Charles Hodge and his attitude to Slavery

This is a letter I sent to Brian V. Hill (Emeritus Professor of Education, Murdoch University) way back in 2004. I was responding to an article he had written in a publication that was critical of Reformed theologian Charles Hodge, and was part of a debate about Homosexual ministers in the Uniting Church. The pdf file I refer to in the letter can be downloaded here (195.5kb). He subsequently modified the article in response to my letter. (Click on read more)


Over the years I have often heard the assertion that Charles Hodge, the 19th century Reformed Theologian, supported slavery. A year ago I emailed Kevin Giles about this assertion just to put some facts straight. He didn't reply, but I am hoping that you will take this information on board.

The reason why I am writing is because of your paper “Interpreting the Bible for Today – who's got it right?” which on page 7 of the pdf file states: “...slavery was almost universally treated as part of the created order until the 19th century. Several noted Biblical scholars – including American evangelicals such as Charles Hodge – considered that it had strong Biblical justification.”

Before I move into a defence of Hodge, I would just like to state that I am an Evangelical Presbyterian and that I have followed the Resolution 84 debate. I have occasionally led services at my church and we have often prayed for Evangelicals within the Uniting Church since R84 came out. We even have a retired couple who moved to our church because of their concerns with the direction of the UC. One of our church members has a Father who is a UC minister who is a member of EMU and the RA, and I have spoken to him in the last few weeks about his ministry in the UC (he has visited our church). All that I am trying to say at this point is that I come from the point of view of a friend.

I have often heard the following information about Charles Hodge – some of it from reading Kevin Giles and some of it from others:

1.Hodge was a conservative Calvinist who supported slavery.
2.He supported slavery because he was a Southerner.
3.Princeton was located in the South and was ideal as an intellectual basis to support slavery.
4.Calvinism is a very conservative expression of Christianity, so it follows that conservative theology would be matched by conservative beliefs, especially those that support slavery.
5.Hodge vigourously defended slavery and found support in the Bible.
6.Hodge and others supported slavery because they saw it as part of the divine order of creation.

In the limited amount of research that I have done on Charles Hodge I have found the following information pertinent:

1) Hodge was born in Pennsylvania. This is not a Southern state of the USA.

2) Hodge trained and taught at Princeton Theological Seminary. This is located in New Jersey and is not considered a Southern state.

3) During the Civil war, New Jersey was not on the Confederate side.

4) Hodge was a supporter of slavery in the early 19th century – but he complained that they were often mistreated (He probably did not see or understand the problem back then. Being in the North, he didn't see many slaves or how they were treated). He based this belief upon those various verses from Paul which appeared not to condemn slavery.

5) As Hodge became more powerful and notable in the 1830s and 1840s, he often experienced the slavery debate in his own denomination with great pain. The Presbyterians in the North were opposed to slavery while the Presbyterians in the South supported slavery. Hodge saw the issue was tearing the church apart, and, partly because of his earlier views on slavery, he decided to come out in favour of slavery. He was a Northerner that supported the Southern cause, which was a political move to keep the church unified.

6) By 1846, however, Hodge was convinced that Slavery was morally wrong. In The Princeton Review (April 1846), he states

“Slavery is a heinous crime; it degrades human beings into things; it forbids marriages; it destroys domestic relations; it separates parents and children, husbands and wives; it legalizes what God forbids, and forbids what God enjoins; it keeps its victims in ignorance even of the gospel; it denies labor its wages, subject the persons, the virtue, and the happiness of many to the caprice of one; it involves the violation of all social rights and duties, and therefore is the greatest of social crimes. It is as much as any man's character for sense, honesty or religion is worth, to insist that a distinction must here be made; that we must discriminate between slavery and its separable adjuncts; between the relationship itself and the abuse of it; between the possession of power and the unjust exercise of it. Let any man in some portions of our country, in England, in Scotland, or Ireland, attempt to make such distinctions, and see with what an outburst of indignation he will be overwhelmed. It is just so in the present case.”

7) As a result of this opposition, he lost his Southern support. His attempts at unifying the church led to a watering down of his case. In the end he pleased no one.

8) In 1872, Hodge released his “Systematic Theology”. In Volume 2, page 90-91, Hodge states the following about the human race:

“Whenever we meet a man, no matter of what name or nation, we not only find that he has the same nature with ourselves; that he has the same organs, the same senses, the same instincts, the same feelings, the same faculties, the same understanding, will, and conscience, and the same capacity for religious culture, but that he has the same guilty and polluted nature, and needs the same redemption. Christ died for all men, and we are commanded to preach the gospel to every creature under heaven. Accordingly, nowhere on the face of the earth are men to be found who do not need the gospel or who are not capable of becoming partakers of the blessings which it offers”

During the 19th century there were some erroneous theological works that attempted to justify slavery. Some of the arguments focused upon African slaves as not being human and therefore could not be considered as being made in the image of God. Hodge, as his quote above shows, did not hold this belief.


Charles Hodge erred in both intially supporting slavery and then not opposing it strongly enough as the debate hotted up. From this we can assume that Hodge found the situation difficult because it was not as “clear-cut” to him as it is to us today. He did, however, definitely change his mind, long before civil war broke out in 1861, and opposed slavery as being morally wrong.

We can therefore assume that Hodge was not a strong supporter of slavery. We can also assume that he made some bad mistakes when he did support it, but he was never a strong defender or it, nor was he an apologist for slavery. The facts are, however, that he publically changed his mind and opposed slavery. The fact that he had to subsequently water these down for the sake of denominational unity is not commendable, but it is certainly not damnable.




The Abolition of Slavery, Women's Liberation, Homosexual Rights and Evangelical Hermenutics, Kevin Giles, 1995 (pdf file 35.8kb) - this paper is influential in the view that Hodge was vehemently pro-slavery.

From the Theosalient Department

© 2006 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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Unknown said...

You sound like a Calvinist.

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Kernelp said...

Actually, Charles Hodge did not present this as HIS position on slavery any more than he was arguing that "the use of intoxicating liquors as a beverage is sinful." He was rehearsing the argument that the "ultra temperance man and the abolitionist possess." He wrote, "The abolitionist is still more summary." followed by the statement you cited out of context.
In his biography A.A. Hodge noted "Hence he was equally out of sympathy with the pro-slavery men who regarded
the institution divine and to be perpetuated as good in itself, and with the "Abolitionists," who held the holding of slaves to be a sin in itself, to be in every case visited with Christian condemnation and ecclesiastical discipline. He was, on the other hand, in hearty sympathy with the many Southern Christians who strove to follow the will
of Christ under the providential conditions He had imposed upon them, and with the Colonization Society, and with the noble efforts of Dr. R. J. Breckinridge and his coadjutors in the work of emancipation in Kentucky.” See p 334-335 "Life of Charles Hodge"
You should be more careful with your cites!