Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2003 Issue

Slavery in the United States<br>Chapter 1

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The tyranny of the church is alluded to in various passages, and this consisted in the infliction of fines, confiscations, and imprisonment. Throughout the whole book of Isaiah, we have not been able to discover but one distinct allusion to slaves, and this is a charge of exacting labour from them on fast days, which was a violation of the laws of Moses. From the whole tenour of the prophecy, it distinctly appears that the freeing of the oppressed, and the breaking of the yoke, alludes to the bonds of wickedness, and the yoke of ecclesiastical tyranny, of which our Saviour speaks in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew. His words have an apt reference to the attempts of fanatical reformers, who are striving to make religion an intolerable burden, instead of a delightful and salutary duty. The Saviour says, speaking of the tyranny of the Jewish priesthood, "For they bind heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers."

The greater number of commentators coincide with the interpretation we have given, and those who differ with them, are far from going the lengths of the abolitionists. Dr. Scott, on this passage from Isaiah, says—
"They who observed such a fast would loose the bonds of those they had iniquitously enslaved and imprisoned; they would moderate the labours of their servants, and render their services and situations more comfortable. They would cease from usurious exactions, and remit the debts that either were contracted through fraud, or which the poor debtor was unable to discharge."
The prophecy of Isaiah, according to the chronology of the Bible, was delivered about seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, at which time the laws of Moses were in full force. It is therefore extremely improbable, to say the least, that the prophet would have attacked them in this unceremonious manner, as they expressly recognize slavery in various passages; not in dreams, but in express words, derived from the judgment seat of Heaven. We shall content ourselves with quoting the twenty-fifth chapter of Leviticus.

The book of Leviticus, in the words of a learned and indefatigable commentator,* (Rev. Thomas Scott) "principally consists of ritual laws delivered to Moses from the mercy seat, during the first month after the tabernacle was erected; though moral precepts are frequently interspersed." And the chapter from which our quotations are taken, is ushered in by the following sublime preamble: " And the Lord spake unto Moses in Mount Sinai, saying—" Here, then, is a sanction which cannot be questioned by those who pretend to a belief in the authority of the Bible.
"Both thy bondmen and bondmaids which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are among you. Of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids.”
"Moreover, of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begot in your land, and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you to inherit them by possession. They shall be your bondmen for ever."
Here is a direct sanction of rights corresponding in all respects with those of the holders of slaves in the United States. They were originally "of the heathen" when purchased; their posterity was "begot in our land" and they have descended "as an inheritance to our children." It is difficult to conceive how, with these authorities before them, the abolitionists can persist in maintaining that slavery is contrary to the law of God; or that the denunciation of death to the "man-stealer" has any reference whatever to the case of the holders of slaves in the United States. So to apply it, is to make the word of God a tissue of contradictions unworthy of its divine Author. If the opinions of mankind, the social duties, and social relations, have so changed since the age of the Bible, as to render what was then right now wrong, what was then sanctioned by the Supreme Being now contrary to the law of God, then neither the Old nor the New Testament can be any longer the standard of our duties to Heaven or to our fellow creatures, We must seek that standard in the declamations of the abolitionists, not in the pages of Holy Writ. But it is not, and cannot be true, that what was sanctioned by the authority of the Supreme Being in one age, can be the worst of crimes, and the worst of curses in another. It is believed that the law of God is as unchangeable as its Author.

Yet although the Divine law may remain the same in its general principles, experience has shown that at distant periods of time, the corruptions of our nature, or it may be, the progress of knowledge and intelligence, and the various changes they produce in the state of society, as well as the relations of persons and things, render a new application of its principles necessary to the happiness of mankind. Hence we observe in the records of history, that religion as well as government has been invariably modified, not so much in fundamental principles, as in their practical application, to suit the progress of the human intellect. Savages and barbarians can have no government but one of force, and no religion but superstition. Civilized and intelligent nations must have laws for the security of property, and their religion must accord with their progress in knowledge, as well as with their civil institutions. Neither the religion nor the government of enlightened nations, is fit for those which are ignorant and barbarous; and hence it is, that all experience has hitherto exemplified the fact, that a general improvement in knowledge and civilization is indispensable to all salutary reforms in religion.

Thus the lapse of ages and the vast changes which they had produced in the state of society, the manners of nations, and the mass of their intelligence, rendered the social institutions and the code of practical morality of the Old Testament obsolete and inapplicable. A new dispensation therefore became necessary, not to abrogate the doctrines of the Old Testament, but to modify their operation, so as to render them applicable to a new state of things, which the course of time had produced. Such a modification is the code of morals inculcated by the Saviour of mankind, who, though existing from all eternity, and predestined to this mission, was not sent on earth until the corruptions of mankind, and the revolutions of ages, had made new examples, and a revision of old precepts necessary to their regeneration. Nor can it be denied that, independently of all the interests of hereafter, the mission of Christ has had, and long will have, a most beneficial and noble influence on the morals and happiness of all those who receive and practice his precepts.

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