Christians and Civil War

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Christians Justifying the Civil War
Religion has played a significant role in the United States following the settlement of
the Puritans in the country in pursuit of attaining religious freedom. Religion also played a
crucial and fundamental role between 1861 and 1865 during the Civil War that took place in
the country, which was primarily fuelled by issues pertaining to slavery and slave trade that
was rampant and rapidly growing amid controversial and religious debates amongst
theologians and politicians from both the South and North. Religion and in particular
Christianity has played a central role over the past few centuries in matters pertaining to
slavery in America and shaping the attitudes of the Christian Whites towards the Blacks.
Christianity took center stage in issues surrounding slavery and slave trade in the country.
Despite Christian whites being aware of their religious teachings that emphasized the love of
God and humanity, holiness, mercy, and justice, they overlooked the evils perpetrated by
slavery that suppressed the black community. In its place, Christian theological explanations
of all sorts were used to justify the existence of the trade along with the evils that were
perpetrated by the trade despite being clearly contrary to the teachings of their religious faith
thus creating a paradox between Christianity and slavery.
According to Sultana, a paradox can be defined as that which comprises of two
seemingly opposing issues or situations that may appear as impossible yet at the same time
may be true or possible. This was the case in the slavery and Christianity paradox where in
spite of the Christian whites being aware of the evil and harmful nature of slavery towards the
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blacks, they selectively focused on specific Bible teachings to justify the existence of slave
trade and their actions. Slavery had become so entrenched in the ancient mentality that it
played a vital role in the political theories and cosmologies of even the most outstanding
thinkers (Salter1-2).
The most outstanding connection between sin and slavery can be found in their
similarities contained in the Christian mythologies. Slavery and its historical dynamics had
become so entrenched into ancient reality conceptualizations that it played a critical role in
the political theories and cosmologies of even the greatest thinkers (Chris 27). One crucial
lesson that Americans appear to have learned from the ramifications of the Civil War is the
recklessness of a great nation permitting itself to be drawn into a civil crisis in the first place.
Furthermore, during this period that the Civil War took place; it had not put in place practical
mechanisms of implementing the change in moral regime that it had planned for especially
regarding slavery and race.
It is not surprising that some of the most important books by Harry Stout and Drew
Faust that emerged during the Sesquicentennial period that the crisis took place questioned
the manner in which the meager results of the Civil War could be comparatively justified
about the outrageous costs of the war. Furthermore, these books were written against the
backdrop of the Iraq War that suffered a similar fate of poor planning (Guelzo 1-2).
According to Stout, the American religion was what propelled the nation into the civil crisis
and kept it afloat during this period despite unclear and undefined prospects of the outcome
of the war. A war that had begun as a mere constitutional dispute involving secession matters
developed into an unstoppable and catastrophic crusade of millennial nationalism. On the
other hand, the causal equation is overturned by Faust by predicating that if religion was not
the primary driver of the Americans to engage themselves in the Civil War, then the reverse
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is the most logical explanation and justification for the outrageous costs of the war because
Americans were driven by the civil crisis to the American religion (Guelzo 2).
Another crucial factor that illuminates the justification of the Civil War by Christians
is the Cosmographia that was initially developed by Guillaume Postel regarding blacks
during the early modern era. The black skin by Africans and African-Americans came about
as a consequence of the sin committed by Ham. In his writings, Postel describes Ethiopia as a
name that has its origins in Greek culture and essentially means black. He continues in his
writings and propounds that this name is a hidden etymology for the firstborn son of Cham by
the name of Cush which according to the Greek culture, it signifies servant. He proceeds
further and justifies slavery and slave trade because in his writings he claims that Cush in
spite of being colored hailed from white parents thus, signifying a type of divine retribution
that was meted out against his parent (Whitford 27-28).
