February 19, 2008

Presiding Bishop Defends Slavery

Here, therefore, lies the true aspect of the controversy, and it is evident that it can openly be settled by the Bible. For every Christian is bound to assent to the rule of the inspired Apostle, that "sin is the transgression of the law," namely the law laid down in the Scriptures by the authority of God -- the supreme "lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy." From his Word there can be no appeal. No rebellion can be so atrocious in his sight as that which dares to rise against his government. No blasphemy can be more unpardonable than that which imputes sin or moral evil to the decrees of the eternal Judge, who is alone perfect in wisdom, in knowledge, and in love....

With entire correctness, therefore, your letter refers the question to the only infallible criterion -- the Word of God. If it were a matter to be determined by my personal sympathies, tastes, or feelings, I would be as ready as any man to condemn the institution of slavery; for all my prejudices of education, habit and social position stand entirely opposed to it. But as a Christian, I am solemnly warned not to be "wise in my own conceit," and not to "lean unto my own understanding." As a Christian, I am compelled to submit my weak and erring intellect to the authority of the Almighty. For then only can I be safe in my conclusion, when I know that they are in accordance with the will of Him, before whose tribunal I must render a strict account to the last great day....

First, then we ask what the divine Redeemer said in reference to slavery. And the answer is perfectly undeniable: He did not allude to it at all. Not one word of censure upon the subject is recorded by the Evangelists who gave His life and doctrines to the world. Yet, slavery was in full existence at the time, throughout Judea; and the Roman Empire, according to the historian Gibbon, contained sixty millions of slaves on the lowest probable computation! How prosperous and united would our glorious republic be at this hour, if the eloquent and pertinacious declaimers against slavery had been willing to follow their Savior's example!

-- The Rt. Rev. John Henry Hopkins, Bishop of Vermont and Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, writing in 1861 in A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery, from the Days of the Patriarch Abraham to the Nineteenth Century, pages 5-12 passim


Rev. Kurt Huber said...

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (by Mark Noll) examines the issue of slavery and scripture very well.

Our current debates about scriptural authority and sexuality are not that different from what transpired before and during the Civil War.

Anonymous said...


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

A cautionary note, indeed. It is interesting to me just how effectively this mirror from almost 150 years back still reflects on our current crises.

Erika Baker said...

Yes, but whenever you mention this in public conversation the conservative response is that in the case of slavery, the church had misunderstood scriptures and later rightened its view to be more scriptural, whereas in the case of same sex relationships it is being asked to move away from clear scriptural pronouncements.

Sadly, this lovely vignette simply preaches to the converted. Those who don't want to see will not see.

bls said...

"Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion."

- Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Erika,

Sadly, so true. It is amazing to me to see the extent to which "reasserters" will squirm on this, and deny the "plain reading of Scripture" concerning the scriptural view of slavery. I once had a long discussion with a reasserter on another blog who didn't even know the relevant passages; he began by denying that there even was such a thing as chattel slavery in the Law. When I directed him to the relevant passages, he admitted he'd missed them, but then went right back to the same argument. The fact of the matter is that the Scripture mandates behavior we no longer accept as moral. It's as simple as that. If also forbids behaviors we now allow. People who think they can live a purely "Scriptural" life are living in an irrational falsehood. People who make demands of others while letting themselves off the hook are doing far worse, and living in hypocrisy.

Actually, though, I cite this here not so much to get into that old argument (which I agree is hopeless in dealing with the invincibly ignorant) but more as a sign of why the church should remain humble in its decisions, and to show how far some will go who will sacrifice the freedom of others for the sake of "peace."

Deirdre said...

There's a wonderful 14-page attempt to refute Bishop Hopkins by a Philadelphia Presbyter John Lundy (presumably a contemporary): Google can reveal it under name and title "Review of Bible View of Slavery by Bishop Hopkins" as a .pdf file. Along the lines of "no thinking person understands the Bible to condone slavery" so let me see where I can attach biblical refutations...ah yes, Israel was redeemed out of slavery in Egypt; Adam had to work the ground without slaves; you can't be serious; oh, and please let this pamphlet accompany the argument of the Bishop wherever it appears. I am of course sympathetic to The Reverend John Lundy but that's beside the point!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Deirdre,

Thanks for the information on the Refutation of All Slaveries! I admit to not having read the whole of JHH's magnum opus (though it is on line) but I'll have to look up the refutation.

On the two points raised, though, I'd have responded (in persona JHH) that of course God redeemed Israel but that's because they were his slaves and Pharaoh didn't have the right to them; and that not only was Adam created as God's eved -- so was Jesus, who adopted the form of a slave. I'd note also the analogies in Ephesians that place the servant in relation to master as believer to God. It does seem that the biblical atmosphere towards slavery is rather consistent throughout!

In the long run, I suspect some really wish Scripture were not as replete with things we might not like as it is. I find it fascinating the some people in the "reasserter" arena feel the need to "purify" Scripture in this way, in order to conform it to their view as a monolithic entity, rather than seeing it for the rich collage of human experience through which the Divine still manages to filter from time to time...

