Slavery has been practiced by the white man, the black man, the red man, the yellow man, and every other kind of man.
Slavery was practiced by the Babylonians, the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Persians, the ancient Brits, the Danes, the Romans, the African kingdoms, the South American kingdoms, the Chinese, Indians, Mongols, Mughuls, Burmese, Native Americans, the Muslim kingdoms, Spanish, British, and Americans. It is still practiced in some places.
Babylonian king Hammurabi (ruled c. 1792-1750 BC) enslaved multitudes. “At the basis of it lay the slave population, the necessary condition of all economic activity in antiquity. Slaves were employed upon the farms, by the manufacturers and in the temples. The sources of the supply were various. War furnished many; others had fallen from the position of free laborers; still others were purchased from abroad, or were children of native bondsmen” (George Goodspeed, A History of the Babylonians and Assyrians, 1902, Kindle Locations 876-879).
Ancient Egypt practiced slavery on a massive scale. Egypt infamously enslaved the entire nation of Israel. The Midianites knew there was a ready market in Egypt for slaves such as Joseph (Ge. 37:28). This type of thing happened continually in ancient times. “Travellers were easily and often illegally captured in foreign lands where nobody knew them, and sold into slavery; and there was often no one they could appeal to for help” (“Slavery,” reshafim.org). Women were purchased for the harems of the Pharaoh and other nobility. Pharaoh Amenhotep III ordered 40 “very beautiful concubines without blemish” from Syria. Multitudes became slaves as prisoners of war. Ancient Egyptian monuments describe large numbers of slaves taken in battle. For example, Ramses III wrote, “I laid low the Meshwesh, the Libyans, the Esbet, the Keykesh, the Shai, the Hes and the Beken. ... I carried away those whom my sword spared, as numerous captives, pinioned like birds before my horses, their wives and their children by the ten thousand, their cattle in number like hundred thousands” (James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part IV). Thutmose III returned from a campaign in Canaan with almost 90,000 prisoners. Many slaves were sent to work in the gold and copper mines of Nubia and Sinai, where they were worked to death under harsh conditions in the terrible heat. Other slaves worked on “the estates of the pharaohs, the nobility and the priests.” “Pharaoh Seti I announced on the Wadi Halfa stela how he had endowed Min-Amen’s temple at Buhen, so that his storehouse was filled with male and female slaves from the captivity of his majesty, L.P.H. Ramses III is said to have given 113,000 to the temples during the course of his reign” (“Slavery,” reshafim.org). “If a [slave] stole so much as an animal hide he could be whipped with 100 lashes and stabbed five times in the back, and then be sent back to work” (“Spear injuries show worker life in ancient Egypt,” USA Today, Oct. 13, 2015). The wealthy included their slaves in lists of valuable assets. The children of slaves belonged to their masters, and slave families were passed from generation to generation by inheritance.
A large portion of ancient Chinese society consisted of slaves. The Great Wall was built by slaves and there was no concern for the cost in human lives. It is said that “every stone cost a human life” (A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations).
The Phoenician city-state of Carthage gained control over tribes and cities along the African coast and far inland, enslaving the populations.
Slaves formed a large portion of the ancient Greek population. Many were chattel slaves who were called by Aristotle “an animate or ensouled piece of property.” Slaves were obtained by warfare, kidnapping, and piracy. They were bought and sold like other pieces of property. The price of the slave depended on his or her education, skill, appearance, and health. “The majority of well-to-do Athenians probably owned two or three slaves, whereas the wealthy possessed between ten and twenty. ... Nikias, one of the richest men in Athens in the late fifth century BC, owned 1,000 slaves, whom he leased out to fellow citizens at the rate of one obol per slave per day” (Garland, Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks, p. 70). Slaves had no practical legal rights. They were often starved, beaten, abused, even killed, depending on the whim of the master. “A runaway slave was branded with a hot iron upon capture.”
The Spartans enslaved an entire large tribe of people, the Helots. They were the property of the state and were assigned to Spartan citizens. There were possibly seven helot slaves for each Spartan. They were forced to do the agricultural and household work and any manual labor, freeing the Spartans to devote themselves to military training. Helot farmers gave half their produce to the Spartans. They had “an altogether cruel and bitter condition.” The poet Tyrtaios described the Helots as “asses worn down with great burdens.” They were forced to wear a dogskin cap and were beaten each year so they would not forget they were slaves. They were degraded in many ways, such as being forced to get drunk and dance and sing to entertain the Spartans.
Alexander the Great enslaved hundreds of thousands. When he destroyed Tyre in 332 BC, he sold 30,000 men, women, and children into slavery. He did the same to the city of Thebes and many others.