The Bible through its teachings played a major role in discerning the political fate of
the unity of the United States during the Civil War either through deduction or by inference
of its teachings. Slavery on the other hand, which was well known as a moral, social, and
economic issue played a different political role. The Bible was nevertheless affirmative about
slavery according to pastors and ministers. For example, a well renowned preacher from the
North, Henry Beecher, while addressing his congregation in Brooklyn, New York called on
the people of the United States to pray for the nation’s much needed healing concerning
slavery that he described as the most fertile and alarming evil that the country very much
needed to repent.
In his sermons, he reiterated how the Bible condemned this great evil and preached
that the teachings of the Bible detested a government that was ruled by a tyrant and one
which subjected others to slavery. However, other prominent ministers such as James
Thornwell from the South interpreted the teachings of the Bible very differently. Slavery was
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a merciful and good way of managing labor despite the fact that he claimed that he was non-
partisan in any form of biblical exegesis and that the relationship between the master and his
slave was not in any way inconsistent with the teachings of the Bible. On the contrary, he
preached that practicing and condoning slavery was a moral and agreeable way of cherishing
the institution from principle rather than avarice (Noll 2).
Literature Review
The conspicuous theologian from Princeton, Charles Hodge, who offered theological
justifications for the practice, extensively advocated slavery as a morally and theologically
acceptable institution. Slavery was forbidden in the New Testament but possessed a divine
command in the Old Testament. He argued that considering slavery as a wicked crime was
tantamount to impeaching the word of God since it was consistent with the teachings of
Christianity. However, it was hypocritical of the whites who held the belief that slavery did
not constitute any wrongdoing because it was inconsistent with the teachings of Christianity
and it contradicted the values and moral principles of the faith such as the love of God and
humanity, mercy, justice, and holiness
According to Mgadmi, the historical marginalization of the two groups involving
blacks and whites deemed blacks as distinctively inferior to the whites. Black women, in
particular, were deemed as infinitely inferior to black men, white women, and white men.
They were accorded uncharacteristic demeaning images that were part of a long-lived legacy
of sexism and racism. Several myths held by whites regarding the perceptions of blacks and
their relative images may contain some common characteristics and components for both
black males and females as their experiences may be deemed two sides of the same coin that
influence each other. Nevertheless, the nexus between sex ideologies and the American race
stood black women who were greatly discredited and disparaged. According to Patricia
Morton, the discriminatory and racial versions involving black females revolved around four
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key ideologies: the tragic mulatto, the domineering matriarch, the incompetent domestic
servant, and the Jezebel or sex object (2).
The dual conceptualization between white and black womanhood had great disparities
because white women were accredited with the idealistic perception of womanhood that
involved fragility, chastity, domesticity, piety, cleanness, and passionless whereas black
women were accredited with all the negative characteristics of disgrace. These black women
were pictured and conceived as dirty, domineering, seductive, primitive, unwomanly,
physically strong, and lustful. These conceptualizations of womanhood placed the black
women outside the confines of virtue, femininity, delicacy, and respectability making them
ideal candidates for subjection and slavery (Mgadmi 2).
The right of whites to engage in the slave trade and own slaves was defended by
Reverend Verot of St. Augustine Church in Florida in 1861. In his sermon, he claimed that
the apostle Paul stated that to obtain salvation, the obedience of slaves to their masters was a
necessary prerequisite. Following this incident, it is not surprising that the Bible was used by
hundreds of Christian ministers and pastors to justify slavery during the Civil War. The white
Christians in the South did not only support slavery, but also the backbone of the
Confederacy consisted of the Southern Church that made several attempts to retain or keep
the African Americans who comprised of the slave population in absolute bondage.
According to Stout, there never would have been a Civil War if the church was pulled out of
the whole equation. His remarks in the Huffington Post revealed that he was certain that the
Southern clergy believed that they were not committing any sin by engaging themselves in
slavery (Kuruvilla 1-2).
Another proponent of slavery using religious terminologies was Thornwell who
defined slavery as a type of relationship between the slave and her/his master that was non-
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contractual. The master was only grateful to the work done by the slave and not her/his body.
