The Slavery Apologists

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The Slavery Apologists

The role of the church in the Civil War and the events leading up to it was primarily one of moral guidance. In the North, the abolitionist cause was the driving force behind the message from religious institutions and theologians. In the South, however, clergy were confronted with trying to defend slavery. While many members of the Southern clergy (some of whom were men of national distinction) privately had questions about slavery, many others did not—and in fact saw slavery as sanctioned by the Bible. For the most part, Southern ministers embraced (and often championed) the Southern cause.

Splits in the Church

The split between Northern and Southern religious leaders began well before the start of the Civil War. Slavery had been an important economic institution in the South from early colonial days, less so in the more industrialized North. Still, by the beginning of the nineteenth century a large number of Southerners in fact opposed slavery (Hudson 1987, p. 190). Faced with growing criticism by a largely Northern-based abolition movement, however, people in the Southern states felt compelled to defend themselves and to show solid justifications for keeping slaves. Economists and business leaders did this by pointing out that the agricultural South needed the labor provided by slaves. The economic argument, however, failed to address the exploitative nature of slavery. What justification, after all, did white landowners have to enslave Africans except that slavery was a source of cheap labor? The moral component of the argument fell into the hands of the clergy—and a surprisingly large number of Southern ministers offered a rational moral justification for slavery.

The Presbyterian Church divided itself into two factions—the "Old School" (which did not condemn slavery) in the South and the "New School" (staunchly antislavery) in the North. By 1838, the split between the two factions had grown so strong that there were in effect two Presbyterian churches in the United States. The Methodist Church, which had been founded in part on antislavery principles, followed suit in 1844 with the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (Boles 1994, pp. 78–79). Such other denominations as the Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Roman Catholics were affected by the slavery issue, although they did not have any formal separations until after the secession began (Hudson 1987, p. 193). This outcome was in part the result of different forms of church government; all three of these churches were organized into dioceses (or synods, in the case of the Lutherans) that were largely defined by territory; thus extreme abolitionist and proslavery views did not meet at the national level in these bodies. In the case of the Episcopalians, several Southern dioceses seceded to form the Episcopal Church, C.S.A. in 1861.

Preserving a Way of Life

The Southern clergy who accommodated slavery did so for two main reasons. The first was their loyalty to the South and to the Southern way of life. Frustrated with decades of what they saw as attacks on their morality by the abolitionist movement, many Southerners dug in their heels and became increasingly suspicious of the North. By the beginning of the Civil War, many Southerners saw themselves as morally superior to Northerners; after all, they had never tried to force their way of life onto the North. One anonymous contributor to the Richmond-based Southern Literary Messenger, a magazine devoted to literature and the fine arts, wrote a piece for the June 1860 issue in which the claim was made that Northerners were themselves of an inferior stock, "wild, savage, bold, fond of freedom" (p. 404) and who, despite being deeply religious, "yet nearly approach infidelity [unbelief]." Southerners, in contrast, were quiet, gentle, thoughtful, and given on occasion to "flights of genius" (p. 406).

Members of the Southern clergy, who had their own feelings of devotion toward their home states, approved the notion that a well-intentioned South was being morally condemned by a self-righteous and arrogant North. In the years leading up to the Civil War and through the war years, Southern ministers brought this concept into their pulpits, often using extreme language, such as referring to Northerners as "atheists" and "infidels" (Farmer 1999, p. 11). One of the most prominent Southern Presbyterian preachers of the time, James Henley Thornwell (1812–1862), pointedly referred to the conflict at hand as being "not merely [between] abolitionists and slaveholders—they are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, jacobins [the radical party in the French Revolution, responsible for the Reign of Terror of 1793–1794] on the one side, and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other" (Farmer 1999, p. 11).

Southerners believed that their way of life was the natural, moral order, while the Northern way of life—faster-paced, more industrialized, more cosmopolitan—was an unnatural and in fact immoral way to exist (Farmer 1999, pp. 10–11).

Many Southerners compared their cause to that of the American Revolution of nearly a century earlier, and religious leaders eagerly helped popularize that notion. Moses Drury Hoge (1918–1899), once the personal minister to Jefferson Davis, noted that those who praised the colonial soldiers of the American Revolution and those who praised the Confederate soldiers did "homage to virtue."(Wilson 1980, p. 40). In his famous thanksgiving sermon in New Orleans in November 1860, the Presbyterian minister Benjamin Morgan Palmer (1818–1902) stated bluntly, "I throw off the yoke of this union as readily as did our ancestors the yoke of King George III, and for causes immeasurably stronger than those pleaded in their celebrated declaration" (Palmer 1860, p. 14).

