American Slavery and Christian Faith:
How Sam Harris and Other Atheists Misrepresent History
an essay by Michael Patrick Leahy
Reprinted from Letter to an Atheist with permission from Harpeth River Press
Michael Patrick Leahy
There is no greater stain on the soul of the American Republic than the original sin of slavery. That the institution was defended by many prominent Christian clergymen from the American South prior to the Civil War only makes the stain more difficult to remove. But to attribute the existence of that stain to fundamental errors in Christian faith is an example of intellectual dishonesty to the extreme.
In Letter to a Christian Nation, atheist author Sam Harris erroneously argues that the Bible itself not only condones slavery, it positively recommends it:
Consult the Bible, and you will discover that the creator of the universe clearly expects us to keep slaves.
He concludes that the "most committed" Christians could only be persuaded to abandon the practice of slavery through force. The epiphany "that it is patently evil to own [slaves] and treat them like farm equipment . . . had to be spread at the point of a bayonet throughout the Confederate South, among the most pious Christians this country has ever seen."
Harris makes an argument based on ignorance of the true history of the American South and the Civil War. It is an ignorance that is to be expected from someone whose knowledge of the American South appears to have been formed by reading articles in the New York Times while sipping Grande Double Espresso Mochas in the Starbucks restaurants of downtown Manhattan and Palo Alto.
In arguing that the Bible unequivocally supports the institution of slavery Harris is merely echoing a series of demonstrably flawed arguments made by members of the Southern Christian clergy during the three-decade period (1835-1865) surrounding the American Civil War. These arguments were rhetorical exercises made by men who sought vainly to reconcile the irreconcilable truths of their own lives. As wealthy slaveowners and willing participants in the slaveholding society of the South, these fallible members of the Christian clergy developed a justification for their own conduct.
In light of a Christian Gospel whose spirit they themselves conceded condemned slavery, they were in need of a theological argument that supported the life choices they had made for themselves. When moral objectivists such as David Hume and John Calhoun pointed the way with a political theory that spelled out "slavery as a positive good" permanently, they were only too eager to concoct elaborate analyses of Biblical passages that supported this theory. And it is upon these flawed arguments that Harris relies to create a false and misleading impression of Christian faith.
Numerous passages of the Old Testament, and some in the New Testament refer to the institution of slavery (see Appendix 1 for a selected bibliography). When these passages are analyzed in the social and historical context in which they were written, a very different conclusion is reached than the one proclaimed by Harris. These writings consist of advice on how to conduct oneself in a world in which slavery is a given, rather than Divine endorsement of the institution of slavery itself.
Harris would have us interpret the Bible using the same type of literalism that was displayed in the self-serving arguments advanced by the very members of the antebellum clergy he disdains. But in doing so he ignores several centuries of Christian thought and practice, as well as the overwhelming record of vigorous, active Christian championing of abolition within the political arenas of Great Britain and the United States.
Christians believe that the words of the Bible were inspired by God, but that it was written in the language of the day by fallible human beings, who recorded God’s word through the lens and understanding of their own day and time.
The period during which the Old Testament was written (1500 BC to 500 BC) was a time in the world when slavery was commonplace. Indeed, the Hebrews, for whom and by whom the Old Testament was written, were enslaved in Egypt, a situation aptly described in the Book of Exodus. Centuries later, many Hebrews were once again enslaved during the period of Babylonian captivity. By the time of Jesus, as many as thirty/ percent of the residents of the Roman Empire were slaves. Given these circumstances, it is not surprising at all that both the Old Testament and New Testament comment on the relationship between slave and master.
But an exegetical analysis of specific Old Testament passages is really a sideshow to the main question. What is the central theme of the New Testament on slavery? The words of Jesus, as described in the Gospel of Matthew, provide every intellectually honest Christian with all the Biblical evidence necessary to condemn the institution of slavery:
Look at Matthew Chapter 22 Verses 35 to 40:
Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him Thou Shalt Love the Lord Thy God with all thy heart and with all thy Soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Most readers will recognize this passage as The Golden Rule. And this Golden Rule can be said to summarize all the wisdom of the Bible. And anyone who reads the Golden Rule can come to but one conclusion: the Bible condemns slavery.