In the Roman Empire, as many as 35% of the population were slaves, and their condition was often terrible. The city of Rome had a population of one to two million, half of whom were slaves (Henry Burton, The Biblical World, Vol. 3, 1894). After Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel’s temple in AD 70, more than a million Jews were killed or sold as slaves. Slaves were considered property and had no legal rights under Roman law. They could not own property or legally marry. They could be punished as the owner pleased, tortured, raped, castrated, prostituted, even executed.
Islam has been a slaving people since Mohammed, who took one-fifth of the slaves for himself. Between 698-709, Muslims defeated the black Berber tribes of northwestern Africa, selling 60,000 into slavery. “Islamic Spain became the hub of a vast new slave-trade. Hundreds of thousands of European slaves, both from Christian territories and from the lands of the pagan Slavs, were imported into the Caliphate, there to be used as concubines (if female) or to be castrated (if male) and made into harem guards or the personal body-guards of the Caliph” (Emmet Scott, Muhammad and Charlemagne Revisited). Between 712 and 1193, Muslim armies raided India in subsequent waves of attacks. They demolished temples, robbed, murdered, raped, and enslaved millions. For example, in 1001 AD Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni took 500,000 slaves from Jayapala, including thousands of children. In the days of Mughal ruler Babur (r. 1526-1531), slave markets were set up at Kabul and Qandahar “where caravans came from India carrying slaves (barda) and other commodities to sell at great profits” (M.A. Khan, Islamic Jihad, p. 216). Mughal governor Said Khan Chaghtai “possessed 1,200 eunuch slaves.” Shah Jahan (builder of the Taj Mahal) had a harem of 5,000 concubines. The magnificent Mughal buildings were constructed largely through slave labor. “[I]t is the great multitude of enslaved Indians who supplied unconditional labor, with Muslim masters on watch with whips in their hands. ... Sultan Alauddin accumulated 70,000 slaves, who worked continuously in building. ... Sultan Firoz Tughlaq assembled 180,000 slaves for his services” (M.A. Khan. Islamic Jihad, pp. 229, 230). The Ottomans were major slavers. An estimated one-fifth of the population consisted of slaves. Most towns and cities had a slave marketplace called an Esir. It is estimated that over 28 million Africans were enslaved in the Muslim world in the past 14 centuries” (“A Focus on the African Slaves in the Arab World,” African Echo, Sep. 18, 2015). Another four million white Europeans were enslaved (Robert Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters). Beginning in the 8th century, Muslims took over the ancient African slave trade that had existed since the Egyptian pharaohs. “The African continent was bled of its human resources via all possible routes. Across the Sahara, through the Red Sea, from the Indian Ocean ports and across the Atlantic. At least ten centuries of slavery for the benefit of the Muslim countries (from the ninth to the nineteenth). ... Four million slaves were exported via the Red Sea, another four million through the Swahili ports of the Indian Ocean, perhaps as many as nine million along the trans-Saharan caravan route, and eleven to twenty million (depending on the author) across the Atlantic Ocean” (Elikia M’bokolo, “A Hundred and Fifty Years after France Abolished Slavery,” Le Monde diplomatique, April 1998). Northern Africa became the base for the Muslim Barbary pirates. They operated throughout the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic from their bases in Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. These states were a part of the Ottoman Empire, and the sultans in Constantinople received a portion of the slaves and stolen wealth. They were “the recognized overlords of the Mohammedan world” (Brian Kilmeade, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, p. 36).
The Atlantic slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries was a continuation of this ancient, global practice.
Slavery is a fact of man’s wretched history, and it is a reflection of man’s fallen condition.
It is also a fact of history as to who was at the forefront of the war against slavery. It wasn’t any of the aforementioned nations and kingdoms. It wasn’t the Muslims or the Hindus or the Buddhists or the Animists or the Atheists or the Humanists. It wasn’t Roman Catholics. It wasn’t the black African nations or the Asian nations or the South American nations or the Eskimos. It was (mostly) white Quaker, Protestant, and Baptist Christians in England and America.
America’s role in the destruction of slavery in modern times is a fascinating study.
Timeline of the American Abolitionist Movement
There was widespread opposition to slavery from the time of the founding of the American colonies, and many of the Founding Fathers were opponents, but abolition became a groundswell movement during the Second Great Awakening, both in America and England. The culmination in America was the Civil War of 1860-65, after which slavery was officially abolished. Following are some of the important events:
1791 - Jonathan Edwards publishes The Injustice and Impolicy of the Slave Trade
1794 - The U.S. government passes a law prohibiting slavery in new American territories
------- The American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery is founded
1803 - The Pennsylvania Abolition Society is founded; Benjamin Rush, an American Founding Father, is elected the first president
1807 - The British government abolishes the slave trade, though the owning of slaves in British colonies is still legal
1808 - The British form the West Africa Squadron to capture slave ships. Between 1808-1860, the Squadron captures 1,600 slave ships and frees 150,000 slaves
------- The U.S. government outlaws American participation in the African slave trade
------- Baptist pastor David Barrow publishes Involuntary, Unmerited, Perpetual, Absolute, Hereditary Slavery, examined on the principles of Nature, Reason, Justice, Policy, and Scripture
1816 - George Bourne, a Presbyterian preacher, publishes The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable; he says any slaveholder who considers himself a Christian is “either an incurable Idiot who cannot distinguish good from evil, or an obdurate sinner who resolutely defies every social, moral, and divine requisition.”
