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How the Bible was used to justify slavery, abolitionism
April 12th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

How the Bible was used to justify slavery, abolitionism

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - How did churchgoing, Bible-worshiping Christians justify holding slaves? It’s a question I’ve long had as a Civil War buff and that has new resonance on Tuesday, which marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

I’ve read books about politics and generals during the war. But I hadn't read much about the religious dimension to the Civil War until I came across a recent USA Today column.

Henry G. Brinton, a pastor at Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, writes that the Bible was used a weapon by both the North and the South. Brinton says some contemporary Americans are making the same mistake their Civil War ancestors did by twisting the Bible to support their own battle cries.

Brinton, author of “Balancing Acts: Obligation, Liberation and Contemporary Christian Conflicts,” says both the Union and the Confederacy invoked the Bible to justify their positions on slavery.

Slaveholders justified the practice by citing the Bible, Brinton says.

They asked who could question the Word of God when it said, "slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling" (Ephesians 6:5), or "tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect" (Titus 2:9).

Christian opponents of slavery elevated biblical principles of justice and equality above individual passages that approved exclusion, Brinton says.

He wonders if a new biblical approach is needed today, as people grapple with polarizing issues like gay marriage.

Opponents of gay marriage, Brinton notes, follow a literal approach to the Bible when they cite Old Testament passages that declare, "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22).

He wonders if gay marriage foes are making the same mistake as defenders of slavery:

But perhaps reproduction is no longer the goal of every person and every marriage. Many couples choose not to have children, or marry late in life when they are unable to produce children. The New Testament values of faithfulness, love, sacrifice and promise-based commitment can be practiced by heterosexual couples without children — and by same-sex couples as well. Discussions of gay marriage can focus as much on scriptural equality as on the ability to reproduce.

At the same time, Brinton says liberal Christians may be making their own mistakes with their approach to the Bible:

Liberals also use Scripture for their purposes, citing commandments such as "thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13) whenever a war breaks out or the death penalty is being debated. But the commandment is actually a prohibition against murder, arising out of blood feuds and vengeance killings between ancient clans and families. A literal reading of this verse does not give us the moral and political guidance we need today.

Brinton says Abraham Lincoln offered the most constructive religious perspective during the Civil War. "My concern is not whether God is on our side," he said. "My greatest concern is to be on God's side."

What do you think? Is it fair to invoke the Bible for political causes?

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Bible • Christianity • Culture wars • Faith Now • History

soundoff (449 Responses)
  1. David Manhart

    This is another one of the passages in the bible that is evil.. Christians have to corrupt the clear meanings in the bible because they are more moral today than the fundamental basis of the religion. People ACTUALLY try to justify this passage (and others) instead of having the abhorance of the bible that moral people should have.

    October 14, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
  2. Steve

    What some seem to forget is that you are going to believe something. They act as though only Christians believe something. But whether atheism, humanism, evolution, deism, new age, Islam, Christianity, or Judaism–you believe these things as facts, and you most likely have plenty of writing to "back it up.". All these things affect people's political point of view. If you believe there is no god or God, then it will affect what political issues you are passionate about. Politics becomes a way of ensuring your interests, and your spiritual worldview can't be separated from your political point of view on the issues;

    May 2, 2013 at 6:17 am |
    • Science

      It sure does !

      Holy Hallucinations 35

      May 2, 2013 at 10:30 am |
  3. jesgrc

    People can't help but use the double standard whenever the bible is involved. It"s ok to quote word for word if it perpetuates more belief, but when confronted with an immoral subject like slavery, then it should not be taken literally. That is a convenient cop- out every believer enjoys.

    It's far easier than admitting the truth – that a book touted as a "moral guide" should not condone slavery in the first place.

    April 28, 2013 at 8:42 pm |
    • Steve

      I think it is obvious that slaves converted. We get saved within a culture, The culture of that day was the Roman empire, and they had slaves. The New Testament texts from Paul are not advocating slavery. Are you saying that Paul should tell the slaves to rebell?? No, he tells them to obey their masters in order to be a worthy representative of Christ. This issue can't be covered in a soundbite. Many people don't even understand the Bible, so they don't even know what their talking about.

      May 2, 2013 at 6:04 am |
  4. olaadamsvi

    Reblogged this on Fufu and Okra.

