Slavery, Science, and Southern Presbyterians before the Civil War

Slavery and the Civil War influenced how Southern Presbyterians interpreted Scripture and related it to science.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at
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The author (@mhhamp) is available to respond to thoughtful, on-topic questions and comments about the article.

One might “jump” to the idea that those congregants who are used to expanding on Biblical text to
justify the institution of slavery would be EQUALLY ingenius in their ability to expand on the Creation
story to have it better fit Evolutionary theory.

But it’s been my experience that Christians coming out of that “ingenius tradition” use those skills to
dismiss the relevancy of modern scientific knowledge, rather than to interpret historical details as
figurative descriptions.

George Brooks

The Bible accepts slavery as a of fact. Leviticus 25 says that slaves are to be bought from surrounding heathen nations, and should not be treated harshly. If a robber cannot make restitution to his victims, the Bible says he should be sold into slavery, and the money used to compensate his victims. That would suggest that slavery was a punishment, but no “interpretation” is required to say that the Bible condones slavery.
Our rejection of slavery comes under St. Paul’s ruling that Christians do not have to obey Mosaic laws that relate to social customs.

I don’t see that as the most relevant explanation for why Slavery is wrong. I think the most relevant
explanation is that Slavery is not and never was a divinely authorized institution. In the same way
the story of Adam and Eve cannot be relied upon for seeing the heart of God, it seems pretty clear that
Biblical texts allowing or specifying slavery are ALSO in error when it comes to knowing the heart of

If the Bible was not in error in these respects, there wouldn’t be the need for a BioLogos . . .

George Brooks

Most antebellum Americans did believe slavery had been a divinely authorized institution, at least in the biblical past. The question for them was whether biblical statements regarding slavery as practiced in the ancient world supported slavery as practiced in America. Most white southerners believed it did, and not a few white northerners believed it did. This view owed a lot to hermeneutic assumptions about how to relate biblical texts to modern situations. While African-Americans focused on liberation texts such as the Exodus story, and more liberal northerners might emphasize the “spirit” over the letter, many white evangelicals tended to read biblical statements about slavery as directly applicable to the slavery of contemporary America. Southern Presbyterians especially collapsed the hermeneutic distance between ancient contexts and their own context; they read these texts as proof that slavery, whether ancient Hebrews slavery or modern American slavery, was ordained by God. This way of conceptualizing biblical language, an empirical approach that often deemphasized biblical passages’ literary context and the perspective of their modern reader, would carry implications for the way they engaged questions of science and the Bible, as subsequent articles will show.

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