How the Bible was used to justify slavery:
The Christian church's main justification of the concept of slavery is based on Genesis 9:25-27. According to the Bible, the worldwide flood had concluded and there were only 8 humans alive on earth: Noah, his wife, their six sons and daughters in law. Noah's son Ham had seen "the nakedness of his father." So, Noah laid a curse -- not on Ham, who was guilty of some undefined type of indiscretion.
The sin was transferred to Noah's grandson Canaan. Such transference of sin from a guilty to an innocent person or persons is unusual in the world's religious and secular moral codes. It is normally considered highly unethical. However, it appears in many biblical passages. The curse extended to all of Canaan's descendants:
Genesis 9:25-27: "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. He also said, 'Blessed be the Lord,
the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japeth
live in the tents of Shem and may Canaan be his slave'. "
Christians traditionally believed that Canaan had settled in Africa. The dark skin of Africans became associated with this "curse of Ham." Thus
slavery of Africans became religiously justifiable. Author Anthony Pagden wrote:
"This reading of the Book of Genesis merged easily into a
medieval iconographic tradition in which devils were always depicted as
black. Later pseudo-scientific theories would be built around African
skull shapes, dental structure, and body postures, in an attempt to find
an unassailable argument--rooted in whatever the most persuasive
contemporary idiom happened to be: law, theology, genealogy, or natural
science -- why one part of the human race should live in perpetual
indebtedness to another."
But in ancient times, cursing a whole race into slavery was considered acceptable because it was in the Bible. American slave owners, almost all of whom were Christians, felt that they were carrying out God's plan by buying and using slaves.
Slavery was also condoned and regulated in many passages of the in the Bible. There is no record of Jesus having commented on it. Paul had every
opportunity to condemn slavery, particularly in his Epistle to Philemon.
But he remained silent, except to urge slaves to be content with their lot and to obey their owners. More on slavery in the Bible.
Peter Randolph, a slave in Prince George County, Virginia, until he was freed in 1847, described the secret prayer meetings he had attended as a slave. "Not being allowed to hold meetings on the plantation," he wrote, "the slaves assemble in the swamp, out of reach of the patrols. They have an understanding among themselves as to the time and place. … This is often done by the first one arriving breaking boughs from the trees and bending them in the direction of the selected spot.
"After arriving and greeting one another, men and women sat in groups together. Then there was "preaching … by the brethren, then praying and singing all around until they generally feel quite happy."
The speaker rises "and talks very slowly, until feeling the spirit, he grows excited, and in a short time there fall to the ground 20 or 30 men and women under its influence.
"The slave forgets all his sufferings," Randolph summed up, "except to remind others of the trials during the past week, exclaiming, 'Thank God, I shall not live here always!' "
By the eve of the Civil War, Christianity had pervaded the slave community. Not all slaves were Christian, nor were all those who accepted Christianity members of a church, but the doctrines, symbols, and vision of life preached by Christianity were familiar to most.
The religion of the slaves was both visible and invisible, formally organized and spontaneously adapted. Regular Sunday worship in the local church was paralleled by illicit, or at least informal, prayer meetings on weeknights in the slave cabins. Preachers licensed by the church and hired by the master were supplemented by slave preachers licensed only by the spirit. Texts from the Bible, which most slaves could not read, were explicated by verses from the spirituals. Slaves forbidden by masters to attend church or, in some cases, even to pray, risked floggings to attend secret gatherings to worship God.
His own experience of the “invisible institution” was recalled by former slave Wash Wilson:
“When de niggers go round singin’ ‘Steal Away to Jesus,’ dat mean dere gwine be a ’ligious meetin’ dat night. De masters … didn’t like dem ’ligious meetin’s so us natcherly slips off at night, down in de bottoms or somewhere. Sometimes us sing and pray all night.”