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In debates over slavery in the United States, many abolitionists used the Bible as part of their reasoning for freeing the slaves.

In both the Old & New Testaments there is very clear statements that holy people had slaves.

Genesis 17:13

He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.

II Kings 4:1

Now there cried a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets unto Elisha, saying, Thy servant my husband is dead; and thou knowest that thy servant did fear the Lord: and the creditor is come to take unto him my two sons to be bondmen.

Colossians 4:1

Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.

Matthew 18:25

But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.

How did abolitionists reconcile these two beliefs?

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My understanding is that the slavery mentioned in the Bible was not the same type of slavery seen in U.S. history, but more an indentured servant (temporary slave). Second, the Bible talks about slavery, and how slaves ought to respect their masters, and masters their slaves. It never actually (AFAIK) condones slavery. Third, even if slavery can be honoring to God, it is clear that much slavery in the U.S. was abusive, and therefore not consistent with other Biblical passages. –  Flimzy Aug 24 '11 at 20:57
@Flimzy. "Second, the Bible talks about slavery, and how slaves ought to respect their masters, and masters their slaves. It never actually (AFAIK) condones slavery." This is obviously some strange new meaning of the word condone which I was not previously aware of. –  TRiG Aug 31 '11 at 16:27
See also… for the other side of the argument. –  Bruce Alderman Feb 18 at 6:27

2 Answers 2

I think this could easily become an answer about American history and and politics unless we confine our answer to usage of the Bible. Flimsy is right in his comment above - the Bible does not condone slavery, but it does not officially abolish the institution (much like the US Constitution). What it does do is place Christ in the master-slave relationship, giving even slavery the possibility of redemption.

Colossians 4:1 (KJV)
1 "Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven."

Colossians 3:22 (KJV)
22 "Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God:"

These verses do not answer for using the Bible to abolish slavery, but they could justify a move to abolish it, since it has "become destructive of these [Christ-Centered] ends" and so it is their duty "to alter or abolish it." At least in the United States. In first-century Roman society, it wasn't written in the social framework to be able to reform slavery, or any institution for that matter. But Christians everywhere in all societies do what they can to proclaim Christ until He comes, as many abolitionists did in their efforts.

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Abolitionists generally took an indirect approach in arguing against slavery. Acknowledging that slavery appears in the Bible without an absolute prohibition, they argued from basic Christian principles.

John Hepburn, an 18th century Quaker from New Jersey, built a case against slavery (PDF) based on the ideas of free will and the Golden Rule. First, because God doesn't force and compel our will (e.g. Romans 2:4, Titus 2:11, 2 Peter 3:9), we ought not to compel other people. Second, because Jesus commanded us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us (Matthew 7:12) we cannot make slaves of our fellow human beings.

John Wesley argued that the practice of slavery revealed the condition of the slaveholder's heart (see pages 52-53). He used the phrase from Hebrews 3:7-8, "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts" to urge slaveholders to end the practice.

But if your heart does relent, though in a small degree, know it is a call from the GOD of love. And to day, if you hear his voice, harden not your heart.--To day resolve, GOD being your helper, to escape for your life.--Regard not money! All that a man hath will he give for his life? Whatever you lose, lose not your soul: nothing can countervail that loss. Immediately quit the horrid trade: At all events, be an honest man.

19th century theologian Albert Barnes wrote the nearly 400-page An Inquiry Into the Scriptural Views of Slavery, tackling the Bible's pro-slavery texts by reinterpreting them in light of the Golden Rule.

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