Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Trapped by His Hermeneutic: An Apocalyptic Defense of Slavery

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Trapped by His Hermeneutic: An Apocalyptic Defense of Slavery

Article excerpt

On the eve of the Civil War, people of faith in both the North and the South sought to justify their political positions through the lenses of their belief systems. Abraham Lincoln noted this phenomenon in his second inaugural address when he declared that despite political and social differences: "both sides read the same Bible and pray to the same God."1 Mark Noll has also argued that the northern and southern theologians shared a distinctive American hermeneutic, which had two foundational theological assumptions as its base: "Reformed theological instincts and common sense literalism."2 This very Calvinistic view of divine providence coupled with a belief in strict literalism of the Bible-that every word of scripture applied to all men at all times-effectively trapped the Southern apologists within the framework of their own theological discourse. Therefore, in order to hold to what they ardently believed was the will of God, their defense of slavery was the only option that they felt was true to sound Biblical interpretation.3

Stephen Elliott, the first and only presiding bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Confederate States of America, was a prime example of a Southern preacher employing this hermeneutic. Like many of his contemporaries, Elliott used this means of interpreting the Bible to justify American slavery. Elliott's firm belief in the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture along with the fact that the Bible does not explicitly condemn slavery per se led him to the conclusion that despite its abuses slavery was Biblically-sanctioned. Elliott believed the institution of slavery was ordained by God in his providence and that he could "find the sin only in the presumptuous interference with the will and ways of God," by Northern abolitionists.4

Stephen Elliott was an extreme case of these southern apologists who, consciously or otherwise, were trapped by their own theological toolbox of Biblical literalism and belief in the providential will of God. For, if Elliott denied the Biblical approval of Southern slavery, in his mind this would have been a direct assault upon the sacred nature of scripture itself. What makes Elliott's argument especially significant historically is that in this extreme case, he argued that survival of American slavery was not only Biblical, but also it was essential to the second coming of Christ. Consequently, his apocalyptic defense of American slavery as integral to God's plan for all humankind, demonstrates just how ingrained this theological hermeneutic was within the mindsets of clergy and parishioners of the antebellum South.


Southern apologists frequently pointed to the fact that the institution of slavery was as old as time itself. In fact, Thomas Cobb began his chapter on "Negro Slavery and the Slave Trade" by referring back to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus' chronicling on the trade in African slaves.5 The first historical record of African slaves in the New World was by the Spanish in 1501.6 Originally, the Spanish and Portuguese sought to enslave the native indigenous populations, but soon found that exposure to Europeans, most likely due to the introduction of Old World diseases, decimated their numbers.7 As Africans proved heartier and healthier, the trade in African slaves increased.8 Thirteen years after the founding of the first permanent English settlement in 1607, a Dutch ship bearing twenty Africans for sale landed in the English colony of Virginia.9 Thus, by the time of Elliott's birth in Georgia in 1806, American slavery had existed for almost two hundred years.10 In fact, Elliot's family owned a large slave-holding estate in Georgia which he would eventually inherit.11

For the most part, African slavery was a given during the American colonial period without need for any kind ofjustification. The early modern reliance upon the belief in God's providence, that God wills and directs the day to day activities of mankind, helped to legitimize the institution. …

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