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How Protestant Theology Boosted American Slavery

In the 19th century, Protestant supporters of slavery saw their mission not only as keeping their cultural institution alive, but defending Scripture.

Don Johnson

The relationship between early American biblical justifications for slavery and the lengths to which Southern Christians later went to defend it cannot be overstated. In colonial America, Protestant defenders of slavery, using Scripture as their authority, gave the institution a divine stamp of approval, a move that would resonate for centuries.

As professors Michael Emerson and Christian Smith point out:

In an effort to garner support for Christianizing activities, the clergy not only reaffirmed the appropriateness of slavery as an institution, but gave it cosmic status, solidifying its position in America. Moreover, they unintentionally laid the groundwork for the more advanced nineteenth-century pro-slavery biblically-based doctrines. As theologian Ernst Troeltsch concluded, the “teachings and practice of the church constituted one of the main sanctions for [slavery’s] perpetuation.”

In other words, the Protestant Christianity practiced in colonial America not only perpetuated slavery, but made it harder to root out of American culture precisely because those who supported it were convinced that God was on their side.

This phenomenon was made possible by sola scriptura, and it only got worse in the nineteenth century, when abolitionist movements started to grow worldwide. In response, supporters of slavery became even more stridently biblical and theological in their defense. With no outside interpretive authority to undermine them, their racist interpretations gained a wide following.

Some interpreters went to the Old Testament for support. For example, Presbyterian pastor George D. Armstrong published “The Christian Doctrine of Slavery,” in which he justified American racism by appealing to the biblical sin of Ham. Armstrong continued the tradition, which we examined earlier, of arguing that Ham’s descendants were Africans, and as such, all Africans were meant for perpetual enslavement.

Armstrong and others pointed out several other biblical passages to support slavery. They noted that Abraham and all the patriarchs held slaves (Gen. 21:9-10) and that the Ten Commandments mentioned slavery twice, showing God’s implicit acceptance of it (Exod. 20:10, 17).

The New Testament also bolstered the slave holder’s case, in Armstrong’s opinion. After all, the apostle Paul returned the runaway slave, Philemon, to his master (Phil. 12) and commanded slaves to obey those who “owned” them (Eph. 6:5-8). Also, the Roman world had slavery, and Jesus never spoke against it—not to mention that everyone is to obey the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1,7).

These passages and more provided the backdrop for immensely wide Christian support of slavery. Biblical and theological pronouncements about God’s support for slavery came from all quarters. For example, as Stephen R. Haynes details in Noah’s Curse, the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America talked about the “divine appointment of domestic servitude” and states that its members “hesitate not to affirm that it is the peculiar mission of the Southern Church to conserve the institution of slavery, and to make it a blessing both to master and slave.”

As the battle with the abolitionists heated up, Christian supporters of slavery began to see their mission not only as keeping their cultural institution alive, but defending Scripture. Presbyterian Henry Van Dyke went so far as to claim that those who questioned his position were guilty of sacrilege: “When the abolitionist tells me that slaveholding is sin, in the simplicity of my faith in the Holy Scriptures, I point him to this sacred record, and tell him, in all candor, as my text does, that his teaching blasphemes the name of God and his doctrine.”

Van Dyke was not alone in this approach. Indeed, the idea that abolitionists were fighting the Bible, Christianity, and ultimately God himself became widespread in the South. It did not matter that the abolitionists were using the same Bible that the slaver-holders were in order to call for an end to slavery. It did not matter that, on the surface, the abolitionist message that all men are created in the image of God and worthy of love, and that we must apply Jesus’ Golden Rule to everyone, including Africans, seemed biblical. From a slave holder’s perspective, the abolitionists were false Christians who were interpreting the Bible incorrectly.

Just as in Reformation debates over doctrine, all sides claimed the mantle of true Christianity and labeled their opponents enemies of God. For example, Southern Methodist minister J.W. Tucker told a Confederate audience in 1862, “Your cause is the cause of God, the cause of Christ, of humanity. It is a conflict of truth with error—of Bible with Northern infidelity—of pure Christianity with Northern fanaticism.” On the other side, Episcopalian Bishop Thomas March of Rhode Island told a Northern militia, “It is a holy and righteous cause in which you enlist . . . God is with us . . . the Lord of Hosts is on our side.”

It is no surprise, then, that many American denominations split over the issue of slavery. Today the Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest Protestant group, but the only reason we have a “Southern” Baptist Convention is that in 1845 they split from the Northern Baptists over slavery. The same thing happened with the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Presbyterians. The newly formed “Southern Presbyterian Church” issued a resolution in 1864 stating, “We hesitate not to affirm that it is the peculiar mission of the Southern Church to conserve the institution of slavery, and to make it a blessing to master and slave.” They went on to decree that the Northern dogma that slavery was inherently sinful was “unscriptural and fanatical . . . one of the most pernicious heresies of modern times.”

This is where sola scriptura had brought America. In his masterful work, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Protestant historian Mark Noll summarizes the situation well:

The political standoff that led to war was matched by an interpretive standoff. No common meaning could be discovered in the Bible, which almost everyone in the United States professed to honor and which was, without a rival, the most widely read text of any kind in the whole country.

Noll is not the only historian to point out that the “interpretive standoff” helped lead the country to the Civil War. The fact that both supporters and opponents of slavery saw their fight as a religious crusade to save true Christianity certainly helped fuel the motivation for war. Paul Johnson notes that “to judge by the many hundreds of sermons and special prayers which have survived, ministers were among the most fanatical on both sides.” He concludes, “The churches played a major role in the dividing of the nation, and it is probably true that it was the splits in the churches which made a final split of the nation inevitable.”

This is an excerpt from Don Johnson’s hit new book Twisted Unto Destruction: How “Bible Alone” Theology Made the World a Worse Place. Buy the book today at the Catholic Answers shop.

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