Slavery, The Paradox of the American Revolution Part 2 – Christian Slaveholders Claim God Ordained Slavery by Harry Schenawolf

Slavery Ordained
Slavery Ordained

The following is a letter addressed by John C. Calhoun (Vice President of the United States) to the Methodist Reverend Alexander McCain in response to McCain’s pamphlet in favor of slavery being ordained by God. “My Dear Sir. I have read with pleasure your pamphlet, entitled, ‘Slavery Defended from the Scriptures Against Abolitionists.’ You have fully and ably made good that title. You have shown beyond all controversy that slavery is sanctioned both by the Old and New Testament. He who denies it, if not blinded by fanaticism, must be a hypocrite.”[1]

Slavery is a sin in the eyes of the Lord. That is a universal theme throughout religions worldwide. But to what degree did that hold true in colonial America until the time of emancipation?   How could Christians, from New England to the southern provinces and later states, who diligently practiced the teachings of the bible, justify owning another human? Did slave owners just turn their backs on biblical doctrine? Or did they find inspiration and comfort for such a hideous practice in the pages of scripture?

Vice President of the United States John C. Ca...
Vice President of the United States John C. Calhoun (19th-century daguerreotype) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Learned, devout, evangelical Christians, with the Bible in their hand, supported slavery with missionary zeal. They were opposed to gross cruelty to slaves and sexual exploitation of women, but not to the institution itself. In supporting the institution, they also allowed for the worst of the abuses to continue unchecked. When this terrible injustice was constantly before their eyes and their fellow Christians were crying out to them to show some insight and compassion, why was it, we must ask, that these evangelical Christians were so blind and hard?[2]

To seventeenth and early eighteenth century settlers, it was easy to accept slavery when considering the African a heathen, ignorant, atheistic race of sub-humans. Far too many Americans carried this belief right through the nineteenth century, and sadly to say, into modern times. Truth be told, it was the white European who demonstrated ignorance in all things concerning those of Africa. The lands from which the slavers applied their trade drew from a people rich in advanced methods of agriculture, language, knowledge of the universe, different religions (including a large percentage of Muslims), and nations with a government hierarchy and finance equal to that of Europe. West Africa and the interior was not just a land of jungle and grasslands of roaming wild animals. Vast stretches of cultivated fields and established towns dotted the landscape. Timbuktu housed a library of literary scholarly works written by Africans that compared with the great minds of Europe. When late eighteenth and early nineteenth century explorers probed the interior of Africa and into the Sudan, they discovered kingdoms whose armies demonstrated modern tactical warfare, including the skillful use of muskets. Leaders of these kingdoms surprised their European guests by querying them as to the latest news of London and Paris; some having recent copies of newsletters from those cities. Ironically, at the time these same African leaders were being ‘discovered’ by acclaimed European explorers, the Africans were keen to the latest royal gossip from Europe.

If colonial America looked upon the African as a lesser people, as Christians, surely their doctrine would not allow slavery and the horrendous treatment of another human. The exact opposite took place. It was the bible to which slaveholders turned to support their way of life. For many centuries the Church was part of a slave-holding society. The popes themselves held slaves, including at times hundreds of Muslim captives to man their galleys. Throughout Christian antiquity and the Middle Ages, theologians generally followed St. Augustine in holding that although slavery was not written into the natural moral law, it was not absolutely forbidden by that law.[3]

Joseph Sold to Slavery
Joseph Sold to Slavery

Nowhere in the bible is it written that slavery is a sin in the eyes of the Lord, that to own another human an abomination of morals and decency. Slaveholders argued that not one single text of Scripture is quoted to prove that slavery is wrong. In fact, in both the Old and New Testaments, it may be argued that the bible endorses slavery.[4] It gives directives to ensure the welfare of slaves, but does not demand their emancipation. One must remember that when the Bible was written, slavery was a universal phenomenon. It was part of the culture and people accepted it as a fact of life. There were a few pagan moralists who spoke against the abuse of slaves, but in the ancient world, there was never anything like an abolition of slavery movement.[5]

