Long before cannons fired over Fort Sumter, civil war raged within America’s churches. Three of the nation’s largest Protestant denominations were torn apart over slavery or related issues.

What Caused the Breaks

Before 1830, slavery was an accepted part of American life. But over the next fifteen years, it became so sharp and powerful an issue that it sawed Christian groups in two. Why?

• Cotton production, which depended on slave labor, became increasingly profitable, and essential to the economy, especially in the South.

• During the 1830s, famous revivalist Charles Finney converted thousands of people, many of whom joined the crusade against slavery.

• In 1831, Virginia slave Nat Turner led a violent revolt that killed 57 whites. Southerners feared deeply any attempts to free the millions of slaves surrounding them. That same year, fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison began publishing “The Liberator.” His heated attacks on slavery only hardened southern attitudes.

By 1837, the anti-slavery societies that had existed across the South had disappeared. Southern abolitionists fled to the North for safety.

Southern church leaders began to develop a strong scriptural defense of slavery (see Why Christians Should Support Slavery). They attacked the northern abolitionists for their “rationalism and infidelity” and “meddling spirit.”

Church bureaucrats tried to keep slavery out of discussion and bring peace through silence. But within eight years, three major denominations had been split apart. Tragically, as historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom has written, “honorable, ethical, God-fearing people … were on both sides.”

What the Breaks Caused

Famous Kentucky Senator Henry Clay declared that the church divisions were “the greatest ...

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