|Most discussions on religion and slavery focus on Biblical justifications for the institution. Here we have a theological discourse on the subject from a Lutheran minister of abolitionist leanings. Rev. Schmucker was the head of the Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary from 1826 to 1864. He wrote this at the request of the students, in 1840. I would like to thank Robert Moore, who posted this in an article about Schmucker on his excellent blog, Cenantua's Blog.|
We believe that God has of one blood created all nations to dwell on the face of the earth, has endowed them all with the powers of moral agency and invested them all with certain inalienable rights and obligations, e.g., life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the discharge of what they believe to be their religious duties.
No man or set of men has a right to acquire or exercise such a control over others, as is detrimental to the inalienable rights and obligations of the individual.
Each association, whether a civil government or a literary society or a domestic institution, can rightfully exercise a control over its subjects only under this limitation: only so far as it is not detrimental to the inalienable rights and obligations of individuals.
Every instance or institution which violates the inalienable rights and obligations of individuals is in its own nature an evil. Further, all who materially and knowingly establish it, or who finding it previously fail sincerely to desire and faithfully to labor for its extinction, are guilty of sin.
Such evils exist in some of the political governments of Europe, which restrict the freedom of religious worship or violate any other inalienable right or obligation.
Slavery as it is legally authorized in the United States, and until recently was authorized in the British West Indies, is the very worst form of such an evil, because by converting the moral agent of God, into a mere chattel, the person into a mere thing, the immortal being into a mere article of property, it in theory strips him of all his personal rights, and places it in the power of his master, in practice to deny him the enjoyment of all the inalienable rights which God bestowed on him, and to prevent higher performance of those inalienable duties which God has imposed.
Experience proves that whilst there are thousands of humane and Christian masters, who treat their slaves with kindness and work them moderately, yet even in their hands the system itself unavoidably leads to the intellectual and moral degradation of the slave, whilst in the hands of a majority of masters the practice is nearly and often fully as bad as the theory will allow.
Slavery either essentially embraces or naturally or unavoidably leads to the following evils.
a) It virtually destroys the matrimonial relations, which God has instituted and commanded because it acknowledges no such relation in law, affords no legal protection to it, but puts it in the power of the master at any time and for any reason and even without any to separate those whom God, by the mutual covenant of the parties, hath joined together.
b) It tends to promote promiscuous concubinage by destroying the inviolability of the conjugal relation, and by frequent separations teaching the slave to regard it as less sacred by denying anything like legal protection to female chastity, it places the whole race of females at the mercy of the licentious master, and other licentious men.
c) It violates the parental relation by taking children from the control of their parents, then making it impossible for their parents to direct their destination in life, or to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
d) It is habitual injustice to the slave, and violation of the inspired precepts that the laborer is worthy of his hire.
e) It destroys the motives to industry and honesty by extorting labor without wages.
f) It in a great measure shuts out the written word of God from the slave by making it unusual to teach him to read, and thus it renders it impossible for him to discharge the duty enjoined on all to search the scriptures.
That a system compounded of elements so immoral and so clearly opposed to the character of God, finds any sanction in his word can be asserted only from want of careful and adequate examination, or from ignorance or prejudice, or insincerity. The facts of the case are these: the word “slave” occurs but twice in our English Bible. In the first passage, Jeremiah 2:14, there is no Hebrew word at all corresponding to it, and the ellipsis to be supplied was “servant.” In the other case, Revelation 18:13, the Greek word is somaton (bodies) and should have been so rendered. The terms actually used in scripture ebed, douloV, are generic terms, actually used and equivalent to servant, they are also applied to the ancient prophets and kings (1 Kings 12:6,7; 2 Chronicles 12:7, 8, 9, 13). They are also applied to Christians who are termed servants and to Christ himself (Isaiah 42:1). As to the thing itself, slavery in the American sense of the term had no existence under the Old Test. dispensation. There was indeed a species of servitude, but that servitude was very different from American slavery.
a) It was in all cases temporary; the Hebrew could not be kept longer than six years (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:121314) except when sold for debts, where he might be kept until the year of jubilee (Leviticus 25:40). Some Jewish writers assert that this could be done only when the jubilee occurred within the ensuing 6 years. The foreign servant that was purchased could be contracted for till the year of jubilee and no longer (Leviticus 25:10). The term “forever” which is sometimes applied to these foreign servants appears to indicate only an indefinite time and does not see beyond the jubilee in which all servants were commanded to be set at liberty without exception. But if any servant was ill treated, or for any reason was dissatisfied with situation, he could move off and dwell in any place where it liked him best and the Israelite was commanded not to deliver him to his master (Deuteronomy 23:16). John 8:35 says the servant abideth not forever, but the son does.
