The Civil War and the Failure of White American Christianity

Robert Lewis Dabney

The American Civil War was a crisis on a number of levels, including, as Mark Noll has explored, a theological crisis (see Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis). As Abraham Lincoln noted in his second inaugural address, both sides, “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” Among the various lenses available for exploring this crisis is that of Robert Lewis Dabney, a Reformed Presbyterian seminary professor (at Union Seminary), and a pro-slavery, white-supremacist. Dabney had seen war coming years before the fateful events of 1860 and 1861, and he warned against what he feared would be its destructive results. In particular, Dabney’s concerns highlight a deep deficiency in white American Christianity, one that Dabney himself was unable to see, but which may be instructive for white American Christians today.

“Shame on the boasted Christianity of America” — March 29, 1856

On March 29, 1856, Dabney published an editorial in the Central Presbyterian titled “Christians, Pray for Your Country” (in Discussions, Vol. 2, 393–400). He  lamented: “what a war that will be? Civil feud has ever been known as the most bitter of all.” He described, “the conflagration of battle which will rage along this narrow line across the whole breadth of a continent!” (396). He especially feared for the state of religion: “Christianity will sicken and droop amidst the crimes of national convulsion and the license of camps” (398). “Christian America” would be wasting time fighting with each other, “and meantime, the redemption of the race is by so many ages postponed; and sin and hell pray [sic] upon so many more of the teeming generations!”

Dabney then exposes a deep inability at the heart of white American Christianity, an inability which would prove itself in the country as a whole, and in Dabney’s own life in particular, as he later fought for the Confederacy:

Christians of America, will ye suffer this ? If such a crime against God and man be wrought in this land of thirty thou­sand evangelical ministers and four millions of Christians, how burning the sarcasm which it will contain against your Chris­tianity ! What, was there not enough of the oil of love in all these four millions of the servants of the God of love to soothe the surging billows of party strife? Was there not enough of the majesty of moral weight in these four millions of Christians to say to the angry waters, “ Peace, be still ?” ”Were not all these strong enough to throw the arms of their love around their fellow-citizens, keep down the hands that sought each others’ throats, and constrain them by a sweet compulsion to be brethren? Did this mighty church stand idly by and see phrenzy immolate so many of the dearest hopes of man and so much of the glory of God on her hellish altar, and not rather rush between and receive the sword in its own breast? And this church knew, too, that the fiend had borrowed the torch of discord from the altar of Christianity, and that therefore Chris­tians were doubly bound to arrest her murderous hand before the precious sacrifice was lost in the conflagration! If this be suffered, then shame on the boasted Christianity of America, and of the nineteenth century! With all its parade of light and evangelism, wherein will it be less impotent and spurious than the false Christianity which permitted and sanctioned the butcheries of the Crusades, the torture of the Inquisition, or any other great iniquity of the dark ages ?

(“Christians, Pray,” 398–99)

Dabney’s questions are perceptive: “was there not enough of the oil of love in all these four millions of the servants of the God of love to soother the surging billows of party strife?” No, among white American Christians, there was not enough of the “oil of love,” first to love their Black brothers and sisters (which Dabney did not have in mind here), and then, out of those deeds of love and justice, eliminating entirely the need for war.

“Was there not enough fo the majesty of moral weight in these four millions of Christians to say ‘peace be still’?” No—there was not enough moral weight in 4,000,000 white Christians to do what was morally right and just, let alone work for peace.

I agree with Dabney on this point: “shame on the boasted Christianity of [white] America, and of the nineteenth century.” For all of her evangelism and revivals, it proved “impotent and spurious.”

