Why Did So Many Christians Support Slavery?
Many southern Christians felt that slavery, in one Baptist minister’s words, “stands as an institution of God.” Here are some common arguments made by Christians at the time:
• Abraham, the “father of faith,” and all the patriarchs held slaves without God’s disapproval (Gen. 21:9–10).
• Canaan, Ham’s son, was made a slave to his brothers (Gen. 9:24–27).
• The Ten Commandments mention slavery twice, showing God’s implicit acceptance of it (Ex. 20:10, 17).
• Slavery was widespread throughout the Roman world, and yet Jesus never spoke against it.
• The apostle Paul specifically commanded slaves to obey their masters (Eph. 6:5–8).
• Paul returned a runaway slave, Philemon, to his master (Philem. 12).
Charitable and Evangelistic Reasons
• Slavery removes people from a culture that “worshipped the devil, practiced witchcraft, and sorcery” and other evils.
• Slavery brings heathens to a Christian land where they can hear the gospel. Christian masters provide religious instruction for their slaves.
• Under slavery, people are treated with kindness, as many northern visitors can attest.
• It is in slaveholders’ own interest to treat their slaves well.
• Slaves are treated more benevolently than are workers in oppressive northern factories.
• Just as women are called to play a subordinate role (Eph. 5:22; 1 Tim. 2:11–15), so slaves are stationed by God in their place.
• Slavery is God’s means of protecting and providing for an inferior race (suffering the “curse of Ham” in Gen. 9:25 or even the punishment of Cain in Gen. 4:12).
• Abolition would lead to slave uprisings, bloodshed, and anarchy. Consider the mob’s “rule of terror” during the French Revolution.
• Christians are to obey civil authorities, and those authorities permit and protect slavery.
• The church should concentrate on spiritual matters, not political ones.
• Those who support abolition are, in James H. Thornwell’s words, “atheists, socialists, communists [and] red republicans.”
Copyright © 1992 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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