Scriptural Interpretation: A Second Look at the Blanchard v. Rice Debate

Few books have been as influential, hotly debated, or variously interpreted as the Bible. Scriptural interpretation has been on the minds of American Christians and non-Christians alike since before the Civil War, when it came to the forefront of public discourse as a central question in the debate over slavery. Today, Americans still struggle with how to interpret biblical passages that challenge our cultural views or personal feelings. Are we meant to read the Bible literally? How do we maintain accuracy in translation? How do we take into account historical context? Should we? Should we read individual passages in isolation, or are we meant to look at the broader message of the Bible as a whole to inform our reading of smaller pieces? Many of these questions arose during the time leading up to the Civil War and were advanced in the Blanchard v. Rice Debate over slavery. For four days in October 1845 two contrasting methods of reading the Bible were contested; methods that ultimately developed into various extremes still hotly debated today. Both Jonathan Blanchard and Nathan Rice, well respected pastors and biblical scholars, made relevant points about how to properly read and accurately interpret Scripture. Balancing their perspectives and following their lead in seeking to do the same today can help us strengthen our biblical literacy and understand true Christianity.

Historical Background

The years leading up to the Civil War saw abolitionists and supporters of the antislavery movement clashing with proslavery Americans over specific scriptural passages related to slavery. Until this point, the position generally accepted by Americans on these passages held that the Bible does not condemn slavery: it was practiced frequently in the Old Testament, Jesus himself never spoke on the issue, and St. Paul went so far as to give moral directives to slaves.[i] But, as some Americans began to feel that the practice was morally wrong, they sought a way to support their position using the Bible. Antislavery sympathizers moved through various methods of interpreting the relevant Scriptures, seeking one that could uphold the immorality of slavery. As proslavery advocates countered each approach, abolitionists developed new ones, and the hermeneutics of the antislavery movement evolved beyond the traditional “plainsense” understanding of the passages to a progressively less literal reading of the Bible.[ii]

Abolitionists first argued that while no biblical passages recount Jesus directly condemning slavery, there are also none in which he condemns polygamy, infanticide, idolatry, and blasphemy, all of which nineteenth-century Christians considered morally indefensible.[iii] Since these practices were understood to be absolutely and clearly wrong, and since they were described as such in biblical passages not attributed to Jesus, abolitionists took the view that it was therefore unnecessary for Jesus to state the obvious by addressing them specifically. When this view failed to persuade slavery supporters, abolitionists back-tracked and argued that slavery was nonexistent in Palestine at the time of Jesus, and so he did not have any context or need to address it as morally reprehensible. Slavery advocates quickly pointed to the Bible’s depiction of Jesus’ meeting with slaves, compelling abolitionists to shift their stance yet again. This time they adopted the popular anti-intellectual plain-sense approach to reading Scripture. Attempting to address both Jesus’s meeting with slaves and Paul’s statements concerning slavery, anti-slavery minister Albert Barnes proposed the “Barnes Hypothesis,” arguing on semantics that the word typically translated as “slave” should actually be understood as “servant.”[iv] As historical evidence supporting slavery in Jesus’ time grew, however, Christ’s silence on the issue once again proved an issue for the movement.

In the 1840s and 50s the antislavery movement began to seek alternative methods of biblical interpretation that deviated from the traditional literalism. The first of these new approaches was the hermeneutic of “the seed growing secretly,” which borrowed from contemporary popular ideas of human progress. The theory flipped the previous impression of Christ’s era as a Golden Age on its head, arguing that instead of laying out definitive moral laws, which were misinterpreted over time and evolved away from the truth, Christ subtly planted the seed of the true gospel in the minds of his followers, leaving it to develop into fully-fledged moral beliefs as humanity progressed through history. This method was considered to account for Christ’s silence on the issue and to reconcile any perceived contradictions between the Old and New Testaments as reflecting the progress of human morality over time.[v]

The new hermeneutic still faced the problem of contradictions within the New Testament itself, namely, contradictions between Christ’s perceived objection to slavery and Paul’s statements that appear to accept and uphold it, such as “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”[vi] Standing on the foundation that the Holy Apostle Paul could not have made mistakes, supporters of the antislavery movement argued that the contradiction between Christ’s work against slavery and Paul’s statements seemingly in favor of it proved that the plain-sense interpretation was flawed. They then applied another new hermeneutic, that of an “immutable principle,” in which a small kernel of truth or meaning in the Gospels was chosen and used as the lens through which all other relevant passages were read. Combined with the “seed growing secretly,” this approach formed the abolitionist’s newest scriptural interpretation.[vii]

