The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: Slavery (page 1 of 2)

Book Review: “Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery”

I recently finished reading Amazing GraceEric Metaxas’s biography of William Wilberforce and his work to end the slave trade. A former New York Times bestseller, this was a book that I had looked forward to reading for quite a while because I enjoyed the Amazing Grace film so much when I watched it a decade ago or so. Unfortunately, this joins a very short list of books that I find to be inferior to films based upon them (The Last of the Mohicans is probably the best example of this).

There were a few things about the book that bothered me:

  • I found much of Metaxas’s prose to be cumbersome. He tends to use flowery language and also makes random asides that seemed out of place in a biography, and cluttered up his paragraphs.
  • Amazing Grace read less like a biography, and more like a hagiography, where Metaxas’s obvious admiration for Wilberforce led him to be less than objective in his evaluation of him (and also resulted in some of the flowery language that I complained about above).
  • Metaxas, who is a politically conservative evangelical, has been criticized for idealizing the characters about whom he writes and making them look very much like himself theologically and politically. This criticism was especially strong after his biography about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but I felt that I could catch glimpses of this in his discussion of Wilberforce’s faith, and especially in Metaxas’s caricatured portrayal of the religious faith of Wilberforce’s day. Though to be fair, having been exposed to this particular criticism of Metaxas’s writing, I was probably looking for it.

Having said that, there are some really good things about this book, and the primary one is that it helps to make accessible the life story of a remarkable man who, driven by his devout faith, worked to bring about profound changes in British society that rippled across the world. Wilberforce is famous for his fight against the slave trade, but was also very involved in the quest to reform British society and to improve British policy in India.

I’ll close by sharing some of my favorite quotations from the book, with brief commentary. In trying to explain that the legacy of Wilberforce is greater than the simple abolition of the slave trade, Metaxas writes:

To fathom the magnitude of what Wilberforce did we have to see that the “disease” he vanquished forever was actually neither the slave trade nor slavery. Slavery still exists in the world today, in such measure as we can hardly fathom. What Wilberforce vanquished was something even worse than slavery, something that was much more fundamental and can hardly be seen from where we stand today: he vanquished the very mind-set that made slavery acceptable and allowed it to survive and thrive for millennia. He destroyed an entire way of seeing the world, one that had held sway from the beginning of history, and he replaced it with another way of seeing the world. Included in the old way of seeing things was the idea that the evil of slavery was good. Wilberforce murdered that old way of seeing things, and so the idea that slavery was good died along with it. Even though slavery continues to exist here and there, the idea that it is good is dead. The idea that it is inextricably intertwined with human civilization, and part of the way things are supposed to be, and economically necessary and morally defensible, is gone. Because the entire mind-set that supported it is gone.

(Amazing Grace, xv)

Wilberforce grew up religious but basically fell away in his late teens and early twenties before experiencing a significant revival and deepening of his faith. When that took place, he was tempted to back away from politics (he was already a member of Parliament at the time), because he thought it to be an improper place for a person of strong religious conviction. His good friend William Pitt, the Prime Minister, did not want to see his friend check out of politics, and suggested that his newfound faith could find much to do in the world of politics:

Surely the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple, and lead not to meditation only but to action.

(Amazing Grace, 58)

Ultimately, this advice would prove influential for Wilberforce, who remained in politics and used his platform and influence to do kingdom work and bring about a profound change in the lives of millions.

Part of Wilberforce’s work in his opposition to slavery was educating the British population of the horrors that slaves faced, about which many were genuinely and totally ignorant (slave traders commonly argued that slaves were happy or at least better off in captivity, and many people naively believed it). Wilberforce investigated the living conditions of slaves and knew better, and widely disseminated the information. In a parliamentary debate, Wilberforce explained his motivation for seeking abolition:

…When we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is here in this life which should make any man contradict the principles of his own conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God?

Sir, the nature and all the circumstances of this Trade are now laid open to us. We can no longer plead ignorance, we cannot evade it, it is now an object placed before us, we cannot pass it. We may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it.

(Amazing Grace, 136)

Metaxas portrays the Britain of Wilberforce’s early years as one which claimed to a form of Christian civil religion, but that it was a watered-down faith that brought little to no leavening influence on the nation as a whole. Wilberforce, who spent a long career as a respected and powerful MP who was famous for his faith and his political stances based upon his faith, was instrumental in changing the religious environment of his day:

When Wilberforce entered Paliament, there were only three MPs who would have identified themselves as seriously Christian, but half a century later there were closer to two hundred. Politics had come to be thought of as a noble calling. There would always be self-seekers—and few individuals could be entirely free of selfish motivation—but the idea that politicians should be free of that motivation and work for the good of society was something new, and Wilberforce’s influence in introducing it is hard to avoid.