Harris also has it all wrong when he claims "the most pious Christians" defended slavery to the last. The "most pious Christians" - those who showed an earnest desire to understand God's will as revealed through the Bible and the teaching of Jesus, and who sought to fulfill their obligations toward Him - were the worldwide leaders in successful efforts to end legalized slavery, first in the British Empire, later in the United States, and finally in Cuba and Brazil.
Those Christian clergymen who adapted the "slavery is a positive good" lyrics of moral objectivists, like John Calhoun and his British predecessors, and set them to a theological tune, may have considered themselves to be "pious" Christians. But they are more accurately defined as self-serving rationalizers who have more in common with today's shallow, and I would argue heretical, prosperity Christians than they have with orthodox and pious Christians throughout the ages.
So let us then examine the role that religion played in the public policy on the issue of slavery both in the United States and the British Empire. We begin in 1789, the year in which the Constitution was ratified in the United States and declared that slaves were the equal of three - fifths of a free white man.
Consider, for a moment, the world as it was in 1789.
The African slave trade had flourished for over a century and was dominated by British merchants. It existed because the capital invested in the Americas demanded an economic return. Vast lands required cultivation to yield sugar and cotton, and cultivation required cheap labor which could only be supplied in adequate amounts by enslaved Africans.
A significant portion of the economy of the British Empire depended upon its success. Tens of thousands of slaves were transported from West Africa to North America, the Caribbean, and South America each year. Eight hundred thousand slaves lived in the newly independent United States, a similar number in the British West Indies, more than six hundred thousand in the French Caribbean colonies, and another two million or so in Latin America. All told, there were more than four million slaves of African descent in the Americas.
British participation in the slave trade stretched all the way back to the 1580's, when Queen Elizabeth I sanctioned the slave trading activities of John Hawkins. The commerce proved extraordinarily profitable and soon a good portion of the wealth in the merchant and aristocratic classes of Great Britain was derived from it. Few among those responsible for it could have been called Christians in anything but name only. Their legacy was not only the terrible suffering and loss of life experienced in the journey, it was also the "original sin" that was introduced to the British colonies in both America and the West Indies.
Though begun with no more moral basis other than the desire of slave traders and slave owners alike to make money, the defenders of the slave trade developed a self justifying philosophy. Profit and national interest, of course, were the original justifications. But over time more sophisticated justifications arose. The first of these defenses was set forth in the writings of David Hume, a moral objectivist, probably an atheist, and one of the icons of the Enlightenment. In short, the type of man that Sam Harris would have us emulate.
In his 1739 work, A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume asserts the superiority of white men over black, part of his 'proof' being that, at the time, there were black slaves throughout Europe, and he could see no evidence they were capable of advancement.
Hume continued this theme in his 1753 work Of National Characters when he set forth the intellectual defense of slavery, elements of which would be seen later in the anti-abolition arguments of James Tobin and Banastre Tarleton in Great Britain in the 1790s, and John Calhoun in America in the 1830's.
I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences.
On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient GERMANS, the present TARTARS, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men.
Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over EUROPE, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; tho' low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but "tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly."
While this leading voice of moral objectivism in Great Britain was building the intellectual defense of the institution of slavery, forces within the Christian world were growing that would ultimately lead to the demise of that institution.
The First Great Awakening of the early eighteenth century was a Christian Evangelical movement in Great Britain and the United States brought about by the sincere desire to better understand God's word, and to better live one's life to fulfill that word.
Men such as Jonathan Edwards in America, John Wesley in Great Britain, and George Whitefield in both Britain and America brought this vigorous re-introduction of Christianity to thousands of people with their traveling ministries. Inevitably, the teachings that arose from this re-introduction of the basic principles of Christianity to every day life brought about conflict with those members of elite British society who conducted their lives - and the country's policies - contrary to basic Christian principles.
