American Slavery and the Immediate Duty of Southern Slaveholders

A Transcription of Eli Washington Caruthers's Unpublished Manuscript against Slavery

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Jack R. Davidson
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , July
     2018.
     196 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532600890.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book represents the first publication of an antislavery treatise written, in 1862, by Eli Washington Caruthers, a Presbyterian minister otherwise known for his works of local history and his church’s decision to dismiss him following his prayer that the congregation’s enlisted men to return in safety, “though engaged in a lost cause” (this was before the term “lost cause” was adopted by Southern loyalists). Entitled American Slavery and the Immediate Duty of Southern Slaveholders and edited by Jack R. DavidsonCaruthers’s manuscript repeats or reshapes many of the antislavery arguments that circulated in the years before the Civil War, although they were seldom advanced in print by Southern ministers.

Caruthers gives voice to many of the standard tropes of antislavery thought—as it had come to be defined by American abolitionist writers and preachers—in the mid 19th century. In the process he vacillates between arguments based on Scripture, law, natural rights, and human history—on which topic he makes a number of dubious claims, including that “slave countries have … [added] ‘nothing to the stock of human knowledge’” (68). But, as Caruthers’s goal is to make “the Bible … [his] main source of proof” (xi), his book begins with an exposition of Exodus 10:3, which contains God’s message to Pharaoh to “Let my people go that they may serve me.” Based on what is revealed about God in the Exodus story, Caruthers concludes that, as “Pharaoh’s claim to the service of the Israelites was utterly unfounded … so is the claim of all slaveholders to the services of their slaves entirely false and consequently sinful” (3).

Beyond the Exodus story, Caruthers analyzes passages in Genesis, Ezekiel, Romans, Isaiah, Nehemiah, and Psalms to determine that “the whole tenor of the Bible is a demand on all who are holding others in bondage and oppression to give them up and leave all free to serve God with whatever powers he has given them” (61). From here, Caruthers reviews the practice of slavery in Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome, ancient Israel, and the “Christian dispensation,” discusses the difference between “slaves” and “servants,” assigns the origins of the modern slave trade to “avarice, falsehood and cruelty” (55), and recites details of various state slave codes. On the basis of the latter, Caruthers argues that the American slave system makes it impossible for enslaved persons to fulfill Paul’s charge to present their bodies as a living sacrifice to God and thus prevents them “from rendering a full obedience to the requirements of the gospel,” and from “enjoying the full extent of its privileges” (146).

One notable feature of American Slavery is its attention to the curse of Ham, which was a crux of 19th century proslavery biblical interpretation, but which many abolitionist writers dismissed as irrelevant for deciding the moral rectitude of modern chattel slavery. Caruthers accepts the historicity of the curse; that is, he does not deny that African Americans are descendants of Ham or that Noah’s curse of Canaan became effectual in Hamite history. Rather, he argues that the curse was not fulfilled for many generations and that, in the meantime, Hamites became a superior race—a fact evidenced in the foundation of Assyria and Egypt by Ham’s descendants. After the dispersion from Babel, Caruthers writes, “the bold and enterprising sons of Ham were engaged with an industry, perseverance and success equal to those of modern times” (8-9,107).

Caruthers’s attention to Noah’s curse may seem surprising given his erudition and broad knowledge of biblical, historical, and legal matters. Modern scholars tend to adopt the abolitionist view that the curse of Ham could not have been taken seriously by educated persons and, therefore, have downplayed its significance. What these contemporary interpreters overlook—and what Caruthers seems to understand—is that the Genesis 9 story of Noah’s cursing of Ham/Canaan brought together servitude and race, two things not found together in any other texts used by proslavery advocates. It is this comingling of slavery and racial differentiation in Noah’s prophecy that made it so attractive to proslavery divines. The curse’s role in protecting African slavery from the claims of Christian conscience are evident in the recent “Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary” (2018). As seminary trustee and Southern Baptist Convention president Patrick H. Mell stated in 1844, “from Ham were descended the nations that occupied the land of Canaan and those that now constitute the African or negro race. Their inheritance, according to prophecy, has been and will continue to be slavery.”

Given that it represents the views of a clergyman who is a native born (as opposed to a transplanted) Southerner, this book makes a significant contribution to our knowledge of Southern white Christians’ thoughts on the biblical case for slavery before and during the Civil War. However, it suffers from two editorial defects. First, the book requires a longer and more in-depth introduction that compares Caruthers’s arguments with those of other antislavery writers. It may be true, as Davidson contends, that Caruthers “surpasses [Charles] Hodge and other Old School [Presbyterian] colleagues, presenting a biblical alternative to the hermeneutics of slavery practiced in American Presbyterianism” (viii), but it would be helpful for readers unfamiliar with 19th century antislavery literature to have a clearer picture of Caruthers’s distinctiveness. Second, American Slavery and the Immediate Duty of Southern Slaveholders contains dozens of typographical errors. Based on Caruthers’s admission that his manuscript was “written with haste and carelessness” (xi), one is tempted to attribute these to the author himself. However, the glaring error on the book’s cover—which reads “America Slavery”—suggests the fault may lie with the book’s editor.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen R. Haynes is Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College.

Date of Review: 
March 31, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jack R. Davidson is Pastor of Alhambra True Light Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles and has previously served churches in Oregon and North Carolina. He has taught courses in Christianity and American Religion at the university level and written numerous papers. He is the author of "Slavery" (Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Ethics, 2015).

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments