Religion and the Demise of Slavery
by Nehemiah Adams
When the Hebrew nation was organized by the Most High, he found among the people masters and slaves. He could have purged out slaveholding by positive enactments; he could have rid the people of all the slave owners by making their dead bodies fall in the wilderness. Instead of this, he made slavery the subject of legislation, prescribed its duties, and protected the parties concerned in the performance of them.
But who can withhold his tribute of love and adoration at the divine goodness and wisdom which mark the whole Mosaic code, as illustrated in that honorable regard for man, as man, which strove continually to lift and break the yoke of bondage to his fellow-man from his neck? They who assert that the Bible sanctions the relation of master and slave are bound to show in what spirit and with what intentions the Most High permitted the relation to remain. Otherwise they commit the fearful mistake of making infinite goodness and wisdom countenance oppression.
There are some extremely interesting and even beautiful illustrations in the Bible of the destiny of involuntary servitude to be from the first a waning, transient relation. Every thing pointed to freedom as the desirable condition; easements, deliverances from it, were skillfully prepared in the Hebrew constitution. Maiming, concubinage, the children of concubines, years of release, jubilees, all the various conditions and seasons connected with the termination of bondage, show that slavery was a condition out of which it is the destiny of human nature to rise; and falling into it is a calamity, a retrogression.
The preferableness of freedom to slavery, in the divine mind and plan, is set forth in the passage where Jeremiah, in the name of God, directed, in the last days of the nation, that every Hebrew servant should be manumitted according to law; for afflictions were making them break off their sins. This divine injunction was obeyed; but afterwards they reconsidered their repentance, and the servants were reduced again to bondage. God appeals to them against this outrage, by reminding them of Egypt, and of his appointment in their early history of years of release, and charges them with "polluting" his name by the reestablishment of slavery over those who had a right to liberty, threatening them for this in these words of awful irony: "Behold, I proclaim a liberty for you, saith the Lord, to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine; and I will make you to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth" (Jer. xxxiv. 8-22).
The New Testament speaks out, not in ordinances, but in words, and teaches more distinctly that freedom is to be preferred when it may be had. "If thou mayest be free, use it rather." It is as though bondage were incident to darkness and twilight, and removable only by the clear sunlight of a state of society which would be incompatible with every form of oppression. So we find that wherever the influence of religion reaches a high point, slavery wholly changes its character, though it may continue in form and name. It may be benevolent to individuals, to a class, that the form of slavery remain; but in such a case the yoke is broken, and to fight against the form and the name, when the thing itself had ceased to be an evil, would be to fight a shadow.
The wise manner in which the Apostles deal with slavery is one incidental proof of their inspiration. The hand of the same God who framed the Mosaic code is evidently still at work in directing his servants, the Apostles, how to deal with slavery. Men with their benevolence and zeal, if left to themselves, would, some of them, have gone to extremes on that subject; for "ultraism," as we call it, is the natural tendency of good men, not fully instructed, in their early zeal. The disposition to put away a heathen husband or wife, abstaining from marriage and from meats, Timothy's omission to take wine in sickness, show this, and make it remarkable that slavery was dealt with as it was by the Apostles. Only they who had the Spirit of God in them could have spoken so wisely, so temperately, with regard to an evil which met them every where with its bad influences and grievous sorrows. Some in their day, who professed to be Christian teachers, were "ultraists," and could not restrain themselves, but evidently encouraged servants not to count their masters worthy of all honor, and to use the equality of divine grace to them and their believing masters, as a claim to equality in other things, thus despising their believing masters because they were brethren. Never is the Apostle Paul more severe in the use of epithets than in denouncing such teachers and their doctrines. Far as possible from countenancing servitude as a condition which man has a right to perpetuate, or to which any class of men is doomed, but declaring plainly that freedom is to be preferred by the slave, he and his fellow-laborers employed themselves in disseminating those principles and that spirit which would make slavery as an oppression impossible, changing its whole nature by abolishing all the motives which create such an institution. But as it is not sunrise in every place at the same moment, and in places where the sun has risen there are ravines and vales, where the light is slow to enter, so we can not expect that the evils of slavery will disappear at once, even where the religion of Christ generally prevails; but in proportion as it extends its influence, slavery is sure to cease in all its objectionable features. An interesting illustration of this, on a large scale, is afforded by the state of slavery in the United States and Cuba. Spanish slavery has a very mild code, but is severe and oppressive. American slavery has perhaps as rigid a code as any; but practically, it is the mildest form of involuntary servitude, and few would justify themselves in doing no better for their slaves than the law requires. Pure religion must have the credit of this difference, teaching us that to remove slavery we must promote spiritual religion, and to this end use every means to propagate Christian knowledge and Christian charity.
