Frederick Douglass on Religion and Slavery

Frederick Douglass

In the debate over slavery leading up to the Civil War, religious arguments were presented by both proslavery and antislavery spokesmen. In some instances, the same biblical passages were used as evidence in defense of their position, as was the case with The Epistle of Paul to Philemon, as referenced here by Frederick Douglass.

I have met many good religious coloured people at the South, who were under the delusion that God required them to submit to slavery, and to wear their chains with meekness and humility. I could entertain no such nonsense as this; and I quite lost my patience when I found a coloured man weak enough to believe such stuff. Nevertheless, eager as I was to partake of the tree of knowledge, [59] its fruits were bitter as well as sweet. “Slaveholders,” thought I, “are only a band of successful robbers, who, leaving their own homes, went into Africa for the purpose of stealing and reducing my people to slavery.” I loathed them as the meanest and the most wicked of men. (FROM CHAPTER XI.: GROWING IN KNOWLEDGE)

The slave Onesimus had run away from his owner and found his was to Paul, who was imprisoned in Rome. Paul returned Onesimus to his owner Philemon, a friend of Paul’s, along with a brief letter. Defenders of slavery maintained that this action convened the meaning: Paul returned a runaway slave to his rightful owner, therefore slavery is upheld by Christianity. Opponents offered a more subtle reading of the biblical text. First, they noted that Paul wrote that while he could order Philemon to do what was right, he was sending Onesimus back so that Philemon could freely do what he ought to do. Second, Paul asked Philemon to receive the runaway “not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother.” Opponents of slavery concluded that rather than supporting slavery Paul’s letter showed its illegitimacy.

At times, defenders of slavery simply ignored inconvenient sections of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. What has come to be known as “The Slave Bible” illustrates this. Published in London in 1807, its full title is Select Parts of the Holy Bible, for the use of the Negro Slaves in the British West-India Islands. In presenting the Books of Moses, the Slave Bible leaps from the end of Genesis 45, where Jacob learns that Joseph, the son he had thought to be dead was actually alive in Egypt and the right-hand man of Pharaoh, to Exodus 19, where, under the leadership of Moses, Israel receives the Ten Commandments. Totally missing from the Slave Bible is story of the enslavement of the Hebrews after Joseph’s death, and the rise of Moses as God’s spokesman sent overturn this slavery and to order Pharaoh “to let my people go.” The letters of Paul fare no better. For defenders of slavery, Galatians 3: 28 contains an inconvenient message: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” The Slave Bible handles this passage by ignoring it, skipping from chapter one Galatians to chapter five.