Joel McDurmon has recently published a new book on the subject of slavery in America. The book addresses several important topics and aims at debunking pro-slavery apologetics and demonstrating the extent of the evils of slavery as practiced in America from its inception until its abolition after the conclusion of the Civil War in the 1860s. McDurmon also testifies to what he believes to be the evils of segregation that was practiced both during and after the abolition of slavery. McDurmon’s aim is to provide average conservative Christians with a better grasp on the extent of the evils of slavery and the slave trade, and especially the complicity of the clergy in these purported evils.
McDurmon mentions Kinists, whom he calls white supremacists, and insists that they “are dead serious in their beliefs that there can be no conservative tradition without segregation, and any suggestion of race mixing is some form of Marxism.”1 McDurmon insists from the outset that this is not a book intending to refute anything we believe: “This book, however, is not aimed at refuting the modern fringe extremists except incidentally when we review the southern theologians’ and apologists’ claims.”2 McDurmon is writing for those who are already convinced that slavery, segregation, “racism,” and “white supremacy” are wrong.
McDurmon aims “at reaching the millions of Christians and conservatives who do not realize that what we consider extremists today were by far the mainstream majority only a couple generations ago, let alone in the antebellum era, and what ramifications that has for learning history and contemporary social and political relations.”3 The problem, as McDurmon understands it, is that “[t]oday’s Christians and conservatives are largely unaware of the extent of the suffering of blacks, from slavery to Jim Crow to the 1960s and even to today. They are largely unaware how systematic it was and what institutions were created specifically to maintain the injustices. Christians are largely unaware that their own clergy and churches were among the leading proponents of the systems, and have no idea of the convicting and sad reasons why, or of the theological justifications for turning a blind eye to the injustice, or worse, active perpetuation.”4
McDurmon’s goal is to convince average white Christians of just how evil whites were in general, as well as how white Christians defended and perpetuated injustices as long as they did. While McDurmon makes repeated references to the one human race of which blacks and whites are constituent members, it is clear from his repeated usage of white and black to describe groups of people that he believes that these are objective categories that people can and should recognize. John Lofton was infamous in discussions with Kinists for denying the differences between whites and blacks, insisting that we can’t really know who is white, black, or any other racial classification. This is not a problem for McDurmon’s book on slavery; even if the only reason for speaking of concrete racial terms is so that whites will finally realize how evil their ancestors were.
Slavery and the Bible
I was particularly surprised by how little McDurmon cites Scripture during the course of this work. I expected McDurmon to spend more time rebutting the scriptural arguments of Southern apologists like R.L. Dabney. Instead McDurmon is primarily focused upon the evils of slavery as it was historically practiced in America. The only appeal that McDurmon makes to the Bible against the practice of slavery in general is to a brief tract authored by then-Quaker George Keith in 1693 titled, “An Exhortation & Caution to Friends Concerning Buying or Keeping of Negroes.”
McDurmon considers Keith’s arguments to be definitive and conclusive: “If some writers complain that a literal application of the Bible led to slavery, or that the southerners had biblical arguments on their side while the abolitionists had only rationalism and rhetoric, they have not considered this humble beginning and the biblical doctrines contained in it. Obscure as it may have been, Keith’s remonstrance was both thoroughly biblical and as literal as any earnest interpreter could be, completely void of rationalism, as well as very brief, clear, and profound in the way that only straight applications of law can be: do not kidnap people; do not buy or sell stolen/kidnapped people; do not treat anyone, including slaves, how you would not want to be treated; let fugitive slaves go free; do not oppress immigrants (including Africans) in your land; and do not do any of these things just because another prosperous (but wicked) nation (Babylon) does so.”5
McDurmon’s argument is extremely shallow; especially in light of the fact that he hasn’t engaged most of the counter-arguments that Southern apologists offered to deal with the very texts and arguments offered by George Keith. The argument that the Bible sanctions and regulates slavery has already been addressed on Faith and Heritage in great detail, so it isn’t necessary to rehash everything that has already been presented.6 The arguments that Keith uses are more appropriately leveled against the abuses of slavery. Keith’s first argument is that slavery involves kidnapping or man-stealing, which is prohibited in Ex. 21:16 (cf. 1 Tim. 1:10). Dabney dealt with this argument at length in his section titled “Slavery and the African Slave Trade” in his treatise, A Defense of Virginia and the South. Dabney’s basic argument is that the property claim to the involuntary labor of slaves can be made good with the passage of time even if it originated in injustice, just as is the case with any form of property. Dabney uses the analogy of titles of land that have been stolen from the original owners without a just cause. The example given is of grants of land that landowners in Britain have inherited from Norman ancestors, when those original titles were unjustly wrested from the original Anglo-Saxon title holders. (The same could be argued in regards to the Anglo-Saxons who dispossessed the Celtic Britons centuries earlier.)
