Abolitionism And Christianity

Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.***1Peter 2: 18-20

The institution of slavery is one of the ugliest blots on humanity’s record.  It existed since the beginning of civilization and probably long before.  The discomforting fact for religious believers is that the “peculiar institution” was morally acceptable during an earlier, more religious time in our nation’s history.  The morality of slavery was never called into question up until comparatively recent times.  The source and justification for it is not hard to find.  Ironically, while many people look to the Bible for moral guidance, the supposedly “good book” does not contain a single word condemning the institution of slavery, but instead supports it without question, as the above quote clearly illustrates.  This fact was not lost on slave owners in the antebellum South who referred to the institution as a “positive good” and were able to cite chapter and verse in support of their conclusions.

Many biblical stories in fact served their purposes quite well, as they provided “divine proof” that the institution was in fact moral.  Probably the best-known of these stories is the so-called “curse of Canaan.”  In this story, Noah curses Ham’s youngest son Canaan by making him a “servant of servants.”  This story became twisted and contorted over the centuries and ultimately served as the primary scriptural basis for anti-black racism and a justification for their enslavement.  There was ample historical precedent for using the story in this way, as white Christians had argued for centuries that the story meant that all primitive and backward black people were in fact descendants of Ham.

Some slave owners displayed even more appalling gall.  For example Howell Cobb (1815-1868), who was one of the famous “Georgia Triumvirate” (along with Jefferson Davis and Robert Toombs), stated in 1856 that the lot of the slave was due to his own “wickedness,”   a classic example of blaming the victim.  Southern leaders never hesitated to point out the fact that the Bible supported the institution.  Consider for example the words of Alexander Campbell, an early church founder: “There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it.  It is not then, we conclude, immoral.”

The greatest affront of all was seen in the effort made by certain southern Christians to convert their slaves.  The irony of trying to make the slaves embrace the religion that was being used to justify their enslavement was obviously lost on these owners.  Some of these men went so far as to insist that the only way for a slave to attain salvation was to remain enslaved!

However, many slave owners were skeptical about converting their human property and with good reason for slave conversion as well as literacy was considered a crime throughout the South.  Nonetheless, it could be argued that, since the Bible was supportive of slavery, the effort to convert blacks was one of the major reasons why there were so few insurrections in our nation’s history.

Christianity, like most religions, promotes a social hierarchical system which always benefits the ruling elites.  The rich need only point to the verse about the meek inheriting the earth to justify the status quo.  The poor should therefore be content with their lot since they will enjoy great benefits not in this life of course, but in the imagined life to come.  This is history’s greatest scam and it still works to this day.

The fundamental cause of Christian racism can be glimpsed in the statement made by Congregationalist minister Josiah Strong who noted that Christianity compels its followers to “fulfill the missionary charge of world evangelization.”  This illustrates the inherent thrust that inspires devout Christians to go forth and convert others.  Looked at from the perspective of those “others,” this simply means that evangelical Christians seem unable to leave anyone else alone.  This also shows a fundamental intolerance that has been built into Christianity since its inception, which tends to make its adherents hostile to any other way of thinking.  This attitude extended outward from the pulpit to the congregation and from there, ultimately became indelibly intertwined with the infrastructure of American governmental policy.

Further proof of the racism inherent in Christianity can be seen in the simple fact that while many of the anti-slavery advocates spoke of love and compassion, this was meant solely in the context of conversion.  This crucial point cannot be over-emphasized.  The slave (or anyone else daring to remain unconverted) was not to receive any of this love or any of the other alleged “Christian virtues” unless he/she first converted.  To understand this point is to understand two thousand years of Christian history and barbarity.  Thus understood, brotherhood in the Christian community meant a brotherhood composed exclusively of fellow Christians.  Those of differing faiths or of no faith were excluded and subject to scorn, shame, and various forms of discrimination.  To deny this is to deny the facts of history.  Shame was a powerful weapon in early America which urged social uniformity and drove out those who did not conform.  The persecuted in Europe quickly became the persecutors in the American colonies.

