TheologyThe Bible and Slavery in Colonial America The Bible was used by both critics and defenders of slavery in the American colonies. What explains their conflicting use? Mark A. NollIllustration by Josh Koch.July 18, 2022 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level As difficult as it is now to imagine, widespread debate over the morality of Black-only chattel slavery—including consideration of the subject from Scripture—arose only late in Western history. While popes and a few others insisted on the humanity of enslaved peoples, European territorial expansion presupposed a racial hierarchy that slid easily into enslavement of the peoples encountered in that expansion. Early Protests The first recorded protest against slavery in colonial America, and also the first to enlist the Bible for that purpose, came from Quakers and Mennonites in Germantown, Pennsylvania, who in 1688 published a broadside featuring the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12): “There is a saying, that we should doe to all men, licke as we will be done ourselves: macking no difference of what generation, descent, or Colour they are.”1“Gerret Hendricks, Derick op de Graeff, Francis Daniell Pastorius, and Abraham op den Graef,” in American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation, ed. James G. Basker (2012), 1. Several other Quakers would make the same argument based on the same text. These appeals also added Jesus’ words from the Second Commandment: “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Mark 12:31 and parallels)—and most of the other scriptures that would fill the biblical quiver of later abolitionists. Thus, only five years after the Germantown protest (1688), George Keith published An Exhortation & Caution to Friends Concerning Buying or Keeping of Negroes that emphasized the Mosaic prohibition against manstealing (Exod. 21:16—“he that stealeth a Man and selleth him, if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to Death”). At mid-century, John Woolman and Anthony Benezet published the most thorough of such works. Although Wollman’s Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes: Recommended to the Professors of Christianity of Every Denomination (1754) and Benezet’s Observations on the Enslaving, Importing and Purchasing of Negroes (1759) appealed to liberty of conscience, humanitarian sentiment, and Enlightenment ideals as they attacked the system, the New Testament remained their foundation. One non-Quaker biblical protest did come from Puritan New England when in 1700 Judge Samuel Sewall published a pamphlet entitled The Selling of Joseph. Sewall too cited the Golden Rule and the Mosaic prohibition against man-stealing, while he also explained that “the curse of Canaan” from Genesis 9:25 had nothing to do with contemporary Africa or modern slavery. Initial Responses Responding to Judge Sewall, John Saffin replied with a text that soon became standard for biblical defenses of slavery. It was the Mosaic legislation from Leviticus 25 that allowed the Hebrews to enslave “the heathen that are round about you” (25:44), including the children born to these non-Israelites. Saffin’s effort in replying to Sewall was unusual. Except for the Quakers, who were always suspect for their radical pacifism and standoffish customs, white Americans relied much more on inertia than on argument in maintaining the system that by the eighteenth century had become thoroughly established in the northern as well as southern colonies. A diagram of the British slave ship Brooks published by an abolitionist group in Plymouth in 1788. Source Widespread contention over the morality of slavery, including the moral witness of Scripture, arose only in the 1770s when American patriots claimed the British Parliament was threatening them with “slavery.” Significantly, however, even as agitation increased, few in the colonies considered what the Bible had to say about the racially specific character of the American system. Controversy flared in 1772 when Thomas Thompson, an Anglican missionary with experience in West Africa, the West Indies, and New Jersey, published The African Trade for Negro Slaves, Shewn to be Consistent with Principles of Humanity, and with the Laws of Revealed Religion. Thompson ranged widely with reference to the Pauline injunction that slaves remain in that calling (1 Cor. 7:20–21) and the Apostle’s return of the slave Onesimus to his master Philemon. But his main argument was a categorical assertion based on Leviticus 25:44–46: “This conclusion may be drawn, that the buying and selling of slaves is not contrary to the law of nature.”2Thomas Thompson, The African slave trade for Negro slaves, shewn to be consistent with principles of humanity, and with the laws of revealed religion (1772), 15. The ability to quote chapter and verse gave Thompson assurance that slavery could not be a violation of God’s law. The ability to quote chapter and verse gave Thompson assurance that slavery could not be a violation of God’s law. American and British Rebuttals Immediate rebuttals from Americans and from British works published in the colonies showed that others were reading Scripture differently. The first came from Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia physician who would later sign the Declaration of Independence. Although Rush’s Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, upon Slave-Keeping (1773) relied more on general reasoning than direct biblical argument, he vigorously contested the scriptural basis for slavery. Thus, the Old Testament permission that allowed Israel to enslave surrounding nations reflected only God’s desire to preserve the purity of the Jewish people as a vehicle for the coming Messiah. In Rush’s reading, the Old Testament contained many other hints about the illegitimate character of the institution, like the Jubilee liberation promised every seven years to Hebrews in bonds, which pointed directly to “the Gospel, the Design of which was to abolish all distinctions of name and country.”3Benjamin Rush, An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, upon Slave-Keeping (1773), 12. RelatedThe Day the Bible Became a BestsellerJeffrey KlohaThe Bible Jesus ReadJohn D. MeadeWhy Are Protestant and Catholic Bibles Different?John D. Meade Americans discovered more thorough biblical arguments when they read two works published in the colonies by the leading British abolitionist, Granville Sharp, in 1773 and 1776. The first of these pamphlets opened with Psalm 9:9 on its title page: “The Lord also will be a Refuge for the Oppressed—a Refuge in Time of Trouble.” It proceeded with appeals to British common law, universal moral principles, and natural equality, but never wandered far from Scripture. In particular, Sharp contended that Leviticus 25 applied only locally and had nothing to do with Africans. With greatest urgency, Sharp claimed that the Old Testament provision for slavery had been “certainly annulled, or rather superseded … by the more perfect doctrines of universal benevolence taught by Christ himself, who “came not to destroy, but to fulfil the law,” including the law as outlined in Leviticus itself, chapter 19 verse 18: “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”4Granville Sharp, An Essay on Slavery, Proving From Scripture its Inconsistency with Humanity and Religion (1773), 20. Buttressed by a hail of supporting quotations (from Prov. 14:34, Hab. 1:13, Matt. 7:12, Luke 4:18, Acts 8:27, Acts 10:34, the book of Philemon, 1 Cor. 7:22, and more), Sharp rested his case firmly on Scripture. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: When Richard Nisbet replied to Benjamin Rush’s work, this Englishman who had lived in Nevis and St. Kitts before moving to Philadelphia, defended the reputation of British planters by countering Rush’s use of the Bible. In his account, “the scriptures, instead of forbidding it [slavery], declare it lawful.” As proof, he again quoted Leviticus 25:44–46 and many other Old Testament passages (Exod. 21:4–6, 20, 22; Deut. 15:16–17; Exod. 21:16; Deut. 24:7). For the New Testament, Nisbet turned the tables on Rush by implying, as many proslavery advocates would do in later decades, that if Jesus said nothing about slavery, those who twisted the New Testament against the system revealed their own drift toward infidelity: “the Addresser [i.e., Rush] is so wicked as to accuse our Saviour of the meanest dissimulation” by failing to mention slavery simply because it was allowed under Roman law. Rather than an argument against slavery, such misreadings of Scripture revealed that “this Gentleman, attempting to be religious, becomes blasphemous.”5Richard Nisbet, Slavery Not Forbidden by Scripture: or a Defense of the West-India Planters, from the Aspersions Thrown Out Against Them, by the Author of a Pamphlet, Entitled “An Address . . .” (1773), 3, 8. Explaining the Conflicting Use of the Bible John Newton. Source On why constant appeal to Scripture could lead to such conflicting results, John Newton, the hymn writer (“Amazing Grace”) and former slave trader offered a succinct explanation. According to Newton, “The Slave Trade was always unjustifiable; but inattention and interest prevented, for a time, the evil from being perceived.”6John Newton, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1788), 6. In other words, the weight of convention and the allure of profit overcame whatever biblical imperatives might have been alert to the humanity of enslaved Africans. It is also possible, however, that the way bibles appeared on the page played a role. The printing format that divided Scripture into verses (usually with each verse set as the beginning of a new paragraph) began in English only with the Geneva Bible (1557, 1560). Versification of Scripture, even if only a recent innovation, proved a godsend, especially for Protestants eager to heed biblical truths and ponder difficulties of biblical interpretation. But it was a gain with a cost, including the notion that individual verses (prooftexts) taken by themselves, or assembled as discrete facts from throughout the Scriptures, simply equaled biblical revelation. Versification of Scripture proved a godsend, especially for Protestants eager to heed biblical truths and ponder difficulties of biblical interpretation. To be sure, biblical abolitionists could also quote chapter and verse, but their scriptural appeals also treated scriptural revelation as developing from the Old Testament into the New—what may have been appropriate for Old Israel might no longer be appropriate for the New Israel. They regularly appealed to historical context for correct biblical application—Paul’s instructions that slaves obey masters needed to be understood as prudent instructions saving infant churches from attack by Roman authorities. They often asked Bible believers not simply to prooftext, but to reason—if believers were to love their neighbors as themselves, could it possibly be scriptural to deny any human the respect due to those made in the image of God? Especially African American believers would soon be pointing out that, whatever the Bible may say about slavery in general, all of the slaves referenced in Scripture were white. White colonial Americans, like all humans in all circumstances, had difficulty seeing the forces that shaped how they were seeing. Those forces included colonization of what Europeans called a “new world”; Africans treated as commodities for trade; personal fortunes and family security resting directly or indirectly on sugar, cotton, tobacco, or trade in these commodities; and the production of sugar, tobacco, and cotton dependent on an enslaved work force. An additional factor may have been the nearly universal reliance on bibles divided into chapters and verses that made prooftexting seem more authoritative than any other way of appealing to the Sacred Text. More of Dr. Noll’s work on the Bible and slavery in America is found in the books mentioned in his bio below. Notes1“Gerret Hendricks, Derick op de Graeff, Francis Daniell Pastorius, and Abraham op den Graef,” in American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation, ed. James G. Basker (2012), 1.2Thomas Thompson, The African slave trade for Negro slaves, shewn to be consistent with principles of humanity, and with the laws of revealed religion (1772), 15.3Benjamin Rush, An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, upon Slave-Keeping (1773), 12.4Granville Sharp, An Essay on Slavery, Proving From Scripture its Inconsistency with Humanity and Religion (1773), 20.5Richard Nisbet, Slavery Not Forbidden by Scripture: or a Defense of the West-India Planters, from the Aspersions Thrown Out Against Them, by the Author of a Pamphlet, Entitled “An Address . . .” (1773), 3, 8.6John Newton, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1788), 6. Mark A. Noll Mark Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus (University of Notre Dame), is the author of In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783 (Oxford University Press, 2016), America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794–1911 (Oxford University Press, 2022), and other studies in the North American history of Christianity.