Dabney’s analogy to land titles reveals the deep flaw in what was an oft-repeated defense of slaveholding in light of its indefensible origins. With land disputes, we are discussing that which is already indisputably property and can be nothing else. With the slaves, the discussion is nothing of the sort. Instead, the discussion is of that which should never have been property to begin with. Justice in this case is not a discussion of property, but life and liberty. This is not a discussion of property disputes. It is a question of manstealing. Justice is not restored by monetary values or sums; it requires, according to God’s law, the death penalty and the release of the wrongfully enslaved person.”7
In response I would draw attention to Leviticus 25:44-46, which allows the Israelites to purchase foreign slaves and indefinitely retain their labor. It is almost certain that these slaves were obtained by pagans through unjust warfare, kidnapping, extortion, or some other unjust means tantamount, or at least similar, to manstealing. By purchasing the labor of these slaves, the Israelites would greatly benefit the lives of those enslaved by pagan nations. These men and women would live within the covenant community and be taught the true faith and the observance of God’s Law. The issue isn’t (entirely) whether or not slaves purchased were originally obtained licitly, but how the Israelites treated their servants after purchasing them. I will elaborate on McDurmon’s specific claims of European complicity in kidnapping later, but for now it ought to be clear that this would not prohibit Christians from purchasing the enslaved labor of other nations so long as such as purchase was made with the intentions of Christian charity.8
Keith’s second argument is taken from the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12). Keith argues that no one would want to be held in perpetual bondage without their consent, so it is therefore wrong to hold others in bondage without their consent. This seems simple enough, but Dabney offers a complete rejoinder in his essay, “The Golden Rule and Slavery.” Dabney writes,
The Apostle Paul gives precisely the true application of this rule when he says: ‘Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal.’ And this means, not emancipation from servitude, but good treatment as servants; which is proven by the fact that the precept contemplates the relation of masters and servants as still subsisting. All this is so clear, that it would be an insult to the intelligence of the reader to tarry longer upon the sophism. We only add, that the obvious meaning above put upon the Golden Rule is that given to it by all sensible expositors, h as Whitby, Scott, Henry, before it received an application to this controversy. Yet, though this obvious answer has been a hundred times offered, abolitionists still obtrude the miserable cheat, in speeches, in pamphlets, in tracts, as though it were the all-sufficient demonstration of the anti-Christian character of slavery. They will doubtless continue a hundred times more to offer it, to gull none, however, except the wilfully blind.”9
The essence of Dabney’s argument is that the Golden Rule binds all men in whatever legitimate conditions they may find themselves. It is intended to ensure the other person’s perspective is properly considered, not to abolish any legitimate condition that someone might not prefer. Is slavery or servitude a legitimate condition? It must be, because the Apostle Paul commands masters to give unto their servants what is just and equal (Col. 4:1). Paul states that God is the Master of all Christians, and the Apostles routinely describe themselves as servants of Christ in the introductions of their epistles. We can easily detect the difference with which Paul and the other Apostles handle the issue of slavery in comparison to actual sins. Could one imagine Paul writing that prostitutes should render unto their patrons or pimps that which is “just and equal”? Obviously servitude is different from actual sins like lying, theft, adultery, and fornication. Christ and the Apostles never condemn slavery although they had many opportunities to do so. Instead Christians are always to remember that we are all servants to one Master in Heaven and treat those of lower social classes with dignity and humility. Dabney’s repeated references to the example of Christ and the Apostles are persistently passed over in silence by McDurmon.
