Gay Marriage and Slavery: How the Left Wins the Debate Without Actually Debating

gay marriage 2

by John Ellis

Words are worth as many pictures as pictures are worth words[1]. In fact, getting all theological, I’d like to point out that God chose to primarily reveal Himself by inspiring writers and not painters[2]. Although I’ve just risked alienating my visual artist friends, I think most people will understand my point – while pictures are powerful tools of communication, words, by painting stark images in the mind, have the incredible power to bring clarity. Unfortunately, the misuse of words also holds the devious power to manipulate. Demagogues and propagandists understand how words can manipulate and change the conversation. And while I won’t deny that the Right is guilty of its fair share of rhetorical chicanery[3], the Left is currently putting on a demagoguery clinic. For example, in the “debate” about gay marriage, rhetorical tactics are often deployed by the Left in a manner that would make a Panzer division commander zufrieden.

See what I did with the previous sentence? It’s easy. I’m even considering inventing a mad-libs style gay marriage rhetoric game. That way, kids of all ages can join in the fun of creating unfair images in the minds of others. The game will include words like “slavery” and “racism,” of course. Those two heavily freighted words have become an integral part of the Left’s rhetorical de rigueur in their blitzkrieg on competing beliefs[4].

The belief that since the Church was wrong about slavery they must also be wrong about gay marriage is reaching the level of dogma. One of the frequent statements from proponents of gay marriage is that the Bible supports slavery and that the Church eventually moved past that ancient oddity and into enlightened society, and will eventually do the same thing with homosexuality and gay marriage. In other words, “You guys were wrong about slavery and you don’t want to be on the wrong side of history, again.” It’s become the ace in the hole for many proponents of gay marriage, and is quickly pulled out in discussion, especially online, serving the purpose of shutting up those of us who are now defined as unenlightened; disagreement is the new heresy for the modern pluralist. And it’s effective. It’s also wrong, not to mention that it’s not even an argument.

For the most part, Americans do not want to be connected to chattel slavery; nor should they. The slavery of the American South was despicable and was outright rebellion against God. That makes the accusation that the Church supported slavery a stinging charge that shames the hearer. Well, shames the hearer if the hearer doesn’t know the truth. The truth is that the Church didn’t support slavery. A few churches during a very brief period of history supported slavery[5]. And the Bible doesn’t condone slavery anyway, especially not the institution of chattel slavery as practiced in seventeenth through nineteenth century America.

The Bible’s attitude towards slavery has often been treated with a level of contempt for appropriate literary analysis that often seems to harbor deliberate duplicity. There are times when I’m left with the impression that the critics think that the mere presence of the word “slavery” in the Bible is evidence that the authors of God’s revealed word condoned slavery. Why else would they ignore the Bible’s tone when Scriptures speak of slavery?  I’m working on unpacking those previous sentences in a separate article, but for now I want to hit some highlights in the discussion about the Bible’s teachings on slavery.

Both the Old and New Testaments reference slavery. In fact, Philemon in the New Testament is a letter from the Apostle Paul to a slaveholder. This epistle is often referenced in the claims of those who try to accuse the Bible of sanctioning slavery. But to get to that point, they have to ignore Paul’s actual context – in reference to slavery and the Bible’s overall attitude towards slavery and his actual point with the letter. In the letter, Paul refers to Onesimus, the slave, as his son and writes, “I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.”[6] Later, in this very short letter, Paul implores Philemon to view Onesimus “as a beloved brother.”[7] In fact, he states, “if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.”[8]

Before tackling the larger issue of the Bible’s overall attitude towards slavery, Paul’s message in the book of Philemon cannot be divorced from the overall message found in his epistles. Throughout the writings of Paul, the reader is confronted with the fact that the Gospel unites former enemies. The Gospel is creating a new nation that exists alongside and within the earthly nations. For those of us in this new nation, it frees us to find our identity in Christ and surrender our earthly rights for the sake of the Gospel. It’s evident from the tone and the language used that Paul prefers Onesimus’ earthly freedom, but the overall message is one of service to each other. Nowhere does Paul condone slavery, and if Paul’s letters are taken in the larger context of the whole Bible, his tone fits with the Bible’s attitude towards slavery.