The pro-Christian bias that mars so many U.S. history texts, past and present, can be seen in the way the abolitionist movement is usually portrayed.  The Second Great Awakening, a fundamentalist religious movement beginning circa 1800, is invariably offered as an important causative factor in the burgeoning abolitionist movement.  However, this is revisionist history, the implication being that Christianity was at the heart of the effort to free the slaves.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  First of all, it utterly ignores how Christianity ignored the institution for almost two millennia and only seemingly embraced it after the principles of the Enlightenment had been written into our secular Constitution.  The eradication of human bondage was in fact a necessary and inevitable corollary of the principles of the Enlightenment and Age of Rationalism, secular reactions to the fifteen hundred year stranglehold Christianity had on the throat of Western civilization and morality.  This rationalist movement, which swept across Europe in the late sixteenth century, greatly influenced the men who founded the United States of America in the following century.  These men founded the first governmental system in history entirely free from the shackles of religion.  Thus did secularism enter American lives, and only then did the abolitionist movement begin to emerge.  By no stretch of the imagination can religious impulses or devotion be cited as causative factors.  Isn’t it more than coincidental that abolitionism just happened to emerge at the same time as the founding of the secular government of the United States and never during the time when Christianity ruled supreme?  Those arguing for the role of religion in the destruction of slavery ignore the fact that abolitionism did not emerge from the First Great Awakening, which occurred some sixty years earlier.  Why not?  Did the first Awakening’s leaders, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, cry out in indignation against the wrongs of human bondage?  They did not.  Was the anti-slavery banner raised anywhere in the colonies as the result of the first Awakening?  It was not.  Slavery was not eradicated in this country until secularism had attained an ideological foothold in the minds of its leaders and citizens via the founding of the United States based on Enlightenment principles.  Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the other founding fathers were of a decidedly different mindset than Edwards and the other medieval religionists of the previous generation.  Rationalism’s obvious benefits forced Christianity to change.  Yes, many of the leaders of the abolitionist movement were Christians.  Yet the simple fact remains that they were acting on rational, humanistic impulses, rather than religious ones.  To argue otherwise is to ignore both the Enlightenment as well as fifteen hundred years of Christian history.

Once the blight of slavery had been removed, or at least ameliorated, from society, the church predictably stepped in and tried to take the credit.   In the righteous tones of the morally duplicitous, they claim that their faith was the motivational factor, that the slave traders and owners weren’t “real” Christians, that the entire history of slavery only proves their contention that humanity is innately depraved and in need of salvation.  Their unquestioning flocks, blinded by their faith and already long convinced of their religion’s moral worth, nod their heads in obsequious agreement.

Like it or not, there is nothing in the Bible that calls for the downtrodden to rise against their oppressors.  There is much, by contrast, telling them to be content with their lot in life, assuring them that the “life to come” will be all the more glorious.  Since there is no afterlife, this remains Christianity’s ultimate con job, and illustrates Napoleon’s point when he said “We have religion to keep the poor from murdering the rich.”

Simply put, the world has moved beyond the primitive morality of the Bible.  Except perhaps for a few recalcitrant bigots, Americans today rightly view slavery as a grievous wrong.  Unfortunately, too few of them recognize that the Bible which so many of them revere was the single greatest factor in the continuation and justification for the “peculiar institution.”  On this most basic moral issue, the Bible is useless to us and if it fails us here, it certainly is no stretch of the imagination to perceive that, just maybe, it might fail us elsewhere as well.

Today’s Christian Right leaders constantly harp on the need to return to “traditional values.”  These people do not need to return to morality, but to discover it.


  1. The Arrogance of Faith  by Forrest G. Wood.  Published 1990 by Alfred A. Knopf, NY
  2. The Peculiar Institution by Kenneth M. Stampp.  Published 1956 by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc. NY
  3. Christianity and Slavery by Joseph McCabe.  Published 1927 by the Haldeman-Julius Company, Girard, KA
  4. Lay My Burden Down by B. A. Botkin.   Published 1993 by the University of Chicago Press
  5. Slavery: A World History by Milton Meltzer.  Published 1993 by Da Capo Press, NY
  6. Religion in Sociological Perspective by Keith A. Roberts.  Published 1995 by Wadsworth Publishing Co.
  7. The Road to Harper’s Ferry by J.C. Furnas.  Published 1959 by William Sloane Associates, NY

Categories:   America, Atheism and Religion, Christianity