Keith’s third argument is derived from Deuteronomy 23:15-16: “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee. He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.” George Keith’s interpretation is an oversimplification. Virtually all commentaries note that this law is properly applied to fugitives fleeing cruel tyrants presumably from pagan nations around Israel. It would not have applied to all fugitives, and certainly not to the slaves that the law explicitly permitted the Israelites to keep! Matthew Henry comments, “The land of Israel is here made a sanctuary, or city of refuge, for servants that were wronged and abused by their masters, and fled thither for shelter from the neighbouring countries, Deut. 23:15, Deut. 23:16. We cannot suppose that they were hereby obliged to give entertainment to all the unprincipled men that ran from service; Israel needed not (as Rome at first did) to be thus peopled.”10
John Gill agrees:
That is, one that has been used ill by a cruel and tyrannical master, and was in danger of his life with him, or of being lamed by him, and therefore obliged to make his escape from him on that account; such an one, when he fell into the hands of an Israelite, was not to be taken and bound, and sent back to his master again, but was to be retained till his master’s anger subsided; or however until inquiry could be made into the cause of the difference between him and his master, and matters be made up between them to mutual satisfaction; or if it appeared that the flight of the servant was just, and it was not safe for him to return to his master, then he was to be used as hereafter directed; for it cannot be thought that this law was made to encourage and protect every idle, disobedient, and fugitive servant, which would be very sinful and unjust: the Jewish writers generally understand it of the servants of idolaters fleeing for the sake of religion.11
Adam Clarke concurs and adds, “it would have been injustice to have harboured the runaway.”12 This is intuitive because the Law elsewhere regulates the practice of slavery, and even the Apostle Paul insists that Onesimus return to his master Philemon from whom he had fled.
Keith’s fourth argument is that we are forbidden from oppressing the strangers who dwell among us (Deut. 24:14-15). This objection pertains more to the real or perceived abuses of slaves by the English settlers that were perpetrated against the Africans. These purported abuses will be discussed in greater detail. Servitude itself cannot be the oppression spoken of in these verses, since the Law allowed for even the permanent involuntary servitude of foreigners (Lev. 25:44-46). Verses which forbid the oppression of strangers are often misrepresented as though they pertain to civil equality or universal civil privileges. Ehud Would’s excellent article summarizes the differences between the hereditary members of a nation and the peaceful strangers that are present with them.
George Keith’s final argument is that slavery and the slave trade were practiced by Babylon and we are commanded to reject the sins of Babylon (Rev. 18). This is another oversimplification. What needs to be determined is if the master-servant distinction is sanctioned by God, and it is. Christians must take care to avoid the cruelties and abuses that pagan masters, such as the Babylonians, have practiced. At times Christians have failed in this regard to be sure, but this does not mean that slavery itself is sinful. What is particularly troublesome about McDurmon’s book is that virtually none of the texts used by Southern apologists are addressed by McDurmon. There are several relevant Old Testament passages regulating the practice of slavery or servitude that McDurmon doesn’t mention or even attempt to explain.
Exodus 21:20-21 regulates corporal punishment of slaves. Corporal punishment of slaves is allowed, even to the extent that the slave is put out of commission for “a day or two.” This passage reveals that the loss of a slave’s time would be commensurate with whatever infraction the slave committed because a master would not naturally want to cause the loss of slave’s time and labor without sufficient reason, as “he is his money (or property).” Speaking of a slave as the property of another is absolutely contemptible to the modern mind, but this is the language that the Bible uses. This does not mean that the Bible sanctions the kind of chattel slavery that was practiced by some pagans. The ownership of a person was always understood, as it is in Exodus, of that person’s labor. As mentioned previously, Leviticus 25:44-46 allows the Israelites to buy foreigners and their children as slaves. This passage is only mentioned once in McDurmon’s book. It is featured in a quote by Theophilus Eaton, the governor of the early colony of New Haven, Connecticut, in order to justify slave ownership.13 McDurmon offers no actual rebuttal to Eaton’s quote or any reason as to why this passage does not apply.
The New Testament also sanctions the master-servant relationship. Christ and the Apostles make no effort to amend the understanding of slavery as established in the Old Testament Scriptures. Jesus praised the faith of a slave-owning centurion (Matt. 8:5-13). The Apostles routinely sanction and legitimize the master-slave relationship (Eph. 6:5-6; Col. 3:22, 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1; Tit. 2:9; 1 Pet. 2:18). In these passages servants are required to obey their masters insofar as it is possible to submit to any human authority. Paul also requires masters to give to their servants what is “just and equal.” This would be impossible and utterly nonsensical if the master-servant relationship was intrinsically sinful. Peter commands servants to obey not only good and gentle masters, but also unjust masters as well. This is not to say that this excuses the behavior of unjust masters, but their own personal injustice does not dispense with the requirement of their servants to obey them.
