President Obama, the National Prayer Breakfast, and Slavery

Obama during National Prayer Breakfast closing prayerObama during National Prayer Breakfast closing prayer. (Photo: White House)

The controversy over President Obama’s remarks at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast is a strange one. Noting the horrors carried out by the so-called Islamic State and others around the globe claiming to be acting in the name of Islam, the President asserted that American Christians might want to reflect with some humility upon their own past before they condemn an entire faith based on the actions of its most twisted adherents. After all, he observed, “slavery and Jim Crow all too often was [sic] justified in the name of Christ.” The speech enraged former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, who claimed Obama’s comments were “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime.” Somewhat less heatedly, Richard Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, took issue with Obama’s historical characterization, insisting that “the evil actions that he mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians.”

It is hardly unusual for President Obama to elicit criticism, of course, but the criticisms in this instance are particularly odd because, as a matter of history, the contention he put forth at the National Prayer Breakfast is so obviously true. With regard to the defense of slavery especially, Christian justifications for the institution were so ubiquitous in the American South before the Civil War that the only real challenge is in listing their variations. Slavery’s defenders routinely turned to the Old Testament and observed that the Hebrew patriarchs were all slaveholders and that the laws of the ancient Israelites were rife with rules about slaveholding. Looking to the New Testament, they pointed out that Christ himself never condemned slavery, took comfort from the Epistle to Philemon in which Paul urged the enslaved fugitive Onesimus to return to his master, and regularly cited verses commanding that slaves be obedient and submissive. Some defenders made a case for the notion that people of African descent were the lineage of Noah’s son Ham condemned by God to be eternal servants and thus a divinely sanctioned enslaved race, and others argued that slaveholding was part of white southerners’ religious duty to bring Christianity to African heathens.

So vital was Christianity to the southern defense of slavery that some historians have estimated that ministers penned roughly half of all proslavery literature in the decades after 1830, though it was hardly only ministers like Baptist leader Richard Furman who one might have heard state that “the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures.” Secular politicians drew upon such arguments as well. Jefferson Davis, for example, claimed that slavery “was established by decree of Almighty God” and was “sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation,” while his contemporary, South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond, blasted opponents of slavery by arguing that “the doom of Ham has been branded on the form and features of his African descendants” and that “man cannot separate what God hath joined.”

It is no less the case that the worldview of many abolitionists was deeply shaped by Christianity as well, and that a significant number of them saw their activities on behalf of the enslaved as their moral responsibility as Christians. Their liberationist faith, however, was not nearly so widely embraced in the public sphere. The dozens of instances of antislavery activists in the North and the South being shouted down, warned out, fired, assaulted, attacked by mobs, and occasionally murdered amply demonstrate this, put the lie to Richard Moore’s belief that Christianity served more as weapon against slavery than it did its greatest shield, and bolster President Obama’s fundamental point that any religion is susceptible to being used for good and evil alike. Mr. Moore, in fact, ought to know this better than most people. The Southern Baptist Convention, after all, was in its origins an explicitly pro-slavery denomination. It only exists in the first place because Baptists in slaveholding states insisted upon the allowance of slaveholding missionaries and broke away from their northern brethren in 1845 rather than accept a restriction on or judgment of their “property rights.” That the SBC has since apologized for and repudiated its historical relationship to slavery is surely something supported by Mr. Moore. That it took until 1995 for it to do so may recommend his reconsideration of how “clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity” slavery was in the United States.

About the Author

Joshua D. Rothman

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2012), and is currently working on a book about the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard.

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  1. This is such a fascinating and important piece. It’s a great reminder of how people can distort history to support an existing worldview. Also a reminder that you can’t remove religion from its political context. To dismiss the violence of extremists as a religious problem is to miss the deeper social, political, and historical causes of violence. Thanks for this thought-provoking article.

  2. interesting…but you might want to quite the entire context of the speech to show WHAT the outrage was about, not just the small section. The outrage dealt with telling Christians to get off their ‘high horse” and then quoted things about the Crusades and Inquisition……reading the entire section of the speech will allow people to make up their own minds, rather than picking and choosing the one section sure to make people think those who are outraged are just being ridiculous! if you choose to read the ENTIRE speech, it may be found here…

  3. President Obama has become our teaching president. And he’s gotten very good at it. He still makes me nervous when he steps out on the proverbial limb–he is doing it more and more, if expertly–to opine on an issue or event which he is not 100% obligated as POTUS to address. But this time he not only got it right, he was pitch perfect. Your piece brought that home. Nicely done.

  4. However true in a world of pure reason it may be desirable, I judge that Sam Harris is more right when he just as truthfully points out that the entire basis for Islam rests on ways of seeing right and wrong that are drivers of a ruthless way of reacting to those who have a different, Western sense of ethics. I am of course sorry that the religion of Islam so much lends itself to barbarity in the name of their “superior” morality. We will have trouble with nations that so far deny subjugated peoples so many precepts of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. In our civilized world, women have equal rights. The reasons they use for killing people are way far from what many many nations have agreed is right. Surveys of “moderate” Muslims are enough to justify realistic fear. Consider the example of the founder. He led a band of robbers to rob Meccan merchants on the Silk Road, then had his followers pray toward where the loot came from, and then invaded Mecca and did more looting. I cannot but find the founder’s example as suspiciously part of what sort of activity his followers are dedicating to following, regardless of whatever he claimed God wrote through him. It clearly looks to me as if there is a point further to demand that less of the buck passing be entirely at all crisis given to the US. The buck passing is too much a bloodletting benefitting US enemies. Regardless of the “perfect” pure and good reason to let Islam off the hook, with the expectation of maturity relationships with “infidels”, we are good to want them in the forms taken, stopped.

    1. This is great. There’s nothing like a history article that discusses religion to bring out religious comments devoid of any serious historical analysis.

      1. Mike: You’re absolutely right, and I regret that I took the bait to express my own low opinion of religion in my last comment instead of dealing with the historical issues Prof. Rothman raises in his article. The piece is very well written and argued. Kudos to Prof. Rothman for a very thoughtful post that makes several excellent points about the relationship bewteen slavery and Christianity.

  5. I don’t know what’s more ridiculous: the vitriol leveled at the President over these remarks, or the attendance of any President of the United States at something as ridiculous as a “National Prayer Breakfast.” Any one religion trying to hold the moral high ground on extremism over any other religion is laughable. I know religion brings some people great comfort at the individual level, but as institutions I think they do-and have always done-far more harm than good. I wish this President or any President would have the nerve to say so, but that will never happen.

  6. Thanks for your excellent historical analysis. I think the best critique of Christian hypocrisy about slavery came from ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Mr. Moore should read the Appendix from Douglass’ Life as an American Slave (1845). Here’s a relevant section: “What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.”

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