Many modern theologians believe that the bible does not endorse slavery, but only regulates it. However, a disturbing large percentage of theologians throughout the United States, until the late nineteenth and even early twentieth century, held that the Bible sanctioned slavery. This view was clearly expressed by Clement of Alexandria, Orlgen, Augustine, Chryostom, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin.[6] Evangelical scholars living throughout the early American colonies and later in the slave-holding states in the south of the United States, who were bitterly opposed to emancipation, argued that, from cover to cover, the bible endorsed slavery. Their opinion is summed up in the Old School (Presbyterian) General Assembly report of 1845 which concluded that slavery was based on “some of the plainest declarations of the Word of God.” That slavery has always had the sanction of the Almighty God. They explicitly endorsed both Testaments and stated that to oppose slavery was a denial of the authority of Scripture.[7] They further claimed that slaveholders were among the most eminent of the Old Testament saints.

slavery-blueprint-bibleTo the southern evangelical, the Bible, in its reference to servants, spoke clearly to them that these were slaves, “belonging absolutely to their masters, who had a right to dispose of their persons, their bodies, goods, and even of their lives in some cases.”[8] The master claimed right to the slave because 1. He claimed him as his property. 2. He purchased him. 3. The law declares him to be his property. 4. God has conferred upon the master the right to his slave.[9]

Theologians in the eighteenth and nineteenth century point to Genesis 9:25 as the Devine initiation of slavery, stating that the institution of slavery was predicted and ordained by God Himself through his servant Noah. Alexander McCaine (1773-1856), a southern Methodist evangelist, believed that Noah “spoke under the impulse and dictation of heaven,’ claiming that Noah’s words were the word of God. “Through him, the Almighty, to be perpetuated through all time, intended to cement and compact the whole human family and to sustain the great chain of subordination, so essential to the Devine, as well as all human governments.”[10] Noah said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren… Blessed be the Lord God of Shem, and Canaan shall be his servant.’[11]

Evengelical Methodist Preacher
Evengelical Methodist Preacher

How could slavery be pronounced a ‘great moral evil’, preachers argued, when considering the biblical characters who owned and traded in slavery? Professor Dew,[12] president of William & Mary College and supporter of slavery, was frequently quoted: “Slavery,” he said, “was established and sanctioned by Divine authority, among even the elect of Heaven – the favored children of Israel.”[13] If Godly men held servants in bondage, to the slaver, it was impossible to consider slaveholding a sin. And to accept such as being a sin, “it was an aggravated crime against God.”[14]

Abraham held slaves of which 318 were born in his house.[15] Advocates of slavery point out that Abraham was called ‘the father of the faithful,’ and ‘the friend of God.’ The Scripture says God blessed Abraham by multiplying his slaves.[16] If Abraham was a great sinner and lived in the practice of a great moral evil, how could he be given such appellations?[17] Sarai, Abraham’s wife, had a handmaid called Hagar. The angel tells her to “return to your mistress and submit to her”[18] in which she was told to bare Abraham a child. Southern theologians assumed that Hagar was one of the Egyptian slaves that the Pharaoh presented to Abraham. Searching for more examples, they looked to Isaac. According to the Scriptures, his father Abraham willed his slaves to Isaac.[19] “He had possession of flocks, and possession of herds, and great store of servants… he had many domestics, some born in his house, and others purchased by his money.”[20] Jacob had maid-servants, the slaves of his wives. “… the man increased exceedingly, and had much cattle, and maid-servants and menservants…”[21] These servants, to the slaveholders, were slaves, plain and simple, and God smiled upon Isaac and blessed his prosperous lifestyle.

