Friday, December 30, 2011

Charles Hodge—A man who was a moderate and a gradualist towards slavery

There is a part of me that wants to run from this topic….slavery. Just saying the word invokes thoughts of anger, indignation and unbelief.

To give an example of my inner resentment towards slave-owners (and racism), I watched The Help with my wife (a recent movie about a white woman chronicling the stories of African-American maids) and made this comment to her during the final credits, “I have never wanted to punch so many white women in my life.”

By the way, just so the readers are clear…..I HAVE NEVER HIT A WOMAN….EVER (white, black or any other ethnic group)!

So why write about it? Two reasons: 1) Charles Hodge wrote about it and 2) he lived through the Civil War era.

Charles Hodge grew up in the most volatile time in America’s history. The Civil War claimed thousands of lives and the issue of slavery could not be avoided. As a Christian, a theologian and a churchman, Dr. Hodge knew it was his responsibility to help Presbyterians (and Christians in general) think through this issue.

What was Dr. Hodge’s position on slavery? Well, I would define it as the title suggests: He was a moderate and a gradualist.

During Hodge’s lifetime, there were three approaches to the slavery issue. Either you were pro-slavery, a gradualist or an abolitionist.

Now for most of us, anything position other than the abolitionist stance is reprehensible. So how did Dr. Hodge defend his position? Let’s hear from the man himself:
“How did they (Christ and the apostles) treat it (the issue of slavery)? Not by denunciation of slave-holding as necessarily and universally sinful. Not by declaring that all slaveholders were men-stealers and robbers, and consequently to be excluded from the church and the kingdom of heaven. Not by insisting on immediate emancipation.”
We must remember that Hodge, like many others during his day, believed the issue of slavery was predominately a state issue and therefore, the role of the church was to simply promote the gospel. Regarding the influence of the church, Hodge states:
“The South (the side that was predominately pro-slavery) therefore, has to choose between emancipation to the silent and holy influence of the gospel, securing the elevation of the slave to the stature and character of freemen, or abide the issue of a long continued conflict against the law of God.”
Past and present critics of Dr. Hodge have asserted that the gradualist approach was too passive. They interpreted his approach as indifference to the created purpose of man or the imago dei (i.e. humans are made in the image of God). For Hodge, though, it was more complex than simply releasing slaves. He believed that immediate emancipation would cause civil, societal and cultural chaos.

What did Dr. Hodge propose through the lens of the gradualist approach? His biographer writes:
“To achieve the goal of producing freedom for blacks gradually, Hodge proposed means by which they could achieve that freedom within a generation. He endorsed the emancipation of all those born in slavery when they reached their twenty-fifth birthday. He urged adoption of educational practices that would elevate slaves.” (p. 176)
At this point, though most readers would agree that “immediate emancipation is the best option”, Hodge’s propositions would (to most readers) seem reasonable and realistic. But the following solution brought the most criticism against Hodge when he urged the extradition of freed slaves. His biographer continues,  
“(Extraditing the freed slaves) to the republic of Liberia would offer the opportunity for freed slaves not only to live out their freedom productively but to engage in an evangelistic mission—to ‘carry with them the seeds of religion, civilization and liberty to an entire continent’.
Again, it would be easy at this point to condemn Hodge. Critics argued that the extradition of freed slaves would not solve the issue of racism, if anything it reinforces the thinking that races cannot or (even worse) should not co-exist.

But was Dr. Hodge being racist or just being realistic? History tells us that 100 years will pass until the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., bringing our country to its knees, finally causing us to deal with the issue of racism. Advocates of colonization would argue that slaves would have not only freedom, but freedom from the tension (and violence) of white-black racial relations. In other words, colonization would at least have brought a temporary fix.

***It should be noted the solution of colonization was never implemented in American history for economic and pragmatic reasons.

Now it is probably time to defend the actions of Dr. Hodge.

Here is my defense: Dr. Hodge was trying to be biblical.

There is no getting around this hard fact: THE AUTHORS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT NEVER COMMANDED THE IMMEDIATE EMANCIPATION OF SLAVES. Instead, the apostles seemed to encourage slaves to remain in their current state.