A Duty to Protect Slaves

A second and, to the clergy who espoused it, more compelling argument in favor of slavery is that they believed slaves benefited from the system that controlled their lives. This belief arose primarily from the widespread conviction that slaves could not take care of themselves if left to their own devices. Some felt that slaves would be too frightened and confused to be able to make a living for themselves. Others felt that slaves were too irresponsible to try to live on their own. Maintaining slavery, many Southerners believed, was doing the slaves a favor.

Interestingly, many white preachers made it a point of preaching to slave congregations; some turned their ministries exclusively to slaves. Curiously, despite their status as personal property rather than as individuals, slaves were welcomed and even encouraged to attend church services. In fact, the churches in many communities were biracial; although the slaves and their white masters did not mix with each other socially within the church, both worshipped there together (Boles 1994, p. 46).

Moreover, many prominent Southern ministers made special efforts to provide religious instruction to slaves, whether in church or on their own plantations. Such preachers as Charles Colcock Jones (1804–1863) of Liberty County, Georgia, traveled from plantation house to plantation house to preach to the slave populations there. He would travel from early morning to late evening, and he was well received by the slaves.

John Adger (1810–1899), who preached in a Presbyterian church in Charleston, South Carolina, served as a missionary in what are now Turkey and Armenia for a dozen years; he returned to the United States in 1846 and wished to return to his missionary work. His wife, however, had inherited several slaves. The American Board of Foreign Missions (specifically its Northern members) refused to send him on a new mission unless he gave up the slaves. Adger chose instead to forego his missionary work overseas and to focus closer to home, where he could be of benefit to the slaves and their owners (White 1911, pp. 299–300).

John Lafayette Girardeau (1825–1898), the Presbyterian preacher at a small church off the coast of South Carolina, held services for both white and black parishioners and then separate services for slaves. He had been John Adger's successor in the Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston for several years. The slaves in particular enjoyed Girardeau's sermons, and he noted their enthusiasm:

[They] pour in and throng the seats vacated by their masters—yes, crowding the building up to the pulpit. I have seen them rock to and fro under the influence of their feelings, like a wood in a storm. What singing! What hearty handshakings after the service. I have had my finger joints stripped of the skin in consequence of them (White 1911, p. 301).

Girardeau served as a Confederate chaplain during the war; after the war ended, his former slave congregants, now free men and women, implored him to "come back to preach to them as of old" (White 1911, p. 304). The enthusiasm with which slaves embraced Christianity was in part a result of their desire to find a faith that they could embrace in a new land—and that would embrace them. Because they were welcomed into the churches, they felt a sense of belonging that they felt in almost no other sphere of their existence. Moreover, in addition to their sincerity of faith, the slaves valued religion because it gave them an opportunity to communicate with their fellow slaves in a more relaxed and natural way. Those who attended churches where the slaves of several families were active had a chance as well to meet others in their unique predicament; they could have relatively normal conversations without feeling constrained by the yoke they usually wore (Boles 1994, p. 55).

When the Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston opened in 1850 to serve the slave and free black community, James Henley Thornwell delivered the dedication sermon to a crowd of both white and black congregants—a sermon that underscores how the average Southern preacher saw how slavery and religious values could coexist:

The slave has rights, all the rights which belong essentially to humanity, and without which his nature could not be human or his conduct susceptible of praise or blame. In the enjoyment of these rights, religion demands he should be protected. The right which the master has is a right not to the man, but to his labor (White 1911, p. 298).

Extolling "our faith that the negro is one blood with us," Thornwell goes on to admit that slavery itself may not be a perfect system: "Slavery is a part of the curse which sin has introduced into the world and stands in the same general relation to Christianity as poverty, sickness, disease and death. That it is inconsistent with a perfect state—that it is not absolutely a good, a blessing—the most strenuous defender of slavery ought not to permit himself to deny" (White 1911, p. 298). In other words, Thornwell explains, slavery is simply part of the human condition that highlights human imperfections and that should make individuals work harder to tackle those imperfections.

Palmer's Thanksgiving Sermon: A Call to Unity

To many Southern ministers, slavery conferred upon slaveholders a sense of responsibility for the souls of their slaves. The master-slave relationship was frequently compared to a parent-child relationship. One of the clearest documents highlighting this and other important aspects of the complex relationship between slavery and religion is the sermon delivered by Benjamin Morgan Palmer. The sermon, entitled "The South: Her Peril, and Her Duty" was delivered as part of a thanksgiving service on November 29, 1860 at the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans, Louisiana, where Palmer was a minister. So popular was the sermon that afterwards two separate groups from his congregation wrote to him imploring him to publish it for widespread distribution. This he did, convinced that the response he got was "sufficient proof that I have spoken to the heart of this community" (Palmer 1860, p. 2).