He argued that the relationship that existed between the slave and her/his master was purely a
civil one similar to other societal relationships including soldier and commander, employee
and employer, and child and parent relationships. He further argued that relationship that
existed between the slave and her/his master was reciprocal in the sense that services were
offered by the slave to her/his master in exchange for shelter, food, and other essentials
(Grayson and Robert 2-3).
A few theories are provided by Thornwell in response to the question revolving
around the evolution of slavery if freemen and slaves were to be regarded the same.
However, his answers are skewed towards a defensive generalization structure and are
cursory. According to him, slavery is probably as old as society, and he cites the law codes of
early Jews that ordered the enslavement of different offenders and lawbreakers. He posits that
this could probably be how the institution of slavery initially began. He also mentions the law
codes in the Old Testament that used enslavement as a form of punishment where the guilty
party was enslaved.
In other forms of slavery, the children of a slave would also be considered as slaves,
and it is at this point where he finds substantive grounds to substantiate his theories
concerning the evolution of the institution of slavery. In his argument, any criminal act
regardless of its nature that gives rise to a condition of bondage will always be criminal in the
eyes of God regardless or including any subsequent proliferations or regenerations of the
initial act. This means that any subsequent reproductions of the initial act will always be
tainted with the criminality of the original criminal act thereby should follow the same
lineage that is consistent with the will of God.
In essence, therefore, Thornwell argued that children whose parents were slaves were
to be regarded and handled in the same manner, not of their own making, but the system into
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which they were born into. This meant that children of slaves were also be regarded as slaves
because they were born into a system that was established by God and therefore, treating
them as slaves were not in any way offensive because it was the will of God that they were
born into such a system (Grayson and Robert 5).
The Trans-Atlantic slave trade pioneered the construction of the Underground
Railroad in the United States. If the Trans-Atlantic slave trade were nonexistent and did not
feature in the global economy, there certainly would not have been the famous and historical
Underground Railroad that is currently existent in the U.S. and plays a major and crucial role
towards the economic, political, social, and cultural growth and stability of the United States.
The history of the Railroad is a captivating one because it dates back to the period when the
slave trade was a globally lucrative business, and this is why the Trans-Atlantic slave trade
was undoubtedly an extremely lucrative maritime business. During this period, the
overwhelmingly potential economic greatness and value of the U.S. could never have been
appreciated or recognized if slave trade was nonexistent during that time.
The institution of powerful plantation economies, construction of cities, taming of the
wilderness, and excavation of mines was made possible by enslaved Africans. At the height
of all drama, a reassuring escape route was provided by the Underground Railroad where
slaves from the South made good use of the railroad to escape slavery. It is also associated
with astonishing tales of suffering and individual acts of bravery, complex communication
systems, and dramatic rescues of slave fugitives who had been arrested in the North. In
essence, the Underground Railroad that was a culmination of the slave trade was quite
instrumental in eradicating slavery by providing a reliable escape route for slave escapees in
addition to providing a haven for refugees and slave escapees. That intricate communication
system partly comprised of a church in Detroit that was the first Congregational Church in
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that state. It served as a safe house while the streets in Detroit were used as a reliable hiding
place for refugees who were then smuggled across Canada using the Railroad (Hood 48, 53-
In his writings, Frederick Douglass who was a literate African-American explored the
intricate relationship between Christianity and slavery after he had successfully managed to
escape slavery. He explained that the worst slave-masters involved Christian slave owners
who had recently converted to the religion because they used the teachings of Christianity
that selectively supported their cruelty as well as providing them with religious sanctions.
They held the religious belief that slavery was not supported by God but it also gave them the
authority to oppress, murder, and abuse their slaves which was right according to the religion.
However, these slave owners deliberately ignored the part of Christianity teachings that
demanded the humane and considerate treatment of slaves by their masters.
