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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Biblical Interpretation Knocking on the Door of the Civil War


In the years preceding the Civil War, the Bible functioned as the “most influential cultural force” of the young country” [1]. Americans had “an implicit trust that the Bible was a plain book whose authoritative deliverances could be apprehended by anyone who simply opened the covers and read” [2]. The common sense interpretation of Scripture was shown to support slavery [3]. Abolitionists had a more difficult exegetical task. Instead of appealing to the literal sense of Scripture, they argued that Scripture thematically sided with righteousness, justice, and freedom. Christians ought to follow the spirit of Scripture rather than the letter [4]. Such a position was suspected of undermining the Bible, especially in the wake of radical abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison who rejected the authority of Scripture [5]. While slave-owners and abolitionists argued over interpreting Scripture on the subject of slavery, European-immigrant scholar, Philip Schaff, brought attention to the fact that Americans had neglected to read Scripture on its view of race [6]. Neither side questioned the racism implicit in the institution of slavery and, as a result, it was nearly a century before African-Americans would be accepted as equal members of society, “if in fact it has accepted it even now” [7].

St. James once wrote: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle” [8]. St. James’s words encourage Americans to humbly read Scripture and to be slow to teach. Perhaps such humility would have led to less vicious debates in antebellum America.

[1] Noll, Mark A. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. p. 28.

[2] Ibid. p. 20.

[3] Ibid. p. 33.

[4] Ibid. p. 45.

[5] Ibid. p. 32.

[6] Ibid. p. 51.

[7] Ibid. p. 74.

[8] James 3:1-2 NRSV


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