Job was another example of God’s acceptance of biblical slaveholders. “Job [had] a very great household; so that this man was the greatest of all the men in the East.[22] They quote Calmet[23] who said that “Job was a man of great probity, virtue and religion, and he possessed great riches in cattle and slaves; which, at that time, were the chief wealth even of princes in Arabia and Edom.”[24] Theologians point out that God said of this slaveholder, “Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and upright man…”[25] And there was David, a man of war who conquered several nations, and reduced those whom he spared to a state of slavery. Through David, God “made the people slaves; and employed them in sawing, making iron harrows… and in sawing wood and making brick.”[26] It was by God’s command that Solomon take slaves.[27]

Pro-slavery theologians, to support the purchase of a person into bondage, saw a long tradition of such actions as related in biblical script. To the slaveholder, the case of Joseph illustrated cupidity, or the purchase and sale of humans. “And it came to pass when Joseph had come unto his brethren, they stripped Joseph of his coat and many colors… and cast him into a pit… and Judah said unto his brethren, what profit is it if we slay our brother? Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites… and they sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver.[28] They used such passages to justify the opinion that a traffic had been carried on in human beings before the time of Joseph, otherwise it would not have been likely that Judah would have thought of selling his brother. Also it is strengthened by the fact that the traders expressed no surprise or objected to buying Joseph. They cited the Israelites who were reduced to a state of slavery in Egypt as falling under the head of cupidity.[29]

Reverend Alexander McCaine
Reverend Alexander McCaine

Slavery through the spoils of war is another example to which slaveholders used the bible to stress the normalcy and Holy acceptance of forced bondage. God promised the descendants of Caanan to the children of Abraham. [30] The children of Israel, under the leadership of Joshua, when entering the land, had to war with the several nations that inhabited it. They were victorious. The Gibeonites, fearing for their lives, went to Joshua to impose on him to make peace. Joshua, “who without asking counsel at the mouth of the Lord, made peace [and] a league with them to let them live and the princes of the congregation swore unto them. The congregation, in turn, murmured against the princes… who said unto the congregation, we have sworn unto them by the Lord God of Israel, now therefore we may not touch them. This we will do to them; we will let them live, lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath which we swore unto them; but let them be hewers of wood and drawers of water unto all the congregation.”[31] In other words, they became their slaves according to those advocating slavery. So far from manifesting any displeasure, the Lord espoused the cause of Joshua and fought for these slaves.[32] “And the Lord cast down great stones from heaven upon them [their enemies] unto Azekah, and they died…” God even suspended the course of nature at the command of Joshua, “… And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves on their enemies.”[33]

Some evangelists stated that only through miracles and the will of God could the bond between slave and master be broken. As proof they looked to the miracles Moses used to release the Israelites from the Pharaoh’s yoke stating, “by what authority doest thou these things, or who gave thee this authority [to sever] that which has been recognized by the Governor of the Universe.”[34]

The fourth and the last of the Ten Commandments offered slaveholders its strongest case that the Lord sanctioned human bondage. In the fourth commandment, slaveholders believed God spoke directly to slavery. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work; you, nor your daughter, nor your male-servant, nor your female-servant.[35] Slaveholders had decided that within biblical text, servant meant slave. It was further proof that the practice of holding another human in bondage was divinely sanctioned

j0qcaivuej7hu6v8mzudMany point to the last of the commandments as a direct quote by the Lord commanding no man to break the bond between a master and slave. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s wife, nor his man servant, nor his maid servant, nor his ass, nor anything that is they neighbor’s.” Through this passage, they stated boldly that slavery is recognized by God, for the man-servant and maid-servant are slaves, that the slave is property, as much so as the house, the ox, or the ass, the right of the master to hold such property is allowed and can be defended, coveting this species of property is forbidden, and there can be nothing immoral in holding slaves since God has sanctioned and defended slavery.[36]

They furthered their argument by stating that God’s sanction, given to slavery by the tenth commandment, has never been cancelled or withdrawn. They counter that far from annulling it, Jehovah legislated the species of property for its continuance, listing in Exodus 26 and Leviticus 25 that Jehovah gave sundry directions to regulate the conduct of the owner of slaves.[37] They upheld that the tenth commandment, which secured the rights of the owner of slaves, was of the same force and binding obligation in the present day, as was in the days of Moses.