b) This servitude was generally voluntary; it could not well be otherwise, as not only the manstealer was punished with death, but also every person in whose possession any one thus taken was found (Exodus 1:15). Manstealing is forcibly taking and selling another, or seducing him to bondage. Now, if it could not be done forcibly, it must be done voluntarily if at all, excepting cases where the law provided for the sale of persons involuntarily for debt, which case it is however not certain that it did occur (Leviticus 25:29) and all servants could terminate their servitude by absconding. The Hebrew sold himself (Leviticus 25:47) seeming to imply the legality of involuntary sale for debt, though Gesenius renders this passage makar “sold himself” like in verse 47 where even our own Common Version renders the same word “sell himself.” The Egyptians sold themselves to Pharaoh for bread (Genesis 47:49).
c) The conjugal relation was acknowledged and not severed; when the servant’s time had expired he took his wife with him, if he had been married before his indenture or servantship, and if he married afterward in his master’s family, his master was compelled to keep him if he desired to remain even after his time had expired (Exodus 21:32).
d) The religious privileges of servants were equal to those of their masters (Genesis17:1317; Exodus 20:30; Deuteronomy 5:14).
e) They were on equality with their masters in many respects; thus, they were entrusted with arms (Genesis 14:14, 32:6, 33:1).
f) They sometimes married into their master’s family (1 Chronicles 2:323435).
g) They partook of the feasts with their masters (Deuteronomy 12:1718, 16:11).
h) Paul says that the heir whilst a child or minor differs not from a servant; i.e. he asserts that their situation was in general similar, a thing which no one could with propriety assert of the condition of American slaves (Galatians 4:1).
Whilst the New Testament does not denounce slavery by name any more than it does gambling, or piracy, or polygamy, or the Olympic Games, or the Eleucinian mysteries, or the despotism of Tiberius or Nero; it does in numerous passages condemn each of the ingredients of which slavery is composed, urging the slave to accept of his liberty if he can obtain it (1 Corinthians 7:21); urging masters to give their slaves what is just and equal (Colossians 4:1); not to keep back the wages of the hireling (James 5:4); not to separate husband and wife—to remember that they also have a master in heaven—and to treat the servant “no longer as a slave” (Philippians 6:16), but above a slave as a brother beloved.
Involuntary slave holding is not sinful so long as it is strictly of this character. This embraces
a) first, persons convinced of the evils of slavery, but on whom slaves have been entailed by inheritance or marriage. By inheritance persons may become slaveholders in their sleep, as they may become owners of property or money made by gambling or other illegal traffic. The innocence of this slaveholding can continue only until there has been time for the master to execute deeds of manumission; or if the laws do not allow emancipation on the soil; until they can be transported to a place of safety or free state, or country.
b) In the former times of ignorance on this subject persons who had but little knowledge of human institutions themselves and had never been admonished on this subject, and who treated their slaves as they ought (viz., gave them religious instruction, governed them by moral motives) held slaves in comparative, though not absolute innocence; just as good men formerly drank ardent spirits moderately.
c) Those who before the sinfulness of slavery had been
discussed, did actually acknowledge the inviolable rights
and obligations of man in their slaves and they
made slavery far different in practice from what the theory of the law makes it, may have held slaves in comparative innocence.
All voluntary slaveholding is sinful. This embraces almost the entire extent of actual slavery at the present day of light and discussion.
The degree of guilt in the case of each individual slave holder, in addition to the guilt of holding human beings in slavery at all, is proportionate to the degree in which he in fact violates the unalienable right of man in his slaves and in which he impedes their performance of their inviolable obligations as husbands and wives, as children and parents, as free subjects of God’s moral government.
It is the duty of every individual himself immediately to abstain from all violation of the inalienable rights and obligations of his fellow man in practice. Further, in order that neither he nor they after him may be able to practice these violations hereafter, it is his duty by immediate emancipation to relinquish that legal right and temptation to its practice, which the law gives to the master over his slave.
It is the duty of every Christian and friend of civil and religious liberty, to exert his influence in every beneficial way to vindicate the right of all God’s rational creatures, and by peaceable means and Christian appeals to their consciences, patriotism and humanity to influence those who are violating those rights (Leviticus 19:17; Proverbs 31:89; Jeremiah 22:13; Matthew 5:43; 7:12).