Rhetorically, a literal biblical hermeneutic underlies the white supremacist ideology of the slave-based Confederacy. In addition to buttressing God’s will for the races, an authoritative, literal scriptural text is all the more important in an era when modern science is making truth claims that increasingly contradict a literal reading of scripture.
Reality, however, is a bit more complex.
In practice, white Southern Christians, like their counterparts white and black in the North–and black Christians of the South–interpret the Bible literally when such an understanding is helpful to their own belief system. In other instances, non-literal interpretations will work just fine, thank you.
In regards to African slavery, the South’s Curse of Ham theology derived from Genesis 9 is anything but a literal interpretation, as Ham is not actually cursed and black people are never referenced in the text. At the same time, Northern Christians, in addition to leaning literally upon broader human freedom themes in the Bible, openly and unabashedly brandish a non-literal, contextual interpretative methodology in championing freedom for the black race–for which good, self-proclaimed, Bible-believing Southern whites condemn Northern Christians as infidels and heretics who do not believe the Bible.
Southern whites have for decades tried to prevent biblical freedom themes, so effectively employed by abolitionist Northern Christians, from filtering through to Southern slaves. In much of the South, teaching slaves to read or write is illegal, resulting in illiteracy among the vast majority of slaves. Nonetheless, some slaves have read the Bible and have orally communicated a gospel of freedom through slave networks.
In short, Southern blacks reject the Bible’s apparent approval of slavery, embrace instances of human freedom that are literally depicted in many biblical Old Testament stories and taught in the New Testament, and utilize a non-literal approach to scripture in order to appropriate scripture for their present situation.
So foundational to the slave-based Confederacy is a rhetorical reliance upon biblical literalism that left unsaid is the fact that the biblical text itself does not claim that it always must or should be interpreted literally, nor is voice given to the fact that a primarily literal interpretation of scripture is a relatively recent development in the history of Christianity.
Inconvenient particulars aside, white Baptist leaders of the South take great pride in publicly arguing for the trustworthiness of a literal Bible, with no exceptions acknowledged. Any deviation from an absolute faith in biblical literalness would by necessity cast aside the mantle of religious authority that a stated literal biblical interpretation bestows upon the fallible human making such an assertion.
The interpretation, in short, is, for all practical purposes, more important than what the Bible actually says.
One more demand, however, is required in order to secure the primacy of biblical literalism: not only must the Bible be interpreted literally, but the text must literally be the very Word of God, unchanged since God spoke and dictated the text to his chosen human scribes. It is this later assumption that is being challenged by modern biblical criticism voiced by European scholars who, in examining the context, content and writing styles found within ancient copies of biblical texts, are casting doubt on a narrative of a text never-changed-in-the-least-little-bit.
To summarize this line of thought that is publicly predominant among many, perhaps most, white Baptists of the South: in order for a given human interpretation of scripture to be authoritative, it must come from the mouth or pen of one who adheres to a literal (hence authoritative) interpretation of the Bible, which in turn is dependent upon a literally perfect (hence authoritative) biblical text.
(The Curse of Ham interpretation, again, being one of many exceptions which require some figurative interpretative gymnastics.)
This formal, foundational black and white approach to the text from which proper, literal biblical interpretation is derived is routinely referenced in Baptist newspapers of the South, as it is in this week’s North Carolina Baptist Biblical Recorder.
The North British Review contains the following very truthful statement, regarding the preservation of the original writings of the Holy Scriptures:
It is a matter of congratulation that the Bible has passed triumphantly through the ordeal of verbal criticism. English infidels of the last century raised a premature paean over the discovery and publication of so many various readings. They imagined that the popular mind would be rudely and thoroughly shaken; that Christianity would be placed in imminent peril of extinction, and that the Church would be dispersed, and ashamed at the tattered shreds of its Magna Charta. But the result has blasted all their hopes, and the oracles of God are found to have been preserved in immaculate integrity.
The storm which shakes the oak only loosens the earth around its roots, and its violence enables the tree to strike its roots deeper in the soil. So it is that Scripture has gloriously surmounted every trial.–There gathers around it a dense “cloud of witnesses” from the ruins of Nineveh and the valleys of the Nile; from the slabs and bas reliefs of Sennacherib, and the tombs and monuments of the Pharaoh; from rolls of Chaldee paraphrasts and Syrian versionists; from the cells and libraries of monastic scribes, and the dry and dusty labors of scholars and antiquarians.
Our present Bibles are undiluted by the lapse of ages. These oracles, written amidst such strange diversity of time, place and condition–among the sands and cliffs of Arabia, the fields and hills of Palestine, in the palaces of Babylon, and in the dungeons of Rome–have come down to us in such unimpaired fullness and accuracy, that we are placed as advantageously towards them as the generation which hung on the lips of Jesus as he recited a parable on the shores of the Galilean lake, or those churches which received from Paul or Peter one of their epistles of warning exposition.
Yes! The River of Life, which issues out from the throne of God and of the Lamb, may, as it flows through so many countries, sometimes bear with it the earthly evidences of its chequered progress; but the great volume of its water has neither been dimmed in its transparency nor bereft of its healing virtue.
Other than the fact that the “original writings of the Holy Scriptures” no longer exist, and therefore no one knows whether contemporary translations have “diluted” the originals. Or that translations of available ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts into modern languages cannot guarantee “accuracy.” Or that different Bibles (original King James, current King James, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic) contain differing selections of biblical books. Perhaps these unspoken uncertainties are the reason the writer allows a little wiggle-room in finally declaring that the “great volume” of the text has not been “dimmed” or lost its “healing virtue.”