It is almost impossible for 21st century Christians, much less deeply biased contemporary historians, to comprehend that nineteenth century Southerners could, with any sincerity or justification, defend the compatibility of Christianity with the institution of slavery. For the past six decades historians have spilled much ink conjuring up images of insincere and hypocritical commitment on the part of Southern Christians’ defense of slavery. Those “evil Southerners” are accused of violating Christian ethics and manipulating biblical interpretation to accommodate their self-serving economic greed and morbid desire for human bondage. On the other hand, contemporary judgement is quick to equate Northern abolitionists and even Northern political “antislavery” with traditional Christian ethics and a sincere commitment to biblical truth. These “caricatures” of the modern mind need deconstructing.

In order to do so it will first be beneficial to examine the historical context and general motives which formed the background of the slavery debate. The focus here will be on how the debate played out within the ecclesiastical rather than the political realm (though each realm certainly had influence on the other). And particular focus will be on the approach to the Bible within the debate.

It is significant to note that prior to the 1830’s, the churches both North and South favored a general anti-slavery sentiment that was sweeping over all of western civilization including America between 1770 and 1831. The Christian conscience in both sections of the Union was having difficulties with the institution. In the North this conscience, combined with ambitions for sectional political advantage, industrialization, and the more influential fact of a northern climate that made slavery unprofitable, was leading to emancipation (much easier accomplished due to the North’s smaller slave population). In the South, due to a much larger slave population and an agricultural economy, slavery was tolerated out of necessity though it was openly questioned.

It is difficult to determine with certainty the source of this anti-slavery attitude in the American churches. It represented a departure from the preceding centuries of Christian tradition wherein, since Augustine, doctrine and church law arose that justified and protected slavery. Traditionally, Christianity was as comfortable with slavery as any other religion ever had been. Most likely this new pricking of conscience was sourced in the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and inalienable rights far more than biblical exegesis. In this way Christian conscience was affected by an unlikely source – a rationalist idealism rather than explicit biblical injunctions. This helps us understand how Southern Christians could later in the 1830’s begin to sincerely defend slavery. It would have been unthinkable for Southern Christians to set aside biblical principles, but it was far easier for them to suspend rationalist ideology. Especially when that ideology was inspiring a Northern aggression that posed a real threat to the stability of the South as well as an inhumane outcome for the black folk Southerners had grown up with and often considered like family.

So, what led to the “about-face” in the Southern Christian’s moral consciousness regarding slavery? Why the shift to a defense of slavery? It was an about-face with no parallel in all the history of Christianity. The answer has to do with Northern Christian abolitionists progressively relying more on the authority of rationalist ideology and tending to stray from the authority of the Bible and orthodox Christian tradition. For these Northern Christians, slavery violated the ideals of liberty and natural rights and therefore was a “sin” that must be ended immediately. It became an obsession wrapped in religious packaging which to Southerners wreaked of self-righteous fervor, a phony virtue signaling, and a strategy for sectional political and economic advantage. Especially did it wreak when the irresponsible demands for an “immediate and uncompensated emancipation” contained no genuine humanitarian concern regarding what such demands might mean for destitute slaves suddenly cut off from the welfare of the master. Not to mention the complete disdain such demands held for the South’s socio-economic stability. Add to that abolitionist accusations against Southern moral character along with calls for terrorist tactics, and the Southern States were forced into a defensive posture that necessarily included a defense of slavery. Northern anti-slavery Senator Daniel Webster admitted that it was the tactics of radical abolitionists that quelled Southern emancipation momentum. The South did not defend slavery because it wanted to perpetuate and extend the institution. It defended slavery as the best means of managing so large a population of destitute people until hopefully the North might come to its senses and work cooperatively in emancipating, dispersing and assimilating the slave population throughout the Union. Without that cooperation all Southern lives, both black and white, were threatened with a socio-economic disaster. But there was no sign of that cooperation happening anytime soon, especially from Northern politicians.

As radical abolitionism increased in fervor and included terrorist tactics, Southerners dug in their heels regarding slavery. Tensions rose leading to sectional splits in the main bodies of organized religion in America. Northern abolitionism continued its pressure with a “legalistic” fervor. A legalism exercised more for personal feelings of self-righteousness than for the benefit of those in need. It became virtue signaling devoid of any real personal sacrifice, (and would continue post-war in the braggadocio claims of participating in the largely fabricated “Underground Railroad.”) Northern Christianity being more and more caught up in social reform ideals increased its attacks upon its Southern brethren, allowing its opposition to slavery to become a psychopathic hatred of slave holders.

