Reid points out that Biblical Israel existed in a time when large percentages of the population were enslaved, when slavery was not restricted to any particular race. Thus the Bible text is full of references to this slavery. The language of slavery adds a rich layer of meaning to discussion of sin, repentance, and salvation.
However the King James version of the Bible altered words to hide references to slavery. Reid was kind enough to respond to a few questions about this insightful book.
Meg – So, Reid, what prompted you to focus on the underlying slavery which is translated as “servants” in the KJV?
Reid – This process was more accidental than deliberate. I was reading the epistles of Paul and noted a tendency for Paul to refer to himself as the servant of Jesus Christ. When I looked up servant in a Bible Concordance I was surprised to find that Paul was referring to himself as the slave of Jesus Christ. As I delved further into this, I found that the doctrine of slavery to Jesus Christ was extremely common and went well beyond the writings of Paul. What started out as a tangent during my personal study became a full-blown obsession that had me thematically reading the New Testament and the writings of Biblical Historians. The more I looked, the more convinced I became that enslavement to God was a discernable theme that characterizes man’s relationship to God in general.
Meg – Would you be willing to summarize the main points that were originally clearly slavery-focused and which have become diluted (in part because Christians rejected the inhumane institution of slavery over the centuries)?
Reid – Though the doctrine of slavery to Jesus Christ was extremely common in the writings of the New Testament, it is not outwardly apparent in modern translations of the bible. This is especially true of the King James Version of the bible, which the LDS Church uses. In some ways, it feels like this message has been whitewashed from the modern biblical record.
When the Bible was first translated into English during the early 1600s, translators selected their words carefully in order to preserve established social order in England. The slave/servant substitution is one example of this careful and deliberate translation. At this time, the English monarchy and Christian community looked on slavery with abhorence. It was therefore deemed risky for scripture to be perceived as openly condoning slavery. As a result, the word servant was adopted for slave. It was a kinder, gentler form of service compared to slavery. Similarly, master was softened to Lord, etc.
One can still see evidence of the reality of slavery in both the Old and New Testaments at many levels. But the metaphor of conversion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ being tantamount to enslavement to Christ was effectively obscured by these translational devices. Where social order was advanced and stabilized, the original doctrinal context and slavery symbolism was hidden.
Meg – I found the extended exploration of the slavery motif to be hugely clarifying. What do you feel are the main conflicts between the slavery-informed view of Christianity and the modern democratic view of Christianity?
Reid – Modern Christianity is heavily colored by current popular culture—and just as diverse. There are some interesting cultural attitudes that are challenging the way Christianity sees itself. For example, it seems today that there is a more deliberate emphasis on self than there has been in the past. We are becoming self-obsessed. This devotion to self can displace the emphasis on God, family, nation or service. The second great commandment needs to be revised: love your neighbor as you love your selfie. I call this the Selfie Generation—but not in a good way.
Today we are taught to look inwardly to solve problems and answer questions. Ironically, this process often begins with a Google search. The internet provides superficial answers to every question and mobile technology makes them instantly available. Suddenly every man is an expert armed with a mountain of misinformation. There is ample “evidence” to support any position we take.
Modern western society has celebrated “non-conformity” in media, literature a long time. Yet at the individual level there is greater pressure than ever to conform to new standards of progressive pop culture. “Wear what you want” (so long as it is one of the endorsed brands). “Show your individuality” (just make sure you do so by getting a tattoo). “Say what you think” (just make sure it is politically correct). Nonconformity with pop culture today can be just as socially dangerous today as it was in Puritan times.
Theism is slowly but surely being replaced by humanism. This “I can take care of myself, so don’t tell me what to do” philosophy can be associated with distrust of religious authority and organized religion. There is a greater level of comfort in defining one’s own moral code, rather than looking to organized religion. Sadly, more and more people are okay with not having any discernable fixed moral standards to live by at all. Many people today worship only at altars they build to themselves. In too many cases, the object of this devotion is a fictitious graven image of themselves that exists only in the world of social media.