Anonymous said...

"The fact of the matter is that the Scripture mandates behavior we no longer accept as moral. It's as simple as that. I[t] also forbids behaviors we now allow."

I think one of the more interesting matters about the latter is the decision of the Council of Jerusalem determining what things binding on Jews were also to be binding on us Gentiles. "For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well." Act 15:28-29.

There are four things. Only one of them (fornication) probably has continuing merit. One is essentially irrelevant now (food sacrificed to idols). And the other two (consuming blood and meat from strangled animals) are probably violated by virtually all Christians that aren't vegetarian, regardless of how "conservative" or "liberal" they may be.

I've always found it very curious that these strong Biblical mandates for gentile Christians seem to be entirely ignored by Biblical literalists.

Anonymous said...

But doesn't this cut both ways? While it might seem like a nice "gotcha" to point out that those who appealed to Scriptural authority back then did so on behalf of slavery, it also is the case that the argument advanced therein (Christ said nothing to condemn it) is essentially the same as one of the most common ones used by pro-GLBT activists to defend inclusiveness.

Anglocat said...


This is a "palpable hit", and endangered my keyboard, as I read it over my morning coffee.

In response to Erika Baker's salient point, I point out use two scriptural example that are less subject to the reasserter dodge she describes: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," (Ex. 22:18) and those passages in the NT that were, in fact, used to justify antisemitism. Some links are here: http://anglocatontheprowl.blogspot.com/2008/02/inspired-not-inerrant.html

Anonymous said...

This is a subject which, fortunately or unfortunately, probably can't be addressed in the blog-bites we have to communicate with in this medium.

I, too, read it first as a counter to the common "Jesus didn't address it, therefore it's OK" argument. But I think it's intended to be directed against a "sola scriptura" position that's some part straw man, certainly with respect to Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholics, and presumably at least some conservative Anglicans and classic Protestants with a considerbly more nuanced understanding of biblical authority than is assumed here.

But the question is a serious one. Did Jesus commit a sin of omission in not denouncing or accomodating slavery? Did Paul commit a mortal sin in sending Onesimus back to Philemon? Is the bible's language for the righteous as "'eved yhwh" or "Christou doulos" degrading and facilitive of exploitive relationships?

To answer that question I think we have to stop patting ourselves on the back for a moment and understand that slavery is a form of human domination and exploitation that usually is, but is not necessarily always, more wrong than other forms that we don't blink an eye at.

I don't know if Paul could even imagine a world without slaves. I am certaintly enough of a Marxist to understand that the demands of the mere production of food and other necessities in an economy characterized by primitive technology is going to require strict lines of economic authority. Certainly there was no need for the harshest form of slavery that grew up in the ancient world, the armies of slaves toiling away at the great Roman planations that spread after that city came to dominate the Mediterranean. But it's hard to see how even small-scale agriculture or commercial activity was possible without stewards, "douloi" and the like. Our very idea of agency arose out of those relationships of close direction and representation, so much so that any lawyer can tell you that our modern law of employment is still called by tne name of "master and servant."

What does Paul say to the slaveholder? Not "Free your slaves." But "Understand that your slaves are not things, but brothers in Christ, engaged in a common work, and having with you a common master." In the world he lived in, that seems to me not only a teaching worthy of Jesus, but one in a very practical way providing the kernal for the eventual legal and social recognition that the one directing cannot consider himself the owner of the directed one.

I put that last sentence in that strange way if only to point out that in this present world very little of what we call "free labor" is in fact free. Some workers are literally exploited worse than slaves. But even those with some freedom to move and choose remain under what our law still recognizes as an arbitrary and practically unreviewable power to exploint and dismiss. We have abolished slavery, a good thing. We have not yet ceased to encourage use of our "surplus armies of the unemployed" or even come to grips with how arbitrary economic power of man over man persists, and keeps the mass of men still living lives "of quiet desperation."

For myself, though, if we do find a better way, I suspect it will again come out of the direction given us, in large part, from the revealed scriptures. Hence my dismay at how they are so commonly "trashed" in the pursuit of other ends.

--rick allen

June Butler said...

How prosperous and united would our glorious republic be at this hour, if the eloquent and pertinacious declaimers against slavery had been willing to follow their Savior's example!

Since those words left me virtually speechless for several days, I'm late to the party. The words are absolutely stunning!

I'd like to witness an attempt to live a 'purely "Scriptural" life'. I'd like to see that for myself.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dr. P., how true about how the Jerusalem Council is overlooked, or, more often, how the injunction against fornication is deemed authoritative while the rest are dismissed with a wave of the hand. It just goes to show that the church really does have authority on these questions, and is quite capable of ignoring explicit scriptural injunctions when it chooses.

