Slaveholding Not Sinful

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Slaveholding Not Sinful

Slavery, the Punishment of Man's Sin, its Remedy, the Gospel of Christ

Book excerpt

By: Samuel Blanchard How

Date: 1856

Source: How, Samuel Blanchard. Slaveholding Not Sinful: Slavery, the Punishment of Man's Sin, its Remedy, the Gospel of Christ. New Brunswick, N.J.: J. Terhune's Press, 1856.

About the Author: Samuel Blanchard How served as the head of the Grammar School at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and later became it's president in 1830, serving through 1832. A minister as well as an educator, How served in churches in Savannah, Georgia from 1823–1829 and in the First Dutch Reformed Church in New Brunswick, New Jersey, from 1832–1861.


Pro-slavery arguments in the Ante-bellum South of the United States centered largely on economic, racial, and religious issues. Economic arguments examined the need for labor for cash crops such as cotton and tobacco; such labor-intensive crops needed a ready supply of cheap labor, and pro-slavery arguments focused on the potential collapse of the southern economy should slavery be abolished. In addition, as Chancelor Harper notes in his 1860 essay "Slavery in the Light of Social Ethics," "Our slavery has not only given existence to millions of slaves within our own territories, it has given the means of subsistence, and therefore, existence, to millions of freemen in our confederate States; enabling them to send forth their swarms to overspread the plains and forests of the West, and appear as the harbingers of civilization." Slavery, according to Harper, granted other men freedom, enabling white men to fulfill the principle of Manifest Destiny.

Racial prejudice and paternalism emerged as an argument, shored up by pseudoscientific arguments, such as those based on physiognomy, in which the character and/or intelligence of a person or race allegedly could be determined by physical characteristics. Richard H. Colfax, in his 1833 book Evidence Against the Views of the Abolitionists, Consisting of Physical and Moral Proofs, of the Natural Inferiority of the Negroes, applies physiognomy to the discussion of African facial characteristics—and the moral conclusions that result—in the following passage: "His lips are thick, his zygomatic muscles, large and full* (*"These muscles are always in action during laughter and the extreme enlargement of them indicates a low mind." Lavater)—his jaws large and projecting,—his chin retreating,—his forehead low, flat and slanting, and (as a consequence of this latter character,) his eyeballs are very prominent,—apparently larger than those of white men;—all of these peculiarities at the same time contributing to reduce his facial angle almost to a level with that of the brute—Can any such man become great or elevated?"

Colfax's viewpoint was shared by many who accepted physiognomy to be an accurate method for understanding a person's or a race's moral character and intellectual capabilities. The forerunner to eugenics, physiognomy-based arguments were used to legitimize slavery; if slaves were "brutes," then providing hard labor in exchange for food and housing, went the owners' arguments, was the slave's rightful role in society.

The biblical argument for slavery was the third primary message that pro-slavery activists used in arguing for the institution of slavery. Ministers in churches in the southern United States used biblical passages that refer directly to slavery as a defense against abolitionists; if the Bible gives specific rules for treatment of slaves and punishments, they asked, how can slavery be wrong?

In the excerpt below, Samuel Blanchard How, a minister in the First Dutch Reformed Church in New Brunswick, New Jersey, writes about the biblical argument that justifies slavery.


Mr. President: Two principal objections have been made against receiving into our Church the Classis of North Carolina. The first objection is, that if we do so, we shall destroy the peace of our Church, and introduce among ourselves distraction and division by the agitation of the slavery question. The second objection is, that slaveholding is a sin, and that therefore, we ought not to admit slaveholders into our Church. I shall attempt, first of all, to show that slave-holding is not a sin, and that therefore, there is no reason to exclude slaveholders, simply because they are slaveholders, from union and communion with us. If this is established, then both objections necessarily fail: for it would be alike absurd and wicked to disturb the peace of the Church for that which the Scriptures teach us is not a sin, and which was no bar to church-fellowship with the Apostles of Christ.

1. The Holding of a slave not a sin.

It has been said that "American Slavery is at war with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, natural justice, and Christianity—that slavery is a sin against God and a crime against man, etc." To these bold statements we reply, that the mass of the American people have never considered the holding of slaves as at war with the Declaration of Independence; that the Supreme Court of the Nation has declared that it is not against the Constitution of the United States; and that it is not against natural justice and Christianity, we shall now endeavor to prove. We admit that it is an evil much to be lamented, but we deny that it is a sin against God and a crime against man.

As I am addressing the Supreme Ecclesiastical Court of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, my final appeal shall be to the Holy Scriptures as the inspired world of God, the only infallible and perfect rule of right and wrong, truth and error, in matters of religious faith and duty. We all profess to believe that "the law and the testimony of God" are the standard of duty and the rule of faith, and that if any "speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them."

That the holding of slaves is not a sin we prove from the following passages of Scripture:

1. 1 Tim. 6: 1-5: "Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit. These things teach and exhort. If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words 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 surmising, perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself."

We begin with the New Testament to obviate an objection that might be urged if we should begin with the Old Testament, that the Christian dispensation has greater light and freedom and privileges than were enjoyed under the Jewish dispensation, and that therefore, though slavery might have lawfully existed under the latter, that can not be pleaded in favor of its existing under the former. Our endeavor will be to show that they both entirely agree on the point before us.

The term "servants" in this passage of sacred Scripture is in the original Greek "douloi" the primary meaning of which, Robinson in his Greek and English Lexicon of the New Testament, gives as "a bondsman, slave, servant, pr. By birth; diff. from andrapodon, one enslaved in war."—He says: "In a family the doulos was one bound to serve, a slave, and was the property of his master, 'a living possession,' as Aristotle calls him."—Schleusner gives as the meaning of the term—1. proprie: servus, minister, homo non liber, nec sui juris et opponitur aleutheros, that is, "its first and proper signification is that of a slave, a serving man, a man who is not free and at his own disposal."

