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Saturday, 10 October 2020

Dr. John Thomas, Slavery, and Abolitionism: A Case Study in Moral Theology

Introduction
Dr. John Thomas and the Slavery Question
Theological Analysis
 Ethical Biblicism
 Ethical Adventism
Conclusion

This article studies the views of Dr. John Thomas, founder of the Christadelphians, on the American "slavery question." A Christadelphian reader may ask, "to what end?" American slavery was abolished in the 1860s and Thomas died in 1871.1 What possible relevance could such a study have for Christadelphians in 2020? Is this ex-Christadelphian just taking a swipe at the movement's founder? No; what drives our interest in Dr. Thomas' views on the slavery question is that they offer a useful case study in Christadelphian moral teaching. Precisely because the moral issue in question is uncontroversial today, our study can focus on theological method without getting bogged down by disagreement over the issue itself.


John Thomas was born and raised in England and emigrated to America in 1832 as a young medical doctor. He soon joined Alexander Campbell's religious movement and became an influential protégé of Campbell and the editor of a periodical, The Apostolic Advocate. Within a few years, Thomas and Campbell fell out over doctrinal disagreements. Some in the movement sympathised with Thomas, and he retained considerable influence in the mid-1840s through the publication of another periodical, The Herald of the Future Age.2 In 1847, Thomas abjured many of his earlier beliefs and had himself re-baptised, thereby birthing a new sect that would eventually take on the name Christadelphians.3 During the three decades between his arrival in the United States and the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, Thomas resided in both free states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York) and slave states (Virginia, Kentucky), with occasional tours of Great Britain and Canada (where slavery had been abolished for decades).

At the same time Thomas was going through the theological odyssey that would result in the Christadelphian movement, slavery was becoming the "paramount national issue" in the USA.4 Abolitionist newspapers and periodicals abounded in the North while proslavery sentiment filled the literature of the South. During the mid-1840s, mainline Protestant denominations such as the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists split over the slavery issue.5 "By the 1850s the slavery issue was front and center, igniting the passions of citizens and politicians throughout the country."6 In late 1845, Thomas has already broken definitively with Campbell but is still forging his own theological identity. His Herald receives letters from two antislavery subscribers in the North who are concerned that Thomas has not expressed himself clearly on slavery, which the correspondents believe to be the abomination of the age.7 His rival, Alexander Campbell, has just written a series of articles on slavery in his Millennial Harbinger.8 It is clear that Thomas cannot ignore the question, but how to respond? His elite British education may have predisposed him to see slavery as backward, but he and his periodical are based in Virginia, a slaveholding state. He is certain to alienate some subscribers and perhaps lose friends no matter what he writes on this emotive issue.

In the event, Thomas opts to emphatically downplay the importance of the subject. "[T]he vassalage, or freedom of a barbarous race," he writes, "is an affair of very subordinate consideration." The kind of slavery that demands his attention is spiritual slavery to sin, the common condition of mankind:
In the Herald, we are neither in nor out on this topic, as 'involuntary slavery' is not the subject proposed to be discussed in our pages. We cannot agree with our New York friend, that 'involuntary slavery is the greatest evil and sin in the world.' There is a greater evil and sin than this, and that is, voluntary slavery to sin and Satan. The whites and blacks are all enslaved by the god of this world; they are his willing slaves to work iniquity... We wish to emancipate men from the slavery of Sin; this is the abolition we go in for 'out and out'; and if a man be called being a slave, let him remain in his calling; but, if he can be free, let him use it rather if it be likely to conduce to his spiritual welfare; otherwise not. Political or civil liberty for a few short years is of very little consequence to the freedmen of truth, who are destined to share in the government of the world with Jesus Christ in the Future Age. 'Having food and raiment let us learn therewith to be content.' This is the doctrine we advocate—bondage to Jesus, vassalage to truth and righteousness, and emancipation from Sin, Satan, and the World.9
Replying to one correspondent's insistence on the slave's "human rights," Thomas insists that the master's rights must be considered, too. Thomas infers from Scripture that the slave owner's rights include "a right of property in his slave," "a right to the obedience of their slaves," and "a right to chastise them when they do wrong."10 In his view, slavery is an "enormous evil, but not a sin." Slavery is "regulated, but not abolished, by the word of God," and "we have yet to learn where God has caused it to be written, 'thou shalt not hold man in bondage.'" 

