A Pre-Civil War “Conversation” on Slavery

Introduction

In writing this I read and analyzed two pre-Civil War articles.[1] The first article we will look at argues in favor of the continuation of slavery. The second article is written in response to the first and argues for immediate abolition. After looking at both articles we will look at the differences between the two articles.

My thesis is that some, like Buck, advocated for the continuance of slavery mainly based upon the belief that slavery was permitted because it was similar to the slavery permitted in the Old Testament. Others, however, like Pendleton, argued against slavery because they believed it was inherently dissimilar to Old Testament slavery.

In Favor of the Continuation of Slavery

Since “the subject is one of great moment in its moral, social and political bearings”[2] Buck decided to write on the subject. “So that… [people] may be prepared to act conscientiously and intelligently, and have no occasion to repent of their action when it is too late to undo it.”[3] So, it was “under… these considerations [that Buck] consented to prepare a series of articles.”[4]

Buck says, “God approves of that system of things which, under the circumstances, is best calculated to promote the holiness and happiness of men; and that what God approves is morally right.[5] Buck then talks about the “nature and design of Human Governments.”[6] He says, “In searching the divine record, therefore, we shall find that form of government which, under the circumstances, was best calculated to promote the moral and social happiness of the people, was sanctioned and approved by God.[7]

The first form of government was the patriarchal, which Buck gives a brief analysis of. Next he lays out what he sees as being established through his belief that God has a good purpose for human governments. First, he says, “God has beneficent and gracious designs to be accomplished in behalf of the human family.”[8] Second, God is happy to use human and governmental instruments. Third, it is in accord with God’s infinite wisdom “to promote his beneficent and gracious designs in behalf of our lapsed and degenerate world.”[9] Fourth, a very powerful and enlightened leader is best suited to bring about the good that God intends for humanity.

Next Buck turns to look at “the history of the Abrahamic family.” He says,

It must be evident to every believer in the Scriptures, that a man so pre-eminent for piety, as was Abraham; a man so elevated in moral excellence and virtue, as to be called the Friend of God,… would not, in the first place, have purchased a slave, had the act been sinful, much less would he have lived in the habitual practice of that sin for so long a time.[10]

Thus, Buck maintains “that God approved of, and by solemn covenant and compact with Abraham, ratified and confirmed the relation of master and slave which subsisted between him and those servants.”[11]

Buck then says that the kind of slavery that God approves is the kind of slavery that applies the second great commandment. The command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” “Slavery, as thus defined, was incorporated into the Mosaic law, by divine authority, and recognized by our Saviour and his Apostles.”[12] That slavery, “the slavery of the Scriptures was conceived in divine benevolence, and intended, mainly, to secure the happiness of the slave—to preserve life—to afford protection and to furnish the means of moral culture, to those who would otherwise have been destitute of one or all of these great blessings.”[13] In fact, “God intended especially to benefit the slaves and not Abraham.”[14]

God allowed slavery then so slaves “might be brought under the influence of the religion of the true God; controled, protected and provided for by masters whose hearts and lives were swayed by the law of the living God.”[15] Slavery then provides “the means of propagating a knowledge of the true God and of arresting the progress of Idolitry [sic],… such slavery is perfectly compatible with the moral law.”[16]

Buck thus seeks to show that God approves of “the relation between the master and the slave.”[17] He does as we have seen, though, grant that “slavery, through the cupidity and rapaciousness of wicked men, has been awfully perverted and abused.”[18] Buck, however, does not concede that slavery is sin in itself.

Buck argues that through the institution of slavery “the interests of the poor and helpless are identified with the interests of the powerful and wealthy.[19] He says that “if we suppose the master be governed by… benevolent principles…” then the slave will have his master as his “friend, guardian, and defender.”[20]

Buck then turns his attention to the problems of the North. He says, “poor blacks are not permitted to work alongside the white man.”[21] He then says that if we are to evaluate the “condition of Africans in this country, it is… necessary… [to] ascertain what their condition was in Africa.”[22] He says that it cannot be denied that they are better off “both physically and morally[23] in America than in Africa.

It is then explained that we must consider the motives of actions because “the motive in the action, determines the moral quality of the act, so far as the actor is concerned.”[24] So, Buck imagines that there are “three distinct classes of purchasers.” The first class has no religious motivation but are only motivated by cupidity. The second class imagined, which Buck believes is the most common class of slaveholders, are motivated into purchasing slaves “by love for man;” they want to better the slaves whom they purchase.[25] The third class imagined are Christians who so desired “the salvation of their souls as well as their bodies; they… resolved to buy to the uttermost of their means.”[26]

Buck then says that there is “nothing necessarily in American slavery to make it less moral than the slavery… in the covenant with Abraham.”[27] So, he says, “slavery cannot be sin per see [sic].[28] Slavery “which makes no provision for improvement and moral training of the slave,” however, “may justly be denounced as sinful and only sinful.[29]

Buck concludes by arguing that “slavery has been less beneficial to the whites than to the blacks.”[30] Then he finishes with his view of how slaves should eventually be freed to create their own republic.

