The subject matter to be preached is here called “the word of God.” Although that which is spoken by ministers is only the sound of a man’s voice, yet that which true ministers of God preach in exercising their ministerial function is the word of God. Thus it is said of the apostles, “They spoke the word of God,” Acts 4:31, and it is said of the people of Antioch, that “almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God,” Acts 13:44.
That which ministers do or ought to preach is called the word of God in four respects.
1. In regard to the primary author of it, which is God. God did immediately inspire extraordinary ministers and thereby informed them in his will. “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost,” 2 Peter 1:21. Therefore they would commonly use these introductory phrases, “The word of the Lord,” Hosea 1:1; “Thus says the Lord,” Isa 7:7; and an apostle says, “I have received of the Lord, that which also I delivered unto you,” 1 Cor. 11:23. As for ordinary ministers, they have God’s word written and left upon record for their use, “For all Scripture is given by inspiration of God,” 2 Tim. 3:16. They therefore that ground what they preach upon the Scripture, and deliver nothing but what is agreeable to it, preach the word of God.
2. In regard to the subject-matter which they preach, which is the will of God; as the apostle exhorts, to “understand what the will of the Lord is,” Eph. 5:17, and to “prove what is that good, that acceptable, and perfect will of God,” Rom. 12:2.
3. In regard to the purpose of preaching, which is the glory of God, and making known “the manifold wisdom of God,” Eph. 3:10.
4. In regard to the mighty effect and power of it, for preaching God’s word is “the power of God unto salvation, Rom. 1:16. Preaching the word of God is “mighty through God to bring every thought to the obedience of Christ,” 2 Cor. 10:4,5. For “the word of God is quick and powerful,” etc., Heb. 4:12.
So close ought ministers to hold to God’s word in their preaching, that they should not dare to swerve away from it in anything. The apostle pronounces a curse against him, whosoever he is, that shall preach any other word, Gal. 1:8,9.
Therefore we have just cause to avoid such teachers as preach contrary to this doctrine, Rom. 16:17, 2 John 10. The whole body of Roman Catholicism is to be rejected for this reason. So are the manifold errors and heresies which have been broached in former ages, and in this our age. The feigning of new light and immediate inspiration in these days is a mere pretence.
The Right Hearing of Preaching
by this subject matter of preaching the word of God, we may receive a good direction to observe two caveats enjoined by Christ concerning hearing:
The first is concerning the matter which we hear, “Take heed what you hear,” Mark 4:24. We must hear nothing with approval except what we know to be the word of God. We must, therefore, be well acquainted with the Scriptures ourselves, and by them test the things which we hear, whether they are the word of God or not, as the men of Berea did, Acts 17:11.
The second caveat is concerning the manner of hearing, “Take heed how you hear,” Luke 18:18. That which we know to be grounded upon the Scriptures we must receive, “not as the word of men, but, as it is in truth, the word of God,” 1 Thess. 2:13. We must with reverence attend to it; we must in our hearts believe, and we must in our lives obey it.
Preach the Pure Word
It is God’s word that does convert, quicken, comfort, and build up, or, on the other side, wound and beat down. What is the reason that there was so great an alteration made by the ministry of Christ and his disciples, by the apostles and others after them, indeed, by Luther, and other ministers of reformed churches? They did not preach traditions of elders like the scribes, nor men’s inventions like the Roman Catholics do. They preached the pure word of God. The more purely God’s word is preached, the more deeply it pierces and the more kindly it works.