It’s true that the Bible never explicitly condemns slavery, but it never condones it either. It does regulate, liberally regulates, an already existing institution – an institution that had little resemblance to the slavery found in the American South, by the way. Right off the bat, Exodus 21:16 flatly forbids and condemns what most people mean when they reference slavery. Look, if God’s Word clearly states, and it does, “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death”[9], it’s hard, at least with a straight face, to claim that the Bible condones slavery as defined by 18th and 19th century America. Truth be told, the slavery that the Bible regulates, again, liberally regulates, would be more appropriately termed “indentured servitude.” For one thing, there was no racial element involved. For another, slaves were generally prisoners of war or were being punished for a crime – usually a crime involving the failure to pay a debt. But none of that fits with the Left’s established rhetorical agenda; and they’re not going to allow proper literary analysis stand in the way of their point.

Fair enough, but the Bible is one thing and the Church another, right? I mean, the Church supported slavery, didn’t it? Well, no. In fact, many of the Christians and churches that opposed American chattel slavery on moral and religious grounds often pointed to the reality that the version of slavery practiced during Biblical times would not allow for American chattel slavery. Referring to slavery in the Old Testament, Kentucky Baptist preacher James M. Pendleton wrote in the 1840s, “that there are points of material dissimilarity between that system and our system of slavery.”[10] One of those “points of material dissimilarity” was that if the Southern slaveholders were to practice the type of slavery that was regulated by the Bible, they would have to enslave whites as well as Africans. Noted historian Mark Noll points to the anti-slavery arguments of Minister John Fee, among others of the time, that the concept of slavery based on race was not only absurd but unbiblical[11]. Unfortunately, this argument failed to make inroads with the Southern slaveholders, and Mark Noll concludes with the telling statement that that failure “reveals that factors other than simple fidelity to Scripture were exerting great influence [over Southern slave-holders].”[12]

It’s true that Southern slaveholders twisted the Bible in attempts to justify slavery, but that doesn’t mean that the Church was wrong about slavery. The Church has been in existence over two-thousand years; American chattel slavery had a much shorter existence. Further, it wasn’t until the early 19th century that many people viewed American chattel slavery as something other than a necessary evil. And I want to be clear on this point; I do not condone those in the 18th century who owned slaves while expressing the belief that the institution was a necessary evil that should and would be gradually phased out. They still owned slaves, and they were wrong to do so. But I do want to point out that it wasn’t until the early 19th century that defenders of slavery, in large numbers, began misusing the Bible in defense of the institution.

But, in order to have an honest perspective on churches and slavery, the context of the evolution of American chattel slavery needs to provide the framework. In his comprehensive book American Slavery 1619-1877, historian Peter Kolchin explains that in order to understand slavery in the United States, we must first take into account the “broader world context, for until the nineteenth century unfree status of one or another – slavery, serfdom, peonage – was the lot of much of humankind.”[13] Indentured servitude was the main institution that fed the agricultural labor needs of the Southern colonies, and, on top of those forced into indentured servitude in order to pay the penalty for a crime, people of all races and color took advantage of the system to have the opportunity of pursuing life in the resources rich New World once the terms of their service were completed. “The initial demand for labor that eventually led to slavery was, as we have seen, color blind.”[14]

Of course, as is well known, that context changed and slavery ground in racism developed and blossomed into the poisonous fruit of chattel slavery. Two main developments, one gradual and one violently sudden, altered the social landscape, allowing for a race-based slavery. By the end of the 17th century, the number of Europeans coming to America as indentured servants had shrunk drastically. The Southern planters faced a labor shortage, but the attitudes towards African slaves had not yet systematized into that of a racial caste. “Within the colonies, there was often little clear demarcation between blacks and lower-class whites during the first decades of settlement.”[15] With society having not yet begun to draw sharp distinctions between poor whites and blacks, kidnapping and treating blacks as mere property was unthinkable for most of the Colonists. History provided a flashpoint that allowed the rich Southern planters to sow the seeds of chattel slavery.

