“An Institution Sanctioned by God” Southern Religious Support of Slavery

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Here is another excerpt from one of my Civil War texts dealing with the role of the Christian faith in justifying Southern Slavery. Once again it is not an easy subject to deal with for many people. Most American Christians of any denomination, Northern or Southern, would prefer that our often less than stellar practice of our faith didn’t exist, or be relegated to the deepest part of the dustbin of history. If they would stay that wouldn’t be a bad thing, but those attitudes, prejudices, and actions seem to always find a way back into current practice, if not in this case against African Americans, with the group du jour. Most of the time now it seems to involve immigrants, both legal and illegal, Muslims, and LGBTQ people. As the evangelical Anglican theologian Alistair McGrath writes: “the arguments used by the pro-slavery lobby represent a fascinating illustration and condemnation of how the Bible may be used to support a notion by reading the text within a rigid interpretive framework that forces predetermined conclusions to the text.”

So have a great day


Padre Steve+


The noted South Carolina Baptist minister, the Reverend Richard Furman wrote: “The right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.”  [1]

Like other people who supported the institution of slavery in the Americas before them, Southerners turned to the Christian faith to buttress their cause. Catholic and Protestant churches of England, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal all provided their theological and ecclesiastical blessing to slavery and the slave trade. When a Catholic priest wrote his superiors asking if the slave trade and all of its components were legal according to Canon Law he received this answer:

“Your Reverence writes me that you would like to know whether the Negroes who are sent to your parts have been legally captured. To this I reply that I think your Reverence should have no scruples on this point, because this is a matter which has been questioned by the Board of Conscience in Lisbon, and all its members are learned and conscientious men. Nor did the bishops who were in Sao Thome, Cape Verde, and here in Loando – all learned and virtuous men – find fault with it. We have been here ourselves for forty years and there have been among us very learned Fathers…never did they consider the trade as illicit. Therefore we and the Fathers of Brazil buy these slaves for our service without any scruple….” [2]

In the American colonies, the Church of England accommodated itself to the plantation system by adapting itself to the ways of the plantation owners and slave traders. This began in 1619 when planters in Virginia and Maryland began to bring in slaves due to their “growing success by growing and exporting tobacco.” [3] To escape the ancient Christian prohibition on believers owning other believers most plantation owners refused to all their slaves to be baptized. However, to allow for some slaves to be baptized a law was passed in 1667 “declaring that baptism did not change a slave’s condition – another indication of the degree to which established religion was willing to bend to the interests of the powerful.”  [4] It is interesting to note that this uniquely American Anglican idea that baptism did not change the nature of a person, was also used by the Nazis in regard to Jews who had converted to Christianity.

In light of the threat posed to slavery by the emerging abolitionist movement, slaveholders were forced to shift their defense of slavery away from it being simply a necessary evil to a positive good. The institution of slavery became “in both secular and religious discourse, the central component of the mission God had designed for the South.” [5] Like in the North where theology was at the heart of many abolitionist arguments, in the South theology was used to enshrine and defend the institution of slavery. British Evangelical-Anglican theologian Alister McGrath notes how “the arguments used by the pro-slavery lobby represent a fascinating illustration and condemnation of how the Bible may be used to support a notion by reading the text within a rigid interpretive framework that forces predetermined conclusions to the text.” [6]

Southern religion was a key component of something bigger than itself and played a role in the development of an ideology much more entrenched in the Southern culture than the abolitionist cause did in the North.  This was in large part due to the same Second Great Awakening that brought abolitionism to the fore in the North. “Between 1801 when he Great Revival swept the region and 1831 when the slavery debate began, southern evangelicals achieved cultural dominance in the region. Looking back over the first thirty years of the century, they concluded that God had converted and blessed their region.” [7] The Southern political and religious ideology enshrined slavery as a key component of all areas of life. It was a complete worldview, a system of values, culture, religion and economics, or to use the more modern German term “Weltanschauung.” The Confederate worldview was the Cause. As Emory Thomas wrote in his book The Confederate Nation:

“it was the result of the secular transubstantiation in which the common elements of Southern life became sanctified in the Southern mind. The South’s ideological cause was more than the sum of its parts, more than the material circumstances and conditions from which it sprang. In the Confederate South the cause was ultimately an affair of the viscera….Questions about the Southern way of life became moral questions, and compromises of Southern life style would become concession of virtue and righteousness.” [8]