It was before mentioned that twenty-two persons had been sent up from Colchester, who upon a slight submission, were afterwards released. Of these, William Munt, of Much Bentley, husbandman, with Alice, his wife, and Rose Allin, her daughter, upon their return home, abstained from church, which induced the bigoted priest secretly to write to Bonner. For a short time they absconded, but returning again, March 7, one Edmund Tyrrel, (a relation of the Tyrrel who murdered King Edward V and his brother) with the officers, entered the house while Munt and his wife were in bed, and informed them that they must go to Colchester Castle. Mrs Munt at that time being very ill, requested her daughter to get her some drink; leave being permitted, Rose took a candle and a mug; and in returning through the house was met by Tyrrel, who cautioned her to advise her parents to become good Catholics. Rose briefly informed him that they had the Holy Ghost for their adviser; and that she was ready to lay down her own life for the same cause. Turning to his company, he remarked that she was willing to burn; and one of them told him to prove her, and see what she would do by and by. The unfeeling wretch immediately executed this project; and, seizing the young woman by the wrist, he held the lighted candle under her hand, burning it crosswise on the back, until the tendons divided from the flesh, during which he loaded her with many opprobrious epithets. She endured his rage unmoved, and then, when he had ceased the torture, she asked him to begin at her feet or head, for he need not fear that his employer would one day repay him. After this, she took the drink to her mother.
This cruel act of torture does not stand alone on record. Bonner had served a poor blind harper in nearly the same manner, who had steadily maintained a hope that if every joint of him were to be burnt, he should not fly from the faith. Bonner, upon this, privately made a signal to his men, to bring a burning coal, which they placed in the poor man’s hand, and then by force held it closed until it burnt into the flesh deeply.
George Eagles, a tailor, was indicted for having prayed that ‘God would turn Queen Mary’s heart, or take her away’; the ostensible cause of his death was his religion, for treason could hardly be imagined in praying for the reformation of such an execrable soul as that of Mary. Being condemned for this crime, he was drawn to the place of execution upon a sledge, with two robbers, who were executed with him. After Eagles had mounted the ladder, and been turned off a short time, he was cut down before he was at all insensible; a bailiff, named William Swallow, then dragged him to the sledge, and with a common blunt cleaver, hacked off the head; in a manner equally clumsy and cruel, he opened his body and tore out the heart.
In all this suffering the poor martyr repined not, but to the last called upon his Savior. The fury of these bigots did not end here; the intestines were burnt, and the body was quartered, the four parts being sent to Colchester, Harwich, Chelmsford, and St. Rouses. Chelmsford had the honour of retaining his head, which was affixed to a long pole in the marketplace. In time it was blown down, and lay several days in the street until it was buried at night in the churchyard. God’s judgment not long after fell upon Swallow, who in his old age became a beggar, and who was affected with leprosy that made him obnoxious even to the animal creation; nor did Richard Potts, who troubled Eagles in his dying moments, escape the visiting hand of God.
It will not be inappropriate to devote a few pages of this work to a brief detail of the lives of some of those men who first stepped forward, regardless of the bigoted power which opposed all reformation, to stem the time of papal corruption, and to seal the pure doctrines of the Gospel with their blood. Among these, Great Britain has the honour of taking the lead, and first maintaining that freedom in religious controversy which astonished Europe, and demonstrated that political and religious liberty are equally the growth of that favoured island. Among the earliest of these eminent persons was
This celebrated reformer denominated the “Morning Star of the Reformation,” was born about the year 1324, in the reign of Edward II. Of his extraction, we have no certain account. His parents designing him for the Church, sent him to Queen’s College, Oxford, about that period founded by Robert Eaglesfield, confessor to Queen Philippi. But not meeting with the advantages of study in that newly established house which he expected, he removed to Merton College, which was then esteemed one of the most learned societies in Europe.
The first thing which drew him into public notice was his defence of the university against the begging friars, who about this time, from their settlement in Oxford in 1230, had been troublesome neighbours to the university. Feuds were continually fomented; the friars appealing to the pope, the scholars to the civil power; and sometimes one party, and sometimes, the other, prevailed. The friars became very fond of a notion that Christ was a common beggar; that his disciples were beggars also; and that begging was of Gospel institution. This doctrine they urged from the pulpit and wherever they had access.
Wickliffe had long held these religious friars in contempt for the laziness of their lives and had now a fair opportunity of exposing them. He published a treatise against able beggary, in which he lashed the friars, and proved that they were not only a reproach to religion, but also to human society. The university began to consider him one of their first champions, and he was soon promoted to the mastership of Baliol College.
