There is a popular and enduring myth about the antebellum slaveowner that such men were good Christians and godly men, and that there was nothing inherently immoral (by the standards of the Bible) in the system of antebellum slavery in the American south (as well as its cousins in the Caribbean and South America). Such a view is deeply mistaken, showing a deep ignorance of biblical law. It is the purpose of this short paper to examine some of the biblical laws that made the conduct of the supposedly Christian slaveowners, especially those of the American South, unacceptable.
Let us note firstly, and most importantly, that the Bible strictly forbade believers owning other believers as slaves, per Leviticus 25:39-46, which read as follows: “And if one of your brethren who dwells by you becomes poor, and sells himself to you, you shall not compel him to serve you as a slave. As a hired servant and a sojourner he shall be with you, and shall serve you until the year of Jubilee. And then he shall depart from you—he and his children with him—and shall return to his own family. He shall return to the possession of his fathers. For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over them with rigor, but you shall fear your God And as for your male and female slaves from whom you may have—from the nations that are around you, from them you may buy male and female slaves. Moreover, you may buy the children of the strangers who dwell with you, and their families who are with you, which they beget in your land; and they shall become your property. And you may take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a possession, but regarding your brethren, the children of Israel, you shall ot rule over one another with rigor.”
This law is part of the law of the Jubilee, which states that as servants of God, Israelites could not therefore justly be the slaves of men. Let us remember that this citizenship in Israel was not based on ancestry or blood, but on belief, for those born outside of Israel who believed and were circumcized became counted as full Israelites (see Exodus 12:48). This same law, and its application, applies in the New Testament. Though some so-called “Theonomists” believe that this law was “done away with” by Christ and no longer applies, we find it being enforced (albeit with love) in the book of Philemon. When Paul states to the slaveowning Philemon that he could command him to do what was fitting (verse 8) but decided instead to appeal to him instead (verse 9) to do so voluntarily, and not by compulsion (verse 14), this is the application of the law of the Jubilee to Christians. It was acceptable for Christians to own heathen as slaves, just as it was for Jews. However, a Christian could not own another Christian as property, since both the master and the would-be slave who are Christians are owned by their master in heaven (Ephesians 6:5-9). A Christian master was forbidden from threatening, much less beating, their slaves (even those slaves who were unbelievers). How many so-called Christian slaveowners among the antebellum South met those standards. Probably none.
Additionally, the biblical law places many restrictions on the conduct of slaveowners concerning their slaves. For example, Exodus 21:26-27 reads as follows: “If a man strikes the eye of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free for the sake of his tooth. Any maiming or disfigurement, or any dismemberment, required freedom for the slave or servant, and a voiding of the property contract. Even slaves were considered human beings under biblical law, even though they had restrictions on their freedoms. No one can justly consider another person chattel property, mistreat others created in the image of God, and then pretend that one has sanction according to biblical law. After all, the Bible forbids strangers, that is foreigners, from being oppressed (Exodus 22:21: “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”), and this includes people from all other world, even distant Africa, much less those who had been born on the plantations. As much as the slaveowners of the South sought to justify their conduct by the Bible, they were clearly hostile to the application of biblical restrictions on their slavery, and therefore fell short of the standard God holds believers to.
Let us also consider one last law concerning slavery that was widely violated by so-called Christian slaveowners. Deuteronomy 21:14 states, concerning a man and his concubine (that is, his slave wife): “And it shall be if you have no delight in her, then you shall set her free, but you shall not sell her for money; you shall not treat her brutally, because you have humbled her.” A believer, whether an Israelite in “Old Testament” times or a Christian in “New Testament” times, was forbidden from selling a slave that he had humbled sexually. By taking a slave as a concubine (something that was common in the antebellum South, creating many mulattos), a slaveowner made a covenantal vow to protect them and care for them, and to sell someone that one had humbled was to violate the biblical respect for the marital union, for a marriage was formed between a man and his slave wife by virtue of their sexual intercourse. Needless to say, that made a lot of antebellum slaveowners and their families adulterers and bigamists, but that is their problem and their legacy to the world. At any rate, any slaveowner who sold a slave that had served as a concubine for any member of the master’s household and family violated this law.
It is a grave misfortune that the dispute in the United States over antebellum slavery was conducted in the realm of human reasoning rather than God’s law. The attempts of antebellum slavery apologists to twist God’s law to justify their own unjust system of cruel domination and exploitation, which sprang from a general lack of respect for the value of labor (or human beings), a tendency which still exists in the culture and worldview of that region, could have been countered with an accurate understanding of God’s law. Instead of engaging the South on the subject of the biblical law, which was very hostile to the system of slavery such as that the South possessed, the North chose the vague and gnostic “higher law” rhetoric that pit subjective concerns against other subjective concerns, rather than in redeeming fallen human institutions, such as those in the South, through a genuine Christianity informed by God’s perfect and righteous law. That is their tragedy, and ours, for we still live with the consequences of the selective misapplication of biblical law in the heirs of the antebellum slaveowners, those phony theonomists who claim to defend God’s law while selectively enforcing it as an object of social control, and in the rejection of biblical law by those defenders of the power of government to right the wrongs of society. Both sides greatly err, and so we find no godly truth anywhere we look in the political realm. Heresy in beliefs and an inability to properly, and fairly, apply God’s law leads to political error.