In Part One, Huck Finn and abolition-minded Christians agonized over slavery and the state of their own souls. They were torn between heart/conscience and Bible verses that seemed to support slavery.
Troubled Christians were able to look back to Protestant Reformer Martin Luther for a way forward.
Test of conscience
Martin Luther’s life was at stake in 1521 during his trial for heresy and revolution. Luther told the Holy Roman Emperor:
My conscience is captive to the Word of God … to go against conscience is neither right nor safe …[i]
Luther later advised:
Treat a [Bible] passage like Moses did the rock in the desert, which he smote with his rod until water gushed out for his thirsty people.[ii]
Luther was determined to find the deeper truth – and a principle for living – in Scripture. Fast-forward 330 years: Abolition-minded Christians fervently hoped to find a Bible-based argument against American slavery.
The pro-slavery tradition of Bible interpretation
Seemingly, the deck was stacked in favor of pro-slavery Christians. Many ministers quoted Old Testament verses about owning slaves, and they mentioned the first slave-owning patriarch, Abraham.
In the New Testament, Jesus Christ and his apostles never condemned slavery (although they had plenty of chances to do so). Instead, the Apostle Paul wanted to send an escaped slave back to his master.
The verdict was clear, many ministers said: Anyone who opened the Bible could read straightforward verses in favor of slavery.
A pro-abolition Bible argument
In contrast, some ministers, professors, and rabbis gave a sophisticated, nuanced Bible argument against American slavery. These men admitted that the Old Testament gave approval for buying non-Hebrews as slaves, but never for selling them.
Historian Mark A. Noll explains:
This provision for servitude depended on the distinction in ancient Israel between the people of God and ‘the heathen.’[iii]
Capstone of the pro-abolition Bible argument
Tayler Lewis was a Dutch Reformed layman and professor of Greek and Oriental Studies at New York University and at Union College. He explained that Jesus opened the door to salvation to everyone. Therefore, there are no longer any “heathen” whom it is acceptable to enslave.
The Bible’s nuanced pro-abolition argument depended upon four different things:
- Patient reflection on the entire Bible, not simply “proof-texting” individual verses;
- An expert level of knowledge of slavery in the Ancient Near East and in the Roman Empires;
- Knowledge of conditions in the Slave States; and
- A sophisticated interpretive practice to replace a “common sense” approach to scripture.
The pro-abolition argument lost the battle of public opinion for four main reasons:
- Biblical defenders of slavery lumped together nuanced arguments with arguments of radical abolitionists who attacked the authority of Scripture. Pro-slavery Christians said they were defending the Bible.
- Slave-owners benefited from the “peculiar institution.”
- Many Protestant denominations said that anyone could open the Bible to any page and understand what was on the page. According to this view, no one needed bishops or church hierarchies to interpret the Bible.
- Racism was widespread, North and South. If a person believed that whites were superior to blacks, it was very hard to accept a nuanced, sophisticated Bible-based abolition argument.
Foreign perspectives: Corporate, not individual interpretation
Historian Noll explains that, outside of the United States, Bible interpretation respected the traditions of Christian communities more than an individual’s grasp of Scripture. Bible interpretation in Europe and Canada had a context of history, tradition, and a respect for formal learning.
Many European Christian scholars, unburdened by racism, concluded that American slavery was unbiblical and sinful.[iv]
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I am indebted to Rev. David Brooks for a thought-provoking question. I drew heavily from Mark A. Noll’s excellent book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. I highly recommend that you read it.
[i] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: 1950), 144.
[ii] Heiko Augustinus Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (Berlin: 1982; English edition, New Haven: 1989), 224.
[iii] Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: 2006), 48.
[iv] Ibid., 40-41, 45, 48-50, 121.