In the narrative of William and Ellen Craft, many of the white slave owners that the couple meets on their journey are professed Christians and believed that their slave ownership was backed up with Christian doctrine. For example, the lady on the train who mistook William for “her Ned” told Ellen that her son, who was “a good Christian minister,” advised her not to “worry and send her soul to hell” for the sake of her slaves and to just sell them all instead (p. 65). In addition to this, Craft later writes about a plethora of white Reverends who not only approve of slavery but emphasize its importance. However, many of these “Christians” who advocate for slavery misinterpret the Biblical references that they draw from. The idea of this “Christian” slaveholder idea is a hallmark of slave narratives and was obviously abundant in Southern states. One New York Times article said, “This ‘Gospel Civilization,’ … didn’t just permit slavery – it required it.” This begs the question: what sort of doctrine does the Bible preach that condones the atrocious practices that were occurring in the South?
One of the primary arguments that white Christian proponents of slavery used was that Jesus is never recorded of speaking directly against slavery. Looking on the surface level of Gospel accounts, they were right in that Jesus never directly said, “Don’t have slaves.” Southern slaveholders argued that if he was against slavery, surely he would have condemned it wouldn’t he? If it was an important issue, surely he would have said that it was wrong and shouldn’t be done, right? By looking through the lenses of assuming that slaves weren’t people, slaveholders would be right in assuming God was okay with slavery. However, as soon as slaves are seen as people, this logic that Jesus condoned slavery falls apart. Take the story of the Good Samaritan for example. After telling a crowd to “love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus tells this story to define exactly what a neighbor is. In this parable, a Jewish man, who was robbed, beaten and left for dead on the side of the road, was passed by three Jewish temple priests (who would know the command of Leviticus 19:18 to love one’s neighbor). And who should come and help the man but a Samaritan! In this period, a Samaritan was viewed with the same disgust and hatred by the Israelites as Blacks were viewed by Whites in the 18th and 19th centuries. But instead of holding a well-deserved grudge against the Jew, the Samaritan puts the Jewish man on his donkey, takes him to an inn and pays for his every need! This example of mercy is Jesus’s definition of a “neighbor,” and he closes with a command for the listeners to, “Go and do likewise.” According to this definition, blacks are the neighbors of whites, and according to this command, they have a responsibility to love them as such if they truly are Christians. So, if a slaveholder would never choose to sell himself into slavery, under what, or whose, authority are they enslaving blacks against their will?
William Craft described in his slave narrative a hallmark of similar narratives at that time: a “Christian” slaveholder. He accurately describes how many whites saw slaves: property, not people. Yet, upon looking at this account in the Gospel of Luke, it is seen that everyone who has breath is a person and a soul that deserves the same respect and love that one would show to himself or herself. This is the hypocrisy of Southern Christian doctrine that tries to promote slavery and is something Craft accurately labels as “slave-holding piety,” (p.10).
Bassett, Thom. “The South, the War and ‘Christian Slavery’.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Apr. 2012, opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/27/the-south-the-war-and-christian-slavery/?ref=oembed.