In Favor of Immediate Abolition

J. M. Pendleton wrote in response to an article that was published in favor of the continuation of slavery. Pendleton says, “It might be well to have something said on both sides of the question…. it is easier to decide before both sides are heard.”[31] He then proceeds to share responses to what W. C. Buck had written.[32]

Pendleton first points out some of the grave injustices of American slavery. For example, “According to the Constitution and laws of the State, slave holders can, whenever they please, sever the marriage tie as it exists among slaves.”[33] Pendleton goes on: “Slave-owners, too, have the power constitutionally and legally conferred, of dooming to hopeless separation slave parents and children… Masters and mistresses can, if so disposed, prevent their slaves from ever learning to read the Bible, or from hearing the Gospel preached.”[34]

Pendleton says, “If slavery exerts a ‘pernicious influence’ over the ‘moral interests’ of a people, it surely is not promotive of ‘holiness.’”[35] Basically, Pendleton argues that the American government is not being used to accomplish the great good that God intends for government in regards to slavery.

Pendleton says, “If, then, it does not promote the ‘holiness and happiness’ of the white people, it follows, without doubt, from your position, that, so far as they are concerned, God does not approve the system.”[36] Thus, “Slavery ‘promotes the holiness and happiness’ of neither the free nor the slave population of Kentucky. This being the case, I, in accordance with your own position, say that God does not approve the system.”[37]

Next, Pendleton shows that there “are points of material dissimilarity” between American slavery and Abrahamic slavery. One of the differences is “Abraham ‘armed his trained servants.’”[38] Another difference is that “Abraham held his servants for their benefit, and not his own… Are American slaveholders influenced by considerations of benefit to their slaves…?”[39] Also, “if Abraham had died childless, his servant would have been his heir, I assert that patriarchal servitude and American slavery exhibit essential dissimilarities.”[40]

Pendleton further points out that Buck’s logic is faulty. Just because Abraham did something does not mean therefore that thing is morally acceptable. Abraham had a child by his servant Hagar and he had concubines. God does not permit sinful acts regardless of what Abraham did.

It will be helpful to look at an extended quote:

I have often wondered that the apologists of slavery refer with such frequency to the Mosiac law, when it is evident that if a prominent regulation of that law had not been utterly disregarded there would have been no slavery in America. Moses says, ‘He that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hands, shall surely be put to death.’ How were Africans first introduced into this country?… Those who stole them deserved death according to the law of Moses.[41]

He goes on to say, “The same law provided for the freedom of the servant if any serious bodily injury was inflicted on him by his master. The loss of a ‘tooth,’ or the loss of an ‘eye,’ secured immediate liberty. There is no arrangement like this in any of the slave states of this Union.”[42] Therefore, Pendleton concludes, “The system of servitude under the Mosaic law was indeed benevolent compared with our system of slavery.”[43]

In regards to the three classes of purchases Pendleton says that Buck has “drawn very largely on [his] imagination.”[44] Then he inquires “how the slaves… are to make progress in the knowledge requisite to self-government?’ There is no provision in our present Constitution for their instruction, and you wish the Constitution to remain changed.”[45] Pendleton then says, “slavery in Kentucky cannot exist for generation if disassociated from its abuses.”[46] If the separation of slave families was made a penal offense, Pendleton maintains, that it would provide the deathblow to slavery.

Lastly, Pendleton points out that just because good sometimes comes out of evil does not then make the evil acceptable.[47] Pendleton maintains that the wickedness inherent in American slavery calls for its immediate abolition.

Differences in Argumentation

The main difference I see in argumentation between the two positions is that one view holds that American slavery can happen in such a way that honors God and benefits humanity. In fact, Buck holds that many slaveholders are doing just that, holding slaves to the slaves’ own benefit. Buck says that some people believe “that they could materially better [Africans’] condition by bringing them to America and employing them as slaves.”[48] They were motivated “from mere impulses of humanity—love to their neighbors—resolved to purchase all they could;… to see the improvement and well-being of their slaves.”[49]

Pendleton, however, argues that American slavery is fundamentally different than the slavery that God permitted in the Old Testament and that it should be abolished because of its terrible injustices. Further, Pendleton questions whether the Jewish local law even pertains to the question of the morality of American slavery.[50]

Conclusion

I am convinced that Buck and many others were wrong in what they argued. The injustices perpetrated and basically defended, even in Christian publications, saddens me.[51] False hermeneutics set us on a trajectory of false applications. False teaching is devastatingly destructive. What we believe, what we teach, matters. It matters deeply.