Into this world of 1789, a group of the "most committed" Christians chose to vigorously enter the public policy debate, spurred on to end the slave trade and slavery itself on the basis of their Christian religious principles. Led by the Quaker Thomas Clarkson, the group soon recruited the twenty eight year old William Wilberforce, a wealthy member of Parliament and a recently converted Evangelical Christian, to be their primary spokesman in the legislature. And, for the first time in history, these innovative and "most committed" Christians deployed a series of highly effective grass-roots political efforts that included petition campaigns, boycotts of slave grown sugar, and the wearing of antislavery badges, all efforts designed to marshal public support to their cause.
Born into a wealthy family, Wilberforce spent his youth pursuing pleasures of the flesh. Elected to Parliament in 1782 at the age of twenty three, he had a conversion experience in 1785, and became a practitioner of "Christianity in its most committed form." (Note: this is the phrase Mr. Harris uses contemptuously when describing "unhinged" Christians throughout his book.) He was an Evangelical Christian, and as such believed in conversion, the authority of the Bible, the importance of Christian activism, and the saving power of Christ's sacrifice on the cross.
At a memorable first meeting of the "Clapham Circle Group," Thomas Clarkson and his associate Hannah Moore persuaded Wilberforce that he was the political leader called to lead the movement that would end first the slave trade, and later the institution itself. Before committing to lead the battle, Wilberforce, who knew that it would be a long and arduous fight in which he would be subject to vicious attacks from the opposition, contemplated leaving political life so as to avoid the challenge. He knew, for instance, that of the two hundred fifty one members of Parliament, only two others identified themselves as Evangelical Christians. The House of Lords, the royal family, and the wealthy merchant class of Liverpool and London were all equally devoid of Evangelical Christian members.
Uncertain as to his course of action, Wilberforce turned to an old family friend for advice. John Newton, reformed slave trader and the Christian minister who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," had known Wilberforce from childhood. He advised him strongly to remain in the public arena, with advice that could apply to twenty-first-century Christians as easily as it did to Wilberforce more than two centuries earlier.
You meet with many things that weary and disgust you. . . but then they are inseparably connected with your path of duty; and though you cannot do all the good you wish for some good is done.…
It costs you something…and exposes you to many impertinences from which you would gladly be exempted; but if, upon the whole, you are thereby instrumental in promoting the cause of God and the public good, you will have no reason [for] regret.
It is true you live in the midst of difficulties and snares, and you need a double guard of watchfulness and prayer. But you since you know both your need of help and where to look for it, I may say to you as Darius to Daniel, "Thy God whom thou servest continually is able to preserve and deliver you." Daniel, likewise, was a public man, and in critical circumstances; but he trusted in the Lord, was faithful in his department, and therefore though he had enemies, they could not prevail against him.
Accepting Newton's advice, Wilberforce began a lifelong crusade to do precisely that—end the slave trade first, and then abolish slavery altogether throughout the British Empire. Wilberforce chose, therefore, to insert his religious beliefs into the arena of British public policy. It is exactly this type of activity in twenty-first-century America against which Harris rails.
Wilberforce launched the call for the end of the slave trade in a three hour speech in the House of Commons on May 12, 1789. It would be another two years before the first vote was held in Parliament. When the vote was taken in 1791, the bill failed by a vote of 163 to 88.
It was only the encouragement of fellow Evangelicals such as John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, that kept Wilberforce steadfastly plugging away. From 1789 and on, he would introduce his bill each year, only to see it defeated. Yet each year, he gained a few more supporters.
After two decades of toil, Wilberforce succeeded in 1807 when his bill to end the slave trade passed almost unanimously in the House of Commons, and was soon made into law. Not until two and a half decades later, in 1833 just days before his death, did Parliament outlaw slavery throughout the British Empire.
At every turn, Wilberforce was opposed by men who embraced the very same objectivist enlightenment that Harris praises so highly. These opponents were primarily wealthy merchants and their political allies who profited from the slave trade.
