In the long history of Christianity, it is not unusual to see Christians divided by political movements and ideologies. In some cases, opposing groups of Christians have claimed that both the favor of God and the clear words of Scripture were on their side of a given issue. In the days leading up to the American Civil War, Christians -- who formed the overwhelming majority of the population in both the North and South -- held a wide variety of opinions on the Confederacy, slavery and any number of other issues, much as they do today.
The concept of a confederacy was not new to Americans when 11 Southern states voted to leave the United States. In fact, the initial governing document of the United States was called the Articles of Confederation. A confederacy, in and of itself, is simply a government whereby individual states share a common government. In a confederacy, the governments of individual states are given preeminence over the central government.
When using the word "confederacy" to refer to the Confederate States of America and their attempted secession from the United States, we focus on two major principles: First, those who supported confederacy believed that the several states' right to govern themselves trumped the federal government's authority. Second, those who supported confederacy believed that God had ordained the institution of slavery.
Most Christian churches in the American South supported both the Confederacy and the institution of slavery. It is worth noting that many Southern Christians (particularly Baptists), while supporting slavery, opposed the abuse of slaves and sought to overturn laws that prevented slaves from becoming educated. Many Southern Christians believed that it was their God-given responsibility to evangelize the African slaves, turning them from the paganism of their ancestors to Christianity.
When the Southern states seceded, Southern Christians held a range of opinions, but the predominant view was that God had ordained the Confederate States of America as a uniquely Christian nation and that the Bible supported slavery.
Growing abolitionist sentiment among Christians in the northern U.S. was a major factor leading up to the Civil War. The abolitionist movement, both in the British Empire and the Northern United States, was sparked largely by Quakers, a Christian denomination that stresses equality and personal holiness.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, northern Christians ran the gamut of opinions about slavery, ranging from support of the institution to indifference to militant abolitionism. Many evangelicals, including the notable evangelist Charles Finney, believed that slavery should end naturally as the result of a Christian revival. Many others took a moderate view, opposing slavery but also opposing measures that could lead to war and bloodshed over the issue.
When the Southern states seceded, the vast majority of Northern Christians opposed the Confederacy. A large percentage of Northern Christians already opposed slavery. Even among those who didn't hold strong views on slavery, most Christians in the north supported taking measures up to and including war to uphold the union.
Many southern slaves had accepted Christianity in their captivity. Some of them held the view that they were to be submissive to their earthly masters. Other Christian slaves were less pacifist. Several slave rebellions, including those of Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, were inspired by their leaders' Christianity.
Many Christian slaves believed that God would send them a deliverer, as He had done for the children of Israel. This theme remains popular in African American Christianity to this day, especially among proponents of liberation theology. Today, the theme of deliverance and freedom, which was once applied to slavery, is applied to social injustice and inequality in general.
- National Humanities Center: Religion in the Civil War: The Southern Perspective
- National Humanities Center: Religion in the Civil War: The Northern Perspective
- The New York Times: The South, the War, and 'Christian Slavery'
- Teaching American History: A Southern Christian View of Slavery
- Christianity Today: The Abolitionists
- Christian History Magazine: The Abolitionists
- PBS: The Slavery Experience: Religion
- Ablestock.com/AbleStock.com/Getty Images