About this time, Archbishop Islip founded Canterbury Hall, in Oxford, where he established a warden and eleven scholars. To this wardenship, Wickliffe was elected by the archbishop, but upon his demise, he was displaced by his successor, Stephen Langham, bishop of Ely. As there was a degree of flagrant injustice in the affair, Wickliffe appealed to the pope, who subsequently gave it against him from the following cause: Edward III, then king of England had withdrawn the tribune, which from the time of King John had been paid to the pope. The pope menaced; Edward called a parliament. The parliament resolved that King John had done an illegal thing, and given up the rights of the nation, and advised the king not to submit, whatever consequences might follow.
The clergy now began to write in favour of the pope, and a learned monk published a spirited and plausible treatise, which had many advocates. Wickliffe, irritated at seeing so bad a cause so well defended, opposed the monk and did it in so masterly a way that he was considered no longer as unanswerable. His suit at Rome was immediately determined against him; and nobody doubted but his opposition to the pope, at so critical a period, was the true cause of his being non-suited at Rome.
Wickliffe was afterwards elected to the chair of the divinity professor: and now fully convinced of the errors of the Romish Church, and the vileness of its monastic agents, he determined to expose them. In public lectures, he lashed their vices and opposed their follies. He unfolded a variety of abuses covered by the darkness of superstition. At first, he began to loosen the prejudices of the vulgar, and proceeded by slow advances; with the metaphysical disquisitions of the age, he mingled opinions in divinity apparently novel. The usurpations of the court of Rome was a favourite topic. On these, he expatiated with all the keenness of argument, joined to logical reasoning. This soon procured him the clamour of the clergy, who, with the archbishop of Canterbury, deprived him of his office.
At this time the administration of affairs was in the hands of the Duke of Lancaster, well known by the name of John of Gaunt. This prince had very free notions of religion and was at enmity with the clergy. The exactions of the court of Rome having become very burdensome, he determined to send the bishop of Bangor and Wickliffe to remonstrate against these abuses, and it was agreed that the pope should no longer dispose of any benefices belonging to the Church of England. In this embassy, Wickliffe’s observant mind penetrated into the constitution and policy of Rome, and he returned more strongly than ever determined to expose its avarice and ambition.
Having recovered his former situation, he inveighed, in his lectures, against the pope–his usurpation–his infallibility–his pride–his avarice– and his tyranny. He was the first who termed the pope Antichrist. From the pope, he would turn to the pomp, the luxury, and trappings of the bishops, and compared them with the simplicity of primitive bishops. Their superstitions and deceptions were topics that he urged with an energy of mind and logical precision.
From the patronage of the Duke of Lancaster, Wickliffe received a good benefice; but he was no sooner settled in his parish, than his enemies and the bishops began to persecute him with renewed vigour. The Duke of Lancaster was his friend in this persecution, and by his presence and that of Lord Percy, earl marshal of England, he so overawed the trial, that the whole ended in disorder.
After the death of Edward III his grandson Richard II succeeded, in the eleventh year of his age. The Duke of Lancaster not obtaining to be the sole regent, as he expected, his power began to decline, and the enemies of Wickliffe, taking advantage of the circumstance, renewed their articles of accusation against him. Five bulls were despatched in consequence by the pope to the king and certain bishops, but the regency and the people manifested a spirit of contempt at the haughty proceedings of the pontiff, and the former at that time wanting money to oppose an expected invasion of the French, proposed to apply a large sum, collected for the use of the pope, to that purpose. The question was submitted to the decision of Wickliffe. The bishops, however, supported by the papal authority, insisted upon bringing Wickliffe to trial, and he was actually undergoing examination at Lambeth, when, from the riotous behavior of the populace without, and awed by the command of Sir Lewis Clifford, a gentleman of the court, that they should not proceed to any definitive sentence, they terminated the whole affair in a prohibition to Wickliffe, not to preach those doctrines which were obnoxious to the pope; but this was laughed at by our reformer, who, going about barefoot, and in a long frieze gown, preached more vehemently than before.
