Ethics for A Past Situation

William Buck and James Pendleton viewed the issue of slavery in two different lights. Buck saw the issue as permissible and positively acknowledged by the accounts of Scripture. Pendleton saw the issue as deeply condemnable and views Buck’s applications of Scripture to be inherently wrong considering the issue at hand. I believe that Buck was wrong in his hermeneutics and Pendleton was correct to not only correct Buck in his views of Scripture but to argue his points for the emancipation of slavery.

Article I

At the outset of the piece by Buck, he notes that the issue of slavery was to be addressed by the religious press if it stayed within the ethical realm. However, he states, “But since the question has been made purely a political one in this State, we resolved to surrender it, at least for the present, to the political press, and hence our silence, in regard to it, for the past months.”[1] It seems, to Buck, that ethics and politics are two different realms and the religious has no right to enter into the arena with the latter. His desire was to keep the church in unity and felt that the question of slavery would disrupt it if church members meddled in the affair. Still, he recognized that the mingling would be inevitable. He says,

“Our brethren every where, as members of the civil compact, will be called in reference to, and decide upon the question politically, and their views of it, in a religious point of light, will necessarily have paramount control over their action as members of the body politic. They must act…we trust that no difference of opinion, as politicians, will be suffered to disturb their relations as church members.”[2]

He viewed the politicians okay as long as their stance as church members were not disrupted by the issue. Again, this seems to say that Buck thought that the ethics of the situation were not the same as the politics.

Pendleton would see otherwise on this issue of ethics and politics. He states, “If any question more deeply and vitally involving morals and religion, ever came before the voters of Kentucky, I have yet to learn the fact.”[3] Pendleton saw that the political question being asked could not be divorced from the moral question of slavery. He felt that the emancipation minsters were correct in their views and that the views of opposition were abusive towards such ministers. He states, “I am aware that a misapprehension of this matter has caused many politicians and political editors to pour upon the heads of the anti-slavery preachers of Kentucky torrents of gratuitous abuse and superfluous denunciation.”[4] He also agreed with Buck that the political and the ethical would intermingle with each other and that it was inevitable However, unlike Buck, he viewed that the viewpoints of the Christian, political church member should be determined by the religious considerations. The problem, for Pendleton, was how slaves were viewed as property by the opposition and lacked an understanding of them as persons. He states, “The idea that slaves are ‘property’ seems to have taken exclusive possession of their minds, and hence they overlook the capital fact that slaves are ‘persons’ as well as property.”[5]

I agree with Pendleton that the political question of slavery can not be separated from the moral. As Christians, we must place our views under the complete authority of God and Scripture. In Genesis 1, we know that God created mankind in His own image. Slaves coud not be viewed as anything otherwise due to this fact. This should have been a foundational doctrine in the faith of Buck. It seemed that the norms of society were what directed his views towards Scripture and not the other way around. It seemed that Buck wanted to ignore the question and allow the politics answer the question. I don’t believe that this is much different in the way many see question of abortion today. Many feel that the issue should be addressed at the political level and allow them to deal with it.

Article II & III

In article II, Buck goes on to lay a foundation for a government that allows the institution of slavery by discussing how it through a biblical history. He states,

“We have seen…that the relations of master and slave were recognized and provided for in those forms of government which were, at that time, the most enlightened, liberal, and best adapted to promote the happiness of men, and most favorable to the benevolent intentions of God towards them: and that God, by special covenant and enactment of law, ratified and sanctioned that relation.”[6]

Not only was slavery sanctioned by God, according Buck, but was done so for the happiness of men. It was a way to protect and bring happiness to the barbarian. Buck would use Biblical examples of Abraham and his slaves, Hagar, and the Mosaic law for his interpretation on slavery. He believed that God did not address the issue of slavery but allowed the slaves to be part of the covenant in the government of Abraham. This, he believed, was what made slavery permissible. “It must be evident to every believer in the Scriptures, that a man so pre-eminent for piety, as was Abraham; a man so elevated in moral excellence and virtue…would not, in the first place, have purchased a slave, had the act been sinful…”[7]

One of the main problems that Pendleton saw with Buck’s view of Abraham was that the term “slave” was not present in the way that Buck was comparing it. He stated, “If the term ‘servant’ as used in the Scriptures, is synonymous with the term ‘slave’ as used among us, is it not remarkable that the Hebrew and Greek words translated servant are in no instance rendered slave?”[8] Further proof for Pendleton that the Biblical understanding of servitude and the American institution of slavery was that Abraham’s servants were able to carry weapons and that his servant, Eleazor, would be his heir. These were privileges that were unheard of in the American system of slavery.