But to put his meaning beyond doubt, the Apostle adds the words, "under the yoke," which is an emblem of servitude or of the rule to which any one is subject. He here unquestionably speaks of slaves who are under bondage to their maters. Bloomfield says: "The commentators are not sufficiently aware of the strength of this expression, in which there is a blending of two expressions to put the case in its strongest point of view (supposing even the harshest bondage) in order to make the injunction to obedience the more forcible." These slaves the Apostle commands to "count their own masters, whether heathen or Christians or Jews, worthy of all honor," and the reason that he gives for this is, "that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed." It was lawful by the law of Moses, to make of the heathen bondmen for life, and to hold their children in bondage. But not so with one who was born a Jew. He was permitted to serve only for six years, and it is quite possible that there were some false teachers who asserted that, as no Jew was to remain a slave for life, so ought no Christian.

This sentiment, if it had prevailed among those slaves who were Christians, would have caused them to despise and hate their masters, and to withhold from them the respect and obedience which they owed to them. They would thus bring a reproach on the Gospel as if it were a doctrine that taught men contempt for their superiors, and disobedience to their lawful commands. From speaking of the duty which slaves owe to their masters in general, the Apostle passes on to speak to those who have believing masters who are their brethren in Christ. Here the questions whether the holding of slaves is a sin, and whether we should hold Christian communion with slaveholders, are fairly met. Does the Apostle then teach the slaves that they ought to be free? that their Christian masters sin in holding them in bondage? and does he, with apostolic authority and in the name of Jesus Christ, command the masters to give them their freedom? He does nothing of the kind. He not only does not require these Christian masters to set their slaves at liberty, but he speaks of them as "faithful and beloved" brethren, "partakers of the benefit," and for this very reason he exhorts Christian slaves not to despise them, but rather to do them service. It seems impossible for the question before us to be more fully and directly settled. But the Apostle proceeds further. He says that "if any man teach, otherwise," that is, if there is any Abolitionist among you, and Immediate Emancipationist, who says that no Christian can, without sin, hold a slave; that if he holds any, he is bound in duty immediately to liberate them, and if he does not, then true Christians are bound to refuse church-fellowship and communion with him lest they should partake of his sin—if any man teach these things, then he does "not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness." This we should suppose would have been a sufficient rebuke. But to show the criminality of the doctrine of these early Abolitionists in the Christian church, the Apostle proceeds to say, that he who teaches their doctrine "is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness." He, then, is a most marked manner, shows the falseness and danger of their sentiments by commanding Timothy, "from such withdraw thyself," that is, hold no intercourse with them. We shall not inquire how far this precept extends, nor whether it is a prohibition against holding church communion with Abolitionists; nor whether the Apostle does not mean to teach us that their sentiments are so revolutionary, so subversive of the established order of society, so calculated to produce discontent and resentment in the minds of the slaves as to endanger not only public but domestic peace and safety, and to produce by stirring up the slaves to insurrection, massacres and horrors, like those of the Massacres of St. Domingo, in the year 1790. Certain it is, that he commands us to withdraw from them.


How's work, published in 1856 and delivered before an audience at the General Synod of the German Reformed Church in 1855, was controversial. While his comments were not original arguments, it was his choice to deliver such a message in the North, where abolitionist thought dominated that was surprising. How's pro-slavery views may have been shaped by his six years as a minister in Georgia in the 1820s, though he was born and raised in the North, and spent most of his life there. Regardless, How pushed conventional standards with the delivery of a pro-slavery speech in the North and later the publication of such a message just a few years before the start of the Civil War (1861–1865).

Certain passages from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible were popular and quoted frequently in pro-slavery arguments. Writers used 1 Tim. 6: 1-5, which How uses above, as well as Luke 12:45-48, which not only specifically describes slavery as an institution, but also discusses a slave's whipping: "The lord [owner] of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more." In passages such as these pro-slavery lecturers, ministers, and writers found justification for slavery itself, slave conditions, terms of use, and punishments.

Abolitionists roundly criticized the use of the Bible to build the case for slavery, pointing instead to such passages as Exodus 21:16: "And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death." The "man stealers" were defined by abolitionists as being involved in human slavery, and the death sentence a sign of the Bible's rejection of human bondage.

Abolitionists and pro-slavery activists alike used different sections of the Bible to suit each side's rhetorical needs. How's remarks were directed at his church's decision whether to include a North Carolinian congregation. How's audience confronted the question: if slavery were a sin, could the General Synod reasonably welcome sinners into their fold? Although the very close vote favored inclusion of the North Carolina Classis of the German Reformed Church, the North Carolinians withdrew their request as a result of the discord and conflict between churches with slaveholders and those with abolitionists, just six years before north/south divisions would erupt into civil war.



Bolokitten, Oliver, Esq. (pseudonym). A Sojourn in the City of Amalgamation. New York: self-published, 1835.

Colfax, Richard H. Evidence Against the Views of the Abolitionists, Consisting of Physical and Moral Proofs, of the Natural Inferiority of the Negroes. New York: James T. M. Bleakley Publishers, 1833.

Horton, James Oliver and Lois E. Horton. Slavery and the Making of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Hosmer, William. Slavery and the Church. New York: W. J. Moses, 1853.

Link, William A. Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia (Civil War America). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

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Slaveholding Not Sinful

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