A chief spokesman for the anti-abolitionist was Lord Banistre Tarleton, the British General during the American Revolution who was reviled for his legendary cruelty. Elected to Parliament in 1790, Tarleton vehemently resisted the Biblically based arguments made by Wilberforce and his allies to end the slave trade. Small wonder either. During the years between 1786 and 1788, Tarleton, his brothers, and his father had a share in the profits from more than fifty slave trading voyages.
Another leading voice of the opposition to Wilberforce and the Evangelical Christians championing the end of the slave trade was King George III's son, the Duke of Clarence, the future King William IV. The Duke had nothing but contempt for Wilberforce's "do goodism" and regularly displayed his venom to the brave young Christian politician. His arguments were almost exclusively couched in economic terms, predicting disastrous consequences for the British Economy, the merchants of Liverpool, and the plantation owners in the West Indies, if slavery was abolished.
Tarleton and the Duke of Clarence were joined by a rogues gallery of the leaders of British Society: the pamphleteer James Tobin, Lord Nelson, Lord Hawkesbury, Lord Thurlow, Lord Chandros, and Lord Rodney were but a few of the powerful who stood in opposition to Wilberforce. These men mounted aggressive arguments in favor of maintaining the slave trade that spoke of the military and economic national interest, and relied upon the earlier works of Hume for their intellectual legitimacy.
In 1791, for instance Lord Nelson declared that he would battle any threat to "our West Indies posessions . . . While I have an arm to fight in their defence, or a tongue to launch my voice against the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies."
The argument to end the slave trade that rang through the British Empire was echoed in the United States. Merely a year later, in 1808, the slave trade was formally banned in the United States as well.
In practice, illegal slave trading continued until as late as 1860, but no longer was it a practice that was sanctioned by the government. Indeed, those sea captains caught carrying Africans bound for slavery in the Americas were liable to be hung, as was the case of the very last sea captain convicted of the crime a year before the outbreak of the American Civil War.
With the legalized end of the slave trade in the United States, in 1808, the general opinion - among those in the North and South alike - was that slavery was, in fact, an evil institution, bound for eventual extinction. The epiphany that Harris so critically refers to - that slavery was an evil - a "necessary evil" - had been reached throughout most of the United States, including the South, long before the enactment of the Constitution, and it was a widely held belief throughout the American South among believing Christians and non - believers alike well into the 1830's.
Robert E. Lee perhaps best typifies this viewpoint, in a letter he wrote to his wife on December 27, 1856. Though the words were penned only five years before the Civil War, they well articulate what was the almost unanimous view of Southern whites from the birth of the republic until the 1830's. Subsequent to the 1830's it was still a view held by the majority of the white population:
There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil. It is idle to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it is a greater evil to the white than to the colored race.
While my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more deeply engaged for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things. How long their servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence.
Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity than from the storm and tempest of fiery controversy. This influence, though slow, is sure. The doctrines and miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years to convert but a small portion of the human race, and even among Christian nations what gross errors still exist!
While we see the course of the final abolition of human slavery is still onward, and give it the aid of our prayers, let us leave the progress as well as the results in the hands of Him who, chooses to work by slow influences, and with whom a thousand years are but as a single day.
The year 1833 turned out to be a critical and divergent turning point on the issue of slavery for the British Empire and the United States.
While the British Empire saw the triumph of the Evangelical Christian political arguments that caused the end of slavery, the United States saw the rise of a new philosophy, which created precisely the opposite effect here. Many - probably most - Southerners continued to consider slavery as a necessary evil that should eventually end, but beginning in the early 1830's, an aggressive new policy that considered "slavery as a positive good" began being advanced by political leaders and academics in South Carolina and Virginia.
Consider, for a moment, how the world of 1833 differed from the world of 1789.