November 1, 1860

Four years later, on November 1, 1860, Dabney preached a sermon on a special “fast-day” appointed by the Synod of Virginia (“The Christian’s Best Motive for Patriotism,” in Discussions, Vol. 2, 401–412). Five days later, Lincoln would be elected and in December, South Carolina would secede from the Union, but for now, Presbyterians in Virginia were gathering to “pray for escape from national convulsions” (401). The sermon includes many of the same themes, but includes some new elements as well:

Now, in view of this picture of possible crime and misery, would to God that I could reach the ear of every professed servant of Jesus Christ in the whole land! I would cry to them : Christians of America—brothers—shall all this be ? Shall this church of thirty thousand evangelical ministers, and four millions of Christian adults—this church, so boastful of its influence and power; so respected and reverenced by nearly all; so crowned with the honors of literature, of station, of secular office, of riches; this church, which moulds the thought of three- fourths of our educated men through her schools, and of all, by her pulpit and her press; this church, which glories in having just received a fresh baptism of the Spirit of heaven in a na­tional revival—permit the tremendous picture to become reality ? Nay, shall they aid in precipitating the dreaded consummation, by traitorously inflaming the animosities which they should have allayed, and thus leave the work of their Master to do the devil’s ? Then, how burning the sarcasm which this result will contain upon your Christianity in the eyes of posterity! Why, they will say, was there not enough of the majesty of moral weight in these four millions of Christians to say to the angry waves, “ Peace be still ” ? Why did not these four millions rise, with a love so Christ-like, so beautiful, so strong, that strife should be paralyzed by it into reverential admiration ? Why did they not speak for their country, and for the house of the Lord their God which was in it, with a wisdom before whose firm mod­eration, righteousness, and clear light, passion and folly should scatter like the mist ? Were not all these strong enough to throw the arms of their loving mediation around their fellow citizens, and keep down the weapons that sought each other’s hearts; or rather to receive them into their own bosoms than permit their mother-country to be slain ? Did this mighty church stand idly by, and see phrenzy immolate so many of the dearest hopes of man, and of the rights of the Redeemer, on her hellish altar ? And this church knew, too, that the fiend had borrowed the torch of discord from the altar of Christianity, and that therefore Christians were bound, by a peculiar tie, to arrest her insane hand before the precious sacrifice was wrapped in flames. Then shame on the boasted Christianity of America, and of the nine­teenth century! With all its parade of evangelism, power, and light, wherein has it been less impotent and spurious than the effete religion of declining Rome, which betrayed Christendom into the dark ages; or than the baptized superstitions which in those ages sanctioned the Crusades and the Inquisition? In the sight of heaven’s righteous Judge, I believe that if the Chris­tianity of America now betrays the interests of men and God to the criminal hands which threaten them, its guilt will be second only to that of the apostate church which betrayed the Saviour of the world ; and its judgment will be rendered in calamities second only to those which avenged the divine blood invoked by Jerusalem on herself and her children.

“Patriotism,” (405–406).

In addition to what he had observed four years previously, Dabney also lays potential (soon to be actual) blame specifically upon the seminaries and churches (“this church, which moulds the thought of three- fourths of our educated men through her schools, and of all, by her pulpit and her press”). He highlights a deep incongruity (via his own anti-Catholicism): “With all its parade of evangelism, power, and light, wherein has it been less impotent and spurious than the effete religion of declining Rome, which betrayed Christendom into the dark ages.” 

He also poses a good question: “Why did not these four millions rise, with a love so Christ-like, so beautiful, so strong, that strife should be paralyzed by it into reverential admiration ?” The answer, which Dabney could not grasp, was that these four millions would not rise with such a love because they did not have it in them. Had a “Christ-like love” actually inhabited white Christians, it would have been evident in their lives long before the eve of Civil War in their treatment of Black brothers and sisters. That horse had not merely “left the barn,” before November 1860—it had never resided there in the first place.

The 1858 “Revival”?

Interestingly, Dabney calls attention to the “revival” of 1858: “this church, which glories in having just received a fresh baptism of the Spirit of heaven in a na­tional revival—permit the tremendous picture to become reality ?” (“Patriotism,” 405). 

