Religion and American Slavery

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

Step 7. Proslavery Advocates and Abolitionists

Proslavery leaders used the Bible to support their position. They pointed to Old Testament prophets who owned slaves. Further, they usually focused on two themes–social order and race. They commonly argued that slavery was ordained of God and that with slavery, social order was maintained. Lastly, some proslavery leaders argued that slavery was good for Black people and it was part of God’s plan to use slavery to civilize them and to help them become Christians.

Abolitionists usually interpreted the Bible in terms of overarching themes about love and justice. They often pointed to passages in which Jesus said he fulfilled the law and now the commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. 

See examples below of some leading religious arguments for and against slavery.

Pro-Slavery Advocates

Thornton Stringfellow

He was a minister in Virginia who wrote A Brief Examination of Scripture Testimony on the Institution of Slavery in which he used the Bible to argue that chattel slavery was ordained of God.

“God enacted that the Israelites should buy slaves of the heathen nations around them, and will them and their increase as property to their children forever (Lev. 25: 44-46). All these nations were made of one blood. Yet God ordained that some should be “chattel” slaves to others, and gave his special aid to effect it. In view of this incontrovertible fact, how can I believe this passage disproves the lawfulness of slavery in the sight of God? How can any sane man believe it, who believes the Bible?”

– Thornton Stringfellow

Josiah Priest

He was an uneducated leather worker who gave up his work to be a writer. He then published thousands of books and pamphlets. In 1843, he wrote Slavery, As It Relates to the Negro, Or African Race in which he argued that God created Black people to be slaves. In this quote, he argues that King Solomon had Black slaves, so it is acceptable for ministers in the present to also have slaves

“That King Solomon had slaves in abundance, is written by his own hand, which writing is still extant, and that he bought them is also stated by him, and that from slaves thus bought or otherwise procured in the negro countries, he raised others, as do the owners of slaves at the present times. Now Solomon was a preacher or a minister of religion as well as a king, as he calls himself, and if such a man had slaves of the negro race, (as to enslave any other people was not tolerated by their law,) how is it that ministers of religion at the present time may not also have them if they desire it?”

– Josiah Priest


George Bourne

He was a pastor of a Presbyterian Church in Virginia. Because of his anti-slavery stance, he was expelled from the church and ultimately settled in New York City in 1829. He wrote A condensed Anti-slavery Bible Argument, by a citizen of Virginia in which he argued that Virginia planters had misinterpreted scripture to justify slavery. In this quote, he argues that Abraham’s servants had rights and were treated like his own children. They were not treated like chattel slaves.

“…the same religious rights and privileges were secured to Abraham’s servants, that belonged to him and his own children; a strong analogical proof that they shared all other rights, because real slaves have no rights whatever, and it is not likely that these servants would be allowed some rights equally with children, but be denied all others.”

– George Bourne

Theodore Dwight Weld

He was an early leader of the abolitionist movement starting in the 1830s. He wrote The Bible Against Slavery: An Inquiry into the Patriarchal and Mosaic Systems on the Subject of Human Rights. In this quote, he argues slavery robs persons of the personal power God has given everyone.

“Two commandments deal death to slavery. ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ or, ‘thou shalt not take from another what belongs to him.’ All man’s powers are God’s gift to him. That they are his own, is proved from the fact that God has given them to him alone, – that each of them is a part of himself, and all of them together constitute himself. All else that belongs to man, is acquired by the use of these powers. The interest belongs to him, because the principal does; the product is his, because he is the producer. Ownership of any thing is ownership of its use. The right to use according to will, is itself ownership. The eighth commandment presupposes and assumes the right of every man to his powers, and their product. Slavery robs of both.”

– Theodore Dwight Weld

Questions: Prepare for Class Discussion

Prepare for class discussion by responding to these questions. Write your answers on your own paper. 

  1. What were some of the ways advocates for slavery interpreted the Bible to argue for their viewpoint?
  2. What were some of the ways abolitionists interpreted the Bible to argue for their viewpoint? 
Lesson III. Step 7 of 7


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