In the year 1378, a contest arose between two popes, Urban VI and Clement VII which was the lawful pope, and true vicegerent of God. This was a favourable period for the exertion of Wicliffe’s talents: he soon produced a tract against popery, which was eagerly read by all sorts of people.
About the end of the year, Wickliffe was seized with a violent disorder, which it was feared might prove fatal. The begging friars, accompanied by four of the most eminent citizens of Oxford, gained admittance to his bed chamber and begged of him to retract, for his soul’s sake, the unjust things he had asserted of their order. Wickliffe, surprised at the solemn message, raised himself in his bed, and with a stern countenance replied, “I shall not die, but live to declare the evil deeds of the friars.”
When Wickliffe recovered, he set about a most important work, the translation of the Bible into English. Before this work appeared, he published a tract, wherein he showed the necessity of it. The zeal of the bishops to suppress the Scriptures greatly promoted its sale, and they who were not able to purchase copies, procured transcripts of particular Gospels or Epistles. Afterward, when Lollardy increased, and the flames kindled, it was a common practice to fasten about the neck of the condemned heretic such of these scraps of Scripture as were found in his possession, which generally shared his fate.
Immediately after this transaction, Wickliffe ventured a step further and affected the doctrine of transubstantiation. This strange opinion was invented by Paschade Radbert and asserted with amazing boldness. Wickliffe, in his lecture before the University of Oxford, 1381, attacked this doctrine and published a treatise on the subject. Dr Barton, at this time vice-chancellor of Oxford, calling together the heads of the university, condemned Wickliffe’s doctrines as heretical and threatened their author with excommunication. Wickliffe could now derive no support from the Duke of Lancaster, and being cited to appear before his former adversary, William Courteney, now made archbishop of Canterbury, he sheltered himself under the plea, that, as a member of the university, he was exempt from episcopal jurisdiction. This plea was admitted, as the university was determined to support their member.
The court met at the appointed time, determined, at least to sit in judgment upon his opinions, and some they condemned as erroneous, others as heretical. The publication on this subject was immediately answered by Wickliffe, who had become a subject of the archbishop’s determined malice. The king, solicited by the archbishop, granted a license to imprison the teacher of heresy, but the commons made the king revoke this act as illegal. The primate, however, obtained letters from the king, directing the head of the University of Oxford to search for all heresies and books published by Wickliffe; in consequence of which order, the university became a scene of tumult. Wickliffe is supposed to have retired from the storm, into an obscure part of the kingdom. The seeds, however, were scattered, and Wickliffe’s opinions were so prevalent that it was said if you met two persons upon the road, you might be sure that one was a Lollard. At this period, the disputes between the two popes continued. Urban published a bull, in which he earnestly called upon all who had any regard for religion, to exert themselves in its cause; and to take up arms against Clement and his adherents in defence of the holy see.
A war, in which the name of religion was so vilely prostituted, roused Wickliffe’s inclination, even in his declining years. He took up his pen once more and wrote against it with the greatest acrimony. He expostulated with the pope in a very free manner, and asks him boldly: ‘How he durst make the token of Christ on the cross (which is the token of peace, mercy and charity) a banner to lead us to slay Christian men, for the love of two false priests, and to oppress Christiandom worse than Christ and his apostles were oppressed by the Jews? ‘When,’ said he, ‘will the proud priest of Rome grant indulgences to mankind to live in peace and charity, as he now does to fight and slay one another?’
This severe piece drew upon him the resentment of Urban and was likely to have involved him in greater troubles than he had before experienced, but providentially he was delivered out of their hands. He was struck with the palsy, and though he lived some time, yet it was in such a way that his enemies considered him as a person below their resentment.
