In some previous articles (here and here), I pointed out some of the comments American Vision received in response to a promotional ad that we sent out on Facebook for the book The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States. If these are real people and there are many more like them, we are in big trouble. Some of them have just a smidge of information wrapped in a thick blanket of misinformation. It’s not only that their information is suspect. They write some of the vilest things and attack at the personal level. They are angry and mean at a visceral level.

One of the topics that frequently came up was slavery. The Bible was attacked (see below on the Bible and slavery) and so was Benjamin F. Morris’ book even though no one who posted a comment had read it or knew of the massive supply of original sources backing up his claims.

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The book was published in 1864, a year before the American Civil War ended. “For nearly a century, the people and politicians of the Northern and Southern states had been clashing over the issues that finally led to war: economic interests, cultural values, the power of the federal government to control the states, and, most importantly, slavery in American society.” Many of those who left comments criticized The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States over the issue of slavery. Remember, not one person who commented had read the book that is top-heavy with original source documentation.

Here’s the kicker. Morris was vociferously opposed to slavery. It was a passion of his. He supported the Civil War and wrote extensively in support of it in his The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States. He devoted a chapter to the subject — 220 pages of original sources that referenced the condemnation of slavery! I don’t like war. We never should have had a civil war. Cooler Christian heads should have prevailed. If slavery was the issue, we should have followed how William Wilberforce and his supporters in Great Britain worked to abolish it without a civil war. Christians at war is a moral oxymoron. But it is what it is. It’s over and done with and in some ways, we are still living with the atrocities of slavery and the war that ended it.

The critics of The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States are ignorant, and they seem to be proud to put their ignorance on full display by condemning a book that condemns what they claim to support — the abolition of slavery.

Other critics spoke disparagingly about Christianity claiming the Bible supported slavery. I pointed out that if the Bible had been followed, we never would have had slavery.

Some years ago, I received a letter from a Biblical Worldview reader who disagreed with my assertion that the type of slavery practiced in the United States was unbiblical because it was “man-stealing.” As you can tell from the following paragraph, he is passionate about his beliefs. But is he right?

The Bible does not condemn slavery. The Bible does condemn abortion. Human legislation cannot make legal what God’s law condemns, or make illegal what God’s law allows. When you condemn what God’s law allows, you are a legalist and sin (Deuteronomy 4:3; Proverbs 30:6; Revelation 22:18–19). When you allow what God’s law condemns, you are a lawbreaker and sin (Exodus 20:1–17). When you can’t tell the difference, you can’t think as a Christian.

I responded in a brief note that the slavery practiced in this country prior to 1860 was “man-stealing” (kidnapping). West Africans were kidnapped most often by other Africans and then sold to slave traders, put on ships, brought to these shores, sold at auction, and placed in forced labor.

The Indentured Servant

Many of this nation’s earliest settlers paid for their passage as indentured servants. Indentured servitude is neither unbiblical nor unconstitutional. A thief who was unable to make restitution could be sold into servitude for his theft (Exodus 22:3b). Even after the abolition of slavery indentured servitude was retained by the Constitution as a legitimate form of punishment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (Amendment XIII, Section 1).

We should, therefore, distinguish between slave (man-stealing) and bondservant (indentured servant). We should also keep in mind that the word “slave” appears only once in the King James Bible (Jer. 2:14a), as does the word “slaves” (Rev. 18:13). The word slavery does not appear anywhere in the King James Version.[1]

Stealing People for Profit

I quoted Exodus 21:16 to support my contention that the type of slavery that was practiced in America cannot be supported by an appeal to the Bible: “And he who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” The letter writer supported his position by claiming that Exodus 21:16 only applies to kidnapping Hebrews (compare Deut. 24:7). Robert L. Dabney, the most articulate defender of Virginia and the South, disagreed:

It need hardly be said that we abhor the injustice, cruelty, and guilt of the African slave trade. It is justly condemned by the public law of Christendom…. It is condemned by the law of God. Moses placed this among the judicial statutes of the Jews: “And he that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.”[2]

There is no indication that Exodus 21:16 only has Israelites in mind. If it does, then verse 12 would also only apply to Israelites since its language is similar to that of verse 16:

  • “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death” (21:12).
  • “And he who kidnaps a man whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death” (21:16).

James B. Jordan offers a good summary of the issues involved:

The Bible punishes all man-stealing with a mandatory death penalty. In Deuteronomy 24:7, the kidnapping of covenant members is particularly forbidden, but in Exodus 21:16, all man-stealing is prohibited. It might be maintained that if we read v. 16 in context of v. 2, it is only Hebrews who are protected and avenged by this law. The text simply says “man,” however, and there is no indication in the immediate context (vv. 12, 14) that ‘man’ is restricted to covenant members.[3]

Setting the Captives Free

Defenders of Southern slavery appeal to Leviticus 25:44–46 to support their position since it describes the enslavement of pagans. Dabney bases his argument for slavery on the Leviticus passage without considering a change in its application under the New Covenant.[4] The slavery of foreigners was legal in Israel. “These pagans were being purchased out of their covenantal slavery to demonic religion. They were being redeemed (bought back). They were being given an opportunity to hear the gospel and see it in operation in households covenanted to God. They were being given the opportunity to renounce paganism and thereby escape eternal slavery in the lake of fire.”[5]

Biblical slavery was in no way racial.

