Relationship between economic dependence upon chattel slavery and the sin of owning another human as property

I’m struggling with a specific historical issue about slavery in America. So, when we study this specific part of history as Christians, how do we reconcile these two facts:

  1. Many people in the 18th-19th century American south, including famous icons such as Jonathan Edwards or Thomas Jefferson, were sympathetic to the dignity and worth of black people, yet were economically dependent upon slavery, since it was so ingrained into the fabric of that society.

  2. Regardless, it violates the concept of “imago dei,” (we all bear the image of God), to own another image bearer as your own “property,” regardless of your social or economic context.

What am I to make of this? How was someone supposed to escape the sin of slavery while living in an area where your life seemingly depended on it? Can anyone direct me to a good historical source that touches on this? Thanks!


I am not sure I understand what you are asking? Are you confining your discussion to just the 13 colonies, pre, and post-revolution? How about the Caribbean and Bazilian slave trade? What about the countries that provided the merchant navies that transported slaves for 350+ years, a period that covered 1500- 1866?

One of the premises that I object to is the assumption that slavery in America was somehow a consensus opinion. The history of what went on in the convention of 1787 would not support the conclusion that the ‘institution of slavery’ was the will of the majority of those attending. The records of the slave trade in the world and particularly in colonies show what many of the delegates knew, the demand for slaves was on the decline for precisely the right reasons; it was morally wrong.
Here are a series of links that will support my comments.
Baseline data 1500-1800
Carriers (flag): Spain / Uruguay, Great Britain, Netherlands, U.S.A., France, Denmark / Baltic
Embarkation: All
All US regions
Baseline all nations,
Embarkation: All
Debarkation: Northern U.S., Chesapeake, Carolinas / Georgia, Gulf states, U.S.A. unspecified
Baseline all nations,
Embarkation: All
Debarkation: Carolinas / Georgia
Northern U.S., Chesapeake
Baseline all nations,
Embarkation: All
Debarkation: Northern U.S., Chesapeake
Other than North America
Baseline all nations,
Embarkation: All
Debarkation: Amazonia, Bahia, Pernambuco, South-east Brazil, Brazil unspecified, Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, St. Kitts, Grenada, Dominica, British Guiana, St. Vincent, Montserrat / Nevis, Trinidad / Tobago, Other British Caribbean, Danish West Indies, Dutch Caribbean, Dutch Guianas, Saint-Domingue, Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, French Caribbean unspecified, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Spanish Circum-Caribbean, Rio de la Plata, Other Spanish Americas,
Down turn
Time: 1750-1800
Baseline all nations,
Embarkation: All
Debarkation: Northern U.S., Chesapeake, Carolinas / Georgia, Gulf states, U.S.A. unspecified
10 spike cotton gin
Time 1800-1860
Baseline all nations,
Embarkation: All
Debarkation: Northern U.S., Chesapeake, Carolinas / Georgia, Gulf states, U.S.A. unspecified

Look it over and commet.


Thanks so much for the reply, Jimmy. I’m really just talking about the idea, in any instance where someone is brought into involuntary slavery. My question is specifically about anyone who owns a slave, yet sees the evils of slavery, knows the Lord, thus endeavors to treat their slave with dignity and respect, and also takes steps to end such an institution, but is nonetheless still economically dependent upon owning a slave. Would you agree, for instance, that that describes at least some persons who were involved in American chattel slavery?

So my question is this: you said that the institution of slavery was by no means desires by the majority, well and good. Nonetheless, on Judgment Day, will the type of person described above be held accountable for, let’s say, not trying to flee to a region free of slavery? Will he be held accountable for owning slaves in the first place, regardless of how well he treated them? Or will he be pardoned for taking part in a moral “norm,” if you will, of that time and place? Does that make sense?

Of course, we can’t say whether or not these men would have known how to actually get their slaves to true safety after freeing them, and other details like that. I think I’m just working through the whole concept of understanding people in history as a product of their times.

(I think here of the biblical story of the Roman centurion in Matthew 8, where Jesus heals his slave, but makes no mention of the fact that he owned a slave in the first place).

At the end of the day, this just boils down to an ignorance of history on my part. I am very eager to learn, and am overwhelmed by the amount of history books we have available to us in 2020, I don’t know where to start, haha. So I’m here seeking some guidance! My ultimate goal is to deepen my faith.