Great Britain abolished slavery throughout its empire, freeing eight hundred thousand, who were just beginning a four year period of indentured servitude that would end with freedom in 1837. In the United States, slavery, which had been legal in every state upon the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, had now been abolished in most northern states. Following the British lead, the slave trade itself has been outlawed, coming in 1808, only a year after Wilberforce's triumph.
France had stumbled through fits and starts of abolition. In 1794, the French Revolutionary Congress abolished slavery, just at about the same time a successful slave revolt in Haiti began, which led a decade later to that country's independence. Napoleon re-instated slavery, then abolished it. After the fall of Napoleon, slavery was re-instituted, and in 1833, there were still tens of thousands of slaves in the French Caribbean.
In the American South, however, the institution of slavery had grown along with the country. The eight hundred thousand slaves living in 1790 had doubled, to a population of one million six hundred thousand, with another one hundred sixty thousand blacks living in freedom. Meanwhile, the population of the American South itself had grown from two million to six million. The vast majority of the wealth of the Southern upper classes—an estimated four billion, or roughly twenty percent of the Gross Domestic Product at that time—was contained in the human capital of those one million six hundred thousand souls living in forced servitude.
Both the North and South had been in the throes of the Second Great Awakening for two decades by 1830. The spread of Evangelical Christianity moved hand in hand with the widespread dissemination of the King James Bible. Most households in the United States had but one book, and that book was the Bible. Every man was now a common sense theologian, capable of reading every verse of the Bible for himself.
There were no tools, save the sermons from his local or travelling preacher, to aid in a contextual understanding of the Bible. The country, taken as a whole, was like a child in its development and capabilities of interpreting the Bible.
An extraordinarily violent slave rebellion in 1831 precipitated a series of events that put the United States on a path of public policy towards slavery that diverged from the British Experience, and led, ultimately, to the Civil War. Nat Turner, a slave living in the Tidewater area of Virginia, led a slave rebellion in which over fifty white people, including over a dozen children, were violently murdered. Though Turner was captured and executed, the shocking nature of the rebellion sent waves of fear throughout Southern Society.
Two approaches emerged to deal with the problems associated with slavery that Turner's rebellion had exposed. In Virginia, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, grandson of Thomas Jefferson, proposed the abolition of slavery, citing Christian principles. But in Virginia and South Carolina, others advanced a radically new theory of slavery, a natural extension of the Humesian argument—slavery was a positive good, and it should be continued and expanded indefinitely.
These alternate views of the future were debated in the 1832 session of the Virginia legislature, of which Randolph was a member. He introduced a proposal for the gradual abolition of slavery to the Virginia House of Delegates on January 11, 1832, and his response to an opponent of his proposal could have come from the mouth of William Wilberforce himself.
The gentleman has appealed to the Christian religion in justification of slavery. I ask him upon what part of those pure doctrines does he rely; to which of those sublime precepts does he advert to sustain his position? Is that which teaches charity, justice, and good will to all, or is it that which teaches "that ye do unto others as ye would they do unto you."
But Randolph's Christian-based proposal to abolish slavery was countered by the work of a young academic strongly influenced by the earlier works of David Hume, James Tobin, David Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus. His name was Thomas R. Dew, and he was a Professor of Political Economy at William and Mary College in Virginia (he would later become its President).
Let any farmer in Lower Virginia ask himself how many [slaves] he can spare from his plantation—and he will be surprised to see how few can be dispensed with. If that gentleman, from the storehouse of his knowledge would but call up the history of the past, he would see that mere philanthropy, with all her splendid boastings, has never yet accomplished one great scheme; he would find . . .that no people had the generosity to liberate their slaves, until it became their interest to do so, but too true; and the philosophic page of Hume, Robertson, Stuart, and Sismondi would inform him that the serfs of Europe have been only gradually emancipated through the operation of self-interest, and not philanthropy; and we shall soon see that it was fortunate for both parties that this was the case.
Dew went on to argue that Negroes were, by definition, lazy and prone to destruction in their natural settings, and that they were better off as slaves in America than they were as either slaves or free men in Africa. While British royalty and British merchants were responsible for introducing slaves to American society, slaves now represented $2 billion of wealth to slaveholders, that they would not voluntarily give up this wealth, and that no practical man proposed fairly compensating them for this amount.
