God, Slavery, & the Civil War

Excerpt from The Sword of the Lord, Chapter 6.

In the Civil War, which side was God on -- the side of the slaveholders or the abolitionists? The answer depended on which selection of scripture you read, and how you interpreted the chapter and verse.

The nation‚Äôs politics were embedded in a characteristically American and evangelical view of theology‚Äîa view that assumed the Bible to be the source of all truth and divine wisdom, that God took a direct and personal interest in the political struggles of Americans, that God‚Äôs plan was to punish the wicked and elevate the righteous. Mark Noll in his book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis summed up that ‚Äúthe story of theology in the Civil War was a story of how a deeply entrenched intellectual synthesis divided against itself, even as its proponents were reassuring combatants on either side that each enjoyed a unique standing before God and each exercised a unique role as the true bearer of the nation‚Äôs Christian civilization.‚Äù[i]

Southerners viewed the war in strongly religious terms. The battle flag of the Confederacy was an adaptation of St. Andrew‚Äôs Cross, the emblem of the patron saint of Scotland, the ancestral home of many of the Scots-Irish. Slavery, most Southerners  believed, was an institution appointed and approved by God, and they believed, ironically, that they were fighting for their God-given and constitutionally guaranteed freedom to live their lives as they chose; the freedom of black slaves to live as they chose failed to enter into their moral equation.

In September of 1861, an Episcopal minister from Maryland named Edward Stearns had preached a sermon in opposition to the war that he believed was devouring his country. The title of his sermon was ‚ÄúThe Sword of the Lord,‚Äù and for his text he took a passage from Jeremiah 47:6:

 O thou sword of the Lord, how long will it be ere thou be quiet? Put up thyself into thy scabbard, rest, and be still. How can it be quiet, seeing the Lord hath given it a charge against Ashkelon, and against the sea shore? There hath he appointed it.[ii]

Reverend Stearns railed against the politicians and clergy of the North, whom he called Pharisees and hypocrites for wanting to fight a war to end slavery in the name of freedom, while oppressing the South and denying Southerners their constitutionally guaranteed right to own slaves. He accused Northern abolitionists of the sin of ‚Äúbusybodiness‚Äù against their Southern brethren, and concluded that God had unleashed his sword against both the North and the South in order to punish all for their sins against each other and against God himself.

Given the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura—it is only necessary to read the Bible to find God’s manifest truth—Southern preachers and theologians had an easy time justifying slavery. All one needed to do was to read the Bible with an open mind and a dose of common sense, according to them, to see that they were right. Any Bible student could easily find a dozen passages of scripture that seemed to justify slavery explicitly. God had cursed the descendants of Ham, son of Noah, with slavery because Ham had sinned against Noah after the Flood. Most any Southerner could relate the inference that Ham’s descendants had gone to live in Africa: “And God said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servant shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.”[iii]

Furthermore, the ancient Hebrews were instructed in Leviticus 25 thusly: ‚ÄúHowever, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you.  You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land.  You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance.  You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way.‚Äù It was not hard to find Bible passages that seemed to view slaves as less than human, or at least unworthy of protection as human beings, such as in Exodus 21: ‚ÄúWhen a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished.  If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.‚Äù

In the New Testament, opponents of slavery could find ample support for ending slavery in the teachings of Paul and the egalitarian culture of the early church. For example, Paul wrote a letter to Philemon, whose slave Onesimus had fled to Paul for protection. In response, Paul sends Onesimus back, asking Philemon to accept him, “that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”[iv] However, Jesus never explicitly condemned slaveholding, and the apostle Paul explicitly taught that even Christian masters had no obligation to emancipate their slaves when the slaves converted to Christianity. In fact, Paul apparently suggested how the master-slave relationship might be regulated, but never that it should be ended. He wrote to the early church at Colossae: “Servants, obey in all things your masters; not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but in singleness of heart, fearing God;…Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal, knowing that ye also have a Master in Heaven.”[v]

The Protestant churches of the South—Southern Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal—loudly trumpeted the morality of slavery along with the righteousness of the Southern cause. They called the judgment of God down upon the Union armies for flaunting his will, and sent over 200 missionary chaplains into the ranks to evangelize the soldiers. As one Confederate chaplain summed up, they were there to help the men enter combat readily, fight fearlessly, and willingly surrender their souls to God with the certainty that they were fighting in the army of God.[vi]

The abolitionist argument that slavery was contrary to the Bible was much less straightforward. Some argued that the system of slavery approved by the Bible was different from Southern slavery in the United States‚ÄîBiblical slavery was much less cruel, really more like a modern relationship between any employer and employee. But the strongest appeal of the abolitionist was to the ‚Äúspirit‚Äù of the Bible and the implications of the Christian message of love. Jonathan Blanchard, the future president of Wheaton College, referred in 1845 to ‚Äúthe broad principle of common equity and common sense‚Äù he found in scripture, to ‚Äúthe general principles of the Bible‚Äù and ‚Äúthe whole scope of the Bible,‚Äù where he claimed that ‚Äúthe principles of the Bible are justice and righteousness.‚Äù He claimed that ‚ÄúAbolitionists take their stand upon the New Testament doctrine of the natural equity of man, the one-bloodism of human kind; and upon those great principles of human rights, drawn from the New Testament, and announced in the American Declaration of Independence, declaring that all men have natural and inalienable rights to person, property and the pursuit of happiness.‚Äù[vii]


[i] Ibid., 21.

[ii] Jeremiah 47:6, King James Version.    

[iii] Genesis 9:25-27.

[iv] Philemon 15:16.

[v] Colossians 3:22, 4:1.

[vi] Gardner Shattuck, ‚ÄúFaith, Morale, and the Army Chaplain in the American Civil War,‚Äù The Sword of the Lord (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. 2004), 111.

[vii] Increase Mather, quoted in Mark Noll‚Äôs The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 41.