Jan 26, 2013

I is for infidel

The Gospel of Slavery: A Primer of Freedom, written by a Unitarian minister and published in Philadelphia in 1864. More information at Slate's new history blog, The Vault.

This argument, interestingly, that faith was undermined by contorted arguments about slavery, was often made by the other side, by those supporting the positive good of the institution of slavery. Christian abolitionists were regularly condemned for not reading the Bible literally, and betraying true, orthodox Christianity in their (radical) attempts to abolish slavery. One standard argument, from the South, was that the pro-slavery forces were actually preserving Christianity against the corruptions of those who had been influenced by rationalists, atheists, and so on.

It was the case, after all, that "Revivals of religion and revivals of the slave-trade go hand in hand together."

The prominent presence of non-traditional Christians and even non-Christians, such as this Unitarian Universalist, in the anti-slavery coalition was regularly cited as evidence that abolitionism couldn't really be Christian.

As one Confederate famously argued, the armed defense of slavery was a defense against the evils of revolutionary atheism:
For 'Liberty Equality, Fraternity,' we have deliberately substituted Slavery, Subordination and Government. Those social and political problems which rack and torture modern society we have undertaken to solve for ourselves, in our own way, and upon our own principles. That among equals equality is right;' among those who are naturally unequal, equality is chaos; that there are slave races born to serve, master races born to govern. Such are the fundamental principles which we inherit from the ancient world, which we lifted up in the face of perverse generation that has forgotten the wisdom of its fathers: by those principles we live and in their defence we have shown ourselves ready to die. Reverently we feel that our Confederacy is a God sent missionary to the nations, with great truths to preach.
It's exactly in this context that Frederick Douglass argued that there were two types of Christianity in America, the severity of the split between them being such that, as historian Mark Noll argues, the American Civil War actually began within the internal divisions of American Christianity.


  1. Very interesting - the Mark Noll book you link looks like a must-read.

  2. It's a really great book. Lots of interesting research.

  3. Noll's focus is far too narrow. I suggest looking at Keven Phillips' book The Cousin's War: Religion, Politics, & The Triumph of Anglo-America. His argument is that the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War are all expressions of the same underlying cultural divide. His treatment of the Civil War is especially persuasive where he the various pushes and pulls on the British government towards the Union and the Confederacy. It is too simple to say that the British sided with the South. In fact, the religious sensibilities shared with the North probably kept Britain out of the Civil War. Which serves to underscore that the internal divisions in American Christianity are actually divisions in Anglo-American Christianity.

    I also have to wonder about this particular Unitarian not living up to the orthodox Christian confessions. The entry for X is fairly "orthodox", though I could understand why certain divines would be dissatisfied with the lack of theological elaboration upon the basic point. Do we understand Christ's death as a ransom? a satisfaction? and so on.


    Elsewhere the author is identified as a Univsersalist, which is something different than a Unitarian.


  4. Noll overstates his case, but the book is good for what it does, which is admittedly specific. Religious disputes are not the only thing going on before the war, but neither are they as distant and tangential as many historians have made them out to be.

    I'm hoping to teach a class on the religious aspects of the Civil War at some point, and will check out the Phillips book.

    Not sure where the Universalists/Unitarian confusion got started. Thanks for catching that.