Dew concluded that since Emancipation and Colonization had been proven in both Sierra Leone and Liberia to be financially and organizationally a failure, and that Emancipation without removal would also lead to disaster, the American economy and the slaves themselves were better off to continue slavery indefinitely, perhaps forever.
If our positions be true, and it does seem to us they may be sustained by reasoning almost as conclusive as the demonstration of the mathematician, it follows, that the time for emancipation has not yet arrived, and perhaps it never will.
Within Dew's lengthy essay there was some, but little reference to the Biblical justifications of slavery. Political leaders from South Carolina were quick to follow Dew's lead. Expanding on his argument, these men set forth an alternative view of the role of slavery in American society. It was no longer a "necessary evil." Instead, "slavery as a positive good" became their new gospel, and the argument was first made in the purely utilitarian terms that originated with David Hume.
James Henry Hammond, a South Carolina protege of John Calhoun, set forth an early version of the "slavery as a positive good" argument on a Fourth of July speech in 1833 that echoed the warnings of the British plantation owners of the West Indies who were weeks away from dealing with newly freed slaves. The abolition of slavery there, Hammond argued, was about to lead to a dramatic drop in the economic output of the region. Not only that, it would soon lead to the complete degradation of the culture of both the former slaves at the expense of their former masters. Slavery's abolition was a calamity, in his opinion
South Carolina Senator John Calhoun, whom historian Richard Hofstader referred to as the "Marx of the Master Class", took notice of the arguments made by Dew and Hammond. Indeed, given the close mentor-protégé relationship between Calhoun and Hammond, it is hard to imagine that Hammond's 1833 speech was not closely reviewed by Calhoun, perhaps as a test balloon of the even more aggressive pro-slavery policy he would soon unveil.
Born in 1782 in the back country of South Carolina to the largest slave owner in the county, Calhoun's keen intellect was encouraged by his family. Sent north to study at Yale, he graduated at the age of 20, and quickly established himself as an up and comer in South Carolina politics.
Elected to Congress in 1810, he served as Monroe's Secretary of War, and then as Jackson's vice president, before the two had a very public dispute on the issue of Nullification. Calhoun supported his home state of South Carolina's right to nullify tariffs passed by the Congress. Jackson's threat to subdue South Carolina through the use of Federal troops enraged Calhoun, who resigned the Vice Presidency in protest.
A man who prided himself on the use of reason and logic, Calhoun rejected Christian faith vigorously. Careful not to alienate his constituents by stating his views on these matters too publicly, he was, nonetheless, like David Hume before him, precisely the type of moral objectivist who bowed before the God of "rational logic" rather than the God of Jehovah, and therefore earns the praise of Mr. Harris. An illustration of his antipathy to Christian faith came in 1850, when, on his deathbed he refused to receive absolution from the Senate chaplain. Sending the chaplain away, he proclaimed "I won’t be told what to think."
Think for himself, he did, throughout his career, using all his human powers of rational logic.
In 1837, that reasoning power led him to set forth a positive defense of slavery in a speech on the floor of the US Senate, so stunning, so powerful, that its impact reverberated through the country for the next three decades. The speech, which was the culmination of the works of Hume, Tobin, and Dew before him, abandoned the gradual emancipation philosophy embodied in the "necessary evil" philosophy, and set forth a new aggressive and divisive approach.
But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slaveholding States is an evil: — far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition. I appeal to facts.
Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. … I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good — a positive good.
The most ardent defenders of slavery to this point had been the planters of South Carolina, whose wealth was tied to the ownership of the six hundred thousand slaves toiling in their rice fields. This group, as a whole, was as libertine and nominally Christian as the merchant class that opposed Wilberforce in England. Upon hearing Calhoun's pronouncement of "slavery as a positive good" they embraced it enthusiastically.