When both sides turned to the Bible to defend their positions, surprisingly the Christian abolitionists were often forced to place more authority on reform ideology than upon Scripture. Northern Christians became more susceptible to unorthodox doctrines and hermeneutical methods. The Southern Christians tended to be more conservative and dependent upon the literal teachings of Scripture as their ultimate authority. Here we recognize a fundamental difference between Northern and Southern Christianity at that time. As the North continually attacked Southern honor with accusations of “sinful” slave holding, Southerners were forced to put their own secular Enlightenment sensitivities on the backburner as they revisited biblical arguments that favored slavery. Becoming increasingly acclimated to a defense of slavery forced upon them by their agitators, they developed an amplified recognition of the fact that their Southern society was religiously different from that of the North. This difference provided additional impetus to the South’s desire for independence from the North. Southern Christianity was uncomfortable with certain “liberal tendencies” that characterized Northern Christianity and its radical social reform ideals. This amplified a distinction between Southern and Northern anti-slavery. Southern anti-slavery held practical concerns regarding the potential consequences of emancipation for both Southern society, and yes, the Southern slaves. Until a practical and well-planned emancipation could occur, Southern Christians sought to maintain Christian moral principles along with and within the institution of slavery. Contrast that with Northern demands for an immediate and unplanned emancipation inspired more by utopian goals than a real concern for the slaves. Even worse were large group of abolitionists who were against slavery because they were against blacks. Ending slavery was to them an important first step to ridding the Union of black people; hiding such a despicable motive within the trojan horse of religion. The ultimate goal was colonization or a Darwinian “dying out” of blacks in America.

The difference between Northern and Southern religion is evidenced in the way each section reacted to the religious enthusiasm from the revivals that were sweeping the nation in the first thirty-five years of the 19th century. The South held religious enthusiasm within the strict bounds of a traditional authoritarian conservative orthodoxy with which it had emerged from the Second Great Awakening. In the North this same religious enthusiasm produced an extreme subjectivism that encouraged unorthodox sects such as the Universalists, the Mormons, and the Millerites. Without the restraints that characterized the conservatism of the Christian South, there was an excitability which flirted with religious utopianism based upon a doctrine of “perfectionism” that was focused on social reform – a fundamental remaking of America in the image of Northern ideals. Determined to create the perfect Union, Northern Christian abolitionists were a compilation of “isms” whose utopian agenda deeply concerned Southern Christians protective of Christian orthodoxy. Southern Christians were rightfully concerned by what they perceived to be, in the subjectivist idealism of Northern Christianity, a challenge to necessary authority such as the Bible, the Church, and yes, the Constitution. Northern Christians proclaimed a “higher law,” a moral conscience that not only usurped biblical authority, but also the authority of the Constitution. Southerners could find no explicit condemnation of slavery in the Bible and realized that not only was Church tradition behind them but also the Constitution. By what authority, they asked, did Northern Christians condemn the institution of slavery as sinful and call for its immediate abolition? They believed that the above-mentioned authorities had been established by God for the control of sinful man, and the “conscience” of the Christian Abolitionists was not one of those authorities!

In essence the religion of the South and the Southern worldview, was based upon a belief that God’s will for the individual and society is “objectively” revealed in the Bible and upheld by orthodox tradition. By contrast, the religion of the North stressed the subjective “spirit of Christianity” through which God’s will for the individual and society was known. The Scriptures had a secondary role.  The religion of the South believed that man’s sinful nature precluded any utopian goal of creating a perfect society. The enthusiasm of revival focused more on personal conversion than social reform. By contrast, the religion of the North believed in the perfectibility of man. Society could be perfected by abolishing any social institution that inhibited the moral perfection of individuals. In the North, the enthusiasm of revival was focused on social institutional reform, and so conversion became subordinate to emancipation. In essence, the reform movement itself was becoming a religion. Reform conscience judged everything by reform standards rather than biblical standards. Reform became the test of faith, calling into question the very fundamentals of Christianity. Some Northern abolitionists went so far as to say they would give allegiance to their own reform ideals if they proved contradictory to the will of God. The Bible was assessed not by what it said but by what a 19th century reformer’s moral code held it should say. As a result, men such as William Garrison, LaRoy Sunderland, Theodore Weld, and James Birney all began as orthodox Christians and later wandered into heterodoxy.

