American Slavery and Southern Religion

Josiah Henson

Antebellum religious views within slave holding communities defended the institution as a divinely decreed fulfillment of God’s ordering of human societies.

When the Declaration of Independence was promulgated in 1776, a London newspaper described a South Carolina clergyman reading the document aloud while being fanned by a slave. In the Antebellum South, both Protestant and Catholic clergy owned slaves and had developed elaborate biblical defenses to justify the institution. Speaking on the floor of the House of Representatives in February 1836, James Henry Hammond of South Carolina declared, “The doom of Ham has been branded on the form and feature of his African Descendants. The hand of fate has united his color and destiny.”

Genesis 9 and the Justification for Slavery

The “status” of a slave converted to Christianity had been settled in the early years of Colonial America. Christian baptism did not negate the servile role of peoples whose status was based on racial considerations. By the 19th century, as Northern groups like the Quakers began to loudly question the morality of slavery, religion in the South attempted to appeal to primarily Old Testament passages regarding the institution.

The first and perhaps most important passage is in Genesis 9.20-27. It is the story of Noah’s nakedness after having drunk wine. Ham, his youngest son, did not cover his father’s nakedness, as did the older brothers Shem and Japheth. Since these were the first men of an entirely new human race following the biblical flood, Noah’s “curse” of Ham appeared significant.

“Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants he shall be to his brothers.” Stephen R. Haynes of Rhodes College, in his book Noah’s Curse, states that this passage has been interpreted throughout the centuries to refer to those of African descent as well as, perhaps, the beginning of slavery. He even cites early Christian church fathers that held this view. Haynes does not agree with this view, he merely demonstrates how it affected societies that interpreted the Genesis passage to justify African slavery.

Religious Teaching in the South Before the Civil War Justified Slavery

John W. Blassingame, formerly of Yale University, writes that, “No white minister could give a full exposition of the gospel to the slaves without incurring the wrath of planters.” Slaves were encouraged to be devout Christians, but the Christian message they received from planters and ministers was to be docile and submissive. It was God’s will that they spent their lives as slaves and sermons capitalized on such themes as “obeying the master.”

Slavery was more than an economic necessity. It was greater than the earlier arguments painting it as a necessary evil. It had become, by the 1850s, a biblically based institution immune to abolitionist arguments appealing to Christian morality. This same message was repeated at every Southern Sabbath school and enunciated in every sermon. This was the divine order decreed by God from Genesis onward.

Response of the Slaves to Bible Passages and Sermons About Slavery

Scholars point out that despite these attempts, slaves developed their own interpretations that rejected a master-slave relationship built on scriptural principles. Although kept from all forms of education including reading, slaves often memorized Bible passages from sermons while some slaves even managed to learn to read surreptitiously and possessed Bibles.

Exceptional slaves like Josiah Henson became ordained and preached a more encompassing and welcoming gospel. Henson eventually fled with his family to Canada and began a ministry for other fugitive slaves. Further, through song and music – the “spiritual,” slaves conveyed their own Bible interpretations of deliverance.

Emancipated Slaves Start Their own Churches in the South

Little wonder that after emancipation, freedmen began their own churches, refusing to bond with the white congregations that had for so long used religion as a tool of oppression. The use and misuse of the Bible has been linked to centuries of persecution. The plight of Africans in the South is one example of this.


  1. John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972)
  2. Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (Oxford University Press, 2002)
  3. Peter Kolchin, American Slavery 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993)