1 Corinthians 7:21-24 Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.

Many Christians have struggled with the silence of the apostles on this issue. Yet the reason is simple: The gospel frees the individual of their spiritual bondage, but not necessarily the temporary bondage of a sin-cursed world. Jesus came to “seek and save those who were (spiritually) lost”, not necessarily rescue those who are in a bad marriage, oppressed by an evil government (Romans 13:1-5) or from an earthly slave owner (Philemon 1:10-14). It seems that the apostles believed that as the gospel permeates society, whether through the salvation of slave owners or those who are in government or through the people themselves, heart change will produce and promote moral, ethical and (in theory) societal reformation. Therefore, let every Christian take seriously the command to “be His witnesses” while He is away (Acts 1:8-11).

In conclusion, is slavery wrong? Yes. Is racism wrong? Yes.

What is the answer? The gospel. Charles Hodge knew this and advocated the gradualist approach because of it. 


  1. Hi Clint:

    Interesting article.

    Is it fair to equate the New Testament concept of slavery to the different concept of 17-19th century American slavery?

    Is that not comparing "apples to space-ships" (oranges)?


    Are they not different?

    The concept of slavery in New Testament times was rooted in economic status, and had little or nothing to do with Race. It had nothing to do with the color of one's skin color. A Caucasian country would do battle with another caucasian country, and the winner would use the battle prisoners as economic slaves. Similarly, a country or tribe in Africa would wage war against a neigboring country or tribe, and the winner "would get the spoils", which included human persons who were basically slaves.

    But in 17-19th century America, slavery was rooted in Race and based on the color of one's skin color. Even freed slaves who found themselves to be wealthy later on were always susceptible to being "put into the right place" {17th century culturally speaking} and they feared a forced return to their former {a racist says: and "proper" } status.

    My purpose here is not to accuse Dr Hodge or anybody else with the charge of "Racist!!"

    Rather, my view is that there have been different "forms" or concepts of Slavery in our world. And I think Dr Hodge was in many ways, just like us, a "man of his own age".

    Thank you.

  2. Anonymous,

    Thanks for your comment. I guess I will respond to this statement of yours,

    "Is it fair to equate the New Testament concept of slavery to the different concept of 17-19th century American slavery?

    Is that not comparing "apples to space-ships" (oranges)?"

    If by different, you mean a "racial element", then I would probably grant you your point. But, in my opinion, slavery is still ownership of another person, and therefore, freedom is preferable (whether from racism or oppression).

    1 Corinthians 7:21 Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that.

    Philemon 1:15-16 For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

    These passages seem to speak to "gospel freedom" first, and "freedom from the institution of slavery" second.

    Again, I appreciate your polite dialogue on this issue.

  3. Hi Clint:

    (continuing this polite dialogue from my very first comment above....if and only have a free second.):

    I agree with you that Slavery and Racism are reprehensible, immoral, and despicable actions/attitudes and are Incompatible with Biblical Christianity.

    The essence of my first comment above is:


    "is it accurate to say that New Testament writers could ***NOT*** imagine the repressive, horrible conditions of 16th to 18th century Slavery in America? that was based on skin color only?" That is to say, slavery in the NT was fundamentally different from American slavery and the two can never be equated?

    Possible Answer #1:

    If the answer is "no," then I don't see how one escapes the fallacy of equivocation when the same word "slavery" is clearly used in 2 fundamental different contexts.

    Also, if the answer is No, then theological parallels could indeed be drawn and Theological principles of Slavery could indeed be compared between the Pauline writings to American Slavery.

    But this risks compounding the problem, because as 21st century Christians we know today that we would be very quick to practice Church Discipline on a church member who practiced 16-18th American century slavery, even if that church member happened to be a member of a daughter church in a Third World country. We would be very quick to do so. And we would be correct to do so.

    The point is that American slavery and its ***alleged*** resemblance to New Testament slavery is a Huge Contributing factor as to why mainline Protestant denominations (Disciples of Christ, United Methodist Church, etc) went "liberal" and tossed out Orthodoxy in the early 20th century.

    Answer #2:

    However, if the answer is "yes", then Biblical parallels or "theological linkage" between Pauline writings ("Philemon, 1 Corinthians, etc") are destroyed and a Christian believer must then say:

    "Slavery in Paul's time was fundamentally and totally different from his day and age compared to 16 - 18 th American slavery which was based strictly on color of one's skin. Therefore, we must stop comparing the 2 (uncomparable) slavery accounts in the same category. They are fundamentally different, and we must acknowledge that the Fallacy of Equivocation occurs when one uses the same term with fundamental different meanings."

    Where does the Christian thinker move on from here?


    to themes of the Imageo Deo....and to other New Testament writings such as 1 John 4:20-21. And we admit that slavery in the NT was very different....compared to American century slavery.


    I have been a Christian the majority of my life and I have never heard a sermon preached on 1 John 4:20-21.

