A friend of mine put me on to a chapter in Mark Noll's book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. The chapter was "The Crisis over the Bible." What a salacious read! I'll start with a summary, but you'll see why I enjoyed it in my description. The chapter relates to the debate over what the Bible might have to say on the subject of slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War.
1. First, it was easy for those in favor of slavery to point to individuals like William Lloyd Garrison, who basically argued that there were times when discarding a portion of Scripture was the highest evidence of a love for truth. Garrison's presumption here was that the Bible did indeed endorse slavery, but a love of the truth lead one to disregard its teaching on this subject.
This argument of course empowered pro-slavery Christians, for they could use Garrison to argue that all those who were against slavery were godless people who didn't believe in the Bible.
2. Second, the pro-slavery Christians had many, many specific verses to use in their favor. As Noll says, "open the Bible, read it, believe it."
Lev. 25:45-46a: "the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever."
Philemon: Paul instructs an escaped slave to return to his master.
Gen. 9:25-27: "Cursed be Canaan... Canaan shall be his servant." In other words, Ham's descendents were to be the slaves of Noah's two other sons. It was a common belief at that time that the peoples of Africa were the descendents of these.
Gen. 17:22: "he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger" [shall be circumcised].
Deuteronomy 20:10-11: "When thou goest forth to war... and thou hast taken them captive..."
Jesus: abrogated many OT regulations like polygamy and easy divorce--but never said a word against slaveholding.
1 Cor. 7:11--"Art thou called being a servant? Care not for it..."
Rom. 13:1, 7--"Be subject to the higher powers." Paul tells them to conform to the Roman imperial system, which had a harsh system of slaveholding.
Col. 3:22; 4:1--"Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh." Paul does not question the master-slave relationship.
1 Tim. 6:1-2--"servants under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour... they that have believing masters, let them not despise them." Conversion of slaves did not provide cause for emancipation.
These verses were used by Thomas Thompson to support the slave trade in the early 1770's biblically.
3. Third, Noll mentions two defining moments in the early 1800's:
There was a fair debate between one Richard Fuller and Francis Wayland in 1844. Fuller vigorously defended slavery biblically, although he conceded that there were many abuses in the South. Here was Fuller's bottom line: Wayland "admits that neither the Saviour nor his apostles commanded masters to emancipate their slaves; nay, they 'go further,' he adds, 'and prescribe the duties, be it remembered, there is not an intimation of manumission, but the whole code contemplates the continuation of the relation."
So how, Fuller asked, can Wayland argue in general that the moral precepts of the gospel condemn slavery? Wayland was arguing that slavery went against the overall principles of the gospel. Meanwhile, Fuller hammered him with specific verses.
A second defining moment came from Moses Stuart. Stuart believed that Southern Christians, while not compelled, should give up slavery voluntarily. He did not think, for many of the biblical reasons quoted above, that slavery was an evil in and of itself. He simply believed that working out the principles of the gospel would eventually result in the gradual elimination of the practice.
Noll ends this section with some quotes from pro-slavery advocates who said things like that "we have long since settled" the biblical sanction of slavery, descriptions of the cause of slavery as "the cause of God, the cause of Christ ... of Bible with Northern infidelity -- of pure Chrisitianity."
I might also add that the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in opposition to a ruling of the American Baptist Missionary Union in 1844 resolved that it would not appoint slaveholders as missionaries. So the Southern Baptist Convention was formed on the basis of an ardent pro-slavery stance.
4. Those who were against slavery seemed to draw as much on common sense and the basic republican principles on which America was founded ("all men are created equal") as on specific biblical texts: "the principles of the Bible are justice and righteousness." They argued for the "one-bloodism" of humankind (e.g., Acts 17:26).
Beautifully, the most powerful rhetoric against slavery came from the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin! Here a slave owner is depicted as saying that if suddenly owning slaves were to become a great financial burden, the slave owners would all immediately "discover" that the Bible was clearly against slavery. The impression is given that the Bible is easily manipulated to prove anything.
The verse debate is captured as one person quotes about Canaan and another responds "whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so unto them." As usual, specific verse goes against basic principle.
In one of the more memorable scenes, a Senator in favor of the Compromise of 1850 (States can declare themselves free but agree to return escaped slaves to the South) is convinced by his wife that he can't return a runaway slave to the South. In the actual situation, he recognizes that what seemed a good theory is wrong in practice.
Some also argued against slavery by arguing for the priority of the spirit over the letter. Noll mentions a man named Leonard Bacon who would have been glad to oppose slavery if he could have justified that position biblically. But he concluded that the spirit over the letter argument did great damage to the Scriptures. He ended up condemning slavery as it was practiced in the South.
5. There were some more nuanced biblical arguments against slavery.
David Barrow pointed out that the comparison between Canaan and Africans didn't follow. Southern slave owners weren't Hebrews and the Africans weren't Canaanites.
Exod. 21:27 says that a slave should be freed if the master harmed him or her (even knocked out a tooth). The South didn't do this.
James Pendleton argued in Kentucky that its slavery was very different from biblical slavery. What slaveowners armed their slaves like Abraham armed his?
Rabbi Raphall argued that American slavery dehumanized its slaves, which was not the biblical thrust. Biblical slaves were not property.
Tayler Lewis argued that racial distinctions were done away with in Christ and that the Bible nowhere legitimated racially defined slavery.
6. Noll sums up. It was easy for pro-slavery advocates to paint their opponents as opposed to the Bible. They couldn't accept at all the idea of the blood unity of the race. The more sophisticated arguments of some against slavery didn't fare well against the more commonsensically literal approach (God said it; I believe it; that settles it).
And of course the best line is one Noll has used elsewhere: "it was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant."
The similarity between the current situation on the issue of women and the situation regarding slavery 150 years ago should be obvious, even startling.
1. Those opposed to women in ministry and in favor of an inflexible husband headship turn to secular feminists to argue that you can't believe in the Bible and be in favor of women ministers or a more egalitarian home.
2. They marshall a host of specific verses, especially 1 Timothy 2 but also 1 Corinthians 14 and the household codes of Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter.
3. The Southern Baptist Convention is leading the charge still for "sticking to the Bible" on women ... and they will try to hide this part of their history in 100 years just like they don't talk much about their founding in rebellion to a rule only forbiding slave owners from being missionaries.
We also have the middle ground people today who say, women can be ministers even though the husband must be the head of the home. Also, those opposed use Jesus (why didn't Jesus make one of his disciples a woman?).
4. Those who argue for Christian egalitarianism often use basic principles over and against specific injunctions--"in Christ there is neither male nor female..."
5. Ironically, I myself have used the letter-spirit distinction :-)
6. We won't have a war on this one. But I do predict as many did about slavery that the trajectory is clear. Christians 100 years from now will wag their heads at those who didn't see the "obvious" truth of the gospel that God can and will use a woman in any role or way that He uses men.