In the nineteenth century debates about slavery, Christians using the Bible were—those who were in support of a slavery position—really emphasized those Pauline epistles that were mainly written by his disciples that were really emphasizing the submission of slaves to their slave owners. And, those epistles are, were very, very, deeply unpopular, as you can imagine, among slave Christians. Other parts of the Bible have more liberative themes and those who were anti-slavery obviously focused on those a great deal.
Slavery and the New Testament
by Dale Martin
A classic example of how different Christians have used the Bible to talk about social justice and ethics is the issue of slavery. Abolitionists in the American nineteenth century insisted that, read correctly, the Bible did not support the institution of slavery. On the other hand, conservative southern Christians read the Bible and especially the New Testament to say that, no the Bible supports the institution of slavery, it supports the treating of slaves with care and with concern and even with love, but still it did not challenge the basic institution of slavery.
Now many scholars have argued in the last several years, and I’m in agreement, that when it comes to the historical, critical reading of the New Testament—that is: what did this text mean in its ancient context?—I believe that the New Testament authors assumed that the institution of slavery was simply part of nature and part of life and they never advocated the abolition of the institution of slavery.
Slavery in the New Testament
Slavery in the Roman Empire was a fact of life. Most people could not imagine a society without slaves. Some people spoke out against the mistreatment of slaves, and there were slave revolts, but no abolitionist movement existed.
The fate of a slave depended largely on the temperament of his or her master. Masters could punish slaves brutally for real or perceived infractions. Sexual abuse of slaves was also common. Slave work included hard labor as well as skilled service like tutoring, bookkeeping, and estate managing. Masters often freed slaves—and for numerous reasons, including as a reward for obedience and loyalty. Written contracts, however, commonly enforced continued work by freed slaves for their former masters. A wide range of circumstances dictated whether a slave would be educated, illiterate, poor, wealthy, abused, or comfortable.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
I Have a Dream
delivered 28 August 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.
I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.