Ecclesiastical organizations, both North and South, had by the early 19th century developed sensitivities uncomfortable with the institution of slavery. This discomfort was sourced in common Enlightenment ideals regarding liberty and natural law but took on sectional distinctions which led to conflict. An ideological fervor swept the North which influenced a radicalism that played loosely with any consideration of traditional values, the rule of law, and any socio-economic consequences for the Southern people both slave and free. It only energized the North’s radicalism that sectional political/economic benefit paired well with its “antislavery” fervor.

It was only natural that the South would suspend its discomfort with slavery to defend its honor against the charge of “sinfulness,” its economy against Northern exploitation, and its long-standing fidelity to the literal rule of law against a Northern disregard for legal authority. Whether it was the North’s tendency to “read between the lines” of the Constitution in search of “implied powers” for sectional benefit, or between the lines of the Bible to find a “spirit of Christianity” that established the “sinfulness of slavery,” when the South looked between those same lines all it found, as Jefferson is alleged to have said, was blank space. The South was committed to both the Constitution and the Bible in a way the North was not, and this deeply troubled the South’s comfort with the Union. The South responded to Northern attacks on its moral integrity by turning to the Bible. We turn now to look at how the North approached the Bible in response to Southern exegesis.

In the typical fashion of ideologues, Northern radicals placed much emphasis on the subjective experience of Divine revelation through conscience. The antislavery conscience was a conviction that slavery was “a sin, a great sin, a sin under all circumstances.” (1) One Northern writer connected this conviction of conscience with Enlightenment ideals saying, “Facts prove that it is conscience that has nerved the arm, fired the heart, and emboldened the soul in all great struggles for truth and liberty.” (2) This conviction of conscience was externalized in an unreasonable demand for “immediate emancipation” based upon the present revivalistic enthusiasm which called for an immediate end to all sin in pursuit of social perfection in anticipation of the millennium.

It was not the Bible that initially created this conviction of conscience; a fact that would not have bothered Northern Christians even if they had realized it. Their convictions were not limited to standards explicitly or literally revealed in Scripture. They believed God’s law could be revealed through “the moral sense of mankind” (3), through “common sense” (4), and through the “natural constitution of things.” (5) They were however driven to make an appeal to the Bible as “the standard of morals in this nation” because it was by such an appeal that the South endeavored to defend itself. (6) Conscience would have little authority if it contradicted Scripture, but Scripture was not the starting point of abolitionist’s conviction that slavery was a sin. The abolitionists quoted the Declaration of Independence as often as they did the Apostles in declaring the sinfulness of slavery. The claim was that “Slavery requires, in its very nature, acts of injustice, which infringe on the inalienable rights of mankind.” (7) “If slavery be not sin, per se, then it follows that the rights of man are not inherent and inalienable.” (8)

Northern Christian abolitionists primarily pointed to certain biblical principles forming the “spirit of Christianity,” which were antithetical to an institution that denied men their inalienable rights. One writes, “First we take the Law of Love…. No man can claim property in man and not violate that injunction.” (9) Another said, “We have claimed certain rights ourselves…. and we are bound by the simplest principles of the gospel and of justice to accord the same right to others.” (10) One of those “simplest principles” often repeated was: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye so to them.” Passages such as this are listed to demonstrate that, though there is no explicit denunciation of slavery in the Bible, there are basic principles incompatible with the institution revealing its sinfulness. But behind the abolitionists’ basic principles and crucial to their argument is the necessary presupposition of Enlightenment ideology.

Another argument used in the antislavery argument was to demonstrate that slavery conflicted with certain duties and prohibitions in the Bible. This argument leaned heavily on the presupposition that all the incidental evils occurring within the institution were inseparable from it. This inherent evil precluded any idea of Christianizing the institution. Some of the Christian duties abolitionists believed inherently prohibited by slavery were:

“The duty to know and worship God” (Luke 16:29; John 5:39; Acts 17:11). (11) “The natural right…. to worship God” (Acts 4: 18 – 20, 29; John 5:39; I Cor. 10:29; I Thess. 5:21; I John 4:1; Luke 11:52). (12) The duty of marriage (Heb. 13). The duty of wives to husbands (Eph. 5:21). The duty of husbands to wives (Eph. 5:28; I Peter 3:7). The duties of parents and children (Gen. 18:19; Eph. 6:1,4; Ex. 20:12; Col. 3:20).

The Biblical prohibitions abolitionists believed inherent to slavery were: Manstealing (Ex. 21:16; II Tim. 1:10). Oppression (Ps. 12:5; Ps. 22:4, 12). Trafficking in human beings (Deut. 24:7; Amos 2:6; Joel 3:3). Withholding wages (Jer. 22:13, 14; Hab. 2:9 – 12; Mal. 3:5). The preceding three arguments: the inalienable rights; the “spirit of Christianity;” the biblical duties and prohibitions, were the most common arguments used by the abolitionists.

