Defense of Slavery, Part 1
Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow considered slavery a positive good for white and black alike. The activities to which the Platte County Self-Defense Association and similar groups pledged themselves take on an additional layer of meaning. The men of western Missouri did want to defend themselves, their families, their property in human lives, and their profits. At least some of them also saw themselves as engaged in a project for social betterment in the broader national context. If slavery did so much good, why wouldn’t one want to prevent the establishment of a new free state just for its own sake? Free states become legal mistakes that cause social calamities for both races. For the good of the nation and all its people, decent Americans should unite to abolish them.
To make his case, Stringfellow began where a great many Americans of his age would have begun on a moral question; he opened his Bible. There he found a god who ordained and blessed slavery.
This broad proposition will doubtless cause the abolitionist to sneer — it will strike as bold, the good men of the north who have been so long deceived; it may even seem hard of proof to those in the slave-holding States who have feared to investigate the subject; but we have the evidence at hand. A good lesson has been taught us, and we have profited by it. So long and so oft had it been proclaimed from the pulpit, that slavery was a violation of God’s law, men begun to doubt whether a slaveholder could be a Christian. Men of the world, too little versed in the teachings of the Bible, feared to investigate the question. Our Divines, misled by their text-books, took for granted the dogmas of their Doctors. Yet so soon as one man dared approach, the Holy Book, dared to “search the scriptures,” it was found, that instead of being a violation of God’s holy law, slavery was actually established by that law! The truth was proclaimed; discussion followed; the result was, that investigation fixed beyond controversy the fact, that by the first law given to man by his Maker, the law proclaimed from Sinai, slavery was established! Moses, the divine law-giver, was a slaveholder! Slavery was recognised and regulated by our Saviour! A “fugitive slave,” instead of fleeing aided in his escape, was returned to his master by Paul, the great Apostle, to the Gentiles!
So triumphantly and conclusively was the consistency of slavery with the Christian religion established, that abolitionists were driven to infidelity, to blasphemy: they trampled under foot the Bible, spurned the God and Saviour of slave-holders!
That bears some unpacking. Stringfellow notes that the abolitionists have opened their Bibles too. They’ve made religious cases against slavery. But to do that, they had to look selectively. As the product of a slaveholding time and slaveholding culture, the Christian and Jewish religious works alike acknowledge and support slavery in clear terms. Slavery did not just happen in Biblical texts; those same texts regulated and endorsed it. Submissions on this point appeared so often in DeBow’s Review that the editor published one with a resigned note that they had done the subject to exhaustion.
The question of whether a Christian could hold slaves had divided denominations before Stringfellow wrote and would continue to do so. Some of these divisions remain today, though the slavery issue has long since vanished into the past. The Free Methodists split from the other Methodists because they believed a Christian could not hold slaves and slaveholders ought not rise to positions of leadership in the faith. The Southern Baptists split from the other Baptists because they believed one could and objected to the exclusion of slaveholding leaders. These divisions don’t feature prominently in most surveys of the roots of the Civil War but Calhoun mentioned them in his final speech (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) and they occupied the minds of many Americans at the time. Religions might not have been part of the state apparatus, but they did form threads common national culture that came under strain and in many cases snapped in the years before Fort Sumter.