In the last few weeks, there has been some back-and-forth about the legacy of Scottish-American intellectual John Witherspoon (1723–1794). Witherspoon’s stance on slavery has generated a scandal at Princeton, where he was president, with many calling for the removal of his statue there. Kevin DeYoung wrote a piece in defense of Witherspoon; the evangelical Anxious Bench blog on Patheos responded with an article criticizing Witherspoon and chiefly arguing his approach to slavery was insufficient for its day; our own Miles Smith largely concurred with DeYoung’s defense of Witherspoon in a rejoinder to the Anxious Bench.
I am out of my depth when it comes to the man himself, but I was intrigued by one particular idea I inferred from the Anxious Bench’s criticism of Witherspoon, written by Jacob Huneycutt, a graduate student at Baylor. As I read it, the basic thrust of Huneycutt’s case is that Witherspoon lived in an environment where he would have encountered full-throated abolitionism from fellow, nearby Christians. Thus, Witherspoon should have “known better” and incurs moral culpability: his owning of two slaves cannot be excused as a “blind spot.” The article closes with two scriptural tags, the latter of which, 1 Timothy 1:9–10, decries “menstealers” in the old language of the KJV.
Whether we condemn or exonerate Witherspoon, the comparison with the apostolic past might indeed be a fruitful one, but perhaps not in the way Huneycutt and others would expect. In short, a good case exists that Witherspoon’s general approach to slavery in the context of what he “should have known” is at least comparable to the New Testament’s own. I have written on this before, but I’ll repeat some of the major themes here and add a few new ones.
To the angst of many a modern reader, the New Testament is shockingly non-confrontational regarding the social institution of slavery per se. Even where 1 Timothy condemns “menstealers,” it was echoing the basic sentiments of the Roman legal and moral framework. Kidnapping was the sort of thing befitting pirates and the very lowest of criminals—the sort of bad actors asking for crucifixion in the Roman view—and it was excruciatingly disturbing even for pagan commentators because it potentially overthrew the social order. Even a blue-blooded senator like Julius Caesar could be abducted.  And while Caesar was held for ransom, the typical outcome for more common people was to be sold or kept as a slave. In the Republican-era comedy of Plautus, the Menaechmi, the action begins with a free boy being abducted on a busy street while on a trip with his father. We then learn that the abductor was later caught up in a flashflood and swept off his feet “into the biggest, baddest cross.” This Latin idiom was a colloquial, vulgar way of saying he came to an exceedingly bad end, as telling someone to “get on a cross” was a standard Roman curse (cf. Gal. 3:13). In other words, this was an applause line: the abductor got exactly what everyone knew he deserved. This is all to say, whatever the reasoning, the New Testament and Roman sentiment both looked down on kidnapping-for-slavery.
When the New Testament addresses slaves themselves, however, it instructs obedience. Where it instructs masters, it encourages gentleness on the grounds that they themselves have a Master in heaven who will not excuse abuse just because the human masters have a higher social status than their slaves (see Col. 3:22–5; Eph. 6:5–9). Nowhere does the New Testament press its readers to manumit their slaves or refrain from buying them. When Paul writes to Philemon about his runaway slave Onesimus, there is no indication that Philemon is a member in bad standing with the local ekklesia in Colossae—far from it. The ekklesia may actually meet in Philemon’s own house, which would make him one of the most prominent members of the community (Philemon 1–3). Even Jesus’ own words are (troublingly?) matter of fact about master-slave relations in Luke 17:7–10. If we were expecting him to add a denouncement of the institution, he gives us none. By contrast, both Jesus and the New Testament at-large have far more to say about a different socio-legal convention that appears to disturb them much more: divorce. Indeed, sexual misconduct in general garners far more scrutiny for the New Testament authorities than slavery. (Considering the moral priorities of some Western Christians who tend to excuse or redefine the former while suffering scandal at the latter, this is a little ironic.)
Now, one might object that, unlike Witherspoon, no one in antiquity understood or at least articulated the moral grievousness of slavery. Moreover, without meaningful democratic government in the Roman empire, abolitionism was utterly inconceivable. With this perspective, however, I think we risk infantilizing ancient people and overlooking the kinds of agency they did actually have. In the first place, plenty of people in antiquity were clearly uncomfortable with slavery, though no one seems to have had a comprehensive solution for the problem. Roman jurisprudence itself came to recognize that slavery was technically an unnatural convention. On the other hand, a younger apostolic figure like John or Timothy who would have heard about the Roman devastation of Palestine in 70 might have pointed out that slavery was still often a preferable convention to more gruesome alternatives. At the end of the Jewish rebellion, Titus reportedly took tens of thousands of Jews captive into slavery. The practical alternative was to put them all to the sword, and Roman legions were not uniquely bad in this respect among premodern armies. In the end, captured slaves could be manumitted or ransomed. Corpses could not.
Even by Paul’s day, voices in the Greek philosophical tradition had already questioned and critiqued slavery as it was normally conceived and practiced. It was not completely unthinkable that Christians might more directly critique the convention or at least forbid the practice among themselves. Again, we get no indication this was ever a meaningful priority in any early Christian circles. While some early Christian authorities expressed disapproval or actively opposed, say, participation in the Roman military, no comparable opprobrium hung over slave-holding. Coupled with a lack of vocal opposition to slavery, there is also no sign that Christians helped slaves escape, despite the fact that not a few slaves did run away. When Plutarch tells the story of Spartacus and his slave revolt, he presents escape across the Alps as Spartacus’ main plan, so that the slaves could return to their homelands in Thrace and Gaul. Whether this was Spartacus’ real intention or Plutarch’s imagination, it appears such an escape seemed generally plausible to an ancient audience. Christians don’t seem to have encouraged or abetted this kind of resistance, however. In probably the best example we have (Onesimus), Paul sends him back to his master. Elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 7:21–2, Paul tells Christian slaves not to let their status bother them, though they should endeavor to become legally freed (signaled by the word ἀπελεύθερος) if they can. Escape nowhere enters the frame.
The bigger point here is that morally conscientious people in antiquity (Christians and non-Christians alike) did find many features of slavery repulsive or “problematic” in the contemporary jargon. Nevertheless, we know with certainty that many prominent Christians still owned slaves; Philemon is just the best-known case. Why else would the New Testament address “masters” in some of its letters unless there were quite a few of these in churches such as Ephesus and Colossae? In other venues where we would look for early Christian discourse to castigate or even express profound discomfort with the existence of the institution, the evidence is not forthcoming.
I don’t know what this all means for what we make of John Witherspoon. Eighteenth-century theology and social history are not areas I know well, and it may turn out under closer examination that Witherspoon was indeed morally at fault even by the standards of his own day. Still, the argument that he “should have known better” than he behaved proves a slippery one. If we find Witherspoon guilty on these specific charges, we will not easily acquit the New Testament.
- Plutarch’s Life of Caesar 1–2. ↑
- Prologue, line 66: in maximam malam crucem. ↑
- See also Todd D. Still, “Pauline Theology and Ancient Slavery: Does the Former Support or Subvert the Latter?,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 27, no. 1 (2005): 21–34. ↑
- So said the late second- to early third-century jurist Ulpian, as preserved in Justinian’s Digest 1.1.4.↑
- There’s a concise survey of this literature available here: https://donaldrobertson.name/2017/11/05/did-stoicism-condemn-slavery/#:~:text=The%20Stoics%20were%20also%20firm,natural%20state%20of%20certain%20races.↑
- Plutarch’s Life of Crassus 9. ↑