Paul's Appeal

David Walker was born in Wilmington, NC, in 1785. His father was a slave, but since his mother was free, he also was free in the eyes of the law. In 1829 he published the first thoroughgoing critique of slavery written by a black man. He called his book Walker’s Appeal … to the Coloured Citizens of the World.

Man, in all ages and all nations of the earth, is the same. Man is a peculiar creature – he is the image of his God, though he may be subjected to the most wretched condition upon earth, yet the spirit and feeling which constitute the creature, man, can never be entirely erased from his breast, because God who made him after his own image, planted it in his heart, he cannot get rid of it. The whites knowing this, they do not know what to do, they know that they have done us much injury, they are afraid that we, being men, and not brutes, will retaliate, and woe will be to them. (…) See your Declaration Americans! (…) Hear your language, proclaimed to the world, July 4th, 1776 – “We hold these truths to be self evident – that ALL men are created EQUAL!! that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!!” Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers on ourselves on our fathers and on us, men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation!!!

According to a biographical sketch accompanying Walker’s Appeal, the little book produced more commotion among slave holders than any volume of its size that was ever issued from an American press. A year after its publication, the author was killed, apparently a victim of murder.[1]

We cannot read Paul’s letter to Philemon without remembering the long struggle in this country for black slaves to be freed from bondage, and for their descendants to finally be free citizens among free citizens.

“What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?” asked Frederick Douglass in 1852, assailing American Christianity,

The church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. … It is … a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there, and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man.

In his biography, Douglass tracked the scandal of slavery all the way to the sanctuary, the pulpit, and the offering plate:

Revivals of religion and revivals of the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and 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. [2]

We cannot read Paul’s letter to Philemon without remembering how Paul’s writings were read, how Scripture was read in the years before the Civil War. According to Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, and the North’s most renowned preacher, the biblical witness was clear. In a sermon delivered on a national day of fasting on January 4, 1861, he declared that the evil for which the nation most desperately needed to repent, “the most alarming and most fertile cause of national sin,” was slavery.

Six weeks earlier, at a day of fasting called by the state of South Carolina, the South’s most respected minister, James Henley Thornwell, spoke before his Presbyterian congregation in Columbia, reassuring them that slavery was the “good and merciful” way of organizing “labor which Providence has given us. … That the relation betwixt the slave and his master is not inconsistent with the word of God, we have long since settled.”[3]

All read the same Bible and claimed to surrender to the authority of scripture, but the conflicting interpretations did nothing to end the public deadlock, or worse, helped deepen and maintain it. We know how it ended. The preachers along with their congregations “effectively handed the business of the theologians over to the generals to decide by ordeal what the Bible meant.”[4]

Brother Thornton, a Baptist preacher from Richmond, correctly stated in 1860 that “when Jesus ordered his gospel to be published through the world, the relation of master and slave existed by law in every province and family of the Roman Empire, as it had done in the Jewish commonwealth for fifteen hundred years.”[5] Did Jesus say anything against slavery? No. Did Paul or any of the Apostles say anything against slavery? No. Did Paul not send the slave Onesimus back to Philemon, thus showing that the relation betwixt the slave and his master is not inconsistent with the word of God? Yes he did, but he had more to say about that relation, revolutionary details that the proof text collectors for slavery conveniently ignored or simply didn’t catch.

Owning and using men and women as slaves was commonplace in the ancient Mediterranean world. Some estimates put the number of slaves in the Roman Empire at 35% to 40% of the population. The practice was so much part of daily life that it rarely became an object of reflection. No government ever thought of abolishing the institution that was such an essential element of the economic and social reality. Yes, there were slave-rebellions in the ancient world, but none were caused by the desire to abolish the institution as such.[6]

So Paul did not turn his letter to Philemon into an abolitionist treatise. Instead he sent Onesimus back to Philemon; and though there are hints in the text that Paul desired freedom for Onesimus, he did not say so explicitly. He did however give the church an example and a lesson for how our being in Christ transforms our relationships, even the relation betwixt master and slave.

Paul writes that Onesimus has been separated from Philemon “for a while so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but . . . a beloved brother.”  It is not entirely clear how Onesimus came to be separated from Philemon, if he was sent to be of service to Paul or if he was a run-away.We only hear just enough to suggest that Onesimus is estranged from Philemon, and from a legal stand-point, Philemon can do pretty much anything he wants with respect to Onesimus, it is his right.

But Paul’s perspective is different. I see him standing between Onesimus and Philemon. With one arm he embraces Onesimus, “Here he is, my child, my very heart. I have become a father to him in my imprisonment. I would much rather keep him with me, but I send him back to you.” With the other arm he embraces Philemon, saying, “You are my dear friend and co-worker in Christ’s mission, and while I could command you to do your duty, I much rather appeal to you on the basis of love. Welcome Onesimus as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to my account.” Paul says without stating it explicitly, at least not here, “Look at us, Philemon, all of us, you, me, my dear Onesimus, your fellow leaders Apphia and Archippus, the church gathered in your house, look at us. We are one in Christ, and in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, only sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters in Christ. I won’t tell you what to do, but look at us and think about it.”

I’m afraid this is the part Brother Thornton and his fellow proof text collectors missed. Reading scripture is not just a matter of what we read, but how we read – and as Christians we only read scripture well with the cross in view and Easter morning in mind. Pauls brief letter challenges Philemon and us with him to consider the radical transformation of all social relationships through our baptism into Christ. Philemon is a master in the world of Roman law and tradition, he is a man of power and privilege – and in the church, he’s a brother among brothers and sisters, and one of them is a man he may still be thinking of as his property. Paul doesn’t tell Philemon what to do, but he reminds him who he is and trusts that he will learn to act accordingly.

We can of course continue to treat scripture as a quarry for proof texts to bolster our interests, but we cannot do so as people whom Christ has drawn into reconciled community with God and with each other. Faithfulness now requires that we read scripture together with all, especially with those whom the laws of state, society and market push to the bottom and the margins. We are one in Christ, by the grace of God, and that puts into question all the ways in which we define relationships along lines of our own making. Christ whom we crucified like a rebel slave has made us his own.


[1] See Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), p. 59-63

[2] Hughes, p. 80

[3] Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006) p. 2

[4] Noll, p. 160

[5] Cotton is king, and pro-slavery arguments: comprising the writings of Hammond, Harper, Christy, Stringfellow, Hodge, Bledsoe, and Cartwright, on this important subject, by E. N. Elliott, Augusta, Georgia: Pritchard, Abbott & Loomis 1860, p. 506-508

[6] See S. Scott Bartchy, Mallon Chresai: First Century Slavery and the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:21. Dissertation Series, Number 11 (Missoula, MT: The Society of Biblical Literature, 1973), p. 116-117