The enslavement of pagan nations under the Old Covenant was tied to the jubilee laws described in the same chapter. The jubilee was fulfilled in principle by Jesus (Luke 4) and abolished historically when Israel as a nation ceased to exist with the destruction of its religious and civil governments in AD 70. Slavery of heathen nations was tied to the special character of the land of Israel in the same way that distribution of the land of Israelite families was tied to the special redemptive character of the land.

In addition, the Gentiles are given a new status in the New Covenant. The coming of Christ was “a light of revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32; see Isaiah 42:6; 49:6).

Jesus began His public ministry with the reading of Isaiah 61:1, “to proclaim release to the captives” (Luke 4:18). We know that this release included Gentiles: “And He shall proclaim justice to the Gentiles…. And in His name the Gentiles will hope” (Matthew 12:18, 21). The book of Acts shows that many Jewish Christians had not accepted the fact that Gentiles were included in the covenant promises initially reserved for Israelites: “And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45).

With the gospel’s breaking of national Israel’s old wineskin, a new means of foreign evangelism began. New Testament evangelists are to go to foreign lands as servants, not as slave-masters or their economic agents, slave traders. They are to warn men and women to submit to God’s rule voluntarily… Christians are to bring the message of liberation which Jesus announced in Luke 4.[6]

The history of the enslavement of African blacks has been an impediment to the gospel. Instead of being fishers of men, many in the church supported the notion of being the enslavers of men, in particular, black men. The Bible does not support enslaving black people. Slavery, as practiced in the Americas, was racial. Gary North writes: “Slavery as a system came to North America in the early eighteenth century, and it was grounded in the racist prejudices that increased with every shipload of victimized blacks. Racism seems to have been the foundation of slavery rather than the reverse.”[7] With the coming of Christ Christians are to preach the gospel to make disciples of the nations; making them “slaves to Christ,” not slaves to other men.

The NT and Slavery

We know that in the New Testament Paul condemns slave traders (kidnappers) in 1 Timothy 1:10. The book of Revelation considers those who traffic in “slaves and human lives” to be immoral and destined for judgment (18:13). Nowhere does the New Testament support trafficking in slaves. Paul’s letter to Philemon does not support the notion that the New Testament tolerated chattel slavery. Onesimus was probably a bondservant who owed a debt to Philemon. Paul encourages the runaway Onesimus to return to Philemon and encourages Philemon to release Onesimus upon his arrival. Paul promises to pay Philemon if Onesimus “owes you anything” (Philemon 18). Paul’s mention of debt seems to indicate that Onesimus was an indentured servant.

Defending the Indefensible

The letter writer concludes his argument in defense of slavery by quoting Dabney. Dabney, as we saw above, abhorred “the injustice, cruelty, and guilt of the African slave trade.” Then why did he continue to support the holding of slaves? Dabney writes: “When the property has been acquired by the latest holder, fairly and honestly; when, in the later transfers, a fair equivalent was paid for it, and the last possessor is innocent of fraud in intention and in the actual mode of his acquisition of it, more wrong would be effected by destroying his title, than by leaving the original wrong unredressed. Common sense says, that whatever may have been the original title, a new and valid one has arisen out of the circumstances of the case.”[8]

While the slave trader may have acquired the slaves through immoral means, Dabney argued, the person who receives the stolen men, women, and children is not bound by the original illegality. In essence, he cannot be held accountable for the initial fraud since he purchased the “merchandise” in good faith. Dabney first begs the question. How can the purchase of human beings for the purpose of using them for slave labor be done “fairly and honestly” when Dabney fully admits “that the original slave catcher” who “captured the African was most unrighteous”?

The letter writer attempts to bolster Dabney’s argument by writing that “in 1981 a fraud gave me a bad check for $2,000 worth of silver dollars, then sold them to another dealer. When I sued to recover the dollars from that dealer, the court found that, although the criminal had acquired them by fraud, title had been passed to the next owner who had bought in good faith and could not now be disturbed in his possession.”

The key is that the dealer purchased the coins “in good faith.” If he had known that the coins had been stolen, he would have been cited with conspiracy to commit fraud. Those who purchased slaves at auction in the United States knew the slaves were kidnaped victims. The slave owners were not operating “in good faith” since they knew “that the original slave catcher” who “captured the African was most unrighteous.” The coin dealer did not know that the first transaction was fraudulent; slaveholders did.

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[1] Gary North, Tools of Dominion: The Case Laws of Exodus (Institute for Christian Economics, 1990), 121.

[2] Robert L. Dabney, A Defence of Virginia, [And Through Her, of the South], Recent and Pending Contests Against the Sectional Party (New York: Negro University Press, [1867] 1969), 288.

[3] James B. Jordan, The Law and the Covenant: An Exposition of Exodus 21–23 (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), 104.

[4] Dabney, A Defence of Virginia, 117–21.

[5] North, Tools of Dominion, 145.

[6] North, Tools of Dominion, 173.

[7] North, Tools of Dominion, 180.

[8] Dabney, A Defence of Virginia, 288–289.