Slavery in the New World produced one of the great biblical controversies of early modern times. Especially in sixteenth‐century Spain and in the United States between 1730 and 1860, biblical texts were used on both sides of the protracted debates over the institution of slavery. The Spanish controversy was largely about encomienda, a form of labor slavery imposed on the native peoples of New Spain by the Laws of Burgos (1513). Court spokesmen cited the conquest of Canaan (Deut. 20), the destruction of Sodom (Gen. 18.16–19.29), and Jesus' parable of the wedding feast (Matt. 22.1–14) to advocate encomienda as part of a just Christian war against New World “barbarians.” Reform‐minded missionaries led by Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Dominican friar and the bishop of Chiapas in Mexico, condemned encomienda as unjust and rejected its biblical defense. In his treatise In Defense of the Indians (1550), Las Casas insisted that all three texts were historically conditioned commands superseded by Jesus' teaching of love to neighbors and enemies.

Meanwhile, a new kind of slavery—the importation and ownership of Africans as property—spread quickly in the seventeenth century to Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British colonies in the New World. The Church of England was the legally established religion in the British colonies of Virginia, Barbados, and the Carolinas, but planter elites there guaranteed that Anglican priests neither opposed slavery nor missionized the slaves. Instead, the church used biblical authority to depict Africans as bearers of the mark of Cain (Gen. 4.10–15) and as children of Ham, cursed by Noah to be the “servants of servants” (Gen. 9.25, AV; NRSV: “lowest of slaves”). Anglican support for slavery went largely unquestioned until the 1730s, when Evangelicals in Britain and America launched a new biblical critique of slavery. John Wesley and George Whitefield, founders of Methodism, condemned slaveholding as a grave sin inconsistent with their theology of spiritual rebirth (John 3.1–8), sanctification (Matt. 5.48), and evangelism (Mark 16.15). Truly born‐again Christians, they taught, will know through the Spirit to free their slaves and evangelize them.

During the Revolutionary era, the major evangelical Calvinist denominations in America—Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists—joined the antislavery cause. These churches added the argument that slavery violated America's covenant with God as the new chosen people. In his Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans (1776), the Congregationalist Samuel Hopkins established the scriptural ground for this contention by invoking the prophets' vision of justice and mercy (Isa. 1.16–18; 33.15–16; 58.6; Jer. 7.1–7; 22.3–5; Amos 5.24), and judgment (Jer. 21.12; Ezek. 22.29–31; Amos 2.6; Zech. 7.9–12). At the same time, the Society of Friends in America also undertook a powerful witness against slavery led by the preaching and writing of John Woolman, especially in his Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (1754/1762) and his Journal (1774). Warning that slaveholding was disobedience to the characteristic Quaker doctrines of plainness and peace, Woolman cited Jesus' warnings against materialistic greed (Matt. 6.19) and violence toward poor strangers (Matt. 25.44) as his principal biblical evidence.

By 1825, however, thriving cotton plantations had revived American slavery, and southern evangelicals, both Methodist and Calvinist, began to construct new biblical arguments justifying Christian slaveholding. A classic example is A Scriptural View of Slavery (1856), a sermon by Thornton Stringfellow, a Virginia Baptist, who held that God had sanctioned slavery through Noah, Abraham, and Joseph (Gen. 9.25–27; 14.14; 16.9; 17.12–13; 24.35–36; 26.13–14; 47.14–25), that slavery was “incorporated” in the Mosaic law (Exod. 20.17; 21.2–4, 20–21; Lev. 25.39–46), and that Jesus and the apostles recognized slavery as a “lawful institution among men” (2 Cor. 11.20; Eph. 6.5; Col. 3.22).

Evangelical abolitionists answered these proslavery arguments in writings like Angelina Grimké's Appeal to the Christian Women of the South (1836). Grimké claimed that Hebrew slavery differed in nature and kind from American slavery and therefore could not justify it. In Mosaic law she found six warrants for Hebrew slavery, all more limited than America's chattel slave system (e.g., Exod. 21.4, 7; Lev. 25.39, 47–55; 2 Kings 4.1), along with substantial legal protections for slaves lacking in American law (e.g., Exod. 21.3–6, 20–21, 26–27). Other abolitionists contrasted Greco‐Roman and American slavery to obviate the Pauline instruction that slaves obey their masters (Eph. 6.5).

Slaves and free blacks in the antebellum period created their own radical vision of evangelical Christianity, understanding their condition as analogous to Israel in Egypt. African American preachers ceaselessly proclaimed the victorious Exodus as the slaves' destiny here on earth. This oral tradition inspired some leaders, including Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner—all Methodists—to lead slave rebellions in the name of God. African American protest found its classic literary voice in David Walker, whose Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829) arraigned hypocritical evangelical slaveholders for not observing the Christian mandate of peace (Acts 10.36–27), calling down on them the judgment of the returning Christ (Rev. 22.11).

Britain abolished slavery peacefully in 1833, but in the United States these disputes over slavery brought Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists to schism by 1845, and encouraged the fratricidal Civil War that finally resolved the crisis. One of the chief ironies of the conflict over slavery was the confrontation of America's largest Protestant denominations with the hitherto unthinkable idea that the Bible could be divided against itself. But divided it had been by intractable theological, political, and economic forces. Never again would the Bible completely recover its traditional authority in American culture.

See also African American Traditions and the Bible; Exodus, The; Hebrews; Slavery


Stephen A. Marini