How the Bible was used to justify slavery, abolitionism
April 12th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

How the Bible was used to justify slavery, abolitionism

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - How did churchgoing, Bible-worshiping Christians justify holding slaves? It’s a question I’ve long had as a Civil War buff and that has new resonance on Tuesday, which marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

I’ve read books about politics and generals during the war. But I hadn't read much about the religious dimension to the Civil War until I came across a recent USA Today column.

Henry G. Brinton, a pastor at Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, writes that the Bible was used a weapon by both the North and the South. Brinton says some contemporary Americans are making the same mistake their Civil War ancestors did by twisting the Bible to support their own battle cries.

Brinton, author of “Balancing Acts: Obligation, Liberation and Contemporary Christian Conflicts,” says both the Union and the Confederacy invoked the Bible to justify their positions on slavery.

Slaveholders justified the practice by citing the Bible, Brinton says.

They asked who could question the Word of God when it said, "slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling" (Ephesians 6:5), or "tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect" (Titus 2:9).

Christian opponents of slavery elevated biblical principles of justice and equality above individual passages that approved exclusion, Brinton says.

He wonders if a new biblical approach is needed today, as people grapple with polarizing issues like gay marriage.

Opponents of gay marriage, Brinton notes, follow a literal approach to the Bible when they cite Old Testament passages that declare, "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22).

He wonders if gay marriage foes are making the same mistake as defenders of slavery:

But perhaps reproduction is no longer the goal of every person and every marriage. Many couples choose not to have children, or marry late in life when they are unable to produce children. The New Testament values of faithfulness, love, sacrifice and promise-based commitment can be practiced by heterosexual couples without children — and by same-sex couples as well. Discussions of gay marriage can focus as much on scriptural equality as on the ability to reproduce.

At the same time, Brinton says liberal Christians may be making their own mistakes with their approach to the Bible:

Liberals also use Scripture for their purposes, citing commandments such as "thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13) whenever a war breaks out or the death penalty is being debated. But the commandment is actually a prohibition against murder, arising out of blood feuds and vengeance killings between ancient clans and families. A literal reading of this verse does not give us the moral and political guidance we need today.

Brinton says Abraham Lincoln offered the most constructive religious perspective during the Civil War. "My concern is not whether God is on our side," he said. "My greatest concern is to be on God's side."

What do you think? Is it fair to invoke the Bible for political causes?

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Bible • Christianity • Culture wars • History

soundoff (449 Responses)
  1. cjc

    God did not write the bible. Those aren't His words. Many parts of the bible are no doubt what God would want us to follow, e.g., Do not judge, do onto others..., love one another...

    However, God is all love. And a loving god does not set worldy 'rules' by us to adhere to such as disliking gays, approving of slavery, telling us not to eat shellfish. Leviticus has a laundry list of archaic do's and don'ts. The masses back then were uneducated, thought the world was flat, condemed Galileo for what we know today about our solar system.

    Nobody should use the bible to justify hate or judgement. Hating the sin the sin and not the sinner is another way of getting around what we know people hate – The SINNER. We must evolve spiritually. Not by worldly rules. But by love and compassion.

    April 12, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • HeavenSent


      Isaiah 40:22: "It is he that sitteth upon the CIRCLE OF THE EARTH."

      Isaiah knew this truth in 700 B.C. the earth is round?

      Job 26:7: ". . . and hangeth the earth upon NOTHING."

      Job is the oldest book in the Bible! Written over 3500 years ago! How did Job know something that was IMPOSSIBLE to know during his day?

      As for love the sinner, hate the sin. That is a man made statement that is not written in scriptures and allows the sinner to continuing sinning because they refuse to give up their sinful nature. Man/woman can not save your soul. Only Jesus can save your soul. To know what Jesus wants for you and what He wants from you is to read His truth (the Bible) in the letter He wrote all of us. After you read His word, comprehend what He teaches and apply His truth to your life so you will spiritually live on earth, as it is in Heaven and dwell with Him for eternity. Refuse to learn about Jesus and you will not know how to love or follow Him, you end up loving and follow satan, who is a liar, who deceives all and will take as many of God's children with him to the eternal flames, blotted out. No eternity for him or you. Two choice cjc with the free will that Jesus gives us. Love and follow Jesus' truth and live or love and follow satan's lie and die. Life is a test from God. Are you going to pass His test or are you going to be sidetracked by satan's lie and live for this life only?

      Free will. Your choice.

      Choose wisely. Your soul depends on it.


      April 13, 2011 at 6:12 am |
  2. kateb

    What a well thought out article. While the bible is a road map for man, it's never correct to use the bible for purposes it was not intended for nor out of its historical perspective. It wasn't given for man to use to coerce other men into agreeing with them. God's all about free will. Of course, all decisions carry their own consequences. But its up to each person to decide what the bible means and what decisions they will or will not allow themselves.