1821 - The first American anti-slavery newspaper is founded (The Genius of Universal Emancipation)
1822 - Denmark Vessey unsuccessfully tries to lead a slave revolt in South Carolina
1822 - Liberia is founded in Africa by the American Colonization Society for the settlement of free blacks and liberated slaves
1829 - David Walker, a free black, publishes Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, labeling slavery a crime
1830s - The Underground Railway is established to help runaway slaves escape to the northern states and Canada, ultimately assisting an estimated 90,000 escapees
1831 - Nate Turner leads a slave revolt in Virginia, killing 60 whites and resulting in stricter slave laws
1831 - William Lloyd Garrison founds The Liberator, a prominent weekly antislavery newspaper
1833 - Great Britain abolishes slavery
1833 - The American Antislavery Society is organized and within five years it has more than 1,350 chapters and 250,000 members
1852 - Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is influential in stirring abolitionist sentiment; it sold 10,000 copies in a week, 100,000 in ten weeks, and 300,000 by year’s end
1856 - The Republican Party is formed in America as a coalition of various political groups opposing slavery
1859 - John Brown unsuccessfully tries to capture the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, to launch a slave revolt
1860 - Abraham Lincoln is elected U.S. President, the first Republican party president
1861 - Eleven Southern states secede from the Union after the election of Abraham Lincoln
1862 - “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Julia Ward Howe is published
1863 - Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery in the Confederate States
1865 - The Civil War ends and the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishes slavery in all states
1868 - The Fourteenth Amendment gives citizenship rights to native-born blacks and equal protection under the law
1870 - The Fifteenth Amendment gives voting rights to black men
1948 - President Harry Truman ends segregation in the U.S. military by an executive order
AMERICA AND SLAVERY
From its founding, America has been a mixed multitude of people of varying principles, including religious principles.
Early America was strongly influenced by the Bible and most of its citizens were professing Christians of some sort, but there were all sorts of Christians, some born again and some “nominal,” trusting in baptism and good works rather than in a personal relationship with Christ, and there were also many non-Christians.
In the Plymouth Colony founded by the Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620, there were a mixture of zealous Christians, nominal Christians, and non-Christians.
As on many issues, early America was divided on the issue of slavery. On one side were those who defended slavery and kept slaves. On the other side, there were many in America who were opposed to slavery, even during the Colonial era. These understood that it was wrong and hypocritical to proclaim liberty for all men while keeping some men in bondage.
In 1772, Baptist pastor John Allen of Boston preached that slavery violates the laws of God and the natural rights of men. He stated this in An Oration on the Beauties of Liberty, or The Essential Right of the Americans.
Samuel Hopkins of Rhode Island sent a pamphlet to the Continental Congress “asking how they and Americans, so adverse to enslavement by British Parliament, could overlook the slavery of African-Americans ‘who have as good a claim to liberty as themselves’” (Angela Kamrath, The Miracle of America).
In 1776, Freeborn Garretson, a Methodist missionary, said, “It was God, not man, that taught me the impropriety of holding slaves: and I shall never be able to praise him enough for it. My very heart has bled, since that, for slaveholders, especially those who make a profession of religion; for I believe it to be a crying sin” (Carter Woodson, The History of the Negro Church, 1921).
At the Methodist General Conference in 1780, during the War of Independence, slavery was declared “contrary to the laws of God, man, and nature and hurtful to society, contrary to the dictates of conscience and pure religion, and doing that which we would not that others should do to us and ours.”
In 1789, Lemuel Haynes and a group of Baptists calling themselves Emancipating Baptists or the Emancipating Society wrote, “[S]lavery is a violent depredation of the rights of nature and inconsistent with a republican government, and therefore, recommend it to our brethren, to make use of their local missions to extirpate this horrid evil from the land; and pray Almighty God that our honorable legislature may have it in their power to proclaim the great jubilee consistent with the principles of good policy.”
