In Lehre und Wehre V. 8 pp. 105-110 (April 1862) a short article appeared by Craemer entitled “Dr. Hengstenberg über die Sclavenfrage.” This reproduced what Dr. Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg had written earlier in the Evangelische Kirchenzeitung [Evangelical Church Paper], the conservative German church paper.

In the foreword to this year’s volume of the Evangelische Kirchenzeitung, Dr. Hengstenberg also discusses our sad situation here and thus, naturally, also the slavery issue that is causing it. We are pleased to see from this that this theologian, who, although in the midst of the union church, possesses in many respects more light and a more correct judgment than hundreds of so-called Lutheran theologians, and also agrees with our highly enlightened, sober, pious fathers in the matter of slavery, and has the courage to express his conviction freely and unambiguously, in spite of all the scornful looks of the spirit of the age. He also sees where this agitation actually leads, and to which anti-Christian current of the time it belongs, which unfortunately so many here, even those who bear the Lutheran name, do not recognize. For their shame and instruction, but for the sake of the truth, we cannot do otherwise here than to allow Hengstenberg’s sound pronunciation to be produced verbatim, as it is found in the third number of the Evangelische Kirchenzeitung:

In the United States of America, the division between the slave-holding South and the slave-free North has progressed to formal and bitter civil war. Christian conviction has often taken it for granted that it must necessarily take sides with the North. At the Geneva meeting of the Evangelical Alliance, Dr. Kerr from America said that among the people of the great West the conviction had spread that it was a religious duty to take part in the present war, and expressed the hope that God would not permit the perpetuation of slavery. His view of the situation was adopted by a resolution of the assembly. The well-known American theologian Beecher, the brother of the woman who authored Uncle Tom’s Cabin, declared the present war to be a crusade, a holy war, that the trumpet of war should not rest until the last slave had been freed, that it was sad to shed brotherly blood, but that the continuance of slavery was even more atrocious. We cannot agree with this view of the situation, but are rather convinced that in the slavery question, no less than in Romans 13, a significant and alarming alteration of Christian views has taken place among Christians of English-speaking tongue, a transposition of these views with principles that sprang from a completely different soil, and that the American War is a sad consequence of this transposition and a judgment on the same.

Restless agitation against slavery, incitement of the slaves to disobedience, promotion of their escape, violent measures for their liberation, blowing the trumpet of a holy war to bring it about, a war in which a Methodist preacher has gained the fame of being able to cut off heads with one blow better than all the others, all this has Holy Scripture and also history, the practice of the entire older Christian church, against it. It has its ultimate purpose in a view that has sprung from completely un-Christian circles, which dreams of a common human dignity, because it ignores the Fall and the ghastly devastation caused by it in its manifold gradations down to animal dullness and stupidity; which ignores the mysterious counsel of God after on the Fall, whereby, as Agobard says, “He exalts some by all kinds of distinctions, and subjects others to the yoke of slavery;” which, in the psychological superficiality peculiar to the natural man, lumps all men together and fails to recognize that the relationship of rulers and servants has its basis in the peculiarities of peoples; which overestimates the importance of external freedom, because it has not itself become partaker of the great good of internal freedom and does not know how to appreciate it, and falls under the judgment of the apostle: “they promise them liberty, while they themselves are servants of destruction;” which, finally, does not know the eternal possessions and the existence hereafter, and therefore attaches an excessive importance to the goods of this world, and has lost all sense of the understanding of the apostle’s word: “Art thou called being a servant? care not for it.” [1 Cor. 7:21]

Already by an event in the earliest days, Gen. 9:25-27, we are instructed to raise our eyes above human arbitrariness and injustice in the matter of slavery and to direct them to divine fate, to God’s well-deserved judgments, which, if one does not violently evade them, but humbly submits to them and uses them for the purpose for which they are sent, are always at the same time means of salvation. We must enter the kingdom of God through many tribulations. Slavery, too, is a gateway to the same, and all that matters is to open this gateway, and grace will break out from behind the judgment.

In the New Testament, slavery is placed under the fourth commandment, no less than the relationship of wives to husbands and children to parents, Eph. 5, 21-23, 6, 1-4, 5 ff. Col. 3. The relationship can therefore not be an immoral one in itself, as is now preached. Otherwise Holy Scripture would not have recognized it as a divine order. Slaves are instructed to see behind the earthly lords another Lord who has imposed such a status on them and to serve this Lord willingly and joyfully in the earthly lords, however much the earthly lords may make it difficult for them to see in their rule a manifestation of His. As Paul says in Col. 3:22-25, “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God: and whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ.” And as proof that even within the church the relationship of master and slave is not a purely inadmissible one, the same apostle says in 1 Tim. 6:2: “And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit. These things teach and exhort.” Peter exhorts: “Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.” (1 Peter 2:18-19)

How far one has departed from the foundation of the Holy Scriptures in America is particularly clear if one compares the practice common there with the procedure of the apostle Paul in this question. The slave Onesimus ran away from his master and found the gospel as a freedman. Paul, who brought it to him, does not leave him in the state of freedom in which he found him, which he could have taken for granted, but sends him back to his master Philemon, inwardly reborn, and only asks that he lovingly accept him again and treat him as a brother in Christ. If Philemon wants to do more than the apostle says, then he should follow the course of his heart, but the general Christian duty is only what the apostle expressly demands of him.

