If you had lived in the days before the Civil War when the battle for abolition was heating up, whose side would you have been on?
It’s important to remember that for thousands of churches, this conflict was a religious conflict – with God and the Bible “clearly” defending a person’s right to own slaves.
It was a serious moral issue: the idea that slaves should be freed was dangerously immoral.
“The right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures,” said the Rev. Richard Furman in 1823.
“How this question can at all arise in the mind of any man . . . that is acquainted with the history of the Bible, is a phenomenon I cannot explain to myself,” said Rabbi Morris Raphal in 1861.
Verses like Ephesians 6:1-5 and 1 Timothy 6:1-2 were marshaled by the pro-slavery forces, who in most cases were decent, God-fearing Christians who sincerely believed they were following the “plain meaning of Scripture.” (The Southern Baptist Church was actually founded on the belief that slave-owning was biblical).
Slave owners had the stronger biblical argument. To accept the arguments of abolitionists, our ancestors had to look beyond the literal reading of the Bible to its overall message about love, justice, and compassion.
Would we have done the same thing? To really see the heart of Jesus in the Scriptures may require tremendous moral courage and a willingness to resist the enormous social pressures to believe what everyone else does. In the 1860s when your pastor and your entire congregation said abolition was “immoral,” in the 1960s when Martin Luther King was condemned as a heretic in pulpits across the country, would you have had the courage to defy the convictions of your own religious community in defense of justice and freedom? Would you have that courage today?