Thomas' statements reflect a belief in white supremacy,11 widespread among whites at the time, but it is his moral-theological reasoning that is our focus here. Thomas claims that enlightened Virginians deplore slavery, but "how to get rid of it without prejudice to all concerned, is a problem which the legislation of the country has yet to solve." Is Thomas then interested in finding such a solution? Not at all:
We leave sectarianism to battle with slavery, we shoot at higher game: we aim to elevate civilized men to communion with God, Antislavery men may emancipate negroes from political thrall, while we would liberate them [i.e., civilized, antislavery men] from the bondage and degradation of sin.
Thomas' position generated some backlash in the North. In a subsequent issue, he mentions having received a scathing letter from "Two brethren in Chicago" who had ordered "a discontinuance of the Herald." Thomas does not print their letter, but in responding to their denunciation he introduces a new argument. Yes, slavery is unquestionably bad, but the duty of Christians is not to meddle in such worldly affairs but "to separate themselves from the world" and "be patient unto the coming of the Lord," who is "at the door." "He will abolish slavery," and Thomas is "perfectly willing to leave the whole affair to his disposal."12 Thomas admonishes his friends in Chicago that to devote their time and energy to abolishing slavery rather than converting sinners to God is to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.13 Thomas reiterates this point after receiving another letter from his New York correspondent: "So we say of slavery it is an evil resulting from sin, but not therefore sinful in the sense of being forbidden. We say, that christians have no business to trouble themselves with it."14 Christ will solve the world's problems at his return; our task is to prepare for this event by living a "holy life" of obedience and "patiently waiting for Christ," without being "distracted by the vain imaginings of political factions and partizans" (i.e., abolitionists).

Over the next decade and a half, as the slavery debate intensified and civil war loomed, Thomas largely avoided the subject. For instance, during his extended visit to Britain in 1848-49, an evening was held in Edinburgh in his honour. Scotland was a noted hotbed of antislavery sentiment—Alexander Campbell (a Scot) was even briefly imprisoned there in 1847 amidst a bitter controversy with an abolitionist.15 Thomas relates that those present on this evening were about to vote on a motion to support his evangelistic work financially when "a very zealous philanthropist arose in the midst, and objected to the vote being taken until I defined my position in regard to American slavery".16 Much to Thomas' relief, it would seem, the chairperson "pronounced the objection irrelevant", considering it unnecessary "to ascertain what were his opinions upon all the debatable questions of the day". In 1852, Thomas and his periodical (now called the Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come) relocated from Virginia to New York, where expressing abolitionist sympathies would have carried little personal risk. However, this change of scenery appears to have had no effect on Thomas' expressed views on the subject.

On those rare occasions when he did return to the slavery issue, Thomas maintained his earlier position while attacking the abolitionist cause vehemently. He declared unequivocally that an abolitionist "cannot be a Christian" and claimed that 1 Timothy 6:3-4 is a prophecy against abolitionists.17 He also accused abolitionists of hypocrisy, though it is unclear what he meant.18 Thomas thus effectively placed abolitionism on his list of "Doctrines to be Rejected"! Elsewhere, he reduced abolitionism to a trifle by including it in a list of "tedious and interminable conjurations" and "foolishisms" that distract one from "the weightier matters of the law."19

Thomas' views on slavery were moderate enough to attract criticism from both sides of the debate. At a speaking engagement in Mississippi, Thomas was accused by a hearer of preaching abolitionism. He retorted that the gospel he preached "Truly...is abolitionism in the largest sense; for the New Dominion will abolish abolitionists and all their spurious sentimentalism."20 During a speaking tour to Toronto, Canada in 1860 (with the Civil War now just months away), an opponent named J. Williams sought to warn away Thomas' audiences by chalking up the sidewalk with accusations that Thomas was a slave-driver (which was untrue, though Thomas had in the past used slave labour on his Virginia farm).21 Later on the same visit, a black man approached Thomas on the street, and after "apologetically inquir[ing]" if he might have a word with Dr. Thomas, asked: "Do you, Dr. Thomas, baptize slave-owners, and fellowship them?" When Thomas responded, "Yes, we do both," the man exclaimed, "Oh!" and hurried away. In view of the "agitation" over slavery that he experienced in Toronto, Thomas felt compelled to restate his earlier arguments that slave-owning is permissible and abolitionism a petty diversion from serious spiritual matters.22


The foregoing does not paint Dr. John Thomas in a very favourable light, but again, the aim of this article is not to pass judgment on him. The fact is that very few religious groups in nineteenth-century America took a unified and resolute antislavery stance (the Quakers being a notable exception). Our purpose here is to understand the theology behind Thomas' position, and how it anticipated subsequent Christadelphian moral teaching.