Despite the dissent of some, the “dominant position in the South was strongly pro-slavery, and the Bible was used to defend this entrenched position.” [9] This was tied to a strongly Calvinistic theology which saw slavery in context with the spread of the evangelical Protestant faith that had swept through the South as slavery spread. For many, if not most Southern ministers “the very spread of evangelical religion and slave labor in the South was a sign of God’s divine favor. Ministers did not focus on defending slavery in the abstract but rather championed Christian slaveholding as it was practiced in the American South. Though conceding that some forms of slavery might be evil, Southern slavery was not.” [10]

The former Governor of South Carolina, John Henry Hammond, led the religiously based counter argument to the abolitionists. Hammond’s arguments included biblical justification of blacks being biologically inferior to whites and slavery being supported in the Old Testament where the “Hebrews often practiced slavery” and in the New Testament where “Christ never denounced servitude.”  [11] Hammond warned:

“Without white masters’ paternalistic protection, biologically inferior blacks, loving sleep above all and “sensual excitements of all kinds when awake” would first snooze, then wander, then plunder, then murder, then be exterminated and reenslaved.” [12]

Others in the South, including politicians, pundits and preachers were preaching “that slavery was an institution sanctioned by God, and that even blacks profited from it, for they had been snatched out of pagan and uncivilized Africa and been given the advantages of the gospel.” [13] The basic understanding was that slavery existed because “God had providential purposes for slavery.” [14]

At the heart of the pro-slavery theological arguments was in the conviction of most Southern preachers of human sinfulness. “Many Southern clergymen found divine sanction for racial subordination in the “truth” that blacks were cursed as “Sons of Ham” and justified bondage by citing Biblical examples.” [15] But simply citing scripture to justify the reality of a system of which they reaped the benefit, is just part of the story. The real issue was far greater than that. The theology that justified slavery also, in the minds of many Christians in the north justified what they considered “the hedonistic aspects of the Southern life style.” [16] This was something that abolitionist preachers continually emphasized, criticizing the greed, sloth and lust inherent in the culture of slavery and plantation life, and was an accusation of which Southern slaveholders, especially evangelicals took umbrage, for in their understanding good men could own slaves. Their defense was rooted in their theology. The hyper-individualistic language of Southern evangelicalism gave “new life to the claim that good men could hold slaves. Slaveholding was a traditional mark of success, and a moral defense of slavery was implicit wherever Americans who considered themselves good Christians held slaves.” [17] The hedonism and fundamentalism that existed in the Southern soul, was the “same conservative faith which inspired John Brown to violence in an attempt to abolish slavery…” [18]

Slave owners frequently expressed hostility to independent black churches and conducted violence against them, and “attacks on clandestine prayer meetings were not arbitrary. They reflected the assumption (as one Mississippi slave put it) “that when colored people were praying [by themselves] it was against them.” [19] But some Southern blacks accepted the basic tenets of slave owner-planter sponsored Christianity. Frederick Douglass later wrote “many good, religious colored people who were under the delusion that God required them to submit to slavery and wear their chains with weakness and humility.” [20]

The political and cultural rift began to affect entire church denominations. The heart of the matter went directly to theology, in this case the interpretation of the Bible in American churches.  The American Protestant and Evangelical understanding was rooted in the key theological principle of the Protestant Reformation, that of Sola Scripura, which became an intellectual trap for northerners and southerners of various theological stripes. Southerners believed that they held a “special fidelity to the Bible and relations with God. Southerners thought abolitionists either did not understand the Bible or did not know God’s will, and suspected them of perverting both.”  [21]The problem was then, as it is now that:

 “Americans favored a commonsense understanding of the Bible that ripped passages out of context and applied them to all people at all times. Sola scriptura both set and limited terms for discussing slavery and gave apologists for the institution great advantages. The patriarchs of the Old Testament had owned slaves, Mosaic Law upheld slavery, Jesus had not condemned slavery, and the apostles had advised slaves to obey their masters – these points summed up and closed the case for many southerners and no small number of northerners.” [22]

In the early decades of the nineteenth century there existed a certain confusion and ambivalence to slavery in most denominations. The Presbyterians exemplified this when in 1818 the “General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, while opposing slavery against the law of God, also went on record as opposing abolition, and deposed a minister for advocating abolition.” [23] There were arguments by some American Christians including some Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians and others to offer alternative ways to “interpreting and applying scripture to the slavery question,  but none were convincing or influential enough to force debate”  [24] out of the hands of literalists.