The entire epistle of the Apostle Paul to Philemon deals with the subject of slavery at least tangentially. Paul is involved of the conversion of a runaway slave named Onesimus who is then sent back to his Christian master. Paul writes to Philemon after encountering a runaway servant named Onesimus who was converted to the Christian faith by Paul while he was a prisoner. Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, and he exhorts Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother. Philemon is encouraged to receive Onesimus back not only as a brother in the faith, but also in the flesh (v. 16). This may indicate that Philemon and Onesimus were ethnic kinsmen, and that Paul was appealing to the principle taught in Ex. 21:2-6 and Deut. 15:12-18, in which ethnic brothers were not to be held in perpetual servitude. At no point does Paul denounce Philemon for his holding Onesimus in servitude; he merely seeks to remind Philemon of his duties towards Onesimus as a Christian – which, notably, did not include immediate emancipation.
All of these passages are relevant to the slavery debate. They were frequently cited by Southern apologists in their defenses of the South and the institution of slavery. One might imagine that McDurmon would have made engaging with these passages a priority in a book which is supposed to deal with slavery from a Christian perspective, but he doesn’t. None of these passages are interpreted or applied by McDurmon. The only time they appear in the book, if at all, is when they are mentioned without comment by defenders of slavery. McDurmon passes over these statements without any rebuttal because he assumes, as will most of his readers, that those making such statements are simply “racist.” No further rebuttal is necessary. All of this gives McDurmon’s book on slavery very secularist overtones. A secular academic who reads McDurmon’s book will find little to disagree with in McDurmon’s analysis of the history of slavery, but most secularists and liberals are perfectly aware of what the Bible teaches. While McDurmon might remonstrate against the charge that opponents of slavery were not being faithful to what the Bible teaches, it is clear to see from the passages mentioned above that McDurmon is not being honest.
McDurmon’s book has a decidedly secularist character in that he mostly ignores biblical arguments that were used by Southern apologists in defense of American slavery. Most secularists would recognize this deficiency as well. They would agree with McDurmon’s comments on the horrors of slavery and white oppression of blacks throughout American history, but none of them would agree with McDurmon on the teachings of the Bible. Secular historians and academics are all too familiar with what the Bible teaches about slavery, and they use this as a reason to reject Christianity and Christian morality. The fact that McDurmon is forced to ignore so much Scripture would only confirm these beliefs in the minds of skeptics. The destruction of all that remains of traditional white Christian culture is under assault precisely because they are repugnant to the sensibilities of modern egalitarians. Joel McDurmon’s book is far more useful to anti-Christians who wish to clobber the Christian faith for its supposed cruelty.
Ehud Would has provided some excellent commentary on the issue of slavery and how it is perceived in the public conscience:
Christians need to get this straight. There is a direct and unbreakable logical chain from the Abolitionist proposition that slavery was a sin to the present abolition of Confederate monuments; to the abolition of Founding and Colonial monuments; to the abolition of all texts and narratives supportive of them; to the abolition of the Christian Bible. Because Abraham kept slaves, the deuteronomical law sanctioned and regulated various forms of slavery (including the chattel [i.e. perpetual] variety in Lev. 25), and Paul praises godly slavemasters and repetitiously admonishes slaves to serve their masters well. So long as large numbers of Christians acquiesce to the Abolitionist interpretation of the War Between the States you only guarantee the final overthrow of our Constitution, and the outlawing of the Christian faith. Choose whom you will serve.14
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 205-207). American Vision Press. Kindle Edition. All citations are from the Kindle Edition. ↩
- Ibid., Kindle Locations 212-213 ↩
- Ibid., Kindle Locations 213-216 ↩
- Ibid., Kindle Locations 216-220 ↩
- Ibid., Kindle Locations 6918-6926 ↩
- More information can be found in my earlier series, “Slavery: Its Morality and Implications for Race Relations in America,” Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. See also “Dabney on Sunday: On Southern Slavery,” and “Dabney on Sunday: The African Slave Trade.” ↩
- Ibid., Kindle Locations 9114-9123. Emphasis in original. ↩
- I admit that this was certainly not always the case. ↩
- This article was extracted from Robert Lewis Dabney, A Defense of Virginia and the South (New York: E.J. Hale and Son, 1867). ↩
- Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible, Deuteronomy 23:15-25 ↩
- John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, Deuteronomy 23:15 ↩
- Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible, Deuteronomy 23:15 ↩
- McDurmon, Joel, op cit. Kindle Locations 745-748 ↩
- This is from a comment made by Ehud on Facebook. ↩