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The Philadelphia Baptist Association
Circular Letter, 1863
By James B. Simmons
The Bible in Its Relation to the Poor and Oppressed
      The Philadelphia Baptist Association, to the Churches of which it is composed:

      BELOVED BRETHREN IN CHRIST: - What the Holy Scriptures enjoin, it is manifestly our duty to heed. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God,” - and he who disobeys the Bible, disobeys his Maker. There is reason to believe that of the books which shall be opened on the day of final judgment, when “the dead, small and great, shall stand before God,” our Bible will be one. We may expect therefore to be judged out of the things written in this book. his serious book, which has been our companion all along in our earthly life, we must meet again in the life to come. Since this is so, how solemnly important that we should understand its most hidden meaning and practice its every precept. How assiduous and how consciencious [sic] we should be in the search for Bible truth, and in the investigation of every verse and every word of God's precious volume, which either enjoins a duty or imposes a restraint. It will be the object of this letter to call your attention to certain passages of vital import whose teaching is believed to have been either overlooked or undervalued, by some of God's believing children. For the purpose of a convenient grouping of these Scripture teachings, the following theme has been selected:

      The Religion of the Bible in its Relation to the Poor and Oppressed of Mankind. The word oppress in its derivative signification (ob against, upon; and premo to press) means literally to press against, to press upon, to crowd down.

      The term oppression then signifies the act of pressing people down wrongfully, injuriously; as for example in their wages, or in their rights, or in trade, or in their liberties, or in their religion. It is that unjust and cruel disposition which the strong exercise over the weak, which the rich often exercise over the poor, which those in power exercise over those not in power, to take advantage of them and burden them with hardships.

      With this disposition God is at war. There is not an attribute in his nature which enables him to look upon it with approval. His whole being is against it. The entire system of revealed religion is against it. God's providence is against it. The history of the world as revealed in his providence, is little less than one continued story of God's innumerable interpositions to break the arm of the oppressor and lift aloft his lowly and suffering poor.

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Upon opening the Bible, we find it abounding with the most explicit utterances on this subject.

      1. The first to which your attention is called, is in one of the earliest books of the Old Testament, and warns men against being oppressive in their traffic.

      2. “If thou sell aught unto thy neighbor, or buyest aught of thy neighbor's hand, ye shall not oppress one another.” Leviticus 25: 14. Here you perceive, that very early in the Scripture record the essential equality and brotherhood of man are recognized. Cain and all his murderous descendants to the contrary notwithstanding, we are our “brother's keeper.” The right of traffic was granted, but the right to oppress was withheld. Later in the Scriptures, we find mournful proof that men did not obey this command. In their traffic they grew dishonest, until we hear the Lord declaring that “he that by usury and unjust gain increaseth his substance, he shall gather it for him that will pity the poor.” Proverbs 28:8. The word “usury” here, means unlawful or exorbitant interest extorted from a man in pecuniary distress. By “unjust gain” is meant any form of unscriptural accumulation of wealth. How often has God interposed with vengeance against the owners of great estates, gotten by trickery and oppression or by silent acquiencence in some great system of wrong like the liquor traffic, or the opium trade, or the traffic in human beings, out of which they were enriching themselves. Within our own short lives, brethren, we have seen several financial crises. Great houses, opulent business firms, have gone down in our very presence with a resounding crash. And how almost could we hear the hoarse voice of the avenging angel as he flew from counting room to counting-room of those rich but unrighteous merchants and manufacturers, exclaiming: “For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now” do “I arise, saith the Lord!” Psalm 12:5. “What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces and grind the faces of the poor? saith the Lord God of hosts?” Isaiah 3:15. O is it not true that God is angry with oppressors, and that he will find them out and punish them, under whatever commercial disguises they may hide themselves?

      3. We are expressly forbidden in the Bible to “oppress the hireling in his wages!” Exactly what amount of wages we must give in order not to be oppressive is not stated. The law however, which governs the relations of capital to labor is certainly this: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them.” Political economists may discuss the question till they are hoary with age, and they will never find any better link by which to unite the employer and the employed than these golden words of Christ. The habit of giving too low wages, - of oppressing the poor because he is poor, because he is a friendless stranger among us from Germany or Ireland or Ethiopia, the habit of taking advantage of his hunger and his nakedness, and his crying children, in order to compel him to do the work at less than living rates, all these things smell rank with offence in the nostrels of eternal Justice. And gain thus ill-gotten is no gain; - because it carries within itself a

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wasting canker, an inherent curse. Sooner or later God makes it to blister the palms and burn the soul of its possessor. “Thou shalt not oppress a hired servant that is poor and needy.” Deuteronomy 24:14. “He that oppresseth the poor to increase his riches * * * shall surely come to want.” Proverbs 22:16.