Abolitionist Baptist churches in Kentucky formed the Baptized Licking-Locust Association and refused to receive slave owners as church members. The pastors included Donald Holmes, Carter Tarrant, Jacob Grigg, and George Smith (Woodson, The History of the Negro Church, 1921). Prominent among them was David Barrow, who emancipated his slaves in Virginia in the 1790s, moved to Kentucky and became an outspoken abolitionist. He republished British Baptist Thomas Clarkson’s 1785 Essay on Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species. In 1808, he published Involuntary, Unmerited, Perpetual, Absolute, Hereditary Slavery, examined on the principles of Nature, Reason, Justice, Policy, and Scripture.
In 1791, Jonathan Edwards, famous Great Awakening preacher, published “The Injustice and Impolicy of the Slave Trade.” He cited Christ’s “Golden Rule” as evidence that slavery is not God’s will.
Some Quakers, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists formed manumission societies in North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia to promote the emancipation of slaves and to actually purchase slave families for liberation. By 1823, there were 25 manumission societies in Tennessee alone. Hundreds of slaves were liberated, often at great cost to the slave owners, who were required to post bonds or provide land or money for the support of the freed blacks. For example, “In Ky. in 1847, in Owen Co., Susan Herndon Rogers freed the ten slaves of the Locust family and gave them 403 acres known as Free Station, or Mountain Island. Susan’s brother, James Herndon, executed a bond in 1853 for $21,000 in order to have his twenty-two slaves manumitted. James Herndon’s manumitted slaves, the Carroll, Smith, and Vinegar families, divided 125 acres at Mountain Island” (“Emancipationists in Northern Kentucky,” Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, 2009).
American Quakers opposed slavery beginning in the 1670s. William Penn, a Quaker and the founder of Pennsylvania in 1682, owned slaves for a few years, but he treated them well and eventually freed them. In 1737, Quaker Benjamin Lay published a paper against “All Slave Keepers that Keep the Innocent in Bondage.” He called slavery “a notorious sin.” “John Woolman, one of the fathers of the Quakers in America, always bore testimony against slavery and repeatedly urged that the blacks be given religious instruction. We hear later of their efforts in towns and in the colonies of Virginia and North Carolina to teach Negroes to read and write” Woodson). In 1774, the Quakers ended slavery among themselves, and those who persisted in owning slaves were expelled. Famous Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier was a strong voice against slavery. He edited the Pennsylvania Freeman and promoted freedom for all men. Quakers had a prominent role in the Underground Railroad that helped southern slaves escape their masters. Quakers boycotted slave-produced goods in an attempt to put financial pressure on slaveholders. Philadelphia, the capital of Pennsylvania, was the home of the first black denomination in America, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Pennsylvania was the first American state to pass a slavery abolition act. This was in 1780, even before the end of the War of Independence. In Britain, Quakers were at the forefront of the movement that abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1838.
The American Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1833 under the leadership of William Lloyd Garrison. By 1840, there were 2,000 auxiliary societies with a total membership of 200,000 to 250,000. Though Christians of all types supported abolition, the prominent members were not sound in doctrine. Unitarians and transcendentals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Greenleaf Whittier rejected the authority of Scripture for the authority of human thinking, and they rejected the gospel of personal redemption through faith in Jesus Christ for the social gospel. Garrison was raised Baptist, but as a young man he rejected the New Testament faith. “Immediate abolition became his gospel, and the anti-slavery movement became his household of faith” (Henry Mayer, All on Fire, p. xvi). In this he rejected the warning of his mother. When he first proposed to get involved in writing and politics, she wrote to him, “Had you been searching the Scriptures for truth, and praying for the direction of the Holy Spirit to lead your mind into the path of holiness, your time would have been more wisely spent, and your advance to the heavenly world more rapid.” She “yearned to know that he was impressed about the salvation of his soul.” Instead, he was attracted to the Unitarian William Ellery Channing and settled on the gospel of works--“the way to get good was to do good.” Eventually Garrison got involved in Spiritualism and attempted to commune with the dead. The abolition movement was a movement of religious apostasy. Bronson Alcott observed, “there is nothing deemed true and sacred now that shall pass this time, unharmed” (Mayer, p. 301). Ralph Waldo Emerson described Garrison’s crowd as “representing every shade of opinion, from the straitest orthodoxy to the wildest heresy, and many persons whose church was a church of one member only.”
Slavery in the 18th Century
It is important to understand the historical context. Slavery was widely accepted the world over at the time of America’s founding in the 18th century.
It is an institution nearly as old as man. Man’s “inhumanity” is the product of his sin nature. Jesus said, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Mt. 15:19). The ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia practiced slavery, as did the Babylonian, the Persian, the Greek, and the Roman empires. Slavery was practiced in China and India and the Americas; it was practiced by the Mongols and Huns and Vikings and North American Indians.