    December 17, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  5. jo

    it makes me think of Proverbs 22:7 (The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender)... Was that a warning for the 99% or instructions for the 1%? – just venting. Nice article. Well thought out. Thanks for posting it.

    October 30, 2011 at 7:00 am |
  6. The Beagle

    I invite readers of this post to participate in a discussion of biblical slavery on my blog: http://pathofthebeagle.com/2011/09/10/invitation-to-a-dialog-on-biblical-slavery/

    I am a lapsed evangelical but comments of evangelical Christians are especially welcome.

    September 10, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
  7. Fang

    If you beat your slave so cruelly he dies within a few days, you're spared. But if you sleep with your brother's wife you're damned eternally. Hmmmmmm....

    May 10, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
  8. derek

    this is a disgusting article .. lets make a article that says look how the bible begged the people to obey god and love one another and they didnt listen so here we are

    May 7, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • Davia

      Derek, are you kidding me? You are such an irrational being

      February 20, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
  9. kunde

    Lots of good reading here, many thanks! I was seeking on yahoo when I uncovered your submit, I’m going to add your feed to Google Reader, I look forward to a lot more from you.

    April 28, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  10. Terry Brookman

    At the time of Christ slavery was the norm much as it is today, in fact there is more slavery today than at anytime in human history. There is much evil in the world and it will all come to a end very soon I pray. In the American colonies it was the norm, for blacks it was called slavery but for the white salves it was called bond servitude or indentured workers, sounds better but still much the same. The main difference was if you were white you had a contract for your labor that would give you freedom after a set time but most likely you were charged for housing and food which added to your time and most likely your children. I believe the song about owing your soul to the company store originated. today if you buy anything from Gina, Indonesia Dr India you are supporting slavery.Slavery under any name is still slavery. As to why God would allow this all I can is he allows many evil things, he allowes us free will but that will be judged in the end. The black mans hatred for the whites for their evil but the shame of it is the shame and self hatred of allowing Someon to enslave them rather than fight.The Pharaoh had thousands of slaves, anyone they contoured ended up in the slave pits, anyone, white back and everything in Beeton. Out of that gene pool the Messiah would come, he took them and put them there for that oppose. out of the lowest. Years later what came was the Christ but not what they were expecting, not a fearless David but a meek peaceful man of a mother that by law should have been stoned. God wanted someone. all is well \

    April 24, 2011 at 5:14 am |
  11. Yob Mosher

    After reading the previous comments it's obvious that organized religion as a whole needs to be ended. It should be a personal spiritual journey so leave it at that and go in peace.

    April 22, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • Capricorn43

      This is true, allow peace to make its way to the people, BOTTOMLINE GOD LOVES US ALL THE SAME, even in our uglyness

      April 22, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  12. Rusty Shackleford

    The original question of the author was, "Is it fair to invoke the Bible for political causes?"

    My best answer is that it depends on what you mean by "invoke."

    If you mean to use the Bible to justify what you already believed, then no. However, if you sincerely set out to understand the Bible, considering the context and counterbalancing verses from elsewhere in the Bible, and then allow that perspective to shape your opinions, then sure.

    Spirituality and politics are not distinct spheres. One's faith can certainly affect one's political views, and there are some who let their politics affect their beliefs. My Christian beliefs don't make me a Republican or a Democrat, but they strongly influence my voting and my stands on the environment, abortion, education, and so forth. At least, I hope so.

    April 20, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  13. prideirishboi

    Okay not to be funny but you all need to shut up. You are just proving this article right!!!! Part of the reason that this country is supposed to be great is the freedom to believe as you chose. What happened to seperation of church and state?!? I grew up in a VERY religious home and you know what? For all the fire and brimestone that was poured into me, I still have to decide what is best. Everyone thinks that they are right and everyone else is wrong. That is human nature. No one likes change and will find anything they can to prove it wrong or evil. Again human nature! But again correct me if I am wrong but wasn't this nation built on the idea that a break from the norm is good and constructive. If nothing ever changed and we listened to every time that the bible or anything else was used to say let's stay the same – women would not have the vote, there would be no equality of the races, we would still be burning witches. The bible is not being used as it was intended it is being pieced apart to prove points. Both sides are looking at the same bible and finding different views to support their claims. How many of you have read the bible cover to cover? Next time you want to prove a point from the bible and quote it read the surrounding verses. It might just change the way what you are quoting comes across. But wait you won't do that because it would prove you wrong.