The cultural milieu of modern Christianity is clearly different than it was in the early Church. Whether these changes are entirely new, or represent a recurring theme that replays itself over the course of human history, is debatable. Either way, modern Christianity is different than it was a few generations ago. Today, a Christian discovering the redemption by Christ/enslavement to Christ paradox is immediately confronted by the inherent evil of the institution of slavery itself. It strikes at the very foundation of everything Christians (and even popular culture) hold sacred. This reaction is compounded by emotional baggage and unhealed wounds associated with of our nation’s history of slavery. Common social stereotypes about slavery create a negative bias against anything associated with loss of autonomy or self-determination. The word—slavery—has become toxic. As a result, there is a knee-jerk rejection of any metaphor that advocates willful enslavement of self—even if it represents surrender to God in order to be freed from sin.
The challenge for the modern Christian reader is to keep reading once they encounter the slavery metaphor. The richness of the metaphor can be a game-changer. Whereas Satan promises us pseudo-freedom through enslaving us to sin, Jesus Christ offers us pseudo-slavery that frees us eternally.
Meg – For those familiar with the Book of Mormon, it is clear that many of the “servants” in the Book of Mormon were what we would consider slaves, or at least indentured servants where the master had the right to put the “servant” to death at his pleasure. What are the main slavery passages in the Book of Mormon?
Reid – I agree with your observation there are examples of servants in the Book of Mormon that are more accurately thought of as slaves. Consider Zoram, the servant of Laban. Nephi duped him into handing over the brass plates outside the city after Laban was killed. After recognizing this, he tried to escape but was captured by Nephi. He readily joined Nephi and his brothers and left Jerusalem when he was promised that he “should be a free man like unto us” (1 Nephi 4:33). The offer of freedom would not be much reward to a man that was already free. This indicates to me that Zoram was a slave.
Ammon and his fellow servants seem to have a very slavish relationship with King Lamoni. The King enjoyed absolute power over these servants—even to the point of controlling life or death. The servants were expected to do his will with exactness. Ammon was portrayed as the paragon of the faithful slave (Alma 18:10). There are overt references to slavery in King Benjamin’s speech, the story of the people of Limhi, and accounts of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis.
The Book of Mormon’s references to slavery are not limited to these kinds of master/slave relationships. For me it is more interesting to observe how The Book of Mormon tends to perpetuate views about slavery that are found in the Old Testament (especially Isaiah, Jeremiah which were contemporaries of Lehi). After all, this was the historical context for the emergence of the Book of Mormon. In the vernacular of the Old Testament, to be enslaved was to be carried away. This usage penetrates into the writings of the New Testament as well, for example Paul’s description of the saints being carried away to idolatry (1 Corinthians 12:2). But is also preserved in the Book of Mormon.
Nephi’s writings in particular have extremely sophisticated references to enslavement, captivity and the reality of God’s deliverance. They illustrate Nephi’s perspective as an expatriate Israelite living in the Kingdom of Judah. He was acutely aware of the fact that Israel had been ‘carried away’ into captivity by Assyria. His family had narrowly escaped his adoptive nation before it fell to Babylon. Like the Old Testament prophets, Nephi’s describes these ideas from a community perspective. Nephi’s people were God’s chosen people. This cultural perspective was greatly influenced by Nephi’s personal experience. God had miraculously delivered his family from the Judean desert and brought them to the Promised Land. This is not all, he was held captive by his brothers—both in the wilderness and on the water, and personally experienced the deliverance of God in setting him free. Nephi’s writings go beyond those of the Old Testament prophets in the way they identify with a person that belonged to God. He describes his visitation by the Spirit of the Lord as a captivity experience in which he was “carried away” in the Spirit. Nephi’s relationship with Jesus Christ, his understanding of the atonement and other personal experiences with divine deliverances make enslavement, captivity and divine deliverance powerful themes in his writing.
Meg – I recently did a power-reading of the Doctrine and Covenants. The idea that we become Christ’s and are to obey Him as Master absolutely permeates the Doctrine and Covenants. What do you see as the main philosophical conflicts between moderns and the Christ as Master paradigm in the Doctrine and Covenants?
Reid – I’m also a fan of power-reading of the scriptures when you have a specific question in mind. I’ve done it with the Book of Mormon and New Testament related to this question, but not with the Doctrine and Covenants. Even without the benefit of a power-read, this theme is easily discernable in the Doctrine and Covenants. In fact, I’m convinced it is an over-arching message that is present in all the scriptures.
