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Abstract

This paper focuses on how representations of the religious lives of slaves, specifically their abilities to comprehend the Bible and flourish spiritually, became an issue that not only propelled the North and South toward the Civil War, but also perpetuated the conflict. Using original documents from the collections housed at Chicago’s Newberry Library, predominantly sermons written by proslavery ministers as well as documents published by missionary organizations, this paper explores the fierce defense of the institution of slavery mounted by proslavery Christians. Specifically, this paper’s interest is in how the representation of slaves by proslavery evangelical Christians as incapable of achieving spiritual flourishing without the aid of white Christians was the lynch pin that held their defense of slavery together. This defense took the form of a slaveholding ethic which claimed that slaveholders were accountable for the spiritual salvation of their slaves. Upon close examination of the writings of proslavery Christians, it becomes apparent that the slaveholding ethic was only able to stand because it denied some of the fundamental beliefs of evangelical Christianity, such as the free accessibility of Christ’s salvation. Though proslavery Christians fought fiercely to defend the institution of slavery, their defense was always built on a foundation of contradictions.