Does the Bible Condone Slavery? Abraham Booth, the Slave Trade, and the Wrong Side of History

By Justin Dillehay

Does the Bible condone slavery? In the current heat of the sexual revolution, you will often hear people claim that it does.

The argument runs something like this: “The Bible is being used today to condemn certain sexual orientations just as it was once to used to condone slavery. And just as those who once used the Bible to condone slavery were on the wrong side of history, so also those who now use the Bible to condone homophobia are also on the wrong side of history.”

With regard to the argument that ‘Christians who used the Bible to justify slavery were on the wrong side of history,’ all I can say is ‘I agree.’ But I agree because the Bible’s eschatology (i.e. view of the future) clearly proclaims that in God’s eternal kingdom there will be no slavery, since “enslavers” will be excluded from it (1 Tim. 1:10; see also Rev. 18:13). (Interestingly enough, the Bible’s eschatology also proclaims that in God’s eternal kingdom there will be no marriage (Luke 20:34-26), except for Christ’s marriage to his bride (Rev. 19:6-8), which was of course the archetype on which human marriage was based from the beginning (Eph. 5:22-33).)

In short, I agree that Christians who argued for slavery by using the Bible were ‘on the wrong side of history.” But that’s because I hold to the Bible’s eschatology, not the sexual revolution’s eschatology (which can seem to give no justification for why ‘history’ is heading toward some sexual utopia aside from the fact that that’s where they want it to go).

But that still leaves the sad admission that many Christians in the past did use the Bible to justify slavery. And that still leaves the question, “Were those Christians right to interpret Scripture as they did?” This question is often ignored, or else buried under the postmodern assumption that all interpretations are created equal, or that disagreement about a text’s meaning could only stem from obscurity on the part of the text itself (rather than from moral blindness on the part of its readers).

But notice also how I said that many Christians used the Bible to justify slavery, not all Christians. Also frequently overlooked in this discussion is the fact that many Christians opposed slavery, and were in the vanguard of the abolitionist movement. Kevin DeYoung’s recent post (here) provides a helpful snapshot of some of the Christians who opposed slavery from very early on.

I’d like to introduce you to an example of a biblical case against the slave trade that DeYoung didn’t mention. It comes from the pen of Abraham Booth.

Abraham Booth’s Biblical Case Against the Slave Trade

Abraham Booth

Abraham Booth (1734-1806) was an English Baptist pastor. In 1792, he preached and published a sermon against slavery entitled “Commerce in the Human Species, and the Enslaving of Innocent Persons Inimical to the Law of Moses and the Gospel of Christ.”

The title says it all.

Booth begins his case from Exodus 21:16 and 1 Tim. 1:9-10, which forbid “man stealing” upon penalty of death. He then proceeds to discuss the Golden Rule and other biblical principles.

Throughout the sermon, Booth responds to all the allegedly biblical justifications for chattel slavery made from both testaments, and concludes: 1) that laws such as Exodus 21:16 and 1 Tim. 1:10 are clearly moral in nature, and are simply a reflection of the natural law (i.e. “the law of nature”) that God has written on the heart of all human beings 2) that some laws concerning slavery in the Old Testament belonged to Israel in particular as a civil state and as such expired with the Old Covenant, and therefore do not apply to modern states like Great Britain (see the 1689 Baptist Confession, 19:4) 3) that even if such OT laws did apply to Great Britain, they would still not justify the manner in which the Atlantic slave trade was being carried out 4) that the slave trade stands in clear violation of the Golden Rule and the 2nd great commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 5) that the slave trade is a terrible hindrance to the acceptance of the gospel among the nations.

The sermon runs about 35 pages, and can be read online at the Internet Archive here: https://archive.org/stream/worksabrahamboo01bootgoog#page/n188/mode/2up. I hope you’ll bookmark it and take time to read it in the future, especially if you find my thumbnail sketch of his points unconvincing.

In the meantime, having given you Booth’s bullet points, let me give you some excerpts that I found helpful. I have taken the liberty of breaking up some of Booth’s long sentences and dividing his paragraphs to make them more readable.

In this first excerpt, Booth argues both from the natural law and from the Golden Rule. Don’t miss his powerful illustration of what the slave trade would look like if it were turned on the British themselves.