    April 12, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
  3. Johnjon

    kind of like the way christians use the bible against gay men and women................. oh how history repeats itself.

    April 12, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Johnjon, g-ays aren't the only sinners who refuse to give up their sinful natures.

      Get a grip, will you?


      April 13, 2011 at 5:52 am |
  4. Stephanie Palmer

    People have been using the Bible to justify all kinds of things, none of which are in keeping with Christianity. I don't believe anyone needs to read a book to figure out what's right and what's wrong. If you do, you really need to go back to school; don't pretend to be an actual adult.

    April 12, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • Rob

      How do you justify your Christianity if not out of a book? Word of mouth? Do you mean to tell me you don't go to passages from the Bible to quote in order to understand the words of Christ?

      Right. Sure you think that.

      April 12, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      That's your confusion Stephanie. You don't believe. Therefore, you don't know His wisdom written in the letter (the Bible) He wrote to all of us to be the best that He wants us to be. Get off your duff someday and read His truth for yourself instead of listening to others as clueless as you.


      April 13, 2011 at 5:50 am |
  5. truthmusic2

    As long as there has been religion there has been people twisting it to appease their own prejudices. Anyone who reads the bible and THINKS rationally will see that it is just a story to keep a status quo for the masses. Just imagine what you would think of me if I told you I belong to a group of people that gets together once a week and pretends to actually drink the blood and eat the flesh of or savior. You would either laugh or run away because if I would believe that I would be crazy enough to enslave people.

    April 12, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • Lycidas

      "to keep a status quo for the masses."

      What status quo? A great deal of the Bible (Amos, Hosea..etc) have called upon revolutions of sorts against those in power. Good grief, the prophets called upon the fall of the king and the rich because of corruption. Sounds like they were Democrats at some level.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
    • Lycidas

      "I belong to a group of people that gets together once a week and pretends to actually drink the blood and eat the flesh of or savior."

      If that si what you believed, are you telling us that is how you would describe it? I think not.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • Frespech

      Your lack of understanding of that event is fairly typical of those who have no belief except in the golden arches of Mcdonalds.

      April 14, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  6. Frank Doonan

    The references are clear Biblically slavery, and the buying and selling of slaves was normal up through the time of Christ and after. The degree slavery existed was more on economic grounds, not moral, up to the 18th century, when movements began to eliminate slavery. The Bible like the Torah and the Koran are ancient scripture from ancient cultures that no longer apply to today's world. The reason we have many churches, and divisions in Islam is that interpretations become dividing points through history and in the modern world as we evolve spiritually, and intellectually. The problems with ancient scriptures include many other issues like science where they fail to provide consistent quidence for believers.

    April 12, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • Lycidas

      I always think it is funny that ppl ignore such books as Philemon and the background of slavery in it. They never see the evolution of history through the pages of the Bible. They look at it as static and unchanging when it is not.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Frank, are you just miffed that your ancestors the apes only threw their crap? Or, did it get blown up in the batman and robin big bang?

      Clueless dry bones.


      April 13, 2011 at 5:46 am |
  7. D Stephens

    I apologize if it's already been said because I haven't read all the comments but I think God answered the question on slavery through the North's victory. Christians on boths sides were praying for victory and hopefully, for God's will to be done. He is ultimately in control and His will was done. The time for slavery has passed.

    April 12, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • Rob

      So if God answers Christianity by reducing its numbers and increasing the numbers of non-believers, does that score a victory for atheism over the Bible?

      This is one of the most ridiculous arguments I've ever met. The Bible justifies slavery, but we're against slavery because it lost. And so we'll say God "spoke" through a human war.


      April 12, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
  8. Saint Sebastian of Mt. Fuji

    Great religion of "peace" you lot have there, so much better than Islam.

    April 12, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
  9. Dave Dawkins

    I think that whole vile and evil book should be banned, along with it's counterpart, the "koran".

    April 12, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
    • Lycidas

      Hey..there is this Pastor down in Florida you might like to hang out with. You both have the same open minded views on things.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  10. Food4thought

    It's amazing how many non-believers there are in the "belief" section. Don't athiests have their own section yet? If your hope is in mankind, stay in the politics section. Maybe the entertainment section so you can see if Lady Gaga is coming to your town. I've seen how humans work and I'm not impressed. May God's Kingdom come.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • Colin

      Docotrs go to where the sick people are. We who hope to lift people out of their dark superst-itions (such as the one you just exhiited about the end being welcomed) must go to where the poor fools lurk. This blog is a hive of ignorant Christians. It is like candyland to the freethinker.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • Jesusfreakazoid

      And when God's Kingdom comes, may there be slaves there to happily do my work as it is written in the "Good Book".

      April 12, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • pat carr

      "May God's Kingdom come."

