Slavery was a big issue during the American Civil War. Each side of the argument had their “proof” and used it to argue how their stance was the only correct one. The Bible was a popular source for those who were against slavery and for.
This is part of a paper I wrote on how the written word was used to fight slavery. Both sides used books and writings to help support their cause. In this section, the Bible was used to support the abolition of slavery.
Slavery At War With God
Abolitionists turned to the Bible just as quickly as those who defended slavery. The chancellor of Protestant University, William Wilson, stated that slavery was “at war with the image of God in which man was created” as it treats other humans as less than human as God created him and lowering the person to property. God made man in His image. He shaped Adam and his descendants and gave them a soul from His own breath. While supporters trumpeted that God ordained slavery, Wilson shot back,
It is at war with the written law of God….Shame on those lips which, in the name of Christianity and its Holy Ministry, have ever, for any consideration, attempted to vindicate or palliate slavery from the Book of God! Posterity will justly hold this in the deepest abhorrence. As well charge darkness upon the cloudless, meridian sun! Slavery sanctioned by, or consistent with, the Scriptures! How monstrous the allegation! But no. Their contemplation, just applicaiotn, as none can rationally deny, will give liberty and happiness to all people and nations. They condemn and denounce the system of slavery as a whole, and each of its constituent.
Shocking to Many Christians
It was horrifying to many Christians that the Bible was used to justify the institution. It went against the very teachings of Christianity as it put fellow man into a position not originally designed by God. Man was not created as a slave to anyone but God, yet slavery had made man subject to other men.
Evan Lewis, Quaker abolitionist, wrote in his essay, “Address to Christians of All Denominations on the Inconsistency of Admitting Slave-Holders to Communion and Church Membership,” that slavery was “so repugnant to the spirit and design of the christian religion, that mothering but habit and a long familiarity with the corrupt system, could reconcile republicans to its existence.” Tradition and acceptance was not an argument to justify the Christian support of the institution.
The pro-slavery voices quoted scripture to support the Biblical claims. The abolitionists did not let the argument go unanswered as essays and pamphlets were written to counter argue the point. Using the exact same scripture specifically Leviticus 25:44–46, the anti-slavery voices launched their written defense:
Both thy bondmen and bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are around about thee; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover, of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them for an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen forever; but over, your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule, one other another rigor.
Weak Pro Slavery Arguments
Goodsell Buckingham in a printed pamphlet examined closely how weak the pro-slavery argument using these verses was. He examined all of the laws concerning servants and came up with four points: there was no involuntary bondage, there was no indication of perpetual slavery, Jubilee limited amount of servitude, and the servants were treated as family. Again it all came down to the difference in the structure of the American slave system and that of the historical and biblical precedents.
Even the Bible did not condone the harsh and perpetual enslavement the Africans had found at the hands of the European and American slaveholders and traders: “Thou shalt neither vex a stranger no oppress him…If thou afflict them in any wise, and they cry at all unto me, I will surely hear their cry. And my wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.” Abolitionists quickly churned out their replies spouting scripture just as fast and sound as the pro-slavery voices.
“Arguments and Justifications.” The Abolition Project. http://abolition.e2bn.org/slavery_112.html
Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: the first two centuries of slavery in North America. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1998.
Brown, William Wells. Clotelle, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/241/241-h/241-h.htm.
Buckingham, Goodsell. “The Bible Vindicated from the Charge of Sustaining Slavery.” Columbus: The Temperance Advocate Office, 1837. http://antislavery.eserver.org/religious/biblevindicatedrevisedfinal/.
Exodus 22: 21–24. King James Bible. BibleGateway.org,
Genesis 9. King James Bible. BibleGateway.com, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis%209&version=KJV.
The Impending Crises of the South. http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/helper/helper.html.
“History of Slavery.” History World. http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/plaintexthistories.asp?historyid=ac41.
Ingersoll, Charles Jared. “African Slavery in America.” Antislavery Literature. http://antislavery.eserver.org/proslavery/african-slavery-in-america/, 1856.
Leviticus 25. The King James. Bible Gateway.com. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=leviticus%2025&version=KJV.
Lewis, Evan. “Address to Christians of All Denominations on the Inconsistency of Admitting Slave-Holders to Communion and Church Membership”. Antislavery Literature, 1831, http://antislavery.eserver.org/religious/addresstochristians/addresstochristians.html.
Liberty Party Platform. 1844.
Ross, Dr. F. A. “Position of the Southern Church in Relation to Slavery.” Archive.org. 1857.
Sawyer, George S. Southern Institutes. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1859.
Wilson, William. “The Great American Question”. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/rbaapc:@gield(DOCID+@lit(rbappc34000div0)), 1848.