Some Thoughts on Slavery, Scripture, and the Civil War

Before Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865, before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1963, before John Brown led his raid at Harper’s Ferry on October 16,1859 – before all of these events, and many that preceded them, slavery in the United States began to die.

The seeds of its destruction were planted by the plantation masters themselves, when, under the pressure of missionaries, they began allowing their slaves to attend church, starting in the early 1700s.

There the sons and daughters of Africa learned about Moses, who had led his own people out of slavery thousands of years before.  They heard the words of Hebrew prophets who demanded justice for all.  And their hearts were especially moved by the stories about a man named Jesus, who came from heaven to set captives free.    

 It’s true that their masters were poor examples of Christian charity.  It’s also true that white ministers misused the Bible to justify slavery.  But despite these things, the stories took on a life of their own in the hearts and minds of the oppressed, as they began to pray for their day of liberation. 

 Even the hymns they learned took on meanings unique to them.  “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was reinterpreted as a reference to the carriages of the Underground Railroad.  “Steal Away” referred both to stealing away to Jesus and to leaving behind the nightmare of plantation life.

 As the stories of Scripture began to eat away at the chains that held the slaves, they were also at work in the hearts of those who profited from their misery.  This can be seen in the life of John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace.”  For many years he made his fortune by sailing captured Africans from their homes.  They would end up on the trading blocks in Savannah and Charleston, where they were sold like cattle. 

 During this period of his life he experienced a religious conversion, which, many years later, culminated in his joining forces with abolitionists in Great Britain.  His efforts were crucial to the passing of an act in1807 which banned the slave trade throughout the British Empire.

 These facts of history have much to say to those who worry that scientific, archaeological, or historical discoveries may rob the Bible of its powers to inspire, correct, comfort and, when necessary, trouble its readers.  There is a peculiar disharmony between the fundamentalist’s high view of the Bible and his fears about its prospects for the future.

 It’s true that the Bible tells us nothing about geology, physics, or chemistry.  But that is just as well, for such is not its purpose.  It can’t be relied upon to provide an objective view of history.  That also is just as well, for it was never meant to serve as an historical text.

 It’s not that the Scriptures contradict the facts of science or history.  It’s more accurate to say that they go around them.  They aim at something far more central to human existence: our hearts.  Upon arriving at this destination they do their work quietly, almost unnoticed, but with the same powerful inevitability as the rains that reduce great mountains to rolling pastureland. 

 They confront the proud with the futility of their arrogance.  They remind the greedy of the fleeting nature of riches.  And for the meek, the powerless, and the grieving, they serve as medicine to their souls.  They replace hatred with love, despair with hope, and sadness with joy.

 These powers cannot be taken away from the Bible.  Dictators can burn its pages.  Skeptics can dismiss it as nonsense.  And atheists can put it on trial for crimes it never committed.  But in the end their efforts will fail, and the book they sought to destroy will continue its mission.

 The first bullets of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in 1861.  But the battle against slavery began much earlier, as both slaves and their masters fell under the Bible’s power to change their hearts.  Any concerns about a book capable of stirring up such mighty events are without warrant.  In the 21st century as well as in the 18th, the Scriptures don’t need our help to hold their own.