Religion and American Slavery

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

Step 6. Religious Arguments for And Against Slavery



In this video, you will learn that most Americans before the Civil War believed the Christian Bible justified slavery. Then, as antislavery campaigns increased in fervency leading to the Civil War, more people began to interpret the Bible as opposed to slavery.

Slavery Accepted as Normal Because it Was in the Bible

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the dominant religion in British Colonial America was Christianity and specifically Protestant Christianity. Although Catholics, Lutherans and Jews, could be found in America, most of the laws and governmental ideas that ruled towns and colonies were Protestant in nature. Slavery was an accepted practice by most Christian denominations. It was widely believed that the institution of slavery wasn’t wrong because slavery was in the Bible. It was only wrong to abuse a slave or to be cruel to a slave.  

Pro-slavery arguments often emphasized that slavery made Black people more docile and obedient and prepared them for heaven. These ideas came from the colonial period where Christian leaders argued for planters to teach Christianity to their enslaved property. Others saw slavery as a necessary evil and argued that God will eliminate it in His own time.

Justifying Slavery with the Bible

The Bible became a tool, used by supporters and opponents of slavery. Some argued slavery was ordained of God because it was in the Bible. Many pro-slavery advocates argued that they were better Christians for practicing biblical slavery than Christians that went against the Bible and opposed it.  

Many Hebrew prophets practiced slavery, which was common practice during their ancient time. Slaves were considered part of their family and seen as an important part of the family’s reputation. Many American slaveholders compared themselves to Old Testament patriarchs holding slaves as an important part of their family. Also, the Christian Apostle Paul counseled slaves to be obedient to their masters. This provided justification for slavery in both the Christian Old and New Testaments.

Pro-slavery advocates also pointed to the Bible for justifying race-based slavery. They argued that Black people were destined to be slaves because they were descendants of Ham, the second son of the Hebrew prophet Noah who built the ark to prepare for the flood. Ham’s skin was said to be cursed to be darker because of disobedience toward his father. Pro-slavery advocates argued Ham’s descendants populated Africa and were now uncivilized. Enslaving people of African descent brought them under the care of more intelligent people who would civilize them. These arguments justifying slavery did not recognize the human dignity of people of color as individuals. It also did not respect the rich cultural heritage and diversity of the African continent.

Biblical Support for Abolitionism

Beginning in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, anti-slavery campaigns began to push back against the idea that slavery was ordained of God. Just as the Bible was used to defend slavery and the rights of slave owners, it was also used to denounce it and condemn them. Rather than focusing on specific passages of scripture, the Abolitionist movement focused on broad biblical narratives of love and redemption. They also pointed to specific teaching of Jesus, such “love thy neighbor as thyself.”  


As a result of these interpretations of scripture, some Americans began to see slavery as immoral. Abolitionists also drew on American founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, that stated all men were endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Some were beginning to see slavery as offending God’s laws of nature.

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Questions: Check for Understanding

Write your responses to these questions on your own paper. 

  1. What are some examples of arguments that supported slavery in the period leading to the Civil War?
  2.  Slavery was accepted as normal in the colonial period. Leading to the Civil War, some began to believe that slavery was immoral. What changed?
Lesson III. Step 6 of 7


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