Wickliffe returning within short space, either from his banishment, or from some other place where he was secretly kept, repaired to his parish of Lutterworth, where he was parson; and there, quietly departing this mortal life, slept in peace in the Lord, in the end of the year 1384, upon Silvester’s day. It appeared that he was well aged before he departed, “and that the same thing pleased him in his old age, which did please him being young.”
Wickliffe had some cause to give them thanks, that they would at least spare him until he was dead, and also give him so long respite after his death, forty-one years to rest in his sepulchre before they ungraved him, and turned him from earth to ashes; which ashes they also took and threw into the river. And so was he resolved into three elements, earth, fire, and water, thinking thereby utterly to extinguish and abolish both the name and doctrine of Wickliffe forever. Not much unlike the example of the old Pharisees and sepulchre knights, who, when they had brought the Lord unto the grave, thought to make him sure never to rise again. But these and all others must know that, as there is no counsel against the Lord, so there is no keeping down of verity, but it will spring up and come out of dust and ashes, as appeared right well in this man; for though they dug up his body, burned his bones, and drowned his ashes, yet the Word of God and the truth of his doctrine, with the fruit and success thereof, they could not burn.
Popery having brought various innovations into the Church, and overspread the Christian world with darkness and superstition, some few, who plainly perceived the pernicious tendency of such errors, determined to show the light of the Gospel in its real purity, and to disperse those clouds which artful priests had raised about it, in order to blind the people, and obscure its real brightness.
The principal among these was Berengarius, who, about the year 1000, boldly preached Gospel truths, according to their primitive purity. Many, from conviction, assented to his doctrine, and were, on that account, called Berengarians. To Berengarius succeeded Peer Bruis, who preached at Toulouse, under the protection of an earl, named Hildephonsus; and the whole tenets of the reformers, with the reasons of their separation from the Church of Rome, were published in a book written by Bruis, under the title of “Antichrist.”
By the year of Christ 1140, the number of the reformed was very great, and the probability of its increasing alarmed the pope, who wrote to several princes to banish them from their dominions, and employed many learned men to write against their doctrines.
In A.D. 1147, because of Henry of Toulouse, deemed their most eminent preacher, they were called Henericians; and as they would not admit of any proofs relative to religion, but what could be deduced from the Scriptures themselves, the popish party gave them the name of apostolics. At length, Peter Waldo, or Valdo, a native of Lyons, eminent for his piety and learning, became a strenuous opposer of popery; and from him, the reformed, at that time, received the appellation of Waldenses or Waldoys.
Pope Alexander III being informed by the bishop of Lyons of these transactions, excommunicated Waldo and his adherents, and commanded the bishop to exterminate them, if possible, from the face of the earth; hence began the papal persecutions against the Waldenses.
The proceedings of Waldo and the reformed occasioned the first rise of the inquisitors; for Pope Innocent III authorized certain monks as inquisitors, to inquire for, and deliver over, the reformed to the secular power. The process was short, as an accusation was deemed adequate to guilt, and a candid trial was never granted to the accused.
The pope, finding that these cruel means had not the intended effect, sent several learned monks to preach among the Waldenses, and to endeavour to argue them out of their opinions. Among these monks was one Dominic, who appeared extremely zealous in the cause of popery. This Dominic instituted an order, which, from him, was called the order of Dominican friars; and the members of this order have ever since been the principal inquisitors in the various inquisitions in the world. The power of the inquisitors was unlimited; they proceeded against whom they pleased, without any consideration of age, sex, or rank. Let the accusers be ever so infamous, the accusation was deemed valid; and even anonymous pieces of information, sent by letter, were thought sufficient evidence. To be rich was a crime equal to heresy; therefore many who had money were accused of heresy, or of being favorers of heretics, that they might be obliged to pay for their opinions. The dearest friends or nearest kindred could not, without danger, serve anyone who was imprisoned on account of religion. To convey to those who were confined, a little straw, or give them a cup of water, was called favouring of the heretics, and they were prosecuted accordingly. No lawyer dared to plead for his own brother, and their malice even extended beyond the grave; hence the bones of many were dug up and burnt, as examples to the living. If a man on his deathbed was accused of being a follower of Waldo, his estates were confiscated, and the heir to them defrauded of his inheritance; and some were sent to the Holy Land, while the Dominicans took possession of their houses and properties, and, when the owners returned, would often pretend not to know them. These persecutions were continued for several centuries under different popes and other great dignitaries of the Catholic Church.
