Abraham Lincoln's arguments against using the Bible to justify slavery

3/2/2021 cbw

By Ian Hunt

One of the great strengths of Abraham Lincoln was his ability to take complicated concepts and boil them down into an easily digestible argument that even his most basic audience could understand. This was an invaluable resource for Lincoln whether addressing a jury or a gathering of potential voters and he used it frequently throughout his life.

One of the best examples of this unique talent in his own handwriting comes to us from a document entitled “Pro-slavery Theology” here in the collections of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

The first page of Lincoln's notes arguing against pro-slavery theology (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum)

Undated, though likely written in October of 1858 during the height of the Lincoln and Douglas debates, it is a scathing indictment of those who claimed that since slavery was present in the Bible that it must have met with God’s approval. He began by questioning that if blacks were truly inferior to whites then as good Christians shouldn’t whites provide more to those in need instead of taking what little they had.  He summed this idea up by writing “'Give to him that is needy’ is the Christian rule of charity; but ‘Take from him that is needy’ is the rule of slavery.” 

Lincoln concluded that the rule of slavery was "Take from him that is needy."

He then turned his attention to those who claimed that it was the will of God that African Americans were enslaved.  Lincoln admits there is “no contending against the Will of God” but concludes that God himself gives no audible answer on the subject and that the Bible “gives none -- or, at most, none but such as admits of a squabble, as to it’s meaning.” This would mean then that it was up to man, more specifically the slave owner to determine what precisely was the “Will of God” regarding the plight of the slave.

Mentioning specifically Reverend Frederick Ross who the previous year had published a book entitled Slavery Ordained of God, Lincoln poses a simple question.  If the slave owner is the one interpreting “God’s Will,” would Reverend Ross voluntarily choose to surrender his slave and thereby be forced to work for his own bread, or retain his slave and continue to enjoy the benefits that slave provided?

Lincoln summed up the total issue in this way: “As a good thing, slavery is strikingly peculiar, in this, that it is the only good thing which no man ever seeks the good of, for himself.”

In this simple document, Lincoln points out the hypocrisy of using the Bible to justify slavery on others. Throughout his life Lincoln abhorred the South’s peculiar institution and those who defended it, including in this case those who attempted to invoke God as a justification for it.

Ian Hunt is the ALPLM's head of acquisitions.

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