Black American Slaves Understood the Bible Better Than White Americans Did. Why?
Abraham Lincoln famously lamented in his Second Inaugural Address that folks in the Confederacy and Union “read the same Bible.” He lamented this fact because Americans used the Bible both to justify slavery and to condemn it. Each side was motivated to focus on certain biblical texts and neglect others in advancing their causes. And they did.
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And now, we must reckon with the overwhelming number of sobering stories about how Yankee and Rebel preachers and politicians used Scripture in their cause to defend either the rights of slaves or the rights of states.1For a summary and analysis of these various uses of Scripture, see: James P. Byrd, A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood: The Bible and the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021). Indeed, the North and the South “read the same Bible.” But this quote means to imply the difficult question: How is it possible that the North and South reached opposite conclusions about slavery?
Historian James P. Byrd notes that “Americans didn’t read scripture in isolation; they read it to deal with the war, which means the context is as important as the texts.”2Byrd, A Holy Baptism, 17. The context of America’s civil war drove almost all the biblical teaching in that era. But the context of slavery also yielded powerful biblical interpretations that have been often overlooked, even in the contemporary Black church. Some have argued, and I would join them, that Black American slaves’ experience of systemic oppression revealed biblical insights unavailable to whites in both the Union and the Confederacy.
Below, I want to consider the North’s and South’s opposite biblical conclusions about slavery in light of another set of differing biblical interpretations: those of Black Americans and white Americans, no matter which side of the Mason-Dixon line they inhabited.
Seeing the Same Data Differently
Conspiracy-mongering and the spectacularly persuasive power of YouTubers, among other things, have led even like-minded evangelical Christians to look at each other’s interpretations of the daily news and of Scripture and ask: Are we even reading the same Bible? Of course, the Bible is in fact the same. It’s the “we” that requires a closer inspection, because the people holding those Bibles have been shaped by what are in fact different intellectual traditions.
Intellectual traditions are established methods of fostering knowledge within certain communities across time. Traditions form individuals, their bodies, and thus, their thinking. For instance, medical traditions prescribe rituals, like lecture-listening, mathematic practice, and cadaver dissection, to train students to interpret data about the human body meaningfully.
Consider how a medical school uses texts and the rituals of medical training to form discerning physicians and surgeons. A well-formed surgeon and an untrained patient may look at the same X-ray, but though they both have the same data, they don’t see the same things in the X-ray. Surgeons see potential futures of their patients. They see the hairline fracture or collapsed lung. The patient merely sees roughly discernible shapes of light against dark—a ribcage, a spine. A doctor’s formation in a particular intellectual tradition allows them to see more of the surgical realities that they inspect.
So what intellectual tradition enabled some people in the American Civil War period to better discern Scripture’s view of slavery? We aren’t seeking absolutely right or absolutely wrong interpretations. But the sheer mass of both pro-slavery and abolitionist deployments of Scripture certainly forces us to think about better and worse interpretations.
Better Biblical Interpretations through Shared Experiences
Under slavery in the South and the ubiquitous assumption of white superiority in the North, Black American slaves had their own biblical interpretations—ones that might be better than many others we encounter on an average Sunday. The Black tradition of biblical interpretation, broadly construed, seems to have better understood the biblical impulses that demand justice and protections of the vulnerable than did the white traditions. Why so?
We must admit that some communal experiences make for better interpretations of Scripture than others. Combat veterans and civilian war-survivors typically have a better grasp of the utter nastiness of war than people who have only fought in video games. Biblical literature on war and violence might be better understood by survivors of war atrocities and possibly by veterans. Similarly, agrarian subsistence farmers have helped us understand Jesus’ parables and Israel’s constant fear of crop failure and starvation. Rape victims have given voice to trauma implicit in Scripture’s stories of sexual violence. It’s not unreasonable to say that the church only stands to gain from hearing the better biblical interpretations from communities with experiential knowledge of the relevant topic.
Biblical scholars often repeat the fact that many biblical texts were written by the oppressed and to the oppressed. This means that intellectual traditions shaped by persecution and marginalization might have a better grasp of the biblical reasoning about governance, slavery, and justice than, say, the average upper-middle-class graduate student. Likewise, the American slave community saw the world differently than the average American of their day. Today, the average American experiences safety and opulence at a level that rivals that of medieval royalty. Our steady experience of opulence and safety might deafen us to matters in the text that would otherwise be obvious to most humans throughout history.
Community-wide traumas and marginalization of entire people groups still exist in modern communities in the West. However, we think of these as aberrant and intrusive. Yet in some economically depressed or marginalized communities, such difficulties are still part of normal life. It might be worth considering how those communities could guide our thinking in the church today.
Several scholars have recently reminded me why focusing on what makes better biblical interpretations better actually serves the whole church rather than merely parts of it.