From ancient times, Africans enslaved Africans. In many parts of Africa, a third of the population was enslaved by their fellow blacks beginning in AD 1300 and earlier, and in some places the percentage was even higher. For the most part, it was black Africans who captured African slaves in the interior of the continent and brought them to the coasts for sale. Black tribal leaders, such as the kings of Dohomey, would raid and capture blacks from neighboring tribes and sell them. In the 1840s, King Gezo of Dahomey said, “The slave trade is the ruling principle of my people. It is the source and the glory of their wealth ... the mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery” (Ibn Warraq, Why the West Is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy, 2011, p. 114). What a wretched lullaby!
Islam practiced slavery from its inception in the seventh century AD and was at the heart of the slave trade on the Barbary Coast of Africa for hundreds of years. We have documented this in The Bible and Islam, which is available as a free eBook from www.wayoflife.org.
England had a major role in the Atlantic slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. So did the Portuguese, Dutch, and French.
America’s Founding Fathers and Slavery
Like the early American population as a whole, the American Founders represented many beliefs.
Some were Bible-believing Christians who had personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Following are a few examples:
Samuel Adams (1722-1803), signer of the Declaration of Independence, Governor of Massachusetts. In his last will and testament he wrote “I ... [rely] upon the merits of Jesus Christ for a pardon of all my sins” (Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams, edited by William Wells, 1865, Vol. III, p. 379).
Charles Carroll (1737-1822), signer of the Declaration of Independence, framer of the Bill of Rights. “On the mercy of my Redeemer I rely for salvation and on His merits, not on the works I have done in obedience to His precepts” (Letter from Carroll to Charles Wharton, Sep. 27, 1825).
Robert Treat Paine (1731-1814), signer of the Declaration of Independence, Attorney General of Massachusetts. “I am constrained to express my adoration of the Supreme Being, the Author of my existence, in full belief of His Providential goodness and His forgiving mercy revealed to the world through Jesus Christ, through whom I hope for never ending happiness in a future state” (Last Will and Testament, attested May 11, 1814).
Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), signer of the Declaration of Independence and “Father of American Medicine.” “My only hope of salvation is in the infinite transcendent love of God manifested to the world by the death of His Son upon the Cross. Nothing but His blood will wash away my sins. I rely exclusively upon it” (The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush).
Roger Sherman (1721-1793), signer of the Declaration of Independence, framer of the Bill of Rights. “I believe that God ... did send His own Son to become man, die in the room and stead of sinners, and thus to lay a foundation for the offer of pardon and salvation to all mankind, so as all may be saved who are willing to accept the Gospel offer.” (The Life of Roger Sherman by Lewis Boutell, 1896, pp. 271-273).
John Witherspoon (1723-1794), signer of the Declaration of Independence. “... no man, whatever be his character or whatever be his hope, shall enter into rest unless he be reconciled to God though Jesus Christ” (The Works of John Witherspoon, 1815, Vol. V, pp. 245, 267).
On the other hand, some of America’s founders were skeptics who did not accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and did not believe the Bible to be God’s infallible Word. The most prominent examples are Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, the first Secretary of State under George Washington, and the third President of the United States. Jefferson made his own “Bible” by cutting out of the Gospels everything pertaining to the divine and miraculous in Jesus’ life. Jefferson’s “Bible” left out references to angels, prophecy, Christ’s deity, the virgin birth, the miracles, and the resurrection.
Franklin, who has been called “the first American,” was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a member of the Constitutional Convention that wrote the U.S. Constitution. Like Jefferson, he wanted to maintain the moral code of Christianity as a rule for society, but he did not believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Franklin was a great fan of the blasphemous French skeptic Voltaire. Instead of bringing his grandson Benny Bache to the feet of Jesus, Franklin sought Voltaire’s blessing on the boy (H.W. Brands, The First American, p. 563). Franklin participated enthusiastically in a eulogy following Voltaire’s death. It was held in a hall dressed in black and lit by candles. Franklin took his Masonic crown and laid it at the foot of a large painting of Voltaire (The First American, p. 565). At the end of his life, Franklin said “I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some doubts as to [Christ’s] divinity.”
This being said, most of America’s Founding Fathers were opposed to slavery.
John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States and son of John Adams, second President of the U.S., was called the “Hell Hound of Abolition” for his persistent efforts to end slavery. In 1837, he said that the nation’s founders were opposed to slavery. “The inconsistency of the institution of domestic slavery with the principles of the Declaration of Independence was seen and lamented by all the southern patriots of the Revolution; by no one with deeper and more unalterable conviction than by the author of the Declaration himself [Jefferson]. No charge of insincerity or hypocrisy can be fairly laid to their charge. Never from their lips was heard one syllable of attempt to justify the institution of slavery. They universally considered it as a reproach fastened upon them by the unnatural step-mother country [Great Britain] and they saw that before the principles of the Declaration of Independence, slavery--in common with every other mode of oppression--was destined sooner or later to be banished from the earth” (An Oration Delivered Before the Inhabitants of the Town of Newburyport, at Their request, on the Sixty-first Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1837).
