Christian and slavery: A horrid era

By Darby Callahan (TheLorian)

On Sept. 8, Loras College removed the memorial statue of founder Bishop Mathias Loras. This action followed the discovery of the Bishop’s past slave ownership. Bishop Loras purchased a slave named Marie Louise for $800 in 1836 and owned her until 1852. This revelation was sad news for the Loras College community as the college was founded by the Bishop in 1839 and named in his honor. Given the new knowledge of Bishop Loras, I would like to shed some light on the history of slave ownership in the Christian faith and why it was not recognized as a sin despite its degradation of African Americans and the racism that this led to.

During the 19 century, many Christians would use scripture to defend slavery. According to Christianitytoday.com, some of the verses in scripture that defended slavery include Ephesians chapter six, verses five through eight, which states:

“Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ, not only when being watched, as currying favor, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, willingly serving the Lord and not human beings, knowing that each will be requited from the Lord for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.”

I do not think that the scriptures are being interpreted correctly here. However, if people at the time read the Bible as fully literal, taking it at face-value only, the defense of slavery at the time could be found here in this verse if read from the wrong perspective. I think we need to dive a little deeper, though, when interpreting slavery in the Bible. We are all servants to our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the term slavery in the Bible may have simply meant servant or simply “one who serves,” yet people wanted to defend their slave-ownership, so they used verses like this to Biblically justify their actions.

Those who used the Bible to justify slavery have used some charitable, evangelistic, and social reasons. I want to let everyone know that just because there were those who condoned the Bishop’s slave ownership, that does not mean it was right. Slavery was a dark time in American history and white people will never understand what it was like to work for free and be bought and sold. Some of the reasons that Bishop Loras may have resorted to when asked how he could be a Catholic Bishop and own a slave were that slavery somehow saved slaves as, Christiantoday.com also says that one of the charitable and evangelistic reasons slavery was tolerated by Christians was due to witchcraft and sorcery practices, stating that “Slavery removes people from a culture that “worshipped the devil, practiced witchcraft, and sorcery” and other evils.” I am not sure who exactly is being referenced here, but I have never heard an African American or black person say that their ancestors practiced or currently practice witchcraft or sorcery, so I would have to say I believe that was just a stereotype thrust upon African Americans by Christians who wanted to defend owning slaves. Another charitable and evangelistic reason that is mentioned is that the masters of the slaves would teach religion to the slaves. “Slavery brings heathens to a Christian land where they can hear the gospel. Christian masters provide religious instruction for their slaves” (ChristianityToday). I do not think this is a very valuable reason to use to be Pro-Slavery. I believe it is degrading to the African Americans to think that they need a master to teach them about religion. I think if they wanted to learn religion they could have found safer ways to do it rather than giving into their master’s way of life and bad treatment. There is no reason someone needs to be sold into slavery to learn about God. In fact, God led His people out of slavery in the Old Testament, why would He condone another form of slavery in America? That is why it is my belief that Christians just found any excuse they could to back up their opinion on slavery much like they due when they want to refute current Christian teachings that Catholics may support or oppose such as gay marriage, abortion, etc.

Another charitable and evangelical “defense” of slavery claimed by Christians is the argument that slaves were treated with respect and that northern visitors could attest to that fact. While that may be the case for some slave-master relationships, there are numerous stories that attest to the brutality of slavery; stories that tell of slaves being scourged, beaten and raped. I think it is wrong to allow Christians to defend their slave-owning era. We must rise up and call upon the bishops of the world to renounce racism and atone for the sins of their predecessors.

Now to the social justifications Christians used when it comes to slavery in American. Three verses in the Bible that Christians use according to the ChristianToday.com source, “Just as women are called to play a subordinate role (Eph. 5:22; 1 Tim. 2:11–15), so slaves are stationed by God in their place. Slavery is God’s means of protecting and providing for an inferior race (suffering the “curse of Ham” in Gen. 9:25 or even the punishment of Cain in Gen. 4:12). Abolition would lead to slave uprisings, bloodshed, and anarchy. Consider the mob’s “rule of terror” during the French Revolution.” While the Bible may say these things regarding a master and slaves, I think it is all about how people interpret the Bible. There is no way God would lead His people out of slavery, and then allow it later in the New Testament (NT). Their claim that slavery upon people is a “means of protecting and providing for an inferior race” is so misrepresenting what the author of the Bible may have meant by His statement. I do not think that the author was thinking that anyone should be thrown into slavery for any period of time, but rather he may have been talking about being a servant while serving time. Our prison system is much different than it was back during the Biblical era. There is no way God condones slavery, so let us remember what may have been meant by the words of Scripture. We must end this way of thinking, and we must remember the history of Christianity and know that we have made the necessary changes to become a more just society. We are not one-hundred percent yet, there is more that we can due to protect our African American brothers and sisters in Christ.

According to Archie Epp’s The Christian Doctrine of Slavery: A Theological Analysis, “This text does not condemn or condone the institution or system of slavery; that is not its intent. However, Armstrong on the basis of (sic) slavery was accepted as “essentially” good and proper. This interpretation is based on an inference and contingent on the interpreter’s hermeneutical principle.” This idea that because it was in Scripture, God must be ok with slavery was a very popular opinion among Christians during the era of slaveholding, but as mentioned before, it was never officially condemned or condoned by the Christian tradition. 

The United States and its Christian Church has a long history, and I think we need to shed light on the parts of history–racism and slavery in particular–that have been marginalized for most of that history. I recommend that the Loras College community come together to put the Bishop Loras statue up near his chair and other items in the Center for Dubuque History, in the Miller Academic Resource Center, as an exhibit of where Christianity was on slavery and how far they come to creating a more just society. Near the statue, I think we need to put a plaque that mentions that he was a slave-owner and that we do not condone his actions. I also think that we need to have Archbishop Jackels write a statement on the issue to include in the archives. I would also like to see a photo or statue of the first African American priest, Fr. Norman Dukette, as well as the slave Marie Louise that Bishop Loras owned put up on campus somewhere to be honored for their contributions and what they experienced as African Americans who lived through an unjust society. Though I believe it does need to be reerected as a statue in the Center for Dubuque History as part of a “Bishop Loras – Slavery and Christianity” exhibit, I do want to thank Loras College for removing it from its original location because it was in a location that the public saw each and everyday, and I realize that our community does not want to be seen as a college that condones what is going on in America today. I hope that we can do our jobs as a Catholic institution to teach our community and the nation about the history of slavery in Christianity.

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