I agree with Buck in that the law of was created to bring benevolence to the poor and the defenseless. It was created by God to protect the servants from abuses that were brought on by sin. However, I disagree with his application of them and his interpretation of Abraham’s possession of servants. Once again, I must agree with Pendleton in the matters of discerning the differences found in Scripture and the American idea slavery. In Genesis 16, nowhere does it address Hagar as a slave to Abraham or Sarah but as a maidservant or a maid. It states, “So Sarai said to Abram, ‘Now behold, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai” (Genesis 16:2 NASB). Likewise, the understanding that Pendleton has towards Eleazor, Abraham’s servant, is correct as well. It is clearly seen in Genesis 15:2 that he would become the heir of Abraham’s household if he didn’t have a child. This is a clear indication that the way in which Abraham viewed his servants were different than the way Buck was interpreting it.

Article VI

Ultimately, Buck manipulates Scripture to prove to his readers the justification of slavery. The sixth article give good examples of how Buck uses them for his own interpretation of Abraham and Joseph. He states, “But we have seen that God intended the slavery of Joseph and of the seed of Abraham for their special good; and if God could consistently appoint slavery in the one case for such purposes of good, so he could consistently appoint it in the other; as we believe he has.”[9] Also, Buck’s interpretations are accompanied by his assumptions that slavery will ultimately produce good by hardship for the nation fromm which the slaves derive. “If the blacks in this country had any hopes of being placed upon an equality with the whites, they never could be induced to go to Liberia, but as God intends them to return to their native country for good, he is providentially increasing the difficulties to their equality with the whites in this.”[10]

Pendleton addresses these issues with Buck as well. He sees the fault in Buck’s interpretation of the Scripture and begins to deconstruct his argument well. He asks, “Suppose slavery is so overruled that good, great good to the whole African race shall result from it. Will this prove it right? By no means.”[11] He sees that Buck recognizes that the transactions of Joseph’s brothers were evil but that Buck focuses on the good. However, Pendleton argues that participating in something that is evil while presuming good will come as a result does not make the participation in the act correct. Pendleton bluntly addresses those that interpret such ways as bad theologians. He states, “They say that if God overrules slavery to bring about good of it, then it cannot be wrong—They are not good theologians, or they would reason differently.”[12]

Once again, I believe that Pendleton argues correctly on these situations. Buck presumes on the providence of God for the slaves themselves. While God uses Joseph’s situation to bring about good, nowhere in Genesis does it allow for such evils to take place. In fact, I would argue that the author would intend for his readers to react in disgust of the brother’s actions. Romans 8:28-29 states that God does cause all things to work together for good but it is for those who love God and for the intentions of conforming them to the image of God. The gospel of Jesus Christ calls for freedom, an emancipation from sin. I believe that if Buck would lay aside his worldview and all the meta-narrative to speak, he would recognize his faults. However, he doesn’t and Pendleton is right to confront such erroneous interpretations.

[1]Buck, William. “The Question of Slavery”. Kentucky, 1849. 3.

[2]Ibid., 3

[3]Pendleton, James. “Lettes to the Reverend W.C. Buck: In Review of His Articles on Slavery”. Kentucky, 1849. 1

[4]Ibid., 2

[5]Ibid., 2

[6]Buck, 8

[7]Ibid., 9

[8]Pendleton, 3

[9] Buck, 24

[10]Ibid., 24

[11]Pendleton, 12

[12]Ibid., 24


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