(Amazing Grace, 234)

If you are a believer, William Wilberforce—a man of devout faith whose faith and love of neighbor prompted him to act in unpopular ways for the good of others—is a man you need to know well. Amazing Grace is a book with some flaws, but it does a great job of helping the reader to do that—getting to know a man who spent his life working to make God’s kingdom come and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Abolition & the Stone-Campbell Movement: James O’Kelly’s Essay on Negro-Slavery

I have written before about the unfortunate fact that there were some Christians in the antebellum South who used the Bible to justify the practice of slavery. I argued that they were wrong to do so on at least two grounds:

  1. They failed to see a distinction between the ancient slavery described and regulated in the bible and the race-based chattel slavery of the U.S. colonies and Southern states that was basically “man-stealing,” something the Bible expressly forbade (Exodus 21.16).
  2. They failed to see the profound argument set forth by Paul in the Letter to Philemon. Here, he does not seek to abolish all slavery in the Roman Empire, but instead seeks to get one man to understand the radical implications of the Christian message: slave owners should view their slaves as Christian brothers and sisters (or at least, as potential brothers and sisters) in the family of God, and to treat them accordingly. In such a family where all are equally servants of God, there is no place for slavery.

Thankfully, many Christians were not wrong on these points, and were actually at the forefront of the fight for the abolition of slavery. One prominent abolitionist (in fact, he was one of the first clergymen to write an anti-slavery publication) was James O’Kelly (1735-1826), who is of particular interest to me (and many of my readers) because of his connection to the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.

O’Kelly was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher in North Carolina in the 1770s and 1780s. O’Kelly withdrew from the Methodist Church in 1792 over matters of church polity, and founded the Republican Methodist Church, which later became a part of the Christian Connexion. Some of the members of this group later became a part of the Stone-Campbell Movement (though O’Kelly himself died before the Stone and Campbell groups united). You can read more about him here.

In 1789, O’Kelly wrote Essay on Negro-Slavery, in which he published his strong anti-slavery views. Abilene Christian University has a digital scan of this work available for free download, and I enjoyed reading this short publication last summer. O’Kelly writes forcefully and well. I have included some quotations from the work below, along with some of my own thoughts.

First, O’Kelly didn’t actually desire to write about such a topic, but felt compelled to do so:

“Not that I looked upon it as difficult to prove the injustice of slavery, for a man of half sense can see that; but I was reluctant to become an author. Yet the word of the Lord, whenever I thought of declining, would burn like fire in my bones, and rob me of my sleep.” [“To the Reader”]

He seeks to help his audience feel empathy, as he describes the horrible practice of the breaking up of families in slave markets, and the inhumane treatment that slaves at times received from their masters:

“O husbands, who have tender wives and precious children, can you acquiesce with a law that tolerates a practices so inhuman, which enslaves human creatures who have as much right to their natural liberty as to their common air?” [9]

“A master who drank to excess, one morning, lately, took his man-slave, and hoisted and weighed him by a tobacco-beam fixed between his legs, another standing on the beam to increase the pain; beat, cut, and lashed him, till the blood poured down in streams: the slave begged for mercy, but in vain; then spake in a soft manner to the tyrant, saying, master, you have killed me. He then lifted up his eyes to Heaven and expired.” [9]

Beyond an emotional level, O’Kelly addresses the issue of slavery from a theological perspective:

“When GOD called Abraham (Gen. xii) he preached the gospel to him, saying, “In thy seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed,”—Africa not excepted.” [15]

“The Son of GOD did not come to destroy lives, but to save. Neither did he come to enslave men’s persons, but to preach the great jubilee. Involuntary slavery directly opposes the benevolent purposes of the Christian religion. The Christian religion is the pure undefiled religion, gathering proselytes from every nation into one fold. The Christian, who through the Spirit hath received a divine nature, even the mind of Christ, hath learned of his great master to be meek to his countrymen, neighbors and brethren, and the inhabitants of the remotest regions as well as of the nearest. He calls no man common or unclean. He is like his Father and his Master, whose sun shines upon the evil and the good, and who sends rain on the just and the unjust.” [17]

O’Kelly also does not shy away from the difficult issue of the practical consequences of emancipation. With blacks subjugated for so long and deprived of education and a means of building up personal wealth, what would happen to them if they were suddenly freed? O’Kelly acknowledges this problem and suggests that a gradual emancipation would be best, but with the clear understanding that the very people who have created this problem through enslaving others need to be involved in helping former slaves to live as independent, self-sufficient free people:

“You say, “they are poor and having to begin upon, how can they live, if free?” This objection is stronger than all. They are the poorest people that mine eyes ever saw. you shall take every rag of clothing that is on a thousand, and put them in the road as free plunder, and hardly a free-man would alight from his horse to pick them up! But why such poverty? Where is all their labour that you have got? Your objections make your injustice only more glaring. You are the cause of their poverty. Will you rob a man of his all, and then out of pity make a slave of him, because he has nothing to begin upon? Perhaps the grand objection lies here. “What shall we do?” Only let a gradual emancipation commence, from the pure love of GOD and man in our christian brethren, and that glorious example will influence the civil powers. Reward them for their labour; encourage good behaviour; subject them to your laws; let them have interest to study, and our country will not want hands to till the earth with comfort; their minds will be no longer so contracted: the activity of the magistrates will suppress the flagitiousness of white and black. The natural genius of the people will soon appear.” [26]

“If your present situation is such that you cannot liberate your captives without defrauding your creditors, or reducing your family into deep distress; acknowledge the wrong detention, converse with your dear preachers who feel for you, and emancipate them in a more gradual manner; and we shall rejoice in your sincerity, and acknowledge you as dear brethren in Christ.” [31]

In many ways this was not an enjoyable read, as it described and decried a terrible practice in a dark period of our national history. However, it was inspiring to read the thoughts of someone like O’Kelly who, thoroughly infused with the principles of the Gospel, was willing to buck the trends of his time and take a stand for justice and righteousness. Furthermore, the knowledge that he was in some sense a spiritual ancestor of mine was a simultaneous source of pride and hope.

Slavery and the Bible

Last semester I was blessed to take a graduate course on 1-2 Corinthians, and as part of that, I had the opportunity to read literally thousands of pages on those two epistles. I came across a lot of good material in that reading, and one of the biggest benefits I received is that I am now much better informed about the historical setting of the Greco-Roman world, which has significant implications for not just the Corinthian letters, but the rest of the New Testament as well.

One particular issue that I learned more about was the practice of slavery in the Greco-Roman world, and the purpose of this post is to share some of that information. The issue of slavery in the Bible is important, because one consistent criticism that has been made against the Bible and Christianity is the claim that it supports the practice of slavery.

This is a significant question, and one that should not be brushed aside. The practice of slavery represents a reprehensible stain on American history. The morally repugnant practice led to an increasingly bitter debate in the mid-19th century, and ultimately, became a significant cause of the American Civil War. In the course of that debate, there were many Christians who fought for abolition, but, unfortunately, many other Christians also supported slavery, and claimed that they were biblically justified in doing so.

Now, I don’t think they were correct in using biblical texts to justify slavery as it was practiced in the United States, but that doesn’t change the historical fact that they did exactly that. And it is absolutely undeniable that when Christians do horrible things and use Scripture to justify those things, it is very damaging to the cause of Christ.

In this post, I am not going to try to completely solve what is an admittedly complex issue, but I do plan to offer some preliminary thoughts in order to help you, dear reader, better examine what Scripture says about slavery in its historical context.

The Historical Context of “Slavery”

As American citizens, when we hear the word “slavery,” without exception we think of slavery as it was practiced in the United States in the 1800s.[1] That’s only natural, because it is the history of our country and what we are most familiar with, but “we must resist the temptation to equate ancient slavery with the antebellum slavery in nineteenth-century America.”[2] In other words, in some important ways, slavery in the ancient world was different from what we are familiar with in our own history.

Before I get into that, it’s also worth pointing out that it is an oversimplification to talk about “ancient cultures” or “ancient practices” in such a way as to imply that all “ancient” peoples did things in precisely the same ways. Looking just at the Bible, we have descriptions of a variety of different cultures spanning a period of over 2,000 years. Just as it would be historically anachronistic for us to take practices from today and impose them upon a first century context, it would also be historically inappropriate to remove practices from a Greco-Roman context and impose them upon the Israelites when they were wandering in the wilderness.

Sometimes we talk about “Bible times”, but it is worth emphasizing that the Bible covers a lot of time, and depending on where you are reading, you are going to get a different picture in certain respects.

Slavery in the Old Testament

I am not even going to try to discuss all of the verses about slavery in the Old Testament, and in fact, this post will focus more on slavery in the Greco-Roman world (i.e. the world in which Paul lived and wrote), but I did want to make a few brief statements about slavery in the Old Testament.

