Martin Luther King Jr., Slavery, the Bible, and Us

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Today is the day we have set aside to give national recognition and much deserved  honor to Martin Luther King Jr.

The battle for civil rights was fought on many fronts.

Dr. King appealed to us as Americans, taking us back to our founding documents which declare  the “self-evident truths that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”  Politically, Americans had to choose between being an American as defined by the Constitution and Declaration of Independence or being racist.

The civil rights movement was a spiritual movement.  Dr. King was also Rev. King. On this point, the matter gets more complicated.  You wouldn’t think so.  To our minds, slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, racism, prejudice just don’t fit with the Christian life.    It was not always so.

Growing up in Little Rock, I am well aware of the stain of a segregation mentality. Growing up a Southern Baptist, I was not aware until sitting in a Baptist History class in a Southern Baptist college that the founding of the SBC was all about slavery.  Foreshadowing the Civil War, white Baptists in the South separated from their northern counterparts on May 10, 1845, and formed the Southern Baptist Convention  in order to defend the South’s practice of and dependency on slavery.

Slavery was biblical.  Abolition, therefore, was sinful.

On January 27, 1861, Ebenezer Warren, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Macon, Georgia, delivered a sermon in which he said, “Slavery forms a vital element of the Divine Revelation to man.  Its institution, regulation, and perpetuity, constitute a part of many of the books of the Bible…The public mind needs enlightening from the sacred teachings of inspiration on this subject…It is necessary for ministers of the gospel…to teach slavery from the pulpit, as it was taught by the holy men of old, who spake as moved by the Holy Spirit…Both Christianity and slavery are from heaven; both are blessings to humanity; both are to be perpetuated to the end of time …. Because Slavery is right; and because the condition of the slaves affords them all those privileges which would prove substantial blessings to them; and, too, because their Maker has decreed their bondage, and has given them, as a race, capacities and aspirations suited alone to this condition of life ….”

Wow.  Such a view, a view which its holder claims to be grounded in Scripture, staggers my mind. But he wasn’t alone.

All you history buffs may know Mark A. Noll.  He authored, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.
Great read.
Eye-opening.
Instructive for us in regard to Bible interpretation and application.  The book is a case study in hermeneutics.

It seems that pro-slavery pastors and Christians appealed to specific Scripture verses in support of their position, while anti-slavery pastors and Christians appealed to the general Biblical principles of justice, mercy, and love to support theirs.

Henry Van Dyke, Presbyterian pastor in Brooklyn, wasn’t comfortable with the abolitionists hermeneutics.  Noll quotes him as saying, “When the abolitionists tell me that slave holding is sin, in the simplicity of my faith in the Holy Scriptures, I point him to this sacred record, and tell him, in all candor, as my text does, that his teaching blasphemes the name of God and His doctrine.”

The problem was, the pro-slavery folks had a lot going for them in the way of proof-texts (Exodus 21:20-21; Deuteronomy 20:10-11; 1 Corinthians 7:20,21; Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22; 1 Timothy 6:1 to name a few).

The same verses and interpretation used to support slavery were used to support segregation a century after emancipation.

What then was the Biblical basis for Rev. King’s call to unity and equality?
What’s the Biblical basis for us making the same call?

The same basis used by the abolitionist…

Noll says that the abolitionists appealed to the “broad sweep of Scripture” moving away “from the Bible’s ‘letter‘ of sanction for slavery to its ‘spirit‘ of universal liberation.”  In 1861, abolitionist Gerrit Smith said, “The religion taught by Jesus is not a letter but a life.”

Do you see the dilemma?

Noll’s book is not just a look at history.  It’s a look at ourselves and how we use the Bible.

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2 thoughts on “Martin Luther King Jr., Slavery, the Bible, and Us

  1. @..”On January 27, 1861, Ebenezer Warren, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Macon, Georgia, delivered a sermon in which he said, “Slavery forms a vital element of the Divine Revelation to man. Its institution, regulation, and perpetuity, constitute a part of many of the books of the Bible…The public mind needs enlightening from the sacred teachings of inspiration on this subject…It is necessary for ministers of the gospel…to teach slavery from the pulpit, as it was taught by the holy men of old, who spake as moved by the Holy Spirit…Both Christianity and slavery are from heaven; both are blessings to humanity; both are to be perpetuated to the end of time …. Because Slavery is right; and because the condition of the slaves affords them all those privileges which would prove substantial blessings to them; and, too, because their Maker has decreed their bondage, and has given them, as a race, capacities and aspirations suited alone to this condition of life ….”>>Wow , is right! Unreal that anyone with a lick of humanity who called themselves a Christian; could ever believe , in their hearts of hearts, that something as evil as slavery was ever a righteous thing..Misinterpretation of things, even the Bible, or twisting of words to make one’s self feel better (spiritually?) was never more in effect as then. Slavery was a major form of revenue. Period. And truth be told the reason it was finally halted isn’t a pretty or squeaky clean reason either..

  2. I read about this a while back, when doing research on slavery (and its sanction in Leviticus). It was very disheartening. It taught me that the tremendous amount of complex passages and texts in the Bible practically allow anyone to justify whatever they want. Simply pick and choose the verses, ignore context, or misinterpret context and then tell people “God tells you to obey His word. This is what His word says. You don’t want to disobey God, do you?”.

    I went through a phase where I wanted to determine what I truly believed. There were so many interpretations and ideas (Young earth, old earth, local flood, global flood, dispensationalism, covenant theology, calvinism, arminianism, hyper-calvinism, fundamentalism, evangelicalism, liberationism, methodism, pentecostalism, etc.) some of which claimed that the outcome of your afterlife greatly depended on you agreeing with them. There can be two diametrically opposed views about God’s character, both of which are exclusivists, and I’m supposed to determine which one is true with my limited intelligence and time. I could talk to someone at my church about it, and I’ll get a cookie cutter answer of “You need to sit down and pray, and ask God to reveal His truth to you, then start reading His word”. But this is the same answer that all denominations give you, and all denominations expect you to find what they respectively believe when you do read the Bible. These are all well meaning individuals with a belief system that makes them feel like they have finally found Truth. They’ve adopted the views of people who spent decades researching and studying the Bible, all of which came to different conclusions. They mean well, I know. But add to that all the other interpretations concerning trivial matters (like skirts and women cutting their hair) or even more serious ones like slavery and homosexuality, and it starts to feel like you’re a contestant in The Price is Right, but instead of trying to figure out the price of an item, you’re trying to figure out Truth, and you have two hundred people in the audience shouting out what they think is right. The stakes are high. What you choose could make God approve, or disapprove. According to some, your decision could be the result of Heaven or Hell. Time is running out, life is short. Choose wisely.

    It’s exhausting.

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