To summarise Thomas' position, slavery is an evil, a consequence of humanity's fallen state. However, the apostolic writings permit the practice, and it is therefore not sinful to own slaves. Human slavery is a temporary situation in this present life. It is thus a trivial matter for the believer, whose focus should instead be on liberating self and others from spiritual enslavement to sin, by believing in the doctrines taught in Scripture and living a holy life. Abolitionism is foolish, as it turns the believer's attention from eternal things to worldly, political affairs. The believer should avoid any involvement in the slavery debate, which Christ will resolve at his imminent return. I see two fundamental principles in play here, which I would label ethical biblicism and ethical adventism.


By ethical biblicism, I mean a particular approach to morality that seeks to answer any moral question by asking, "What does the Bible say about it?" (I have written about this in a previous article, Moral Theology vs. "What the Bible Says".) Of course, as a Catholic Christian myself, I do hold the Bible as divinely inspired and authoritative. However, the process of answering moral questions is more complex than simply asking, "What does the Bible say?" It requires sound hermeneutics—principles for interpreting and applying divine revelation—and the use of philosophy to arrive at abstract principles that can then be addressed to concrete moral issues.

A pure biblicism can leave us unable to reach firm convictions on moral issues that the Bible doesn't address, such as climate change. It can also cause us to fail to distinguish between contingent and absolute moral realities. For example, Mark 10:1-12 records a dialogue between the Pharisees and Jesus on the permissibility of divorce. The Pharisees cite Scripture to justify their practices, but Jesus identifies this concrete scriptural testimony as a contingent moral precept that is overruled by a higher, more abstract moral principle. What about the slavery question? In 21st-century Western society, with institutional slavery long gone and basically no one still defending it, the "slavery question" seems to be no question at all. However, on biblicist premises, the proslavery position—or Thomas' leave-it-be stance—is unassailable! The institution of slavery is clearly legislated for in the Torah (e.g., Lev. 25:44-55).23 In the first century A.D., the Roman institution of slavery was far more oppressive than what was permitted under the Torah. (A master could have his slave crucified, for instance.) Nevertheless, as John Thomas correctly observed, the New Testament writers do not speak out against slavery. Instead, they command slaves to be obedient to their masters (Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22-25; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Tit. 2:9-10; 1 Pet. 2:18),24 sometimes adding that masters must treat their slaves fairly (Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1). Paul instructs slaves to accept their lot in this life (1 Cor. 7:21-24), and sends the runaway slave Onesimus back to his master, Philemon, with a letter that acknowledges the latter's prerogatives.
 
How then can an antislavery position be defended? As with Jesus' teaching on divorce, one must regard concrete scriptural deference to the institution of slavery as contingent and overruled by more absolute and fundamental principles concerning the inviolable dignity of human life and the equality of humans before God. Unlike the divorce issue, one must do so without any explicit biblical warrant.25 In short, one must leave biblicism behind. A moral argument against slavery must move beyond questions such as, "Is slavery biblical?" or, "What does the Bible say about slavery?" The Bible does indeed contain the "raw materials" for an antislavery moral theology, but it took many centuries of reflection and maturation for the Church to definitively develop one.

John Thomas' biblicist approach to morality is the main reason why he failed to recognise American slavery as sinful,26 and biblicism is part of the legacy he bequeathed to the Christadelphians. Now, it would be unfair to describe Christadelphian moral teaching as purely biblicist. Christadelphians have taken a moral stand on issues such as voting in elections that are not directly discussed in Scripture. However, there is no question that Christadelphian moral teaching has been strongly influenced by biblicism, and is guided more by "Is behaviour x biblical?"—applied atomistically to various issues—than by a thoroughgoing moral theology. Indeed, the most well-known expression of Christadelphian moral teaching, the Commandments of Christ portion of the Statement of Faith, is simply a listing of paraphrased biblical verses with no obvious structure. 

