Tom Gilson

“Christianity and the Abolitionist Movement”

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Randy Hardaman presents a brief yet extensively footnoted outline of Christianity’s place in the American abolition movement. His central point is,

The abolitionist movement itself was essentially a movement to reinstate Christian morality in the South. If it were not for Christianity and, with that, Christian morality there would have been no abolitionist movement and slavery would not have ended when it did.

His analysis comes in three parts, One, Two, and Three. He takes scrupulous care in presenting the other side of the story: that southern Christians used Scripture to support slavery. His argument may be summarized:

A. There was an historical connection between Christianity and slavery in the South, in that there were those who believed in Christianity and also supported slavery. Those persons attempted to show that the connection was a properly theological one, but their attempts were demonstrably misguided and wrong. There is no theological basis upon which chattel slavery could be supported.

B. There was a more-than-historical connection between Christianity and abolitionism, however: Christian belief was at the core of anti-slavery activism.

B is based on two lines of evidence. First, the abolitionists themselves clearly testified that they were motivated by their Christian understanding of morality and the brotherhood of all humanity. Second, prior to and including the ending of slavery in America, there were no abolition movements in the world that were not founded on Christian convictions. (Whether that is still the case, I do not know. If it is not, one could still argue that the example set by Christian Europe and North America has led the way for all subsequent anti-slavery action.)

Hardaman does not deal comprehensively with “What about the Bible’s condoning of slavery?” Timothy Keller works out that issue in an excellent talk titled “Injustice: Hasn’t Christianity been an instrument for oppression?”

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18 thoughts on ““Christianity and the Abolitionist Movement”

  1. Tom, you wrote, “First, the abolitionists themselves clearly testified that they were motivated by their Christian understanding of morality and the brotherhood of all humanity.” How is this different from “Many gay marriage proponents themselves clearly testified that they were motivated by their Christian understanding of morality and the brotherhood of all humanity”? I ask this because you are pointing to the abolitionists as the ones who were “right” about Christian teachings in the case of slavery, although both sides claimed to be following Christian teachings at the time. Without the advantage of hindsight, how do you know which side is “right”? How do you know which side is right now, in regard to gay marriage?

  2. Here’s the thing, a simple, plain reading of the Bible clearly shows that slavery was supported in both the Old and New Testaments. The abolitionists were the liberals of their day going against the tried and true biblical interpretation.
    I’m not sure how much of this is us reading modern notions of right and wrong into the past.

  3. @ordinary seeker:

    First, one must always take risks with one’s convictions. If I am wrong, then I am wrong. Second, there is a very large difference between the Bible’s approach to slavery and its approach to homosexuality. Slavery was acknowledged in the Bible, never commanded. Further, what you think of when you think “slavery” is not the same as that which was acknowledged in the Bible. (Listen to the Tim Keller talk on this.) Those who thought it was were clearly wrong, and I think culpably so. They should not have interpreted it that way, because there is no basis for that interpretation in Scripture. America in the mid-1800s should have paid attention to what Wilberforce was saying decades earlier.

    Homosexual behavior, by contrast, is expressly forbidden in the Bible. There is complete clarity on that. If homosexual behavior is not sexual immorality, then there is no such thing as sexual immorality.

  4. But my point, Tom, is that there are other Christians who disagree with your interpretation of how homosexuality is addressed in the Bible, or who understand the Bible’s position on homosexuality to be reflective of the time and culture in which it was written. Whatever position one takes as a Christian, another Christian can take a different position, and defend it–the devil can quote scriptures to his purpose, right? The trick is figuring out who is the devil.

  5. Naturally, the abolitionist movement could have no force in a highly religious society until churches and large numbers of religious people backed it. But many atheists, deists and freethinkers were outspoken supporters of the abolition of slavery:

    I see little indication that abolitionism was a movement against unbiblical views. Rather, it was a liberal movement adopted by some christians (with the main thrust of the underlying ideas and ideals coming from nonchristian Enlightenment thinkers). Christians who then interpreted scripture according to their more progressive, liberal values.

    In that respect it is indeed much like the gay rights movement of today. And if that movement succeeds to the degree that abolitionism and, later, the civil rights movement did I suspect that Christians will be hogging the credit for it despite the fact that the vast majority of us nonbelievers were supporting gay rights long before anything more than a token percentage of Christians did.

