Can We Learn Something Helpful from a Painful 19th Century Biblical Debate?

by the Rev. Hampton Morgan Jr.

Most everyone acknowledges that history has much to teach us. We can learn from the good decisions as well as the bad decisions of our forebears. This is true in history writ large but also in the history of the church in the United States. Among Christians, an especially divisive and painful debate over slavery preceded the start of America’s Civil War in 1861. Differences over how to interpret what the Bible has to say on the question of slavery were at the core of sharp disagreements that splintered the Baptists and Methodists in 1844, with other denominational fractures to follow in later years.

That American Christians could not find a unified voice to condemn slavery and work together for its abolition might seem inexplicable to us living more than 150 years after the legal end of slavery. Why was it not as self-evident to our forebears as it is to us that the enslavement of one person by another is intolerably wrong? In the same way that we today clearly see human trafficking as an affront to God, why could our forebears not share a similar abhorrence of race-based chattel slavery? Finally, does their failure hold any lessons for us in the painful debates we are having?

A brief look at the history

In antebellum America, Christians of all Protestant denominations approached the Bible with ardent faith that its truths were readily accessible to faithful seekers. The approach was simple: What words are used? What do those words plainly mean? How are those words put together in sentences and paragraphs? What obvious meaning and conclusions can one draw from them?

As Mark Noll points out in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, when read this way the Bible had been a powerful companion to the fervent evangelistic preaching that resulted in the planting of churches across the frontier and had led to large numbers of transformed lives. But across the nation, north and south, Christians who would have agreed on a great deal of what the Bible seemed to plainly say, began to disagree on how the Bible should be read and interpreted on the question of slavery.

Scholars describe the emergence among American Christians of a proslavery interpretation of the Bible and an antislavery interpretation. Neither term refers to a Bible reader’s personal convictions about slavery but rather to what they understood the Bible to say about slavery. Proslavery Christians interpreted the Bible to at least permit, if not endorse, slavery; antislavery Christians read the Bible as opposed to slavery.

The Bible seemed clear to these conservative interpreters: one may not like slavery and may even hope for its end, but the Bible does not condemn it.

The proslavery position examined the relevant biblical texts with what Mollie Oshatz, author of Slavery and Sin: The Fight Against Slavery and the Rise of Liberal Protestantism, called “commonsensical literalism.” This led to the conclusion that if the question was limited to the sinfulness or wrongness of slavery in and of itself, the Bible did not support an antislavery position. The proslavery Christians found, and readily admitted, that the Bible did speak to the question of how slaves should be treated and identified protective boundaries that slaveowners should not violate. But on the question of slavery per se, the Bible seemed clear to these conservative interpreters: one may not like slavery and may even hope for its end, but the Bible does not condemn it.

The antislavery Christians, whom Oshatz appropriately describes as theologically moderate, looked at the Bible and came to a different understanding. While they acknowledged that verses containing the word “slave” offered no negative judgment, some of the moderate exegetes argued that the slaves most often identified in the relevant scripture passages could in no way be compared to the millions of Black Africans captured, sold, and with their children, perpetually enslaved as chattel in service to a cruel economic system that broke their health, ending the lives of many before the age of 50.

The slaves in the relevant scripture passages could in no way be compared to the millions of Black Africans captured, sold, and perpetually enslaved as chattel.

Abraham, for example, in the absence of any offspring of his own, considered his slave, Eliezer of Damascus, referenced in Genesis 15, to be his heir. Moreover, in Genesis 14, Abraham armed his slaves for battle. How, argued the antislavery interpreters, is this comparable to the kind of slavery practiced in America?

In addition, the antislavery Christians pointed to Isaiah’s announcement of Jubilee in chapter 61 with its call for “liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound,” verses quoted by Jesus in his inaugural sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4).