First, in his recent book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation, Esau McCaulley forcefully argues that the Black church, broadly construed, has typically read the Bible better on major socio-political matters than the so-called white church, which has eventually had to come around to the Black tradition’s interpretation. He is not necessarily referring to Black liberation theology found in academic discussions, but rather to the practiced theology of lay Christians.
Second, Lisa Bowens, in her book African American Readings of Paul, described how Southern slaves like John Jea heard preaching from their master’s pastors almost exclusively funded by the apostle Paul’s admonitions, “Slaves obey your masters.” Yet, when Jea miraculously learned to read the whole Bible, he found that the Torah—Paul’s intellectual tradition—prohibited the slave trade as Jea knew it and equalized slaves’ positions to their masters’.
Bowens’s book also taught me about the 1774 Slave Petition that put the hard questions from Paul’s teaching (in that same slaves-obey-your-masters passage!) to the burgeoning American state government. Note that this petition precedes the birth of our nation and is written to the northern colony of Massachusetts. These slaves interpreted Paul from a fuller understanding of Paul’s thinking that went beyond “slaves obey your masters.” Speaking against the slave trade’s practice of forced separation of husbands from wives and children from parents, these slaves reasoned with their white counterparts from Paul. When their spouses and children were taken far away from them, their words shed new light on Paul’s teaching and deserve to be read slowly:
By our deplorable situation we are rendered incapable of shewing our obedience to Almighty God how can a Slave perform the duties of a husband to a wife or parent to his child [?] How can a husband leave master and work and Cleave to his wife How can the wife submit themselves to [their] Husbands in all things[?] How can the child obey [their] parents in all things[?] There is a [great] number of us [Sincere] [though] [of the] members of the Church of Christ how can the master and the Slave be said to fullfil that command Live in love let Brotherly Love [continue] and abound [Bear] yea [one another] [Burdens] How can the master be said to Bear my [Burden] when he [Bears] me down, with the . . . [chains] of slavery and [oppression] against my will . . .?3Spellings modernized and corrected. “Petition for freedom to Massachusetts Governor Thomas Gage, His Majesty’s Council, and the House of Representatives, 25 May 1774.” https://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?item_id=549&img_step=1&mode=transcript/.
These Massachusetts slaves certainly read the same Bible, but seemingly better than their white masters precisely because of their integrative and practical approach to the broad spectrum of Paul’s thinking. They knew how to read his teaching given that American slavery was antithetical to Black family life.
In a recent and completely different context of persecution, I once heard a Palestinian from Gaza speak on Paul’s discussions of suffering. Hanna Massad, a Christian pastor and theologian, had directly experienced unrelenting persecution of the church in Gaza. Massad recounted how he had to comfort a newly widowed woman in 2007 after her husband, one of the elders in his church, had been kidnapped and executed by anti-Christian Muslims, who dumped his body on the street in front of the church. Listening to Massad explore Paul’s thinking on persecution from a Gazan church tradition, I felt as if I hadn’t understood Paul before that moment.
The lens of life-threatening persecution in the Gaza Strip exposed Paul’s message to the church along the axis of persecution. These were common teachings in Paul that I had read as if they were about my personal spiritual growth. Now I saw a Paul who was comforting a community under duress. The details of Massad’s interpretation are too many to rehearse here, but what cannot be missed is that he showed me things in Paul that were there all along, but I couldn’t see them because I had not lived in the systemic persecution that his church experienced in Gaza.
Cultivating and Elevating Better Biblical Interpretation
The Black community’s experience of cruel labor and social segregation shaped their theology by forcing questions that demanded answers. Because of their parallel experiences, Israel’s exodus from Egypt’s oppressive slavery became central in Black preaching and thinking in the late eighteenth century. The Black church also noticed their connections to first-century Christianity. In Paul’s Greco-Roman world, such persecution issued naturally from the political gears of a warped cosmos in the hands of an angry Roman Empire. In a world where West Africans were enslaved in the North and South of America, such exploitation issued from masters who “read the same Bible,” but read and practiced it poorly.
In these cases, the seemingly better reading of Scripture comes from the intellectual tradition that understands the complexities of persistent threat, persecution, and the denial of their family units—their humanity itself. Those threats created a community of readers who couldn’t afford to make lazy readings of Scripture about slavery. So, they plumbed the depths of the Hebraic intellectual tradition captured in the Christian Scriptures. Some of them traced Paul’s thinking back into the Torah and read the biblical literature as reasoning with them about the nature of reality, the nature of government, the nature of anthropology, and so much more.
On the one hand, the intellectual community can render better or worse interpretations of Scripture, depending on the community’s traditions. On the other hand (in the biblical text itself), there are literary structures that create traceable, testable, and therefore defeasible lines of reasoning by the biblical authors about the nature of things such as statecraft, justice, civil disobedience, enslavement, and more.
For instance, when the Slave Petition of 1774 (cited above) argued that African slaves were prohibited from performing their Christian duties according to Paul’s teaching, they seem to have been following that discernible Hebraic argument about the ethical and metaphysical nature of humanity beginning in the Torah through the Gospels and into Paul.
This transformative good news was for women, children, foreigners, Hebrews, and people with disabilities. Concerning Roman practices of slavery, Paul following the Torah did not condemn the practice in its totality. Rather, he insisted that slaves be elevated in the eyes of their masters. Paul pleads with the master of Onesimus, “So if you consider me your partner, receive [your slave Onesimus] as you would receive me” (Phlm 1:17). This radical equality seems, for Paul, to ameliorate and reorganize their labor relationship in slavery: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).
Paul also elevates the labor of slaves in their own eyes: “Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women,knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free” (Eph 3:7–8).
These dual elevations of dignity and service came in the context of Paul’s Torah-centric views of human equality, dignity, and radical trust in God’s justice. It was the Black church that saw more truly the whole course of thinking from the Hebrew Scriptures into Paul’s thinking.
Of course, African slaves and freepersons weren’t the only ones making rigorous arguments about the biblical views of slavery. Pro-slavers debated with abolitionist counterparts and wrote extensive treatises intending to demonstrate from Scripture that slavery is everything from a necessary evil to a natural right.4One good example is a collection of essays posed as a debate between a Northern (Wayland) and Southern (Fuller) pastor. Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution: In a Correspondence between the Rev. Richard Fuller of Beaufort, S.C., and the Rev. Francis Wayland, of Providence, R.I. https://repository.wellesley.edu/object/wellesley30430/.
As I’ve said, there are better and worse methods of interpretation. If we created two columns with “better” on one side and “worse” on the other, then cherry-picking arguments would go in the worse column, as would flattened proof-texting of Scripture. We might also put indefeasible interpretations—views such as “Scripture just plainly says what it says and needs no explanation”—in the worse column. I would add any interpretations that refuse to let the content, literary structure, and impulses of the text interrupt our own traditions or thoughts. Just think of how the average American’s opulent life culturally and conceptually isolates them from the agrarian subsistence intellectual world of the biblical authors.
Conversely, in the better column, we might put those traditions that pay attention to literary devices, narrative structure, repetition, poetic arguments, legal reasoning, etc. We could add traditions that integrate lived experience into interpretation, but we would have to be careful not to presume that raw experience is sufficient to create authoritative understanding.
Lacking such experiences, better intellectual traditions might defer to those who have experienced something akin to the environs of Scripture’s teaching. I would imagine that those who have lived under the Jim Crow-era white terrorism of lynching culture, those who have experienced systemically oppressive governments, and those who have endured sustained atrocities of ethnic violence could have rich insights for those of us who have not—insights that cannot be had without contact with such terrors.
In the “better” column, we might also include traditions that allow the biblical authors to interrupt our thinking and traditions. Better reads might include those that attend to how biblical authors provide a sophisticated critique of the political philosophies, epistemologies, metaphysics, sciences, and ethics of their day—the Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian intellectual worlds. It’s because the biblical authors engaged and critiqued the philosophies of their day that their ideas could later be used to critique the philosophical underpinnings of practices such as the slave trade. Better interpretations might come from communities that trace the Hebraic intellectual tradition as it unfurls across biblical literature, so that they’re less likely to misunderstand an argument with a long pedigree in Jesus or Paul, thinking that it’s a new idea in a new covenant. Rather, they trace the discernible source of Jesus’ or Paul’s thinking back into the Hebrew Scriptures.
For now, I might regard the historic Black church, broadly understood, as the better readers in many of these arenas. And I want to be clear that I am not advocating the exploitation of people for the sake of developing good interpretative communities. Rather I want to appropriately engage all the traditions of biblical wisdom, including those forged in oppression just as the Hebrew intellectual tradition was forged in the cruelty of Egypt and Babylon.
1. For a summary and analysis of these various uses of Scripture, see: James P. Byrd, A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood: The Bible and the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).
2. Byrd, A Holy Baptism, 17.
3. Spellings modernized and corrected. “Petition for freedom to Massachusetts Governor Thomas Gage, His Majesty’s Council, and the House of Representatives, 25 May 1774.” https://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?item_id=549&img_step=1&mode=transcript/.
4. One good example is a collection of essays posed as a debate between a Northern (Wayland) and Southern (Fuller) pastor. Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution: In a Correspondence between the Rev. Richard Fuller of Beaufort, S.C., and the Rev. Francis Wayland, of Providence, R.I. https://repository.wellesley.edu/object/wellesley30430/.
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