This guest post is by Dr. Paul Gutacker, director of the Brazos Fellows Program based in Waco, Texas. Gutacker has a Ph.D. in History from Baylor University, and is the author of the new book The Old Faith in a New Nation: American Protestants and the Christian Past (Oxford University Press).
Historians lately have made a great ado about American evangelicals relying on “the Bible alone” for belief and practice. The standard account goes something like this: After the American Revolution, many Protestants rejected traditional religious authority and relied just on a plain reading of scripture. After clearing away the rubble of history and abandoning the old wineskins of tradition, evangelicals were left with everything they thought they needed to do theology: the King James Bible and their own common sense.
This biblicist approach to theology left a mixed legacy. On one hand, innovation and disregard for precedent contributed to the dramatic expansion of evangelical religion; on the other hand, reliance on “the Bible alone” mired antebellum evangelicals in intractable disagreements over questions including slaveholding.
A common-sense hermeneutic meant that simple interpretations of scripture carried greater weight. The proslavery argument was fairly easy to understand: there was no obvious “thou shalt not own slaves” verse, but there were plenty of passages that seemed to assume the existence of slavery (“slaves obey your masters”).
The antislavery case relied on more complicated exegesis. It always involved at least one step of inference. For example, people said that the “golden rule” prohibited slavery because no one wanted to be a slave. Because it always required at least one step of interpretation, the antislavery argument was necessarily less persuasive. Common-sense American biblicism produced a great irony: the same denominations who enjoyed the most growth in the new nation—Baptists and Methodists—ended up splitting over slavery.
By these lights, an anti-tradition, ahistorical biblicism was at least partly responsible for the failure of American churches to avoid the Civil War. Or so the story goes.
A closer look complicates this picture. Certainly, scripture was at the center of the theological argument over slavery. Many American Christians—especially groups such as the Churches of Christ, but also Baptists and Methodists—claimed to rely solely on scripture. These evangelicals prided themselves on reading the Bible without help from other authorities, untethered from human tradition.
In reality, however, when American Protestants disagreed about the meaning of scripture, they did turn to other sources. Everyone interprets Scripture in a historic context. References to church history in evangelical writing on slavery can be found in great number. As evangelicals across denominations—Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, and others—defended or opposed slaveholding, they drew on patristic and medieval teaching, argued about precedent, and insisted on the importance of tradition. They might say they depended on the Bible alone, but they didn’t act that way.
The question of slavery in Christian history took on new urgency in the 1840s, when the three largest Protestant denominations faced schism. As pro- and antislavery Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists failed to win ecclesiastical arguments via scripture, many turned to tradition. Antislavery ministers argued that the teaching of the early church and the “spirit” of Christianity throughout the centuries supported church discipline against slaveholders.
Proslavery clergy countered that the very same church fathers permitted slavery. It was radical abolitionists who were departing from the norms of traditional Christianity.
One illustrative example is the debate between Baptist leaders Francis Wayland and Richard Fuller. They exchanged a series of letters over what the Bible—and Christian tradition—taught about slaveholding. Wayland, a professor of moral philosophy at Brown University, contended that Christ did not explicitly condemn slavery in the Gospels because he intended it to gradually end through the influence of Christian morals—and exactly this happened in Christendom. Wayland quoted Cyprian, Ambrose, and other church fathers, arguing that Christian principles “once abolished slavery and have almost done it for the second time.”
In response, Fuller, a lawyer, minister and slaveholder who helped found the Southern Baptist Convention, marshalled evidence both from patristic teaching and Christian precedent. Contra Wayland, he insisted that “during the apostolic periods, and for centuries after, the most holy men and martyrs held slaves.” Christianity never abolished slavery, Fuller concluded, but “infused its mild and benevolent spirit into the institution, making it quite a different thing.”
When the debate was published in 1845, Fuller’s proslavery account of church history enjoined a strong response. The Presbyterian Albert Barnes produced a book-length rebuttal, arguing that Christianity had in fact abolished slavery in Europe. Barnes, in turn, was quoted by Frederick Douglass in his 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” And Douglass was not alone—throughout the 1850s, white and Black antislavery authors from a variety of denominations used Christian history to bolster their cases against slavery.
As the sectional crisis heated to the boiling point, Fuller’s reading of Christian history fueled an increasingly ardent theological defense of slavery. Dozens of proslavery authors—not only theologians and ministers, but also legal scholars and social theorists—appealed to church history as demonstrating the compatibility of Christianity and slaveholding. After secession and the outbreak of war in 1861, Christians on both sides continued to publish rival narratives about slavery and the Christian tradition.
What do we make of this dismal slide toward the Civil War? First, whatever else “biblicism” means, it did not entail ignorance of history, nor disregard of tradition. Even as they claimed to rely solely on the Bible, evangelical Protestants frequently turned to the Christian past to bolster their interpretations. Their disagreements over slavery show that an era sometimes portrayed as ahistorical and anti-traditional in fact saw extensive engagement with the history of Christianity. These evangelicals never read, nor argued over, the Bible “alone.”
Second, using history did not solve much. The antebellum theological crisis was not due to pro- and antislavery theologians ignoring the Christian past but rather was furthered by their use of the past to make conflicting arguments. The histories constructed by each side only strengthened the conviction that theirs was a holy cause. Certain that the Bible endorsed their respective positions, pro- and antislavery Christians believed they were on the right side of church history.
The antebellum slavery debate illustrates how easy it is to use the Bible to endorse what we want in the present. Just as we can misuse scripture, we can also manipulate the past. History and tradition can offer valuable wisdom, and we need both. (Indeed, both are inescapable: we can’t read, let alone interpret, without belonging to a tradition.) But the misuses of history ought to negate any optimism that historical thinking or attention to tradition offers a foolproof alternative to mere biblicism.
In other words, the past failures of American Christians shouldn’t make us more suspicious of the Bible, but more suspicious of ourselves. We can use anything to justify what we want: scripture, history, precedent, and/or tradition. The Bible isn’t the problem—we are.
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