Defending the Faith; Denying the Image
19th Century American Confessional Calvinism in Faithfulness and Failure

Summary: How 19th century Presbyterians simultaneously faithfully defended historic Christian orthodoxy against Enlightenment rationalistic anti-supernaturalism, and accommodated (indeed undergirded) America’s original sin: race-based chattel slavery (and later segregation).

  1. The Faithfulness of the Old School

19th century American Presbyterians in the Old School in both North and South recognized the threat of deistic, rationalist, materialist, anti-supernaturalist, Enlightenment thought. When Princeton Seminary was founded, for instance, in 1812, students were expected to be familiar with the “Deistical controversy” and its principal sources and arguments, and well-armed to rebut them with Scripture and Confession.

In particular, Charles Hodge (and other Old School theologians) realized that the kind of theology flowing from Germany, and particularly the stream from Schleiermacher, was going to have deadly effects on the church. Schleiermacher re-understood doctrine subjectively and experientially and balked at doctrines like plenary verbal inspiration, penal substitutionary atonement and the like. They proved prescient. Theological Liberalism has killed the church wherever and whenever it has prevailed.

The Princetonians (and Southern Presbyterians) in this context became the great champions of the historic Christian view of Scripture and doctrine. They articulated the biblical doctrine of the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, upheld the Reformers’ conception of biblical authority, and championed Reformed confessional orthodoxy over against the New Divinity, Liberalism and Deism.

  1. The Failure of the Old School

From the earliest days of Presbyterians in the colonies (17th century), slave-holding was an accepted practice. Edwards, Whitefield and Makemie, to name three famous preachers of the Reformed tradition, were all slaveholders. As the 18th century came to a close, the Presbyterian church harbored members who were both pro- and anti-slavery. But as the 19th century began, more forceful abolitionist sentiment increased. In the late 1700s slavery was often viewed within the church as a necessary evil, but in reaction to abolitionist arguments, in the early 1800s pro-slavery advocates hardened their views and began to argue that slavery was a positive good.

American slavery was uniquely bad in the annals of the history of slavery (not simply in its experience and practice, but in its foundations). It was race-based, chattel slavery. The pillars of American slavery were: white supremacy and economic self-interest. Not only were hundreds of thousands Africans kidnapped and brought to the New World via the infamous “Middle Passage,” not only did millions of Africans have their family, country, history and heritage stolen, and experience a multi-generational, living genocide, but an ideology of their inferiority was developed. So strong was this sense of white superiority that even advocates for abolition embraced this racist view of black Africans.

As slavery was challenged by abolitionists in the church, many Old School theologians viewed their arguments as unbiblical, coming from theological liberalism and secular Jacobinism. In response, Old School theologians (especially in the South) mounted a vigorous “biblical” defense of slavery.

Eventually, there were denominational splits over (among other things) slavery. The Presbyterians split in 1837, and conflict between abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates was a significant part of the division. Baptists split in 1845. In each case the pro-slavery denominations declared slavery to be a social/political matter and not a part of “the spirituality of the church” and therefore, anti-slavery agitation was viewed as divisive, disruptive to the unity of the church, and a violation of the “spiritual mission of the church.” Effectively, this put a gag order on pastors challenging the evil system of race-based chattel slavery.

The Old School Presbyterian theologians, especially in the South, made at least three grave theological errors.

1. They denied the imago Dei (the image of God in man), or at least its implications, in black people. Their embrace of white supremacy, the root of racism, was an anthropological heresy, and a departure from the Bible and the Reformed tradition, despite their “biblical” arguments.

2. They denied the 2nd Great Commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself” in putting economic self-interest above neighbor love in relation to black slaves in particular.

3. They denied the Communion of the Saints, in relation to converted slaves (as well as free blacks). The Pauline instructions to Philemon were muted and ignored. Believing slaves were not treated as brothers. Indeed, Frederick Douglas served under three different masters with some connection to evangelical religion, whom he considered to have become worse masters after their “conversions.”