What I have learned from my studies about slavery can be summed up in one word, context. If I, a 21st-century man, can look back on historical events and see that slavery was a bad thing, why didn’t men living in that period recognize what I see so clearly today? I think one of the answers is historical context as it applies to the societal norms of that day and that culture.
An example that I think illustrates this without being too controversial is how people in the 1st century would have understood the cosmos, heaven, and earth. It was a flat disk suspended in a vast ocean of turbulent water, protected from this sea by a dome, and they knew this how? Because they went to the cosmos class? No, it just was it was baked into life.
Compare that to how 21st-century folks view the cosmos, and I think we can conclude that the same thing applies plus 2000 years of accumulated knowledge, it is ‘baked into’ our culture. Everybody knows that we live in a heliocentric galaxy that is part of a vast universe. You don’t need Carl Sagan or Neil Degrasse to teach you a class on the subject. Mom, Dad, and the neighbors will do just fine.
The question remains, how do these examples apply to slavery? If I lived in the 1st century and found myself on the wrong side of a battle, I would likely become a slave irrespective of my race. If I were a criminal, I would probably become a slave regardless of my race. If I was a citizen and I fell on hard times due to famine or drought and spent or sold all my worldly possessions, no land, no livestock, and no money, I and my family would likely sell ourselves into some form of slavery.
Compare these two verses, Genesis 45:18-20 and Esther 7:3-4. Genesis describes the response of the Egyptian people too hard times, “Buy us and our land in exchange for food, then we and our land will be servants to Pharaoh.” Note their willingness to throw in their last possessions, themselves.
Now the account from Esther. She is appealing to the king for the lives of her people and family. But if their plight were slavery, she would not have thought it worth appealing to the king, "I and my people have been sold to be destroyed and killed, to be annihilated. If we had been sold as male and female slaves I would have kept quiet, because this is not a need sufficient to trouble the king.
Now back to the 16th-century colonies, not yet an independent nation. In my previous post, I posted several links to a database where you will see the complexity of the slave trade. It included all the European powers of that day. It could not have happened without the cooperation of many African tribal groups that were practicing either slavery as it related to conquest on as it relates to the buying and selling of human beings before it grew into a worldwide commercial enterprise.
I recently read the book, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, the African, published in 1789. In the book, he describes his life before he was taken captive as a young boy by a rival kingdom as a young. in his book, he recounts this scene:

“These are sometimes visited by stout mahogany-coloured men from the south west of us: we call them Oye-Eboe, which term signifies red men living at a distance. They generally bring us fire-arms, gunpowder, hats, beads, and dried fish. The last we esteemed a great rarity, as our waters were only brooks and springs. These articles they barter with us for odoriferous woods and earth, and our salt of wood ashes. They always carry slaves through our land; but the strictest account is exacted of their manner of procuring them before they are suffered to pass. Sometimes indeed we sold slaves to them, but they were only prisoners of war, or such among us as had been convicted of kidnapping, or adultery, and some other crimes, which we esteemed heinous.”

I thought it interesting that Olaudah’s tribe would concern themselves with how the slave traders ‘procured’ their cargo. Still, Olaudah’s tribe would buy and sell slaves, but they had to be of a specific category, POWs, or criminals.
Another interesting thought that touched on numerous in Olaudah’s book was a ‘recognition’ that the ways of the English were to be desire over the ways of the Africans. From his book, the last chapter were letters he wrote to the Queen of England appealing to her sense of mercy and justice on behalf of millions;

“Yet I do not solicit your royal pity for my own distress; my sufferings, although numerous, are in a measure forgotten. I supplicate your Majesty’s compassion for millions of my African countrymen, who groan under the lash of tyranny in the West Indies.”

Besides appealing to mercy and justice, he also made a case for a better economy in a salve free world. I found it interesting that this argument was directed at those that made a similar argument but for the necessity of the slave trade. Here are a couple of quotes that make that point:

As the inhuman traffic of slavery is to be taken into the consideration of the British legislature, I doubt not, if a system of commerce was established in Africa, the demand for manufactures would most rapidly augment, as the native inhabitants will insensibly adopt the British fashions, manners, customs, &c. In proportion to the civilization, so will be the consumption of British manufactures.

And this one from the same book.

“This I conceive to be a theory founded upon facts, and
therefore an infallible one. If the blacks were permitted to remain in their own country, they would double themselves every fifteen years. In proportion to such increase will be the demand for manufactures. Cotton and indigo grow spontaneously in most parts of Africa; a consideration this of no small consequence to the manufacturing towns of Great Britain. It opens a most immense, glorious, and happy prospect—the clothing, &c. of a continent ten
thousand miles in circumference, and immensely rich in productions of every denomination in return for manufactures.”

Ok, two last thoughts from other sources on why the big miss
by the Church:

“The truth is that much of what is said on this topic fails for want of historical knowledge, or through actual suppressio veri in the
interests of prejudice. We can hardly with justice claim that the Church in its infancy and youth, advancing not by jumps but by and through human volition conditioned always by immediate facts and the forces of inherited tendency and circumstances, should have seen things more clearly than proved to be the case nearly 2000 years later when the ‘three or four absolutely virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations’ were written—written, moreover, largely in blood. Its action was not so much definitely official and mandatory as steadily influential for good, a causa causans in the heart of the individual slave-owner.”

Gilbertson, A. N., Agate, L. D., Woodhouse, W. J., Jolly,
J., & Abelson, J. (1908–1926). SLAVERY. In J. Hastings, J. A. Selbie, &
L. H. Gray (Eds.), Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics (Vol. 11, p. 627).
Edinburgh; New York: T. & T. Clark; Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Kenneth Bailey is a teacher and author whose commentary and teaching rings true to me. His understanding of the culture of the middle east has really helped to get my mind around a few difficulties in the parables of Jesus. He says this about trying to understand the Bible; I thought that you might appreciate what he is saying.

“Serious Christian education requires that we do not simply teach the Bible but that our understanding of the text always be open to refinement. For 40 years I taught my Middle Eastern students, “Keep your exegetical conclusions tentatively final.” They have to be final in the sense that, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I must live out my discipleship today. Obedience to my Lord cannot wait for me to read one more technical article in New Testament studies. At the same time, my exegesis is always flawed. Thus my/our interpretation of Scripture must never be closed to refinement and revision.”
Sorry for the delay and length of this post, but it’s a complicated subject.