Lincoln and Northern Religiuos Views on Slavery


Feb 6, 2010
District of Columbia
Fascinating. Thanks for sharing. How emancipation affected popular theology is a very interesting topic.

Recently I listened to an interview on CivilWarTalk Radio with Professor Mark Noll, author of The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. He made the point that when the War began most Americans, north and south, agreed that the Bible recognized and seemingly approved of slavery. A fundamental premise of the Protestant theology that prevailed at the time was that the words of Scripture should be understandable to all persons of ordinary intelligence. Thus Biblical literalism was dominant. Abraham owned slaves, God gave Moses a list of laws including laws relating to the treatment of slaves, Jesus never condemned slavery, St. Paul specifically approved of it, etc. Ergo, they reasoned, God was OK with slavery. Quakers didn't treat the Bible with the same reverence and they were adamantly abolitionist. Liberation theology and other more sophisticated methods of Biblical interpretation were in their nascence, and wouldn't become widely accepted until much later.

He argues that what changed popular Christian opinion was not so much a rethinking of the Bible as the belief that the outcome of the War and the destruction of slavery that came with it represented God's will being done. This is reflected in Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, for example. The thinking was that God must have desired that slavery be ended, and he used the Civil War to do it.

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."​

Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist, but prior to the war he did speak to slavery as being immoral and used biblical references in making such statements.

Genesis 3:19 states: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." In his second inaugural speech Lincoln stated: "Both (the USA and the CSA) read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged." Lincoln believed that slaveholders ran afoul of God's admonition that what men earned should come from the sweat of their own brows.

Before the war, Lincoln said this:

That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles -- right and wrong -- throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, "You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it." No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.
-- October 15, 1858 Debate at Alton, Illinois​

Lincoln states the notion, biblically derived, that it is not right to eat the bread that has come from the toil (sweated brow) of another man.

Thomas Jefferson made this statement before the war (Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia: ch. 18):

The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.

...And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.​

Lincoln echoed Jefferson in the following statement:

Judge Douglas ought to remember when he is endeavoring to force this policy upon the American people that while he is put up in that way a good many are not. He ought to remember that there was once in this country a man by the name of Thomas Jefferson, supposed to be a Democrat -- a man whose principles and policy are not very prevalent amongst Democrats to-day, it is true; but that man did not take exactly this view of the insignificance of the element of slavery which our friend Judge Douglas does.

In contemplation of this thing, we all know he was led to exclaim, "I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just!" We know how he looked upon it when he thus expressed himself. There was danger to this country -- danger of the avenging justice of God in that little unimportant popular sovereignty question of Judge Douglas. He supposed there was a question of God's eternal justice wrapped up in the enslaving of any race of men, or any man, and that those who did so braved the arm of Jehovah -- that when a nation thus dared the Almighty every friend of that nation had cause to dread His wrath. Choose ye between Jefferson and Douglas as to what is the true view of this element among us.
Speech at Columbus, Ohio, on September 16, 1859 (CWAL III:410)​

Again, Lincoln was not an abolitionist, but he sometimes channeled their rhetoric in his own when referring to slavery.

- Alan
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JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Feb 14, 2012
Central Pennsylvania
I very rarely get into religious perspectives and slavery. Dad was a theologian,2 masters and a doc and it's too intimidating. He was tough to keep up with much less quote. He never allowed us to get off track historically on the grounds you're lying- for whatever reason, it's a lie- unwittingly or no. This ' thing '- that slavery was universally accepted as a religious precept by ' most Americans ' is nonsense. Justified using the Bible? Of course. Accepted, across the board, as our country spent dutiful Sundays in frigid churches across New England, into territories, dipping South? No. I'm sorry, no.

Abolitionists were a specific group- being identified with them could be risky. Before it was all that awful, have some famous torched buildings here in PA as proof. It wasn't ' black and white', you were or were not- like Lincoln was not. But. To say only the Quakers- who were afraid of no one ( and had some coin at their back, make no mistake ) took a firm stance is ludicrous. Perhaps it is because this topic is still being defended by only one ' side ' all these years later- it's lost.

A text, easily tracked down, haunted my memory, reading this. So thanks, Dad. Found it. A call, for the denominations to make some cohesive doctrine on what in blazes to do on the topic of slave holders. All of them. Baptists, Presbyterians ( that was us- Scots ), some famously feisty Irish Catholics enter the fray elsewhere, too. Honest.


It's from 1831. We were tormented as a society- no one is stating ours was not a racist society although from reading these old chestnuts ( and poking around in a lot of our local history ) it seems to me we've gotten worse, we were not in agreement over religious conviction and enslaving human beings. That's just not a good idea, allowing a statement to stand saying we were.
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Verses- the two on the title page, more here, can be found to extoll virtue, too.
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Please remember, it's 1831. These are not abolitionists, they are church leaders, various denominations trying to solve a religious and to them, moral crisis. It is also not merely one author trying to make a point- it's a collective. Pastors, like we all grew up with, grappling with massive theological dilemma.

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There are two volumns, had no clue on the second. Not making this into a religious thread- it's just the statement made, evoking the thread and thankfully, Lincoln's position, was not correct. One publication does not a source make. Certainly. There are others. And generation after generation of theologians who grappled with their callings in a very real way.


Apr 15, 2016
The Bible has very little to say on the topic of abolition.

It speaks copiously on slavery, the legal norms, who can be enslaved, whether you can beat them to death (they can't die within 48 hours of the beating), whether their children are allowed to be enslaved, and of course if the masters are Christian than the slaves should honor their masters and be good slaves to them.

“Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their masters worthy of all honor, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit.”

—1 Timothy 6:1-2

I mean, look at that. It is blasphemous for a Christian slave not to honor their masters. It's a crime against God.

Whether you are looking at it in terms of hemenuestics or exegesis, the Southerners had the correct interpretation of the Bible on this topic.

Of course, that bothers quite a few people, as it is so clearly imoral, so virtually every church now teaches that this is not what was intended.

major bill

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Aug 25, 2012
Every Christian who ever enslaved other believed the Bible allows them to enslave who ever they pleased to enslave. Both the North and the South believed themselves to be on God's side.


Aug 2, 2017
It wasn't so much as to whether or not slavery was permissible, it was the way it was being done. Those caught selling slaves are to be killed, runaway slaves are not to be returned (though the Philemon story of Paul sending back a slave was used by both sides according to interpretation), people were not to earn all their wealth solely from slave labor, slaves could be leased to others without paying the slaves themselves, etc. It clearly was not done in that fashion.