Covenanters and Slavery - Part Seven: 'God is the Lord of the universe. As the Supreme Governor, he does what is right.'

By Angela Wittman

Alexander M’Leod's Negro Slavery Unjustified continued from Part Six:
[Bold text emphasis is mine, A.W.]
This naturally leads us to consider another objection—the most plausible argument that can possibly be offered in defence of the unhallowed practice of holding our fellow men in perpetual bondage.

OBJECTION IV. "God permitted the ancient Israelites to hold their fellow creatures in servitude. Men and women were bought and sold among them. The bond servant is called his master’s money. Exod. 21:21. Had it been wrong in its nature to enslave any human being, God could not have granted the Hebrews a permission to do it. Negro slavery, stripped of some accidental cruelties, is not necessarily wicked."

ANSWER. This objection requires minute attention. The fact is granted. Heaven did permit the Hebrews to purchase some of the human race for servitude. The general principle deduced from this fact is also granted. It is, in certain cases, lawful to enslave our fellow creatures. The application of it to justify the practice of modern nations is by no means admissible.

God is the Lord of the universe. As the Supreme Governor, he does what is right. His subjects have violated his law, abused their liberty, and rebelled against the majesty of Heaven. They have forfeited to his justice the liberty and the life he gave them. These they must yield. They will, at the time appointed by the Judge, be enclosed in the grave. The sovereign has also a right to the use of whatever instrument he chooses in the execution of the sentence. He may choose the famine or the pestilence, the winds or the waves, wild beasts or human beings, to be the executioners. Again:

Civil society has certain laws, to which its members, voluntarily claiming its privileges, have assented. A violation of these is the violation of a contract, and the penalty stipulated must be paid by the offender. When, by a person’s licentiousness, justice is violated, or society endangered, it is just and necessary to enslave the criminal, and make his services, if possible, useful to society. This much I cheerfully grant; and shall now proceed to show that the objection does not apply to the doctrine which I have been endeavouring to establish.

You cannot argue conclusively, in defence of negro slavery, from the practice of the ancient Hebrews, unless you can prove, 1st. That the slavery into which they were permitted to reduce their fellow creatures was similar to that in which the negroes are held: and, 2dly, That you have, the same permission which they had, extended to you. If proof fails in either of these, the objection is invalid, and I undertake to show that both are without proof.

I. The servitude into which the Hebrews were permitted to reduce their fellow men was attended with such restrictions as rendered it essentially different from the negro slave-trade. It may be considered, 1. With reference to their brethren; 2. As it respected strangers.

1. A natural descendant of Abraham might, in two cases, be sold by the magistrates into servitude. These were theft and insolvency. And so great was the regard for freedom which their code of laws discovered, that even the thief could not be enslaved while he had property sufficient to answer the demands of the law for the theft. Exod. 22.:1-4. If a man shall steal an ox or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it, he shall restore five oxen for the ox, and four sheep for the sheep. If a thief have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. The servitude into which the debtor was sold for the benefit of the creditor was not severe. Lev. 25:39-43. If thy brother that dwelleth with thee be waxen poor, and be sold unto thee, thou shalt not compel him to serve as a bond servant, but as an hired servant and as a sojourner he shall be with thee. Thou shalt not rule over him with rigour, but shalt fear thy God. In both cases the duration of this species of slavery was limited to six years. On the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. Exod. 21:2. And it was required, in the case of the debtor, that his master should give him some stock on which he might again begin business for the support of his family. Deut. 15:12-15. When thou sendest him out free, thou shalt furnish him liberally of thy flock, thy floor, and thy wine-press.

Both these laws evidence the greatest care of the liberties of individuals which is consistent with the real interest of the nation. They are strong motives to industry, and guard against burdensome taxation for the support of prisons.