We are not as wise as Paul if we withdraw our Christian teachers and books, imbued with the great principles of pure religion, from communities where we are not allowed to do all the good which we may desire, or to present a duty in such specific forms as our preferences dictate. Our principle ought not to be, to abandon men as soon as we are resisted, or can not say and do all that we would; but we should study ways to remain, trusting to the power of light and love to open doors for us. The dust which we too readily shake off from our feet against men will be a witness against us, rather than against them. It must gratify the arch enemy to see us withdraw our forces in solemn indignation at his show of resistance. The children of this world do not suffer themselves to be so easily foiled, nor do they force unacceptable offerings upon Japan, but ply her with things to tempt her desire for further commodities, representing their usefulness in ways which do not excite national jealousy and pride.
It is refreshing to escape from those books of overheated zeal which attack slavery, and read the passages in the New Testament relating to the subject; breathing a spirit fatal to oppression, yet counseling no measures against it because of its seeming trust in its own omnipotent influence wherever it shall build its throne.
Paul's refusal to interfere between Onesimus and his master is one of those gentle lessons of wisdom on this subject which are so characteristic of his spirit in dealing with this public evil. That small epistle to Philemon, that one chapter, that little piece of parchment, that mere note of apology — that this should have fallen into the sacred canon, and not the epistle to Laodicea, is curious and interesting to those who regard the providence of God in the canon of Scripture. That little writing is like a small, firm beach, where storms have beaten, but have left it pure and white. It is the least of all seeds in Paul's Epistles. It is a curiosity of inspiration, a solitary idiom in a language, a Stonehenge in a country, a warm stream in the sea; it begins with loving salutations, ends with affectionate Christian messages, and sends back a servant to his master and to a system of slavery under which this fugitive could, if his master required, be put to death. Now, he who argues from this that he has an unqualified right to reclaim his slave, and subject him to just such treatment as he pleases, is as much at fault as those who are at the other extreme. It was to a Philemon that Onesimus was returned; it was to Abraham's house that Hagar was remanded. While the abstract principle of ownership is defended by these examples, he who uses them to the injury of a fellow-being will find that God has stores of vengeance for him, and that his own "Master in heaven" is the inexorable Judge.
The difference in the Apostles' way of dealing with slavery, and with other evils, teaches clearly that the relation itself is not in their view sinful. Many insist that it is sinful, that the Apostles must so have regarded it, and that the reason why they did not attack it is, they would not interfere with the laws and government. It is said, "they girdled slavery, and left it to die."
But this surely is not in accordance with the apostolic spirit. There is no public wickedness which they merely girdled and left to die. Paul did not quietly pass his axe round the public sins of his day. His divine Master did not so deal with adultery and divorces. James did not girdle wars and fightings, governmental measures. Let Jude be questioned on this point, with that thunderbolt of an Epistle in his hand. Even the beloved disciple disdained this gentle method of dealing with public sins when he prophesied against all the governments of the earth at once.