I was preaching a short time ago in the city of Nottingham in England, here in the United Kingdom. A man who obviously disagreed with the Bible but had a more than usual knowledge of the Scriptures questioned me. He finished by saying, “I suppose then you agree with slavery as well,” quoting a verse in Exodus chapter twenty one. When I replied that I didn’t have a problem with it he just stomped off in anger. End of conversation. This, of course, is a common problem when preaching on the streets, people ask questions but they don’t always want or wait for the answers. The question of slavery has not gone away. You are, without doubt, more likely to be questioned about this issue when preaching in North America. But wherever it is asked, the question needs to be addressed, historically and biblically. But, the answer is most certainly not, “that was then, not now.” For that often is the answer given by Christians to the issue. Oh, that was the Old Testament, but we’re in the New Testament now, so the practice of slavery is repealed. It is not. That just ain’t the honest to goodness truth. It is dealt with in both Testaments of the Bible. Abraham had slaves, the Mosaic law instructs slave owners and slaves how to conduct themselves in such conditions and the New Testament deals with it too (See the book of Philemon). The Apostle Paul’s writings deal with the behaviour of both slaves and masters. We will return to the Bible in due course. But let’s begin for our purposes here with the African slave business.
The African Slave Trade: It goes back to the early 1500’s. The slaves themselves were taken captive by their own fellow Africans. They were then shipped to the coast where they would be sold on to the white slave traders. But rest assured were it not for their fellow Africans firstly enslaving their own countrymen, there would have been no slave trade out of Africa. Where were these slaves taken to? Thirty-six percent went to Brazil. Fifty-eight percent went to a mixture of France, Spain and Britain. The remaining six percent went to North America. To both the North and Southern states. What is interesting is, that the state of Virginia was crying out to Congress and to the British Parliament for an end to the evil of slave trading, thirty years before Massachusetts had even begun to think about the issue and before civil war had broken out. Alas, their pleas fell on deaf ears. But we have to ask the question, why did it end in civil war, with the death of four hundred and thirty thousand Americans? Well, it would be down to those whom the Southern states would have referred to as the ‘Infidel Abolitionists.’ They were the problem, the cause of the civil war. Absolute abolition was not the answer. Think about this for a moment. Just supposing an edict had been passed by the President or Congress, and there was an absolute and immediate end to slavery, finito. Where would those many slaves go? Return them to Africa? Which part? How would they survive? Many of them were American born. Or just let them loose? How would they have survived, found employment, the necessities of life even? But then another question must be asked and answered. Why did the Northern state’s war against their fellow countrymen over the issue of slavery, or was there something else, a more deep-seated problem than that?
The Seed of the Woman versus The Seed of the Serpent: By around the year, 1805, Harvard University had been captured by the Unitarians. A deep and widespread apostasy had set in. When it came to the 1860’s the intellectual leadership in the North had thoroughly departed from the word of God. I think, from personal experience that apostasy remains, in the Northeast. The South meanwhile was still predominantly Christian. It was the old war against the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, that old antithesis established by God himself way back in the day (Genesis 3:15f). The war between the world and the church, the saints and the sinners. That the Northern states should come against the Southern states can be explained in no other way. Why was the North fighting their own countrymen whilst during the Civil War they were heavily dependent on trade with France, Spain, Britain and Brazil, countries that were heavily committed to and involved in the African slave trade. Why did they not go to war against them too? Then, of course, it must be noted that the North had their fair share of slaves too. The word hypocrisy comes to mind. Not, of course, to forget that Abraham Lincoln himself was a self-confessed white supremest.