This event has sometimes been called the “Businessman’s Revival,” the “1858 Prayer Revival,” or the “Awakening of 1858.” Historians have noted how difficult it is to know how to assess this revival, given how widespread it was, and how short-term its effects. Indeed, it is “so haphazardly interpreted that there exists little unanimity on what even to call it.” (See Leonard I. Sweet, “A Nation Born Again: The Union Prayer Meeting Revival and Cultural Revitalization,” in In the Great Tradition: In Honor of Winthrop S. Hudson: Essays on Pluralism, Voluntarism and Revivalism, ed. Joseph D. Ban and Paul R. Dekar (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1982), 193–221; cited in Kathryn Long, “The Power of Interpretation: The Revival of 1857-58 and the Historiography of Revivalism in America,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 4.1 (1994), 77; Baptist historian William McGloughlin concluded that it was not “any kind of national awakening but merely a response to financial insecurity and newspaper publicity”; William G. McGloughlin, Modern Revivalism, Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham (New York: Ronald Press Company, 1959), 164.)

Frederick Douglass

As you might expect, the spuriousness of white Christianity is see in her so-called revivals too. As Frederick Douglass said, “revivals in religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand in hand together” (“American Slavery: Report of a Public Meeting, May 22, 1846,”).

In 1858 at least one anti-slavery figure instantly criticized the “revival” precisely because of what he saw as its pro-slavery features. Isaac Nelson was an Irish evangelical minister who worked with Douglass and Garrison in the 1840s to oppose slavery (see Daniel Ritchie, “Transatlantic Delusions and Pro-Slavery Religion: Isaac Nelson’s Evangelical Abolitionist Critique of Revivalism in America and Ulster,” Journal of American Studies 48.03 (2014), 761).  Nelson critiqued the revival because “it had not led to emancipation or even to the American churches disciplining slaveholders” (“Delusions,” 764). He believed that “a genuine spiritual awakening would have led to an increased interest in anti-slavery,” and that absent this, any so-called revival was “spurious” (“Delusions,” 765). He noted that in some parts of America experiencing this revival, leaders had forbidden prayer on behalf of emancipation. At the epicenter of the revival, the Fulton Street prayer meetings in New York, it was reported that they segregated the meetings and made Black people pray by themselves on a separate floor removed from the main meetings. “This is the first time I have ever been to any of these meetings, and this shall be the last,” said one Black woman. “I told her that these things were a part of the American Religion,” replied a Black man who had also visited the meetings that day (“Letter from a Colored Man,” New York Tribune, March 27, 1858).

Daniel Ritchie makes an acute observation regarding the revival: “when one considers that American quickly fell into the most destructive Civil War, Nelson’s argument about the specious nature of the 1857–58 revival appears accurate… If 1857–58 had been a true revival, then, according to Nelson’s reasoning, it is not likely that the American states would have been plunged into a brutal war only a few years later in 1861” (“Delusions,” 776). Indeed—if 1857–58 had been a true revival, genuine Christianity would have been manifest long before the brutal war in their treatment of Black brothers and sisters in Christ.

“Humble Confession of Our Sins, Individual and Social”

Back to Dabney’s 1860 sermon—the remedy to this dire danger includes, first, “Christians should everywhere begin to pray for their country” (“Patriotism,” 406). Next, Dabney turns to confession: “And along with this should go humble confession of our sins, individual and social.” Dabney understands the connection between individual sin and its social and systemic aspect as well: 

