Against Slavery: An Abolitionist Reader
by Mason Lowance
A lot of conservative Christians get nervous when you talk about American slavery. The reason is obvious: conservative Christians want to believe that America was founded as a Christian nation, and yet they know that many of our founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, kept slaves. They know, too, that many Christians, especially in the South, defended slavery and even sought to use scripture to justify the abomination.
How uncomfortable! How can a Christian reconcile these things? Perhaps slavery is justifiable, in light of verses like Ephesians 6:5: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” Or perhaps keeping slaves and treating them in a very humane way is justifiable—wasn’t George Washington especially kind to his slaves?
Let’s say it as plainly as possible: keeping slaves is sin. When Washington did it, he was sinning. When Jefferson did it, he was sinning. When John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” trafficked in slaves, he was sinning (but notice, when he trusted Christ and became a new creation, he became one of the loudest voices for abolition).
The Bible is clear about slavery, as men like Newton and William Wilberforce and John Jay (a founding father who really lived according to the Christian worldview) understood. Each of these men made huge strides toward abolishing slavery—Jay was the governor of New York when that state outlawed slavery—but none of them articulated the biblical argument any better than a little-known Quaker, John Woolman, in essays like, “Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes” and “A Plea for the Poor.”
Woolman lived in the colonies before America seized her independence, writing his most important essays around 1750—more than a century before the Emancipation Proclamation. He was not part of a “trend” or a latecomer to some bandwagon—he was a godly tailor who read God’s Word and saw clearly that Christ would never sanction Christians keeping slaves.
Today that seems quite obvious. And it was obvious then, too, to men and women who trusted God to reveal truth primarily through His Word. Truth doesn’t change! But it certainly can look like it’s changing unless you’re standing on the Rock like John Woolman.
by Jeff Baldwin