“If Thou Mayest Be Free”
Dabney, like other southern divines, were confident that a mere adducing of the biblical evidence would justify the central southern claim that the Bible did not condemn slavery as a social and economic relation. Yet, even using a similar “Reformed, literal hermeneutic” as Dabney, his defense of slavery was plagued by several problems.
First, Dabney conveniently ignored or explained away several scriptures that militated against slavery. For example, Deuteronomy 23:15 commands Israelites not to return slaves who run away from oppressive foreign masters; instead, these former slaves should be allowed to live among the Israelites in one of their towns as freedmen under their protection. Dabney approved of Andover Seminary Old Testament scholar Moses Stuart’s interpretation, holding that this text had nothing to do with Hebrew slaves, but only foreign slaves, and that the reasons for this law were obvious: “the bondage from which he escaped was inordinately cruel, including the power of murder for any caprice; and that to force him back was to remand him to the darkness of heathenism, and to rob him of the light of true religion, which shone in the land of the Hebrews alone.” Because this text dealt with “foreign” slaves, Dabney held that it apparently did not apply to the American South.
But, to read this text in a different way would lead one to a much different conclusion, one that was in line with northern opponents of the Fugitive Slave Law. For slaves that escaped north were escaping a bondage that was “inordinately cruel, including the power of murder for any caprice.” To return slaves to the South was to remand them to oppression and potential death. Further, it is not entirely clear that the South was the land of true religion for black slaves. As historians Erskine Clarke and Eugene Genovese have demonstrated, it was not until the 1840s and 1850s that some slaveowners took responsibility for evangelizing slaves and that missions to African Americans still received wide spread opposition until the Civil War. Hence, northern opponents of slavery could easily read this text and conclude that they were commanded by God not to return fugitive slaves, but to grant them a place in northern society.
Yet even if one granted that slaves in the American South were not “foreign” but similar to Hebrew slaves, then African American slaves should have been subject to the biblical law of Jubilee. Leviticus 25 specifically commanded that every fiftieth year should be consecrated in order to “proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” Hebrew slaves would be freed, fields lay fallow, property returned to its original owners. Freedom was the ultimate goal of the year. And the reason for the Jubilee year was to remind God’s people that “it is to me that the people of Israel are servants. They are my servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Likewise, those slaves who converted to the Hebrew faith were to be set free after seven years service. Yet when Dabney discussed the issue of the Jubilee, he focused on the fact that foreign slaves were not liberated. But Dabney contradicted himself here—either African American slaves were “foreign” or they were akin to “Hebrew” slaves, but they could not be both. Slaves either had the biblical right to escape from bondage, or they were to be set free from bondage every fifty years. God’s ultimate design was not slavery, but freedom.
Another text that Dabney performed hermeneutical gymnastics on was 1 Corinthians 7:20-21. There the Apostle Paul clearly stated that if the opportunity arose for the slave to gain his freedom, such was the preferable condition. Dabney initially admitted the force of the language in the text. He then mitigated the text’s import by claiming that “we must remember the circumstances of the age, in order to do justice to his meaning.” First, Dabney said that slavery was harsher in the first century. Second, first century masters “were accustomed to require of their slaves offices vile, and even guilty.” Third, first century society offered a way of social mobility for a “freedman” and his family. Fourth, the master and his slave were of the same color; after a few generations, no one could remember that the ancestor was a slave. These four conditions of first century slavery were markedly different from nineteenth-century Virginia, Dabney claimed. He held that slavery in his day was comparatively mild; slaves were overseen by Christian masters; there was no possibility for social mobility once the slave was “deprived from his master’s patronage”; and the slave, being black, would be “debarred as much as ever from social equality by his color and caste.” Thus, Dabney’s appraisal was that “freedom to the Christian slave here, may prove a loss.” This line of reasoning, however, failed to overturn the Apostle’s claim that freedom was preferable to slavery for the Christian slave. Even more, it signaled the difficulties to which Dabney’s argument for mastery led. When a theologian who upheld the clarity and sufficiency of Scripture is forced to evade the thrust of a biblical text, it signals a major failing.
In addition, one of the hermeneutic insights of the Reformed tradition has been its focus upon the redemptive-historical movement of Scripture. Unlike the “progressive revelation” theories of nineteenth century progressive biblical theologians, who argued that the movement in Scripture was from primitive to more mature forms of monotheism, Reformed theologians back to Calvin have recognized the movement from the old covenant’s tutorship under the law, which the Apostle Paul equates to slavery, to the new covenant’s freedom under grace, which he equates to sonship (Galatians 3:15-4:11). This movement radicalizes social and economic relations within the church as well as in broader society. Within the church, the New Testament appears to argue for an egalitarian and multiracial society, a body where there was “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Ephesians 2 argues that the dividing wall of hostility between races—Jews and Gentiles—has been torn down by the power of the resurrected and exalted Christ. And Revelation 4-5 presents a powerful picture of the “ransomed people of God” who come “from every tribe and language and people and nation,” a glorious mosaic of every race under heaven worshipping God as God’s “kingdom and priests.” This movement from the Old Testament exclusivity of the chosen Hebrew people to the New Testament expansive vision of the people of God including every tribe, language, class, and social relation is part of the Reformed understanding of God’s covenant story. Dabney did not deal with this line of argument at all in Defence of Virginia, although he would deny it strenuously in the postbellum period as African Americans sought ordination within the southern Presbyterian church.
A major part of the failure of Dabney’s proslavery polemics, then, was an inability to be self-critical about his own commitment to mastery. As he lay on his sick bed in Southside Virginia in 1863, furiously writing his “little book,” Dabney’s vision was blurred by his captivity to what he wanted the Bible to say, how he wanted society to remain, and what he feared above all. For, like most southerners, Dabney was not hateful in his dealings with individual African Americans: one finds the typical notes of kindness to those who served him, particularly his trusted valet “Uncle Warner” Lipscomb. Yet he was deeply afraid about what the new social order would mean for him personally, for his family, and for his accustomed way of life; he could not bear to relinquish the power and authority that came with being a member of the master class. His fear enabled him to see clearly the follies and foolishness of the rising capitalistic order of the postbellum North, but it also inured him to huge blind spots and even to the misanthropic use of biblical texts to support his vision of the South. His failure should make us all mindful of the risks that we take when we try to claim God for our side.