It is for our own sins alone that we are responsible to God. It is our own sins alone that we have the means of reforming, by the help of his grace. Let each man, then, consider and forsake his personal transgressions; for as your persons help to swell the aggregate of this great people, so your individual sins have gone to form that black cloud of guilt which threatens to hide from us the favorable light of our heavenly Father’s face But let us remem­ber, and confess also, our social sins: that general worldliness which hath set up the high places of its covetous idolatries all over the good land God hath given us; that selfish profusion and luxury which have squandered on the pride of life so much of the goods of our stewardship; that heaven-daring profanity and blasphemy by reason of which the land mourneth. And let me not forget faithfully to protest, on such a day as this, against that peculiar sin of the southern country, the passion for bloody retaliation of personal wrong, which has been so often professed and indulged among us, unwhipped of justice. You have allowed too often the man of violence, the duelist, profess­ ing his pretended “ code of honor ”—most hateful and deceitful pretence of that father of lies, who was a murderer from the beginning—to stalk through the land with wrongs upon his angry tongue and blood upon his hand, while his crime was winked at by justice, and almost applauded by a corrupt public opinion. “ So ye have polluted the land wherein ye are; for blood, it defileth the land, and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.’”

Dabney acknowledges a number of sins that characterize the South, but though he names “worldliness and covetous idolatry; selfish profusion and luxury” he refuses to see white-supremacy and chattel enslavement as the foundation of such covetousness and the source of that luxury. Especially interesting is his calling out of the “duelist,” that “peculiar sin of the southern country, the passion for bloody retaliation of personal wrong, which has been so often professed and indulged among us,” driven by their honor/shame culture, “professing his pretended ‘code of honor.’”

Dabney had many of the resources at hand to combat the deep sickness in his country, and in particular, in white American Christianity. He had his Bible, and he knew deeply of its teachings of “Christ-like love”; he had categories for not just individual, but social sins; he knew that seminaries, churches, and printing presses despite their “vaunted successes” could prove utterly impotent in the face of a real call for moral weight; and yet, this form of Christianity—his form of Christianity—proved impotent. 

What was missing? More theology wouldn’t fix it (Dabney himself was a theology professor at Union Seminary); more printing of books, more preaching of sermons (see also “We have much theology, but what does it amount to?”: William Lloyd Garrison’s critique of the American Tract Society“). What was needed was repentance at such a deep level that the entire society would be changed from the bottom up. Even preaching on “Christ-like love” remains impotent when that love is only intended for fellow white people. 

White American Christianity needed to be born again. I think it still does.

Review: Baptist Home Missions in North America (1883)

(image taken from the title page, a stylized logo using each letter of the American Baptist Home Mission Society’s initials: ABHMS)

In 2002, Mark Noll noted that “the history of the Baptists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is a subject as scandalously neglected as had been, until very recently, the history of early American Methodism” (America’s God, 149). Nearly twenty years later, Matthew Shrader noted that “though some has been done to fill Noll’s lacuna, Northern Baptists have received significantly less historical attention than their Southern counterparts”(Thoughtful Christianity, 2). Baptist Home Missions in North America is an essential source for anyone attempting to uncover this neglected heritage (and is available for free on Google Books).

Henry L. Morehouse, ABHMS Corresponding Secretary, and editor of Baptist Home Missions in North America

The full title gives a good idea of the setting and occasion of the book: Baptist Home Missions in North America: Including a Full Report of the Proceedings and Addresses of the Jubilee Meeting, and a Historical Sketch of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, Historical Tables, Etc., 1832-1882. Baptists had a habit of celebrating the anniversaries of their associations with big commemorative meetings and often published histories in conjunction with these events. The fiftieth anniversary (“Jubilee”) of the ABHMS is what occasioned this lengthy (619 pages!) book. The book has five sections: I. The Annual Report of the ABHMS for 1881–82 (pp. 9–44); II. A detailed account of the Fiftieth Annual Meeting (45–290); III. Henry Morehouse’s “Historical Sketch” (291–540); IV. Addenda (541–56); V. Historical Table covering every missionary in every state for the first fifty years (557–619).

