Religion and American Slavery

Lesson III. Religious Influences on Tensions Leading to the Civil War

Step 4. Sectional Crisis and American Christianity



In this video you’ll learn that debate over the morality of slavery engulfed many of the major churches in America. Christian denominations began to break up along geographic lines that mirrored the sectional crisis. These divisions contributed to the rising tensions leading to the Civil War.

Christian Ministers Held Contradictory Views on Slavery

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many white church leaders and ordinary Christians had expressed contradictory views on slavery. In the 1740s, for example, the famous Anglican revivalist minister George Whitefield preached to thousands of enslaved African Americans and criticized southern slaveholders for mistreating their slaves. Yet wealthy planters from South Carolina financially supported his missionary work, and enslaved people labored on his orphanage in Georgia. In the nineteenth century, many revivalist church leaders from the North were opposed to slavery. The Presbyterian Charles Grandison Finney called slavery a “national sin” and refused to give Communion to slave owners. Not all revivalists were in favor of racial equality, however. Northern Methodists, for example, did not want Gilbert Haven, a bishop from Massachusetts, to serve in their conferences because he opposed the racial segregation of congregations. African Americans in many northern churches were required to sit apart from white worshippers. Facing discrimination in white churches, black clergy formed their own separate Baptist and Methodist congregations. The African Methodist Episcopal church, organized in 1816, grew to almost 20,000 members by the eve of the Civil War.

Debate Over the Morality of Slavery Divided American Christianity

Most white Protestant church leaders in America hoped to maintain “peace” in the church by discouraging members from engaging in debates about slavery. By the time of the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and the sectional crisis that followed, keeping the debate about slavery out of churches proved impossible. The 1830s was a particularly violent time in American history, as white mobs attacked abolitionist meetings and black churches in northern cities. One mob paraded the abolitionist William Llyod Garrison through the streets of Boston with a rope around his neck, though he escaped alive. The Presbyterian minister and abolitionist printer Elijah Lovejoy was not so lucky – he was murdered by a white mob in 1837.


The political rancor over slavery finally consumed many American churches, leaving several denominations to separate. Presbyterians began to splinter apart in the 1830s over slavery and other religious differences. In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church broke into Northern and Southern factions after the Northern-dominated General Conference that year suspended a Georgia bishop for owning slaves. A year later, white southern Baptists formed the Southern Baptist Convention after their northern Baptist counterparts refused to appoint missionaries who were slave owners. These divisions extended through the American Civil War, as white ministers in the North continued to preach that slavery was a sin, while southern ministers argued that slavery was ordained by God.

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Lesson III. Step 4 of 7


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