Chains Shall He Break


“What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference–so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other.  I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of ‘stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.’ I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. . . .The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.”

Frederick Douglass – The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass


This fires me up.  An ex-slave exalting Jesus with beautiful clarity and wisdom, doing what short-sighted naysayers refuse to do – he correctly divides Jesus from the self-serving culture carrying His banner. Mr. Douglass could have easily conflated the two and rejected Christianity as the ‘white man’s religion’…or the Bible as a ‘tool of oppression’.  But no…He and his fellow Abolitionists saw Beauty and Truth pour forth from its pages like light from the dawning sun.

So how did this tension come to exist?  How could these slaveholders use the Bible to justify their cause? After vetting the Biblical text as a truth-seeking agnostic, I came away convinced (as the Abolitionists did) that a cognitively dissonant, hypocritical, politically charged, self-preserving pseudo-Christian zombie populous submitted themselves to the illegitimate authority of a cherry-picked text.  They were enraptured by self-interest, not by the Spirit of God (love of neighbor), selecting texts intended for the ancient recipients of the Torah and letters of Paul, which carried on its pages a slavery of a completely different context than the chattel slavery of their greedy imaginations.  They conveniently and arrogantly forsook Jesus as teacher, ignoring the trajectory of the Biblical directive aimed toward emancipation, and in doing so, took His name in vain and before Him, they stand without excuse.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”  Isaiah 58:6

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” – Jesus, LUKE 4:18-19

If the Bible is pro-slavery, how in the world did these embarrassments end up in it?  And how did this theme make a powerful appearance in avowed atheist and socialist Placide Cappeau’s commissioned poem “Cantique de Noël” (1843) which was later translated from French into English and rewritten into the carol we know today as “O Holy Night” by Harvard alum, Unitarian minister and abolitionist John Sullivan Dwight (1855) ?

Chains shall he break
for the slave is our brother
And in His name
All oppression shall cease…”

These are my favorite lines of any song in the history of the Milky Way.  In light of Jesus, I believe it through and through.  Were it a glaring falsehood or a grave inconsistency, couldn’t Cappeau, an atheist and a socialist, have stayed silent on this?  Or better yet – in righteous indignation refused to honor a slaveholder’s manual with a poem about its Lord?   And why didn’t Dwight omit this segment from his rewrite?  Perhaps because it’s a true witness to the character of the God of the complex sweeping Biblical narrative?  One that compelled both men to pick up their pens in the first place…

I can’t kick it.  Groban’s in my head.  (It’s my wife’s fault…)


If you want to wrestle with the Biblical text as it pertains to slavery in light of modern scholarship, check out this robust resource page:  Slavery in the Bible: Articles & Audio

Also, Tim Keller, pastor of Reedemer Church in New York City, addresses the “pro-slavery” Bible myth in one of my favorite messages of his: “Literalism: Isn’t the Bible historically unreliable and culturally regressive?” (streaming)

If you prefer iTunes: Timothy Keller Podcast (#80)



Believe it or not, slavery still exists today.   And here are the people involved in the fight:

Stop the Traffikk

Hope for Justice

the A21 Campaign

If “in His name all oppression shall cease”…it starts and ends with those of us bearing it…

  • Kent Webber

    Thank you for sharing this Brian. I watched, “12 Years A Slave” about a month ago. What struck me about the film was each man’s use of scripture. The slaveholders proof-texted scripture to support the particular view that enabled them to live the most comfortable life. But there was one man who dared to one man who dared to put his life on the line to save a man made in God’s own image, not a, “slave”. What frightens me is this awareness that we all have filters. While we damn those who’s filters enable them to scourge those that they deem lesser beings, what might ours be? Do I have any agendas that keep me from hearing the truth that could set me and my neighbor free? Thank you Brian for posting something as thought provoking and important as this.

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