Charles Hodge: A Conservative Theologian Finds His Way to Emancipation
--by Richard Reifsnyder
Powerful reaction to the Alt-right demonstrations in Charlottesville in 2017 and the controversies surrounding monuments honoring southern military figures remind us that the issues of the Civil War are with us yet. I recently taught a course on the Civil War in my community’s adult lifelong learning center, and the students discovered that the moral wrestling of that time was surprisingly relevant for our own. Issues of race and the enduring meaning of the nation’s most divisive war continue to shape contemporary life, and the Church continues to struggle with what it means to live faithfully in turbulent times.
Although the Civil War can be viewed through varied political, social, economic, and military lenses, it was, in profound ways, a “theological crisis,” according to historian Mark Noll. That culture viewed events in biblical and religious categories, and part of the challenge of dealing with the moral dilemma of slavery and the devastation of the war involved trying to understand how God was at work.
Charles Hodge, during his more than fifty-year career teaching biblical studies and then theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, gave serious theological guidance on the issues that divided the nation before and during the Civil War. Not only did he teach nearly 3,000 students, but he also edited what was probably the most significant and erudite theological journal of the antebellum and war years, the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review (hereafter BRPR). In an era when church publications were widely read, Hodge wrote more than one hundred forty articles covering the latest issues in theology, church life, and national politics. Moreover, he was an ecclesiastical leader deeply engaged in nearly all the major controversies of the Presbyterian Church. Because religious history tends to focus on theological innovators, it is easy to overlook the vigor and influence of an orthodox figure like Hodge. (He was proud to claim that during his tenure “a new idea never originated in this Seminary.”) Only recently has Hodge begun to receive the critical attention his influence warrants.
Throughout his life, maintaining consistency was extremely important to Hodge. He often declared that he tried to say “nothing that wasn’t in the Bible.” He saw himself as captive to no party, and his nuanced ideas on slavery and the Civil War were controversial in his own time. When J. C. Backus, who was Moderator of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in 1861, suggested Hodge had changed his views on slavery after the election of Lincoln, Hodge pushed back hard: “I cannot conceive where you have gotten that impression. I have not changed an inch.” After the war, he declared numerous times that his position had never changed. While it is true that he did not change certain core convictions, it seems clear that his emphases were deeply shaped and transformed by the changing circumstances he experienced from the mid-1830s through the end of the war. Seemingly an apologist for slavery early in his career, he came to be an ardent supporter of Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause, and in the end was convinced that God in his providence had used the war to bring about the end of slavery.
Hodge’s initial foray into the moral minefield came in an article “Slavery” published in 1836 in BRPR. Ostensibly a review of William Ellery Channing’s abolitionist leaning book Slavery, Hodge quickly turned the article into a forum to expostulate his own ideas. The explosion of the abolitionist movement in the 1830s, Hodge concluded, had forced people to have an opinion on slavery. No one could henceforth remain neutral. Hodge’s approach to the Bible was rooted in common sense realism. He, like many in his generation, assumed the clear “meaning of the word of God is so generally admitted” that it does not need detailed exposition. It was clear to Hodge that Scripture did not prohibit slavery in all cases, and therefore the efforts to declare slaveholding a sin were simply unbiblical. Preservation of the integrity of Scripture was paramount. “It will do no good, under a paroxysm of benevolence, to attempt to tear the Bible to pieces,” he asserted. Hodge maintained this basic position that the Bible did not prohibit slavery. He affirmed that being a slave did not diminish one’s personhood and that other scriptural admonitions about how humans were to be treated fairly and compassionately applied equally to slaves. But he dismissed the arguments that slavery was “man-stealing” and a violation of the Ten Commandments, that American slavery was distinctly different from what was referred to in the Bible, or that depriving slaves certain rights was not substantially different than depriving employees certain rights. Slavery was not a sin “in itself.” It all depended on circumstances.
Hodge maintained that the abolitionists, however sincere they were, promoted a “delusion” that was disruptive to the social order. For the next thirty years, he maintained that abolitionism did not reflect the position of most northerners (which was probably true), nor that of the Republican Party. Northerners who disliked slavery, were, like him, conservative emancipationists at best.