Slaveholders pointed to the vast number of slaves represented in the bible. They quote Scottish minister Robert Wallace[38] who said that “almost every page of ancient history demonstrates the great multitude of slaves… the world, when best peopled, was not a world of freemen, but of slaves.” He went on to write that “personal servitude appears to have been the lot of a large, perhaps the greater portion of mankind.[39] Interesting that those who quote Wallace in support of slaveholding beliefs, do so out of context as Wallace writes “…God forbid that I should ever be an advocate for slavery… it is not easy, if it not be altogether impossible, for a man of humanity, to reconcile himself perfectly to the institution of domestic slavery… one can scarce ever think of it without sensible horror and deep compassion. Like too many of the barbarous and inhuman customs of the world, it is highly disgraceful to human nature…”[40]

Slaver Correcting a man-servant
Slaver Correcting a man-servant

Theologians, who used the Old Testament upon which to lay the laurels of human bondage, carried the banner of slavery into the New Testament. Avery Robert Dulles[41] held the opinion that “Jesus, though he repeatedly denounced sin as a kind of moral slavery, said not a word against slavery as a social institution.[42] The Reverend McCaine wrote that the New Testament contains no prohibition of slavery, nor is there in it one text in which slavery or the slaveholder condemned. He preached that the sanction given to slavery in the Old Testament was renewed and confirmed by the Savior in the New.[43] Christ, in his sermon on the Mound, uttered what slaveholders considered the most important declaration, “Think not that I am come to destroy the Law or the Prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.”[44] By this, slaveholders saw clearly that the Savior would uphold the moral law, which they saw as the Ten Commandments, and therefore he too would sanction slavery.

Evangelicals who adamantly held that the Bible sanctioned slavery noted that in the Gospels, the specific word for a slave (doulos) is found over seventy times. In some of the best known parables, slaves are prominent characters.[45] Jesus often encountered slavery[46] and never uttered a word of criticism against its practice. By Jesus’ silence, rather than criticism of slavery, the southern evangelicals argued, showed that he approved of slavery.[47]

the-bible-and-slaveryThough Jesus did not comment directly on bondage, it was different with the apostles. In seven passages they spoke directly in support of slavery, usually demanding that slaves accept their lot in life and telling masters to treat their slaves kindly.[48] For many southern theologians, it was clear that the apostles endorsed slavery.[49] Slaves were to be subservient and content with their lot because this was how they were to serve Christ[50] and learn the Christian virtue of suffering.[51] The one text, above all the others, that clinched the pro slavery argument for slaveholders was in Timothy 6:1-3, in which slaves were told to accept their status and obey their masters because this is commanded by ‘our Lord Jesus Christ.”[52]

According to proponents of slavery and abolitionists, God only regulated slavery and instructed masters how to behave towards their slaves. Moses treated slavery as an institution to be regulated, but not abolished; legitimated and not condemned. Opponents of slavery argued that God only tolerated slavery. However, slaveholders pointed to Leviticus 25:44-46, in which God himself spoke to the Jews telling them that “you may also buy male and female slaves from among the nations… you may bequeath them to yours sons after you, to inherit as a possession forever.” This was, in effect, a written permit to the Hebrews to buy, hold and bequeath men and women in perpetual servitude.[53] For the slaveholder, “the fact that the Mosaic institutions recognized the lawfulness of slavery, it is too plain to need proof, and is almost universally admitted.”[54] Therefore the question was posed to abolitionists, “would God regulate something in the moral law which was intrinsically wrong?”[55]

Theologians comforted Christian slaveholders who feared they would be denied heaven for their actions. They preached that slavery was not a great moral evil. Slaveholders could rest assured that they enjoyed the grace and favor of God while owning slaves. Dying a slaveholder did not exclude him from entering into the Kingdom of Glory. They claimed that if the above were untrue, than what of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Job, and all the other slave owners of the Bible. What of the acts of God Himself, who was pleased to legislate for slavery, and give such numerous directions to his servants who owned slaves?[56]