Holy Scripture knows no other way to remove the ungodly nature of slavery than the inward one, that of teaching the masters that they have a Lord in heaven and filling their hearts with humility and love. And this way has proved more effective than any other. “In the Christian Church,” says Chrysostom, “there is no slavery in the old sense of the word; it is only in name among the Lord’s disciples; the thing has ceased.” Where this path does not lead to the goal, Scripture leaves the relationship in place, because any forcible change in it can only make matters worse.

“Before the slaves were on a higher level of moral education,” says Möhler,1 “any external liberation could only have a corrupting effect, and certainly if Christianity had preached the liberation of the slaves as such, and had succeeded in enforcing it without first loosening the inner bonds, it would have brought about a desolation similar to that which would have resulted if hell itself had sent forth all its inhabitants at once and given them a free hand on earth; in the general destruction caused by Christianity it would itself have found its downfall.” Whoever wants to see vividly what will become of the hastily emancipated slaves, especially the lowest of all, the Negro slaves, who can hardly be compared with the slaves of the old world, should read the descriptions which Count Goertz has sketched in his fascinating and instructive Journey Around the World2 on the basis of his own observations in Haiti.

If we turn from Holy Scripture to history, we will also find there a striking contrast to the restless activity of the abolitionists in North America, which has finally made the saying true: whoever strikes the nose hard, forces blood out. The Council of Gangra pronounces a ban on anyone who, under religious pretext, teaches slaves to despise their masters, to leave their service, and not to serve with benevolence and all reverence. The Council of Chalcedon forbids the monasteries to accept slaves who have not received permission from their masters, and threatens them with excommunication, lest the name of God be dishonored, i.e., lest Christianity be accused of causing disobedience. With reference to the Middle Ages, Möhler says: “The Christian spirit created for itself the form that corresponded to it, and threw off the foreign one without revolution, indeed without any external and compelling law; for such a law was only applied here and there against the last remnants of slavery.”

Shall the great work, which was begun in the Christian Church in spirit and carried on for many centuries, be completed in the flesh? Do we want to ignore the word: the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds? (2 Cor. 10:4) We do not fail to recognize that in the southern slave states there is damage which must deeply grieve the heart of the Christian philanthropist. But one should not have been driven by such distress to ranting and raving, which can only bring about greater evils, but to redoubled zeal in the preaching of the Gospel in general, and especially of the truths which it preaches in view of slavery, that all men, masters and slaves, have one Lord, Creator and Redeemer, with whom no respect of person is valid, who does not know the rich more than the lowly, because they are all the work of his hands, who is a judge of all harshness and injustice of the rulers against the servants, who loves all with equal love, before whom there is no slave and no free, Gal. 3, 28. Philm. 16, who has wrapped the holy bond of love around all. The preaching of the gospel is the only means by which the serious wounds of these conditions can be healed. Where this remedy does not work, one must, even if with a bleeding heart, leave the matter to God for the time being and wait until His hour comes, and in the meantime work all the more earnestly for the removal of the intolerable conditions in one’s own heart, one’s own home and one’s immediate surroundings, which, of course, is more difficult than to get worked up over the removal of slavery in the Southern States and to agitate for it in the Northern States.

As Dr. von Harleß aptly says, “The gospel does not abrogate the outward consequences and punishments for sin, so that it only then looks to see whether anything good can still be made out of the now unfettered perverse heart; yes, even to the Christian who is a slave it does not say: break your chains, but it breaks the chains by taking away the hardness of the masters in the fear of a higher Lord, by erasing the reluctance of the servant in the willing obedience to Him who is Master of masters and of slaves.”3 We have good reason to wait and hope that the gospel will accomplish its work, albeit slowly, if only it is preached faithfully and diligently and not–to the gravest accountability before God for the agitators–made ineffective for the poor slaves and for their masters by a false admixture, a bad leaven of ranting and raving. It has worked wonders in this very area and has shown itself to be a force from on high. Wherever Christianity has penetrated, slavery has not been able to assert itself; it has been abolished in substance and gradually also in form, to the same extent that the slaves have proved themselves capable and worthy of freedom.

As we read in a report on the Geneva meeting of the Evangelical Confederation; The brethren from North America were deeply bowed by the grave misfortune affecting their fatherland, and more deeply still by the vivid and undoubted consciousness that this misfortune was only too much their own fault and nothing other than a judgment of God upon their people’s arrogance, greed for gold, and materialism. Such an approach, which led to the observation of a Day of Repentance and Prayer in North America on September 26th of last year, is certainly a very heartening one, an encouragement for us to the same humility. We should be mindful of the earnest word in Luke 13, 3. But besides the more distant causes, we should not have forgotten the proximate ones. It seems, however, that the “earnest insistence on the release of the Negroes in the slave states” was only counted as a merit and that there was no realization that there could be fault here as well.


Links and original footnotes:

1 In the excellent essay: Bruchstücke aus der Geschichte der Aufhebung der Sclaverei [Fragments from the History of the Abolition of Slavery], collected writings vol. 2.

2 Reise um die Welt in den Jahren 1844-1847 B2.

3 Commentar über den Brief Pauli an die Ephesier–Gottlieb Christoph Adolf von Harless

Leave a Reply