_________________

[1] “Letters to Rev. W. C. Buck” written by Rev. J. M. Pendleton is dated July 7th, 1849 and was originally published in the Louisville Examiner. Pendleton writes in response to Rev. W. C. Buck’s article, “The Slavery Question” that was published in the Baptist Banner.

[2] W. C. Buck, “The Slavery Question,” 4.

[3] Buck, “The Slavery Question,” 4.

[4] Ibid. Buck has engaged with what he calls the “fanatical abolitionists of the North” (W. C. Buck, “The Slavery Question,” 3) but up to this point had “never meddled with Slavery as a political question” (Buck, “The Slavery Question,” 3). At first Buck sought to “observe and perpetuate the peace of the Churches, by resisting the introduction and influence of abolitionism amng them” (Ibid.).

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Ibid. Buck says that “The will of God, as revealed in the Scriptures of divine truth, is… Paramount law in matters of morals” (Ibid., 4).

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] Ibid., 8.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 9.

[11] Ibid. Then Genesis 24:35 is quoted that says, “The LORD has greatly blessed my master [Abraham], and… given him… servants and female servants.” Buck concludes that “it would be the height of impiety to challenge the Divine procedure” (Ibid., 9). Do not make wrong what God has made holy, so to speak.

[12] Ibid., 9.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 11). That is why he argues that a very powerful and enlightened leader is best suited to bring about the good that God intends for humanity (Ibid., 8).

[16] Ibid., 11. From there Buck references Exodus 12:44-45 and Leviticus 22:10-11 to show the privileged place of a slave in comparison with a hired servant. So, in the Mosaic law God “allowed the rich to buy the poor, that they might be provided for in a better way than they could do for themselves” (Ibid., 11). Thus, slavery was “intended as a system of supply, comfort, and protection to the poor in Israel” (Ibid., 12). “Like almost every other divine providence intended for the amelioration of the sin-ruined race of Adam,” however, “it is liable to be perverted” (Ibid.).

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 13.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 14.

[22] Ibid., 16.

[23] Ibid. In fact, he says, “Better off than they could possibly be in their own degraded native state” (Ibid.). And so, Buck believes that “the slavery of the Scriptures [is] a merciful and benevolent institution” (Ibid., 15).

[24] Ibid., 16.

[25] Ibid. 17.

[26] Ibid., 18.

[27] Ibid., 18.

[28] Ibid., 21.

[29] Ibid., 22.

[30] Ibid. 27.

[31] J. M. Pendleton, “Letters to Rev. W. C. Buck,” 1.

[32] W. C. Buck was an editor of the Baptist Banner where his article was published. Pendleton sent letters to be published in the Baptist Banner as a response to what Buck wrote. Buck, however, did not publish Buck’s responses and so Pendleton sent his responses to the Louisville Examiner in which they were published.

[33] Pendleton, “Letters to Rev. W. C. Buck,” 1.

[34] Pendleton, “Letters to Rev. W. C. Buck,” 2.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid. Pendleton also said, “It would be well for white people to be enslaved in order to their holiness and happiness” (Ibid., 3). This does not follow, however, because it is only because the Africans situation is so bad and white people make it better, based on what Buck argues. 

[37] Ibid., 3.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., 4.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid., 5.

[42] Ibid. Not only that but “the law of Moses forbade the delivery of a runaway servant to his master. Would not such a regulation lead to the extinction of slavery in America?” (Ibid.).

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid., 7. Pendleton even says, “Is it not wonderful that our Missionaries to the heathen Asia have never thought of sending the benighted Asiatics to this country that the fetters of bondage might be riveted on their bodies for the good of their souls?” (Ibid., 7).

[45] Ibid., 8.

[46] Ibid., 9.

[47] Ibid., 12.

[48] Buck, “The Slavery Question,” 17.

[49] Ibid.

[50] He says, “How a Jewish local law, almost two thousand years after the abolition of the Jewish economy, can have anything to do with Gentiles, I am altogether at a loss to conceive” (Pendleton, “Letters to Rev. W. C. Buck,” 6).

[51] Here are some books that have helped inform my thoughts on American slavery. The classic, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was very good and eyeopening, I think everyone should read it. I recently read Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston. It was very sad and distressing to learn about the conditions on the slave ship. I also recently read Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley which is a novel that tells the story of Kunta Kinte who was captured and made a slave and then it traces the story of his following decedents. I also found Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in American but Ibram X. Kendi insightful. There were also two biographies that were helpful, Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas about William Wilberforce and his quest to end slavery in England and John Newton by Jonathan Aitken who went from being a slave trader to repenting and becoming a pastor and writing one of the most popular songs of all time, “Amazing Grace.” Lastly, I appreciated reading the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. 

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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