But slavery, declared by some to be the greatest sin against God's image in man, most fruitful, it is said, of evils, is not assaulted, but the sins and abuses under it are reproved, the duties pertaining to the relation of master and slave are prescribed, a slave is sent back to servitude with an inspired epistle in his hand, and slavery itself is nowhere assailed. On the contrary, masters are instructed and exhorted with regard to their duties as slaveholders. Suppose the instructions which are addressed to slaveholders to be addressed to those sinners with whom slaveholders are promiscuously classed by many, for example: "Thieves, render to those from whom you may continue to steal, that which is just and equal." "And, ye murderers, do the same things unto your victims, forbearing threatenings." "Let as many as are cheated count their extortioners worthy of all honor." If to be a slave owner is in itself parallel with stealing and other crimes, miserable subterfuge to say that Paul did not denounce it because it was connected with the institutions of society; that he "girdled it, and left it to die." Happy they whose principles with regard to slavery enable them to have a higher opinion of Paul than thus to make him a timeserver and a slave to expediency.
But was he therefore "a proslavery man"? Not he. Would he have spoken against American slavery had he lived in our day? Surely he would; against its evils, its abuses, its sins, but not against the relation of master and slave. Suppose that Philemon had thrown Onesimus into prison for absconding, and Paul had heard of his having lain there three months till he was sick with jail fever, and likely to die. If he could have reached Philemon through church discipline, and the offender had persisted in his sin, we can imagine Paul directing the church "in the name of the Lord Jesus to deliver such an one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus." Any church that suffers a member to deal wrongfully with his servant, or suffers a slave member to be recklessly sold, has in Paul's epistles single words and whole sentences which ought to make it quail. Yet there is not a word there against the relation of master and slave; and for what reason?
The way in which the Apostles evidently purposed to remove slavery, was by creating a state of things in which it would cease. This method is not analogous to girdling trees, but to another process resorted to by husbandmen. Their only method of expelling certain weeds — sorrel, for example — is, to enrich the soil. The gospel is to slavery what the growing of clover is to sorrel. Religion in masters destroys every thing in slavery which makes it obnoxious; and not only so, it converts the relation of the slave into an effectual means of happiness. In many instances at the South, for example, slavery is no more slavery so long as those masters live; and if religion were every where predominant, their servants would not suffer by the death of their masters any more than by time and chance, which happen to all. Religion will never remove men's need of being served and of serving; but it will make service an honorable and happy employment, under whatever name it may pass. And as farmers do not attack weeds for the mere sake of expelling them, but to use their place for something better, so the New Testament does not attack slavery to drive it out, but gets possession of the heart, which is naturally tyrannical and covetous, and, filling it with the fruits of the Spirit, the works of the flesh disappear.
When a man repents and is converted, he does not repent of his sins one by one, but there is a state of heart created within him, with regard to all sin, which constitutes repentance. In accordance with this we do not find the Bible laboring merely to make a man specifically penitent, but it uses one sin and another to lead the man back to that heart which is the root of all his sins. Those who preach to convicts tell us that when they are convinced of sin, if they fix their thoughts upon particular transgressions, and make them the special subjects of repentance, one of two things happens; they either see the whole of their sin and misery by means of these instances of wickedness, or they confine their thoughts to these items, and then become superficial and self-righteous. David's sin, as we see by the fifty-first Psalm, led him to feel and deplore his ruined nature. Many attempts to reform particular evils in society which grow out of human wickedness have no effect to make men true penitents, though reformations of morals and of abuses are always auxiliary to religion; but if an equal amount of zeal employed in assailing abuses were employed in promoting Christian piety and charity by diffusing Christian knowledge and ordinances, and also by the influence of a good temper and spirit, especially where Christian men are the objects of our zeal, and their cooperation and influence are our surest means of success, we should see changes in society brought about in a healthful way, which would be permanent because of the basis of character on which they would rest. And all this antifebrile sentiment is scorned by overheated zealots. Still there is sound discretion in these words of Dr. Chalmers:
I have been a projector in my day, and, much as I have been employed with the economics of society, my conviction is more and more strengthened in the utter vanity of all expedients short of faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ; whose disciples are the salt of the earth, and through whose spirituality and religion, alone, we can look for the permanent civilization and comfort of the species, or even for earthly blessings; which come after, and not before, the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
The apostolic spirit with regard to slavery, surely, is not of the same tone with the spirit which encourages slaves everywhere to flee from their masters, and teaches them that his swiftest horse, his boat, his purse, are theirs, if they wish to escape. Philemon, traveling with Onesimus, was not annoyed by a vigilance committee of Paul's Christian friends with a habeas corpus to rescue the servant from his master; nor did these friends watch the arrival of ships to receive a fugitive consigned by "the saints and faithful brethren which were at Colosse" to the "friends of the slave" at Corinth. True, these disciples had not enjoyed the light which the Declaration of American Independence sheds on the subject of human rights. Moses, Paul, and Christ were their authorities on moral subjects; but our infidels tell us that we should have a far different New Testament could it be written for us now; but since we can not have a new Bible now and then, this proves that "God can not make a revelation to us in a book." Every man, they say, must decide as to his duty by the light of present circumstances, not by a book written eighteen hundred years ago. Zeal against American slavery has thus been one of the chief modern foes to the Bible. Let him who would not become an infidel and atheist beware and not follow his sensibilities, as affected by cases of distress, in preference to the word of God, which the unhappy fate of some who have made shipwreck of their faith in their zeal against slavery shows to be the best guide.