The theological moderates also introduced verses calling on believers to love one’s neighbor as oneself. They reminded sceptics that Jesus himself made this relevant to the question of slavery by broadly expanding the meaning of “neighbor” in his parable of the Good Samaritan, effectively setting no limits on who qualified as a neighbor. Surely, they argued, this is relevant to any comprehensive biblical discussion of slavery. The moderates went further to argue that any reasonable understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ as broadly described across the pages of the Bible could never have countenanced a social institution that enslaved innocent people solely on the basis of their skin color.

None of the biblical interpretations advanced by the antislavery side were persuasive to the commonsensical literalists. By the eve of the outbreak of warfare in 1861, they had successfully limited the debate to a single question: Does the Bible judge slavery, in and of itself, to be contrary to the will of God? Their answer was a resounding no.

Biblical authority and biblical hermeneutics

For Christians, the question is not whether the Bible is authoritative for our life and faith. The question is how should we read the Bible so that its authoritative truth is rightly discerned? The question’s relevance is anticipated in 2 Timothy 2.15, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” Here, the apostle acknowledges the importance of properly interpreting the scriptures, a process also known as hermeneutics.

2 Timothy 3.16-17 affirms that all of scripture is “God-breathed” for the “useful” purpose of “teaching…reproof…correction…and training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

If scripture is to serve the purpose for which God gave it, believers must interpret its meaning with every relevant tool and resource. This can involve historical, linguistic and cultural investigation, sometimes found in the commentaries of Christian scholars, but sometimes found in other sources as well. Among other things, faithful biblical interpretation involves attention to the whole of scripture, not just to individual verses containing key words of inquiry.

Christians in America and elsewhere have, throughout history, agreed on the authority of scripture while disagreeing on the meaning and proper interpretation of some of what it contains or how they are to understand and practice what it teaches on a particular question. Much of the time, such disagreements are friendly and the question is inconsequential. (In Moravian parlance, the question is about an “incidental” or “non-essential.”) But some questions provoke passionate disagreement, often because what is at issue is not perceived as an incidental or peripheral concern or because certain verses of scripture appear to address the matter with unambiguous clarity.

Van Dyke turned differences over scriptural interpretation into a battle over the Bible itself.

Defending slavery against the calls for its abolition became just such an issue in the first half of the 19th century. For example, Henry Van Dyke, pastor of Brooklyn’s First Presbyterian Church, in 1861 called abolitionism “evil…root and branch, flower and leaf,” charging that “it springs from, and is nourished by, an utter rejection of the Scriptures.” This was a serious charge. By making it, Van Dyke turned differences over scriptural interpretation into a battle over the Bible itself. In effect, he smeared those advocating anti-slavery hermeneutics as faithless Christians who did not believe the Bible.

Indeed, Mark Noll describes the deep division among America’s antebellum Christians as not only a theological crisis but as a crisis of the Bible. The nation’s most important and widely read book, the Holy Scriptures, in Noll’s words, seemed to many, “to sound an uncertain note” on the most important question facing the nation and its Christian citizens. Unable to find a shared biblical hermeneutic on the central and most important question of that era, Christians north and south resorted to armed conflict. As Noll dryly notes, what the Bible really says about slavery was at last settled by “those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.” In other words, with the Union’s victory the biblical debate over slavery came to an end.

Honesty compelled me to come to the uncomfortable conclusion that …I would very likely have come down on the proslavery side of the debate.

A really painful question

The more I learned about how and why the debate over slavery unfolded in America, the more I was plagued by the question of where I would have stood in that debate had I lived in North Carolina in 1860. Honesty compelled me to come to the uncomfortable conclusion that based on how I have generally read and interpreted the Bible for much of my life, I would very likely have come down on the proslavery side of the debate. I’d like to think I would have been one of the proslavery Christians who was really antislavery in moral conviction but who found himself in the difficult position of affirming what the Bible seemed clearly to say even if it made me personally uncomfortable. I’d like to think this. Maybe I need to think this in order to live with myself.

The question that plagued me is one you might ask yourself. In light of how you have tended to read the Bible, which side of the hermeneutical debate in 1860 would you likely have supported?

