John Stackhouse explains when and why Christians turned to the Bible to support owning slaves.
The history of slavery needs to be understood as something that human beings do either because they can, or because they must. Slaves are taken in battle, and that makes my life easier, if I can have somebody do my work who I pay very little to. So it’s a kind of luxury, a kind of spoil of war. In the case of American chattel slavery, the widespread importing of black slaves was an economic necessity for at least the industries that the South was capable of. The soil wasn’t very good; the situation was such that the only way to make money in sugarcane, and then cotton, was to pay your workers virtually nothing, because the margin was so small. So we think of these beautiful, big houses – the big house, where the rich people live – but nobody else is rich. Everybody else is dirt poor, because that’s the economic reality of the situation.
The defence of slavery in the South really has to do with economics first – that their whole economy depends on that. And then, their culture of honour is fuelled by the economy. So if you attack slavery, you’re attacking the economic basis, which is the basis of their way of life – and therefore everything else falls. And since everything is connected to everything in that sense, so is religion, so is the Bible, so is their ethics. The South doesn’t start with an elaborate defence of slavery. It’s assumed that if you can, or if you must, you should. But as the progression of the Southern economy becomes more and more dependent on slavery, and becomes embattled from an increasingly powerful North, then you start seeing preachers develop these extensive Christian defences.
So one of the most important things to understand is that the Christian defence of slavery in America is really manufactured only when the South and the North start to get into it, in the 19th century. Before that, in the 18th and 17th centuries, American Christians were holding slaves, but they don’t talk much about it, it’s just assumed that they can do it. And they seem to have a bad conscience about it, because a lot of them will release their slaves upon their deaths. It’s only in the 19th century, when the North and the South really get into it, that the elaborate defence of slavery becomes a theological phenomenon on the horizon, and within Southern culture itself.