  4. Anonymous,

    I am not sure I am willing to grant that slavery in the N.T. was fundamentally different than the slavery in the 16th-18th centuries.

    Different, yes......fundamentally different, not sure.

    Now if your point is simply this: The slavery of the 16th-18th centuries is better addressed (biblically / theologically) with the theme of Imago Deo and texts such as I John 4:20-21. I say....fair enough (Though this still doesn't mean that Hodge's gradualistic approach was flawed....simply the biblical criteria he used was).

    Furthermore, I will humbly admit you stretched my thinking on this issue. Thanks.

    Until next time, Anonymous.

  5. Greetings all,

    So, I have preached the entire book of 1 John over twenty two weeks, so praise God that the whole counsel of God is still being addressed. Everyone is making some valid points here and I love the tone :)

    Personally, I would have been and feel I am an abolitionist, supported via my ideology, my time and treasure. Clearly, the image of God argument is solid. Thus, the question becomes the concept of slavery. Personally, I understand Clint's point, but still feel that Biblical slavery is juxtaposed to America's shameful history with slavery.

    The priority must be to be free in Christ and there are spiritual songs and movements in Christianity rooted in those who were slaves in America. I guess the contrast would be the idea of slavery. Greco Roman culture had slaves, but all my research expresses slaves (the majority) as employees; people who willfully embraced slavery and in return to fed, housed, etc. Many of which were given a trade that they would in no other way attain. Slaves were able to buy their freedom, and many owners willed them their freedom upon death. However, to not be a slave, was to be a freedman. Yes, one is free, but does not have the guarantee of safety, food, housing, etc... so the freedman did not have a better life per say. This is (my opinion) vastly different that 16th-18th century slavery, in a myriad of ways, i.e.. living conditions, treatment, etc. They were provided for yes, but conditions were terrible as was treatment. Greco Roman culture seems to view slaves as a "lower class," but not a commodity to the level of the slavery within American history.

    Overall, I think Hodge was a Moderate. Why? Because I believe he did view the issue as a State matter. There are many men in the American political history who sadly supported slavery, as are there many who just accepted it, and treated their slaves very well. However, the overall attitude towards the person seems to be different. I could be wrong, I am not an expert, but being a slave in the first century seemed a lot better.

    I have stood at the birth home of William Lloyd Garrison, in fact it is next door to the church that George Whitfield preached in... Garrison gave some of his fist abolitionist speeches in Boston, MA and I have been in that church. New England has amazing history that stresses the history of slavery. Garrison's birth town (Newberryport) is part of the slavery triangle. Thus, one can see why he was repulsed by the practice, he had first hand experience.

    Overall, I understand Hodge's stance, I just do not agree with it. However, I have the luxury of not living within the cultural context of his life and trying to define gospel living and preaching within the scope of what was "normative." I think for me, the Bible teaches via Jesus, that the Holy Spirit will guide us unto all truth... We all know slavery was and is wrong, culture context aside, I am not sure why Hodge did not see it that way as well...

    Thanks for the talk, it has been really fun... Not sure if my two cents helped, but we all get to have two cents... free will and all :)


  6. Hi Andrew:

    Thank you for your remarks.

    I realize there are many complex issues and tangents related to Clint's post.

    I am a Libertarian/Conservative and I understand the "States Rights" issue well. But I wanted to limit my original topical question to:

    "Is is accurate for a Christian theologian to draw the comparison between Pauline slavery and 16th-17th century American slavery?"

    My answer is no.

    And I think (...and I could be wrong here..) that the exodus of Mainline Protestant denominations to the Theological Liberalism side over this very same issue should add extra, extra caution before drawing any comparison between the two slavery concepts.

    Regarding tone of the comments section....... yes, I think "iron sharpens iron" and I get tired of going to church and hearing "pat answers", instead of somebody really telling me what they think and....WHY they think like that.

    I also believe the "John Macarthur sub-culture" in many churches often enforces a "Group-Think Mentality" that resists any and all introspection or raising difficult questions.....out of fear, that the answers may be different from what the sub-culture secretly wants. Sadly, it is as if "Godliness is not becoming like Christ, but rather, Godliness is becoming like the sub-culture." This is not a slam against Macarthur, just a comment about the sub-culture that exists in every church.

    Those are just my .02.

    And I appreciate the time and dialogue with each of you.

    In Christ, Anonymous


  7. Hey Anonymous,

    If you are still out there, you should read my current blog post. I think you will like it.

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