I imagine that there were thousands of Christians in antebellum America who, despite every fiber of their souls screaming that slavery was wrong, still took the proslavery verses of the Bible at face value. Many, no doubt, knew well that Jesus affirmed, “Love your neighbor as yourself” as equally important to loving God with all one’s heart. Moreover, many living at that time would also have recalled that Jesus chose to define the essence of the gospel as including the Jubilee prophecy of “liberty to the captives.” But despite this, for example, they favored an interpretation that Paul and Peter telling slaves to obey their masters must mean that God has no serious problem with slavery. The slippery slope of the antislavery Christians, hinted at by Henry Van Dyke, was just too threatening. Where would it lead? Proslavery interpreters like Van Dyke regularly cautioned that the antislavery interpretation of scripture was a sure and certain step toward the eventual renunciation of scripture itself, or at least of those things in the Bible one might not personally like. It was an effective argument for many. Me included.

My journey to different understandings

Several decades ago, I drove my own stake into the slippery slope of liberal Protestant Christianity on questions centered on homosexuality. My commonsensical reading of the obviously relevant Bible verses had led me to this. (There were other biblical issues on which I did not employ a hermeneutic of “commonsensical literalism,” but on questions of sexuality, I took what seemed to be the most relevant verses at face value.)

I was aware of other hermeneutical approaches to questions of homosexuality but chose to reject them. I did so for two reasons: First, because they marginalized, at worst, or contextualized, at best, what I saw as the clear teaching of scripture in all the verses that actually referenced homosexuality in some way. Second, because their hermeneutics struck me as so tortured as to betray an agenda that predetermined an outcome that affirmed that these verses did not really mean what my commonsensical reading was certain they did mean. In addition, I did not consider the possibility that a more positive view of the question derived from medicine, psychology or personal testimony could offset scripture’s clear and authoritative veto, as expressed in verses from Genesis, Leviticus, Romans and a few other books of the Bible most of us are familiar with.

As I more patiently examined the hermeneutics of the other side, I found them more reasonable than I had thought.

A few years ago, however, I pulled my stake from the slippery slope to see if what was “down below” was as bad as I had imagined. As I more patiently examined the hermeneutics of the other side, I found them more reasonable than I had thought—not all of them, but enough to keep my inquiry alive. (The most readable effort toward an affirming position on homosexuality is probably Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian, published in 2015.) In addition, I cannot overstate how much the weakness of the proslavery hermeneutics of the 1800s encouraged me to open my mind and heart to reading the Bible with greater appreciation for the nuances and complexities we find therein when searching it for definitive answers to pressing and emotionally charged questions. If there is a destination to my journey I have not arrived. But I have settled some questions.

We should not limit our examination of a weighty matter to a few verses.

First, the desire of earnest Christians to limit challenging biblical questions to a quest for the simple and seemingly clear answers provided by a handful of verses is a beginning, but not an ending point in our task as faithful students of the Bible. While a concordance will help us quickly locate every occurrence of a word in our English translations of the Bible, we should not limit our examination of a weighty matter to those verses or allow them necessarily to carry more weight than other biblical texts.1 Our nineteenth century forebears who fought so hard to limit the slavery debates to those verses containing some form of the word “slave” surely thought they were doing right by the Bible and sound Christian doctrine. But they undoubtedly, though perhaps unwillingly, helped to perpetuate a cruel and systemically racist institution that opened still unhealed wounds in our nation’s soul.

We owe it to future generations to open our examination to the whole of scripture.

Whether the issue before us is human sexuality, marriage or something else, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to open our examination to the whole of scripture as well as to the insights of those whose research may challenge what we have always thought to be true. That has not been easy for me because I was long taught to approach the Bible with a solid conviction that its truth was self-evident and plainly accessible in the meaning of the words themselves. Moreover, I often found myself suspicious of those who read the Bible differently because I feared their agendas. In-depth biblical study is hard and it may challenge conclusions derived from simplistic interpretations reinforced by long-held prejudices or the support of a theological community in which we have a comfortable and welcome place.

