The Bible and Slavery
MARK A. NOLL
A brief observation in Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address highlighted the greatest theological conundrum of the Civil War. Both North and South, he said, "read the same Bible." The profundity of this statement was twofold. Most obviously, both North and South read the Bible, almost universally in the Authorized Version. More important for a theological understanding of the Civil War, both read the Bible in the same way. 1
The problem of the Bible and slavery was always an exegetical problem, but never only an exegetical problem. If the Bible was God's revealed word to humanity, then it was the duty of Christians to heed carefully every aspect of that revelation. If the Bible tolerated, or actually sanctioned, slavery, then it was incumbent upon believers to hear and obey. The logic was inescapable. By 1861, the application of that logic had created a theological crisis of the first order. Despite widespread distaste for slavery and a good deal of antislavery activity from some quarters, more and more Americans had come to believe that--at least in some senses and with respect to some purposes--the Bible did sanction slavery. If, however, the preponderant view concluded that the Bible allowed or upheld slavery, anything but unanimity existed about how to act upon that conclusion. The immediate crisis was created by the fact that four sizable and vocal constituencies offered conflicting answers to the problem. From a modern perspective, it is clear that a theological crisis was also created by the appearance that only four responses were possible for the problem.
The first option was to admit that the Bible sanctioned slavery and, therefore, to abandon the Bible, at least in anything like its traditional shape, in order to attack slavery. This option was by far the least popular, but it enjoyed widespread publicity since it was defended by radical abolitionists of great notoriety like William Lloyd Garrison and Gerrit Smith.
The response that most directly contradicted this first position was to conclude that, since the Bible sanctioned slavery in passages like Genesis 14: