Friday, August 17, 2012

R. L. Dabney's Defense of Slavery


R. L. Dabney in 1865 wrote Life and Campaigns of Lt. General T. J. (Stonewall) Jackson. Dabney was Jackson's Chaplain and after the Civil War became a renowned theologian at Union Theological Seminary. Since assumptions are being made about what Southerners believed about "slavery" it seems useful to consider what R. L. Dabney, a very intelligent and articulate advocate has to say on the subject. I'll comment below:

Page 166: "When pointed to the rest of Christendom, they boldly declare, that this results from an exclusion of the Southern people form a hearing in their own defence and a perverse and indolent reception from their enemies, of the most monstrous tissue of slanders and falsehoods, which ever confounded a human mind. The world has been told a myriad times until the world believes it, that Virginian slavery makes a human being a chattel, a piece of property, thus violating the first intuitions of justice. Yet, all this is absolutely false; every slave-law of Virginia treats the slave as a person, a responsible, reasonable being; and not a thing; the only property which the laws recognize in him, is the property in his involuntary labor. . ."

Page 168: "And when we look into the ethics of the relation, we find that it was never suspected of immorality by any of the great masters of moral science, classic or scholastic, nor by any of the luminaries of the Church, patristic or reformed, until the dogma of modern abolition was born of atheistic parentage, amidst the radical disorganizers of France, in the Reign of Terror. In the Word of God, the only infallible standard of morality, that doctrine finds no support. Moses legalized domestic slavery for God's chosen people, in the very act of setting them aside to holiness. Christ, the great Reformer, lived and moved amidst it, teaching, healing, applauding slaveholders; and while He assailed every abuse, uttered no word against this lawful relation. His apostles admit slaveholders to the church, exacting no repentance nor renunciation. They leave, by inspiration, general precepts for the manner in which the duties of the relation are to be maintained. They command Christian slaves to obey and honor Christian masters. They remand the runaway to his injured owner, and recognize his property in his labor as a right which they had no power to infringe. If slavery is in itself a sinful thing, then the Bible is a sinful book.

"Strong in the truth of God and history, the people of the Confederate States therefore calmly breast the adverse opinion of the world. They fortify their position by the fact that their right to the labor of their slaves is not only protected by the laws they inherited from their fathers, but by the laws of God, and by eternal rectitude. Had they been unable to assert the latter truth, their resistance to anti-slavery aggressions would have been proper; because the Constitution, which alone united the States, recognized and protected it. But now their attitude is in every respect impregnable; for God protects it as well as the Constitution. To infringe the rights of slaveholders under the laws, was therefore a usurpation, and a violation of the primary compact. But a covenant broken by one party is broken for the other. The Southern States therefore had the clearest right to select their own redress. And especially is their secession justified, when the malignant intentions of the aggressors, and the ruinous nature of the wrongs they sought to inflict, are considered. . . ."

Comment: How do we understand his arguments while at the same time believing that it was right to abolish slavery? Jesus said, "in this world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world." Slaves of the past endured the tribulation, but the world has been overcome in that respect.

Also, while Dabney is correct in saying that Slavery is not condemned in the Bible, neither is there evidence that the world is to remain static and that Slavery is to be retained. Christian theology must apply itself to the changes in the world that are not counter to important doctrine. Difficulties arise when the Bible is used for purposes never intended. For example, it was once used as evidence that the world was flat. It was also used as evidence for a geocentric universe. There are still groups using the Bible as evidence that the universe is only 7,000 or so years old.

The eschatological view called Postmillennialism makes room for increased understanding and the elimination of inequities such as slavery. There is a never-ending theological debate between those who advocate theological change to accommodate some change in the world and those who consider any change whatsoever counter to the (in their view) never-changing nature of Scripture.

Christians would be on safe ground, in my view, if they said "if you are a slave in a slave society, you should behave thus and so." They would be wrong if they said the Bible commands a slave society.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Actually, Ptolemy and other pagans were responsible for starting geocentrism.