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and America’s third president, inherited slaves from his father beginning at age 14 and owned slaves all his life, but he introduced legislation throughout his career to abolish slavery.
“How could the man who wrote that ‘All men are created equal’ own slaves? This, in essence, is the question most persistently asked of those who write about Thomas Jefferson, and by all indications it is the thing that contemporary Americans find most vexing about him. ... The question carries a silent assumption that because he practiced slave holding, Jefferson must have somehow believed in it, and must therefore have been a hypocrite. My belief is that this way of asking the question ... is essentially backward, and reflects the pervasive presentism of our time. Consider, for example, how different the question appears when inverted and framed in more historical terms: How did a man who was born into a slave holding society, whose family and admired friends owned slaves, who inherited a fortune that was dependent on slaves and slave labor, decide at an early age that slavery was morally wrong and forcefully declare that it ought to be abolished? Though stating the same case, these are obviously different questions, focusing on different things, but one is framed in a historical context and the other ignores historical circumstances. The rephrased question reveals that what is truly remarkable is that Jefferson went against his society and his own self-interest to denounce slavery and urge its abolition” (Douglas Wilson, “Thomas Jefferson and the Character Issue,” The Atlantic Monthly, November 1992).
In 1778, he was instrumental in having the importation of slaves to Virginia banned. He introduced legislation in the Continental Congress to ban slavery, and it failed to pass by only one vote. He called slavery a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot” (“Thomas Jefferson and Slavery,” Monticello.org). He feared that America would be destroyed by slavery and that it would lead to a civil war, which it did in 1861. As U.S. President, he continued to fight against slavery, but many American slave owners opposed him. He could not free his slaves upon his death, because he owed a large amount of money and his estate, including his slaves, had to be sold to pay the debt. In his Memoir, written at age 77, Jefferson said, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate, than that these people are to be free.” Black American leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., praised Jefferson for his efforts to abolish slavery.
Recent scholarship claims that Jefferson fathered at least one child by one of his slaves named Sally Hemings, and this is possible, though it has not been absolutely proven.
We would note that Jefferson, as previously mentioned, was not a professing Christian or a believer in the Bible. Jefferson believed that Jesus was a good man and a great moral teacher, but he did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God and the Saviour of the world. As we have seen, Jefferson made his own “Bible” by cutting out everything from the Gospels pertaining to Christ’s virgin birth, miracles, atoning death, and resurrection.
George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and America’s first President, inherited slaves and owned slaves until his death but his thinking about slavery gradually evolved toward an abolitionist position.
At great personal cost to his estate, he vowed that he would not sell his slaves even though he could have benefited financially from doing so. After the Revolutionary War, when he was deeply in debt, the sale of just one slave would have brought him enough income to pay his estate taxes for two years. He also refused to hire out his slaves, because he did not want to break up their families. He said, “To sell the overplus I cannot, because I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species. To hire them out is almost as bad because they could not be disposed of in families to any advantage, and to disperse [break up] the families I have an aversion” (Washington letter to Robert Lewis, Aug. 18, 1799, Washington’s Writings, 1980, Vol. 37, p. 338).
Washington was instrumental in having a federal law passed in the first year of his presidency (1789) prohibiting slavery in the new American territories. As a result, the new states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin all prohibited slavery (“George Washington and the Washington Monument,” www.abschools.k12.wi.us, June 23, 2016).
In 1845, Daniel Webster described Washington’s efforts to abolish slavery in America:
“Soon after the adoption of the Constitution, it was declared by George Washington to be ‘among his first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery might be abolished by law;’ and in various forms in public and private communications, he avowed his anxious desire that ‘a spirit of humanity,’ prompting to ‘the emancipation of the slaves,’ ‘might diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people;’ and he gave the assurance, that ‘so far as his own suffrage would go,’ his influence should not be wanting to accomplish this result” (Webster, “Address to the People of the United States, ... to Lift Our Public Sentiment to a New Platform of Anti-slavery,” Jan. 29, 1845).
