Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Religion and Slavery
Although many southerners recognized that slavery was unsustainable as an economic system even before the Civil War decided the question for them, the morality of slavery was hotly debated. Many southern clergymen defended slavery as an institution sanctioned by the Bible and their arguments found their way into the diaries and memoirs of laymen, who, even after the close of the war, continued to extol slavery's virtues.
A close reading and analysis of these sermons is a valuable exercise for anyone interested in the rhetorical underpinnings of cultural ideology. The didactic, meticulously constructed arguments for the Biblical support of slavery reveals the degree to which southern clergymen actively furthered the Confederacy's cause.
One such clergyman was Stephen Elliott. On August 21, 1863, Elliott preached a sermon entitled Ezra's Dilemma to a sympathetic Savannah audience. Accessible through the Documenting the American South collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Elliott argues that northerners profited by selling slaves to southerners and then persecuted the buyers for engaging in slavery. Further, Elliott contends that southerners, doing their best to Christianize African Americans, had been martyred for their efforts.
- Why might pro-slavery documents appeal more to a reader's sense of reason than emotion?
- How differently might a historian and a modern clergyman view the pro-slavery sermons?
Also available through the Chapel Hill site is Joseph Ruggles Wilson's sermon, Mutual Relation of Masters and Slaves as Taught in the Bible (delivered January 6, 1861, in Augusta, Georgia). Wilson begins his sermon with a thorough explication of the Biblical use of the word "servants", which he proves to mean "slaves."
There are several words, conveying different shades of thought, which Grecians were accustomed to employ in speaking of servants, inasmuch as there are several kinds and degrees of servitude. But no one of them does so emphatically set forth the true and simple idea of domestic slavery as understood in these Southern States, as the word ????? --the word whose plural form opens our text . . .
Continuing, Wilson supports his pro-slavery argument with a scripture
lesson from Ephesians that deals with the relationship between masters
. . . Now, we have already seen that the Holy Spirit employs words which He has intended to be understood as distinctly enunciating the existence of domestic servitude--that He has sent to all the world a volume of truth, which is indisputably addressed to men who hold slaves and to the slaves who possess masters--and that, from the connections in which these highly suggestive words occur, He has included slavery as an organizing element in that family order which lies at the very foundation of Church and State.
- Why would it be important to base a pro-slavery argument on religious texts?
- What role does Wilson assert that the Bible gives to slavery?
- How might an abolitionist attack Wilson's reasoning?
- Does Wilson leave any possibility for doubting the truth of his assertions?
- What conclusions can readers draw regarding the character of Wilson's audience?
Although outnumbered in the South by their pro-slavery counterparts, abolitionist clergymen attacked slavery and suffered the often violent consequences. Unlike their northern brethern, these clergymen experienced the effects of slavery firsthand. Like the pro-slavery contingent, however, these religious leaders also culled evidence for their argument from the Bible. One such orator was the Kentucky missionary John G. Fee, whose autobiography, accessible under the Subject Index heading Slavery in the bible, describes how he proposed to deliver his anti-slavery message in hostile territory.
For reasons manifest my audiences were small. Many whose sympathies were with the principles of justice and liberty were afraid to be seen listening to me in public audiences. I saw I must try and reach the people at their homes, at their firesides; and I decided I would write and publish an anti-slavery manual, a hand-book showing the testimony of God's Word against slavery, - the evil consequences of slavery upon society, and with these show the unity of the human race - that verily "God hath made of one blood all nations of men." The matter for this manual I prepared, and, for best effect, decided to publish in Kentucky, - in Maysville, a city near by.
Page 49, Autobiography of John G. Fee
- What arguments does Fee propose to include in his manual?
- Why would Fee's anti-slavery manual be more effective if published in Kentucky?
- Do you think that Fee's use of a quotation from the Bible is effective or appropriate?
- How might a pro-slavery clergyman have responded to Fee's manual?