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. Bibletruth

    The following comments are due to some of the comments of others: The forgiveness of sin is based on the blood of Christ and repentence. Forgiveness, as taught by Jesus, is dependent on ones future obedience. See the parable on the forgiven servant as an example.

    One cannot be justified without 100% surrender.

    April 13, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  2. Bibletruth

    Since the political mindset is to put the absolute worst construction on the words of persons in the other political party (i.e. lying, with specific intent to harm, etc.) those with such mindset are not Christians (love your neighbor as yourself) by any biblical measure. Many of the things that one political person says about another political person or persons, if true, warrant execution of that person (being accused). Just recently someone said if so and so does this, 70,000 children will die. If that is true, then any honest person should seek that one out and kill him or them, shouldnt they? ...rather than let 70,000 children die. Oh!, we cant take such things to such ends? why not? The simple fact is that politics of today is satan inspired...one group wanting to steal the hard work of another, fomenting hatred, causing people to kill other people in their minds, etc. There is no such thing as being a Christian and being involved in such things.

    April 13, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
  3. Lamar


    In regards to your example to Anna about torture. Torturing a human being is wrong "to anna" if she sees it that way, but it would also be right to that particular society if individual members of that soceity saw it as right. That makes it both right and wrong at the same time, depending on who's perspective you're looking at it from.

    the action itself is a neutral action, but it's the perspective that gives it's right or wrongness. objectiveness is (since i have to give it a word) neutral, it's the subjectivity of the observer that gives it a value.

    because different individuals can see it different ways, it isn't an objective moral truth. in fact if morality can change from time to time from individual to individual, then there cannot be a moral objective truth.

    i don't see how this necessariliy means that there is no such thing as god though.

    April 13, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • D-Bo

      In response to Lamar,

      I agree with all you said IF God does not exist. For then....it's up to the observer to determine right and wrong when their is no moral standard. However, if God exists (the greatest conceivable being) then he must also be the epicenter of moral truth from which morality flows. God, knowing all things, isn't subject to interpretation as humans are. Therefore, if God exists, then a standard for morality (moral ontology) existed long before you or I came along to try and determine what that morality is (moral epistemology). Therefore, IF moral objectives exist, then it follows that God exists (or vice versa). My argument is that moral objectives DO actually exists. So in every possible world, torture is wrong....objectively.

      April 14, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  4. Anna2

    To infer that because "our culture" has programmed us to believe in certain values, therefore those values are not objective is a logical fallacy.
    #1 I made the mistake of thinking that laws were an expression of a cultures morality. In America those actions are illegal and therefore immoral by the standards of American morality. No, wait...that's a valid assumption.
    #2 Prohibition was enacted and repealed. Our own laws are subjective so I reject your fallacious accusation of a fallacy.
    #3 If I break Shiara Law in America did I do something Immoral? To a Muslim – American the answer could be yes. Is a Muslim – American part of American culture? Yes.

    April 13, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  5. dr. perry fisher

    I remember, some years ago, visiting one of the slave castles in Cape Coast Ghana above the slave dungeons was a church where the slave masters met for church services.

    April 13, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
  6. Tabitha M

    D-Bo, the flaw in your arguement is that morality does not need a higher being or diety to exist. My morals are not based on a "god". I deem things to be bad if they cause harm to another human being. Thus murdering is wrong Slavery is wrong because it causes harm to those who are enslaved. On the same token of this, falling in love with a person does not cause harm and is not wrong. Consentual relations between men does not harm uninvolved parties. However, trying to forbid consentual adults from having relationships does cause harm to those individuals.

    April 13, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  7. brad

    Slavery also existed in the North well after the Civil War into the 20th century. Consider the millions of immigrant men, women, children working sixteen hours per day in the most dangerous conditions in coal mines, textile mills, steel mills, slaughter houses, etc. No biblical justification there. Just base human greed and exploitation. Instead of blaming the Bible, why not admit the evil that human nature is capable of and blame humanity instead of a book.

    April 13, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  8. Baruch

    The bible has been used to justify murder, genocide, child abuse, ecocide, and a host of other evils. It is STILL used to do those things! How people can believe in a book that has been edited, redacted, and rewritten for centuries, never ceases to amaze me. I guess some folks just shut off their critical thinking when it comes to their religion.

    April 13, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  9. JoeT

    So again, we have the liberals interpretting the meaning and reason behind biblical stores, and conservatives clinging to out-of-context scripture to justify dehumanizing their fellow man. And this is surprising how?