Reformation & not War: That the American Civil War was a judgment of God is indeed unquestionable. But who you ask was being judged, the South or the North? The short answer is both. The march of Sherman from Atlanta to Savannah was, without doubt, the judgment of God on the Southern states for their harsh treatment of their slaves. They had their Bibles, and they used their Bibles to defend the practice of slave ownership. But the problem with having Bibles is, that it makes you more culpable, better we don’t have them than not obey them. The South, by and large, but not altogether, did not obey God’s clear instructions as to how they should have treated their slaves. That is, with respect, kindness, compassion, and mercy. Now let’s be clear many God-fearing, Christian men did so treat their slaves. The caricature presented by the leftwing media today, including Hollywood on slavery, will just not do, it does give you a clear and fair picture. The destruction of the Southern General Robert Lee’s statue recently and what lay behind that action defamed him. General Lee was a Christian, an officer and a gentleman and fine soldier at that, magnanimous even in defeat. Why do you think the North wanted him to command their armies? But, the North was also being judged, for its apostasy. The Pilgrim Fathers who brought and planted the seeds of the gospel in New England had long gone. Decline and a forsaking of the covenant of God had taken place. The Bible makes it very clear, “now it shall be, if you diligently obey the Lord your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you if you obey the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 28:1). Otherwise, “but it shall come about, if you do not obey the Lord your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you” (Deuteronomy 28:15). The Northern apostasy led inevitably to the judgment of God. It is an interesting footnote, that in the midst of the Civil War, an amazing revival broke out amongst the Confederate, Southern troops. So if a war wasn’t the answer what was? Well, for starters the ‘Infidel Abolitionists’ should have been silenced altogether. The answer lay in the Scriptures that the North had forsaken and the South still clung to. Reformation with the Scriptures as the basis was the answer. In the mid-eighteenth century, godly men were calling for this reform. “Arthur Dibbs; Joseph Ottenghi; Noble Jones; William Stephens; George Whitfield and Samuel Davies, among others, accepted slavery as neither sinful nor necessarily impolitic, but they also insisted that it must be brought up to the standards of humanity described as Scriptural or Abrahamic or Christian…Whitfield darkly suggested that the slaves would be morally justified if they rose in rebellion…Davies preached in Virginia during the mid-1750’s with a strong emphasis on God’s stern punishment of those who did not repent of their sins. Specifically, Davies invoked God’s wrath against those who were treating their slaves inhumanely” (Prof E.D. Genovese). These godly men who cried out for reform got no encouragement from the “immediate abolitionists,” instead all they got was denunciation.If in North America, it had been dealt with in this way, both political and ecclesiastical reform, it wouldn’t be the problem that it is today.
So Back to the Bible: The Old Testament law is very clear as to how slave owners and slaves are to conduct themselves. Also, we must not forget that in the Bible God is addressing a fallen humanity, a world that is ruined by man’s sin, and not some imaginary utopia. In that world of sin, until the renewal of all things, the heavens and the earth, there will always be evil of one kind or another. But rest assured God has declared war on sin, it is going down, it is going to be judged. The Son of God has been appointed that task and that day has been set, “because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). Until then slavery of one kind or another will always be a problem. Back in the Old Testament era, slavery was a safety net for the poor. It was limited, freedom was always in sight. Some would argue, yes, but, when a man was due to be set free he could go but if he goes his family must remain, that is, if he has one. But ask yourself the question, what is kinder? To let the man go and take his family with him with not a hope of being able to provide for them? Or to leave them with the master who under God’s instruction has compassion, care for and treats them as God commands him? For some people who were utterly destitute, perhaps up to their eyeballs in debt, with no way of providing for themselves and or their families it was an opportunity for them, and escape route. For some an opportunity to learn how to provide for themselves. He or she would perhaps learn a new set of skills equipping them for their future freedom. But the Divine law was very clear concerning the contracts of employment, how both owners and slaves were to conduct themselves, and the punishments for disobedience, i.e., harsh treatment. Perhaps some corporations today, such Amazon, could do with reading those terms, as to how to treat their slaves.
