Publication Date


Degree Granted


Institution Granting Degree

Trinity Evangelical Divinity School


Bible, Slavery, Barnes, Albert, Presbyterian, Rhetoric


Albert Barnes was an influential leader among New School Presbyterians in mid-nineteenth-century America. As a beloved pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and as a biblical scholar whose commentaries are still widely used today, Barnes undertook an exhaustive study of the Bible to address the foremost social issue of his day--slavery. After considering most passages in the Bible being used in the discussion, he realized that a conclusive argument could not be made, which was based exclusively on proof-texts. Barnes challenged those involved in the discussion not to ignore the Bible or its ability to provide answers to life's difficult questions--an error made all too quickly in modern America--but to find an objective way to measure the validity of proposed applications of those proof-texts directly addressing slavery. Barnes' chief contribution to the American slavery discussion was not merely his exhaustive study of the biblical texts directly addressing slavery. His hermeneutical method brought the discussion beyond the texts directly addressing slavery to a principle-driven approach as a necessary supplement to proof-text ethics. By suggesting that the application of proof-texts be measured against the primary principles of scripture, he found one means by which scripture could be objectively applied to the slavery discussion. In the end, Barnes would conclude that the practices essential to the perpetuation of the institution of slavery so greatly conflict with the primary principles of scripture (such as the "golden rule," equality, the brotherhood of God's family, spiritual growth, and God's abhorrence of oppression), that if the sinful practices were to cease, all that would be left would be a toned-down form of employment. Barnes was convinced that if masters only knew and were sensitive to these primary principles of scripture, they would naturally emancipate their slaves. In the conclusion section, suggestions are made for further study on how the Bible can be used as an authoritative source of morality in modern discussions on civil rights and ethical issues such as racism, homosexuality, abortion, and human cloning.