An Institution Sanctioned by God?: Slavery and Religion in the North and South

By Tyler Leard ’16

While a young student at the University of North Carolina, Iveson Brooks, an optimistic student of promise, wrote several speeches arguing that slavery was an impediment to the future. After graduating, he decided his best prospects following graduation lay in the Baptist ministry. By 1851, while his piety remained, Brooks’ antislavery had vanished, replaced by a deeply conservative outlook which held slavery as not merely essential to southern society, but as intended by God. In his pamphlet, A Defense of Southern Slavery against the Attacks of Henry Clay and Alexander Campbell, Brooks argued that slavery was not only allowed by the Bible, but was an integral part of Christianity “intended to exist until the Day of Judgment.” This passage, found in the Old Testament, was one of many instances in which Brooks read that the Bible implied that God desired a hierarchical society. Like many other southerners, Brooks argued that the curse laid upon God to the descendants of Ham, whose descendants were allegedly the people of Africa, sanctioned slavery along racial lines.


While Brooks’ stance demonstrates the southern argument of slavery as a divine institution, northern interpretations of his arguments tended to differ. The Reverend Samuel McFarran, writing in 1863, challenged many of Brooks’ theological interpretations regarding slavery. McFarran, in a published sermon called Modern Slavery: Destitute of a Divine Warrant, argued that it was only Ham’s descendants by Canaan, who settled in western Asia, who were condemned to eternal servitude. McFarren also attacked southern slavery as an institution, calling it “highly criminal”. Yet this does not lead him to condemn the act of holding slaves in itself, as being incompatible with Christian behavior, provided the master treats his slaves in a Christian manner. As he says, “the Apostles did not exclude slaveholders from the communion of their church. They denounced many things in the treatment of slaves which the law permitted, but they did not enjoin upon masters immediate manumission.” Thus, slaveholders were not by any means irredeemable, as the more fervent abolitionists held, but, given that they treated their slaves with dignity and respect, could be part of the Christian community. So long as they treated their slaves humanely and educated them with the goal of future abolition in sight, it was in fact much more humane than immediate abolition and the abandonment of the slave before he was sufficiently prepared for freedom. In this sense, McFarran cannot be considered to have a Christian abolitionist outlook, the one that is probably given the most modern association with a religious attitude towards slavery in the North. Rather, his sermon, like Brooks’ pamphlet, indicates that Christian attitudes towards slavery, even among those who denied its racial or moral justness, maintained a degree of diversity regarding the justness of the institution as a whole.


Brooks, Iveson. A Defense of Southern Slavery against the Attacks of Henry Clay and Alexander Campbell. Hamburg, S.C.: Robinson and Carlisle, 1851.

M’Farran, Samuel. Modern Slavery: Destitute of a Divine Warrant. Pittsburgh: W.S. Haven, 1863.

Iveson Brooks Papers: Biography. UNC-Chapel Hill Library Online Collection.,Iveson_L.html


“Emancipation.” Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Online. Digitial ID: pga 03898. Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-pga-03898.

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