Several recent books have argued that (American) evangelical Christianity is “slaveholder religion.” That is to say, it is a form of Christianity that developed in a way that accommodated the peculiar institution of American chattel slavery.
This assertion is used not just to critique our evangelical past, but to impugn evangelical theological method as fundamentalist and necessarily complicit in contemporary racial social ills. There is a some truth to this claim. The great evangelicals of the 19th Century lived in a context in which slavery was a given. This is also, of course, true of the Jesus and the Apostles (although biblical slavery was rather different than its American counterpart.
As an reformed evangelical and one committed to the infallibility, inerrancy, and sufficiency of the Bible I take a personal interest in attempts to suggest that evangelical theological method is deficient. Further, as someone with an scholarly interest in the period, I find that some recent books fail to account for the diversity of views held not just by 19th Century Christians generally, but 19th Century Presbyterians more specifically. Recognizing the diversity of views helps us, at the very least, to avoid the sort of reductionist approach that levels all 19th Century Christians into proponents of slavery.
In 2016 I undertook a study of the writings of Charles Hodge on the topic of slavery. Hodge, a giant among 19th Century Protestants, 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.
Who was Charles Hodge?
Charles Hodge (1797-1878) taught at Princeton Theological Seminary for more than 50 years. For 46 of those years he served as editor of the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, a journal of significant national influence in matters of theology and culture. Many regard Hodge as the most significant American theologian of the 19th Century. During his lifetime, Hodge was a cardinal proponent of an Old School Presbyterianism marked by strict subscription to the Westminster Standards and a high view of Scripture.
Slavery was the defining social issue in 19thcentury America. As America’s preeminent public theologian, Charles Hodge’s relationship to the “peculiar institution” slavery is critical in assessing his contribution to 19thcentury American religious history.
A Third Way
In these posts, I will explore Hodge’s relationship to the institution of slavery. I will show that Hodge occupied a mediating position: understanding slavery as a temporary arrangement and favoring gradual emancipation.
Against New England abolitionists like Horace Bushnell and the conservative Unitarian William Channing, Hodge argued that slavery was not inherently sinful—it was one means of ordering society amongst several in use across the globe. As a result of this assessment, he repudiated abolitionist calls for immediate emancipation of slaves and church discipline against slaveholders.
In his definitive writings on the subject, Hodge clearly indicated a desire for the gradual abolition of slavery. He envisioned this being achieved through the influence of the Christian gospel on slaveholder and slave alike. And he expressed significant distaste for the Southern laws that curtailed the innate rights of slaves who—while they were personal property—remained human beings created in the image of God and part of a single species of humanity.Prior to the start of the Civil War, Hodge became more critical of the actual practice of slavery as it existed in the Southern United States. Yet at the same time he had a Whiggish resistance to any radicalism that might damage the union.He was, in other words, disposed rather more towards “cooperation than confrontation.”
Despite its intellectual vigor, Hodge’s defense of slavery appears to be a defense of an abstraction—an institution that, in reality, did not exist in the United States. Some interpreters claim that Hodge’s narrow definition of slavery allowed him the flexibility to both critique and defend slavery—that his concept of slavery was “the thinnest and most useless of abstractions” that permitted him to engage in partisanship in defense of the Union by occupying the ground between the Northern abolitionists and the Southern proslavery clergy.As a result of this mediating position, Hoffecker shows that Hodge was in the crossfire from both proslavery and abolitionist Presbyterians.
In my next post I will look at the cultural context in which Hodge lived.
Hodge argued that slavery is fundamentally an “economic relation,” thus akin to something like involuntary employment. The slaveholder has a legal right to “use the [slave] as man, but not as a brute or a thing.” Charles Hodge, “Slavery,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 8/2 (April 1836): 300, 304-5.
Allen C. Guelzo, “Charles Hodge’s Antislavery Moment” in John W. Stewart and James H. Moorhead, eds. Charles Hodge Revisited: A Critical Appraisal of His Life and Work. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 304.
Ibid., 317, 323. Guelzo uses the metaphor of an accordion to describe the way in which Hodge selectively reduced or elongated the moral distance between theoretical slavery and slavery as practiced in the South.