The two largest Baptist associations in the 19th century were devoted to foreign missions and home missions, respectively. While the American Baptist Mission Union was focused overseas in countries like Burma and India, the Home Mission Society was devoted to evangelizing and spreading Baptist principles on the advancing frontier. Along the way they dealt with every issue confronting white American Christians during that time: European immigrants, Chinese immigrants, Mexicans, Native Americans, Mormons, and every other ethnic or religious group they encountered; the slavery question (the ABHMS was the society within which the great split between northern and southern Baptists occurred over slavery in 1845), the Civil War, and then the Freedmen; schools and education; the temperance movement.

In this book you can get an idea of the ideals and motivations of nineteenth century American Baptists. As discussions of Christian Nationalism and race engulf us in 2021, it’s striking to see these same issues on full display back then as well. The “Address of Welcome” gives a good sense of the way Baptist were attempting to assimilate the flood of various immigrant and indigenous groups into a single “civilized” and “Christian” society: 

“This country, that we fondly call our own, you claim must forever belong to Christ. It was founded on this principle. This republic was rooted in religion… It seems as if our country was designed to be the battle ground of conflicting customs and ideas that should gather together from all nations upon its soil for a fair and final fight… We need the infusion of foreign life and blood to make us vigorous and strong. And if with all our God-given advantages we cannot baptize them into our spirit and stimulate them in due time to the life and laws of our commonwealth, we deserve to perish… To foreign nations we say ‘Send us over your poor and degraded you would trample under foot in your overcrowded towns and cities, and on our wide plains and prairies, under the fostering light and care of free institutions, of education and religion, we will make out of them such noble specimens of manhood as never grew on your cramped and narrow soil. We have no doubt this can be done if we will only multiply our schoolhouses and churches.”

(46–47)

This kind of “progressive” Christian Nationalism is found almost everywhere on the pages of this account, and it is important to wrestle with. These Baptists understood themselves to be under “the double inspiration of loyalty to the flag of the Union and the cross of the Christ” (144). “We are aiming to Christianize these immigrants that are coming in from all parts of the earth; the Christianize them, to Americanize them, and to baptize them if we can” (202). Quotes like this could by multiplied at length, as the celebratory nature of the meetings gave expression to the optimism of these white American Christians, and their firm belief that their work had both eternal and political and social purposes in God’s plan. There is almost a Baptist manifest destiny here, as they surveyed the west and saw their duty to spread Christian civilization there.

One particular area of interest that receives full treatment is the establishment of Black colleges in the south following the civil war, many of which would go on to become HBCUs (see also“Missionaries or Presidents”? Newton Theological Institution’s contribution to the founding of HBCUs”). The dynamics involved in this are many and they are very complex. Well-intentioned white northerners moved south to help “uplift” the poor, benighted Freedmen. This was important and necessary work, what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the gift of New England to the freed Negro” (The Souls of Black Folk, 48). However, it often came with a full dose of paternalism (on which, see Derek Chang, Citizens of a Christian Nation: Evangelical Missions and the Problem of Race in the Nineteenth Century). This subject receives multiple treatments throughout the book: “Work among the Colored People” (69–95); “Labors of Baptist for the Negro in America before 1862,” “First Work of the Freedmen,” “Work of the Freedmen–The New Era,” “Work of the Freedmen–The Work Established,” “The Society and Southern Baptists,” “James B. Simmons, D.D.,” “Schools,” “Nathan Bishop, LL. D.” (386–465). As Christians today continue to grapple with questions of race, there are valuable lessons–for good and for ill–that we can learn from efforts to cooperate in the past.

The 1880s was also a time of “reunion” with their southern brethren, and Southern Baptist like John Broadus were present at the meeting and embraced as brothers. White northern Baptists were willing to try to hold two things together: their work among Blacks in the south, and their fellowship with whites in the south, even though these often came into conflict. Baptists believed that, “In some way the Baptist North and South must come together and work together.” Yet, Basil Manly, one of the founders of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, felt that he had to “express his disagreement with some of the delegation and especially with the language of the report concerning the exercise of all the rights and duties of citizenship for the freedmen” (427). Yet, northern Baptists tried somehow to look past this in the hope that “all remembrances of the late deplorable conflict in arms between two sections of this country shall be blotted out by the blood of Jesus” (430). This puzzle of three pieces has never really been solved, and this was already evident then. (For more on the conflict between northern and southern Baptists over the education of Black people in the south, see Barnas Sears, “Objections to Public Schools Considered.”