  6. Leading evangelical historian Mark Noll has written books and articles on exactly this topic, and doesn’t agree with the notion that Christianity and the Bible ended up primarily on the right side of the slavery issue. If anything, Noll says, it was the *southerners* that won the battle of Bible-interpretation. What they lost was the shooting war afterwards. And the real core of the problem was the Reformed, literal hermeneutic — exactly the hermeneutic defended by fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals today, in fact…and often in denominations derived from the split of the methodists, presbyterians, and baptists into southern (pro-slavery) and northern factions some time before the Civil War broke out.

    (quotes of Noll from wikipedia here: )

    The pro-slavery South could point to slaveholding by the godly patriarch Abraham (Gen 12:5; 14:14; 24:35-36; 26:13-14), a practice that was later incorporated into Israelite national law (Lev 25:44-46). It was never denounced by Jesus, who made slavery a model of discipleship (Mk 10:44). The Apostle Paul supported slavery, counseling obedience to earthly masters (Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-25) as a duty in agreement with “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness” (1 Tim 6:3). Because slaves were to remain in their present state unless they could win their freedom (1 Cor 7:20-24), he sent the fugitive slave Onesimus back to his owner Philemon (Phlm 10-20). The abolitionist north had a difficult time matching the pro-slavery south passage for passage. […] Professor Eugene Genovese, who has studied these biblical debates over slavery in minute detail, concludes that the pro-slavery faction clearly emerged victorious over the abolitionists except for one specious argument based on the so-called Curse of Ham (Gen 9:18-27). For our purposes, it is important to realize that the South won this crucial contest with the North by using the prevailing hermeneutic, or method of interpretation, on which both sides agreed. So decisive was its triumph that the South mounted a vigorous counterattack on the abolitionists as infidels who had abandoned the plain words of Scripture for the secular ideology of the Enlightenment.[44]


    The theological crisis occasioned by reasoning like [conservative Presbyterian theologian James H.] Thornwell’s was acute. Many Northern Bible-readers and not a few in the South felt that slavery was evil. They somehow knew the Bible supported them in that feeling. Yet when it came to using the Bible as it had been used with such success to evangelize and civilize the United States, the sacred page was snatched out of their hands. Trust in the Bible and reliance upon a Reformed, literal hermeneutic had created a crisis that only bullets, not arguments, could resolve.[50]


    The question of the Bible and slavery in the era of the Civil War was never a simple question. The issue involved the American expression of a Reformed literal hermeneutic, the failure of hermeneutical alternatives to gain cultural authority, and the exercise of deeply entrenched intuitive racism, as well as the presence of Scripture as an authoritative religious book and slavery as an inherited social-economic relationship. The North – forced to fight on unfriendly terrain that it had helped to create – lost the exegetical war. The South certainly lost the shooting war. But constructive orthodox theology was the major loser when American believers allowed bullets instead of hermeneutical self-consciousness to determine what the Bible said about slavery. For the history of theology in America, the great tragedy of the Civil War is that the most persuasive theologians were the Rev. Drs. William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant.[51]


    50. Noll, Mark A. (2002). America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. Oxford University Press. pp. 399–400.

    51. Miller, Randall M.; Stout, Harry S.; Wilson, Charles Reagan, eds. (1998). Religion and the American Civil War. Oxford University Press. pp. 62.

  7. If your thesis here were true, then slavery should probably not have been denounced on biblical grounds without having been defeated on the battlefield. That would come as quite a surprise to both Wilberforce and Saint Bathilde (seventh century), Saint Anskar (851), and Aquinas (15th century).


    During the 1430s, the Spanish colonized the Canary Islands and began to enslave the native population. This was not serfdom but true slavery of the sort that Christians and Moors had long practiced upon one another’s captives in Spain. When word of these actions reached Pope Eugene IV (1431 to 1447), he issued a bull, Sicut dudum. The pope did not mince words. Under threat of excommunication he gave everyone involved fifteen days from receipt of his bull “to restore to their earlier liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of said Canary Islands…These people are to be totally and perpetually free and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of any money. Pope Pius II (1458 to 1464) and Pope Sixtus IV (1471 to 1484) followed with additional bulls condemning enslavement of the Canary Islanders, which, obviously, had continued. What this episode displays is the weakness of papal authority at this time, not the indifference of the Church to the sin of slavery.