    April 18, 2011 at 8:37 am |
    • Angel

      I am so sorry you grew up with that fire and brimstone scare. My mother raised us with christian songs. She did not threaten us of hell, instead she raised us with memorizing a bible verse every night; night time devotions; and a bedtime prayer. She made "religions" a personal experience while we still went to church too. I do feel that the bible has been used in extremely bad ways in order to hurt and undermine others (Spain for example) and the original message from Jesus Christ has been warped by churches into fear when he said just the opposite: "God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power, love and a sound mind." I do not like preaching and I don't even have a church home but I do have a personal faith that I seek to make stronger and share with others.
      As far as the question, I agree with one of the previous writers. It is left to the interpretation of the question. Everyone's answer will be different because the question is SO broad. There are so many political purposes but it seem's that they all have the same thought nowadays in mind – greed, stealing, and deceit.
      Prideirishboi, I hope you find the way that God wants you to find because there is a personal way that will touch your heart if you let it. It will not invoke fear but love and comprehension. Once you've found it, you will not want to give it up easily. It is like a marriage; it needs to be maintained and nurtured because it will grow weak if not careful.

      September 16, 2013 at 11:48 pm |
  14. Annainfintiy

    Religion is one lie after another: the lie of original sin, the lie of eternal life, the lie of hell, the lie of answered prayer, the lie that life can have no meaning without religion, the lie that religion is the source of morality, the lie of creationism, the lie of a spy-in-the-sky who hears your every word and reads your every thought. And to this list we must add the lie that it views men and women as equal. It has got away for so long with the kind of lunatic word-games that allow death-by-torture to be presented as an act of love, and eternal torment in the flames of hell to be seen as a necessary act of justice, that we should perhaps not be surprised that it has also managed to dupe its followers into seeing the systematic suppression and silencing of women as an act of liberation and equality. Nevertheless, it is a lie, like all the others: a cynical and wicked lie.

    April 17, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
    • William Patrick

      Amen lol I mean right I second that

      March 3, 2013 at 9:46 pm |
  15. Annainfintiy

    @D-Bo
    "Let's define what objective moral values mean so as to maybe clarify things. To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is right or wrong independently of whether anybody believes it to be so."
    #1 What an a-ss! You're saying let's define morals the way you want and not the way it is in the dictionary. If we argued the definition in the dictionary your ideas wouldn't hold up
    #2 Morals = 1. A lesson, esp. one concerning what is right or prudent, that can be derived from a story, a piece of information, or an experience.
    2. A person's standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do.
    #3 I still haven't heard if you would mind being a-ss r-ped by Ted Haggard. C-reep

    April 17, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  16. Jarhead

    D-Bo/Anna2,

    I just wanted to toss in a respectful assessment regarding divinities providing moral standards for y'all to chew on and let me know what y'all think. All civilized societies regardless of the times have gained "moral" standards from their respective deities (Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Incan, Myan, etc.). Those civilized cultures/societies would not have reached consensus without a divine rule book to go off of. Without "divine" moral standards as a base to build upon we wouldn't have come as far as we have. If we had been left without dieties we would have never progressed past our base animal instincts and our world would not be what it is now. By denying our baser instincts we have become very enlightened as a species, have we not? This would not have been possible without religion, but such is my humble opinion. Without religion, would we have a conscience?
    I am personally Christian, but a horrible one in practice. I am also a United States Marine. I believe in the God but not exactly what man says of God. I cannot believe completely in the Bible as it was written by man, but I do believe it to be as close as man will ever come to understanding want God expects of us. That being said, my beliefs are my own and I have not the arrogance to force anyone to believe what I do.

    Thoughts?

    April 15, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Annainfintiy

      @Jarhead
      Those civilized cultures/societies would not have reached consensus without a divine rule book to go off of.
      #1 Hunter Gatherers. Read up on the history of morality. You really call yourself a Jarhead?
      By denying our baser instincts we have become very enlightened as a species, have we not?
      #2 No, we haven't denied our baser instincts and we're very enlightened? Do you know how to argue? You must be an Xstain.
      That being said, my beliefs are my own and I have not the arrogance to force anyone to believe what I do.
      #3 No, you just joined an organization that does that. What's with the ya'll?