Although a long way from the horrors of the dehumanizing chattel slavery that was to come, the Southern planters lorded it over and mistreated poor whites and blacks, whether they were indentured servants, slaves, or simply not one of the social elite. With the growing shortage of workers, the planters needed a new source of labor and a reason to begin casting Africans in a different light. In 1675, Nathaniel Bacon led a revolt of unified black slaves, white servants, and free poor, black and white; but the rebellion was quickly squashed by the well armed land owners. Using Bacon’s Rebellion as the catalyst, the rich planters began to change their tactics in order to maintain the social order that benefitted them. “They abandoned their heavy reliance on indentured servants in favor of the importation of more black slaves.”[16] In a calculated move, the planters, instead of acquiring English speaking blacks from the West Indies, began getting most of their slaves from Africa. The language barrier provided a buffer in which the planters were able to easier assert control. However, “fearful that such measures might not be sufficient to protect their interests, the planter cast took an additional precautionary step, a step that would later come to be known as a ‘racial bribe.’”[17] In an effort to stave off future alliances between poor whites and blacks, the planters gave poor whites “greater access to Native American lands, white servants were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias, and barriers were created so that free labor would not be placed in competition with slave labor.”[18] As civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander puts it, “poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery.”[19]

It needs to be pointed out, especially considering the thesis of this article, that the evolution of primarily indentured servitude to that of a “race-based system of slavery” was taking place in an incredibly unchurched and irreligious society. Morris Talpalar points out that “the rise of chattel slavery, and its predominance over and eventual substitution of indentured servitude in Virginia’s labor system, followed historically and logically the Puritan’s displacement by the Cavaliers.”[20] Did you catch that? As the influence of the Bible believing Puritans (who favored the use of indentured servants, viewed slavery as a necessary evil that should be phased out, and despised the slave trade) was replaced by that of the money-grubbing Cavaliers, chattel slavery became the cornerstone of Virginia’s labor force. Flashing forward one hundred years from Bacon’s Rebellion, sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark point out that “on the eve of the Revolution only about 17 percent of Americans were churched.”[21] They go on to explain in their landmark book The Churching of America that the colonies were frontiers and that “frontiers will be short on churches, and long on crime and vice, simply because they are frontiers.”[22] In other words, chattel slavery evolved apart from churches and religion; it thrived under secular and materialist motivations. And it’s no accident that the region of the New World that gave rise to chattel slavery and saw it to its fullest and ugliest fruition was the South – the least churched region of the New World.

One of the nicknames for the American South is “The Bible Belt,” which is, more often than not, used as a pejorative. Whether or not the South currently deserves that nickname is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the American South most decidedly did not deserve that nickname in the 18th and early 19th centuries[23]. Missionaries from the Northeast were appalled at the level of open depravity they found in the southern states. Charles Woodmason, an Anglican missionary to the Carolinas, reported that the citizens were “of abandon’d Morals and profilge [sic] Principles.”[24] Woodmason expressed his dismay at performing marriages where almost 100% of the brides were already pregnant, and that almost the same percentage of the total citizenry had an STD. The American South did not create chattel slavery within a cultural environment that cared what the Bible or the Church had to say about morality.

In fact, many of the northern religious leaders expressed dismay at chattel slavery from the very beginning. Early abolitionist and Quaker minister John Woolman frequently wrote in his published journal of his disgust of slavery, based on his understanding of the Bible. At one point he wrote that even as a young man, he believed, “the practice of slave-keeping to be inconsistent with the Christian religion.”[25] Woolman was, by no means, alone in his religious opposition to slavery. According to the historian John H. Wigger, “A significant number of Methodist preachers condemned slavery and even racism in uncompromising terms from the 1770s well into the nineteenth century.”[26] Later in his book, Wigger points out that while the northern Methodists continued to staunchly oppose slavery, the southern Methodists, even those who privately held to strict abolitionism, were silenced by the growing defense of slavery. Due to the violent swell of pro-slavery sentiment, “Methodist preachers in particular were targeted by pro-slavery advocates.”[27] This silence from the previously vocal anti-slavery Methodist preachers paralleled, unfortunately, the quickly growing defense of chattel slavery, even from southern churches.

