In the modern era, Christianity and slavery are seen as oxymoronic. But for much of Christian history, many saw no conflict between keeping the faith and keeping or trading slaves. From the first century until the Civil War, the Bible itself was often used to justify slavery.
That unsettling relationship is the focus of an exhibit at Harvard Divinity School’s Andover-Harvard Theological Library. “The Yoke of Bondage: Christianity and African Slavery in the United States” features more than 20 documents, including rare books, that range from 1619, when the first slaves were brought to Virginia, to the Civil War’s end in 1865. The texts analyze the debate during that period among Christian theologians, authors, and adherents who either justified slavery or stood against it.
While it has the thorough look and feel of a professionally curated exhibit, “The Yoke of Bondage” was organized and put together by the 10 students taking “Christianity and Slavery in America, 1619‒1865,” a first-year College seminar.
“The relationship between Christianity and slavery was not an easy one,” and affected more than just the church, said Seven Richmond, one of the students in the seminar. “This debate carried over to politics and economic issues that really were an inspiration for the whole Civil War. I think it’s important to realize the impact and importance of religion and how religious disagreements can lead to broader disagreements in a whole political climate.”
On view through March 15, the exhibit includes pamphlets, sermons, abolitionist speeches, poems, and personal religious narratives of enslaved men and women. The works are laid out by theme in four cases, with the writings of black Christian authors at the center. That case gives voice to former slaves such as Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner, and Phillis Wheatley, a slave in Boston who became the first published African-American female poet and was emancipated shortly after her first book appeared. In the other cases are works by authors who used biblical passages to support their positions on slavery and works by supporters of the antislavery and abolitionist movements, including an anonymous pamphlet assuring readers that good Christians could own slaves.
“We definitely look at both sides,” said Alexandrea Harriott, another student in the seminar. “It’s definitely about the Bible and how religion shaped [the authors’] ideas of slavery or antislavery, and dissecting what they were thinking and how they proved their ideas.”