The Historical Sketch provides an outline of names, dates, and places that are ripe for further historical investigation. Heman Lincoln, William Colgate, Jonathan Going, Benjamin Hill, Jay Backus, E.E.L. Taylor, James Simmons, Nathan Bishop, Sewall Cutting, and many many more all get brief biographical sketches. 

The sixty pages of tables in the final section of the book provide names and dates for every missionary in every state in the country. If you are interested in the history of Baptists in your city or state, you should check here to find out which Baptist Home Missionary first spread Baptist principles to the area. I’ve found the history of Baptists in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Florida fascinating (to name a few).

In all, this book is indispensable to anyone who wants to understand Baptist History, Church History, and the history of race in America, at least from a white perspective. There is a legacy here that white Christians would do well to grapple with, for good and for ill. In all, this book is a historical treasure trove, hopefully not a buried one for too much longer.

Comparing Princeton, Edwards, and the Dutch on the Bible and Society

Mark Noll contributed a chapter to Reformed Theology in America on “The Princeton Theology.” Toward the end, he compares the theologians of Princeton with two other representatives of Reformed theology: Jonathan Edwards and the Dutch. His second point of comparison, on the Bible and society, was illuminating:

“Second, the three differed in how their approach to Scripture affected their picture of the Christian’s task in society. Princeton used the Bible to construct dogma, while it was content to accept the cultural conventions of the merchant-yeoman middle class without question. To Edwards the Bible was a resource for reflective piety, for discovering the divine and supernatural light that graciously converts the darkened heart; his absorption was so thorough on this theme that he seems to have given little thought to the late-Puritan society in which he lived. The Dutch, by contrast, almost defined themselves by their capacity to find scriptural principles for cultural formation, whether in education, politics, voluntary organizations, or economics. These varied uses of Scripture have appeared complementary in some circumstances and competitive in others” (28–29).

The Bible vs. Southern-Slavery: a downward hermeneutical spiral

Mark Noll wrote The Civil War as a Theological Crisis “to explain why clashes over the meaning of the Bible and the workings of providence… revealed a significant theological crisis” (6). One key element of the crisis is how, as Lincoln said, both sides “read the same Bible” but came to such opposite conclusions. In fact, the interpretation of the Bible’s teaching on slavery and its application to Southern-slavery turned into a downward spiral of reactions that pushed both sides further from the truth.

Just Open the Bible, Read it, and Believe it

One important element in the crisis was an Enlightenment induced confidence in one’s ability to easily understand the world, including the Bible: “understanding things was simple.” Our entire country, after all, was founded on truths that are “self-evident” (22).

The significance of this marriage between Christianity and the Enlightenment influenced the harsh polemical tone and the firmly drawn battle lines of the debate:

“On the one side, it bestowed great self-confidence as Americans explained the moral urgency of social attitudes and then of national policy. On the other, it transformed the conclusions reached by opponents into willful perversions of sacred truth and natural reason” (20). 

There was a foundational naivety in reading the Bible that ignored the interpretive process. Questions like “what did that word mean in its original context, and are there any important differences in my own context that would affect my understanding?” were rarely asked. The process was much more simple: “In effect: open the Bible, read it, believe it” (33).

