The following is a letter addressed by John C. Calhoun (Vice President of the United States) to the Methodist Reverend Alexander McCain in response to McCain’s pamphlet in favor of slavery being ordained by God. “My Dear Sir. I have read with pleasure your pamphlet, entitled, ‘Slavery Defended from the Scriptures Against Abolitionists.’ You have fully and ably made good that title. You have shown beyond all controversy that slavery is sanctioned both by the Old and New Testament. He who denies it, if not blinded by fanaticism, must be a hypocrite.”
Slavery is a sin in the eyes of the Lord. That is a universal theme throughout religions worldwide. But to what degree did that hold true in colonial America until the time of emancipation? How could Christians, from New England to the southern provinces and later states, who diligently practiced the teachings of the bible, justify owning another human? Did slave owners just turn their backs on biblical doctrine? Or did they find inspiration and comfort for such a hideous practice in the pages of scripture?
Learned, devout, evangelical Christians, with the Bible in their hand, supported slavery with missionary zeal. They were opposed to gross cruelty to slaves and sexual exploitation of women, but not to the institution itself. In supporting the institution, they also allowed for the worst of the abuses to continue unchecked. When this terrible injustice was constantly before their eyes and their fellow Christians were crying out to them to show some insight and compassion, why was it, we must ask, that these evangelical Christians were so blind and hard?
To seventeenth and early eighteenth century settlers, it was easy to accept slavery when considering the African a heathen, ignorant, atheistic race of sub-humans. Far too many Americans carried this belief right through the nineteenth century, and sadly to say, into modern times. Truth be told, it was the white European who demonstrated ignorance in all things concerning those of Africa. The lands from which the slavers applied their trade drew from a people rich in advanced methods of agriculture, language, knowledge of the universe, different religions (including a large percentage of Muslims), and nations with a government hierarchy and finance equal to that of Europe. West Africa and the interior was not just a land of jungle and grasslands of roaming wild animals. Vast stretches of cultivated fields and established towns dotted the landscape. Timbuktu housed a library of literary scholarly works written by Africans that compared with the great minds of Europe.
When late eighteenth and early nineteenth century explorers probed the interior of Africa and into the Sudan, they discovered kingdoms whose armies demonstrated modern tactical warfare, including the skillful use of muskets. Leaders of these kingdoms surprised their European guests by querying them as to the latest news of London and Paris; some having recent copies of newsletters from those cities. Ironically, at the time these same African leaders were being ‘discovered’ by acclaimed European explorers, the Africans were keen to the latest royal gossip from Europe.
If colonial America looked upon the African as a lesser people, as Christians, surely their doctrine would not allow slavery and the horrendous treatment of another human. The exact opposite took place. It was the bible to which slaveholders turned to support their way of life. For many centuries the Church was part of a slave-holding society. The popes themselves held slaves, including at times hundreds of Muslim captives to man their galleys.
Throughout Christian antiquity and the Middle Ages, theologians generally followed St. Augustine in holding that although slavery was not written into the natural moral law, it was not absolutely forbidden by that law