I may be allowed to state the manner in which my own mind was relieved at the South with regard to the prospects of slavery. From youth, I had believed that its removal is essential to our continued existence as a nation, and yet no one saw in what way this change was to be effected. My error was in supposing that the blacks must be removed in order to remove slavery, or, that they must be emancipated; that we must have some "first of August" to mark a general manumission. Now there are many slaveholders at the South who make the condition of their slaves as comfortable and happy as the condition of the same persons could be in any circumstances. Wicked men are permitted by the present laws to practise iniquity and oppression; but when the influence of good men so far prevails as to make laws which will restrain and govern those who are susceptible to no influence but that of authority, the form of slavery will be all pertaining to it which will remain, and this only while it is for the highest good of all concerned, and acknowledged to be so by both parties, the doom of the blacks, as a race, being abandoned, and the interests of each individual, his inclination and aptitude, being regarded in finding employment for him. I saw that if good men at the South were left to themselves without annoyance by foreign intervention, the spirit of the New Testament with regard to slavery might ere long be fulfilled. Nor would the Old Testament jubilee, or seventh year release, be necessary; these, like other things in Moses, being done away in Christ by the bestowal of liberty, or protection under Christian masters; no ceremonial, therefore, being needed to effect or announce their liberty, and jubilees and seventh years, indeed, not coming fast enough, and being too formal for the times. Let us feel and act fraternally with regard to the South, defend them against interference, abstain from every thing assuming and dictatorial, leave them to manage their institution in view of their accountability to God, and, if we please, in view of the line upon line and precept upon precept which we, their many and very capable instructors, male and female, have vouchsafed to them, and we may expect that American slavery will cease to be any thing but a means of good to the African race. When no longer available for good, the form itself will be abolished.
Suppose that we should receive a report from missionaries giving an account of three millions of people brought out of heathenism and elevated to the position of the slaves in our Southern States. While we should join with the missionaries to deplore remaining evils and certain liabilities to evil among them, we should fill our prayers with praises at the marvelous work of grace among that people. And were the foreign lords of that people generally in favor of their improvement, and very many of them examples of all kindness and faithfulness, we should be careful how we interfered with the leaven which was leavening, slowly, but surely, the whole mass of the population. Some, however, as now, would wish to precipitate the process.
In addition to what has been said of the way in which the gospel will affect slavery, it may be observed that common humanity, self-interest, and law may, each in its own method, do all the good in its power, without waiting for the higher motives of spiritual religion. Nor are we to neglect or disparage means and measures which tend to good, though actuated merely by considerations of policy. Yet spiritual religion is God's chosen instrument of doing the greatest amount of good in the best possible way. It puts every thing at work for its object; it purifies our motives; it makes the result permanent; it saves men from the temptations incident to victory and defeat.
This article was extracted from Nehemiah Adams, A Southside View of Slavery (Boston: T.R. Marvin and B.B. Mussey and Company, 1854). Click HERE to order this book.