Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.

— Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 1865

With the nation plunging toward dissolution and civil war, President James Buchanan designated Jan. 4, 1861, a National Day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer.

The Rev. Joseph Wilson, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Ga., a slave owner and the permanent clerk of the soon-to-be formed Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, used the occasion to preach a sermon on “the Bible view of slavery.”

Central to Wilson’s argument — and to the pro-slavery interpretation of the Bible — was the contention “that the institution of compulsory slavery, as it existed throughout the Roman Empire, although often referred to in the New Testament, is never once condemned, never once even discountenanced.”

He was right about that.

Slavery was ubiquitous in the ancient world. It is estimated that enslaved people made up one-third to one-half of the population of Rome.

Yet nowhere does the Bible condemn slavery.

New Testament writers noted, without so much as a raised eyebrow, that sometimes early Christian congregations included both slaves and their owners. One passage encourages Christian slaves “who have believing masters not (to) be disrespectful to them on the ground that they are members of the church; rather they must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved.” (I Timothy 6:2)

Slaves were instructed “to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to answer back, not to pilfer.” (Titus 2:9-10)

Citing a passage in which the author encourages slaves to “obey your earthly masters ... as you obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5), Wilson claimed that in the Bible “we find a distinct law of permission, and an unequivocal note of favor, extended to (slavery). The Bible would control and sanctify, but not destroy it.”

On the same day, 775 miles to the North, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, the fiery pastor of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn — which was called the Grand Central Depot of the Underground Railroad — declared that the “minister who preaches slavery out of the Bible is the father of all infidels!” “If men will use the Bible so, (the Bible) must be purged of them.”

“No, no,” Beecher cried, “the Bible does not countenance this great evil.”

Beecher declared audaciously, “When the Bible can be made to teach that man may rightfully be bought and sold; that men, women and children are a legal tender in the marketplace; that marriage is an impossibility; that a man is to be forbidden to read, to learn, or do anything but exist, and use the spade and the hoe, then I declare I will do by the Bible what Christ did by the Temple. If I can, I will drive out the profaners of its sacredness; if not, I will let it go to the desolating armies of its enemies.”

That pro-slavery and anti-slavery preachers could cite the same Bible in support of their opposing views on such a critical issue as whether human beings can be bought and sold as chattel says something not only about the way preachers interpreted the Bible, but also something about the nature of the Bible.

Joseph Wilson claimed that since the Bible “was intended for all times and ages and not for one period and one country,” its instructions for the conduct of human relationships, including those between slave and master, were as binding in 19th century America as they were in first century Palestine.

Abolitionist preachers such as Beecher recognized that passages like those dealing with slavery were time- and culture-bound and must be interpreted in light of timeless theological principles, such as the image of God in all human beings, the common humanity of all people and the command to treat people the way one wished to be treated.

To people to whom the Bible is unknown and/or irrelevant, the interpretive differences between pro- and anti-slavery preachers might seem like disagreements on how to count angels on the head of a needle.

But while no one believes that the biblical instructions regarding slavery are binding today, the hermeneutical methods employed by Wilson and Beecher continue to divide Christians on such questions as whether women can serve as pastors and whether homosexuality is a sin.

Richard Groves is a former minister and educator.

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