The abolitionists don’t figure very large in the general memory of the American Civil War. They deserve quite a bit more prominence, but then we would have to all admit just what the majority of the slave states chose to fight for. When they do come up, one often hears about them of people of great Christian virtue. Through their example, they give proof positive that we need more Christianity in our lives and, more pointedly, our government. The speakers will sometimes make a faint ecumenical gesture and say “faith” or “religion” but they mean Christianity. Nobody honestly thinks they mean we need to get right with Zeus. Nor do they mean any of Christianity available, but rather their specific sort.
I don’t want to debate the merits of that suggestion today but, in discussing such a sensitive topic, fairness demands I lay my cards on the table. I am a thoroughgoing secular humanist, an unbeliever in every religious creed of which I have heard and expect ever to hear. While I have a significant interest in religions as cultural and historical phenomena, they do not engage me as they would a believer. At this point I must add, because the question naturally arises and some who agree with me on some points of understanding with regard to religion opt to make asses of themselves, that I don’t think religion necessarily makes morally or intellectually inferior or that irreligion makes one in the same ways superior. I have not come here today to praise faith of any sort or to damn it, but my perspective does come necessarily informed by unbelief.
In the absence of very compelling evidence to the contrary, I take the abolitionists’ religious convictions essentially at face value. They understood slavery as an abomination in the eyes of their god and took up arms, eventually literally, against it. The line from their faith to their action seems fairly straightforward. As Christians, they believed Christians could not hold slaves. To do so turned them away from the Almighty and invited his wrath
if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Lincoln never made for much of an abolitionist until the very end, but most of them would have heard their convictions in that.
If I could end there, I wouldn’t have bothered to write this. Antislavery Americans did have secular arguments against slavery and we would do well to understand them, but they had religious scruples as well. One does not negate the other. The problem comes in the fact that proslavery Americans did much the same. They, as Christians, believed that they ought to hold slaves. They believed that through slavery they taught a savage and inferior race the rudiments of civilization and brought the light of faith to otherwise damned souls.
How studiously they tended to that Christian obligation naturally varied. Anything that seemed likely to lead to literate slaves, particularly gathering with other slaves under minimal or no supervision, could raise eyebrows and provoke suffocating scrutiny if it somehow escaped legal proscription. Likewise we should consider that the enslavers thought the right sort of Christianity might pacify their restive human property. But we can’t deny a genuine, if far from benevolent, missionary impulse played its part.
We take antislavery Christians seriously when they go into their scriptures and come out with religious arguments against slavery. We must grant the same consideration to proslavery Christians who the same. If the abolitionists could draw a straight line from their faith to their politics, why couldn’t the other side? I ask because when one sees two contradictory claims, one naturally wonders which has the right of it. While you will find the occasional sort who praise the antebellum South for its fine Christian character, most modern Christians probably agree more with Frederick Douglass:
I FIND, since reading over the foregoing Narrative that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest, possible difference–so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.
To Douglass, enslaver Christianity amounted to no Christianity at all. I have nothing but sympathy for his desire to share no religion with them, just as I dislike sharing the name of atheist with Joseph Stalin. More than that, I see in Douglass an intensely admirable man with whom I do not eagerly disagree on matters of his particular expertise. However, to make a distinction as Douglass does requires us to decide that there exists one true Christianity against which we measure all who claim the name. When we find those who claim the title differ from the true faith, we can pronounce anathema on them.
If believers wish to find that true Christianity and pronounce those anathemas on their own account, they may do so. I don’t consider them insincere or dishonest for it. I do, however, not consider these judgments to have bearing on points of history. The means by which believers make these distinctions amongst themselves come down to theological commitment and devotional exercise, with historical argument rarely playing even a peripheral role. Even apparently objective criteria like examining the statements of Jesus in the Bible inescapably come freighted with presumptions about the role of scripture and its correct methods of interpretation which have caused intense, sometimes bloody, controversy within Christianity for so long as the religion has existed.
Granted a particular set of premises about them, I might make the same judgment. But which of the competing Christianities ought one take as definitive? History offers no answer to that, nor can it. We can say which Christianity we find more admirable and thus would rather prevail, of course. The question, however, often comes to rather more than that. By asking which Christianity deserves the name, we make an implicit judgment about Christianity. Do we consider it primarily good or bad?
Here I must demur. I see Christianity as far too large and sweeping a thing to reduce to a one word answer. We may as well as the question about freedom or government and then find ourselves instead considering the freedom to do what or from what, or which government, doing what, and when. Christians, motivated by and in service of their faith, fought slavery. Other Christians, motivated by and in service of their faith, fought for slavery. Christians have done good and evil, each time citing their faith as the cause. On a personal level, religion has brought great agonies and great comfort. Beautiful works of art and horrifying destruction alike have come from hearts fired by faith. Proslavery and antislavery Christians alike saw good, honest, faithful faces in the mirror. I prefer the latter; I hope you do as well. But our preferences can only tell us about ourselves, just as the preferences of historical actors tell us about them. Frederick Douglass considered slavery evil and Christianity good. Therefore an enslaving Christian made as much sense as a square circle or six-sided triangle. The enslavers, by and large, thought the opposite. Abolitionists, they held, had wandered from the true light of faith. With that in mind, I can only say that historically Christianity proved equally compatible with slavery and abolition.
I apologize if my answers don’t satisfy, but I have no others to give.