The sermon, which reads in part almost like the Declaration of Independence, notes that a nation "often has a character as well defined and intense as that of the individual" (Palmer 1860, p. 6). "The particular trust assigned to such a people becomes the pledge of the divine protection, and their fidelity to it determines the fate by which it is finally overtaken." he continues. Palmer then poses the question, "If the South is such a people, what, at this juncture, is their providential trust?" His answer: "[I]t is to conserve and perpetuate the institution of slavery as now existing" (Palmer 1860, p. 6).

Palmer continues with the practical dimension of his argument:

Need I pause to show how this system of servitude underlies and supports our material interests? Need I pause to show how this system of servitude underlies and supports our material interests; that our wealth consists in our lands and in the serfs who till them; that from the nature of our products they can only be cultivated by labor which must be controlled in order to be certain; that any other than a tropical race must faint and wither beneath a tropical sun? (Palmer 1860, p. 8).

Then he moves on with an appeal to emotional and spiritual elements:

Need I pause to show how this system is interwoven with our entire social fabric; that these slaves form parts of our households, even as our children; and that, too, through a relationship recognized and sanctioned in the Scriptures of God even as the other? Must I pause to show how it has fashioned our modes of life, and determined all our habits of thought and feeling, and moulded the very type of our civilization? How then can the hand of violence be laid upon it without involving our existence? (Palmer 1860, p. 8).

Palmer also argues that the slaves are better off with slavery, in part because of their own nature: "We know better than others that every attribute of their character fits them for dependence and servitude. By nature the most affectionate and loyal of all races beneath the sun, they are also the most helpless: and no calamity can befal [sic] them greater than the loss of that protection they enjoy under this patriarchal system" (Palmer 1860, pp. 8–9).

Palmer then swings back to a more practical argument: that the North—and the world beyond—needs to maintain the status quo in the South just as much as the South needs it: "[The] world has grown more and more dependent on [slavery] for sustenance and wealth … the enriching commerce … has been largely established upon the products of our soil: and the blooms upon southern fields gathered by black hands, have fed the spindles and looms of Manchester and Birmingham not less than of Lawrence and Lowell" (Palmer 1860, pp. 9–10).

The rest of Palmer's sermon is an exhortation to stand firm against the reformers and the North—even if that means secession. The sermon, in fact, has been widely credited with giving the moral and popular push to Louisiana's decision to secede from the Union.

Message to Slaves and Slave Owners

Through the days leading up to the secession and during the war itself, Palmer and other preachers delivered the same message. Curiously, while most of them do note that the Bible sanctions slavery, they fail to give definitive proof in the way of specific passages. Rather, they note that the master-slave relationship has existed since the beginning of humanity—and, that as long as masters understand their obligation to slaves (including the provision of spiritual sustenance), the system is overall an acceptable one.

More important, from the point of view of the congregants, both black and white, is the message sent from Southern pulpits that protection was the watchword. Slaveholders were told that they must protect the system of slavery, and doing so would protect their financial interests. Slaves were told that their masters would protect them, giving them a safe home and access to their own church communities. This message was accepted gladly both by whites and a significant number of slaves. Although the support of the clergy did nothing to alter the outcome of the war, it did provide Southerners with a sense of having done the right thing. For decades afterward, veterans and civilian survivors of the war, even those who agreed that slavery was an indefensible system, commemorated the Confederacy's spirited fight for self-determination.


Boles, John B. The Irony of Southern Religion. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1994.

"The Difference in Race between Northern and Southern People." Southern Literary Messenger 30, no. 6 (June 1860): 401–409.

Farmer, James O., Jr. The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thorn well and the Synthesis of Southern Values. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1999.

Gallagher, Gary W., and Alan T. Nolan, eds. The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Hudson, Winthrop S. Religion in America. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

Johnson, Thomas Cary. The Life and Letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer. Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1911.

Palmer, Benjamin Morgan. "The South: Her Peril and Her Duty." Sermon delivered in the First Presbyterian Church, New Orleans, Louisiana, November 29, 1860. New Orleans, LA: n.p., 1860.

Stout, Harry S. Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War. New York: Viking, 2006.

Stringfellow, Thornton. Scriptural and Statistical Views in Favor of Slavery. Richmond, VA: J. W. Randolph, 1856.

White, Henry Alexander. Southern Presbyterian Leaders. New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1911.

Wilson, Charles Reagan. Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.

George A. Milite