Second, for a long time I read the Bible as “anti-homosexuality,” and not just mildly or casually so. Eventually, I came to see that doing so arose less from scripture itself and more from long-standing and unexamined assumptions absorbed from the conservative culture I considered myself to be part of. It was very similar to what our nineteenth century forbears did with their “proslavery” reading of the Bible. We know more clearly than ever that American slavery rested not only on a foundation of economic necessity and greed, but also on a foundation of racial prejudice so deep that whites saw Blacks as subhuman, as mere property. Although legal slavery ended with the Thirteen Amendment, the racial hatred that infused slavery remained, becoming the bloody engine of America’s long dark night of Jim Crow oppression. Can this be traced to a proslavery reading of the Bible passed from parents to their post-Civil War children? There are hints among my familial ancestors that the answer is yes.

I have come to believe that an anti-homosexuality reading of the Bible is as poisonous to church and society in our day as a proslavery reading of the Bible was long ago.

I have come to believe that an anti-homosexuality reading of the Bible is as poisonous to church and society in our day as a proslavery reading of the Bible was long ago. I do not believe we can act on such a reading of the Bible without committing injustices that are ultimately rooted in a failure to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. I know that my misreading of the Bible harmed some of my fellow Christians.


In the points and counterpoints of our current debates about what the Bible says about homosexuality and marriage, I hear echoes from the slavery debates of long ago. The comparisons are not exact but they are close enough to justify our consideration. Also, I cannot escape wondering if the next generation or two of Christians will be as astonished at our anti-homosexuality reading of the Bible as we are at our ancestors’ proslavery reading of the scriptures. And like the slavery debates, this one seems also not to have a biblical solution we can all agree on. Or to put it in Mark Noll’s language, once again the Bible seems to sound an uncertain note.

In “God’s Word and Doctrine” section of the Ground of the Unity, Moravians affirm, “The Unitas Fratrum takes part in the continual search for sound doctrine. In interpreting Scripture and in the communication of doctrine in the Church, we look to two millennia of ecumenical Christian tradition and the wisdom of our Moravian forebears in the faith to guide us as we pray for fuller understanding and ever clearer proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The “continual search for sound doctrine” is for us, as I think it has always been for Christians and their churches, an agonizing and sometimes conflictive process. To the extent that our doctrine is grounded in scripture, it is inevitable that our differing hermeneutical approaches will not bring us to the same conclusions about what “sound doctrine” consists of. Moreover, when “we look to two millennia of ecumenical Christian tradition…” we may feel ourselves constrained by the doctrinal formulations and opinions of those who went before us, even if they were not facing exactly the same questions we are.2 The “search for sound doctrine” is made even more agonizing—again, as I think it always has been—when what is at issue is settled by the vote of a majority, a process that unfortunately leaves substantial numbers of fellow believers unhappy and troubled.

Moravians in America have long confessed their hope that “…in all things, love” will carry them through stormy disagreements or unsettling times of uncertainty. That hope is often tested, sometimes severely. But it is a biblical hope, one broadly affirmed by all. Long before the first contentious church council or synod, Jesus prayed for the Twelve and those who throughout history would become his disciples through their witness: “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

How this prayer is answered when differences are sharp and concerns are high surely lies within all of us who call Christ our Lord.

The Rev. Hampton Morgan pastored several Moravian congregations in North Carolina and the US Virgin Islands.  He served for eight years as the executive director of the Board of World Mission of the Moravian Church in America.  He later founded Choosing Integrity, a program that helps convicts reenter the world successfully, and served as its Executive Director.  He continues to serve on the CI board of directors.

1 In addition, it goes without saying that literal English translations of Hebrew or Greek words do not always catch the cultural nuances of ancient times or what those words exactly described. Painstaking biblical exegesis often makes our “commonsensical literal” understandings of what scripture is saying unreliably simplistic.

2 G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who happen to be walking about.” Does this mean “two millennia of ecumenical Christian tradition” gets to cast the deciding vote?

Featured image courtesy of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. (1853). Flogging a slave fastened to the ground

Author: Editor

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