We belong to God; He is our Master. This doctrine seems to be held by believers in every age. It was true among the tribes of Israel in Sinai. It was celebrated as a tenet of faith for a Jews living in David’s kingdom, in the post-exilic period, during the Maccabean revolt and during the Roman period. It was equally prominent in the consciousness of the Nephites, saved from the Babylonian conquest by being secreted away by God to the Promised Land. Mormon refugees that escaped the mobs, the persecutions and the disappointments of a nation that so completely failed them also held parallel beliefs.
Themes of the slave/Master relationship continue from the Old Testament to the Book of Mormon to the New Testament and Doctrine and Covenants. As an understanding of the atonement matures through the scriptural record, so does the emphasis that we are not only redeemed as God’s people, but as individuals.
As we are baptized and take on the name of Christ, we become His. Although He owes us nothing, His grace is such that He wants to make us free. Not only does He promise manumission from slavery, He promises to adopt us into His family as joint-heirs with Christ. It’s crazy, but He fully intends to give us the kingdom (D&C 29:5). The thing He requires of us is our consent. He cannot complete his Plan of Salvation without it. “Behold, the Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind; and the willing and obedient shall eat the good of the land of Zion in these last days (D&C 64:34).”
Meg – I originally thought the title of your book was “Enslaved to be Saved,” and in fact, the freedom of claiming Christ as our Master is a theme you explore. Claiming God as one’s master was liberating in ancient times where a master’s rank mattered. How do you see Christ as Master liberating in a modern world?
Reid – Advancement of social rank was even more difficult anciently than it is now. Social rank of one’s master or patron was one of the things that made rank advancement a reality. For example, consider how the freedmen of Claudius literally ran the empire. So there was a certain resonance of claiming the Son of God as your master in the early Christian church. I’m sure there are many ways in which this relationship could be viewed as liberating today—even without the awareness of social rank in the forefront of our consciousness.
As a species, we are very easily enslaved. Seneca the Younger said “Show me a man who is not a slave; one is a slave to lust, another to greed, another to ambition, and all men are slaves to fear (Seneca, Moral Epistles 47:7).” His insights are just as accurate for the modern era as they were in the time of Nero. When we are not enslaved by our employment we are enslaved by our recreation. Addiction in its many forms touches every family and most individuals in some way. Willful enslavement can therefore be thought of a rational mechanism to choose who and what we wish to call our Master. Most of the masters we could choose are capricious and unforgiving. Some are good. None can compare to the Savior.
A second reason deals with perspective. It is a constant battle for us to maintain a true perspective of how this life folds into eternity. From the perspective of most of humanity, slavery is an all-or-nothing principle. I believe that from the perspective of eternity—which we now lack—we will ultimately realize that enslavement to Christ is pseudo-slavery that ultimately liberates us eternally.
Meg – I couldn’t help thinking about some of the high profile individuals who recently publicized their excommunication from the LDS Church. How has your study of the slavery themes in scripture informed your thoughts about such individuals?
Reid – My recent study of enslavement to sin and Christ respectively in the scriptures certainly colored my view of many aspects of religious devotion and worship. Though I only have superficial awareness of some of these cases, these events do fit into this paradigm to some degree.
Ultimately these ecclesiastical fights to the death center on a battle of will. These are wars that leave no victors, just casualties. Both parties usually feel they are right, and both parties feel they have been wronged. Both parties feel that the battle was unavoidable in the service of their deeply held convictions and principles.
The Church takes the position that it is committed to seeing that the Lord’s will is done. The excommunicated party is committed to seeing that their will is done. To be the slave of Christ is to surrender your will to Him. The ultimate test of true discipleship is our ability to say “not my will, but thine, be done” and really mean it.
I believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is what it claims to be. Consequently, compromise on core doctrinal principles is unthinkable, especially when the Lord’s will has been established. This will, established by revelation through apostles and prophets, is not always in alignment of how we would do things if we were in charge. It is usually at odds with current societal preferences. Intractable defiance and open opposition to Church authority and discipline is not consistent with a disciple that is willing to put the Lord’s will before their own.
Though these high-profile cases are disquieting and tragic, they can be useful reminders to us that—to some degree—we are all holdouts in surrendering our will to God. In spite of our good intentions and continued efforts, we regularly fall short. I love how this reality is captured in the Chorus of Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing:
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love.
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for thy courts above.
The Gospel promises us that willful surrender of our heart to God is the key. The Church is a means to an end that helps us become faithful and steadfast in our service. With time and practice we wander less, and our will is more perfectly aligned with His. Our Master is kind and patient and loving. He’s prepared to wait for us.