Biblicism leaves one ill-equipped to respond to new moral questions that are not directly addressed in the Bible, or that are addressed only in a contingent way. As such, while claiming fidelity to the biblical text, biblicists actually undermine divine revelation by limiting its authority to what it says, as opposed to what it ultimately implies.


While Thomas did not regard slaveholding as sinful, he did recognise slavery as a social ill. Why then was he unwilling to advocate even a moderate form of abolitionism that would see slavery gradually eliminated? The answer lies in the second fundamental principle named above: ethical adventism. The premises here are a strong emphasis on the imminent Second Coming of Christ and a consequent near-total preoccupation with eternal and spiritual, as opposed to temporal and corporeal, concerns. John Thomas believed that the slavery issue was relatively unimportant because the slave's predicament was only a temporary one in the present life and because Jesus Christ would return very soon and resolve the matter definitively. Thus, slaves should accept their lot and free men should not interfere with slavery.

Ethical adventism has played a significant role in Christadelphian moral teaching ever since. Harry Tennant, for instance, in his article Christ and Protest, argues that 
The disciple's view is much wider than the panorama of his own time or the circumstances of his own life. He does not regard himself as having the right to seek political change or to agitate for social 'justice'... He knows and believes that there is no solution to the world's problems other than the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Once again, as a Catholic, I believe in and expectantly hope for the Second Coming of Christ. However, no one knows when it will happen, so its assumed imminence is no excuse for doing nothing about the problems of this world. Indeed, in Jesus' parables, the Master's sudden return is a reason to be active, not inactive. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that John Thomas was wrong in expecting Christ's Second Advent to resolve the slavery question in the mid-19th century. Fortunately, others did act, and slavery was ultimately ended by political and legal means (though, tragically, only after much bloodshed). Yet, well over a century later, Tennant still supported his claims that Jesus' disciples should not agitate for social justice by observing that the New Testament writers did not instruct their free readers "to urge the abolition of slavery."

John Thomas saw a stark antithesis between living a "holy life" and becoming active in the social justice issues of the day. He quoted Matthew 23:23-24 against abolitionists, calling them hypocrites who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel and neglect the weightier matters of the law. The irony is that in this passage, Jesus describes the weightier matters of the law as "justice and mercy and faith." This may allude to Micah 6:8, which states that what is required of a man is to do justice and love goodness and walk humbly with God. To live a holy life means to do justice: to seek to relieve suffering and end injustice. Hypocrisy occurs precisely when we are scrupulous in honouring God while neglecting our obligations to our neighbours here on earth. To do justice could be as small as giving a thirsty person a cup of water, or as large as helping to end slavery. To say this is not to reduce the faith to a "social gospel" or lose sight of eternal things. In Catholic parlance we speak of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Spiritual works of mercy attend to the spiritual needs of others while corporal works attend to their physical, bodily needs. Both are important; we cannot value a person's liberation from spiritual slavery to sin but devalue a person's liberation from physical slavery as "a very subordinate consideration."

It is not that we are setting our hopes on political solutions to the world's problems. We are to shine our light in the world, to provide the world with glimpses of what eternity holds. And who knows? We may in the process help to produce a more just society, as the 19th century abolitionists did.


Having considered how Dr. John Thomas responded to the greatest moral controversy of his time, my question for Christadelphians is this: do you agree with Thomas' stance? Was he right to oppose abolitionism? If not, why not? And how would the answer inform a moral response to major social justice issues of our own time, such as refugee crises, climate change, or abortion? Shall we say, like John Thomas, that believers "have no business to trouble themselves with" such issues? Or shall we make our neighbours' problems our own, and do justice?