Admittedly, the Old Testament does assume the practice of slavery and provides guidelines to regulate it, but we should observe some key differences between this practice and the slavery that was practiced in the United States:

  • This was a form of economic slavery rather than racial slavery. Old Testament slavery was not based on race, but was more related to economics. People generally sold themselves into slavery in order to pay off debts or provide for their families. To put it in the context of American history, it was more like indentured servitude than slavery.
  • Biblical law made provision for the freeing of slaves under certain conditions. On the other hand, as time went on in the US, slave codes actively prohibited the process of freeing slaves.
  • Biblical law forbade the practice of “man-stealing”:

    “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death” (Exodus 21.16).

  • Contrary to this, the African slave trade was based significantly on this very practice of rounding up native Africans, tearing them from their homes, and shipping them across the Atlantic.[3]

Slavery in the Greco-Roman World

Paul lived and wrote in the Greco-Roman world and touched upon slavery in various places (Colossians 3.11, 4.1; 1 Timothy 6.1-3, Galatians 3.28), including multiple places in 1 Corinthians and significantly, in Philemon. Much of what has been said above also applies to Greco-Roman slavery, but to reiterate and further expound upon the differences between Greco-Roman slavery and slavery in the antebellum United States:

  • Slavery was an incredibly common practice in the Roman Empire. Certainly it was common in the United States as well, with slaves comprising approximately 1/3 of the population of slave states from 1750-1860.[4] But it was even more common in the Roman Empire:  estimates suggest that up to half of the population of the city of Rome itself were slaves.[5]
  • Another difference is that slaves were often highly educated in the Greco-Roman world. Some of the most educated people in the Roman Empire and some of the most successful businessmen were or at one point had been slaves. They served in a wide variety of roles ranging from stewards, shipmasters, farm managers, custodians of children, teachers, and money-lenders.[6] This is distinguished from the general practice of slavery in the US, where African slaves were, generally speaking, systematically denied education as a means of keeping them subjugated.
  • Often, these people became slaves when they were captured in some sort of Roman conquest. Rome was frequently engaged in warfare, and this is where most Roman slaves came from. Others sold themselves into slavery out of economic necessity, because there was often better possibility for economoic security and social advancement as a slave operating under the protection of a wealthy patron than as a free poor person.[7] Again, this differs greatly from the practice of stealing people of a certain race from their homes and forcibly enslaving them.
  • Manumission was the Greco-Roman vehicle for a slave to buy freedom from his or her master. Slaves were allowed to accumulate both property and money in the course of their work, and after earning enough, if the master approved, could buy their freedom.[8] Masters were not legally compelled to approve, but they often did: manumission was so common in the first century that Augustus actually set up laws to limit the practice. Interestingly, there is also evidence that some early Christian congregations purchased the freedom of some of their slave members![9] Again, all of this should be contrasted with the slavery of the American South, where it was not feasible and in many places, not even legal for slaves to seek manumission.
  • Finally, in the Greco-Roman world, “no one, not even the slaves who led slave revolts, was arguing for the abolition of slavery in the Empire.”[10] There are even inscriptions from slaves that read, “slavery was never unkind to me.”[11] Instead, slaves sought to limit and protest abuses, and to be treated fairly. This fact may be hard for us to imagine given our own historical practice of slavery, which led to vigorous debates about abolition, but again this just points to the reality that slavery in the ancient world was fundamentally different from more modern forms of race-based slavery. That is not to say that slavery was a good thing (it was not), but simply that it cannot be equated with the practice of slavery that we are more familiar with. With that in mind, when biblical texts regulate slavery and protect against certain abuses, they are actually in line with the most revolutionary voices of the time.

The Epistle to Philemon

Familiar with the practice of slavery as described above, Paul was not a modern revolutionary who was seeking to overthrow the social order and bring about abolition for all slaves. Instead, Paul’s agenda was to set up an alternative—the church—and to guide relationships within that society. His feelings on slavery are made clearer in the Epistle to Philemon, where Paul writes to a Christian slave owner, Philemon, and pleads for the manumission of Onesimus, his slave,  based on their shared identity in Christ.

As Witherington points out:

It will be noted that Paul is no revolutionary here. He is not arguing for a slave revolt, only that one slave be freed. Paul’s principle is that all Christians, of whatever background or status, are brothers and sisters in Christ, led eventually to a situation in which it was clear that slavery and Christianity, with its views of human dignity, freedom, and complete availability to only one Master, are basically incompatible.[12]


All of this brings us back to the original issue: were 19th century American Christians correct to use the Bible to justify their practice of slavery? No. The simple truth of the matter is that even if American Christians equated their practice of slavery with what they read about in the Bible (which, as this post as made clear, they should not have; the two practices were fundamentally different), if they had paid attention to Paul’s admonitions to Philemon, the practice of slavery would have been stopped dead in its tracks. Paul’s message to Christian slave owners is that they should view their slaves as Christian brothers and sisters (or at least, as potential brothers and sisters) in the family of God, and to treat them accordingly. In such a family where all are equally servants of God, there is no place for slavery.