In summary, both sides of the ecclesiastical debate began with a discomfort with slavery. In the North this “conscience” intensified unchecked by social, economic, and humanitarian concerns as well as any allegiance to a conservative hermeneutic. In the South, its uneasy toleration of slavery and momentum for a practical emancipation had been interrupted by the Northern demand for an immediate unplanned emancipation.  By this demand Southern Christians were forced back into the long-standing Christian tradition of finding compatibility with slavery and the biblical passages that informed it. Northern Christians countered with the charge of slavery’s incompatibility with the “spirit of Christianity” and the “sinfulness” of Southerners. The South defended its honor and responded with the Bible which contained no explicit condemnation of slavery. This response was spun to claim that the South desired the perpetuation and extension of human bondage. That was a fabrication made by those seeking a villain to oppose in their quest to appear virtuous. Such a quest is exactly why the South began vehemently defending slavery. Southern Christians saw the institution as a safe harbor from a careless fanaticism that would have sentenced the slaves to a life of mendicancy, crime, deportation, and death just to “feel” and “appear” holier than thou.

Part Two will be an examination of how both sides specifically used the Bible in the ecclesiastical debate.

Sources consulted:

  • Lester B. Sherer, “Slavery and the Churches in Early America”
  • Hilary A. Herbert, “The Abolition Crusade and Its Consequence”
  • Dwight L. Drumand, “Antislavery Origins of the Civil War in the United States”
  • Thomas V. Peterson, “Ham and Japeth: The Mythic World of Whites in the Antebellum South”
  • John L. Thomas, “Antislavery and Utopia,” in “The Antislavery Vanguard: New Essays on the Abolitionists,” edited by Martin Duberman.
  • Ronald G. Walters, “The Antislavery Appeal”
  • Bishop John England, “Letters”
  • Madeleine H. Rice, “American Catholic Opinion in the Slavery Controversy”

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.


  • Matt C. says:

    Excellent article and study, Mr. O’Barr. Thank you.

  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    Not a single northern State ever freed a slave. There were no taxes levied to buy freedom. Plenty of time was given to owners to sell their stock down the river…to New Jersey, perhaps.
    Then, the northern States passed laws to prevent blacks from moving north. The north didn’t care about ending slavery to help blacks…the north didn’t want slavery to compete with free White labor. It was easy to get rid of slavery in the north…at one or two percent of the total population…if the north was serious about ending slavery, the north could have placed a boycott on Southern slave products.
    Yankees had to have that cotton for their mills…and who likes to smoke corn silk?
    Slavery spreading meant fewer White immigrants coming across the ocean to fill northern cities with cheap White labor…the labor had to be cheap… in the South we allowed blacks to live, have businesses, own slaves…try moving to Illinois in 1860 as a black man, with a State Constitutional Amendment prohibiting blacks from entry. Try living in Oregon as a black man in 1860…as a Whites-Only State, that would have been a sight to behold.

  • Phillip Dickey says:

    New Haven County, Connecticut, home of Eli Whitney and the cotton gin, went for McClellan in the 1864 presidential election. The New Haven economy needed cotton, and they wanted the war to end.

  • L. M. Garnett says:

    Excellent condensation of a complex situation, that a researcher must find to be filled with as many exceptions, twists, misperceptions and ex post facto propaganda, as he finds factual records to support an accurate assessment.

    And thank you for including for including your supporting bibliography.

  • William Duncan says:

    Don’t forget the Jacobites.

  • Matt C. says:

    I noticed one source was a book about Japheth and Ham. Regarding Ham, I think the nakedness he uncovered was Noah’s wife; Hampton uncovered Noah’s nakedness. So Ham had relations with his mother. But, Ham wasn’t cursed, it was Canaan. Ham was blessed by God in Gen. 9:1. Noah couldn’t undo that. The 3 son’s of Noah were the racial heads. The three had a divinely appointed division of responsibility to care for the specific needs of mankind at three fundamental levels. Shem had the character of the spiritual, inner strength. Ham had the character of the physical aspects of life, technical skills; about getting the job done. Japheth is the philosopher, the thinker. Shem and Ham originate things and Japheth expands on it, often at the expense of the other two.

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