So, yes, by the early nineteenth century, many ministers and churches in the South supported slavery. It’s a well known fact that the Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845 in response to the anti-slavery sentiment of the Northern Baptists. But, as it should be noted yet frequently isn’t, the support of slavery found in southern churches stood in contrast to the anti-slavery of the northern churches (not to mention the churches in England) The ministers and churches that defended slavery represent an incredible small percentage of people and churches in the over two-thousand year history of the Church; they don’t even represent a majority of churches during the approximately two hundred year history of chattel slavery. The abolitionist movement, however, was dominated by ministers and churches.

But what changed? Why did the attitudes towards slavery swing so drastically in the South that previously vocal opponents of slavery felt compelled to be silent? Cotton. And money. Specifically, the invention of the cotton gin. Eli Whitney’s invention provided one of the sparks for the Industrial Revolution. Paul Bairoch explains that for the Industrial Revolution “cotton played an important qualitative role. For its fibres particularly lend themselves to mechanical treatment and this was the impulse for mechanization of the textile industry. … the start of the industrial revolution would probably never have come about but for this particular fibre, so uniquely suited to mechanical treatment.”[28] With the invention of the cotton gin, Southern plantation owners found a renewable and easy source of wealth. But they needed cheap labor. The transition from slavery being a necessary evil that should be phased out to an institution that warranted defending and preserving was built on the back of greed. As the Bible says, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”[29]

To justify race-based slavery[30], the South turned to social science, specifically polygenism – the belief that “supports the contention not just that black and white people have evolved (or devolved) at different rates, but that they belong to entirely different species.”[31] Anthropologist Samuel Morton led the way in polygenism; he collected skulls from around the world, and studied them in detail[32], concluding that Caucasians are the intellectual superior race (not to mention that he also concluded that whites and blacks are different species). As laughably disgusting as Morton’s conclusions are to those of us in the 21st century, “his results were cited as authoritative by scientists in the United States and Europe.”[33] Because science, right?

Before moving on to my final point, which will be much shorter than the previous section, I want to sum up slavery and the Church: the despicable sin of chattel slavery, which existed for roughly two hundred years as opposed to the over two thousand year existence of the Church, violated the teachings of the Bible, and was developed in a mostly unchurched and irreligious land for reasons based in greed and pragmatism. The justification for race-based slavery was primarily derived from secular arguments from the social sciences, and was roundly condemned by many Christians who used the Bible to prove that chattel slavery was a sin. In fact, the abolitionist movement was primarily a movement of Christian ministers. The defense of chattel slavery from churches in the South wasn’t reflective of the opinion of the majority of churches in America and England. So, tell me again how the Church was wrong about slavery?

But, you know what? None of that really matters. Don’t misunderstand, it matters to me. It matters so much that I had originally written about one thousand more words on the subject, and could’ve written several thousand more, but edited it down to what I consider the bare bones. It matters so much to me that I spent many hours researching the topic, and cited many of my sources for those who want to study the topic for themselves as well as a pre-emptive defense against those who want to claim that I made it all up[34]. The reason it doesn’t matter in the context of this article is because when supporters of gay marriage pull out the platitude that “the Church was wrong about slavery; you don’t want to be on the wrong side of history, again,” they’re not making an actual argument. At best, they’re spouting unrelated nonsense[35]. At worst, they’re committing a logical fallacy.

Just because someone is wrong on one thing, it doesn’t stand to reason that the person is wrong on other things because they’re wrong on that one thing. For example, if I make the claim that flowers don’t need water in order to grow, I am wrong. If I say that the Chicago Cubs won the World Series last year, I am also wrong. But I’m not wrong about the Cubs winning the World Series because I was wrong about flowers not needing water (note – this article was written in 2015. How in the world was I supposed to know the Cubs would win a World Series?). However, since that example is simplistic and absurd, possibly to the point of being unhelpful, please allow me to try again.