No wonder Frederick Douglas said this:

I . . . hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land. . . . I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. . . .

I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me.

We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members.

The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. . . .

The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master.

Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity.

Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.”

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845.

One thing we should note is that proslavery ideology was not confined to the South, or to the margins of American society. The ideals of white supremacy and justified economic exploitation of blacks in the self-interest of whites was endemic in the whole country and culture. Larry Tise explains:

“From the outset I should make clear that my conception of proslavery ideology differs markedly from that of most historians. Far from being a body of prejudice entertained and expressed by a section of the nation, a group of one-dimensional racists, or even by a slaveholding class, I believe that proslavery ideology was a mode of thinking, a concatenation of ideas, and a system of symbols that expressed the social, cultural, and moral values of a large portion of the population of America in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Larry E Tise, Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701 – 1840 xv Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1987

What is worse is that the most respected Southern Presbyterian theologians of the day, Robert Lewis Dabney, James Henley Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer became the great defenders and articulators of the “biblical” and theological arguments for racist, chattel slavery, while at the same time inventing a view of “the spirituality of the church” which inoculated the church against the doctrines of the imago Dei, the neighbor love command and the communion of the saints as they relate to the question of race-based chattel slavery.

In Old School Presbyterianism, especially in the South, theological orthodoxy was deliberately wedded to the culture’s socio-economic structure, indeed, theological orthodoxy became its main proponent and defender, so that, as the twentieth century dawned and theologians looked for ways to break the link between the Presbyterian Church and segregation and Jim Crow, they felt they had to look to liberalism and then later neo-orthodoxy to find a theological ally against the old system that stubbornly resisted every effort to dismantle it.

To restate and elaborate this

This resulted in a tragedy that has engulfed numerous denominations. Resistance to an evil socio-ethical system was mounted from a faulty theological platform, because few voices were being raised against it from the conservative confessional Reformed position.

Mainstream especially Southern Reformed/Presbyterianism allied what was true with what was false in order to support what was wrong rather than right. We should expect to pay the penalty for this for generations to come.

Is Reformed Theology the source of the problem?

NoThree arguments that show Reformed Theology is not the SOURCE of white supremacy and pro-slavery, pro-segregationist ideology. It was infidelity to confessional Reformed theology by white confessional Reformed theologians that produced this errant (and indeed, heretical) ideology.

 1. The Southern and Old School Presbyterian views are themselves idiosyncratic. Significant voices are raised against the mainstream view by Presbyterians like Alexander Macleod and the American Covenanters. British and Scottish Baptists and Presbyterians strenuously objected to Southern Presbyterian arguments and practice in relation to slavery. C.H. Spurgeon was an ardent anti-slavery, abolitionist who would not commune slave-holders. No 19th century Scottish Presbyterians justified slavery.

2. African American Reformed Theologians, like Frances Grimke, bravely and articulately, advocated for the classical Reformed, confessional and historic Christian doctrines of the imago Dei, neighbor love and the communion of the saints, that destroy white supremacy and pro-slavery and por-segregation ideology.

3. So, rather than fidelity to Reformed confessional theology, it was economic self-interest and white supremacy that created a recipe for heresy in Old School American Presbyterianism. This is the “ur source” of pro-slavery ideology.

Sadly, the heresy of white supremacy hardened after the American Civil War during reconstruction. The condescension and loathing of Robert Lewis Dabney’s speech before the Synod of Virginia in 1867 will give you a sense of what would circulate in the churches in the South for the next hundred years.

Dabney opposed the ordination of African Americans as pastors in white churches in the Presbyterian church on five grounds. 1. It was untimely, because free blacks were a threat to whites under Reconstruction. 2. Because the overture was incorrect and ambiguous. 3. Because it is impractical. 4. Because blacks are not trustworthy for such a position. 5. Because it will disturb the unity of the church.