Those who preached setting slaves free based on the act being a moral evil, in the eyes of the slaveholder, were wrong. For them, the abolitionist condemns what God had approved and made lucid. The abolitionist established a standard for ‘moral evil’ that did not exist but in their ‘fanatical imaginations.’ They erected a tribunal of judgment and condemnation, which was not recognized by either the Old or New Testaments.[57] For the slaveholder, moral law was a rule of moral conduct prescribed by the Supreme Being, commanding what is right, and prohibiting what is wrong. An action is rendered moral by two circumstances; that it is voluntary and it has respect to some rule which determines it to be good or evil.[58] The essence of the biblical argument for slavery was that human bondage was grounded in the unchanging moral law, accepted by Jesus in the Gospels and unambiguously endorsed by the apostles. It therefore could not be sinful to buy, own, or sell slaves.

Slaveholders and evangelists who preached the salvation of slavery were very dogmatic in their view of morality concerning their way of life. Reverend McCaine wrote: “…it is not the law of the land, but it is the word of God that I receive as the standard of morals. It is this, and this alone, which determines what a great moral evil is and what is not.[59] He and others turned a deaf ear to abolitionists and heads of state who quoted the leading minds of the times in the condemnation of slavery. “I say, the Bible, and the Bible alone is the religion of Protestants. If what they [the detractors] say is not clearly supported by scripture, it passes for nothing with me.[60]

slaveThose evangelicals who supported slavery with such fervor were mistaken in their interpretation of the Scriptures. The Bible does not support the practice or the institution of slavery. In claiming the Bible’s authority for slavery these men endorsed the worst social sin of their day in a terrible example of the wrong use of Scripture. The universal view of theologians worldwide is that the Bible does not endorse slavery; it only allows for it and lays down principles which led to its downfall.[61] Slaveholders appealing to the Bible were basically correct in their exegesis of the passages to which they referred, but wrong in their doctrine of the Bible. They viewed it as a timeless set of oracles without historical conditioning; concentrating only on those texts which seemed to support their beliefs, and in believing that every word of Scripture has to be obeyed whatever the situation.[62]

The word of God, so assiduously followed by conservative evangelicals, should be a guide toward our standard, not to be followed with strict doctrine. It should in no way effect modern ideas of equality, social justice, or personal rights. Word for word, the Bible does endorse slavery, simply regulating its worst excesses. If the Christian obeyed every word of Scripture, then slavery would not be condemned.[63]


Allard, Paul. Slavery and Christianity, Catholic Encyclopedia XIV. 1912: Robert Apple Company New York, NY.

Brooke, Samuel M. Slavery and the Slaveholder’s Religion as Opposed to Christianity. 1846: Published by the author, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. 1966: Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca, NY.

Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823. 1999: Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

Dulles, Avery Cardinal. Development & Reversal. First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life. October 2005. The article may be read online:

Elliott, E. N. Cotton is King and The Pro-Slavery Arguments. Comprising the Writings of Hammond, Harper, Christy, Stringfellow, Hodge, Bledsoe, and Cartwright on this Important Subject. 1860: Pritchard, Abbott & Loomis, Augusta, Georgia.

Finkelman, Paul. Defending Slavery; Proslavery Thought in the Old South: A Brief History withdrawn From Documents. 2003: Bedford-St. Martins Publishing, New York, NY.

Giles, Kevin. The Biblical Argument for Slavery: Can the Bible Mislead? A Case Study in Hermeneutics. Evangelical Quarterly No. 66, (1994): p. 10.

Keenan, James. A Review of “A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching by John T. Noonan. The Journal of Religion, Vol. 87, No. 4 (October 2007), pp 644-645.

Marshall, Howard, Millard A. R., Packer J.I., Wiseman, Donald J Editors. New Bible Dictionary Edition 3. 1996: InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois.

