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The Sin of Slavery: Christians and the Civil War

This year marks the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War, by far the bloodiest conflict in American history.

The late Shelby Foote called the Civil War “the crossroads of our being as a nation,” because the America that emerged in its aftermath was vastly different from the America before the war.

Making sense of the war is an industry unto itself. There is no shortage of great books on the subject: for instance, Foote’s three-volume history, The Civil War: A Narrative, and James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. BreakPoint listeners would benefit greatly from reading these books, along with some others we will list at our website. My purpose over these next few days is to highlight the role that Christianity played on both sides of the conflict.

As Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address “both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”

To understand why, we have to remember that mid-19th century American Christianity was far from monolithic: There were profound religious and cultural differences.

Despite these differences, both northern and southern Christians viewed slavery primarily through an economic lens.

Abolitionists were a minority in the North -- the rest, including Christians, only opposed the spread of slavery, not out of humanitarian or Christian principles, but because slave labor would render their free labor less valuable. They were content to allow slavery and its abuses, to operate unmolested in the South.

Southerners saw what some called the “peculiar institution” as indispensible to their way of life, a way of life that needed to expand in order to survive. In response to abolitionist arguments, southern Christians articulated their defenses of slavery.

They argued that the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery and, in fact, takes its existence for granted. They also argued that slaveholders were a sort of a father-figure to a large family that, in many ways, was more benevolent that northern factory labor.

While these arguments were superficially plausible, that’s all they were: They neglected the important fact that slavery in Israel was, at least after the Exodus, more akin to indentured servitude and of limited duration. More importantly, the New Testament is clear: slave-traders were condemned along with murderers. And in his letter to Philemon, Paul celebrated a freed slave as a brother.

And it’s hard as well to reconcile the image of the benevolent father-figure with slavery as it was actually practiced: Slave-holders routinely split slave families and could rightly be characterized as sexual predators when it came to black women. The evidence of this predation is literally written in the DNA of African-Americans.

Sadly, had the South not tried to secede, most Christians on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line would have accepted the inhumane status quo. With some honorable exceptions, they seemed intent on ignoring the implications of this great sin for a society that thought itself as a Christian one.

It took years of bloodletting to get their attention and an extraordinary man, Abraham Lincoln, to help them understand what a Christian people should have understood from the start. That’s the subject of tomorrow’s broadcast. Please tune in. 

This article published on May 25, 2011. Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. 

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