Dabney says:

An insuperable difference of race, made by God and not by man, and of character and social condition, makes it plainly impossible for a black man to teach and rule white Christians to edification” 201.

“I oppose the entrusting of the destinies of our church in any degree whatever to black rulers, because that race is not trustworthy for such position.” 203.

“[W]ho that knows the negro does not know that his is a subservient race; that he is made to follow, and not to lead; that his temperament, idiosyncrasy and social relation make him untrustworthy as a depository of power” 203-204.

Robert Lewis Dabney, Discussions, Vol. 2 “Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes” 199-217. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967 (1891). Speech before the Synod of Virginia, November 9, 1867.

Thankfully, there were responsible Old School Presbyterian voices that saw the heresy and folly of this. The great B.B. Warfield of Princeton, himself a Virginian, said:

Christian men, under the pressure of their race antipathy, desert the fundamental law of the church of the living God, that in Christ Jesus there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcision and on circumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondman, freeman.” B.B. Warfield, Drawing the Color Line,” The Independent, July 5, 1888. Selected Shorter Writings, Volume 2. P&R

Nevertheless, the underlying racism, failure of neighbor love, economic self-interest, and indifference toward the plight of freed blacks, dominated the racial landscape of the country and the church, and we are dealing with that sinful wreckage to this very day.

Hard Lessons to Be Learned

  1. Slavery ideology was so regnant as a cultural sin in colonial and early ante-bellum America, that only those at the cultural margins opposed it initially (e.g., Quakers and Covenanters). The white supremacy that lay at slavery’s foundation was such a dominant cultural assumption, that even most abolitionists shared it.
  2. Arguments (1) against disrupting the unity of the church and (2) against preaching about “political” “social” matters, by addressing this complex of moral issues relating to the experience of African Americans, have been made similarly in four periods: the eras of slavery, segregation, civil rights, and today (especially by white evangelicals). The doctrine of “the spirituality of the church” (an aspect of the doctrine of the church, which, when rightly articulated has a claim to a historic and confessional pedigree, and healthful present applications) was, grievously, articulated in a way that actually contradicted Reformed Confessionalism in order to silence anti-slavery voices in the church (see Sean Lucas) and excuse the denial of the imago Dei and the duty of neighbor love.
  3. Mainstream conservative Calvinism neither caused American chattel slavery, nor cured it, but it capitulated to it, was complicit in it, and cooperated with it. Nineteenth century confessional Calvinism, especially in the South, codified, confirmed, corroborated and was coopted by American pro-slavery ideology, and then perpetuated that ideology in segregation after slavery was gone. While all along, the theological cure for slavery (and its underlying racism) sat quietly ignored in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms: the imago Dei, neighbor love (along with, esp., the WLC expositions of the 6th and 10th commandments), the communion of the saints, and especially justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (see Galatians 2, as deployed by John Newton and William Wilberforce in their arguments against the slave trade and slavery)!
  4. Confessional Reformed theology possessed all the theological resources necessary to destroy the foundations of this evil in the culture (especially in the 19th century, because of dominant Protestant cultural influence), but instead became one of the main intellectual, theological buttresses of the cultural status quo. In part, this was because of fears that the foundations of abolition were to be found in Jacobinism and political radicalism, a charge that would also be leveled against anti-segregationists (and even against those today concerned about racism).

A Biblical and Reformed Confessional Argument against Racism

Because racism is a loaded term, and some suspect an unbiblical agenda when it is invoked, let us say precisely what we mean by racism, biblically and theologically defined. Racism is the denial of the image of God (Genesis 1:26, 27) and its implications to someone of another ethnicity. Racism in the church is a contradiction of the visible unity of all believers in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22, Revelation 5:9, 7:9). Racism inside and outside the church is a contradiction of Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31, Luke 10:25-37, esp. 29, 37), and of God’s creation of all people in his image (Genesis 1:27, Acts 17:26). So theologically, racism entails a denial of the biblical doctrines of creation, man, the communion of saints and is disobedience to the moral law. We will not mince words. Racism is not only sin, serious sin, it is heresy.