James D.W., I think truth has a way of cutting both ways, "piercing to the joint and marrow." The difficult fact is that Jesus did not explicitly condemn slavery -- I think for the very good reason that he did not see it as intrinsically or necessarily wrong in and of itself; along with Saint Paul he would've seen it is simply part of the society of his day, a cultural artifact -- not wrong in itself but only in the case of a master who was cruel or unfair to his slaves. That is hard for us to hear or accept -- given our more modern view of slavery as intrinsically wrong. It might force us to ask a question: is it "intrinsically" wrong or only situationally wrong, that is, in the case of a bad master? And the fact is, Scripture will not give us an answer on its own, at least when we look at the texts that explicitly treat of slavery. This is where I think the true overlap with same-sexuality lies: it isn't "Jesus didn't say anything about it so it's okay" but rather that opposition to it was part of the Jewish culture of the times, and there is no reason to think a pious Jew would think same-sex relationships were a good thing --- for Jews. How they regarded it in gentiles is another matter altogether. Saint Paul clearly regarded it negatively, if we are to read Romans 1 superficially; but I am not so sure we can make that claim about Jesus. Since under the Jewish understanding all gentiles were suspect on this account, Jesus' few encounters with gentiles appear to offer at least the possibility of at the least a neutral position if not a positive one. The same goes for Peter's encounter with Cornelius, particularly in light of the explicit revelation that he is to "call no one unclean." I hope to explore this at greater length in the next section of my "series."

Thank you, Anglocat -- you are always welcome to prowl in this neighborhood!

Rick, I'm not sure what you are referring to in the matter of intent: but the citation of this passage here is intended as a reminder not only of the failings of a "scriptural" effort to solve a problem which ultimately cannot be settled by Scripture alone, but also the more general failings to which all of Western Christianity was prey. The Roman Catholic support for slavery, for example, was based not primarily on Scripture but on the Scholastic interpretations and adaptations of Aristotle. For example, from the CounterReformation era we have this:

"It is certainly a matter of faith (de fide) that this sort of
slavery in which a man serves his master as his slave, is
altogether lawful. This is proved from Holy Scripture, Lev
25:39-55; 1 Pet 2:8; 1 Cor 7:20-24; Col 3:11-22; 1 Tim 6:1-
10... It is also proved from reason for it is not unreasonable
that just as things which are captured in a just war pass into
the power and ownership of the victors, so persons captured
in war pass into the ownership of the captors... All theologians are unanimous on this." (Leander, Quaestiones Morales
Lyons 1668-1692,
Tome VIII, De Quarto Decalogi
Praecepto, Tract. IV, Disp. I, Q. 3.)

But I agree with you that this all raises a serious question, and I've addressed it to some extent above: to what extent is slavery morally neutral -- as Jesus in Saint Paul would appear to attest? To what extent do cultural norms blind us to reality. And are we indeed correct in seeing slavery as always wrong, or as at the very least a "near occasion to sin?"

I have said before in this forum that our treatment of illegal immigrants is little short of slavery --- especially when they are taken advantage of because of their illegal status, used up and then tossed aside. The same goes for the more or less permanently underemployed, who may not be slaves in the literal sense of the word but who lack the capacity for self-determination that is the sign of true freedom.

But as with the issue of sexuality, we will not find an easy answer by appealing to the texts in Scripture that explicitly address slavery. We will be forced to look to matters of fairness and the decent treatment of others as equals: and this is where the Golden Rule can be helpful; as well as a form of natural law uncorrupted by false understandings of human biology and anthropology, but rather informed by correct understandings of these fields of human knowledge, as well as human psychology. The revealed scriptures will not help us so long as we are bound in a mindset formed by such misunderstandings as have bound us in the past.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Indeed, Grandmère, that is a shocker. This is the voice of peace at any price; a voice too often heard, in my opinion. I hear echoes of it in the discussions of how important it is that we preserve the Anglican Communion's unity, by maintaining a reduced status for certain people.

susan s. said...

Mimi, re living a purely Scriptual life. I believe that someone tried that for a year and failed miserably. Of course he wrote a book about it, but I can't remember the name of it. He was interviewed on "Fresh Air," if I'm not mistaken. The reason he gave for not being able to live that way was that there are so many contradictions in the Bible, that it is impossible.

Paul Davison said...

I don't know if that was your intent, but, boy that title brought me up short! Unfortunately, I'll be surprised if someone doesn't start a post on someone else's blog that the current PB dended slavery...

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Susan, you are referring no doubt to A.J. Jacobs', Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. He found there are any number of biblical commandments with which compliance was virtually impossible. He noted in the radio interview, in keeping with the theme of this post, that the closest he could come to carrying out the mandate to hold slaves was to have an intern!

Paul, yes there was definitely more than a little of the headline-writer's art at work in this one! I did actually for a moment wonder if someone might get the wrong end of the stick on this; but then thought, Naaah. I have had momentary flashes, though, of seeing an exposé on the Midwest Conservative Journal, Virtue On Line, or Stand Firm in Faith along these lines...

June Butler said...

Susan, of course the many contradictions in the Scriptures would make it impossible to live a completely biblical life.

I did actually for a moment wonder if someone might get the wrong end of the stick on this;

Tobias, at first glance, I did just that. I thought the post would be about refuting a claim by someone or some group that the present PB had defended slavery.

The exposé may yet come.