Southern-Slavers’ Conflation and Abolitionist Reaction

One fascinating dynamic was the interplay between abolitionists and the defenders of slavery over the Bible. At the very root of the entire conflict is the confusion between what the Bible refers to as slavery, and Southern-slavery as it was actually practiced in America. When slave holders conflated the two and appealed to the Bible to defend their horrific practices, they created a stumbling-block over Biblical truth. Some abolitionists responded by simply discarding those portions of the Bible. William Garrison said this: “to discard a portion of scripture is not necessarily to reject the truth, but may be the highest obedience that one can give of his love of truth” (32). I think the warnings in Mark 9 against causing others to stumble apply squarely to the defenders of Southern-slavery:

But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me [i]to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea (Mark 9:42).

By entangling the Bible with their unbiblical system, Southern-slavers caused others to reject the Bible. Given a choice between the clear dictates of conscience and this twisting of Scripture, I can understand why the abolitionists sided with their consciences in their “love of truth.”

The Southern-Slavers’ Counter-reaction

This, of course, fueled a counter-reaction by the “Biblically orthodox” slavers: “the willingness of Garrison and a few others to favor abolitionism in place of Scripture actually worked to the advantage of those who defended slavery on the basis of Scripture.” In fact, the counter-reaction entangled the issues even more tightly: “biblical defenders of slavery were ever more likely to perceive doubt about the biblical defense of slavery as doubt about the authority of the Bible itself” (32). This is why if you read any of “the Southern divines” (as Genovese calls them) you frequently hear “abolitionism” paired with “infidelity.” Henry Van Dyke claimed: “Abolitionism leads, in multitudes of cases, and by a logical process, to utter infidelity” (32); or R.L. Dabney:

“the Word is on our side, and the teachings of Abolitionism are clearly of rationalistic origin, of infidel tendency, and only sustained by reckless and licentious perversions of the meaning of the Sacred text” (A Defense of Virginia, 21).

When abolitionists accepted the slave-holders’ false premise—that Biblical slavery is the same as Southern-slavery—and attacked slavery as an evil in itself, including a willingness to discard the Bible’s teaching on this subject, they created a very confusing situation for the “moderates.” Many of these moderates “had also grown troubled about America’s system of chattel bondage, but who were not willing to give up loyalty to Scripture” (36). The slaveholders’ conflation of the two set everyone on the wrong course.

As the hermeneutical conflict wound itself up, those in the South could encourage themselves with statements like this: “your cause is the cause of God, the cause of Christ, of humanity. It is a conflict of truth with error — of Bible with Northern infidelity—of pure Christianity with Northern fanaticism” (39). This “biblical” defense of slavery “increasingly came to look like a defense of Scripture itself” (45).

How appalling and heartbreaking that this syncretism between between Southern slave-culture and “christianity” was so thorough and so entrenched.

The Hard Work of Untangling

In this context, some of the best and most important work was the work of disentangling Southern-slavery from the Bible. Men like David Barrow, Francis Wayland, James M. Pendleton, and Taylor Lewis all worked to prove that the Bible described “a very different situation than prevailed in the South” (46). Pendleton observed that “there are points of material dissimilarity between that system and our system of slavery… it does not follow necessarily that Abraham’s servants were slaves in the American acceptation of that word” (47). Taylor Lewis argued that “‘the Patriarchal Servitude’ in ancient times was very different from the slavery found in the American South” (48). As I hope to demonstrate in another post, these “points of dissimilarity” were sharp and they were many. I take my stand with those who held both to abolitionism and to Scripture, and in fact argued for the former precisely from the latter. 

The whole complicated scenario demonstrates the importance of carefully untangling and refuting false teaching, especially when perpetrated by otherwise “orthodox” Christians. To fail in this task is to make a stumbling-block out of the Bible, and a steep barrier to Christianity. This has lamentably been the case in our country for a long time, and is still seen when people reject evangelicalism because of her entanglements with obvious wickedness. When we hear these criticisms, we should set about the important work of untangling dangerous syncretism and dismantling any elements in our presentation of Christianity that actually poison our message. White-supremacy is just one significant form of such American-syncretism.