In Their Own Words: John Henry Hopkins, The American Citizen (Part 1)

Resolved: That slavery is a sin against God and a crime against man, which no law or usage can make right, and that Christianity, humanity and patriotism alike demand its abolition.

Anti-slavery resolution proposed
at the 1852 national convention of the Free Soil Party

John Henry Hopkins (1792-1868), the Episcopal bishop of Vermont during the period of the University of the South’s founding, always maintained that the end of slavery was his “fervent desire and prayer.” However, this distinction and self-fashioning as an opponent of slavery were overshadowed by the heart of his writings on the subject of bondage. The real force of his words were directed at refuting those who contended that slavery was, to quote the antislavery Free Soil Party, “a sin against God and a crime against man.” But some of his most impassioned arguments outlined the benefits of slavery in the South to the enslaved.

Hopkins publicly broached the subject of slavery first in 1851 in a series of lectures that were published as a small pamphlet. He returned to the subject in 1857 with his book on The American Citizen, which is excerpted here. The section on slavery was only a fraction of the large book. The rest he devoted to such topics as choosing a wife, dancing, and physical education. But Hopkins brought all of his training as a biblical scholar and as a former practicing lawyer to denounce the anti-slavery movements of his day and to defend the legality and positive good of slavery as practiced by southerners such as his dear friends, Leonidas Polk and Stephen Elliott, the bishops of Louisiana and Georgia and the leading organizers of the University of the South. As one reviewer for a Charleston, S.C., newspaper read his work, his “unusual views” on slavery seemed to have been written “from the stand-point of a Southern planter rather than from that of a New England clergyman.”

Review of The American Citizen from the Charleston Mercury, 1857.

Our first excerpt from Hopkins’s The American Citizen concerns his argument that slavery is not a sin according to the Bible. We will follow in coming days with additional excerpts that show his arguments for the benefits of slavery.

The book in its entirety is available here on Google Books.

John Henry Hopkins,The American Citizen: His Rights and Duties, According to the Spirit of the Constitution of the United States (1857), 121-65.

Having proved sufficiently, as I trust, that morals must be founded on religion, and that politics, in the only true sense, must be based upon morals, I should willingly leave without remark the vexed subjects of our day and country, if I were not convinced that it is a duty to contribute my share, however humble, towards the establishment of true practical principle. As a Christian teacher, I am not at liberty to pass over those errors which strike directly at the authority of the Word of God. And as a citizen, and therefore a “partner in the republic,” I may not turn aside from the application of truth to that perilous topic of discussion, which threatens the Constitution itself and, if not set at rest, may ultimately sink our national greatness into ruin … And I declare my convictions, therefore, with no other motive or desire than to discharge honestly my own moral obligation; and to aid the judgment of impartial and reflecting men, in determining the real merits of a deeply exciting and important question.

That slavery, considered in itself, is an evil, I consider to be perfectly clear and incontrovertible. But this goes a very little way towards the settlement of the point under discussion. In the present condition of mankind, we are compelled to submit to innumerable evils, in order to avoid some greater evil; and a choice between evils is frequently the only course left to human wisdom and sagacity. In this aspect of our earthly lot, we account evil to be a good, if it relieve us from a heavier calamity. Thus war is an acknowledged evil – a positive curse. Yet war becomes a good, notwithstanding, if it protect the land from tyranny or violence. The loss of a limb is an evil. Yet if its amputation be necessary to save our life, it is good to suffer the loss, without which life would be sacrificed … A thousand cases might thus be put, in which evil must be preferred, and even maintained, if the consequences of our escape be the exposure to a still more deplorable catastrophe.

But these, it may be alleged, are physical evils, whereas slavery is a moral evil – a crime against humanity – a sin against God. Let us try the validity of this proposition by an appeal to “the higher law,” by which alone we can test the rules of religious and moral obligation.

And here, of course, we are referred to the Bible, because we have no other declaration of His will from the Supreme Lawgiver. I am not aware that there is any “higher law” than this, since I do not hear that there are any modern prophets amongst our ultra-abolitionists, claiming a special authority from heaven, and armed, like the apostles, with the power of miracles to prove their commission. To the Bible, therefore, let us go, and learn what Moses, and Christ Himself and His inspired messengers, said and did, in reference to slavery …

And here it may be well to observe, that the term slave is met with only twice in our standard version of the Bible. The word servant is applied throughout. Yet the meaning is perfectly plain. For the bond-servant was always a slave, while the hired servant was a free man …

Where, then, was the sin of holding them in slavery? When the Almighty commanded His people to buy and own the posterity of the heathen, was it a sin to obey Him? And how could that which He commanded be a crime against morality? Where is the “law” which is “higher” than the code laid down by the Deity? Where is the rule of morals which shall claim supremacy over the Word of God?

But the absurd, though very popular notion, which regards the relation of master and slave as essentially immoral, requires a little more examination to manifest the error. What is this relation? Simply a perpetual obligation which binds the slave to serve the master for life, and binds the master to govern the slave with justice and with reason; to provide for him in sickness as in health; to instruct him in what is necessary to his moral and spiritual welfare, according to his condition and capacity; to maintain his family in comfort, and to bury him decently when life is ended. Where is the immorality in this? …

Thus stood the question of slavery, according to the “higher law,” throughout the whole fifteen centuries of the Mosaic dispensation. At the coming of Christ, the institution was universal. In Judea, and everywhere throughout the old Roman empire,* we find no records of any nation or people without slaves. How did our Lord treat the question? Did He utter one syllable on the subject? Did He make it the topic of a single remark? We know how His sacred rebukes fell thick and fast on every form of iniquity. We know how He inveighed against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the infidelity of the Sadducees, the hardship of Jewish divorce, the venality and corruption which surrounded Him. But the case of the slaveholder was never mentioned, nor could any reader of the Gospels find authority for the notion that He regarded slavery as a sin against God, and a crime against humanity …

And therefore no intelligent and candid mind can be surprised to find that the most violent opponents of slavery in the United States are always ready to wrest the Bible and denounce the Church, because they cannot derive from either the slightest real support in their assaults against the lawfulness of the institution.

Read the introduction to Bishop John Henry Hopkins here.

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