It has been fifteen years since Jack Davidson, then pastor at Cascade Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church in America) in Eugene, Oregon, Robert Iltis, Professor of Communications at Oregon State University, and I presented our Symposium on American Slavery.  The papers which we read publicly were formerly available at the original Joshua Letter web site, and with this post are available again.

The nation continues, of course, to struggle with the topics of race and the former condition of Negro servitude, as it must.  The Civil War is not as long past as we may wish to think.  Racism is very persistent in American society, as evidenced by consistent patterns of discrimination in our justice system and in our housing policies.  This concerns the church not only because we are American citizens, but also because the church has a prophetic role to play in society by bringing a biblical critique to bear upon injustice.  What’s more, the Gospel mission itself depends in part upon the demonstration that the biblical view of man provides the only philosophically adequate basis for opposing racism.  It is the doctrine of the creation of man in the image of a personal God which alone justifies our recognition of one another’s inherent value and dignity.

This doctrine of creation may be placed in doubt by claims that the Bible approves of slavery.  One such claim was made by Steve Wilkins and Douglas Wilson, the former a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), in their book entitled, Southern Slavery, As it Was.  (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1996.)  This book was the precipitating factor for the Symposium.  Dr. Davidson felt compelled to provide a refutation, and he invited contributions by Dr. Iltis and me.

Since then, Dr. Davidson was awarded his doctorate by the University of Wales for his dissertation on Eli Caruthers, the North Carolina antebellum Presbyterian pastor who authored an unpublished manuscript offering “a scripturally based alternative to the nineteenth-century hermeneutics supporting slavery.”  (Publication of the dissertation is pending elsewhere.)  Also since then, in 2011 Douglas Wilson published an interview ( in which he makes it plain enough that his views have not changed.

Beyond that, the scriptures themselves are not without difficulty on this question.  Exodus 21:16 states that “Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.”  (NIV) That would seem to preclude categorically any attempt at a biblical defense of the American form of slavery.  The mere fact that Exodus 21:16 addresses the culpability of only the kidnaper himself would not absolve a purchaser of the victim, since if kidnaping for profit is a crime, then purchasing the victim would make one an accessory.

Moses did countenance other forms of slavery, however.  Leviticus 25:39-54 provides for Jews and non-Jews to sell themselves.  Jews who sold themselves were to be treated as hired workers, not slaves, and were to be released at the Jubilee, which occurred every 50th year.  Non-Jews, however, “You can bequeath . . . to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.”  Lev. 25:46.

Does that mean Jews were permitted to be ruthless with their non-Jewish slaves?  It does seem that if that had been the case, no one would have sold himself.  More to the point is Leviticus 19:33, which provides:

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.  The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.  Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.  I am the Lord your God.

The enslaving of foes conquered in war was also practiced both in biblical times and in Africa in the 18th and 19th Centuries; but the Bible nowhere sanctions the practice.

We hope that those who read the following essays will find them useful and encouraging.


Wrong About the History of Southern Slavery: A Response to Steve Wilkins and Douglas Wilson’s History of Slavery

by Rev. Jack Davidson

Wrong About the Bible : A Response to Steve Wilkins and Douglas Wilson’s Doctrine of Slavery

by Rev. Jack Davidson

Peculiar History in Slavery As It Was

by Robert S. Iltis

The Fraudulent Legal History of Sourthern Slavery, As It Was

by Thomas O. Alderman

Slavery and the American Constitution

by Thomas O. Alderman

This entry was posted in Law and policy, Theology and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. I am very grateful, Tom, for your continuing collaboration and encouragement in pursuing what amounts to a – the?! – watershed issue in biblical interpretation and ethics.


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