      4. It is clearly enjoined upon the people of God in the Scriptures, that they take the side of the poor and the oppressed. No man can be on the side of God, who is not on the side of God's poor. All claims to saving piety which do not embrace this, are mere empty pretences. “Relieve the oppressed,” is a command as express as the decalogue itself. Isaiah 1:17. The evangelical prophet Isaiah (58:6) enjoins upon us “to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke " If this scripture were faithfully preached by all American pastors and obeyed by all the members of our churches, that grim and hoary system of iniquity known to us as American Slavery could not exist for an hour. It is also required of us that we “remember them that are in bonds as bound with them.” Hebrews 13:3. As if we ourselves were enchained by the very side of the poor bondman, shared his hard fare and his rigorous treatment, so should we remember him and sympathize with him. This implies an effort of course to help him obtain liberty, just as we would seek to obtain liberty for ourselves.* From such a conclusion as this, he who would be a New Testament Christian should not attempt to escape. Nay, he may not escape and yet be Christ's true child; for Christ himself tells us he was consecrated to this very work; - that it was a part of his grand mission to the earth, “to preach deliverance to the captives, * * * to set at liberty them that are bruised.” Luke 4:18–21.& What Christ preached, his servants should certainly preach.+ It is both wise and safe for the disciple to follow his Lord. Wherever the religion of Jesus Christ is faithfully, fully and vigorously administered, it makes man free. “Christianity is a religion of freemen.” It says to the bondman, “If thou mayest be made free,” - or, as it is in the original, if thou mayest be free,_if thou
* How vividly does the passage in Proverbs xxiv: 11, 12, describe the guilt and for shadow the doom of those religious teachers and professors, who know or might know the sufferings and peril of the poor slave, and yet “forbear to deliver” him
     & The interpretation here given to Luke iv: 18 to 21. and Isaaih lxi. 1, is sustained by such authorities as Olshausen, Adam Clarke, Albert Barnes, &c. Olshausen represents Christ as come to help men “against sin with all its inward and outward consequences.” Slavery is one of sins worst consequences.
     + Should any reader interpose the flimsy objection so common in these days among oppressors and their guilty apologists that “Christ did not condemn slavery in his preaching,” I reply, that is a gratuitous assertion which cannot be proven. A single line from a sermon of Jesus to be found in Matthew vii:12, if tied tightly around the neck of the monster slavery, and held fast in faith and prayer by the hands of God’s people, would strangle him to death beyond all hope of resuscitation. It is not recorded that Christ preached against slavery by name, I grant; neither did he against flagellation and crucifixion, both of which prevailed to an alarming extent in his time and country, and from both of which he himself finally suffered. Idolatry and burying alive also were crimes cotemporaneous with Christ. (See John's Archaeology, Sections 261 and 404.) Where does he condemn these by name? This we do know, that Roman Slavery went out of existence under the preaching of Christ and his apostles and their immediate successors. It remains to be seen whether all American preachers belong to this succession. Does slavery quail under their preaching? Do its advocates in the pews take alarm and beg for quarters

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canst be free,”* “use it rather.” 1 Corinthians 7:21. This is a positive requirement laid over upon the bondman to choose freedom in preference to Slavery, even though his bondage has so degraded and imbruted him that he has come to love it and prefer it. Christianity speaks to him authoritatively, and commands him to be a man, - to prefer manhood to chattelhood whenever in God's providence he safely or properly may.

      4. Jesus Christ sets us the erample of taking the side of the poor and oppressed, against their oppressors.

      “Their Redeemer is mighty.” Mild as a lamb, weak as a lamb slain, He is nevertheless the Lion in Judah's tribe. Let them encounter this lion who dare!