Soon, the policy was championed throughout those parts of the South where, as in South Carolina, there was a heavy proportion of slaves to whites. The higher the percentage of the population enslaved, the greater the defense of slavery. From South Carolina, to Mississippi, then Georgia and Alabama, "slavery as a positive good" spread rapidly as the mantra of the slaveholding class.
Shortly after, a series of Christian clergymen followed Calhoun's lead with the theological version of the same argument. James Smylie, a Presbyterian minister from Mississippi who owned 53 slaves, became the first Christian clergyman to espouse the "slavery is a positive good and the Bible endorses that view" argument. By 1835, Smylie had amassed a great deal of wealth, primarily in land and slaves. He shocked his Presbyterian colleagues when in that year he announced his view that the Bible positively recommends slavery.
And from the seeds first planted by David Hume, nurtured by Banastre Tarleton, and cultivated by John C. Calhoun, the only Christians to ever make an argument that the Bible unequivocally supports the institution of slavery in the United States of America started to spread that heresy throughout their congregations in the American South.
At that time (1850), there were two hundred forty million Christians worldwide. Arguably six million of these Christians were whites who lived in the American South. Christian theologians from Canada, Scotland, England, France, and other countries who reviewed the arguments of the pro-slavery theologians (See Appendix 2 for a list of these arguments) dismissed them entirely.
The "Bible supports slavery" arguments set forth first by Smylie, and later by South Carolina's James Henley Thornwell, and Richard Fuller received support within the American South, but nowhere else in the Christian world of the day.
European Christian views of American pro-slavery arguments were represented by this typical comment from the editors of Scotland's United Presbyterian, who in 1862 wrote the following:
Our sympathies cannot go with the Southern States, who, in the second half of the nineteenth century, are proclaiming a doctrine, the foulest and most revolting that has ever been enunciated since our blessed Redeemer hung upon the cross of shame, and bore away the sins of the world. Sympathy with the Southern States! We have as much sympathy with them as with a gang of robbers or a crew of pirates.
Historian Mark Noll, the most recognized expert on the history of Christianity and theology in America summarized the domestic situation in this way:
Powerful as the orthodox defense of slavery seemed in the United States, however, its force came from the specific conditions of American culture. It had virtually no influence outside the country, even among those who shared the conservative theology of slavery's defenders.
It was only in America, and only for the three decades preceding the Civil War that the peculiar argument of Biblically condoned slavery received public and private support from a significant number of clergy and lay people in the American South.
The argument gained respectability among some because of the peculiarly American approach to evangelic Christianity: With the widespread availability of the King James version of the Bible every man was in theory capable of "judging the evidence for himself." And the evidence—every passage of the Bible, Old Testament and New Testament alike—was accepted as truth in exactly the form of English in which it was displayed.
Consider this dilemma of interpretation: The Bible contains tens of thousands of verses in the Old Testament and the New Testament. As Harris correctly points out, on the face of them, many of these passages, taken literally, are contradictory. Taking each of these individual passages in isolation as the inviolate word of God, and comparing conflicting passages, could in fact lead to a kind of split personality and confusion, the type of confusion that prompted Abraham Lincoln that the two sides of the Civil War read the same Bible, but reach opposite conclusions from it.
Not all Southern Christians agreed with the Smylie-Thornwell-Fuller view. Many continued to consider slavery, as did Robert E. Lee, an evil institution that God would cause to be abolished, in His own time and His own way when He determined that the African-American slave population was ready to undertake the responsibilities of freedom.
Almost all the "Bible supports slavery" arguments also placed special emphasis of the separation of the religious from the political realm. In that regard, they were behaving just as Sam Harris would have all modern day Christians behave.
Citing the New Testament passage telling Christians to "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and to render unto God that which is God's," most of these arguments concluded that if Caesar (the state law) decreed slavery to be legal, then it was the obligation of Christians to observe the law. None of these clergymen argued that it was their role or right to persuade their state's political powers to change the laws of the state in any matter, much less the matter of slavery. So this "Bible supports slavery" argument, though it had been made at much lower levels at earlier stages in the American experience, really lasted in its fullest, most vocal form only for the three decades between 1835 and 1865.