McCaine, Alexander. Slavery Defended From Scripture Against the Attack of Abolitionists. A Speech Delivered by Alexander McCaine before the General Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church, Baltimore in 1842: 1842: Printed by W. M. Woody, Baltimore, Maryland.

Murray, John. Principles of Conduct, Aspects of Biblical Ethics. 1957: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Saillant, John. Slavery and Divine Providence in New England Calvinism: The New Divinity and a Black Protest, 1775-1805. The New England Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 4 (Dec. 1995), pp 584-608.

Seeman, Erik R. Justice Must Take Place: Three African Americans Speak of Religion in 18th Century New England. The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 56, No. 2, African and American Atlantic Worlds (Apr., 1999), pp 393-414.

Wallace, Robert. A Dissertation on the Numbers of Mankind in Ancient & Modern Times. 1809: Publ. Constable, Hunter, Park & Hunter, London, England.


[1] Brooke, pg. 9

[2] Giles, pg. 14

[3] Dulles, pg. 53

[4] New Bible Dictionary pp 1121-1125

[5] Giles pg. 3

[6] Ibid. pg. 6

[7] Murray pg. 260

[8] McCaine pg. 9

[9] Brooke pg. 6

[10] Ibid. pg. 5

[11] Giles pg. 6

[12] Thomas Roderick Dew (1802-1846) was a staunch supporter of slavery. He was an American educator and writer and the thirteenth president of The College of William & Mary. He published a review in 1832 on the Virginia General Assembly’s renowned slavery debate of 1831-32. His influence basically curtailed a growing movement to end slavery in Virginia.

[13] McCaine pg. 7

[14] Stringfellow, pg. 340

[15] Genesis 14:14

[16] Ibid. 26:13-14

[17] McCaine pg. 6

[18] Genesis 16:9

[19] Ibid. 26: 13-14

[20] Ibid. 26: 14

[21] Ibid. 30:43

[22] Job: 1:3

[23] Antoine Augustin Calmet (1672-1757). French Benedictine monk, Calmet was pious as well as a learned man, one of the most distinguished member of the Congregation of St. Vanne. With the help of his brethren, he gathered the material for several volumes of commentary on the Bible including his text Dissertation on the Numbers of Mankind.

[24] McCaine pg. 6

[25] Job 1:8

[26] Corinthians 20:3

[27] 1 Kings 9:20-21

[28] Genesis 37:23-28

[29] McCaine pg. 12

[30] Genesis 17:8

[31] Joshua 9

[32] McCaine pg. 11

[33] Joshua 10

[34] McCaine pg. 14

[35] Exodus 20:8-11

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid. pg. 16

[38] Robert Wallace (1697-1771) was a minister of the Church of Scotland. In 1753, he wrote Dissertation on the Numbers of Mankind in Ancient and Modern Times.

[39] McCaine, pg. 7

[40] Wallace pg. 92

[41] Avery Cardinal Dulles (1918-2008), Jesuit priest and cardinal of the Catholic Church. He was a professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University and internationally known as an author and lecturer.

[42] Dulles pg. 53

[43] McCaine pp 18-19

[44] Mathew 17&18

[45] See Matthew 13:24-30, 18:23-35, 22:1-14, Luke 12;35-40, 14:15-24

[46] For example Luke 7:2-1 & 22:50

[47] Giles pg. 10

[48] See 1 Corinthian 7:20-21, Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22–25, 1 Timothy 6:1-2 & 2-10, Philem 10-18,1 Peter 2:18-19

[49] Giles pg. 10

[50] Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22

[51] 1 Peter 2:18

[52] Giles pg. 11

[53] Ibid. pg. 9

[54] Cotton is King, pg. 859

[55] Giles pg. 10

[56] McCaine pg. 20

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid. pg. 19

[60] Ibid.

[61] Giles pg. 19

[62] Ibid. pg. 14-15

[63] Ibid. pg. 14

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