Our final rule of faith and practice, the Holy, Inspired, Inerrant Word of God, The Bible and our subordinate doctrinal standard, The Westminster Confession of Faith, ground our treatment of all people with dignity, justice and kindness in the doctrine of our creation in the image of God. God created our first parents in his own image (Genesis 1:26, 27, WCF 4.2), and therefore all human beings are of the same race. Scripture says: “The God who made the world and everything in it, . . . gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth” (Act 17:24-26). Because of this, Christians are to treat every human being with equal dignity as made in the image of God. So both the biblical doctrine of creation and the biblical doctrine of man inform the Christian’s treatment of everyone, including people of other and minority ethnicities.

The Bible and our Westminster Confession of Faith also ground our treatment of all people with dignity, justice, impartiality and kindness in the moral law and Jesus’ command to love our neighbors. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament explicitly command love for our neighbor. Moses is very specific about what love of neighbor entails: “You shall not oppress your neighbor . . . . You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. . . . You shall not hate your brother in your heart, . . . lest you incur sin because of him. . . . but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Lev 19:13-18). Neighbor love, then, according to God’s moral law, exemplified in the fifth through tenth commandments, calls for impartial kindness and justice to be shown to all, an equal concern for the well-being of others. Moses grounds this behavior in God’s character (Leviticus 19:3, 4, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18) and our responsibility as believers to imitate him “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). And this neighbor love was not reserved for Israelites only. Moses explicitly extends it to foreigners: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

Jesus reiterates this command in the New Testament (e.g., Mark 12:31, Luke 10:25-37). After summarizing the ethical requirements of the moral law of God for the believer’s life by saying: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27), Jesus is met with the self-justifying question: “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). In other words, the lawyer who queried Jesus was seeking a delimitation of the demands of neighbor love. Jesus answers with the story of the Good Samaritan, and makes it clear that the better question is “Am I a good neighbor?” Jesus’ application of the story shows that those who obey God’s command to love neighbor don’t attempt to delimit the obligation of neighbor love, but rather show mercy indiscriminately and even at significant personal cost (Luke 10:36-37). On this basis, Christians are enjoined by the moral law and by Jesus’ direct exhortation to show love, care, concern for the well-being of, justice, mercy and kindness to all people, with impartiality.

The Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) exposition of the moral law, from Question 91 to 152, has much to teach us about this current discussion, and especially Questions 122-152. We daresay that if the commands and prohibitions of this section of the Westminster Larger Catechism had been but applied to our relationships with other and minority ethnicities, it would have meant a death knell for racism among us. WLC 131 tells us of our duty “to regard the dignity and worth of each other.” WLC 130 warns against an “inordinate seeking of” ourselves and our “own glory, ease, profit, or pleasure.” WLC 132 condemns as sin “the undervaluing of the worth, . . . and usurping pre-eminence one over another.” Racism is rooted precisely in the failure to obey in these areas. WLC 135 and 136 especially speak to our treatment of one another.

  1. What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?
    A. The duties required in the sixth commandment are all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defence thereof against violence, . . . by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behaviour; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succouring the distressed and protecting and defending the innocent.
  2. What are the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment?
    A. The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves, or of others, except in case of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defence; the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life; sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge; all excessive passions, distracting cares; immoderate use of meat, drink, labor, and recreations; provoking words, oppression, quarreling, striking, wounding, and whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any.

If Bible-believing Presbyterians had carefully studied and lawfully endeavored “to preserve the life of ourselves and others,” including mistreated ethnic minorities, “by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any” and defending others against unjust violence as WLC 135 enjoins, the history of Presbyterianism in U.S. culture from Reconstruction, through Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era would read differently. If we today will relate to other and minority ethnicities with “charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behaviour; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succouring the distressed and protecting and defending the innocent” our testimony will adorn God’s sanctifying work in us and display true love of neighbor. And WLC 136 furthermore forbids the “hatred,” “oppression” and “whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any.”