      Upon opening the New Testament the leading fact which strikes us is, that Jesus Christ by his death has purchased man. On Calvary he paid the fearful price, and he will have him lifted up out of his degradation. All men are to have the temporal benefits of the atonement if no more. Independent of dress or color or culture whether civilized or savage, whether prince or beggar, whether king or slave, Jesus Christ died for man. And if you would know how high a value the king of heaven sets upon the meanest wretch upon earth, inquire at the foot of the Cross. “Ye are bought with a price,” exclaims the apostle. 1 Corinthians 6:20. “Ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold * * but with the precious blood of Christ.” 1 Peter 1:18, 19. And it was in view of this costly, this amazing purchase, that the apostle only three verses later in the same chapter, enjoins, - “See that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently.” Does this scripture apply only to the members of an elevated and cultivated and congenial class, or is this love enjoined upon all believers of whatever condition and grade? Is the high-born to love only the highborn? Is not the poor dark man to be embraced in the white man's Christian affection? Do we not read somewhere that it is a Christian duty to “condescend to men of low estate?” Romans xii:16. Does not Christ say to his disciples, “all ye are brethren?" (Matthew xxiii: 8.) and was there not among his followers one African at least, viz: Simon from the town of Cyrene in northern Africa, who helped Jesus carry his cross up the hill Calvary? Jesus doubtless bore one end of the cross and Simon the other. So the learned Matthew Pool thinks. & Luke seems expressly to say so. The soldiers then, (as now in America) compelled the African to a menial service. But Jesus did not disdain his help! Alexander and Rufus, sons of this African Simon, were also disciples of Christ. Three men of African blood are thus clearly embraced in the New
     * Greek, DUNAMAI, to be able, to have intrinsic power or ability to do a thing: and GINOMAI to become. The meaning is, If thou hast the power to become free. So far as this particular passage is concerned, the taking of freedom. seems to be left not with the will of the master, but solely with the will and power of the servant. Of course, however, the believing servant here addressed is to assume his freedom not by violence or blood-shed but in a quiet, lawful and Christian manner. See Dr. Wm. R. Williams' learned note on this passage in his sermon entitled “God timing all national changes,” p. 82. Sheldon & Co. 1862. See also Olshausen vol. 4, p. 284.
     & Pool says: “The cross was too heavy a piece of timber for one to bear, and therefore Simon was compelled to bear the hinder part; therefore Luke saith, he bare it after Jesus.” Lu. 23: 6.

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Testament record as having been friends and followers of our Saviour. Matthew xxvii:32 and, Mark xv:21. We are not informed whether the skin of these three men was as dark, or their hair as crisp, as the modern negro's; but it appears very certain that neither Christ nor the twelve were disturbed by the question of social inequality!* But above all, can it be that those redeemed by such a ransom as Christ has paid, are permitted to buy and sell, and oppress their weaker brethren, bought by the same ransom? Does the religion of the Bible contemplate the soul and body of man as a worthless commodity, to be struck off in the marts of the world's commerce to any purchaser who may choose to bid? Has not Christ by his death purchased the right to say, “All souls are mine?” Ezekiel xviii:4, and may he not, and will he not, enforce his well earned claim, even in the presence of the oppressors, and despite the opposition of the tyrants who withstand him? We who know Jesus Christ well, know that he will do this. He expressly says to his redeemed ones, “Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men.” 1 Corinthians vii:23. While his religion often finds men in bondage when it first embraces them, its whole drift and tendency is to elevate and liberate them. Christianity is a well-known disturber of the peace and plans of tyrants. History so records it. As we have seen, the Bible expressly requires that freedom in all cases where it safely and lawfully may, be chosen in preference to compulsory servitude; and yet with a wisdom altogether divine, it enjoins upon the bondman good behavior while compelled to remain, and that even toward masters froward and cruel, that he may the sooner be free; that while going up into liberty himself, he may carry also his unbelieving master with him up into the liberty of Christ, and so “the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed.” 1 Timothy vi:1. Every true child of God believes that Christ the conquerer is engaged in a mighty struggle against the oppressors of earth, and that the issue of the conflict is not doubtful. And at the same time, Jesus aims to save oppressor and oppressed alike. For both alike he shed his blood. Upon the souls of both he has set the highest value. For the redemption of both he has offered the costliest ransom. All souls are his!

      5. God never originated a system of oppression. When he first revealed himself to the patriarchs, he found a system of servitude already in existence. He was not the author of it; depraved man was. This system God proceeded to regulate, until he regulated it out of existence. The same was true at a later date of Jewish servitude. He regulated that out of existence. He tied it up by legal restrictions,& bound it hand and foot so that it could with difficulty go. It had a
     * Light may be thrown upon the question of Simon's complexion by remembering that in the strip of country along the Northern coast of Africa, know as the Barbary, States, within which was the ancient Cyrene, there are, at the present time, hundreds of thousands of pure blacks. It is estimated that there are near two hundred thousand (200,000), in the single State of Moroceo. Many of these negroes are free; and are so distinguished for their fidelity. that the Emperor of Morocco has chosen them in preference to all others to constitute his body guard. Fidelity is one of the noblest characteristics of man; and a distinguishing feature of the negro always, - even under oppression and abuse.
     & See a single one of these restrictions; necessarily and certainly fatal to the continued existence of slavery, in Deuteronomy xxiii:10 and 16.