    And Pope Paul III wrote in the mid-1500s,

    [Satan,] the enemy of the human race, who always opposes all good men so that the race may perish, has thought up a way, unheard of before now, by which he might impede the saving word of God from being preached to the nations. He has stirred up some of his allies who, desiring to satisfy their own avarice, are presuming to assert far and wide that the Indians of the West and the South who have come to our notice in these times be reduced to our service like brute animals, under the pretext that they are lacking in the Catholic faith. And they reduce them to slavery, treating them with afflictions they would scarcely use with brute animals.
    Therefore, We…noting that the Indians themselves indeed are true men…by our Apostolic Authority decree and declare by these present letters that the same Indians and all other peoples—eventhough they are outside the faith…should not be deprived of their liberty or their other possessions…and are not to be reduced to slavery, and that whatever happens to the contrary is to be considered null and void.

    See also Timothy Keller’s written remarks, for those who do not listen to the talk I’ve recommended.

  8. Thanks for that link, Tom. I recognized Stark immediately but I don’t think I’ve seen that piece.
    He omits 5th century abolitionist, St. Patrick, however.

    Ireland … had been received into Christianity, which transformed Ireland into Something New, something never seen before – a Christian culture where slavery and human sacrifice became unthinkable.

    Thomas Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization, 148

  9. Citing catholic opposition to slavery does not exactly help the case of the protestant, calvinist culture which was dominant in the United States and which was then often vehemently anti-Catholic. The catholics themselves appear to make the distinction:

    “Catholics, not Protestants, worked for the abolition of slavery in Latin American countries like Brazil. The Catholic appreciation of natural law-as opposed to the Protestant principle of sola scriptura (when Scripture tells slaves to obey their masters)-has always made slavery less reconcilable with Catholicism than Protestantism.”

    There appear to be historians on both sides of the catholic question too. Here’s a Jesuit scholar noting the various pro-slavery instances in the church hierarchy throughout the centuries.

    And if we’re being fair, I suppose we should note that at least some Enlightenment personalities were pro-slavery, e.g. Thomas Jefferson. Basically, it’s a mess, like most historical questions, and doesn’t lend itself to easy generalizing and cheerleading for Christianity (much like the complexity of the “what gave rise to science?” question).

    Also, Lincoln’s religion is similarly ambiguous:

    The Ambiguous Religion of President Abraham Lincoln
    by Mark A. Noll

  10. Tom, the point isn’t so much that your examples disprove the other Biblical evidence that Nick offered, but that there is a conflict between your examples and that Biblical evidence. That’s part of the problem, in and of itself. And it aligns with the common atheist complaint that one can use the Bible and/or religion to justify nearly anything, similar to how an unfalsifiable claim is always (superficially) right.

  11. The better point is that while slavery could be, to whatever extent, justified by using the Bible, abolition CAME OUT of the Bible and from attempting to live a Biblically mandated Christian life.
    And it didn’t happen just once but many times throughout the history of Christianity and by many different denominational readings.

    Funny that neutral science guys don’t see that but instead reflexively always react to show Christianity in a negative light. Science defence always looks so … anti-Christian, for some strange reason.

  12. I love serendipity (I bought a book [which I have not yet read] titled “When God Winks”, about our attitude toward serendipitous occurences) – the point of this is I discovered an article yesterday while looking for something unrelated to the present discussion which may have some bearing upon the quite valid comment of Paul about Biblical interpretation.

    So, what are some basic principles one might look for in good preaching and biblical work?

    Luther’s Christocentric Approach

    The first thing that comes to mind is what is often referred to as “Luther’s Christocentric approach to Scripture.” Jesus Christ for Luther is always the center of biblical witness. There are several implications of this Christocentricity.

    First, the primary role of Scripture is to point to and proclaim Christ, and to anticipate His return.

    Secondly, what Jesus says, taught, or did with regard to a particular topic is what is authoritative for the church over against anything else in the Bible including Old Testament law. For example, consider the woman in John 8 who was caught in adultery and was brought to Jesus. Jesus’ interaction with her shows that if the OT called for the stoning of an adulteress, Jesus instead showed compassion and did not condemn her. Nonetheless, He did tell her to, “Go and sin no more,” that is, stop her adulterous behavior. In short, Jesus modeled a new approach to sin and sinners.