Let’s say that I make the claim that the Bible teaches that we’re not supposed to care for the poor and sick. I would be wrong. Now, let’s say that I also claim that the Bible teaches that it’s ok to trash the planet. Once again, I would be wrong. It would be silly to try and refute my argument about the Bible teaching that we don’t have a responsibility to be good stewards of the planet by pointing out that I’m wrong about what the Bible teaches about caring for the poor and sick. Propositions should be refuted or accepted based on the merit and validity of the arguments put forth in support of them. But that’s assuming an understanding of basic logic.

Here’s a Logic 101 lesson: Claiming that opponents of gay marriage are going to find themselves on the wrong side of history is the fallacy of begging the question. Instead of actually engaging the major premise, “gay marriage is wrong/contradiction of terms,” it automatically assumes that that premise is wrong. And that’s why “the Church was wrong on slavery” makes for a handy rhetorical trick; it distracts the opponents of gay marriage with shame and defensiveness, allowing the supporter of gay marriage to get away with a logical fallacy.

The way words are used can either bring clarity to arguments, or they can bring obtuseness, confusion, and even duplicity. Connecting opposition to gay marriage with being wrong about chattel slavery is deceitful. Don’t let people get away with it. Point out that the Church never condoned chattel slavery, and then politely give them a Logic 101 lesson. Don’t allow yourself to be silenced by cheap sophistry.

[1] If not more.

[2] Using a much more specific definition of “inspired” than fits with “The beauty of the sunset inspired me to paint a picture.” That needed to be said.

[3] See Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, and David Barton, to name three.

[4] I can’t stop myself. It’s so much fun.

[5] There is a difference between big “C” Church and little “c” churches. “Church” is used to reference the Bride of Christ; “church” is used to reference individual congregations that may or may not be part of the “Church.”

[6] Philemon 12, ESV.

[7] Philemon 16, ESV.

[8] Philemon 17, ESV.

[9] Exodus 21:16, ESV.

[10] James M. Pendleton, Letters to Rev. W.C. Buck, in Review of His Articles on Slavery (Louisville: n.p., 1849), 3.

[11] Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 55-56.

[12] Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 56.

[13] Peter Kolchin, American Slavery 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), 4.

[14] Kolchin, American Slavery 1619-1877, 14.

[15] Kolchin, American Slavery 1619-1877, 16.

[16] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010), 24.

[17] Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 25.

[18] Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 25.

[19] Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 25.

[20] Morris Tapalar, The Sociology of Colonial Virginia (New York: Philosophical Library, 1968), 384.

[21] Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America: 1776-1990 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 15.

[22] Finke, The Churching of America,32.

[23] Or even the late 19th century, but, you get my point, I hope.

[24] Charles Woodmason, The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution: The Journal and Other Writings of Charles Woodmason, Anglican Itinerant, ed. Richard J. Hooker (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1953), 6.

[25] John Woolman, John Woolman’s Journal, in the Project Gutenberg Digital Library, accessed May 13, 2015,

[26] John H. Wigger, Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 128.

[27] Wigger, Taking Heaven by Storm, 142.

[28] Paul Bairoch, “Agriculture and the Industrial Revolution 1700-1914” in The Fontana Economic History of Europe, vol. 3, The Industrial Revolution, pp. 486-7.

[29] I Timothy 6:10, ESV.

[30] Yes, some racists attempted to justify race-based slavery by pointing to Noah’s sons. But Christians were refuting that argument as quickly and as often as it was being made. Mark Noll in his book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, which is sourced in footnote #11, wrote on page 56, “No biblical warrant existed for the assumption that slavery could only mean black slavery except the oft refuted application of the ‘curse of Ham’ … Rather it was acceptance of black racial inferiority that supplied the missing term to many of the arguments that defended American slavery.”

[31] Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), 105.

[32] The problems with Morton’s methods are well documented, and probably don’t need to be explained in this article. Dude was an ideologically driven racist.

[33] Menand, The Metaphysical Club, 103.

[34] I have a thousand more words ready to pull out!

[35] The “nonsense” part was covered in the over 3,000 words, including footnotes, that I wrote about the Church and slavery.


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