However the real schisms between the Northern and Southern branches of the major denominations which began to emerge in the mid to late 1830s continued to grow with the actual breakups of the major denominations coming in the 1840s. The first denomination to split was the Methodist church. This occurred in 1844 when “the Methodist General Conference condemned the bishop of Georgia for holding slaves, the church split and the following year saw the birth of the Methodist Episcopal Church.” [25] Not all Methodists in the South agreed with this split and a few Methodist abolitionists in the South “broke away from mainline Methodism to form the Free Methodist Church.” [26]


The Baptists were next, when the Foreign Mission Board “refused to commission a candidate who had been recommended by the Georgia Baptist Convention, on the ground that he owned slaves” [27] resulting in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Baptist split is interesting because until the early 1800s there existed a fairly strong anti-slavery movement in states such as Kentucky, while in 1790 the General Committee of Virginia “adopted a statement calling slavery “a violent deprivation of the rights of nature, and inconsistent with a republican government; and therefore [we] recommend it to our brethren to make use of every legal measure, to extirpate the horrid evil from the land.”  [28]

However, in many parts of the Deep South there existed no such sentiment and in South Carolina, noted Baptist preachers including “Richard Furman, Peter Bainbridge, and Edmund Botsford were among the larger slaveholders.” [29] Furman wrote a defense of slavery in 1822 where he made the argument that “the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures by precept and example.” [30]  After a number of slave uprisings, including the Nat Turner Revolt in Virginia, pro-slavery voices “tended to silence any remaining antislavery voices in the South.” [31]

These voices grew more ever more strident and in 1835 the Charleston Association “adopted a militant defense of slavery, sternly chastising abolitionists as “mistaken philanthropists, and denuded and mischievous fanatics.”  [32] Those who met in Augusta Georgia to found the new Southern Baptist Convention indicated that “the division was “painful” but necessary because” our brethren have pressed upon every inch of our privileges and our sacred rights.”  [33] Since the Baptist split was brought about by the refusal of the Triennial Convention to appoint slaveholders as foreign missionaries the new convention emphasized the theological nature of their decision:

“Our objects, then, are the extension of the Messiah’s kingdom, and the glory of God. Not disunion with any of his people; not the upholding of any form of civil rights; but God’s glory, and Messiah’s increasing reign; in the promotion of which, we find no necessity for relinquishing any of our civil rights. We will never interfere with what is Caesar’s. We will not compromit what is God’s.” [34]

Of course, to the Baptists who met at Augusta, “what was Caesar’s” was obviously the institution of slavery.

The last denomination to officially split was the Presbyterians in 1861 who, “reflecting the division of the nation, the Southern presbyteries withdrew from the Presbyterian Church and founded their own denomination.” [35] The split in the Presbyterian Church had been obvious for years despite their outward unity. Princeton’s eminent Charles Hodge tried to be a peacemaker in the denomination warning of the dangers of disunion. He wrote, “If we are to be plunged into the horrors of civil war and servile insurrections, no tongue can tell how the cause of the Redeemer must suffer throughout our whole land.” [36] But like many conservatives of his time Hodge was misguided in thinking that moderates could prevail and that a sentimental attachment to the Union would prevent secession and war.

Some Southern pastors and theologians were at the forefront of battling their northern counterparts for the theological high ground that defined just whose side God was on. James Henley Thornwell presented the conflict between northern evangelical abolitionists and southern evangelical defenders of slavery in Manichean terms, a battle between Christianity and Atheism, and he believed that abolitionists attacked religion itself.