      April 17, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  17. VRage13

    People use the Bible, Quran, Book of Mormon or whatever religious text to justify anything they want to do and condemn anything you want to do. The Bible is silent on slavery, for or against, but it addresses the way parties should act if they be on either side, master or slave.

    April 15, 2011 at 12:33 am |
    • Person of Faith

      There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28 American King James Version

      May 9, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  18. AnnaInfinity

    Maybe you missed my earlier point that you can neither prove empirically that objective moral values don't exist nor can I prove empirically that they do.
    #1 You fail to understand. You can't prove there's a teapot floating in the rings of Saturn. I don't have to prove it.
    econd, you keep saying I've given some logical fallacy but you haven't said what it is....you just requote me.
    #2I thought you were the fallacious expert. You can't see your own circular thinking?
    I clearly pointed out when you made logical leaps (genetic fallacy)
    #3 And I clearly refuted that. Maybe you were confused because I gave examples.
    If your position is that objective moral values don't exist (which you've clearly stated) then support that theory with a sound argument
    #4 What have you brought? Like a math teacher I provide examples of my logic in action....like every other pseudo theologian you've blathered on about nothing,
    As of yet, your argument seems to be that they don't exist but you haven't given a reason WHY they don't exist.
    #5 I don't have to prove a negative. Are you really that conceited that you don't see your own logical fallacies? And then you have the temerity to tell me to point them out? (Argument from Ignorance)
    Simply saying they don't exist is even less "proof" than I offered.
    #6 No, I argued that morals are subjective ergo there is no absolute morality and gave examples which you haven't countered and really you've brought nothing to the table. I'm beginning to think you were a waste of time.
    "Objective moral values do not exist, therefore God does not exist," then provide argumentation on why objective moral values do not exist.
    #7 Is English your second language? Look up the definition of examples. Real world examples.
    You haven't given me any good reasons to abandon my current position and take up naturalism.
    #8 You act as if I care.
    Even if there were objective moral values under naturalism, they’re irrelevant because there is no moral accountability.
    #8 You assume...and i'm getting tired of talking to your...Assumptions.I'm getting kind of tired of talking to you. You're selfish. You ask all the questions and answer none of mine. All I can see here is your ego on display. I bet you're a selfish lover.
    #9 I don't think it's a good idea to try to elicit emotional reactions out of women by using "r-ape" as you put it in your posts. Those bits of your posts make you look kind of creepy and antisocial.

    April 14, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • no way

      Not to sound creepy, but I think I just might love you (That was a joke). So Intelligent!

      April 25, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Joseph

      "Even if there were objective moral values under naturalism, they’re irrelevant because there is no moral accountability."

      Accountability comes from humans to humans. I don't hurt you because I don't want to get hurt, and I feel empathy. Even chimpanzees have accountability. I would not say the moral values are "objective" in the sense you may mean, because clearly moral values change over time. During the time in which a particular morally acceptable behavior is evident, the society tends to "objectify" that behavior with laws, social constructs or mores.

      And, I might add, it is during those times when these acceptable behaviors are in effect that holy books write them down for all time, and instead of a law that can be changed, we have an excuse to keep doing something long after it has become unacceptable. We all think our laws are the "best", but history shows that they will change. Even if they are written in holy books.

      April 26, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  19. Adelina

    The Bible is still used today to abolish slavery and infanticide and to discourage immorality and to outlaw unfairness and injustices. The Bible is the only objective standard in existence against the erroring, selfish and blood-thirsty mankind.

    April 13, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
    • Xtiansrcrazy

      objective?!

      April 14, 2011 at 2:16 am |
    • Logan

      April 15, 2011 at 4:14 am |
    • Logan

      April 15, 2011 at 4:17 am |
    • Logan

      April 15, 2011 at 4:22 am |
    • Mr T

      Biblical "morality" when it comes to slavery...

      When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property." Exodus 21:20-21 NAB

      We should all be glad that most of the country has grown beyond the bible as the source of our moral authority.

      May 10, 2011 at 12:00 am |
    • Mark

      Good thing we still have the bible to tell us the sun revolves around the earth. I was pretty close to believing what science taught me.

      May 11, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.