Department

History

Degree

Master of Arts (MA)

Chair

Samuel C Smith

Primary Subject Area

Black Studies; Religion, General; Religion, Clergy; History, Black; History, United States; History, Church

Keywords

american, Bible, clergy, servant, slavery, south

Disciplines

American Studies | Church History | Ethics in Religion | History | Race and Ethnicity | Religion | United States History

Abstract

Before the slavery debate pushed a divided American nation to the brink of civil war, the argument divided the family of God. By the time cannon fire erupted at Fort Sumter, Christians had already staked out positions based on sophisticated lines of argument they used to justify or condemn chattel slavery. The generation coming of age during the Civil War era witnessed a debate more intense and contentious than their ancestors had seen, but in terms of the arguments employed, it broke very little fresh ground. Contrary to the assumption that antebellum apologists in the South invented the defense of slavery as a positive good, the attempt to defend chattel slavery began long before ministers argued for the benefits of the institution in the 1830s. People of God largely supported the growth and virtue of slavery based on a narrow perception informed by their own personal experience. The slavery they knew was benevolent, not the degrading aberration described by abolitionists. The blacks they knew were not the social or intellectual equals of whites and thus, would benefit from being enslaved. The Bible they knew afforded proslavery Christians enough justification to support their preconceived notions. These factors combined to create a defense of slavery they viewed as consistent and justifiable. Christians committed to the same Bible, arrived at completely different conclusions regarding the biblical sanction of slavery. Their willingness to make Scripture fit their preconceived notions concerning the nature of slavery in the American South helped widen the disagreement. Common misconceptions over the racial inferiority of blacks evidenced an intellectual blind-spot that led both sides to equate race slavery with biblical slavery. These misconceptions caused many to claim the Bible sanctioned slavery even as they dismissed any possible scriptural distinction between servitude regulated by the Almighty and the brutal, demeaning brand of race slavery practiced primarily by southerners. Thinkers on both sides commonly considered biblical references, Enlightenment concepts of the natural rights of man, and pragmatic economic and social arguments to construct a formidable polemic. The early arguments informed the later debate, and a common thread wound its way through the dialogue, from colonial days through the national challenge of Reconstruction. While Christians disagreed regarding what Scripture proscribed, they chose to contextualize the Bible and define slavery in a manner best suited to their argument. The debate simmered for over a century. Ironically, it was agreement regarding the racial inferiority of the black that enabled some men to accept slavery while it prevented others from drawing a clear distinction between biblical servitude and race slavery. The volatile combination of misrepresentation, misinterpretation, and ignorance could only remain dormant for so long. The emotionally charged atmosphere of the mid-nineteenth century became the incubator that released the contagion of disunion upon the nation. Many lamented the coming of that dreaded day; others wondered how the nation had maintained a semblance of unity for so long.