Jul 31 2012

John Meunier: Slavery, the Bible, & John Wesley

Original post at http://johnmeunier.wordpress.com/2012/07/31/slavery-the-bible-john-wesley/

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly. (Lev. 25:44-46, NIV)

When I read the quote above this week, it got me thinking again of John Wesley’s tract “Thoughts Upon Slavery.” In it, Wesley does not try to draw a strong distinction between ancient and modern slavery and credits Christianity with eliminating ancient slavery in Western Europe. But when he turns to argue against African slavery, he does not think opening his Bible is necessary to make a case against it:

I would now inquire, whether these things can be defended, on the principles of even heathen honesty; whether they can be reconciled (setting the Bible out of the question) with any degree of either justice or mercy.

The grand plea is, “They are authorized by law.” But can law, human law, change the nature of things? Can it turn darkness into light, or evil into good? By no means. Notwithstanding ten thousand laws, right is right, and wrong is wrong still. There must still remain an essential difference between justice and injustice, cruelty and mercy. So that I still ask, Who can reconcile this treatment of the Negroes, first and last, with either mercy or justice?

I’ve never found a place where Wesley deals with the biblical materials that condone or regulate slavery. His notes on the Old Testament skip over the verses at the top of this post. Perhaps he deals with other Old Testament or New Testament passages about slavery. I have not made a systematic study of that.

His mention of “heathen honesty” in the quote above reminds me of his sermon “The Almost Christian” in which he describes a hierarchy of sorts. Heathen honesty is the lowest rung on the spiritual climb toward true Christianity. Clearly, Wesley sees slavery as a violation of even the most basic standards of morality. He appears to see no need to refer to the Bible to determine the moral character of slavery.

Yet, the passage like the one at the top of this post clearly does not condemn slavery. And this is not just an Old Testament thing.

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:18-21, NIV)

In this passage, interestingly, Wesley uses the King James translation for his notes on the New Testament. The KJV uses the word “servants” rather than “slaves.” Wesley suggests this passage is about household servants. I’m not sure if he understands these as slaves or not.

Whatever his understanding, given his very high view of Scripture, I wonder how he squared his strong conviction that slavery was beyond the pale with the many words of Scripture that seem to accept it without much qualm.

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John Meunier

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  1. d

    No Israelite may become a slave
    No Israelite can be owned by another person.
    An Israelite may be on loan to someone.
    An Israelite may be indebted to someone or in a state of servitude but never a slave.
    A Hebrew bondmen is high above the position of slave
    The courts could sell a Hebrew without their consent if they were a thief.
    Manumission is required at some point in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus .
    The bondman and bondwoman not of Hebrew blood could become a possession or owned by the Israelite master.

    The covenant relationship of the Israelites and God in the Old Testament was between and in effect to the nation of Israel and Israel alone. Under the New Covenant the promises would apply to all nations and peoples. The civil law and penalties of the Old Covenant would change. The Moral Law would not change.
    It is evident the 1st covenant God had with the Israelites afforded them special status and exception concerning ownership and slavery. Those exceptions and privileges would expand under the new covenant. That is most likely reflected in Wesley’s writings, understanding and rejection of slavery. Under the New Covenant no one has the right to own another person Jew or not. They may be in servitude but not enslaved. Like the Old Covenant with the Jewish Nation all people had the right to be treated humanely.
    Later, under Roman and Greek rulers “Law of Nations” would come into effect regulating some slave rights and obligations of governments. The seed origins some believe reflect back to Solomon’s Empire.

    To understand 1 Peter 2:18-21, NIV) it may be helfull to read a little history on Roman Law.

  2. d

    The Jews ,when conquered, were a real pain to nations that over threw them.
    That mentality of servitude to their God alone and the Jewish belief the Hebrew could not be enslaved to man sustained and inspired them against captures.
    Rome would give special exception to the Jew.

    Could Paul’s conduct instruction for slaves lay the ground work or first steps leading to the slave being set free? Was the instruction to slaves by Paul wise considering the penalties associated with non compliant slaves?

    You may be interested in reading the following:
    In the second century AD, an otherwise unknown jurist called Gaius wrote a textbook of Roman law for students. He sets out clearly the different legal statuses of slaves, citizens and different categories of freedmen, and mentions the various pieces of legislation which affected slaves, particularly the Lex Aelia Sentia of 4 AD. Here is a selection from the section of Gaius’ textbook dealing with slavery.


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