    Lastly, not only what Jesus taught and did, but also what the Apostles taught and did under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (“Who proceeds from the Father and the Son; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified…”) has authority over OT law.

    An example of how this principle works came to me recently when I was browsing a website[…]The topic at hand was how Lutherans read the Bible. A concern was expressed regarding certain expressions of biblical fundamentalism that take everything in the Bible too literally without regard for context, biblically or culturally. The discussion turned to Deuteronomy 23:1, which says, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD” (NRSV). It was seen as an example of extreme OT law which, when taken out of context and strictly enforced, is terribly lacking in compassion.

    However, if we apply the principle identified above, we are reminded to do several things. First of all, we are to consider how Jesus dealt with persons who had physical afflictions and deformities. Jesus welcomed the sick, the lame, and the lepers. Secondly, we are reminded that we ought not take this passage from Deuteronomy out of context (remember, it was not uncommon in Baal cults of the time for practitioners, while in some hallucinogenic frenzy, to mutilate themselves) or in isolation, but we are instead to look to see if there are other passages which might offer a legitimate and mitigating perspective. For example, we might look at how Philip dealt with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:27-39, as that eunuch certainly fit the criteria outlined in Deut.23:1.

    Thus, with the example of how Jesus dealt with people, and when we see how the Church under the power of the Holy Spirit dealt with persons formerly rejected and condemned under the law, we find that many OT laws are at least put in a new perspective or perhaps even done away with. The Ethiopian Eunuch was welcome and baptized, not excluded from the assembly!

    Considered in this context the OT rules regarding slavery could well be superceded by the revelation of Christ Jesus. The fact that Christ did not specifically address slavery does not negate that His teaching of the brotherhood of all humans has implications for the practice. Jesus was not a political reformer, nor was He a social reformer, He is a personal reformer, working within each person to conform that person to the divine will. Once we are conformed in our thinking certain practices are recognized as indefensible and are abandoned.

    The same holds true for Philemon. Paul doesn’t lecture about the evils of slavery, he writes to his “brother” Philemon about his other “brother” Onesimus who will return to Philemon of his own free will.

    12I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. 15Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good— 16no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.

    17So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

  13. Craig #3,

    Here’s the thing, a simple, plain reading of the Bible clearly shows that slavery was supported in both the Old and New Testaments.

    I disagree. A plain reading of the bible, isolating on this subject has, in my opinion, only two indisputable conclusions:

    1) In the Old Testament, slavery was permitted for Jews. In that time, in that place, for that race. There is no blanket approval for all peoples and all times. The Jews were also permitted to commit genocide and ethnic cleansing–but again there is no universal endorsement of these activities.

    2) In the New Testament the reality of slavery is acknowledged. The most you can say is that in the same sense that the falsely imprisoned (such as Paul) are to be model prisoners, Christian slaves are to be good slaves. The former does not constitute an endorsement of false imprisonment, nor the latter of slavery. And it should be noted that a very clear teaching–Jesus’ second greatest commandment, is manifestly incompatible with slavery.

    I agree that you might reasonably (incorrectly in my opinion, but reasonably) argue that the lack of an explicit NT condemnation of slavery is tantamount to an endorsement. But that’s about it–and that’s quite weak. Your assertion that the bible clearly shows support of slavery in the NT is simply not supported by the facts.

    Looking for a ‘Thou shalt not have slaves’ shows a lack of understanding of the doctrine of grace that dominates Jesus’ NT teaching, and misses the boat on the Jesus’ teaching on his law given in the Sermon on the Mount. We can speculate that if there had been an explicit commandment against slavery written in the tablets of stone, Jesus very well might have said something along the lines of: you have heard it said, keep no slaves–but I tell you that a man who does not love his neighbor as himself has already enslaved his neighbor. That is of course rank speculation–except for the part where Jesus does teach the indisputably anti-slavery ‘love your neighbor as yourself’. Not only does he teach it, but he elevates to the greatest law concerning how man is to treat his fellow man.

    In context, read in light of Jesus’ teaching instead of isolated slavery vignettes, the NT is arguably quite anti-slavery.

  14. Comment added to attempt to re-open discussion (see above, at the top of the original post).

    On a first attempt this does not appear to have worked as I hoped. If no comment box appears, please use the contact form as requested above. Thank you again.

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