In seeking to disallow that the Old Testament condoned or tolerated slavery the abolitionists were united in their method. They all sought to deny any link between “the curse of Canaan” and the negro slaves in America. (13) They sought a distinction between “Hebrew servitude” and “American chattel slavery,” and stressed that even if Old Testament leaders held slaves and instructed in the practice of slavery, this does not justify the practice in the 19th century, because many Old Testament practices were annulled by the New Testament (such as polygamy)..

However, when abolitionists turned to the New Testament, their argument became more difficult, and they were not so united. The ways in which they sought to explain away the apparent toleration of slavery were almost as varied as the number of abolitionists writers. In the face of the difficulty of this task, some began to question the authority of the Bible. One moderate abolitionist lamented, “It is a fact well understood that many are fast losing their confidence in the scriptures…” (14) This fact fueled the division between Northern and Southern ecclesiastical bodies as conservative Southerners were quite disturbed by Northern infidelity to the Bible.

In explaining Christ’s silence about slavery, some Northern abolitionists claimed He did not encounter it, therefore having no occasion to condemn it as sin. (15) The Apostles’ writings are explained away by suggesting the Greek word “doulos” means “hired servant” rather than slave. (16) Therefore the “apostles did not admit slavery or slaveholders into the Church because they could not…. The Church is holy, but slavery is unholy.” (17) However, the more respected abolitionist theologians admitted that the apostles were dealing with a Roman slavery that included all the evils of American slavery. (18) Yet even these theologians, presupposing the inherent sinfulness of slavery, sought to explain the apostles’ actions in terms of moral ignorance (19), or political submission (20). Most held to the explanation of political submission, teaching that the apostles avoided political revolution by merely planting the Gospel seed which would eventually lead to an abolition of slavery. (21)

In their approach to the Bible one can distinguish the moderate from the radical abolitionists. The latter denied the Apostles were dealing with chattel slavery, emphasized its inherent sinfulness, and irresponsibly called for immediate emancipation. The more moderate abolitionists scolded the methods of the radicals, especially their violent denunciations of slaveholders, the Church, and the Constitution. They upheld what they believed to be the method of the Apostles who peacefully submitted to authority while patiently waiting for the Gospel to have its emancipating effect. (22) One moderate wrote, “One great principle we should lay down as immovably true, is, that if a good work cannot be carried on by calm, self-controlled, benevolent spirit of Christianity, then the time for doing it has not come.” (23)

Unfortunately, moderate abolitionists were in the minority. If all the abolitionists had adhered to the principles of the moderates, perhaps they would not have alienated their Southern brethren who were with them in their discomfort with slavery. There was a good chance that a united American Christendom would have brought about a peaceful emancipation of the slaves, even if it could not have avoided a war that was more about sectional political and economic divisions than it was slavery. But who knows what influences a united ecclesiastical effort might have had even on politicians.

Most Christians both North and South hoped that slavery would come to an end. But when ideology prevailed in Northern Christendom, an emphasis on abstract human rights took precedent over the Biblical emphasis on a concern for practical human need. Irresponsible demands replaced any consideration for treating Southerners as they themselves might want to be treated; much less any consideration regarding what might be best for the slaves. Even Northern antislavery politician Daniel Webster placed the blame at the feet of Northern radical abolitionists for the quelling of the South’s emancipation momentum. Eventually Southerners argued they were forced to pursue secession to protect themselves from Northern radicalism. Robert E. Lee along with many others affirmed the South’s desire to end slavery, but added, “unless some humane course, based on wisdom and Christian principles, is adopted, you do them [slaves] great injustice in setting them free.” It was just such an injustice that the radical abolitionists were proposing. Jefferson Davis emphasized that, “When the time shall arrive at which emancipation is proper, those most interested will be most anxious to effect it.” What prevented the arrival of that “proper time” was both: Northern politician’s unwillingness to cooperate in a Union wide accommodation of the slaves if freed, and radical abolitionist irresponsible demands for an inhumane immediate and unplanned emancipation backed by terrorist activities all while impugning the moral integrity of their Southern brethren. Like modern day anti-abortionists who bomb abortion clinics, Northern radical abolitionists were unable to recognize that two wrongs do not make a right.


1- William Hosmer, “Slavery and the Church.” (New York: Negro University Press, 1853 reprinted 1969), chapters II, III, IV.

2- John G. Fee, “An Anti-Slavery Manual.” (Maysville, Ky.: Printed at the Herald Office, 1848), p. viii.

3- op. cit., William Hosmer, p. 20.

4- Luther Lee, “Slavery Examined in the Light of the Bible.” (Syracuse, N.Y.: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1855), preface.

5- Willian Hosmer, “The Higher Law.” (New York: Negro University Press, 1852 reprinted 1969), p. 18.

