Is the Bible for or Against Slavery?

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Text block asking, "Slavery and the Bible: For or Against?"

Today’s Bible reading* includes a clear case for the Bible being against slavery. It has bothered me for a long time that the Bible accepts the reality of slavery in its historical context and doesn’t seem to condemn slavery or advocate for abolition. And then I read today’s readings.

Deuteronomy 22:1-3 commands returning to a brother something that belongs to him. If an animal strays and you find it, you are to return it or keep it until the next time you see your brother and give it to him then. The same goes for anything else that belongs to someone. In fact, Moses emphatically says that this issue is to not be ignored.

Now, keep those verses and what I just summarized in mind when you read Deuteronomy 23:15-16.

Do not return a slave to his master when he has escaped from his master to you.
Let him live among you wherever he wants within your city gates.
Do not mistreat him.

Deuteronomy 23:15–16 (CSB)

While Moses accepts the existence of slavery and doesn’t say that God’s people should not practice it, and he doesn’t say that God’s people should work to abolish it, Moses clearly states that slaves are people (note property) and are to be afforded certain rights based on their human dignity. But most importantly, Moses says that — unlike animals and other property — escaped slaves are not to be returned to their masters. And there was no provision in the Mosaic for a master to seek “due process” for the slave to be returned.

In other words, slaves have the right to flee their bondage (just like the people of God in leaving Egypt). And once they are free from their masters, they are free to live wherever they choose.

From these clear statements, we can clearly see that while not actively advocating for abolition, the Bible advocates for the rights of those who have fled from their masters.

Application

The United States has come a long way since the buying and selling of Africans as property was commonplace in the South. That practice was evil. And some claim that America wasn’t founded in 1776, but rather in 1619 when the first slaves were brought ashore in the Jamestown colony. They argue that slavery was what America was founded on. But is that true?

I think one quick answer is obvious from the fact that the Jamestown colony was established in 1607 (twelve years before the first slave ship arrived at Jamestown). And who can forget the English persecuted Protestants, ie, the Pilgrims, who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620?

However, the Smithsonian Magazine refers to a 2008 book[1] by New York Times bestselling author Kenneth C. Davis, America’s Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation which says that the first persecuted protestants arrived in America some fifty years before the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims. And going back to Christopher Columbus in the late 1400s, he stated his proposal to Spain’s King and Queen, “to discover new lands for the glory of God and his church, and to spread the Gospel of the Holy Saviour to the ends of the earth.”[2]

Given these facts, how could anyone say that America was founded on slavery?

If you read the writings of America’s Founding Fathers, you’ll see that some were in favor of slavery (some, like Jefferson and Washington, even owned slaves), while others were against slavery. It wasn’t until after the Revolutionary Civil Wars were won that slaves were granted freedom. It took freedom from England to set the stage for freedom from slavery. Only recently did I connect the dots between the First and Second Great Awakenings and those two American wars.

So where does that leave us in our application?

The Bible clearly speaks of slaves as being capable of having freedom with protection once they were free. And America, being based on the Bible’s principles, wasn’t founded on slavery. We realized the error of our ways and corrected them. And one hundred years after the Civil War, with the Civil Rights Act, full rights were granted to all Americans, legally ending discrimination.

Are we there yet? No, our Nation continues to heal from its wrongs. But we’re further down the road than ever before! Let’s be biblical in our approach to racial reconciliation.

* Chapters covered in today’s reading:
Deuteronomy 20
Deuteronomy 21
Deuteronomy 22
Deuteronomy 23

[1] Disclaimer: I have not read Davis’ book and therefore cannot recommend or endorse it. I am merely pointing out a rarely-known aspect of American History.

[2] As documented by Peter Marshall and David Manuel in The Light and the Glory: Did God Have a Plan for America? 1977, Fleming H. Revell Company, p. 36.