Is it lawful for the English…to buy and enslave the Africans? [And] whence did they, rather than those very Africans, acquire that dreadful right? I say dreadful right. For the idea of any individual, or any people, possessing the authority to treat the innocent as thought they were [wickedly] guilty, is hateful, and shocking to reason, to conscience, and to common sense…

Must the right under consideration [then] be inferred from what is called the law of nature? But that is the same in Africa as it is in Europe. Entirely the same all over the globe. According to this law, be the state of the innocent Negro ever so obscure, his poverty ever so great, his manners ever so rude, or his mental capacities ever so contracted, he has an equal claim of personal liberty with any an upon the earth. For the rights of humanity being common to the whole of our species, are the same in every part of the world.

It follows, therefore, that if the lawfulness of purchasing innocent persons…exists among men, it must be a common right, and equally possessed by all nations…It would consequently be quite as…humane for the Africans, laden with produce of their own country, annually to visit our English ports, as we do theirs, and for similar purposes. Yes, they might, with equal power, and with equal justice…fit out two hundred ships for the port of London, or Bristol, and of Liverpool, ships adapted to the stowage of men, and furnished with a frightful apparatus to render the confinement of Britons completely miserable, as well as perfectly secure. 

When…this man-trading fleet arrived, if cargoes of men, women, and children were not prepared, the officers belonging to each vessel might practice all their arts, to excite a spirit of covetousness and of cruelty in our governors and fellow-subjects; in order that by an armed force, the peaceable inhabitants of whole villages might be captured. That in our courts of justice, innocent persons, for the advantage of their judges, might be convicted. That private individuals might kidnap whomsoever they could, and thought salable. That by all these infamous means the ship might be freighted…with forty-thousand Britons. [And] finally, that all who survive their miserable confinement while on board might be taken to the best market for human species; exposed, in the most indecent manner to public sale; handled and examined like so many head of cattle by their purchasers; consigned over with their unborn posterity to the most abject and cruel slavery, from generation to generation.

And all for–what? Here let humanity blush, let mercy weep, and let justice be roused into indignation: but let not Britons forget that this is a picture, in miniature, of their own behavior toward the Africans.

(202-204)

Using the same kind of arguments that C.S. Lewis would later use in Book 1 of his classic Mere Christianity, Booth also argues that however much men may pretend that slavery is moral, they would instantly recognize its wickedness if they were on the receiving end of it:

In either of these cases…reason and conscience, the common sentiments and feelings of mankind will all unite, if not debauched by avarice or blunted by habit, in approving this law of Jehovah as just: “He that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.” [Exodus 21:16] Nor is there a man on earth, not even those who are grown hoary [i.e. old and gray] in the trade of man stealing…that would not execrate the character of him to whose power or subtlety he had fallen a victim for similar purposes, and that would pronounce him worthy of death. (189)

Finally, Booth responds to the objection that the New Testament nowhere explicitly condemns slavery, or encourages slaves to revolt. He makes a couple of insightful parallels that I had never thought of before.

It may perhaps be objected, “Personal slavery…though much practiced in apostolic times, is nowhere expressly condemned in the New Testament. Nay, Christian slaves are exhorted to live in peaceable subjection to their own masters.” To this it may be replied, “Nor was the sanguinary despotism of Nero expressly condemned; but the disciples of Christ were commanded to behave peaceably under his government. The sports of the gladiator, authorized by the Roman laws, were extremely bloody and wicked; yet they are nowhere expressly condemned by the apostles. Numerous are the species of dishonesty and theft, which are so common among us, and perhaps were so among people in those times. which nevertheless, are not expressly forbidden in the NT.”

But as all these things are breaches of moral duty; and as they are all inconsistent with that regard which is due to our neighbor’s happiness; it is quite sufficient that they are implicitly and strongly forbidden by general moral principles…Any man of common sense, whose mind is not biased by self-interest, may easily infer from the general principles, commands, and prohibitions of Christianity, that stealing an innocent man must be the worst species of rapine, that buying such a person is justifying the robbery, and that actually enslaving him gives a sanction to those infamous deeds by putting a finishing hand to the work of injustice. Besides, as an express prohibition of slavery might have might have excited a more violent opposition to the Christian cause than almost anything with which it had to conflict…(213-214)

Booth’s language is dated, but his arguments are still relevant. His short treatise is just one among many like it. If you were inclined to answer our opening question with a yes, I hope this post has given you pause. And if you are ‘almost persuaded’ to agree with the argument of this post, then I hope you will go read all 35 pages of Booth’s sermon. Better yet, read the Bible with an open heart, and be not almost, but altogether persuaded that those Christians who used the Bible to justify slavery were not only on the wrong side of history, but also on the wrong side of Scripture.

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