    April 13, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  10. bg in oregon

    ….and we are still dealing with people that have imaginary friends.

    April 13, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  11. Anna2

    Your argument starts will a fallacy.
    1. If objective moral values and duties exist, then God exists.
    Which fallacy is that one folks?
    I love this bit....
    Feel free to try and show me that objective moral values either do not exist or try to explain how they can exist without God.
    But then again....
    I never mentioned the Bible in my argument.
    Were you referring to the Koran?

    April 13, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  12. joe blow

    you ignorant jerk.

    April 13, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  13. David

    John, I agree with you and this is a very thoughtful article. But the slaves themselves used the Bible out of necessity rather than for political gain. I explain this more in my response to your article:


    April 13, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  14. jn555

    The bible has been purposely misinterpreted to promote immoral causes, since it has been around. It is a great tool to manipulate and convince people to do things they otherwise would not. (i.e. the crusades//or the children's crusades–just one example of many). People should think for themselves and not listen to "leaders" on the subject of their spirituality, or at the very least, be cautious of your leader. You may end up with another jim jones.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  15. vel

    Just more evidence that the bible is a manmade mishmash of myths that can be used to support anything depending on what the believer wants their god to have "really" meant. Any god is just a self-projection of the believer, giving supposedly "divine" approval for any heinous or good human activity. Sure does make you feel like special snowflakes, doesn't it, theists?

    April 13, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  16. willy

    This author is joking right? The verse mentioned tells slaves how to respond to thier situation after the slave comes to God. To justify slavery using these verses is obviously absurd. To say that this misuse of scripture proves that Christians belief that s x with the same gender is therefore wrong is a total strech.

    April 13, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • JPopNC

      totally agree willy. Too often people take the surface meaning and then construe things the way they want. It takes too much effort for them to delve into Bible to actually STUDY what it means. It has to be the most complicated, yet so intriging book ever written.

      April 13, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      Yeah, wow, it's really complicated. It's like 1/100th as complicated as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Well, OK, that has a better subject breakdown. Almost as thick as a first year calculus text too, but not so hard. Really can't compare it to anything at all. Really.

      The full Harry Potter set is probably longer though, since we're wanting to be fair and compare works of fiction to each other. And HP is a more consistent read than the bible overall; being written by one author sure helps that out.

      April 13, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • Tha_Truth

      It's only complicated to those who put up a front of being "holy", or intelligent. Luke 10:21, show Jesus praying to his father (God) and told him that he publicly praised Him, because He had carefully hidden these things (Understanding of scripture) from the wise & intellectual and revealed it to babes. (Meek and teachable people) So don't expect to just read the Bible and understand it. God sees you intentions and if they're not right, you'll never see anything, but remain critical of the Bible.

      April 13, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      New compliment from Tha_Truth:

      "You're so smart that you can't understand the bible."

      Why, thank you. Thank you very much.

      April 13, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
  17. wadlington

    Any of you ever heard of the Council of Nicaea, 325 AD? Anybody know about the six laws of Adam or the seven laws of Noah? God did not write the bible and Jesus never read it, but people have used it as a brainwashing tool for centuries. The bible is a mystic book that Christianity is based on. The key to the bible is ‘Seek and ye shall find’, if you seek war, destruction and death, you will find it there. If you seek good for all, with prosperity and happiness in all lands, you will find it there. Good and evil are both in the bible and it is that which YOU choose to follow that makes you good or evil.

    April 13, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • JPopNC

      uh...Jesus did indeed read the scrolls which we now regard as the Old Testament. Of course He didn't read the New Testament because it was being "written" at the time.

      April 13, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • Pete

      the new testaments were written well after Jesus' death. 50 to 70 years after.

      April 13, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  18. wadlington

    Any of you ever heard of the Council of Nicaea, 325 AD? Anybody know about the six laws of Adam or the seven laws of Noah? God did not write the bible and I Jesus never read it, but people have used it as a brainwashing tool for centuries. The bible is a mystic book that Christianity is based on. The key to the bible is ‘Seek and ye shall find’, if you seek war, destruction and death, you will find it there. If you seek good for all, with prosperity and happiness in all lands, you will find it there. Good and evil are both in the bible and it is that which YOU choose to follow that makes you good or evil.

    April 13, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • anon

      Are you saying the bible is the very first choose your own adventure? Awesome!