6- Albert Barnes, “An Inquiry into the Scriptural Views of Slavery.” (Philadelphia:  Perkins and Purves, 1846) p. 28. See also op. cit., John Fee, p. viii.

7- Charles Elliot, “Sinfulness of American Slavery.” (New York: Negro University Press, 1850 reprinted 1968), p. 103.

8- op. cit., William Hosmer, “Slavery and the Church, p. 40.

9- George B. Cheever, “God Against Slavery.” (Cincinnati: Am. Reform Tract and Book Society, 1858), pp. 94, 95.

10- Daniel R. Goodwin, “Southern Slavery in its Present Aspects.” (New York: Negro University Press, 1864 reprinted 1969), pp. 113 – 114.

11- op. cit., Luther Lee, p. 8.

12- op. cit., Albert Barnes, p. 346.

13- ibid., pp. 52 – 59; see also op. cit., John G. Fee, pp. 18 – 19.

14- op. cit., Luther Lee, preface.

15- op. cit., Albert Barnes, p. 242.

16- op. cit., Luther Lee, pp. 108 – 113.

17- op. cit., William Hosmer, “Slavery and the Church,” p. 56f.

18- op. cit., Albert Barnes, p. 250.

19- op. cit., David Christy, p. 84.

20- Goldwin Smith, “Does the Bible Sanction American Slavery,” (Cambridge: Sever and Francis, 1863) pp. 80, 86.

21- op. cit., Albert Barnes, pp. 229 – 266.

22- ibid., pp. 266 – 268, 382 – 383.

23- ibid., pp. 267 – 268.

Rod O'Barr

Rod O’Barr is retired and lives in Tennessee with his wife of 45 years, Kathy. He has advanced degrees in Philosophy and Theology, and a lifelong interest in history. He is the webmaster of a WWII website and a member of both the Abbeville Institute and the SCV. When not enjoying time with his children he enjoys doing living history at local schools.


  • Valerie Protopapas says:

    It seems rather odd not to mention entirely hypocritical for anyone north of the Mason-Dixon line to look for guilt in the slavery issue. Remember, ALL the slave trade originated in New England and New York. NO SLAVE SHIP EVER SAILED FROM THE SOUTH! Meanwhile, in colonial times, Virginia and North Carolina petitioned King George to cease importing blacks from Africa but the King refused! Until the uprising of radical abolitionists who wanted to create servile insurrection that would kill both blacks and whites in the South, the South had more abolitionist organizations than the North ever did! Many in the South wanted to end the “peculiar institution,” but nobody knew how to do it as free blacks were not welcome in the North and many states including Lincoln’s Illinois had black codes forbidding them from moving into those states! It all sounds so simple when you only know part of the story.

    • William Quinton Platt III says:

      The controllers of the narrative have lost their monopoly on the message…please continue your excellent broadsides into their rotten planking…

  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    It isn’t odd. It is just the kind of people that live north of the Mason Dixon line: weak, cowardly, dishonest…

  • Matt C. says:

    Excellent article, Mr. O’Barr, thank you.

    The abolitionists were correct about the curse of Canaan. There is no connection from the curse of Canaan to 19th century,  or earlier, slavery.

    “They…stressed that even if Old Testament leaders held slaves and instructed in the practice of slavery, this does not justify the practice in the 19th century, because many Old Testament practices were annulled by the New Testament…” The abolitionist theologians were not correct on this. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and early Acts, was still on Old Testament ground (under the Mosaic Law). The book of Hebrews says there can be no new testament without first the death of the testator. So, there’s not even a possibility of a new testament until the cross which is at the end of the gospel’s. He made the provision for the new “covenant,” but, it didn’t take effect, (yet). The most important thing in regards to any discussion involving the Old Testament and the New, is that it recognize that it concerns Israel and not Christianity.  That is a critical point. If the theologians wanted to argue or defend something from the Bible, as far as Christianity is concerned,  they need(ed) to do so from Paul’s epistles. That’s where Christianity’s doctrine is located. The former Confederate soldier, C.I. Scofield, came to this realization after the war. The bottom line is that Christianity can’t figure out any aspect of the Christian life by studying the program that doesn’t have anything to do with Christianity. Christianity and God’s program with Israel have to be kept separated.  If a Christian wants to know what the Bible might say about slavery, he or she needs to go to Paul’s epistles.

    “…the more respected abolitionist theologians admitted that the apostles were dealing with a Roman slavery that included all the evils of American slavery.” The apostles probably encountered Roman slavery and abhorred it, but it must be realized that the apostles, at least before Paul, were strictly dealing with their own: Jews. Pre Paul, the apostles mission in the gospels was to Israel, not to Gentiles (not until Israel was first made right). Those abolitionist theologians evidently didn’t seem to understand what was going on the gospels or early Acts. Hopefully, those theologians came across the truths Scofield helped to recover.

Leave a Reply