The Christian Origin of Racism: Atheist Abolitionist Serpents in Slaves'
by William Sierichs, Jr.
The Christian god ordained slavery in the Bible. Therefore, criticism of slavery is criticism of the Christian god, which is blasphemy—even atheism.
That’s the basic argument Christians threw at abolitionists before the Civil War. Scholars say that the “Abolitionism is atheism” claim gained prominence among the clergy—particularly in New England—in the 1830s. For example, Episcopal clergyman Calvin Colton collected anti-abolition arguments in an 1839 book,
Abolition as Sedition.
The origin of the argument, however, lay in the eighteenth-century French Revolution, which declared the equality of all while denying the existence of gods, and even earlier in the American Declaration of Independence, which announced that “all men are created equal” while offering only deistic references to divinity. Although Christians were among the critics of slavery, so were many deists or Unitarians—atheists in Christian eyes—such as Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine, and John Adams and even slaveholders themselves such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Nineteenth-century abolitionists such as Abraham Lincoln and Robert Ingersoll likewise were considered atheists.
Thus, in a November. 21, 1861, sermon, Thomas Smyth, minister of the Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston, attacked the Declaration of Independence, according to scholar H. Shelton Smith in
In His Image, But . . . Smyth summarized the argument like this:
“God is introduced to give dignity and emphasis . . . and then He is banished,” said [Thomas Smyth]. It was this very atheistic Declaration which had inspired the “higher law” doctrine of the radical antislavery men. If the mischievous abolitionists had only followed the Bible instead of the godless Declaration, they would have been bound to acknowledge that human bondage was divinely ordained. The mission of southerners was therefore clear; they must defend the word of God against abolitionist infidels.
In an 1860 defense of slavery, “Cotton Is King,” President E.N. Elliott of Planters’ College, Mississippi, claimed:
The agitation of the abolition question had commenced in France during the horrors of the first revolution, under the auspices of the Red republicans. . . . It is here worthy of remark, that most of the early abolition propagandists, many of whom commenced as Christian ministers, have ended in downright infidelity [i.e., atheism]. Let us then hear no more of this charge, that the defenders of slavery have changed their ground; it is the abolitionists who have been compelled to appeal to “a higher law,” not only than the Federal Constitution, but also, than the law of God. This is the inevitable result when men undertake to be “wise above what is written.”
He later charged that, “Perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, their wresting the Scriptures from their plain and obvious meaning to compel them to teach abolitionism. Finally, the duty of all Christians: from such withdraw thyself.”
That’s exactly what the Christian South tried to do. You might argue that 2 Corinthians 6:14–17 and Ephesians 5:6–7 ultimately triggered the Civil War.
R.H. Rivers, professor of moral philosophy at Wesleyan College, Alabama, claimed in an 1860 book, Elements of Moral Philosophy, that his god established slavery. He wrote: “We maintain that God’s law is always right, and that whatever God established is right, not because he established it, but we maintain that God established it because he saw that it is right.” Rivers declared, “no one should place conscience above God, or above his law . . . [man does not have a] higher law in his moral nature which is above God’s revealed law.”
Bishop Stephen Elliott of Georgia claimed in an 1862 sermon that the American Revolution had laid down principles contrary to biblical revelation:
Carried away by our opposition to monarchy and an established Church, we declared war against all authority and against all form. The reason of man was exalted to an impious degree and in the face not only of experience, but of the revealed word of God, all men were declared equal, and man was pronounced capable of self-government.
Elliott demanded a theocracy because “subordination rules supreme in heaven and must rule supreme on earth.” He claimed Boston was the source of “every accursed heresy” from false clergy and that Southern clergy had “never corrupted the gospel of Christ” by claiming a “higher law.” He helped write an 1862 pastoral letter for the General Council of the Confederate Protestant Episcopal Church that described abolitionism as a “hateful infidel pestilence.”
One prominent Southern Methodist, August B. Longstreet of Georgia, called abolitionism “one of the most frightful, disgusting monsters that ever reared its head among a Christian people.” Another Methodist, Whitefoord Smith, told the General Assembly in South Carolina that abolitionists abandoned Christianity for a “higher law” that succumbed to “the doctrines of devils.” In 1861, the
North Carolina Christian Advocate blamed the impending war on “‘the demon spirit of abolitionism.’ Southern Methodists had ‘tested it fully, and found it to be heartless, inhuman and
One of the most widely reprinted demands for secession was a November 29, 1860, sermon at the First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, Louisiana, when the Reverend Benjamin Morgan Palmer declared it a duty to defend slavery. He criticized abolitionist ideas, then:
Last of all, in this great struggle, we defend the cause of God and Religion. The Abolition spirit is undeniably atheistic. The demon which erected its throne upon the guillotine in the days of Robespierre and Marat, which abolished the Sabbath and worshipped reason in the person of a harlot, yet survives to work other horrors, of which those of the French Revolution are but the type. Among a people so generally religious as the American, a disguise must be worn; but it is the same old threadbare disguise of the advocacy of human rights. From a thousand Jacobin Clubs here, as in France, the decree has gone forth which strikes at God by striking at all subordination and law. . . . This spirit of atheism, which knows no God who tolerates evil, no Bible which sanctions law, and no conscience that can be bound by oaths and covenants, has selected us for its victims, and slavery for its issue. Its banner-cry rings out already upon the air: “liberty, equality, fraternity,” which simply interpreted, means bondage, confiscation, and massacre. With its tricolor waving in the breeze—it waits to inaugurate its reign of terror. To the South the high position is assigned of defending, before all nations, the cause of all religions and of all truths. In this trust, we are resisting the power which wars against constitutions and laws and compacts, against Sabbaths and sanctuaries, against the family, the state, and
the church, which blasphemously invades the prerogatives of God, and rebukes the Most High for the errors of his administration. . . .
In the 1845 “Letter to an English Abolitionist,” James Henry Hammond—a U.S. representative, a U.S. senator, and South Carolina governor—offered standard Bible-based defenses of slavery. He blamed abolitionism on:
a transcendental religion . . . a religion too pure and elevated for the Bible; which seeks to erect among men a higher standard of morals than the Almighty has revealed, or our Saviour preached; and which is probably destined to do more to impede the extension of God’s kingdom on earth than all the infidels who have ever lived. Error is error.
And to sum up all, if pleasure is correctly defined to be the absence of pain—which, so far as the great body of mankind is concerned, is undoubtedly its true definition—I believe our slaves are the happiest three millions of human beings on whom the sun shines. Into their Eden is coming Satan in the disguise of an abolitionist.
It’s safe to say that never were people happier to be expelled from Paradise than were America’s slaves.
William Sierichs, Jr. is a copy editor at The Advocate in Baton
Rouge, Louisiana. This final installment is from a book he is writing, The
Christian Origin of Totalitarianism.