The antislavery supporters chose as their kernel Jesus’s Golden Rule, “do to others as you would have them do to you,” employing the idea to reconcile Paul’s statements with the notion of Christ’s secret seed.[viii] Abolitionists considered evangelism to be a second immutable principle, and focused on Paul’s emphasis on the practice. They believed that baptized slaves could not obey the slave code, neither could Christian pastors enforce it while still being in line with Christian teachings. Therefore, this code contravened evangelism. Thus, abolitionists held that Paul, by promoting evangelism, was secretly signaling that he was against slavery. Resorting to planting “secret seeds” was deemed pragmatic: had Jesus or Paul openly condemned slavery and other practices central to the social and economic structure of their time, repercussions from the Roman government would have been swift, potentially curtailing the spread of the Gospel. So, Christ and his followers had to operate somewhat within the rules of the time in order to enact change later.[ix]

The idea of the secret seed was later discarded in favor of the argument that Paul openly condemned slavery in two passages that had been generally overlooked. The first was I Corinthians 7:21, which reads, in a common eighteenth-century translation, “Art thou called being a servant? Care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather.”[x] This passage was considered to be grammatically ambiguous, as the antecedent of “it” here is unclear.[xi] The other passage, I Timothy 1:10, reads “…for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound teaching.”[xii] By reading “menstealers” here as applicable to the concept of slavery, abolitionists argued that Paul here condemns slavery and therefore this passage should be relevant to the debate.[xiii] As the theories of the secret seeds and open condemnation contradict each other, however, the abolitionists actually weakened their stance by arguing both.

Indeed, abolitionists so often changed their mind or completely reversed themselves trying to incorporate various evidence and arguments that might support their viewpoint that they undermined their own credibility. As a solution to this growing instability, the antislavery movement turned still further from literalism, settling this time for arguments of conscience with an approach that became known as the “hermeneutic of moral intuition.” Pursuant to this hermeneutic, the Bible should be read with regard to the themes and messages woven throughout the entire text, rather than analyzing only individual passages. With this method, even if individual passages did not seem to support the antislavery position, abolitionists argued that the broader Word of God did, thereby enabling the anti-slavery sentiment to prevail.[xiv]

The Blanchard v. Rice Debate

It was upon the argument for reading the Bible with regard to its overarching themes that Blanchard took his stand against Rice in their 1845 debate.[xv] Rice, who took the proslavery side of the debate, allowed that the Bible points to the eventual, voluntary elimination of slavery, but maintains that slavery itself is not evil. He used specific texts and passages as evidence for this position, which Blanchard struggled to refute. In turn, Blanchard fell back on the “general principles of the Bible” and “the whole scope,” insisting that among paramount “principles of the Bible are justice and righteousness,” and therefore the Scriptures condemn slavery as an evil contradicting this greater purpose, even if they do not denounce it explicitly in individual passages.[xvi] His reliance on the larger themes of the Scriptures came at a time when rationalism, the focus on reason and logic as superior evidence for a theory, was gaining ground in theological circles. With the growing prominence in universities of the new German higher criticism, a way of researching and reading the Bible using the historical context pertaining to the author and the content in that culture, Blanchard’s perspectives on the Bible matched the ideas advanced in academic communities.[xvii]

For example, theologians such as Francis Wayland and Tayler Lewis developed and championed a nuanced interpretation of the Biblical passages pertaining to slavery, utilizing a great deal of the historical evidence previously employed against claims that slavery did not exist in Jesus’ Palestine. They allowed that the Bible does not expressly condemn slavery, but pointed out that it does not imply slavery is acceptable outside of that time and place, and that even if so, slavery “in ancient times was very different from slavery in the American South.”[xviii] In the time of Christ, these scholars argued, slaves could bear weapons, they could be named heir, and an injury to a slave, even one as minor as breaking a tooth, was grounds for immediate manumission. Most significantly, slaves were not property and, while non-Jewish slaves could be bought, they could not be resold. Wayland held that as such, “if slavery be justified by the law of Moses, it is, of course, only justified in the manner and with the restrictions under which it was placed by that law,” therefore rendering American slavery unacceptable outside the ancient context.[xix]

