John Woolman, the Bible and Slavery — and Homosexuality, Too

January 13, 2012

About the planned division of IYM, a Friend writes, “Those who hold the Bible to be authoritative, as Friends have since the first generation, will be free to practice their religion, and those who hold other factors to be overriding authorities over the Bible will be free to practice their religion, and in a few years we will be able to look at the fruits of the two trees.”

Where would John Woolman fit in a separation so described?  I’d certainly want to be in the same Yearly Meeting with him.  I’m sure I am not alone in counting him as one of my spiritual heroes.  Is he one who takes the Bible as authoritative?  I think so.

Read through “Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes,” which Woolman published in 1754.  You’ll see Woolman being very attentive to the Bible.  There are dozens of references to the Bible.  He knew and revered the Bible as well as any of us.  He took guidance from it.

Attentive to the Bible, he ministered to Friends that slavery was wrong.  He did so even though the Bible has dozens of passages that speak approvingly of slavery – and no passages (none!) that declare slavery to be wrong.

Woolman doesn’t even discuss the passages where slavery is mentioned in an approving way (for example, Ephesians 6:5: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”).  Instead, Woolman searches for “the design of Providence,” the deep current of Truth in the Bible.

In part because of Woolman’s preaching, most Friends came to oppose slavery.  They gave up slaveholding among themselves (many moving from the Carolinas to Indiana) and urged for abolition.  Nevertheless, a century after Woolman’s “Considerations,” one of the South’s leading theologians, James Henley Thornwell could still declare “that the relation betwixt the slave and his master is not inconsistent with the word of God, we have long since settled. … We cherish the institution not from avarice, but from principle.” And that wasn’t just Thornwell’s view of the matter.  Pretty much everyone agreed on the eve of the Civil War that a straightforward reading the Bible, taking it as the revealed Word of God, made slavery an acceptable practice.

On the question of slavery, it was an understanding of the design of Providence that led us to think slavery wrong, not a narrow focus on the dozens of specific Scripture texts that speak explicitly and approvingly of slavery.  And the Bible texts approving of slavery are both much more numerous and much clearer than the five ambiguous verses about same-sex sexual relations that are the sole support for the IYM 1982 Minute on Homosexuality.

I know it is tempting to look at the impending separation within Indiana Yearly Meeting as one that will place those who read the Bible with care and reverence on one side, and those who give no special weight to the Bible on the other.  And it is tempting, further, to imagine that those who see homosexuality as a sin will be in the first group, and those who do not in the second.  I doubt very much, however, that it will fall out so neatly.

There are those who read the Bible with reverence and care, and yet who do not find in Scripture a conclusion that homosexuality is a sin.  Many of them are Friends; some are even members of Indiana Yearly Meeting.  Moreover such people are to be found in most (all?) Christian denominations.

Take Gareth Moore, O.P., a faithful Roman Catholic, a member of the Dominican Order who taught at Blackfriars, Oxford (England).  (Dominicans are a monastic order of preachers; their motto is Veritas – Truth.)  In 2003 Moore published Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality (London & New York: Continuum, 2003).  It is 320 pages of meticulous, patient, incisive consideration.  The book is well worth study, though not easy reading).  Chapters 3, 4 and 5 (pages 56 to 151) explicitly consider Scripture texts.

This paragraph from the Conclusion (p 281) captures where Gareth Moore winds up:  “If we summarize the results of our investigation, the conclusions are simple to state and substantiate the thesis put forward in the preface: if we look for cogent biblical or natural law arguments against homosexual relationships and acts in general, we will not find them; there aren’t any.  There are plenty which look faithful to Scripture and compelling in their logic, but none which actually are.  We must be careful in assessing what this conclusion does and does not entail.  It does not entail that it is good to be gay and that Christian moral teachers who teach otherwise are wrong.  It entails only that there is no good reason for thinking otherwise.  Somebody may yet discover a cogent proof for the immorality of homosexuality, but if the application of fine minds has not discovered one after all this time, we are entitled to think that there is no such argument to be found.“ (Conclusion, p 281)

Moore is very careful not to say that he is sure the Vatican is wrong about homosexuality because his religious faith asks him to have a certain respect for and deference to authority.  But Moore does state with clarity and courage that he has weighed all the arguments (both from Scripture and from Natural Law) for viewing homosexuality as a sin and he has found them wanting.

If Gareth Moore were an Indiana Quaker, which Yearly Meeting should he choose in the coming separation?

The coming separation will not lift from us the responsibility of deciding whether homosexuality is a sin.  That question will still be before each individual and each meeting, as it is with us now.  The Bible will be helpful to all, but we will still be left with five ambiguous verses that are in considerable tension with “the design of Providence,” the Bible’s deep teaching.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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One Response to John Woolman, the Bible and Slavery — and Homosexuality, Too

  1. Pingback: Rights Vs. Righteousness In the Marriage Equality Debate | River View Friend

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