      YES! let it come, already. Maybe sometime in the next 2,000 years would be fine. Amazing how this "kingdom" never arrives.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Colin, Jesus' truth states that non-believers are the fools. Again, you steal His truth to use as your own.


      April 13, 2011 at 5:41 am |
  11. Matt T

    Find me a Christian that can read an Aramaic bible and I might listen to their "interpretation".

    April 12, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • Bjorn

      Why would you want an Aramaic Bible? The earliest texts of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. The earliest texts of the New Testament were written in Greek. There are also some apocryphal books that were written in coptic.
      I think what you mean is some sort of "Original Bible": There isn't one.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
    • CappinA

      It's not about the words on the page. It's about the truth they awaken in the heart of man. Don't listen for what somebody else thinks the Bible means; read it and interpret it for yourself. You might be surprised what you find.

      April 12, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
    • pat carr

      "read it and interpret it for yourself"

      start with luke 14:26.

      "If anyone comes to me and does not


      father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      pat carrm, if you did your own research instead of staying lazy and buying into the propaganda sites of other non-believers that haven't a clue about Jesus' truth, you would have learned that this passage of His truth means to love less. Love Jesus' (truth) above all, first. Then and only then can you love your parents, family, friends, etc.

      It amazes me how any of you non-believers can put one foot in front of the other on any given day.


      April 13, 2011 at 5:37 am |
  12. grenwood

    Many Ministers of the government justified apartheid in South Africa on the basis of quotations from the bible. The Afrikaner people were a 'god fearing people' – that is the impression – and the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria celebrating the Great Trek of the Afrikaner people and utimate creation of a Republic under Paul Kruger in the hinterland Transvaal highlights their Christianity. The Afrikaner Nationalist Party was in power from 1948 to 1994 repeatedly put there by white voters (the other races were excluded from voting by law). This story is typical of all the colonies of the Europeans when their exodus from European shores took place late in the 1490's and of course Christian Church Steeples are today seen in South Island of New Zealand and Tierra del Fuego.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  13. Oldfella

    So it seems that it really comes down to two specific ways of reading the bible, those that read the bible literally as the infallible word of god or those that still believe but seem capable of discerning context in the messages. Having grown up in the bible belt, it is no surprise that either side cherry picked the parts to meet their needs. Guilt, shame, and fear always were handy at controlling people.

    The statisticians of words and phrases… always willing to adjust the interpretation to achieve the desired outcome.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Humble versus Pride (aka what's called ego today) is what determines if you can see or hear His truth.


      April 13, 2011 at 5:30 am |
  14. Jesusfreakazoid

    Ephesians 6:5

    Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • Jesusfreakazoid

      In other words. Be the best slave that you can be and be truly happy about it. Only then will you be rewarded in heaven.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Roscoe Chait

      If the Republicans continue to have their way, we will all be slaves soon to the corporate monarch.

      April 12, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  15. charbroil

    This coming from a place like CNN. Like I commented on the surfer girl. Look we didn't ask for the phoney preachers and the phoney musicians. We didn't ask for any of that. Big money could certainly use that book to justify a lot of things. Thats very plain to see. See. They never talk about how they used that book or how they still are. As far as we know we are just individuals many of us just sitting alone reading that book. Not stirring up any trouble with it. Interesting how you blame us.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  16. Reality

    Once again:

    "What do you think? Is it fair to invoke the Bible for political causes? Actually, it is not fair to invoke the bible for any cause or purpose. Why?

    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity by the "bowers", kneelers" and "pew peasants" will converge these religions into some simple rules of life i.e. Do No Harm. No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired.

    Ditto for houses of "worthless worship" aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues.

    And then there is this:

    Saving 1.5 billion lost Muslims:
    There never was and never will be any angels i.e. no Gabriel, no Islam and therefore no more koranic-driven acts of terror and horror.

    Saving 2 billion lost Christians:
    There was and never will be any bodily resurrections i.e. No Easter, no Christianity

    Saving 15.5 million Orthodox followers of Judaism:
    Abraham and Moses never existed.

    Added details upon request.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • Reality Check

      Reality knows all folks! Has all the answers. Gee, what an ego thinking we should believe this guy we don't know or see. Just a bunch of rambling statements putting people down and stating some answers he could not possibly know. The very things he criticizes people for. Arrogant SOB.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
    • Colin

      Yes, I agree it is silly to trust somebody you don't know or see.

      So, how well do you know the authors of the Bible, in which you place enough trust to believe the most incredible of stories?

      April 12, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
    • fda

      fatima.... check it out. Wikipedia calls it a "mass Hullicination"... on this example alone you could easily gain a faith.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Reality doesn't want to be the only one used for worm food. He wants to take as many other lazies with him so they can all enjoy the ride to the eternal flames, blotted out. No eternity for them or the one he worships, the liar, deceiver of all. Satan himself.


