The supply of slaves for the American plantation system can be traced to the African slave trade industry instituted by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors of South American. The area south of the Congo provided captured individuals for the purpose of working sugar cane fields and other crops in the New World (Gonzalez 475-83). With the conquistadors came the Catholic missionaries, some of whom were intent on converting the slaves or Indians, and others to tend to the spiritual needs of Spanish or Portuguese conquerors and their families. There should be an obvious theological conflict inherent in the idea of slavery, but it was not always recognized as such. This paper will examine the response of Christians to the slave business at the time it was in practice, locate the major actors in this industry, and discuss the ways in which it was resolved on a theological level.
Before addressing slavery in the United States, it seems prudent to mention the justification some of the conquistadors used in their land-grabbing and slave-holding efforts:
Since war, conquest, and enslavement needed a justification, beginning in 1514 it was ordered that, before making war on the native inhabitants, they would be invited to accept Christianity and Spanish rule, on the basis that the pope, God’s representative on earth, had granted these lands to the Spanish. (Gonzalez 465)
Therefore, it does appear that the practice of slavery had moral ramifications in the minds of theconquerors.This also explains the reason missionaries often accompanied these conquests. As to the Southern U.S., Christianity was, again, one of the justifications for slavery.There were, after all, Biblical instances where God seemed to sanction slavery. Furthermore, “slaveholders believed that slavery would liberate Africans from their savage-like ways, especially if they were infused with Christianity” (“Christianity Justification”). It mattered little that Jesus was silent on the issue of slavery. In addition, since it is known that even in the 1500s, the Spanish and Portuguese realized the moral problems relating to slavery, it can be deduced that in the mid-18th century America, that realization would have been even more acute. Therefore, they who used Christianity as an argument for slavery generally were being dishonest. They were hiding the fact that they needed cheap labor to keep the price of cotton at a profitable rate.
On the opposite side of the dispute, the chief stakeholders were the anti-slavery activists (abolitionists) and, of course, the slaves themselves. If one of the main justifications were religion, then who better to argue against slaveholding than a former slave baptized in the Christian faith and well-schooled on the Bible? Frederick Douglass was a perfect voice against the practice of slavery.
Douglass was a freed slave and an abolitionist. He spoke eloquently on the evils of slavery. There are many passages worth quoting, for they bring tears to the heart in recognition of their truth. Yet, one important statement he made about his Biblical upbringing exemplifies theological thinking on the basis of faith, understanding, and reflection. His tutor in spiritual matters when he was a young slave was Charles (“Uncle) Lawson. On being implored by Douglass about the contradictions of slavery and the Bible, Lawson replied, “The Lord can make you free, my dear; all things are possible with Him . . . If you want liberty, ask the Lord for it in FAITH, and he will give it to you” (Douglass). Indeed, Douglass escaped slavery before the American Civil War took place. After reaching safety, his work revealed his stake in the outcome, which largely was based on faith, scripture, and reason.
The Civil war, although politicized, was about the morality of holding slaves, with the Northern states claiming that slavery was anti-Christian, and the Southern states maintaining that God sanctioned slavery. Basically, it came down to a religious dispute in terms of disagreement as to which side God favored. According to Professor Harry Stout, both North and South claimed themselves to be God’s “chosen people,” and both sides believed that the outcome would show which side God was on. After each battle, the victor would proclaim that God’s command was being carried out. This rhetoric rang loud not only in church sermons, but also in the press and political speeches. In fact, Southern women were so “ferocious” in opposing the North that they urged their men to keep fighting:
It was their unbending resolve, in part, that caused northern general William Tecumseh Sherman to feel justified in inflicting enormous civilian damages against the South in his infamous “March to the Sea.” As far as Sherman was concerned, the southern women’s sense of outrage and their religious determination to hold out against the North forfeited the protection that decency and the rules of war afforded “civilians.” (“Religion Civil War”)
Similarly, Northerners felt they were doing God’s work. However, the Southerners seemed to place a heavy emphasis on the Christian-ness of their presumed obligations to God: “Southern preachers declared that slavery was a sacred trust imposed on the South by the slave traders of Great Britain and the northern states” (Stout). Therefore, fallen Southern military leaders were regarded as martyrs by Southern citizens.
Stout points out that many Southerners believed that God “had ordained slavery as a punishment for African paganism.” To rectify the sin of African paganism, Southern ministers began to push for laws that would allow them to teach literacy to slaves so that the slaves could read the Bible. The result was a slave populace who interpreted the Bible in the Northern way: Christianity meant “freedom and redemption (Stout). It gave them the resolve they needed to run away towards the North or to throw themselves to the mercies of the Northern army.
The South lost the Civil War. This outcome should have refuted the notion that God was on its side; after all, this had been the basis of Southern rationale for keeping slaves. But, according to Stout, Southerners declared that God had not deserted them but rather “disciplined them in a refining fire that would hone them for a higher calling, yet to be revealed.” To this day, they honor their fallen and their flag, not only politically, but religiously.
The Southern position was not maintained through reason. Reason includes being well-informed in a variety of disciplines, including “natural sciences, social sciences, history, philosophy, and even literature and the arts” (Stone and Duke 54). Generally, Southerners were farmers and Northerners were industrialists with access to diversity of people and higher education. This fact partially explains the reason for Northern victory as well as illuminates Southern refusal to accept their loss on the basis that their cause was unjust.
Southerners’ convoluted rationale that God blessed slaveholding stood in stark contrast to the honest and straightforward convictions held by Northern abolitionists. The Southerners remind me of the conquistadors. The Northerners, using theological reasoning, partly informed by a knowledge of history and an appreciation of the founding documents—that all men are created equal– settled the matter, if only (unfortunately) politically.