Alas, Paul’s words to Philemon went unheeded or overlooked by too many who considered themselves to be Christians and supported the abhorrent practice of slavery. It is their interpretation and application of Scripture and their practice of Christianity that must be condemned; not Scripture nor Christianity themselves.

[1] I am using “1800s” here simply as a form of shorthand; the practice of slavery certainly existed in the American colonies dating back to the 1600s.

[2] Ben Witherington III, A Week in the Life of Corinth (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 9.



[5] Witherington, ibid.

[6] Ben Witherington III, Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 & 2 Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1995), 99.

[7] Witherington, Conflict & Community, ibid.

[8] Witherington, A Week in the Life of Corinth, 9-10.

[9] Witherington, Conflict & Community, 184.

[10] Witherington, A Week in the Life of Corinth, 9.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Witherington, Conflict & Community, 185.

Inalienable Rights, Slavery, & Abortion

Relative Rights

Famously, the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence states:

 We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed;

These are beautiful words, and the ideas they express run deep in our national ethos—even if we have struggled to live up to them at times.

One thing I have come to believe over time that I don’t hear people talk about very often is how our unalienable rights themselves are not, or should not be, considered equal: their importance is relative to one another.

Stated mathematically:

Life > Liberty > the Pursuit of Happiness

What I mean by that is that my right to pursue happiness should not infringe upon your liberty, and my right to liberty should not infringe upon your life. Stated positively, people need to have life before they can have liberty, and they need to have liberty before they are free to pursue happiness.

Great Evils

I think that slavery and abortion stand as two of the great evils in American history, and I think these two issues share striking similarities:

  • In both cases, the suffering of the victims was allowed on the basis that they were considered to be somewhat-less-than-human. This thinking was furthered by the use of dehumanizing terms like slave and fetus.
  • In both cases, the victims were treated as the property of others, without rights of their own.
  • In both cases, an evil practice was justified because of its economic benefit. Slavery was the backbone of Southern economy, considered by many to be a necessary evil. “What would happen to our economy without slave labor?” they cried. Similarly, proponents of abortion often describe it as a necessary evil, sometimes the only option for impoverished mothers. “What would happen to our economy if we had to support all of these unwanted babies?” they cry.
  • And in both cases, good but misguided people made the mistake of refusing to condemn the unacceptable behavior of others. Slavery continued for as long as it did because too many people who would never consider owning a slave themselves refused to take that “right” away from others. Think about the typical Pro-Choice bumper stickers and protest signs you see and translate them to the slavery issue: “Opposed to slavery? Don’t buy one!” It seems ludicrous to us today, but until we as a culture can realize that with abortion—as with slavery—humans are being denied basic human rights, such flawed thinking will continue.

These two issues are also similar in the way the relate to the issue of the relative importance of our inalienable rights which I set forth above:

  • In the case of slavery, one group’s right to pursue happiness through a certain type of agricultural lifestyle supported by slave labor was used to strip the liberty of another group. If inalienable rights are weighted correctly, the right to freedom would come first, and liberty would not be removed from someone to enable someone else’s pursuit of happiness.
  • In the case of abortion, one group’s right to freedom over control of their bodies is used to strip the life of another group. If inalienable rights are weighted correctly, the right to live would come first, and life would not be taken away from an infant because of someone else’s liberty.

When the words of the Declaration of Independence quoted above were penned, a profound and beautiful truth was set forth with implications that even the authors didn’t fully grasp or live out. May we strive for a society where all people are guaranteed their Creator-endowed inalienable rights: Life first, then Liberty, and then the Pursuit of Happiness.

The Validity of the Ideal

Some fireworks over Bentonville, Ark., on July 4, 2014.

Thomas Jefferson penned the famous second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, which was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Those are beautiful words, and they describe an ideal that, in practice, our country has sometimes failed to live up to. We haven’t always treated all men as equals: African Americans were enslaved and then later discriminated against via Jim Crow laws. Native Americans were tricked and strong-armed off of their lands and herded to less desirable areas. Women were denied a political voice. The failure continues today, as we certainly don’t treat our unborn infants as being equal to those who want to dispose of them so easily.

Yes, we have failed and continue to fail to live up to the beautiful words quoted above. But our failure to live out that ideal in no way undermines the validity of it. May we continue to seek the ideal: all people are created equal, because they all bear the Image of the Creator Himself.

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