Douglass also criticized black people because they were under the delusion that it was
a requirement of them from God to submit to slavery unconditionally. These slaveholders
were not genuine Christians because they deliberately ignored the Christianity teachings that
advocated for submission of earthly interests to obtain eternal peace. Douglass also noted that
the foundation of oppression and slavery lay in the power, greed, and pride of man. He
developed the argument that there lay a distinct difference between the Christianity of Christ
and that of the world. The world’s Christianity was corrupt, bad, and wicked while that one
of Christ was good, holy, and pure.
In his writings, he expressed the belief that slaveholders who professed the
Christianity of the world were not genuine Christians since they professed an artificial kind of
Christianity. He believed that slavery was associated with a corrupt Christianity and
therefore, could not co-exist with each other. He argued that slavery could certainly not co-
exist with Christianity since Christ Himself abhorred cruelty and did not vent it out to his
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disciples or followers. Slave owners did not practice the basic tenets of Christianity that
include love, justice, and mercy. They instead acted to the contrary by not paying for the
services provided by the slaves and being cruel to them. They upheld the slavery practice to
advance their selfish economic interests at the expense of the slaves. Christianity teaches one
to first love their neighbor before making claims of loving God
Slavery has significantly affected the social and political values of the American
system. The assessment of social values reveals that the decline of morals among the slave
owners was substantially caused by the corrupt and irresponsible powers they had over
slaves. Adultery and rape cases featured a lot among slave owners who misused their powers
over female slaves thereby fathering offspring with their victims. In turn, the unity of the
slave owners’ families became threatened since such fathers were forced to either punish
their offspring as slaves or sell them continuously. Such revelations as these potentially
caused a breakup in the family fabric of the slave owners where their wives became resentful
and cruel towards the husbands and children of the female slaves who had borne children
with their husbands and in extreme cases ended up in divorcing their husbands. Slavery also
affected the majority of slave families that had been separated to be sold to other slave
owners. Also, the social stratification in the United States increased substantially due to the
acquisition of free slave labor by huge plantation owners in pursuit of acquiring more wealth.
This social stratification delineated the American whites into upper, lower, and
middle social classes because it depended on the amount of money that was made by these
whites. The ones who could afford to purchase more slaves certainly made more money than
the ones with fewer slaves because slave labor was unaccounted for and was therefore free.
Racism prejudice also increased among the poor whites as a result of slavery because the
lives of some slaves were much better than those of poor whites. Such scenarios greatly
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contributed to social ills such as unfairly convicting suspected blacks of wrongdoing and
lynching them instead of giving them the opportunity of a fair trial.
The lowest social class comprised of blacks who were preceded by poor whites who
could not afford many slaves. The socio-cultural values of the slaves were affected by
slavery, which resulted in racism and racial oppression because they were forced to embrace
the behaviors and cultural values favored by their slave owners. Furthermore, oppression and
economic exploitation were potential consequences of racism. Other races were also prone to
feelings of superiority and inferiority because of racism thereby creating power relations
whereby classes that were perceived to be inferior were subject to authority imposition by the
superior classes.
To suppress potential resistance attempts by the inferior classes, threats and brutality
were employed by the superior classes resulting into racial oppression that was exploited by
the dominant class for economic reasons. The dominant race perpetuated racial stereotypes,
ideologies, and internalization of values regarding the racial classification of the individual
leading to a lack of respect for her/his race, herself/himself, disgust, and self-doubt. Persons
who underwent these kinds of psychological experiences readily agreed to be oppressed by
the superior racial classes because they perceived it as legitimate and worthwhile.
