Slavery and the Bible
At an earlier point in American history, some Christian theologians went so far as to argue that the enslavement of human beings was justifiable from a biblical point of view. James Henley Thornwell, a Harvard-educated scholar who committed huge sections of the Bible to memory, regularly defended slavery and promoted white supremacy from his pulpit at the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C., where he was the senior pastor in the years leading up to the Civil War.
James Henley Thornwell regularly defended slavery and promoted white supremacy from his pulpit at the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C.
A.H. Ritchie/The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, 1871
“As long as that [African] race, in its comparative degradation, co-exists side by side with the white,” Thornwell declared in a famous 1861 sermon, “bondage is its normal condition.” Thornwell was a slave owner, and in his public pronouncements he told fellow Christians they need not feel guilty about enslaving other human beings.
“The relation of master and slave stands on the same foot with the other relations of life,” Thornwell insisted. “In itself, it is not inconsistent with the will of God. It is not sinful.” The Christian Scriptures, Thornwell said, “not only fail to condemn; they as distinctly sanction slavery as any other social condition of man.”
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Among the New Testament verses Thornwell could cite was the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where he writes, “Slaves, obey your human masters, with fear and trembling and sincerity of heart.” (Biblical scholars now discount the relevance of the passage to a consideration of chattel slavery.)
Thornwell’s reassurance was immensely important to all those who had a stake in the existing economic and political system in the South. In justifying slavery, he was speaking not just as a theologian but as a Southern patriot. In the First Presbyterian cemetery, Thornwell’s name appears prominently on a monument to church members who served the Confederate cause in the Civil War.
“Slavery, in the minds of many, was necessary for the South to thrive,” said Bobby Donaldson, director of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research at the University of South Carolina. “So Thornwell used his pulpit to defend the South against charges by the North, by abolitionists. … He provided the intellectual defenses that many slaveholders needed.”
Thornwell’s First Presbyterian congregation included slave owners and businessmen and other members of the political and economic elite in Columbia, and as their pastor he represented their interests. A belief in white supremacy was a foundational part of Southern culture, which is one reason some otherwise devout Christians have failed to challenge it.