Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2003 Issue

Slavery in the United States<br>Chapter 1



The fanatics of the present times may probably argue from the foregoing premises, that the lapse of more than eighteen hundred years since the appearance of the great Redeemer and Reformer, has rendered a revision and improvement of his system in like manner necessary to the present state of human knowledge and opinions, and that they are the chosen instruments of Heaven for bringing about a new reformation in morals, religion, and social institutions. If such be their claims, let them produce their credentials. Let them demonstrate the truth of their mission, as that of the Saviour was demonstrated. Let them heal the sick; give sight to the blind; raise the dead from their graves; walk on the waves in the fury of the tempest; offer themselves up willing sacrifices to the divinity of their faith, instead of skulking from all responsibility; seal with their blood the sincerity of their belief, and die the death of malefactors, amid the rending of temples, the splitting of rocks, the quaking of the earth, and the uproar of a startled world. Then, perhaps, we may believe in their mission; but until then their pretensions to inspiration are no better founded than their claims to common sense, or rational discretion.

Christianity then is a revision of the code of the Old Testament, and not a new system of laws based on contradictory principles. Let us see whether among its reforms the institution of slavery is included.

When the Christian faith was first propounded to mankind, " Slavery," says Archdeacon Paley, a determined opponent of the institution, and certainly as eminent a theologian as my Lord Brougham— "was a part of the civil constitution of most countries when Christianity appeared; yet no passage is found in the Christian Scriptures by which it is condemned or prohibited. This is true, for Christianity, soliciting admittance into all nations of the world, abstained, as behooved it, from meddling with the civil institutions of any. But does it follow, from the silence of the Scriptures concerning them, that all civil institutions which then prevailed were right or that the bad should not be exchanged for a better? "

This admission of a learned and eminent divine, whose work on moral philosophy has always been held in high estimation, goes to substantiate the position, that there is no authority derivable from the New Testament, which justifies the assertion that slavery is contrary to the law of God; and let it be borne in mind, that the reason which Dr. Paley adduces for the omission to denounce it, is not the authority of the Saviour or his apostles, but an inference of their interpreter. There is no Scripture warrant for it whatever; and it might be asked, on what ground the doctor presumed to explain the motives for such uniform abstinence from all expression of hostility, or even disapprobation, towards an institution which the abolitionists call "the greatest curse that ever fell on the heads of mankind." The success of the Christian religion did not depend on men or human means, but on the will of the Supreme Being. It was absolutely certain to the extent of that will. Yet, according to Dr. Paley, his only Son, coming charged with his mission, clothed with his authority, partaking in his very being and identity, did not dare to denounce "the greatest curse that ever fell upon the heads of mankind," lest it should endanger the success of that mission. He temporized with it; he left it to continue almost two thousand years, and suffered it to spread over a new world, under an impression that the Almighty power might be too weak to bring about the Almighty will. It would seem that such deductions from the silence of the New Testament are equally unworthy the mission of the Saviour as the omnipotence of God.

Again. Dr. Paley, whose authority is unquestionable when he states facts derived from his actual knowledge, holds the following language, in his chapter "On Civil Obedience as stated in the Scriptures." He says—
" We affirm, that as to all our civil rights and obligations, Christianity hath left us where she found us; that she hath neither altered nor ascertained them. The New Testament contains not one passage which, fairly interpreted, affords either argument or objection applicable to any conclusions on the subject, that are deducible from the law and religion of nature."
Until these positions are controverted, there appears no necessity to prosecute this portion of the inquiry any further. It is sufficient for our present purpose, that the New Testament contains a complete moral code, exemplified by precepts applicable to every circumstance and situation of life; that slavery existed almost universally at, and ages before the Christian dispensation, and that it is not even discountenanced there, much less denounced as contrary to the law of God. It was a civil institution; and, as Dr. Paley truly affirms on this point, "Christianity hath left us where she found us." It is difficult to account for this omission to denounce what is now denominated " the greatest curse that ever fell upon the heads of mankind," except on the ground that, as it existed, at that period at least, it was not considered a crime to hold slaves in bondage, or that the attempt to arrest it would then, as now, produce far greater evils than the crime itself. It seems degrading to the wisdom and omnipotence of the Supreme Being, to ascribe it to an apprehension that to denounce it would embarrass the progress of that religion of which he was the Author. Neither does it appear at all probable, that the Saviour of mankind and his disciples would have shrunk from the consequences of such a denunciation. The former knew full well that he was at all events destined as a sacrifice for the transgression of our first parents; and the latter, with scarcely an exception, sealed with their blood, as well the divinity of their religion, as the sincerity of their belief. But, admitting the deduction of Dr. Paley to be just—which, however, is not meant to be done here—that this silence was prudential on the part of the Saviour, does it not seem the height of impious presumption in mortals to meddle with a subject from which he scrupulously abstained? The rash interference of the abolitionists, as will be demonstrated hereafter, is as directly at war with the civil institutions of a portion of the United States, as it would have been on the part of the propounders of the Christian faith with those of the Roman empire, and places equal obstacles in the way of the progress of Christianity among one portion at least of mankind. It already operates as a bar to its propagation among the slaves of the South, and if persisted in, will leave the master no other refuge than that of perpetuating their ignorance.

The history of mankind exhibits almost innumerable examples of the mischievous consequences resulting from the interference of the church with the civil rights and institutions of states. It has always ended in despotism. The laws of the United States guaranty the freedom of worship and opinion to all denominations of believers; and it would seem the least they can do, is to refrain from all interference with them, unless in matters exclusively relating to their rights as rational beings to adopt what faith they please. True religion equally disdains to war against the established rights of property, and the personal safety of citizens. It is the auxiliary, not the dictator of the laws, and always acts in harmonious co-operation with the social institutions. It claims no right to transgress the bounds of perfect freedom in the exercise of its own opinions; and never, unless in the fury of fanatical excitement, attempts by violence to impose them on others. When it steps out of its sacred sphere, to dictate to the powers of the state, or decide on the obligations of the people to obey or disobey the laws—when it erects itself into an arbiter to designate what statutes are in accordance, and what in conflict with the will of God, it departs from the example of its Founder, violates his precepts, and becomes the common disturber of the peace of mankind.

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