The institution of societal racial ranks according to different classes was used to
access and allocate opportunities, economic resources, and social incentives. The dominant
races perpetrated oppression towards the inferior ones through the unfair distribution of
rewards, opportunities, and resources. The dominant racial class also controlled the means of
production by denying lower classes rights of land ownership thereby making them
dependent on them for their survival. It remained both an intriguing puzzle and
embarrassment for the Americans regarding the spectacular economic success experienced in
their country that heavily relied on slave labor yet they believed that such kind of labor was
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not only inefficient but also immoral when measured up against labor of free women and
During this period, planters using slave labor complained about losing money in the
process of planting their crops, and historians who delved into plantations’ books of accounts
for that period substantiated this as accurate. The question, therefore, remains that if slavery
was indeed inefficient and unprofitable, then how had it not only survived, but also prospered
over two centuries in a country that was characterized by a free market society? To answer
this question, it is imperative that one needs to make a drastic shift in the perception of slaves
from viewing them as people and instead view them as properties or economic assets
(Ransom 3).
It is evident that the majority of injustices that were committed against blacks by
Christian whites were deliberate and intentional and that these Christian whites blatantly
disobeyed the teachings and principles of Christianity. They followed the beliefs and
teachings that suited them and which provided justifications for the racial oppression that
they subjected the blacks to. In this regard, they deliberately and selectively manipulated the
teachings of Christianity to justifications for their wrongdoing because they were completely
aware and conscious of their unjust actions towards the blacks. This scenario created a
paradox between Christianity and slavery, which ultimately led to the emergence of the Civil
Following their defeat in the Civil War, there emerged several explanations and
excuses by the white Southerners including their spiritual leaders concerning the primary
causes of the war. They argued that the Civil War came about as a result of misunderstanding
and misconceptions between the Southerners and the North where they intentionally sidelined
the aspect of slavery and slave trade claiming that they were protecting themselves from
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Northern aggression and did not have the intention of extending slavery and its associated
injustices and evils. In the ensuing debates and explanations concerning the primary reasons
of the Civil War, there emerged another concept of the lost cause religion that simultaneously
came about with the new symbolism of the Confederate flag.
According to black activists, this flag, which still flies over the Capitol grounds of
South Carolina, is a great reminder and symbol of oppression of the blacks that took place
prior to the Civil War. These activists hold the opinion that the flag symbolizes a white
supremacist symbol that represents white supremacists of the South whose main aim was to
keep the blacks forever in chains and continue denying them their most basic freedoms and
rights as human beings under the cover of a selective and manipulated religious doctrine of
Christianity. While giving tribute to the ones who lost their lives in the Civil War, it can be
merited as that which brought parity and equal rights and justice for all races.
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Works Cited
Chris, L. "Sin as slavery and/or slavery as sin? On the relationship between slavery and
Christian hamartiology in Late Ancient Christianity." Religion and Theology Vol. 17,
no. 1, 2010, pp. 26-39.
Grayson, Erik, and Robert Weyeneth."James Henley Thornwell and the Biblical Defense of
Slavery." History 447F Senior Seminar. Professor Robert Weyeneth. Fall, 2010.
Guelzo, Allen. "Did Religion Make The Civil War Worse?". The Atlantic, 2015,
american-civil-war-worse/401633/. Accessed 16 Apr 2018.
Hood, Lottie Jones. "The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the US Underground
Railroad." International Congregational Journal Vol. 9, No. 1, 2010.
Kuruvilla, Carol. "How White Confederates Used The Bible To Justify Slavery". Huffpost
UK, 2015,
slavery_n_7638676.html. Accessed 16 Apr 2018.
Mgadmi, Mahassen. "Black Women’s Identity: Stereotypes, Respectability and
Passionlessness (1890-1930)". Journals.Openedition.Org, 2009, 16 Apr 2018.
Noll, Mark A. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 2006. Internet resource.
Ransom, Roger L. The Civil War in American Economic History. University of California,
Riverside."Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.
Salter, Emma. "The Catalyst Of Christianity In The Civil War". The American People To
1865, 2015,
christianity-in-the-civil-war-emma-salter/. Accessed 16 Apr 2018.
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Whitford, David. "A Calvinist heritage to the “Curse of Ham: assessing the accuracy of a
claim about racial subordination’." Church history and religious culture Vol. 90, No.
1, 2010, pp. 25-45.

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