      April 13, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • Phil

      Actually I hadn't heard of it before, so I went an did some research apparently the Council of Nicaea had nothing to do with establishing biblical cannon as you say. In fact its primary purpose was to establish the divinity of Christ.

      April 13, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Lycidas

      Jesus did read from Isaiah.

      April 13, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  19. Sybaris

    Yet more reasons to ban religion

    April 13, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Tha_Truth

      Yes. Essentially, that's what's going to happen. It's only a matter of time. Revelation mentions the destruction of false religion. Only the true one will stand in the end.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      Tha_Truth, I'll see you in the rapture capsule with the unicorns. Wear your steel nose ring so I can put the padlock and chain on it like we did in practice for the uplifting.

      April 13, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • Tha_Truth

      'Up Your Rear Admiral' You're talking Chinese to me. I have no idea what you just said.

      April 13, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • Tha_Truth

      According to 'The New American Bible' Revelation 18:24 says, "In her (False religion) was found the blood of prophets and holy ones and all who have been slain on the earth." All who have been slain on the earth? This verse just shows what the article is pointing to- false religion has always used God's word to bring reproach against him, especially now, people are finding this to be true. As time goes on, more so called religious people of past and present will come to the fore and be exposed in using the Bible for their own selfish wants. It will become evident as time goes forth.

      April 13, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      Oh come on, Tha_Truth. You always love it when I babble like that to you. Makes as much sense as the bible.

      Now get that nose ring back in. We can't keep the rapture and all those unicorns in a holding pattern.

      April 13, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • Tha_Truth

      Of course 'Up Your Rear Admiral'. I would be silent if you didn't have anything to say. Thank you for inspiring me to post. 🙂
      As for unicorns, the Bible still hasn't been wrong in all its prophesies. So the Bible = 1, Atheist = 0. I just don't think Scientists will ever find error in the Bible. They try to discredit it, but haven't been able to do it.

      April 13, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      He says while enjoying the shade of his mustard tree.

      April 13, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • I_get _it

      "Scientists will ever find error in the Bible. They try to discredit it, but haven't been able to do it."

      Perhaps not discredited to your satisfaction... you (all) slippy-slidy, twisty-turny, fact spinners, who say that 'circle' means 'sphere' and Tyre was not Tyre, and, gee, I'm not sure what the latest spin is on this one: "Then Jacob took fresh rods of poplar and almond and plane, and peeled white streaks in them, exposing the white of the rods. He set the rods that he had peeled in front of the flocks in the troughs, that is, the watering places, where the flocks came to drink. And since they bred when they came to drink, the flocks bred in front of the rods, and so the flocks produced young that were striped, speckled, and spotted."

      April 13, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
    • Tha_Truth

      You should be intelligent enough to know that's a typo. Right?

      April 13, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • Tha_Truth

      @I_get_it, The Bible was not meant to look at things from just the present point of view, but to research how people used to think back then and the words that people back then use, and especially how they were expressed. It takes research. God & Jesus "freaks" really, either don't study, they just go with what others or their religious leader tells them, or they stick only to scripture that is in line with their beliefs- that's where they go wrong. The scriptures says that the "light" gets brighter & brighter, meaning that as understanding of scriptures become clear, people need to make the needed change. But even then, people don't want to do it, that's why there so many atrocities created by us.

      April 13, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      Ahh, the mustard trees were planted on the other face of the Earth, so they can't be seen.

      Nose ring, meet padlock.

      April 13, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  20. john316

    Organized religion is all about the money and control......why people would want to give up their money and what's left of their minds for this nonsense is the real mystery....just rent Elmer Gantry for a couple of hours....or watch PTL for a few minutes ( I think that's all the human brain can really take at one time) and form your own opinion.....that is...if they will let you......

    April 13, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Tha_Truth

      Yes. We can't deny the truth- it's all about money.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • LetoAtreides

      The Bible should not be "invoked for political purposes". The Bible is our key to understanding God. Lincoln was right. We need to learn to look at morality and life from God's ultimate understanding and not via the limited perspectives we have (or don't have) as human beings. The Bible also requires careful study and hermaneutics (study of Biblical interpretation) so that we don't take scripture out of linguistic, cultural or historical context.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Tha_Truth

      'Up Your Rear Admiral' you're talking in riddles again. No ablo chino.

      April 14, 2011 at 7:16 am |
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