Enslaved to Saved: Conversation with Author W. Reid Litchfield

CoverThere are times when an insight causes serious alteration to previous thoughts. I found that Reid Litchfield’s recent book Enslaved to Saved prompts such insights.

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.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

10 thoughts on “Enslaved to Saved: Conversation with Author W. Reid Litchfield

  1. Thanks for the interview Meg. Looks like a good book to read from a good author.

  2. Interesting interview. I think Reid’s reading of the New Testament really demonstrates that Biblical Christianity is incompatible with the humanist belief in a creator who endows us with “inalienable rights.” Biblically, there are no rights, only grace. It’s a lively tension in Evangelical Christianity, where the “slaves to Christ” aspect is emphasised while at the same time, there is a worshipful attitude towards the US Constitution and God-given rights.

    In the LDS tradition, there is more of an emphasis on laws, rights, and covenants, so we are not God’s slaves with whom He is very graceful, but rather co-eternal individuals who take out contracts with Him and can expect certain returns and rewards.

    But I think there is a lot of value in the slavery paradigm, even for Mormons. So many of the random blessings and curses of life cannot really be attributed to clear-cut “laws irrevocably decreed upon which all blessings are predicated.” Yes, there is a law of the harvest, you reap what you sow, but equally important, the rain falls on the just and the unjust, and like Job, we cannot expect anything of God, but to say “shall we accept blessing but not cursing?”

  3. Hi Nate,

    I recommend you read the book.

    I would say there is a lot of value in the slavery paradigm for Mormons. There is great value in understanding that as we willingly enslave ourselves to God’s will (as Paul did), we become free in Christ.

    As for blessings predicated on laws, I don’t know of any sophisticated thinkers who use this to win at the lottery of life. Rather, we understand that certain eternal blessings are predicated on obedience to divine law. For example, we cannot be gathered under the wings of God’s love if we run pell-mell in the opposite direction.

  4. How is taking the discussion in this direction even helpful . . . to anyone!? I am well aware of the difference between a slave and a servant. A slave must obey or face the lash, imprisonment, or even death (add “damnation” to the list here, I suppose). A servant, too, is directed to obey, but in most cases a servant is treated as a valued member of the household and is paid a wage (e.g., “blessings”) for his or her services. Likewise a son or daughter is a member of the householder’s beloved family and receives kindly but firm treatment during the master’s life and an inheritance later on (“Exaltation”).

    From a pastoral standpoint, how does clarifying “servant” to mean “slave” even help? By encouraging more obedience? Perhaps, but only short-term compliance out of fear of retribution. I am either God’s beloved child or I am his slave, I cannot be both. As John Taylor observed:

    “I was not born a slave! I cannot, will not be a slave. I would not be slave to God! I’d be His servant, friend, His son. I’d go at His behest; but would not be His slave. I’d rather be extinct than be a slave. His friend I feel I am, and He is mine:—a slave! The manacles would pierce my very bones—the clanking chains would grate upon my soul—a poor, lost, servile, crawling wretch to lick the dust and fawn and smile upon the thing who gave the lash! . . . “

    B. H. Roberts
    The Life of John Taylor, Bookcraft, 1963, p. 424

    Since my early teens I have struggled with dysthymia and not-infrequent major depressive episodes. These went undiagnosed until post-college and I still have difficulty functioning, even with medication. Everything I do day-by-day is out of obligation and requires a great act of will to accomplish because I “feel” nothing. There is Obligation and there are Diversions, there is no Joy. Severe depression deprives a person of the emotional/spiritual feedback mechanisms that others use to gauge their spiritual status. So what is my status with God? Years of praying/service/counseling has produced little wisdom or change.

    Church leaders assure me I’ll be fine if I just “do my best” and be “valiant in the testimony of Jesus.” What do those things even mean? What is my “best”? Exerting myself to the uttermost limit of my body’s physical strength as a slave would? Obeying just enough to reach some arbitrary standard that will produce a wonderful feeling of spiritual acceptance within me? If so, I am lost. What if all I can do on a given day is look up from the mud in God’s direction before collapsing back again. Am I still a candidate for Exaltation? If so, how would I ever know that? Such a performance would certainly not be good enough in the eyes of the slaveholder.

    I strive because I have been taught to strive and because I cannot shake the truth of the faith of my fathers; but I strive without hope. Keep your slave metaphors to yourself. Find me someone who loves me, weeps with me (not just for me) and will never leave me in a spot lower than his immediate presence as long as 0.00001% of my soul still wants Him with me and I with Him.

  5. “I strive because I have been taught to strive and because I cannot shake the truth of the faith of my fathers; but I strive without hope.”

    This sounds to me like the very definition of slavery. As Job says, “though He slay me, yet I trust in Him.” We are abused and tormented by the trials God inflicts upon us, yet we still can’t find it within ourselves to rebel against Him, we still worship Him, though His spirit does not strive with us, though, as Anon has said, He has deprived us of the spiritual mechanisms to feel happiness or hope, and though He sends us His messengers that taunt us with their simplistic solutions and smiling faces.

    And yet God is not unaware of the unfair predicament He enslaved us to. As Jung said “just as man must suffer from God, so God must suffer from man. Otherwise there can reconciliation between the two.” So Christ Himself cries out “why hast thou forsaken me” just as we do. He creates a miserable world, but does not abandon us to the misery. He comes down to experience the misery with us, to teach us how to suffer along with Him, and to reap the eternal rewards that come from it.

  6. Hi Anon for Now,

    I love what Mormon says in Moroni 7:13 (btw, thanks to the beloved husband for the exact reference, else I might have said “the thing that one of the prophets in the Book of Mormons says”):

    “…every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God.”

    Now, there are some things which always invite to do good. There are other things which are situational.

    For some, understanding the actual context of the happenings and parables and teachings of the Bible will inspire those individuals to do good and love God.

    However given the baggage regarding slavery in the United States, including the slavery associated with modern human trafficking, it can be difficult to see any good in the original slavery-based imagery of the Bible (manifested in other scriptures).

    In that case, if a thing causes you pain and anguish, to fear and hate God, then feel free to avoid it.

    That said, it is not appropriate to a person who hates pink to declare that no one else may wear pink. Likewise, a truth, even if offensive to some, is still a truth.

    Personally (as likely clear from my part of the interview), I found the examination of this theme to be thought-provoking and ultimately edifying.

  7. Late to the comment, but building a little on Anon for Now, I note that our modern day take on God has us viewing ourselves as His children, and using our earthly experiences and how we relate to our children, to see Him as always loving, never angry. Disappointed, maybe, but that’s about it. However, children weren’t always viewed in so romantic of terms in the past. (Dr. Rosemond, newspaper child/family therapist, laments how parents of today dote on their children.) I admit at times it is difficult to grasp our relationship to deity. Is it master — slave, Lord — servant, parent — child. I would like to think of God as a loving Father who would never give me a spanking, just a firm admonishment and send me on my way. Yet, I see many people to the other extreme, who act as if Jesus overlooks sin because he is all loving, and therefore “do your own thing” because you won’t even be beat with a few stripes. But if the purpose of prayer is to learn His will and bend mine to it, then that takes a willingness to sacrifice my independence to His will. Anyway, good review. I’m okay with the slavery comparisons in general, and certainly prophets in those days would have written in a manner consistent with the way society existed. It makes me grateful to live in a day when we have living prophets who can write in a manner consistent with the way society exists now.

  8. For students of 1800s American history, an irony is that conditions were in some ways much worse for “hirelings” in the North compared to “slaves” in the South. A master owned his slaves until they died (or were manumitted). A boss, however, had no responsibility to his hireling in that era, before unions and strikes (and massive disasters such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, where 146 workers died, trapped behind doors that were chained shut).

    Even before such time as we accept Jesus as our Lord in this life, He has already accepted us and sacrificed himself to ensure our immortality.

    Even before such time as we accept Jesus as our Lord in this life, He has already sacrificed himself to enable our eternal life (life in the presence of God). Even if we never accept Jesus, that sacrifice has already been made on our behalf.

    He is our shepherd, willing to suffer hunger and privation and even death. And when an individual denies their nature and wanders away, He (and His) goes after them to gather the wanderer under His protection once again.

    He loves every one of us, whether we accept Him or not. He weeps with us, whether we hear Him or not. He will never damn us to a situation lower than possible, and will demand God take into account all mitigating circumstances, including such afflictions as never hearing His word in this life, terrible privation and wrong-headed upbringing, and severe mental disease (such as you represent yourself to have suffered).

    Ultimately, our eternal fate will be a based on extreme compassion.

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