But the important point that Harris misses on this is that the leading forces in the attempt to maintain and grow slavery in America were men like John Calhoun and James Henry Hammond who subscribed to the same philosophy of moral objectivism he promotes in our modern world.
Those Christian clergy who promoted slavery as sanctioned by the Bible were political followers of moral objectivists, and their beliefs were based upon a heretical misunderstanding of the book. Many Christians in the South did not fully ascribe to this view, believing that gradual emancipation was part of God's plan. Almost all of Christendom outside the American South condemned slavery on Biblical principles.
Indeed, even among those Christian clergy who advanced heretical views of Biblical support of slavery, their adherence to their reading of the Bible held within it the seeds of abolition.
Read any of the "Bible sanctions slavery" Christian clergymen and their opposition to treating slaves "like farm equipment" is clear. Masters had specific responsibilities toward their slaves. Indeed, the slave owed the master his labor, and nothing more, while the master was responsible for educating the slave for the purpose of introducing the slave to Christian faith. Additionally, the master was responsible for promoting and maintaining within the slave's personal life those institutions of Christian faith, such as marriage, that promoted Christian living.
These "pious Christians" condemned slaveholders who treated their slaves "like farm equipment" as sinners, and indeed, we can see that by 1860 many of the "Bible sanctions slavery" clergymen were beginning to consider that the widespread fallibility of man, as evidenced by the actions of slaveholders, suggested that it was impossible to maintain their view of a Biblically sanctioned slave society on earth.
When observing how far the conduct of some masters in the American South was from this Biblical idea, some of the pro-slavery Christian clergy began to re-examine their positions.
By 1861, James Henley Thornwell was prepared to make a public announcement changing his position, arguing for the gradual emancipation of slaves. Returning from a year in Europe, he found it too late in the game to advance his theory. Fort Sumter occurred less than a month after his return.
If you doubt how these theologically based pro-slavery arguments were significantly influenced by the economic and political pressures coming from their neighbors, one need only look at the readiness with which these same clergy supported the last gasp of the Confederacy when Jefferson Davis in March, 1865, agreed to grant freedom to those slaves who fought in the Confederate army. In doing so, Davis was merely accepting a proposal that Confederate General Patrick Cleburne had first suggested back in January, 1864.
Lest the modern reader cast too much ridicule on the piety of those antebellum Southern Christians who considered slavery an evil institution but favored its gradual, rather than immediate, abolition, consider the words of the great Southern chronicler of the Civil War, Shelby Foote:
This country has two great sins on its very soul. One is slavery, which we'll never get out of our history and our conscience and everything else, the marrow of our bones. The other one is emancipation. They told four million people, "You are free. Hit the road." Two-thirds of them couldn't read or write. Very few of them had any trade except farming, and they went back into a sharecropper system that closely resembled peonage. I'm not saying emancipation is a sin, for God's sakes, and I'm not saying there shouldn't have been emancipation, but it should have been an emancipation that brought those people into society without all these handicaps on their head.
An honest look at the historical evidence surrounding the establishment, growth, and abolition of slavery in the United States can lead to conclusions precisely opposite of the impression Sam Harris wishes to create.
1. The original sin of slavery was not of American Christian origin, but rather of British commercial origin.
2. Evangelical Christians were the driving force in the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself in Great Britain.
3. The vast majority of Christians throughout modern history have opposed slavery on theologically sound Biblical principles.
4. The movement to permanently base American society on the institution of slavery was based on the intellectual work of rational secularists, such as David Hume, James Tobin, Thomas Dew, and John C. Calhoun. Christian theological defenses of slavery that arose in the American South subsequent to 1835 were self-serving rationalizations made by slave-owning clergy.
Michael Patrick Leahy is the Managing Editor of Christian Faith and Reason, and the author of Letter to an Atheist.
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