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LETTER FROM AMERICA: How American churches justified slavery

August 2016 | by Ben Wilkerson

‘There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil. It is idle to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it is a greater evil to the white than to the coloured race’ (General Robert E. Lee, 1856).

No evil has had a more horrible effect on the culture and history of the United States than the institution of slavery. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States built a global commerce on the backs of slaves and waged one of its most bloody wars ever on account of that institution.

While many Southerners, including myself, will say that the American Civil War was fought over states’ rights, it would be false to say that many of those rights were not tied up in the ‘right’ to hold slaves.

Slavery has never been a new practice; it existed in the days of Abraham, Moses, and Paul. Both whites and blacks have long been enslaved all over the globe, though, by God’s good grace, institutionalised slavery has been abolished in a significant number of nations. Yet it is disturbing to know that often the church has justified slavery.

It is this aspect I wish to uncover for you in regard to American history.


Slaves were brought to the American colonies as early as the 1640s, when Massachusetts officially sanctioned slavery. Many Africans brought to the colonies earlier served only as indentured servants (having been baptised as Christians) and became free after their time of indenture. However, by the early 1700s, slavery had become widespread.

Although my home state of Georgia prohibited slavery from 1733 to 1750, and some Scottish colonists who settled a town five minutes from my house passed a very rare statement against the horrors of slavery, by the close of the American Revolution (c.1790), there were an estimated 697,694 slaves from New Hampshire to Georgia, and west to what is now Mississippi (US Census records).

The majority of slaves were in the southern states, so that, by the time of the Civil War, there were 3.9 million slaves in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, over to Arkansas and Missouri, and south to Texas and Florida.

This southern localisation created a rift between the northern and southern states, as their two economies and cultures were very different. The North, who had freed nearly all of their slaves by 1810, had a largely industrial economy, coupled with a massive urban population.

The South, whose economy was built on agriculture, depended heavily on slaves for labour and produced huge quantities of cotton, tobacco, rice, indigo, and naval stores for export to the North and Britain. Within its agricultural economy, slavery was part of everyday life and ingrained in the psyche of southerners.

Although not every southerner was a slaveholder — only 30 per cent were — the majority of exported agricultural products was produced by large plantations worked by slaves.

The conditions of the slaves were not uniform. Some were beaten or mistreated horribly, but many slaveholders treated their slaves kindly, like children. It can be said though that most whites, both in the North and South, thought of African Americans as lesser beings, fit only for servitude.

Many, even the revered Robert E. Lee, thought slavery was better for them than their previous ‘heathen culture’ in Africa. Sadly, this racist philosophy was also espoused from the pulpit.


How did Christians in the southern ‘Bible belt’ support slavery? Their philosophy grew out of a racial understanding of Genesis 9:25-27: ‘He [Noah] said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers. He also said, blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant’.

From oral tradition and passages in the Jewish Talmud, the sons of Ham (father of Canaan) were believed to be black Africans. This idea had taken root in European thought by 1600 and subsequently spread to the New World. It gave many people a ‘biblical’ excuse to do what they wanted to do with ‘Negro Africa’.

As Edith R. Sanders states: ‘It allowed exploitation of the Negro for economic gain to remain undisturbed by any Christian doubts as to the moral issues involved. “A servant of servants shall he be” clearly meant that the Negro was preordained for slavery. Neither individual nor collective guilt was to be borne for a state of the world created by the Almighty’ (‘The Hamitic hypothesis, its origin and functions in time perspective’, The journal of African history; 1969, vol. 10, no. 4; p.523).

During the eighteenth century there were two strands of thought about black Africans: a monogenist philosophy, born out of the Enlightenment, that sought to understand race according to science and saw Negroes as brothers; and a polygenist philosophy that saw Africans as subhuman or the result of degeneration. Sadly, this was what was preached from the pulpit.

James Henley Thornwell

As the southern states grew prosperous on the backs of African slaves, they were unwilling to see them as brothers, even after they became Christians. During the nineteenth century a biblical defence of slavery came from Presbyterian minister Rev. James Henley Thornwell. In an 1850 sermon, he preached the inaugural sermon for building a church in Charleston for slaves.

Unusually, he began by stating that blacks and whites were equal under the gospel: ‘It is a publick testimony to our faith, that the Negro is of one blood with ourselves, that he has sinned as we have, and that he has an equal interest with us in the great redemption.

‘Science, falsely so called, may attempt to exclude him from the brotherhood of humanity. Men may be seeking eminence and distinction by arguments which link them from the brute; but the instinctive impulses of our nature, combined with the plainest declarations of the Word of God, lead us to recognise in his form and lineaments in his moral, religious and intellectual nature the same humanity in which we glory as the image of God (‘Duties of masters’, p.11).

But he also argued against the abolition of slavery unless God’s providence dictated it, as Christ and the apostles did not expressly condemn slavery in their teachings. The main thrust of the sermon was an exegetical approach to Paul’s words on how to treat your slaves with justice and mercy.

Citing Colossians 4:1 and other New Testament passages, he showed that the Bible doesn’t suggest, as some accuse the South of thinking, that the personality of slaves is tied up in the property of the master.

Paul ‘treats the [slave’s] services as duties, not like the toil of the ox or ass — a labour extracted by the stringency of discipline — but a moral debt, in the payment of which they were rendering a homage to God’ (p.20).

He countered William Ellery Channing, a Unitarian abolitionist, and British professor William Whewell, who stated that the southern institution of slavery made slaves ‘the blind passivity of a corpse, or the mechanical subservience of a tool’. Slavery does not mean that one’s soul belongs to another in bondage; the master does not own the rights of the slave, but rather his duties (p.21).

Thornwell acknowledged that slavery is ‘a natural evil, which God has visited upon society, because man kept not his first estate but fell, and under the gospel is turned, like all other natural evils, into the means of an effective spiritual discipline’ (p.32). ‘If slavery is not essentially incompatible with the discharge of the essential duties, as a spiritual service, it is not destructive of the rights of humanity’ (p.38).


Thornwell went as far as saying that slavery should be abolished if ‘it can be shown that slavery contravenes the spirit of the gospel, that as a social relation it is essentially unfavourable to the cultivation and growth of the graces of the Spirit, that is unfriendly to the development of piety and to communion with God, or that it retards the onward progress of man…’ (p.17).

Thornwell’s sermon suggested slavery could be good for society, but it certainly did not pan out that way. Though not everyone had slaves, racism in the South had cut so deep into its psyche that it still was having serious repercussions during the Civil Rights movement of the mid-twentieth century.

Even if slavery is not condemned outright in the Scriptures, its practice has trampled on the rights of our African brothers, making them subservient to others and exposing them to horrible mistreatment.

But we Americans really can’t pass judgment on previous generations, when we still struggle with similar sins. We must pray that God will end all racism and slavery practised today and love our neighbour, no matter what his skin colour or ethnic origin. To love one another is our gospel responsibility.

Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is now a Christian writer residing in the USA 

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