Robert Lewis Dabney, a southern Presbyterian pastor who later served as Chief of Staff to Stonewall Jackson in the Valley Campaign and at Seven Pines and who remained a defender of slavery long after the war was over wrote that:

“we must go before the nation with the Bible as the text and ‘Thus saith the Lord’ as the answer….we know that on the Bible argument the abolition party will be driven to reveal their true infidel tendencies. The Bible being bound to stand on our side, they have to come out and array themselves against the Bible. And then the whole body of sincere believers at the North will have to array themselves, though unwillingly, on our side. They will prefer the Bible to abolitionism.” [37]

Southern churches and church leaders were among the most enthusiastic voices for disunion and secession. They labeled their Northern critics, even fellow evangelicals in the abolition movement as “atheists, infidels, communists, free-lovers, Bible-haters, and anti-Christian levelers.”  [38] The preachers who had called for separation from their own national denominations years before the war now “summoned their congregations to leave the foul Union and then to cleanse their world.” [39] Thomas R.R. Cobb, a Georgia lawyer, an outspoken advocate of slavery and secession who was killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg, wrote proudly that Secession “has been accomplished mainly by the churches.” [40]

The Reverend William Leacock of Christ Church, New Orleans declared in his Thanksgiving sermon of 1860: “Our enemies…have “defamed” our characters, “lacerated” our feelings, “invaded “our rights, “stolen” our property, and let “murderers…loose upon us, stimulated by weak or designing or infidel preachers. With “the deepest and blackest malice,” they have “proscribed” us “as unworthy members… of the society of men and accursed before God.”  Unless we sink to “craven” beginning that they “not disturb us,…nothing is now left us but secession.” [41]

The fact that so many Protestant ministers, intellectuals, and theologians, not only Southerners, but men like “Princeton’s venerable theologian Charles B. Hodge – supported the institution of slavery on biblical grounds, often dismissing abolitionists as liberal progressives who did not take the Bible seriously” leaves a troubling question over those who claim to oppose issues on supposedly Biblical grounds. There were many such men in the North who spoke out for it and against Christian Abolitionists “in order to protect and promote interests concomitant to slavery, namely biblical traditionalism, and social and theological authority.” [42] The Northern clerical defenders of slavery perceived the spread of abolitionist preaching as a threat, not just to slavery “but also to the very principle of social and ecclesiastical hierarchy.” [43] Alistair McGrath asks a very important question for modern Christians who might be tempted to support a position for the same reasons today, “Might not the same mistakes be made all over again, this time over another issue?” [44]


[1] Furman, Richard Exposition of the Views of Baptists, Relative to the Coloured Population in the United States May 28th 1823, In Communication the Governor of South Carolina, Second Edition A.E. Miller, Charleston SC 1838 retrieved from http://faceweb.furman.edu/~benson/docs/rcd-fmn1.htm 15 July 2016

[2] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States pp.29-30

[3] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day Harper p.219

[4] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2: pp.219-220

[5] Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism and Military Strategy Could not Stave Off Defeat Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 1999 p.67

[6] Ibid. McGrath Christianity’s Dangerous Idea p.324

[7] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.69

[8] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation 1861-1865 p.4

[9] Ibid. McGrath Christianity’s Dangerous Idea p.324

[10] Ibid. Varon Disunion! p.109

[11] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One p.29

[12] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One p.29

[13] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2: p.251

[14] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.54

[15] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.22

[16] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.22

[17] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.30

[18] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.22

[19] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.116

[20] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.116

[21] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.60

[22] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples  p.14

[23] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2 p.251

[24] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples  p.14

[25] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2 p.251

[26] Ibid. McGrath Christianity’s Dangerous Idea p.324

[27] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2 p.251

[28] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage p.383

[29] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage p.384

[30] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage p.384

[31] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage p.384

[32] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage p.384

[33] Shurden, Walter B Not a Silent People: The Controversies that Have Shaped Southern Baptists Broadman Press, Nashville TN 1972 p.58

[34] Ibid. Shurden Not a Silent People p.58

[35] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2 p.251

[36] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples p.13

[37] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples  p.14

[38] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom  p.97

[39] Freehling, William. The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2007 p.460

[40] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples  p.39

[41] Ibid. Freehling  The Road to Disunion Volume II p.462

[42] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom  p.38

[43] Ibid. Varon Disunion! P.108

[44] Ibid. McGrath Christianity’s Dangerous Idea p.324


1 Comment

Filed under civil rights, civil war, ethics, faith, History, Political Commentary, Religion

One response to ““An Institution Sanctioned by God” Southern Religious Support of Slavery

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