In the nineteenth-century United States, Protestant Christianity and Christian morality provided the dominant language for crafting public commentary on nearly every social and political issue, and slavery was no exception. Interestingly, although most Americans accepted the employment of Christian metaphor to organize male authority in the household and the larger society, there was a more substantial debate about the connection between America's salvation and the interactions between Anglo-Saxon whites and African Americans, both free and enslaved.
RELIGIOUS ARGUMENTS FOR SLAVERY
Proslavery supporters utilized a variety of religious arguments to bolster their claims to the legitimacy of the system of slavery. Reverend Leander Ker's work, Slavery consistent with Christianity (1840), challenged the claim of many abolitionists that slavery was a moral evil. In contrast, Ker claimed that Christian scripture provided no clear message on morality of slavery.
Christianity has no hostility to, or quarrel with, this constitution of society, and this distinction of classes, as many of her ignorant professors and teachers imagine and affirm; nor is it her purpose to destroy or level these distinctions; nor could she do it, if she would, for the causes producing these things, are beyond her reach, lying in the constitution of mind which God has given to man. The object of Christianity is to improve all, and make all happy by making them contented with whatever station or lot Providence has assigned them. And as she found slavery on earth, with the other institutions of society, and interwoved with them all—and, as she did not forbid it then, she may permit it even to the end of the world, and amid all the splendors of the millennial noon: and under her benign and improving influence, the condition of the slave may and will be such that even liberty could present no charms to him; for we have known instances in which emancipated slaves have returned to voluntary slavery.
… the object of Christianity is not to abolish these institutions, but only the evils that may be found in connection with them; and to place the institutions themselves on loftier and better grounds than they ever knew. (Ker 1840, pp. 26-27)
SOURCE: Ker, Leander. Slavery Consistent with Christianity. Baltimore, MD: Sherwood, 1840.
Abolitionist movements in the United States generated the majority of their ideological weight from their ability to link their cause with the nation's increasingly self-conscious Christian public and popular culture. Beginning roughly in 1800 and lasting through the 1830s, the Second Great Awakening in the United States transformed religious thought and practice throughout the country in ways that were relevant to abolitionist attacks on Southern chattel slavery. Perhaps most important were revivalism's emphases on individual equality before God, personal testimony, and public conversion. Much of what attracted the growing working class, women advocates, and African Americans to camp revivals was the notion that Christian salvation was available to all and could be achieved by publicly accepting Christ as one's personal savior. This notion of Christian egalitarianism fueled many Northern congregations to denounce slavery and lead the call for the elimination of legalized slavery in Northern states. Moreover, via either their involvement in millennialist groups such as the Quakers and Shakers or their prominent positions in tent revivalism, many of the Awakening's figureheads were also central leaders within abolitionist circles. For spokespeople such as Charles Finney (1792–1875) and Elijah P. Lovejoy (1802–1837), the concept of "witnessing" extended beyond telling others about salvation through Christ. Despite threats to their personal safety (Lovejoy was murdered for his antislavery views), abolitionists integrated witnessing on the immorality of the domestic slave trade and plantation life in the South into their overall messages about salvation.
For proslavery advocates, a revival in individual belief in the Hamitic myth helped to justify plantation slavery. Since the Middle Ages, European travelers and invaders had used the biblical story of Ham, one of the sons of Noah, to create a hierarchy of racial and cultural difference that explained the darker-skinned civilizations they encountered in North Africa and what is today the Middle East. Ham's descendents were understood to be the natural enemies of the descendents of Noah's other children, particularly the Canaanites and Israelites. By the nineteenth century the Hamitic "curse" had evolved into a biblical justification for the permanent chattel slavery of African Americans, who were considered the "children of Ham." Additionally, although slave owners have been reluctant to Christianize their slaves in the first two centuries of American slavery, by the nineteenth century, forced Christianization allowed Southerners to argue that slavery was saving the souls of backward and pagan African Americans by eliminating Islam and polytheistic religious customs. Research has shown, however, that enslaved people often adapted Christian worship to fit within West African belief systems.
Haynes, Stephen R. Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Kwame A. Holmes