  • 1 This is not to say that slavery is a dead issue; slavery and human trafficking are rampant in many parts of the world today.
  • 2 A note in the first number of the Herald states that Thomas had mailed two thousand copies of the last two numbers of his preceding periodical, The Investigator. Depending whether this means two thousand of each or one thousand of each, this suggests a circulation of one or two thousand. Thomas notes that "All subscribers to the Investigator, unless we are notified to the contrary, will be considered as such to the Herald."
  • 3 The name was adopted during the American Civil War as part of the group's representations to the authorities concerning its conscientious objection stance.
  • 4 Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines: 1741-1850 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), 456.
  • 5 Jeff Wallenfeldt, ed., The American Civil War and Reconstruction: 1850 to 1890 (New York: Britannica Educational Publishing, 2012), 8; Jonathan Daniel Wells, A House Divided: The Civil War and Nineteenth-Century America, 2nd edn (New York: Routledge, 2017), 46.
  • 6 L. Sandy Maisel and Mark D. Brewer, Parties and Elections in America: The Electoral Process, 6th ed. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), 31.
  • 7 One correspondent, writing from New York, indicated that he did not subscribe to any faith but had strong antislavery views. The other, writing from Illinois, was considered by Thomas a brother in Christ. Thomas indicates that the Illinois correspondent was a lawyer who defended escaped slaves who were recaptured by slave hunters in that state.
  • 8 Given Thomas' long-standing ties to Campbell's movement, his periodical must have had many readers in common with the Millennial Harbinger. Despite the acrimony between the two, their views on slavery were quite similar. Both took the position that slavery is socially detrimental but that slave-owning is not condemned by the Bible and thus not sinful. In his critical biography of Campbell, Douglas A. Foster writes that Campbell sought to take a "moderate" position on slavery in order to preserve unity within his movement (A Life of Alexander Campbell [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020], 274-88). The unity motive was probably less of a factor for Thomas, who did not yet shepherd a religious movement and placed a much higher premium on truth (as he understood it) than unity. Nevertheless, any editor of a magazine with subscribers in the North and South would have appreciated the need to tread carefully to avoid alienating subscribers.
  • 9 The Herald of the Future Age, vol. 2 (1845/46): 121-22.
  • 10 Thomas discusses the Onesimus affair from Paul's Letter to Philemon at some length, and also cites Ephesians 6:5-8, Colossians 3:22-25, 1 Peter 2:18, 1 Tim. 6:1, and Tit. 2:9
  • 11 For example, Thomas states that masters ought to give their servants, and disciples ought to give their "colored brethren in Christ," "what is just and equal." However, he hastens to add that "it is no part of this justice or equality, to emancipate them, to amalgamate with them, to set them in the parlor or drawing room, and place themselves in the kitchen, &c., &c." In other words, blacks belong in the kitchen and whites in the parlor or drawing room; to do otherwise is to violate the scriptural principle "that all things should be done decently and in order" (op. cit., 122-23). Further on, Thomas states, "In all parts of the world, men have as much liberty as they are fit for, and therefore as much as they deserve. This remark applies to man without distinction of race or color. Observation convinces us, that it is true in relation to the negroes especially".
  • 12 The Herald of the Future Age, vol. 2 (1845/46): 156.
  • 13 The accusation of straining at a gnat only to swallow a camel (an allusion to Jesus' denuncation of the Pharisees in Matt. 23:24) is one that Thomas would level at abolitionists repeatedly. See The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, vol. 10 (1860): 134, 204.
  • 14 The Herald of the Future Age, vol. 2 (1845/46): 186.
  • 15 The abolitionist opponent, James Robertson, accused Campbell of libel after Campbell refused to debate him on the slavery question, alleging that Robertson had been expelled from a Baptist church for abusing his mother. Campbell was jailed to prevent his leaving the country before the matter was resolved. Foster describes this incident in A Life of Alexander Campbell, 278-82. John Thomas was aware of the incident, for he took to the Herald to mock Campbell for portraying himself as having been persecuted for righteousness' sake. "The Rev. James Robinson's [sic] proceedings are entirely indefensible; but a week in Glasgow Jail is no undeserved retribution in part for Mr. A. Campbell's iniquitous onslaughts upon reputation and character on this Western verge 'of the dark blue sea'" (Herald of the Future Age, vol. 4 [1848]: 249; the issue is printed as vol. 5 but this seems to have been a typographical error.)
  • 16 The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, vol. 2 (1852). I am following an electronic version of this volume that is not paginated; the passage occurs on page 999 of the PDF.
