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Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Curse of Canaan, and the Golden Rule

A Biblical Perspective of Slavery

Part 8 of a Series of 10
Mike Scruggs- Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous fictional work Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published in an abolitionist newspaper, The National Era, in 45 parts from June 5, 1851 to April 1, 1852.

Harriet Beecher Stowe. Author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852


The novel was promptly published on March, 20, 1852, and immediately met with tremendous success and acclaim. Mrs. Stowe met with President Abraham Lincoln in the White House on November 25, 1862. According to her and a daughter, it was a “very funny” and “droll” interview.

A son later reported that Lincoln greeted her by saying, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” This is thought to be apocryphal by many. While Lincoln undoubtedly appreciated the effect of her book in undermining any Southern sympathies in the North, he was wary of strong political connections to radical abolitionists and knew perfectly well slavery was not the greatest cause of the war.

His own chief economist, Henry Carey, admitted that the war was principally about tariff revenues and free trade. The Northern Congress officially stated that it was about preserving the Union and the Constitution.

Mrs. Stowe had spent very little time in the South until after the war. Her novel was based on reported abuses of slaves. Many of these abuses were actually being prosecuted by Southern states and reported in Southern newspapers. Other issues were the controversial and practically unworkable U.S. Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the relatively infrequent but truly distasteful separation of families, which most often occurred in estate sales and westward migration.

In chapter 12 of her book, she sets up a group conversation about the morality of slavery to make her point that true morality must be anti-slavery. In doing this, she shows a skeptic’s knowledge of Biblical verses on slavery, slanted stereotyping, and an appalling use of the Golden Rule to abrogate considerable New and Old Testament passages dealing with slavery. Here are the key conversational comments by two characters:

“It’s undoubtedly the intention of Providence that the African race should be servants–kept in a low condition,’ said a grave-looking gentleman in black, a clergyman, seated by the cabin door. ‘Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be,’ the scripture says.”

[Genesis 9: 25]
“A tall, slender young man, with a face expressive of great feeling and intelligence, here broke in, and repeated the words, ‘All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.’ ‘I suppose,’ he added, ‘that is scripture, as much as ‘Cursed be Canaan.” [Matthew 7:12] Here are the full verses from Genesis and the Golden Rule from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Genesis 9:20-27 ESV The curse of Canaan.

“Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent.  And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside.  Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him,  he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant.”

Matthew 7: 12 The Golden Rule
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
The key verse of the Genesis passage here is Noah’s quote in verse 25: , “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers. I will delay for another time giving anything more than a few comments on this. First of all, it was a key verse the abolitionists used to condemn Southern thinking, thanks in large part to Mrs. Stowe, but it was not a key verse to leading Northern and Southern pastors defending the Biblical-Providential position on slavery. Secondly and importantly, neither Canaan nor his eleven sons were in any way associated with Africa or Africans. Ham had four sons, Mizraim (Egypt), Cush (Ethiopia), Phut (Phoenicians), and Canaan.

The Canaanites, who had a later reputation for polytheism and wickedness, were located on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean and their territories included parts of modern Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan. Ham was probably the progenitor of Hamitic languages and of male Y-DNA group E, which is typical but not inclusive of all African populations. It includes many North African populations who have a Mediterranean appearance. It is also a significant minority in Southern Europe and has scattered small percentages in the rest of Europe. We cannot deny that something significant is being said in verses 25-27, but they are somewhat enigmatic. Furthermore, as to the issue of pre-Civil War slavery in the U.S, it is far less edifying than scores of other passages and teachings in both the Old and New Testaments.

Mrs. Stowe’s greatest abuse of Scripture is the use of the Golden Rule to essentially abrogate significant passages in both the Old and New Testament. It was actually a somewhat moderated or cloaked view that there are truths and humanist values that have a higher authority than Scripture. The idea that the human imagination could hold higher truths and values than Scripture was the overriding principal of ultra-abolitionist ideology. It is still used today by churches having a low view of Scripture to push current anti-Biblical social reforms.

The Providential view of slavery is well documented by Scripture, including strong New Testament passages by Paul and Peter. The strongest is probably 1 Timothy 6: 1-5, cited in Part 1 of this series. The Bible does not promote slavery, but providentially allows it for a time and regulates it to soften potential suffering. Being the owner or master of slaves is not in itself sin, but the abuse or mistreatment of slaves is sin.

The case against abrogating Scripture to accommodate popular modern ideologies is best made by Jesus himself.

Matthew 5:17-18
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

Paul reminds us of the same.
2 Timothy 3:16
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness

Other passages of Scripture remind us of our Christian duty to relieve suffering, wrongs, and oppression, and of our common humanity and equal spiritual status in Christ, but they should never be used to overturn other clear Scripture.

Isaiah 58:6 True sacrifice
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Acts 17:26 Many nations but one Creator and one human origin
“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.”
Galatians 3:28 Your spiritual status under Christ
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

These passages are infallible truth, but we must be careful not to attach them to anti-Biblical ideologies, however popular, or to place our own thinking and imagination higher than God’s revealed Word.
Isaiah 55:8-9 (ESV) is a good reminder of our need for humility.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

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