A Quick Defense of Abolition from the Westminster Standards
I have recently been reading a good bit of 19th- century American Presbyterian history. Many Presbyterian ministers in both the Antebellum and Post-War South defended the institution of American slavery. Prominent Southern theologian Robert Dabney defended his church’s position by asserting that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were silent on the issue, so it would be inappropriate for the church to take a definite stand on the rightness or wrongness of slavery.1 This is incorrect. While neither the WCF and WLC explicitly state, “Slavery is right/wrong,” they both contain several doctrinal points which should have led Antebellum Presbyterians to condemn the institution of chattel slavery as sinful.
First, WLC 142 states that the 8th Commandment forbids “man-stealing.” This goes beyond kidnapping to encompass the enslavement of people, and finds its biblical warrant in 1 Timothy 1:10. American chattel slavery originated from kidnapping and enslavement of innocent people, and so rests on an unlawful foundation. This would continue in each generation: every time a slave had a child that child would, in effect, become enslaved. WCF 24.2 (Of Marriage and Divorce) established that marriage existed for the propagating of children. By the owners enslaving the children of slaves, they were both man-stealing and undermining marriage.
Secondly, WLC 130 states that superiors violate the 5th Commandment by sinning by against their inferiors by “an inordinate seeking of themselves, their own glory, ease, profit, or pleasure…correcting them unduly…provoking them to wrath.” This is in contrast to the obligations of the 5th Commandment to superiors explained in WLC 129 as “protecting, and providing for [inferiors] all things necessary for soul and body.” Chattel slavery makes the fulfillment of the 5th Commandant an impossibility, and its violation an inevitability, for slave owners. The entire institution was premised upon an inordinate seeking of profit by harming the spiritual and physical wellbeing of people.
Finally, the institution of slavery precluded the slaves from fully participating in the life of the church. No owner would ever permit their slaves to become a minister in the church with ecclesial authority over the owner. This would violate the church’s right to call ministers of the word based upon their spiritual qualifications, and would prevent the church from doing its duty to lead and discipline its members (e.g. WCF 30).
Slavery is incompatible with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.
1. Dabney, Robert L. “The Doctrinal Contents of the Confession: Its Fundamental and Regulative Ideas, and the Necessity and Value of Creeds.” 1983. In Memorial Volume of the Westminster Assembly, edited by Francis R. Beattie. Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1897. The Westminster Confession and Creeds, page 13.↩