporate character, Bushnell too was reflecting the new romantic attitudes.

Bushnell's concern about the moral implications of slavery serves as a reminder that, in the words of the greatest contemporary historian of American religion, "Any history of America that ignores the full consequences of slavery and non-emancipation is a fairy tale."32 Christian theology too played its part in the history of slavery.

The authors of the Bible had lived in an age that took slavery for granted. The laws of Israel demanded that Jewish slaves be freed every seven years, and Paul urged Philemon to forgive his newly baptized slave Onesimus for running away and treat him as a brother in Christ, but no biblical text explicitly opposed slavery, and Paul did send Onesimus back to his master.

Ancient slavery, however, existed within an economic and social system so different from the modem world that one should make comparisons with the greatest caution. And ancient slavery had nothing to do with race. A slave in Rome was as likely to be a Briton as a Nubian. Indeed, until the sixteenth century no Christian text suggested that any race was better suited to slavery than any other.

By then slavery had virtually disappeared in Europe, when a variety of factors suddenly encouraged the use of African slaves in the American colonies, and Europeans searched around for justifications of an institution that had seemed about to disappear. Philosophers cited Aristotle's references to those who are slaves by nature.

Scientists claimed to prove the natural inferiority of blacks. Theologians discovered in an obscure passage in Genesis (Gen. 9:25), in which Noah cursed either his son Ham or Ham's son Canaan, a justification for enslaving black people -- a way of reading this passage that had never occurred to Christians before.

In England the evangelical party led the attack on the slave trade, and John Wesley's strong views against slavery encouraged a continuing opposition among Methodists. In America, however, only the Quakers (starting in the 1750s) really demanded that people either free their slaves or get out of the church.

In 1818 the Presbyterian General Assembly unanimously declared slavery "utterly inconsistent with the law of God" but also warned against "hasty emancipation" and approved of the deposition of one Southern minister for his too-outspoken attacks on slavery.33 One could cite similar episodes from most denominations.

It therefore seems remarkable that blacks who encountered Christianity first in the persons of whip-bearing traders and slave owners -- and most slaves later said that Christian owners were generally more brutal -- so often accepted Christian faith. Yet why would they not have understood the story of the Israelites fleeing from bondage and the agony of Christ crucified? Slave owners often hoped that preaching would make their slaves more obedient, but another message kept breaking through. As one slave preacher recalled years later:

When I starts preachin' I ... had to preach what massa told me and he say tell them niggers iffen they obeys the massa they goes to Heaven but I knowed there's something better for them, but daren't tell them 'cept on the sly. That I done lots. I tell 'em. iffen they keeps prayin' the Lord will set 'em free.

The best-documented slave revolts were led by black preachers, and black churches provided the one institution the slaves could call their own. The Baptists, whose lack of educational requirements or complicated procedures for ordination made it especially easy for blacks to become ministers, won a loyalty from black Americans that continues to this day.

Nothing symbolizes the unfulfilled character of the Puritan dream of America as the city on a hill, inspiring all the earth, so well as slavery. Yet in spite of slavery and much else, Americans have continued to think of themselves as a chosen people, set apart by God. Jonathan Edwards and other early Puritans, however, understood that God chooses without regard to merit, and the chosen should feel gratitude rather than pride.

But that is a theological lesson Americans have found it hard to remember. Some prophetic voices have tried to remind them. Near the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, looking back on America's dreams and failures, declared:

Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled up by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.

For nations as for individuals, the awareness that we deserve the worst we get, and all else is grace, remains one of the hardest lessons of Christian theology.

The following extracts are presented for educational purposes only. The owner retains all rights. This has been broken into individual sections for easier reading.

Reproduced from A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction
by William C. Placher, © 1983 William C. Placher