To a Southern Slaveholder

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To a Southern Slaveholder
by Theodore Parker

An anti-slavery essay written by the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker in 1848, as the abolition crisis was heating up in the United States.

Boston, February 2, 1848


Your letter of January last has just come to hand, and I hasten to reply. I thank you for your frankness, and will reply as plainly and openly as you write to me. You need not suppose that I have any spite against the slaveholders; I wish them well not less than their slaves. I think they are doing a great wrong to themselves, to their slaves, and to mankind. I think slave holding is a wrong in itself, and therefore, a sin; but I cannot say that this or that particular slave-holder is a sinner because he holds slaves. I know what sin is-God only knows who is a sinner. I hope I have no said anything harsh in my letter, or anything not true. I certainly wrote with no ill feeling towards any one.

You seem to think that the Old Testament and New Testament are just alike, that Christianity and Judaism are, therefore, the same. So as a Christian, you appeal to the Old Testament for your authority to hold slaves. Now, look a little at the matter, and see the difference between the Old Testament and New Testament. The Old Testament demands circumcisions, a peculiar priesthood, sacrifice of certain animals, the observance of certain fast days, full moon days, new moon days, the 7th day, and the like. It demands them all in the name of a Lord. Yet you do not observe any of them. Now, you say, I suppose, that the ritual laws of the Old Testament came from God but were repealed by Christ, who also spoke by the command of God.

If that were so, then it would appear that God had repealed his own commands. You say God does not change. So I say. I do not think God makes laws and changes them; but if the Bible as a whole, as you say, is the Word of God, then it is plain that in the New Testament he takes back what he commanded in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament a man is allowed to put away his wife for any cause, or non at all; but you know Christ said Moses gave that command on the account of the hardness of men's hearts. In Exodus 35:2,3 it is forbidden to kindle a fire on Saturday-Sabbath-on pain of death. In Numbers 15:32-36, it is said that the Lord commanded a man to be stoned to death because he picked up sticks on Saturday; yet I suppose you have a fire in your house Saturday and Sunday too, and perhaps would not think it wicked to bring in an armful of wood to make a fire on either of those days.

No, I do not think God changes; therefore, I don't believe he uttered those dreadful commands in the Old Testament. I believe that God has the attributes of universal justice and universal love. Doubtless, you will call me an "Infidel", but that makes no odds; I try to be a Christian, but do not begin by discarding conscience, reason, and common sense. I think Saint Paul was a Christian and you know what he says about the law, that is the Law of Moses, as recorded in the Old Testament.

Now, let us look at the case of the negroes. You think the children of Ham are under a perpetual curse, and that the negroes are descendants of Ham. The 10th chapter of Genesis treats of the decedents of Ham, but it does not mention among them a single tribe of negroes. I don't think the writer of that account knew even of the existence of the peculiar race of men that we call negroes. He mentions the Egyptians, it is true, and other North African people, but it is well known that they were not negroes. But even if some of the descendants of Ham were negroes, though it is plain from Genesis chapter 10, they are not, still, that does not bring them under the curse of Noah, for Noah does not curse Ham and all his children, but only Canaan. Now the descendants of Canaan are mentioned in Genesis 10:15-19, not one of them was ever an African people; they all dwelt in the western part of Asia and are the nations with whom the Hebrews were often at war. The Hebrews conquered many of these tribes, seized their country, and often their persons. Many of them fled, and I think settled in North Africa; the Berbers, and in part the Moors are of that race perhaps, but none of them are negroes.

But even if the negroes were the children of Canaan, as it is plain they are not; what title could you make out to hold them by? It would be this:--4,000 years ago Noah cursed Canaan, and therefore, you hold one of Canaan's children as a slave. Now, do you think a man has the power to curse so far off as that? But you will say God gave the curse; well the Bible does not say so. You say Canaan and his posterity were "constitutionally unworthy" but you do not know that. On the contrary, the Sidonians, who were the descendants of Canaan, were a very illustrious people of antiquity-- a good deal like the English and Americans at this day-and actually held a great number of Jews in slavery.

Before you can hold a single negroe under the clause in Genesis 4:25 you must make out-1.That the negroe is descended from Canaan 2.That the curse was actually uttered as related 3.That the curse was authorized by God himself 4.That it announces personal slavery for more than 4,000 years. Now there is not one of these four propositions which ever has been made out or ever can be. My dear sir, I am surprised that an intelligent man, in the 19th century, a Christian man, a Republican of Georgia could seriously rely a moment on such an argument as that. Fie on such solemn trifling about matters so important as the life of two to three millions of men! For my own part, I don't believe the story of Noah cursing his grandson for his father's foolishness. I think it all a foolish story got up to satisfy the hatred which the Jews felt against the Canaanites. I know Bryant's book and Faber's, but never use either now a days. B had more fancy than philosophy, it always seemed to me. I may be as "confident" as you think me, but don't call myself a learned man, though I have read about all the valuable works every written on that matter of Noah's curse.

You ask if I could not propose some good to be done to the slaves now. Certainly; their marriage and family rights might be made secure, their work easier, their food and clothing better, they might not be beaten. Pains might be taken to educate them. But all that is very little, so long as you keep the man from his natural liberty. You would not be happy if a slave would not think it right for a Christian man to hold you in bondage, even if one of your ancestors but fifty years ago, had cursed you, still less if 4,000 years ago. If I were I were a slave holder I would do this-- I would say "come, now you are free, go to work, and I will pay you what you can earn." I think, in ten year's time, you would be a richer man, and in 2 hour's time, a far happier one, a more Christian one.

Dear sir, Christianity does not consist in believing stories in the Old Testament, about Noah's curse and all that, but in loving your brother as yourself, and God with your whole heart. Do not think that I covet your slaves. No consideration would induce me to become a slave holder. I should be a sinner, though God grant me that you are not one for this act! Let me ask you, while you take from a man his liberty, his person, do not violate that command, "Though shalt not covet anything that is they neighbor’s"? Do not break that golden rule "Whatsoever you would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them?"

I do not think you feel easy about this matter. What you say about colonization convinces me that you do not believe slavery is a Christian institution; that you are not angry with me, after all. Do not think that I assume any airs of superiority over you because I am not a slave holder. I have never had that temptation; perhaps if born in Georgia, I should not have seen the evil and the sin of slavery. I may be blind to a thousand evils and sins at home which I commit myself. If so, I will thank you to point them out. I hope you will write me again as frankly as before. I wish I could see Este's book. I will look for it, and study it, for I am working for the truth and right. I have nothing to gain personally by the abolition of slavery, and have, by opposing that institution got nothing but a bad name. I shall not count you my enemy, but am truly your friend.