2. There were two classes of aliens with respect to which the Israelitish law gave directions—those who belonged to any of the neighbouring Canaanitish tribes in particular, and such as belonged to other nations in general. With respect to the latter, the law was exactly the same as to the Hebrews themselves. Lev. 24:20. Ye shall have one manner of law as well for the stranger as for one of your own country. Verse 35, next chapter. If thy brother be waxen poor, then thou shalt relieve him—yea, though he be a stranger or a sojourner. But there are particular exceptions from this general law, which guaranteed from invasion the life, the liberty, and the property of aliens. These exceptions refer to the remains of the conquered tribes living among the Israelites, or to such of the nations of Canaan as were around them. Lev. 25:44,45. Of the heathen that are round about you, shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Of the children of the strangers that sojourn among you, shall ye buy, and of the families which they begat in your land. This permission was merciful. The descendants of Abraham were expressly appointed the executioners of the divine sentence against the tribes of Canaan. Extermination was the command; but on their voluntary subjection they were only reduced into a state of servitude. The Israelites were forbidden to use them harshly. Exod. 21:26. Accordingly, the Gibeonites, when they craftily obtained the safety of their lives, were reduced into the situation of bond servants. Joshua 9. When Saul treated them with cruelty, God was offended, and even punished David because he did not avenge that cruelty on the house of Saul, at an early part of his reign. 2 Sam. 21:1. I proceed,

II. To prove that this example is not for our imitation. The Israelites themselves had no right to fit out their ships with their implements of cruelty, in order to steal, buy, stow away, and chain men of other nations, living, without injury to them, at a distance from their shores. Had they done so, no future traffic could have rendered their prizes legitimate. They were officially employed by Heaven to punish the iniquity of the nations which they vanquished. They were ordered to subdue, destroy or enslave the descendants of Canaan, and take possession of the land covenanted to their father Abraham, As a peculiar people, they were to be kept distinct until Messiah should come. The remains of foreign nations could not, therefore, be admitted to the rights of citizenship. The wall of partition is now broken down. All mankind are our brethren. There is no similarity of Circumstances between us and the ancient Hebrews—no divine permission that can justify us in holding slaves. Although the slavery were exactly the same with that into which the blacks are reduced, the practice of modern nations would remain unjustifiable.

The descendants of Shem have, in the Hebrew nation, reduced Canaan into a state of servitude; and the offspring of Japheth have supplanted those of Shem in both spiritual and temporal privileges.

OBJECTION V. "Slavery was tolerated, in the primitive ages of Christianity, by the Roman laws. It is not condemned by Christ or his Apostles. They have given directions for the conduct of master and slave. 1 Tim. 6:1. They have not intimated that the practice of keeping men in slavery was sinful."

ANSWER. What you have asserted is not correct, and, if it had been, it would be no objection to the principles for which I contend. The New Testament does condemn the slave-trade. 1 Tim. 1:10. Man-stealing is here reprobated, together with every practice which is contrary to sound doctrine and the spirit of the glorious gospel 1 Cor. 7:21. If thou mayest be made free, use it rather. It is recommended to the slave, if he is able, to procure his liberty. If he has no fair means of obtaining it, it is his duty patiently to continue in bondage.[15] The gospel hope comforts him. The New Testament says (Col. 4:1), Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal. Treat them justly; use them-mercifully; pay them lawful wages; give them an equivalent for their services. But, supposing the scriptures had been silent on this subject, the objector could not justify negro slavery from that silence. If it prove any thing it will prove too much. It will prove the justice of the worst of tyranny, the most dreadful cruelty, because Nero is not specified as an infamous tyrant in the New Testament. It will prove that you have a right to sell your own children as slaves[16]—to kidnap your neighbour, your countryman and your friend. You need not, therefore, confine your traffic in human flesh to the African race. You may extend it even to your own children. But if such practices are not formally mentioned and condemned in the New Testament, the principles from which they proceed are reprobated in the strongest terms. The whole system of slavery is opposite to the spirit of that religion which is righteousness and peace. True religion cheers the heart both of the subject of a tyrant and the slave of a master. It teaches them their duty as men, as social beings, as citizens of the world; while it reprobates the character who holds them in durance, anti condemns the tenor upon which he holds his authority. It does not alter the external condition, of the believer, unless it reaches the heart of those who are in power. It teaches him faithfulness and sobriety, patience and resignation, until God, in his providence, affords him an opportunity of being more usefully active in the restoration of moral order to society.

OBJECTION VI. "I abhor the principle. The practice of importing and selling men is detestable. But here they are. We found them slaves. We are not obliged, at the expense of our property, to set them at liberty. The community in general will not consent to it. They will therefore be slaves. I want a servant. I may purchase and hold a slave. His condition will not be rendered worse by serving me. I am bound to treat him mercifully: but, as matters are now situated, there can be no evil in my keeping him in bondage."

ANSWER. If men were not strongly influenced by interested motives, they could not impose so far on their own understandings as to give indulgence to the principle contained in this objection. A long continuance of evil-doing will change the nature of wrong unto right. If so, there is an end to the distinction between virtue and vice. Your fathers left the negroes in bondage, as an inheritance to you. Does this justify you in retaining them? No. If the first stealer and the first buyer acted contrary to justice, the constant retainer cannot be guiltless. You condemn the principle, but justify the practice. Act consistently, I beseech you, Touch not, taste not, handle not the unclean thing. Let me call your attention to another fact. You have a slave of thirty years of age in your possession. He was born in your house. By natural laws, and according to the first principles of civil liberty, he was born equally free with your son. Who has, upon him, committed the robbery by which he has been deprived of his natural rights? Yourself. Lay not the blame on your parents, for you imitate their example. The text applies to you directly. You have stolen from his connections, from himself, a man born in your house. Have you purchased him? You have countenanced an impious commerce; the best reparation you can make is to set your slave at liberty. You cannot afford to perform acts of such extensive benevolence. Do justice, however. Deal mercifully with your servant. When the wages which he might have annually earned shall have amounted to the purchase money, and lawful interest, set him immediately at liberty from your controul. If you are a worthy character, he shall afterwards voluntarily serve you, unless he be ungrateful indeed, provided you give him due wages. After confessing the system to be indefensible, it is to be hoped you will not give your suffrages to render it permanent.—I shall proceed,

[15] Commerce in the human species is of a very early date. Moses informs us that Joseph was sold as a slave, and disposed of in Egypt as such by the purchasers. Gen. 37:30,36 Homer informs us, that in the time of the Trojan war Egypt and Cyprus were markets for slaves. Antinous threatens to send Ulysses to one of those places. Odys. lib. 17 v.448. Mh taxa pikrhn Aigupton kai Kupron idhai. Tyre and Sidon were notorious for prosecuting the slave-trade. This custom travelled over all Asia; spread through the Grecian and Roman world; and was practised among the barbarous nations which overturned the Roman Empire. The abolition of the slave-trade among the European nations has been falsely attributed to the feudal system. The prevalence of Christianity was the real cause of it. The charters which were granted, in those days, for the freedom of slaves, were expressly, pro amore Dei, pro mercede animo; "that they might procure the favour of the Deity, which they conceived themselves to have forfeited by the subjugation of those whom they found to be the objects of divine benevolence." These effects were produced as the nations were converted, and procured a general liberty through Europe before the close of the twelfth century. In the commencement of this century slaves were a capital article in the domestic and foreign trade of England. When any person had more children than he could maintain, he sold them to a merchant. In the Council held at St. Peters, Westminster, A.D. 1102 this practice was prohibited. In the great Council of Armagh, A.D. 1171, the clergy of Ireland decreed that all the English slaves should be immediately emancipated. (Henry’s England, vol. vi. p. 267, 8vo edit.) It had not yet been discovered that the New Testament authorised slavery. No. Wherever this religion prevails, it will be found to be the "perfect law of liberty."

The instance of Onesimus has been very unhappily selected by the advocates of slavery to support their system. It does not appear certainly that he had been a slave to Philemon. He had been, indeed, a servant. But, if a slave, he was to be so no longer. Phil. 16. Paul had right to demand his liberty. Phil. 8. He knows, however, that to request it would be sufficient. Phil. 9. It appears Onesimus had wronged his master. Phil. 18. Notwithstanding, Paul might lawfully have retained him without a recompence. Phil. 13. But, confiding in Philemon’s integrity, leaves the matter to his own option, and. becomes security for Onesimus. Phil. 15. It appears that this Onesimus was no longer slave or servant, he was more probably afterwards a minister of the gospel, and colleague with Tychicus in Collosse. He is said to have been afterwards pastor at Ephesus.

[16] The immoralities practised in the Roman Empire, under the sanction of law, were numerous and aggravated. It would be an unreasonable mode of compiling a system of ethics, to sustain as moral every ancient usage of the Grecians and Romans which are not, expressly condemned in the New Testament.

To be continued.