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Religious change

The church's initial assumptions on
slavery, women's rights & gay rights

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In colonial days in North America, "liberty and justice for all" really meant "liberty and justice for white, Protestant, male, heterosexual landowners." Over time, most of these qualifiers have faded. "All" now means "almost all." Religious groups in the U.S. and Canada have played and continue to play, a major role in this transition. Some have tried to speed up the process; others have attempted to slow it down. Very few have taken a neutral position.

At the start of the 19th century, there was a near consensus among religious groups concerning the legitimacy of human slavery. They had no difficulty interpreting what the Bible said on the topic. Human slavery was seen as a natural part of North American and many other cultures. African Americans had inherited the "curse of Ham." They were destined to be enslaved because of Ham's unspecified sinful activity with his father Noah circa 2325 BCE, almost 100 generations earlier. Rabbi M.J. Raphall (circa 1861) commented that the Tenth Commandment places slaves "under the same protection as any other species of lawful property." 4 He might have added that the Tenth Commandment also implies the same status for women and children.

From today's vantage point, we can see that the Bible is quite ambiguous on human slavery. There are certainly passages throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) that condone and regulate the ownership of human beings. But the Bible also contains themes of love, mercy, justice, and equality that can be interpreted as strongly supporting the abolition of slavery. The latter passages went largely unnoticed to most 19th century Christians. Today, it is the pro-slavery verses that go unnoticed.

Similarly, from the second century to the middle of the 19th century, Christians saw little or no ambiguity in the Bible's message regarding the roles of women. Christians emphasized those passages in the Bible which placed strict limitations on their clothing, behavior and role in the family, church, and elsewhere in society. Again, the church position was derived from specific restrictive passages in the Bible, not from the Bible's general themes of love, justice, and equality.

Finally, by the middle of the 20th century, Christians had held a near consensus on homosexuality for almost two millennia. They interpreted the six "clobber" passages in the Bible as forbidding all homosexual activity, irrespective of the nature of the relationship. For a third time, there was little importance given to general biblical themes.

In each case, the church's initial assumptions were very similar, whether they were dealing with race, gender or sexual orientation. White male heterosexuals were given a privileged position. The Bible was interpreted as promoting oppression of everyone else.

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Specific initial assumptions:

Jack Rogers, Moderator of the 213rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), when considering the oppression of African Americans and women, wrote:

"Why did good, intelligent, devout Christian people not see what we now recognize as mitigating factors in the biblical record? ....In each case, we accepted a pervasive societal prejudice and read it back into Scripture. We took certain Scriptures out of their context and claimed to read them literally with tragic consequences for those to whom these verses were applied. 2

In his book, "Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality," he explains that the Church originally used three assumptions to justify:

bulletThe oppressive practices of slavery and racial segregation:
  1. The Bible records God's judgment against people of African descent from their first mention in the Bible.
  2. "People of African descent were inferior in moral character and incapable of rising to the level" of white people.
  3. "People of African descent were willfully sinful, often sexually promiscuous and threatening..." They deserved punishment for their own acts. 3 More details coming
bulletThe oppressive practices toward women:
  1. The Bible records God's judgment against women from their first mention in the Bible.
  2. "Women were inferior in moral character and incapable of rising to the level of full white male Christian civilization"....
  3. "Women were willfully sinful, often sexually promiscuous and threatening..." They deserved punishment for their own acts. 4 More details coming
bulletThe oppressive practices toward homosexuals:
  1. The Bible records God's judgment against the sin of homosexuality from its first mention in the Bible.
  2. Homosexuals are inferior "in moral character and incapable of rising to the level of full heterosexual 'Christian civilization'..."
  3. "Homosexuals were willfully sinful, often sexually promiscuous and threatening..." They deserved punishment for their own acts. 5 More details coming.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. M.J, Raphall, "The Bible view of slavery," 1861-JAN-15, at: http://www.jewish-history.com/
  2. Jack Rogers, "Jesus, the Bible and homosexuality," Westminster John Knox Press, (2006), Page 18. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  3. Ibid, Page 19.
  4. Ibid, Page 25
  5. Ibid, Page 34

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Copyright © 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2006-JUN-25
Latest update: 2006-JU-04
Author: B.A. Robinson

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