      April 13, 2011 at 5:25 am |
    • I_get _it


      Perhaps I might respect, admire or be awed by a creator god, if there were one... but worship - no. That is the truly a demand of your "Satan".

      April 13, 2011 at 5:32 am |
  17. WorshipMe

    I defecated on said book. It made more sense than idiotic rantings of perfectness, purity and life without sin – whatever that is. Good luck with that. How could any human being make such statements indicating what other human beings have to do in order to somehow get a ticket to the magical fairyland in the clouds. I phart in your general direction.

    April 12, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • fda

      i wouldnt worry about any of that. enjoy your 70 years....

      April 12, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      WM, you do this to yourself. Jesus just obliges all in their wishes/desires.


      April 13, 2011 at 5:20 am |
  18. jesus faaa kids

    why jesus faax little kids,women are beautiful....
    do the women
    leave the kids alone
    i say please
    thank you

    April 12, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  19. Juliet

    As you know the Bible was written in writing that no one knew. Therefore, it was also translated into general terms everyone could understand...but even so, isn't there 150 translations of the Bible? Therefore who's to say what you read is what you should actually believe. If I wrote a novel about Santa being real, are you gonna believe it? By the way, Jesus isn't coming back for RELIGION, he's coming back for those who have a relationship with him. So it's not about you being a Christian or not! See if you love God you will choose to live your life by God, not by Rules and Regulations demanded by others.

    April 12, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • PeterVN

      Nice but there's more evidence that Santa is coming back than that Jesus is. I also prefer Santa because he purportedly comes back annually. How come your Jesus can't come but once every few thousand years, at most? Busy on other planets? Those non-omnipotent gods and their limitations...

      Santa >> Jesus any day. Maybe it's a relationship with Santa that you want to try to have. He might like that, too.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • blessingsenterprises

      yeah but if you mix up the letters, Santa and Satan could be the same dude....both wear red and black, you never see them together, they are all about the good good good goodies....hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

      April 12, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Bradley

      at first when I started reading your comment I was think how wrong you were! but I read the whole thing and I actually do agree! lol It is not about religion and rules and such, it is about your relationship with God! and by having that relationship with him, you will end up living a Godly life!

      April 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • PeterVN

      No one yet has demonstrated a relationship with a god. Sadly, lots of unwanted relationships between priests and kids happen though. Santa is way nicer to kids.

      but of course, FSM >>all

      April 12, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • Artist

      Juliet, the Council of Nicea had no problems creating the bible. A few men actually dictated what books would be used and whch ones not. A few men wrote your precious bible.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • BR

      Copies of copies of translations of copies with no originals. Your relationship is all in your head. This 'relationship' nonsense is just another way to get out of owning up to the fact that the b|ble makes no sense when you actually pay attention to what it says. The fact that so many people claim that it's only the 'relationship' that matters perfectly illustrates how it is made up as you go along.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • CappinA

      BR: It's easy to criticize someone's faith and claims about a relationship with a deity from the sidelines. The Bible calls people to accept its challenge: seek God and you will find him. I challenge you to the same. Just try it on for size, if for no other reason than to say you did. Spend a some time actually seeking God, actually looking to see if you find him. If you honestly seek him and find absolutely nothing, then you will have true legitimacy to your opinion. I question the foundations of my own faith and relationship everyday. However, I am so sure of the truth I have discovered through seeking, there is not a thing in this world that could convince me that this relationship is just a figment of my imagination, something I just made up.

      April 12, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
    • Lesleyr14

      Its something like 40 different men translated the bible. And Its not that their are necessarily that many translations as it may seem, the "message" is to be the same. Switching out a word for another poses of some concern that the people reading it will take it to such a literal sense as to misunderstandits actually meaning. Jesus doesn't come once every thousands of years, He is always here. And He LOVES everyone, regardless of who they choose to lay down with.

      April 12, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      More non-believers mocking Jesus' truth.

      He divinely inspired Holy men to scribe His truth. God is the author of His word (the Bible). If you got off your lazy duffs, shelved your egos so that you won't butt Heads with His truth, you too could see and know what the rest of us know from Jesus' teachings. Other than that. Stay lazy, enjoy this life for that's all you will get if you still refuse to love and follow Jesus' truth after the day of the Lord, you will then go to the eternal flames, blotted out. No eternity for you. Your choice. Free Will that Jesus gave all of us. Jesus obliges all of us.


      April 13, 2011 at 5:17 am |
  20. derp

    Jeebus sez it ok to keep some negras chained in the yard. Aynt that rite billy-bob.

    April 12, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Jesusfreakazoid


      April 12, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Anotherdayjustbelieve

      As a black man, I find that comment to be quite humorous

      April 12, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
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