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limping miserable life, and at length died amid the shouts and songs of the emancipated on the fiftieth year of jubilee. Very soon after giving the law at Sinai, God, as if to cut off the very neck of the system, gave to the Israelites this ordinance: “He that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hands, he shall surely be put to death!” Exodus xxi:16., Deuteronomy xxiv:7. “The crime is stated in its three-fold form, manstealing, selling, and holding; - the penalty for either of which was DEATH. Such was the operation of this law, and the obedience paid to it, that we have not the remotest hint that the sale and purchase of slaves ever occurred among the Israelites.* Thus God regulated the system till it became extinct.

      The same is essentially true of the system of Roman slavery at a still later period. Under the light of Christianity, it gradually died. Being born of darkness, a child of night and of death, it could not endure the day. At the end of three centuries the preaching of the gospel had destroyed it. This is a well known historic fact; and what happened to these ancient systems of oppression, will as certainly happen to all modern ones as that Jehovah still lives and reigns. How could slavery continue in the South of our own country, under the faithful preaching of the golden rule, (Matthew vii:12,) or of that grand injunction of liberty, “masters, give unto your servants that which is JUST AND EQUAL?” Colossians iv:1.

      6. Finally, the Scriptures plainly teach us that upon those Tribes and Provinces and Governments of earth, where oppression is either allowed or upheld, God has fixed his eye, and will in due time come down with avenging displeasure. Make what excuses we will, whether it be the ignorance, or the degradation, or the complexion of the bondman for keeping him down, God sees through the wickedness, and takes the bondman's side. Of all forms of oppression, that based upon complexion is perhaps the most insulting to our Maker. Did God make a mistake in distributing the coloring matter in the African's skin?& Has he made it a tinge too dark to suit the American standard of taste? Is a colored man not entitled to himself because he is colored? Has God anywhere told us that color is a justification for oppressing or enslaving men? If he has, where is the chapter and verse? and which is the exact shading that justifies the fraud? If things had pursued this direction much longer, if the rebellion had not unmasked the designs of the oppressors, we should all have had a practical interest in this question. For slavery is of the devil; and our old adversary has few scruples as to shades of complexion, and he would have had us all by and by.

      But God's calm eye has been fixed upon our nation ever since the year 1620, when that hated Dutch ship from the African coast landed its sable freight in Virginia. And every year as he has looked down upon us through the quiet heavens, he has seemed to say to his believing children, “If thou seest the oppression of the poor, and violent perverting of judgement and justice in a province,
     * See the conclusive and unanswerable argument in Kitto's Cyclopædia Bible Lit. article “Slave.” It is hoped that no reader will call in question the accuracy of the above statement, till he has thoroughly read and digested this article.
     & See article “complexion” in Appletons' New American Cyclopædia.

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marvel not at the matter, for he that is higher than the highest regardeth " Ecclesiastes v:8. “Shall I not visit for these things, saith the Lord, shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?” Jeremiah v.9.* Our nation at this very hour, brethren, is giving startling proof of the certainty with which God's terrible maledictions are at length fulfilled upon the heads of a guilty and oppressive people. “The hire of the laborers who have reaped down” our American “fields, which” has been of us “kept back by fraud, crieth; and the cries of them which have reaped, are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.” James v:4. The term Sabaoth means armies; and whose eyes are so blind as not to see that the Lord of hosts is out now with his armies upon Southern plains, to avenge the wrong upon the very fields where work without wages, has for two full centuries been extorted from the Lord's patient and crying poor? As Jehovah saw the affliction of his people which were in Egypt and “heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters,” and delivered them, - so all the indications of his providence point to the early opening of our Red Sea, and to the certain confusion and overthrow of all who shall dare to pursue the retreating column of emancipated Ethiops as with banners streaming, and peans ringing, they march out into liberty. The time has come at length,

“When our bound millions shall arise,
As at an angel's trumpet call!
Then shall a shout of joy go up,
The wild glad cry of freedom, come
From hearts long crushed by cruel hands,
And songs from lips long sealed and dumb;
And every bondman's chain be broke,
And every soul that moves abroad
In this wide realm, shall know and feel
The blessed liberty of God!”

     * See the “heritage of oppressors” described in Job xxvii: 13 to 27.


[From The Philadelphia Baptist Association Minutes, 1864, pp. 27-33. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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