In 1793, Washington wrote to his secretary Tobias Lear and “expressed his repugnance at owning slaves and declared the principle reason for selling the land [his western lands] was to raise the finances that would allow him to liberate them” (“George Washington and Slavery,” Wikipedia, citing Dorothy Twohig, “That Species of Property: Washington’s Role in the Controversy over Slavery,” in George Washington Reconsidered by Don Higginbotham; and Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America). “In November the same year , Washington demonstrated in a letter to his friend and neighbor Alexander Spotswood that the reluctance to sell slaves at a public venue, first seen in his letter to Lund Washington in 1778, had become an emphatic principle against ‘selling Negroes, as you would Cattle in the market...’” (Ibid., citing Twohig). “In 1795 and 1796, Washington devised a complicated plan that involved renting out his western lands to tenant farmers to whom he would lease his own slaves, and a similar scheme to lease the dower slaves he controlled to Dr. David Stuart for work on Stuart's Eastern Shore plantation. This plan would have involved breaking up slave families, but it was designed with an end goal of raising enough finances to fund their eventual emancipation (a detail Washington kept secret) and prevent the Custis heirs from permanently splitting up families by sale. None of these schemes could be realized because of his failure to sell or rent land at the right prices, the refusal of the Custis heirs to agree to them and his own reluctance to separate families” (“George Washington and Slavery,” Wikipedia).
Washington’s will called for the liberation of his slaves upon his wife’s death, and he required that young ones be educated to read and write and taught a useful occupation.
Many accounts were told by black men and women about Washington’s humility and lack of racial prejudice. My favorite was told by Primus Hall, the servant of Col. Timothy Pickering, one of General Washington’s favorite officers during the War of Independence. One evening Washington and Pickering talked late into the evening, and Washington asked Hall if there were straw and blankets enough for him to sleep there that night. Hall replied in the affirmative, and when it was time for him to retire, Washington was shown an extra bed in Pickering’s tent made of straw and blankets and laid down to sleep, not knowing that Hall had given him his own humble bed. When Washington woke up in the night and saw Hall sleeping at the Colonel’s desk, he realized what had happened and demanded that Hall share his bed. When Hall expressed surprise and told him not to trouble himself, Washington ordered him in an authoritative voice, “Primus, I say, come and lie down here! There is room for both, and I insist upon it.” Washington moved to one side of the straw bed, and the shocked black man did as he was told. “Primus professes to have been exceedingly shocked at the idea of lying under the same covering with the commander-in-chief, but his tone was so resolute and determined that he could not hesitate. He prepared himself, therefore, and laid himself down by Washington; and on the same straw, and under the same blanket, the General and the Negro servant slept until morning” (Henry Harrington, “Anecdotes of Washington,” Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, June 1849).
Benjamin Franklin owned slaves, but he became an abolitionist later in life and liberated his slaves. He was the president of the Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. He promoted the idea of educating former slaves and to help them find employment so they could fend for themselves.
John Dickinson was a member of the First and Second Continental Congress and worked with Thomas Jefferson in writing the Declaration of Independence. He was an officer during the War of Independence. He was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and was elected President of Delaware and President of Pennsylvania. Dickinson is the author of “The Liberty Song” (1768). The original chorus said, “Then join hand in hand, brave Americans all, By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall; In so righteous a cause let us hope to succeed, For heaven approves of each generous deed.”
Dickinson became an abolitionist and freed his slaves in 1776. He devoted his final years to the cause of abolition and donated a considerable amount of his wealth “to the relief of the unhappy.”
Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, denounced slavery in his tract On Slave Keeping (1773). He called it a “vice which degrades human nature.” He called on Americans to oppose it. “Remember the eyes of all Europe are fixed upon you, to preserve an asylum for freedom in this country after the last pillars of it are fallen in every other quarter of the globe.”
John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court (1789-95), author of five of the Federalist Papers, and Governor of New York, was a leading opponent of slavery. “His first two attempts to end slavery in New York in 1777 and 1785 failed, but a third in 1799 succeeded.” All slaves in New York were emancipated before his death in 1829.
Noah Webster, who had a major influence on the U.S. Constitution through his 1787 essay An Examination into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution, called for slavery to be abolished in the United States. He founded an antislavery group called the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom. His influential Blue-Back Speller included an essay by Thomas Day calling for the abolition of slavery. Day argued that this was in accordance with the nation’s Declaration of Independence. He warned Americans that consistency required that they either acknowledge the rights of the Negroes or surrender their own rights.
The Constitutional Convention
During the Constitutional Convention (1787), when the U.S. Constitution was written and the American nation was formed at the federal level, there was a strong effort to abolish slavery. The opponents of slavery found, though, that it was impossible to form the nation on that basis, since the southern colonies refused to agree with that principle.
America’s Civil War
Those who criticize America on the slavery issue must acknowledge that the nation fought its most terrible and bloody war on that issue. The Civil War was fought between 1861-1865 after southern states seceded from the Union. A majority of Americans were so strongly opposed to slavery that they were willing to go to war against their fellow Americans to settle the matter. The southern states were called the Confederacy, and the northern states, the Union. About 750,000 died in the war.
There were other great issues involved in the American Civil War, particularly the issue of states rights. But slavery was definitely a fundamental issue in the conflict. This was stated plainly by the Confederate leaders.
Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, made the following statement on March 21, 1861, in Savannah, Georgia:
“The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions--African slavery as it exists among us--the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. ... Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas [opposite from ‘all men are created equal’]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth” (Stephens, Cornerstone Speech).
In May 1845, Baptists in southern states separated from their Baptist brethren in the northern states and formed the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The founding meeting was held at First Baptist Church of Augusta, Georgia, and delegates voiced their approval of the institution of slavery. (In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention formally apologized for its former stance on slavery, and in 2012 the SBC elected a black pastor as president.)
On January 27, 1861, Ebenezer Warren, pastor of First Baptist Church of Macon, Georgia, a prominent congregation in the SBC, preached a sermon entitled “Scriptural Vindication of Slavery.” This expressed the thinking of a large number of Southern whites in that day. He said:
“Slavery forms a vital element of the Divine Revelation to man. Its institution, regulation, and perpetuity, constitute a part of many of the books of the Bible. ... The public mind needs enlightening from the sacred teachings of inspiration on this subject. ... Both Christianity and Slavery are from heaven; both are blessings to humanity; both are to be perpetuated to the end of time. ... Because Slavery is right; and because the condition of the slaves affords them all those privileges which would prove substantial blessings to them; and, too, because their Maker has decreed their bondage, and has given them, as a race, capacities and aspirations suited alone to this condition of life.”
The January 1864 issue of the Religious Herald, the official paper of the Virginia Baptists, went so far as to call abolition “the final Antichrist.”
Southern Baptists justified slavery on the basis of the law of Moses. Following are some of the Mosaic principles on slavery:
- A Jewish slave was to be given his liberty after six years (Exodus 21:2), and the liberated servant was to be furnished liberally with goods (De. 15:12-15).
- If a master injured a slave so that he died, the master was to be punished (Ex. 21:20).
- If a slave was injured by his master, he was to be given his liberty (Ex. 21:26).
- Slaves were not to be “ruled with rigour” (Le. 25:53).
- If a slave escaped from his master, he was to be protected (De. 23:15-16).
But a reading of the Bible as a whole supports the abolition of slavery, because both the law of Moses and the Lord Jesus Christ taught that the heart and soul of God’s law is to “love thy neighbour as thyself” (Lev. 19:18; Mat. 22:39). It is impossible to obey this divine command while enslaving another individual.
And any concept of racial superiority has zero biblical support. All men are children of Adam. All nations are “made of one blood” (Acts 17:26).
Why, then, did the law of Moses allow for slavery? Jesus explained this in Matthew 19. Like divorce, slavery was allowed because of the hardness of man’s heart and his weak fallen condition (Mat. 19:7-8).
The Baptists in the north recognized that slavery was the chief cause of the Civil War. The Illinois Baptists issued the following statement in June 1863: “We recognize human slavery now, as we have heretofore done, to be the cause of the war and its kindred evils, and we reiterate our convictions that there can be no peace and prosperity in the nation until it is destroyed” (B.F. Morris, Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States, 1864, p. 754).
The outcome of the American Civil War was the complete abolishment of slavery. In December 1865, the 13th amendment of the Constitution was ratified, which abolished slavery in the United States. It came at great cost in the money and blood of white Americans.
The Abolition Movement and Theological Liberalism
Many aspects of the Christian abolitionist movement were deeply influenced by theological liberalism and its social gospel.
For example, there was support for slaves rebelling against their masters. David Walker of Boston issued a fiery call for rebellion in his Appeal in Four Articles in 1829. This radical side of the abolitionist movement ignored Bible commands such as 1 Corinthians 7:21-22; Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-25; 1 Peter 2:18-21.
The liberal social gospel allegorized Scripture to justify rebellion and even murder. For example, Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” interpreted the Union armies of the North as the coming of Christ. The “watch-fires” of the Union army camps are the altar of God, and “the burnish’d rows of steel” bayonets are the gospel. Howe was a Unitarian universalist who rejected Jesus Christ as the Son of God and denied the divine inspiration of Scripture. She delivered a pantheistic, universalistic message at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893 entitled “What Is Religion?” (womenshistory.about.com/library/etext/bl_1893_pwr_howe.htm). Howe’s husband, Samuel, funded John Brown’s murderous insurrection attempt.
Harriet Beecher Stowe is known as “the little woman who started the big war,” as her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin provoked hotheads on both sides of the issue. Her brother Henry Ward Beecher was the liberal pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. During Beecher’s career there, he opened his pulpit to Unitarians such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Horace Greeley and even to agnostics such as Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Beecher “once argued that a Sharps rifle held a better argument than a Bible for persuading slaveholders--hence these rifles were nicknamed ‘Beecher’s Bibles’ when used to combat the spread of slavery in the Kansas Territory before the American Civil War” (www.embassy.org.nz/encycl/u1encyc.htm). The Beechers were related to Julia Ward Howe.
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