There is a most important difference between the state laws, or judicial statutes of the Hebrew nation, and the moral law as expressed in the decalogue. Both these systems of legislation, emanated indeed from the same Divine author, but they were given for different purposes. The state laws had respect to the particular circumstances of that nation in distinction from all others, and were evidently designed to be superseded, as they have been, by the Christian dispensation, to which many of them were preparatory, and at whose introduction the wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles was entirely broken down. Whereas the moral law is founded on principles of immutable rectitude, equally applicable to all men in all circumstances and ages; and was designed to be neither abrogated nor modified by the introduction of Christianity, but to be interpreted and confirmed by the Author of both. The apostolic substitution of the first for the last day of the week for a sabbath constitutes no exception, as the very letter and spirit of the original command may and should be as fully regarded under the change, as before its occurrence. It is still every seventh day which is to be hallowed. The state laws in view of the established usages of those to whom they were given, the prejudices of their minds and hardness of their hearts, suffered and regulated certain evils, because by the enaction and enforcemcnt of judicial statutes they could not be removed, without producing consequences still more deplorable. On this point we have testimony which will not be contradicted. When the Pharisees captiously inquired of our Lord, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” He, evidently designing to condemn polygamy, and divorces as commonly practised together, reminded them that at the beginning, the Creator made but one man and one woman and joined them together as one flesh. Others similarly united in marriage, he said were no more twain but one flesh. And impressively added, “What therefore God hath joined together let not man put asunder.” They said, “Why did Moses then command to give her a writing of divorcement and send her away?” His remarkable reply was, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, MOSES suffered you to put away your wives: but in the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery, and whoso marrieth her that is put away, committeth adultery.” Even the disciples were startled at this decision of the Lord and remarked, “If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry.” So greatly prejudiced were they in consequence of their Jewish education, against the original purity and binding nature of this sacred institution. Now if Moses suffered the Jews to put away their wives for every cause, not because it was right for them to do so, but on account of the hardness of their hearts and the evils which this obduracy might have led them to inflict on their helpless companions with whom they were not pleased; it is obvious that they might have been suffered, by the same code of laws, to do other things which they had no right to perform. So it is in regard to the laws of all nations. God, in the dispensations of his providence, is continualy suffering men to do what they ought not. But the Moral Law lays the axe at the root of all moral evil, it strictly, without regard to persons or circumstances, forbids the least deviation from the path of absolute rectitude, and binds transgressors to answer for their conduct not to earthly tribunals but to the Supreme Lawgiver himself, in the day of final judgment. The laws of the state not merely suffered the Hebrews to do things, but in some cases, required them to do things, which without such authority from God, they would have had no right to perform; and might not without great criminality attempt. As instances of this sort we must reckon the stoning of children to death for such immoralities as have been mentioned, and a man for gathering sticks for his fire on the Sabbath day, and especially the destruction of the Canaanites, who by their great sins had forfeited to divine justice not only their earthly possessions, but their lives. God had a right to cut off these transgressors by pestilence or earthquakes, or fire from heaven, or the agency of his angelic hosts, or by the hands of their fellow men, as he saw fit. The wonderful miracles which attended the march of the Hebrews from Egypt to Canaan, while they were passing the Jordan, and besieging Jericho, gave indubitable testimony that they were indeed divinely commissioned to cut off the guilty nations, inhabiting the land which God had promised to give them for their possession. But to plead that since it was right for the Jews to do these things when expressly commanded, it must be so for others to do such things when not commanded, seems as egregiously absurd as for every man in this country to claim the right of acting as a public executioner at his own discretion, because some men have been authorized by law to inflict sentence of death on others, and were in justice bound to do it. On the contrary, the moral law enjoins duties which are common to all. Our Savior has taught us, that the substance and scope of it all is this, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself.” These are things right in themselves, and which all men would have been bound to do, even if no express law to this effect had been given.
Wide indeed, then, is the difference between the judicial statutes of the Hebrew commonwealth and that moral law, contained in the decalogue which binds all men to obedience, and with which the great principles of christian morality laid down in the New Testament perfectly harmonize. The former was given to an individual nation, in peculiar circumstances, for special purposes; and are at present no further a rule of conduct than they in particular instances, inculcate duties which are confirmed by the latter, as expounded or enforced by Christ or his apostles. Without this sanction, you have no more authority from the political laws of the Jews to practice slaveholding; even in the sense and manner in which they practised it, than you have to practise polygamy.— And we have seen that the system of servitude which prevailed among them was so mild that it cannot according to the correct meaning of the term in this country, be denominated slavery at all. It is as plain then as the sun at noon day, that the laws of the Hebrew nation, do not, and cannot afford your cherished institution any support or cover.
If slavery can be justified from the Bible a tall, it must be on the ground of the great principles of universal benevolence and perfect rectitude, which constitute the foundation of christian morality. We therefore agree with you to refer the great question to Christ and his apostles for ultimate decision.
Continued from: Reverend Silas McKeen to Thomas C. Stuart, August 20, 1839
SOURCE: Cyrus P. Grosvenor, Slavery vs. The Bible: A Correspondence Between the General Conference of Maine, and the Presbytery of Tombecbee, Mississippi, p. 76-82