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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: The Reader’s “Social Location,” by Craig S. Keener

Western slave traders, starting with the Spanish and Portuguese but soon including the British and Americans, borrowed the “curse of Ham” and various racist stereotypes from Arab slave traders. Although the Arabs had been engaged in this practice for many centuries, the Europeans pursued plantation agriculture more brutally, stuffing masses of captured Africans into cargo holds for the three-month voyage across the Atlantic. The earliest slaveholders in the U.S. refused to allow their slaves to hear about Christianity, protesting that the slaves might get the idea from it that they were equals of the slaveholders. (Their fears were justified: most slave revolts in the U.S. involved Christian teaching.) But eventually they were able to secure some preachers who would preach from the Bible more selectively, avoiding its themes of liberation, justice, or other matters that might cause troubles. The south was at that time the least evangelized part of the thirteen colonies, in a country which, before the Second Great Awakening, may have had only seven percent church attendance.

But while slaveholders came up with a selective way to read texts, a growing abolitionist movement looked for more general biblical principles. Passionate for justice, British evangelicals in the 1790s (especially related to Wesley’s growing Methodist brand of Anglicanism) had two main causes: missions and opposing the slave trade. The Wesleyan revival shook Britain in a number of ways, but one was creating a new climate of concern for evangelism, justice, and obedience to God. William Wilberforce and his “Clapham Sect” worked to abolish slavery in the British Empire until finally, on Wilberforce’s deathbed, they succeeded in persuading enough people about their Christian views.

The Methodist revival impacted the Americans, too. The 1784 Methodist General Conference declared slavery contrary to God’s law; the 1812 conference forbade slaveholders to be church elders; in 1826 the Maryland conference unanimously denounced laity holding slaves. In 1825 even the bishop of Georgia, in the heart of slave country, considered requiring all Methodists there to free their slaves. The African Methodist churches in the U.S., as well as other black American denominations, also opposed slavery. In 1789 the Virginia Baptists resolved that slavery should be abolished; Quakers like John Woolman had always opposed slavery; as early as 1710, Anglican Bishop William Fleetwood had condemned slavery. By the mid-1800s the American debate became fiercer and some churches withdrew from it, but many continued the fight.

Abolitionist Christian leaders like Charles Finney, Lewis Tappan and Theodore Weld built their case against slavery from biblical principles. LaRoy Sunderland’s antislavery manual drew principles about justice from every section of the Bible to use against slavery. For example, he pointed out that the penalty for kidnapping was death (Ex 21:16; Deut 24:7; cf. 1 Tim 1:10), and correctly understood that kidnapping in the ancient Mediterranean world meant slave trading (e.g., Gen 40:15). He therefore declared that all slave traders should be put to death, and that slaveholders, who deliberately sustained the slave trade, supported it and should also be executed.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Spring 2006

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story.

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