The Bible and our Westminster Confession of Faith ground our treatment of fellow Christians as brothers and sisters, joint heirs, as blood-bought family in the doctrine of the communion of the saints. Jesus commissioned his church to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The language of “all nations” (πάντα τὰ ἔθνη [panta ta ethnē]) highlights the connection of Jesus’ great commission to the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4) and the Gentile mission of the church. The command to make disciples from “all nations” indicates that Jesus intended us to go to all the peoples of earth with the Gospel, and that he intended his church to include disciples from all peoples. “Don’t just go to the Jewish people, but to all the Gentile peoples,” Jesus is saying. He reiterates this in Acts 1:8 when he tells his disciples that they will be his witnesses “to the end of the earth.”

The New Testament repeatedly celebrates the fact that Jesus’ redemptive work has brought believing Jews and Gentiles, once separated by the ceremonial law, into one body, the church. No passage states this more clearly than Ephesians 2:11-22

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands– remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Paul indicates here that Christians of all ethnicities have been made heirs of the covenant promises, have been brought into one body with all other believers, are members of the family of God and part of the one holy temple that the Lord is building. All of this is the result of the work of Christ. To deny the multi-ethnicity of the church is to deny an accomplishment of the atoning work of Jesus Christ. It is a contradiction of what the Gospel does in reconciling all believers “to God in one body through the cross” (Ephesians 2:16). A policy of segregation in the church, or indifference to it, is thus inimical to the Gospel and to the purposes of the saving work of Christ, since all who are united to Christ are united to all who are united to Christ, no matter their ethnicity. The work of Christ creates the communion of the saints, and the church visible is to bear witness to the reality of that communion.

WCF 26.1-2 speaks directly to this

  1. All saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their Head, by His Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with Him in His grace, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man.
  2. Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offers opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus.

Racism in the church denies the reality of this communion of the saints, disrupts the unity of Christ’s body, resists one of the purposes of his redemptive work, tarnishes the witness of the church, harms members of the body for whom we are called on in WCF 26.1 to perform “such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man,” and refuses to extend communion “unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus.” Can you imagine the members of the Assembly of Divines hearing that people who had subscribed these words (from WCF 26.1-2) as a statement of their faith and theological commitments had argued for segregating the church on the basis of race, had refused Christians from different ethnic minorities admission to worship services, and were indifferent to the well-being (in church and society) of fellow Christians who are ethnic minorities? They would have been horrified.

In sum, Racism fails to affirm, explicitly or implicitly, in belief and/or practice (1) that all people, of every ethnicity, are fully human and made in the image of God, (2) that no ethnicity is inherently superior to another, and (3) that the Bible provides no grounds for the forced or institutional segregation of ethnicities. Racism is, of course, the sin of persons, but it can become endemic to cultures and societies. When it becomes so, very often those who are dominant in those cultures and societies are blind to its presence, pervasiveness and consequences.

Racism may manifest itself in belief, prejudice and practice. Racist belief asserts the superiority of one ethnicity over another or others, and hence attempts to segregate the “superior” from the “inferior” ethnicity/ies. Racist prejudice makes sweeping negative assessments of ethnicities from the standpoint of condescension and based on stereotypical, preconceived and uncharitable opinion. Racist practice treats people inequitably and unjustly because of ethnicity. Racism is condemned by our sole final authority in faith and practice, the Holy Scriptures, and by our subordinate standards, the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms.

Anti-racism is not the Gospel, but the Gospel is anti-racism, and racism is anti-Gospel, hence heresy of the deepest dye.


Note: the following article is republished here by permission of the author. It originally appeared at on April 27, 2018.