Back in the day, when the Bible was wrong

Mar 5, 2014 by

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Taking the Bible literally has a long tradition in America. In the mid-19th century, Presbyterian minister James Henley Thornwell believed understanding the Bible was an uncomplicated process. “First, open the Scriptures and read. Second, decide for yourself what these passages mean. Don’t wait for a bishop or a king or a president … to tell you what the passage means, but decide for yourself. Third, if anyone tries to convince you that you are not interpreting such passages in the natural, commonsensical, ordinary meaning of the words, you may rest assured that you are being asked to give up … the entire trust in the Bible that made the country into such a great Christian civilization.”

Thornwell and the other prominent clergymen of the day — Boston pastor and famous author Nehemiah Adams, lawyer and Episcopal bishop John Henry Hopkins of Vermont, Massachusetts Biblical scholar Moses Stuart, Trinity College president Nathaniel Sheldon Wheaton, and hundreds of others — shared a common belief that anyone who opposed the literal and obvious meaning of the Bible was a “heretic,” “blasphemous,” “an abomination,” disobedient and a liberal denier of God.

And who were those wicked enemies of the Bible?

They were the people who believed slavery to be wrong: abolitionists. The Bible, the unquestionable authority, endorsed, promoted and encouraged slavery. The Bible includes entire chapters and books devoted to how human beings as property were to be treated.

The 19th-century literature is rife with titles that explained how the Bible proved slavery was God’s will and intention. An original 1856 copy of Scriptural and Statistical Views in Favor of Slavery, by pre-eminent proslavery minister Thornton Stringfellow, itemizes the history, line and verse in the Bible, Old Testament and New, that backs the claim.

Evangelical historian Mark A. Noll, professor of history at Notre Dame University, has written a careful and thorough study, “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis,” that spells out how slavery was perceived by Protestants, Catholics, Jews, in America and Europe, all in religious terms, and how the anti-slavery factions dealt with the obstacle of the literal Bible in their efforts to end ownership of human beings as property.

Stringfellow details how the Bible chronicles God’s granting of one group of people to be slaves to another, the proper way to care for and treat slaves, how slaves are property to be passed down from generation to generation. Among other references, he specifically lists Gen. 9:25-2; Gen. 17:12; Deut. 20:10-11; 2 Cor. 7:21; Rom. 13: 1-7; Col. 3:22 and 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; and virtually the entire book of Philemon, Paul’s letter about his returning his beloved slave Onesimus to his proper owner.

Stringfellow finds references that conclude Jesus himself condoned and approved of slavery. He quotes St. Paul that “servants (are to) be obedient to their own masters, and please them well in all things” and the “slave (is) not to despise his master, (in) the words of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Stringfellow then asks, “Now, if our Lord Jesus Christ uttered such words, how dare we say he has been silent? Paul is a liar? The guardianship and control of the black race, by the white, in this Union, is an indispensable Christian duty, to which we must as yet look, if we would secure the well-being of both races.”

Christian authors and ministers of the 18th and 19th centuries believed that slavery was a benevolent and enriching institution, benefitting all races and people, rescuing savages from ignorance and the wild, and providing morality, quite a different picture of slavery than the one we tend to experience in contemporary movies such as 12 Years a Slave.

While we think of these events as far in the historical past, evidence exists that perhaps things have not changed all that much. Many pulpits in the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960 put forth the notion that the Negro race were the descendants of Ham, Noah’s cursed son, upon whom God had placed a mark of servitude and suffering. At this same time, Martin Luther King Jr. was struggling for civil rights, and he was denounced as a communist and subversive.

That was only 50 years ago. But much more recently, Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty, a popular Christian-oriented reality TV show, publicly made the claim that black people were happier working in the cotton fields for white landowners, before civil rights legislation was enacted.

In spite of such persistent claims, Biblical injunctions that lack a “rational basis” can’t be used in a court of law today. Although religious groups claimed that the Bible prohibits same-sex relationships and behavior, Judge Vaughn Walker declared that California’s Proposition 8 was unconstitutional under both the due-process and equal-protection clauses.

“Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license,” Walker wrote in the decision that was allowed to stand by the United States Supreme Court. “Indeed the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine … the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples.”

The Bible doesn’t change, but translations may change. Interpretations change. Our understanding grows and deepens. And language itself is in a constant state of flux.

Excellent sermons based on the Bible always will be delivered to provide us with better designs for living in the spirit of love and generosity, for feeding the poor, for healing the sick, for carrying out justice.

My niece is unashamed to call herself a Biblical literalist. She has taken a turn or two at the pulpit herself (despite at least one verse in the Bible that clearly states women should be silent in church), and — frustrated at what she perceived as my anti-Bible attitude — she asked me what in the Bible was still relevant to me.

“All of it,” I told her. But my interpretation and understanding is far and away from her own. I recall being shocked, as a young teen Christian myself, upon reading books by Alan Watts, an Episcopal priest who introduced many to the texts of world religions. He wrote in 1966 that the Bible was a “fascinating anthology of ancient wisdom, history, and fable which has for so long been treated as a Sacred Cow that it might well be locked up for a century or two so that men could hear it again with clean ears.”

Locking up the Bible isn’t necessary, because human beings have the capacity to gain understanding, to meditate and pray, and to become rational about how we treat one another with respect.

P. Gregory Springer is a member of First Mennonite Church in Urbana-Champaign, Ill.

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