  • 17 "And therefore he who violates Law, by depriving or striving to deprive his fellow-citizen of his slaves, or of any property to which the Law recognizes his right cannot be a christian. He incurs not only the penalty of the Law, but also the ban of the gospel: for in direct connection with the duties of slaves, the apostle declares—'If any man teach otherwise and consent not to wholesome words, even the word of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing but doting about questions, and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings etc., 1 Tim. iv. 3 [sic]. Thus prophetically has the 'Holy Spirit' depicted modern Abolitionists and their fruits." (The Herald of the Future Age, vol. 3 [1846]: 13).
  • 18 The term is used repeatedly in Thomas' discussion of abolitionism in the 1860 volume of the Herald (pp. 134, 200, 204). In one instance, he writes, "What shall be said of the Christian that is straining with indignation to the bursting of his carcase at the oppression of slaves two thousand or more miles remote, while he is himself oppressing the weak and defenceless at his door! If this be not straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel, we know not what is" (p. 134). It is not clear in what sense Thomas believes northern abolitionists to be guilty of "oppressing the weak and defenceless at his door." If Thomas means that blacks and other marginalised groups were also treated unjustly in the north, he had a valid point, but in that case he ought to have advocated for consistent social justice, rather than abandoning the cause altogether.
  • 19 Concerning the strategies used by the Devil (the Old Man of the Flesh), Thomas writes, "He knew that man was naturally prone to excess in all things; especially in the exercise of his moral sentiments; and that, in obedience to this propensity, he would strain out a gnat, and swallow camels by the herd. Having to work therefore upon a creature thus perverse, he set him to straining out of his cup a multitude of gnats called 'conscientious scruples.' He occupied his time, strength, and energies upon this tedious and interminable conjuration, so that he had no leisure for the weightier matters of the law. He disturbed his 'conscientiousness' about circumcision; how the dead are raised up; what kind of a body they come with; are they raised at all; the teachings of science and philosophy upon these points; this meat should not be eaten; that drink should be tetotally abstained from; the day of passover, and of the new moon, and sabbath days being kept holy; the worshipping of angels; voluntary humility; leavened bread; decoction of raisins; tobacco; abolitionism; conversion of the antipodes; and so forth, and so forth, without end." (The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, vol. 10 [1860]: 134.) Again, he praises the brethren of Evansville, Indiana, for being "uncompounded with porkism, vegetarianism, antitobaccoism, unleavened-breadism, decoction-of-raisinism, phrenosciolism, abolitionism, tetotalism, and a multitude of other foolishisms poured out from the teeming brains of the fanatical and hypocritical infidels of northerndom." (op. cit., 200.)
  • 20 The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, vol. 7 (1857): 247.
  • 21 On the accusation, Thomas comments, "Of course this was a wanton and gratuitous falsehood... We neither own, hold, nor drive slaves, black, white, or grey... At the same time, we are not an abolitionist, whose political fanaticism and gnat-straining hypocrisy, which are all based upon the infidel speculations of the fleshly mind, we utterly despise" (The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, vol. 10 [1860]: 203-204). Decades earlier, in an 1840 letter to a friend in England, James Wallis, Thomas wrote, "I derived pecuniary supplies principally out of the surplus remaining after the expenses of printing were defrayed; out of the trifle I paid the slave-owner for the labor of his slaves, whom I hired to work my farm, and purchased sugar, coffee, clothes, etc." (quoted in John W. Lea, The Life and Writings of Dr. Thomas [Philadelphia: The Faith Publishing Co., 1915], 111).
  • 22 The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, vol. 10 (1860): 203-205.
  • 23 The practice of enslaving fellow Israelites was far more restricted than that of enslaving foreigners.
  • 24 1 Peter 2:18 emphasises that the slave must be obedient even to an unjust master.
  • 25 The notion of the dignity of human life does not follow from any one text (though Gen. 1:26-27 is obviously of great importance), and is a highly abstract notion whose moral implications are not immediately obvious in Scripture. The texts that are most relevant to the dignified status of slaves specifically are 1 Cor. 7:22, Gal. 3:28, and Col. 3:11. Yet, in none of these texts does Paul make the inference that slaves should be emancipated, and in 1 Cor. 7:21-24 he explicitly resists making the move from equality before God to emancipation, though he allows that for a slave to acquire freedom could be a positive outcome. Other texts speak of freedom over against slavery as the ideal, but in a spiritual sense without overt implications for the social institution of slavery (see, e.g., John 15:15, Gal. 4:1-9, 5:1).
  • 26 Thomas' belief in the inferiority of the black race was also a factor, and his understanding of the Bible seems to have played a role here as well. It was widely believed in the 19th century that subjugation of black Africans by Europeans was a fulfilment of the curse passed on Canaan in Genesis 9:25-27, and thus biblically justified. I have not found a place in Thomas' writings where he makes this claim explicitly, but his description of black Africans as "the children of Ham" (The Herald of the Future Age, vol. 2 (1845/46): 124) may allude to it.

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