[2] Hodge’s Cultural Context


Posts in the Series

  1. “Slaveholder Religion?”
  2. “Hodge’s Cultural Contexts”


In my last post, I laid out my thesis concerning Charles Hodge and 19th Century slavery. It is, in brief, that Hodge is popularly misconstrued as pro-slavery. My research has led me to characterize Hodge as a third way between abolitionists and pro-slavery Southerners. He accepted slavery as a temporary economic arrangement but favored gradual emancipation. Obviously, as Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out in Letter from Birmingham City Jail, it’s easy to say “wait” when you’re a person who enjoys power and privilege. 

Hodge’s Mission

Hodge felt a duty to biblically shape the thought of both the church and the nation on the pressing issue of slavery. His conviction that the church may speak only on the basis of biblical warrant led him to occupy a mediating position between the abolitionists and those defending slavery. This mediating position has made interpreting Hodge a challenge.

At the same time, it is important to note that Hodge was not simply a disinterested bystander; this despite his claim of employing a disinterested theological method.[1]Allen Guelzo has noted that slaveholding was every bit as much a part of Hodge’s milieu as the ideas of Francis Bacon and James McCosh.[2 ]In order for Hodge to condemn slaveholding he would virtually have to condemn his “entire milieu.”[3]Princeton, for example, had one of the highest ratios of “whites” to “slaves,” an indication both of New Jersey’s “relaxed” attitude to slavery and of its affluence.[4]Hodge himself owned two slaves although our knowledge of their life as part of the Hodge household is limited.[5]

Interpreters vary in their assessment of Hodge’s position. Larry Tise, for example, numbers Hodge among those clergy offering “a defense of slavery which argued in favor of the indefinite perpetuation of slavery.”[6]He also describes Hodge’s contributions to The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review as “perhaps the most important and instructive contributions toward the formation of a national proslavery ideology of any nineteenth-century American.”[7]

Andrew Hoffecker, on the other hand, understands Hodge to occupy a mediating position between the two dominant schools of thought.[8]Allen Guelzo sees Hodge as generally conciliatory with the South out of a dread of division, among other things, but marked by several critical “anti-slavery moments.”[9]

Hodge’s Foundational Commitments

In assessing Hodge’s views on slavery it is important to bear in mind the, sometimes competing, priorities that undergirded his approach. These include: (1) the Presbyterian Church’s fidelity to Scripture; (2) the unity of the Presbyterian church; (3) the abolition of slavery; (4) the preservation of the Union; and, (5) the welfare of Princeton Theological Seminary. The first three are easily evinced in Hodges writing, but it is only by moving beyond his published works that one gets a glimpse of Hodge as guardian of Princeton Seminary.[10]

Fidelity to Scripture

Hodge’s principle concern was that the Presbyterian church be thoroughly shaped and informed by the witness of Holy Scripture. His goal was, “to ascertain the scriptural rule of judgment and conduct in relation to [slavery].”[11]Hodge abandoned biblical literalism and, according to Noll, acknowledged that the several parts of Scripture dealing with the issue of slavery must be read in their cultural context.[12]Thus, Hodge was able to affirm slavery as permissible, but effectively (if not actually) exclude the practice as expressed in Southern slave laws.[13]The evolution of Southern views on slavery concerned him so greatly that by the mid-1850s Hodge had come to view Southern clerical proslavery arguments as essentially “a new set of doctrines.”[14]

The unity of church and nation

In addition, Hodge cared deeply both for the unity of the Presbyterian church and the union of the states. He did not wish to see American Presbyterianism torn asunder over the issue of slavery. Nor did he wish to see the union divided although he practically acknowledged that legislation concerning slavery was a state (not a federal) question.

In this, he compared slavery to despotism and argued that Northerners could no more demand Southern emancipation than Americans could demand the overthrow of the Russian nobility.[15]The states were, according to Hodge’s view, virtually individual countries with respect to slavery.[16]

The abolition of slavery

Perhaps ironically, Hodge averred in several places that the abolition of slavery was something he desired.[17]Yet that desire was balanced with his desire for societal stability and the maintenance of order in the church and the world. The gradual improvement of the condition of slaves would, in Hodge’s view, produce their eventual manumission.[18]

In somewhat paternalistic tones, Hodge argued that if whites could attempt, “to instruct, to civilize, to evangelize the slaves, to make them as good as we can, as intelligent, moral, and religious,” surely the result would be peace.[19] While this surely sounds condescending to modern ears, the fear of black violence was a significant rationale for the indefinite perpetuation of slavery in the American South.

The welfare of Princeton Seminary

In the first half of the century, according to David Torbett, Hodge viewed “the defenders of slavery [as posing] less of a threat than those who opposed slavery in the wrong way.”[20]

Abolitionism threatened the health of the seminary, for several reasons.

First, approximately one-third of Princeton Seminary students came from slaveholding states and, presumably, did not favor abolition.[21]

Second, as an institution of the General Assembly, the seminary served and represented the entire country and not simply the North.

Third, the seminary was strongly associated with the Old School—as noted above—and was careful to avoid giving offense to a constituency whose primary view of slavery was that of gradual emancipation.[22]

As the century progressed, however, it became clear to Hodge that the South would be forced to defend slavery by quitting the union.[23]This precipitated a change in Hodge’s approach that will be explored in our next post.


[1]Mark Noll, “Charles Hodge a Expositor of the Spiritual Life,” in John W. Stewart and James H. Moorhead, eds. Charles Hodge Revisited: A Critical Appraisal of His Life and Work. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 197.

[2]Guelzo, “Charles Hodge’s Antislavery Moment,” 308.

[3]Ibid. Guelzo notes that among the Northern states, New Jersey was one of the most gradualist in its approach to emancipation. A bill establishing the gradual emancipation of slaves was passed in 1804. It required that children of slaves born after July 4, 1804 would be freed at majority. There were still slaves in bondage—under the title “apprentices”—as late as 1850.

[4]Ibid., 303.

[5]Ibid., 308.

[6]Larry Tise, Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 363-4, emphasis mine.

[7]Tise, 278. Tise goes on to note that Hodge was alone among clergy in that he had two essays included in the proslavery compendium, Cotton is King and Proslavery Arguments. He fails to note, however, that this volume contains a version of Hodge’s essay “Slavery” that is redacted to remove comments the editor construed as critical of American slavery.

[8]Hoffecker, 168.

[9]Guelzo, “Charles Hodge’s Anti-Slavery Moment,” 319.

[10]Ibid., 314-5.

 [11]Hoffecker, 169.

[12]Mark Noll, “The Bible and Slavery,” in Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, eds., Religion and the American Civil War(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 60.

[13]Hodge, “Slavery,” 303.

[14]Hodge, “Diversity of Species in the Human Race,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 34/3 (July 1862): 437.

[15]Hodge, “Slavery,” 271.


[17]For example: “We have little apprehension that any one can so far mistake our object, or the purport of our remarks, as to suppose that we regard slavery as a desirable institution, or that we approve the slave laws of the southern states.” Hodge, “Slavery,” 302.

[18]James H. Moorhead, Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 162.


 [20]David Torbett, Theology and Slavery: Charles Hodge and Horace Bushnell. (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2006), 94.

 [21]Moorhead, Princeton Seminary,155-6; Guelzo, “Charles Hodge’s Antislavery Moment,” 302, 308.

[22]Hoffecker, 168.

 [23]Torbett, 95.