February 24, 1861 was a Sunday. No doubt, many Americans, South and North, attended religious services that day. One such group of the faithful gathered that February 24 at the Congregational Church in Norfolk, Connecticut, to hear the sermon of the Reverend Joseph Eldridge. Eldridge’s talk that day was titled “Does the Bible Sanction Slavery?” It so impressed his parishioners that they petitioned him to publish it which he did. Civil War Emancipation already has covered two pro-slavery sermons, one from Louisiana and the other from Georgia. So, both for some sectional balance and because the sermon was delivered 150 years ago today, let’s consider the Rev. Eldridge’s discourse.
It cannot be taken for granted that a Northern sermon in early 1861 would be necessarily abolitionist, as much as Southern sermon could be taken for granted as pro-slavery. Abolitionists were a distinct minority in the antebellum North and were even viewed by many white Northerners with suspicion. Although the Republican party had abolitionist sympathizers, the party’s firm position in the 1860 campaign had been to stop slavery’s spread, not to abolish the institution.
Nonetheless, Joseph Eldridge’s sermon that day was strongly anti-slavery in its perspective. Like a good Christian clergyman, Eldridge based his Sunday message in scripture. He divided his religious attack on slavery into two parts. The first part considered the Biblical evidence of the Old Testament. The second part took on the New Testament.
In addressing the Old Testament, the Rev. Eldridge attacked slaveholders for their inconsistency. That is, they relied on the fact that Old Testament patriarchs were slaveholders to justify holding slaves in 1861. Yet white Southerners rejected such practices common among the ancient Hebrews, such as polygamy and summary divorce. Eldridge stated:
“What say the advocates of slavery? Do they accept the whole code [of the Biblical patriarchs]? They must do that, if they insist on adopting any part. They select the slavery part. Brigham Young [the Mormon leader], with equal justice, maintains the same authority, the propriety of his harem. In what respect, so far as the argument is concerned, have they any advantage over him? In none whatever. Those who go to the Old Testament for slavery, you see, get more than they want; but they are not at liberty to take one part, and refuse the rest. If they insist on obtaining a sanction for Slavery from the Hebrew Civil Code, they cannot decline a sanction of polygamy and arbitrary divorce” (12).
Joseph Eldridge then tackled the New Testament, which he admitted was harder for abolitionists to assail in terms of justifying slavery. After all, the Apostle Paul had directed a fugitive slave to return to his master. However, although Eldridge acknowledged the letter of the New Testament seemed to support slavery, he contended its spirit did not. “The Bible teaches me to call no man master,” he stated, “that my fellow creatures are in the sight of God just as important as I am, that He is no respecter of persons, that my fellow man is under no more obligations than me than I am to him in the nature of things” (25).
Eldridge finished the sermon strongly and had he been addressing a slave congregation, it is certain they would have echoed his prophetic sentiment of faith with a hearty, “Amen.” He stated:
“If what I have said in regard to the Bible be true, then slavery is doomed to expire. Not merely is the intelligence and the conscience of the civilized world against it, but Christ the Redeemer is also against it. It may bolstered up for a time, but its ultimate doom is sealed. No human foresight can determine the when and the how of its demise; but that it will die, I regard as merely a question of time. And who is not prepared to say with me, O Lord, hasten the day!” (27)
Source: Joseph Eldridge, Does the Bible Sanction Slavery?: A Discourse Delivered at Norfolk, Conn., February 24, 1861 (Litchfield [Conn.]: Enquirer Office Print, 1861). A visual version of this discourse can be found on the web at: http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=mayantislavery;idno=26891206