This argument frequently made little headway in the debate, as its nuances were too quickly overlooked and it was easily lumped in with other radical and unpopular antislavery arguments that drew on a nonliteral interpretation of the Bible. Many Christians felt that in reading certain passages as not literal, abolitionists circumvented what appeared to be moral teachings about slavery and paved the way for any challenging or unpopular teachings and passages to be similarly ignored. This was such a concern to Christians that, in fact:

the more the anti-slavery and abolitionist preachers enlisted German historical criticism in the service of their theology, the more unpersuasive their exegesis appeared even to their fellow antislavery and abolitionist clergymen.[xx]

The biggest challenge to reading the Bible through the lens of the broader themes arose from the fact that the American church had historically thrived reading the Bible literally and looking at specific passages in isolation, rather than attempting to understand the historical context of the entire work. Americans, proslavery advocates urged, had always approached the Bible with a plain-sense hermeneutic in which anyone, with no broader education or experience, could pick up the Bible, read the relevant passages, and understand the teachings.[xxi] If a deeper understanding of the time period, the words in the original language, and a complex exegesis stemming from exploration of multiple connecting passages and themes was required, only a small number of experts would be capable of understanding the Bible. The rest of the population would have to trust these few as authorities or undergo significant training and education to draw those connections themselves. To a society built on individualism and the agency of the common man, this idea was unpopular.

Another significant point of contention between Blanchard and Rice dealt with the supposed evidence for the morality of slavery found in the churches and in taking the pulse of Christianity in the nation. When the Blanchard v. Rice Debate was held, religion was more integrated in daily life. As one historian states: “the people…brought economics and religion together.”[xxii] Proslavery supporters frequently argued, as Rice did in the debate, that to be biblically against slavery was to believe that all American slaveholders—a good percentage of the population—were damned to hell. And yet “there [were] true Christians and Christian churches in the slave-holding States…blessed with the same tokens of divine favor, and [having enjoyed] the same glorious revivals of religion…[T]he prayers of [those] slave-holders [had] been heard and abundantly answered in blessings on themselves and others.”[xxiii] This abundance and success contradicted the idea that slaveholders and traders would be alienated from God. Blanchard countered that perhaps these individuals’ experiences were not what they thought; these slaveholders could have false hopes, or they could be “blessed in consequence of the prayers of the holy dead,” that accounted for God’s love and support in their lives.[xxiv] Blanchard here raises an important point; we cannot accurately read the signs of God’s favor regarding particular issues and use them as affirmation of our lifestyles. Rather, the best way to determine what practices God approves of is to closely examine An American family Bible dating to 1859 by David Ball the text detailing those moral teachings, and seek to understand the nuances beyond what may appear obvious at first sight.

Ultimately both sides of the debate made valid points and, perhaps most significantly, both were driven by what appeared to them to be the primary moral issue at stake. To the abolitionists, it was clear that the Bible, actually a library of different writings all inextricably tied to the history of their times and authors, could not be read without deeper understanding of all of these factors, and that the failure to do so up to that point had led to the propagation of an unacceptable immoral practice for hundreds of years. But, to Rice and his proslavery sympathizers, it was equally clear that reinterpreting long agreed upon passages of the Bible based solely on moral intuition was a dangerous and slippery slope. In the eyes of these Americans, for abolitionists to decide to find a reading of Scripture that fit what they believed to be morally right was to again reject the perfect judgment of the omniscient and omnibenevolent God, to metaphorically eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.


Ultimately, much of the debate over American slavery in the nineteenth century boiled down to conflict between intellectualism and anti-intellectualism in Christianity. The proslavery side supported antiintellectualism, opting for the simplest approach to interpretation, a stance that was seen to line up with values of individualism and traditional reliance on the absolute authority of the Bible. Abolitionists, on the other hand, championed the beginning of the intellectual movement in biblical interpretation, insisting on the significance of the historical context of the Scriptures and the relation of individual passages to the whole for truly understanding Scriptures and restoring their full spiritual authority. Similarly, we see these conflicting perspectives present in today’s world, from interpretive methods that rely on the authority of moral conscience and reading Scriptures in a way that affirms our moral beliefs, to in-depth, holistic, contextual study, to still a plain-sense literalism. Christian denominations often approach the Bible differently, and there remains great debate today over the best method. The Blanchard v. Rice Debate provides a foundation for the components of this discussion; knowing where the issue began can help us think about it and understand it better going forward. The fact that this issue has stood for so long and continues to be debated shows that Christians recognize its complexity and are willing to think through various readings of the text in seeking the truth. Differing interpretations of Scripture may seem divisive at times, but ultimately create opportunities for all of us to better understand Christ’s teachings.