Moving into the New Testament it is no different, the terms are clearly expounded by the Apostle Paul. There were in those early church times millions of slaves within the Roman Empire. If you know anything about Roman rule then you will know how they would have dealt with any revolt against their form of slavery. They would have ruthlessly and mercilessly crushed it. Therefore, those masters and slaves alike are instructed as to how to conduct themselves within their new-found spiritual freedom as Christians. For the Apostles to have created an attitude of anarchy would have led to even more rebellion, and even a breakdown of the social order. No, the biblical answer in both Testaments is the fair treatment of slaves, with kindness and compassion, leading to reform and restoration and the hope of future freedom. But it was that element of kindness and compassion that was absent in a lot of cases, not all, in the Southern states, and for that God judged them. The evil was not the slavery itself, it was the man-stealing, kidnapping, and the slave trading that went with it that is condemned by God, and it was this that was condemned even by the state of Virginia long before Massachusetts woke up to the issue. Imagine a scenario with me for a moment. You’re a Christian man of wealth and influence, and it’s 1860, you’re in the place where slaves are being sold, say, in South Carolina, or some other Southern state. There is a man for sale, but he is not wanted, so what would have happened to him? This. He would have been shipped out to either Haiti or Brazil where he would have been treated much worse than in a Nazi death camp. So you’ve got the power, the money, you can use this man, give him employment and a future. Under God’s instruction, you can make him feel human again, feed and clothe him, perhaps even evangelise him, in kindness turn him into a trophy of grace, a child of God. Or, you could just stiffen your neck, walk away saying, “not my problem, don’t agree with slavery anyway, should be abolished” and that, knowing what will happen to him next? Which, I ask you, is the kindest, most loving course of action for you to take?
Slavery Today: So is slavery done with now, completely abolished? I mean apart from my cynical dig at how Amazon treat their employees? No, it isn’t. For the last three to four years I have been ministering in Ukraine during the summer. A couple of years ago I happened upon a society in Ternopil who was seeking to make people aware of the number of people, mostly young women, who were being abducted in Eastern Europe and transported where ever they could be sold on to. No prizes for guessing what for. The figures for just Ukraine alone were over a hundred thousand, and that’s just one Eastern European country. Sadly it wasn’t a Christian society that was engaged in this excellent endeavour. After all should not we be engaged in seeking the Reformation of society as well? Working towards a realistic end of slavery wherever and by whoever? By bringing the word of God to bear upon every echelon of the society of which we are a part? Reformation is our aim, not rebellion. According to God’s law, as recorded in the Old Testament, kidnapping comes with the death penalty. “If a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel, and he deals with him violently or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 24:87). Many Americans in both the North and the South should have been faced with this indictment by both the State and the Church. Many Southern Christians should have been excommunicated from their churches because of their treatment of their slaves. Sin is an evil that is yet rampant and as long as there is sin there will be slavery, with men treating their fellowmen in the harshest and degrading ways. But it will be met with God’s judgment, his fierce judgment, every time, either sooner or later.
There is though an even worse kind of slavery, and that is the slavery that we are all of us born into. The slavery to sin. And the only Person who can liberate us from that bondage, break the chains and set us free, is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He came to die for slaves and slave owners, he came for sinners, he came to set them free from the law of sin and death. “Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin…So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed“ (John 8:34, 36). Without Jesus Christ, we are all of us slave born and in need of God’s redemption through his Son. It is only in Christ that we can look forward with hope to God’s promised future, with him forever, in the new heaven and the new earth, where there shall be no slavery because there will be no sin.
So, Christian man or woman, when someone says to you that the Bible sanctions slavery, please, please, please do not answer, “that was then not now.” Rather say, yes it does, so what’s your point?
# For further & helpful reading on this subject: Prof Eugene D Genovese “A Consuming Fire” & Pastor Doug Wilson “Black and Tan.”