This study and deeper understanding may be more significant than ever in restoring biblical authority. David Nienhuis, Associate Professor of New Testament Studies at Seattle Pacific University, describes his experiences and work with what has come to be known as “biblical illiteracy.” He states that

Study after study demonstrates how nearly everyone in our land owns a Bible (more than one, in fact) but few ever take the time to read it, much less study it closely…recent Gallup polls tell us that only half can name even one of the four Gospels, only a third are able to identify the individual who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and most aren’t even able to identify Genesis as the Bible’s opening text…it has become increasingly clear that the situation is really no better among confessing Christians…I often begin my survey of the Christian Scriptures course by asking students to take a short biblical literacy quiz…The vast majority of my students— around 95 percent of them—are Christians… Yet the class as a whole consistently averages a score of just over 50 percent, a failing grade.[xxv]

Not many Christians today have the biblical knowledge of their pre-Civil War counterparts, and even fewer turn to the Bible for guidance in how to live and make moral decisions.

Beyond the downsides for Christians ourselves, this biblical illiteracy and loss of biblically founded living causes Christians to fall short of the calling to demonstrate Christian teachings in how we live. Nienhuis points out that:

a merely cognitive level of biblical literacy does not automatically result in the formation of a Christian character. To make a real difference in people’s lives, biblical literacy programs… will have to teach people to speak the language of faith; and while this language is of course grounded in the grammar, vocabulary, and stories of the Bible…[w]e don’t memorize languages; we use them and live through them.[xxvi]

When we do not understand what the Scriptures are teaching, we may misunderstand statements or misapply passages to our daily lives. We can end up deciding for ourselves what is morally right, using the Bible for mere affirmation of what we want to be true. Thus, the Christianity presented to, and understood by, the general public may not accurately represent the faith. If this is true, and Christians have failed to understand and practice the religion as it was intended to be, then those who have disagreed with it may be rejecting non-existent teachings. Today, the Blanchard v. Rice Debate reminds us that true Christianity can only be understood and effectively practiced through strong biblical literacy.


i. J. Albert Harill, “The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History
in the Hermeneutical Tension Between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate,” Religion and American Culture 10 (2000): 149-186. See also Colossians 3:22, 4:1; Ephesians 6:9.
ii. Harrill, 150-159.
iii. Harrill, 150-51.
iv. Harrill, 151.
v. Harrill, 154.
vi. Ephesians 6:5 (NIV).
vii. Harrill, 154.
viii. Matthew 7:12 (NIV), also appears in Luke 6:31; Harrill, 153.
ix. Harrill, 156.
x. I Corinthians 7:21 (KJV).
xi. Harrill, 157.
xii. I Timothy 1:10 (KJV).
xiii. Harrill, 157.
xiv. Harrill, 158.
xv. Mark Noll, “The Battle for the Bible: The Impasse Over Slavery,” The Christian Century 123, 9 (2006): 20.
xvi. Noll, 20.
xvii. Harrill, 157.
xviii. Noll, 24.
xix. Noll, 23.
xx. Harrill, 152.
xxi. Noll, 25.
xxii. John Patrick Daly, When Slavery was Called Freedom (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2002), 101.
xxiii. Jonathan Blanchard and Nathan Rice, “Debate on Slavery,” October 1845. (Cincinnatti: WM. H.
Moore & Co Publishers, 1846), 159.
xxiv. Blanchard and Rice, 162; Daly, 58-9.
xxv. David R. Nienhuis, “The Problem of Evangelical Biblical Illiteracy: A View from the Classroom,” Modern Reformation 19, 1 (2010) 10-13, 17.
xxvi. Nienhuis, 13.

Sara Holston ’17 is from Wayne, PA. She is an English major and prospective Computer Science minor.

Image: “The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840.” Painting by Robert Haydon.

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