It is important to understand the context of Hodge’s perspective. Historian Allen Guelzo suggests that Hodge’s position cannot be excused on the basis of ignorance of slavery. Indeed, the emancipation that took place in New Jersey in 1804 set up a gradual timetable, and slaves were still part of life during Hodge’s early years at Princeton. It seems as though Hodge himself may have owned a slave for a time (and thus may have had a personal reason to justify slavery’s hypothetical legitimacy), though it is true that he had little direct knowledge of the harsher aspects of southern slavery.
Of even greater contextual and personal significance were the debates going on within the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. The New School party had introduced contentious resolutions in the 1835 General Assembly to declare slaveholding a sin, excommunicate slaveholders, and oppose the colonization movement—which Hodge supported. Hodge was deeply concerned for the unity of the Church, and labored diligently to find ways to keep increasingly divided Christians together. Much as he was concerned about some of the abolitionist tendencies in the New School party, he took a moderating position in the Old School/ New School debates, accepting that most of that New School party was orthodox in faith. He was not initially in favor of the purge of the New School Presbyteries in 1837.
The tensions within the Church and Hodge’s determination to maintain unity form the backdrop for his 1836 article on slavery. He intended to assure southern churches that abolitionism was not the position of the Church and to draw them into sympathy with the Old School perspective. Among other factors, Hodge argued that abolitionism was impractical. Simply denouncing slavery would not make it go away.
Although Hodge acknowledged certain anti-Christian practices were intended to maintain the “present mental and physical degradation” of slaves, readers in both North and South saw his article fundamentally as a biblical defense of the legitimacy of slavery. It gained wide circulation, and was reprinted inside increasingly vigorous southern defenses of slavery, such as Cotton is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments, published in Georgia in 1860. Certainly, the anti-slavery movement saw the article as little more than a propaganda piece. It contained “the most finely wrought sophistry so ardent is its desire to reconcile [slavery] with Scripture,” according to one review published by the Pittsburgh Anti-Slavery Society. “Over this performance the religious lovers of slavery chuckle with irrepressible delight.”
Hodge denied in “Slavery” that he was an apologist for the institution, and asserted that he had even given a roadmap for how slavery could end. If slave owners really practiced their Christianity fully—educating slaves, schooling them in faith, working to maintaining familial ties—there would be a natural, “gradual elevation of slaves in intelligence, virtue, and wealth,” so “the chains of bondage will naturally fall off….[I]t will no longer be possible or desirable to keep them in their bondage.” He continued to maintain and amplify this position throughout his life, although he was frustrated that he didn’t always see this happening in the South. Such a position seems incredibly naive from our vantage point, considering the power of an entrenched economic system and the willingness of slaveholders to rationalize moral evil.
Hodge simply saw himself as following Scripture where it led. The biblical hermeneutics of the era assumed that God’s will could be plainly deduced from Scripture by ordinary readers. And yet, with the issue of slavery, it wasn’t plain to readers—all of whom accepted the authority of Scripture, and the straightforward reading of it—what God intended. As Mark Noll puts it, “the obvious crisis that bore directly on the fate of the nation was [that] the ‘simple’ reading of the Bible yielded violently incommensurate understandings of Scripture, with no means, short of warfare, to adjudicate the differences.”
Hodge was optimistic that he had found a formula that would be acceptable to all sides and help to hold the Church as well as nation together, North and South. For the next decade, he maintained and interpreted his position in the pages of BRPR and on the floor of the General Assembly. He lamented the meddling of the Scottish and Irish Presbyterian churches on the question of slavery in an article in 1847, when he felt the American Church had “arrived at such harmony of views” regarding slavery. As Moderator of the General Assembly in 1846 he supported a resolution that tacitly reaffirmed the strong anti-slavery statement of the 1818 General Assembly. He continued to support the American Colonization Society. He applauded R.J. Breckinridge’s stillborn effort to create a legal framework for emancipation in Kentucky. Yet he also supported the expanded fugitive slave law, so central to the Compromise of 1850. He became more insistent that slaveholders take seriously their responsibility to provide for the “religious education of their slaves, to respect their parental and marital rights…to recognize their right of property (not prosperity),” which in his mind would lead to an elevation of the slaves’ condition that would promote their ultimate freedom—what he called “the gospel method of emancipation.” He felt he was seeking “middle ground, the ground of the Bible.”
His optimism proved to be unfounded as the nation became increasingly polarized during the 1850s. Southerners increasingly defended slavery not only as a permissible necessity, but as a positive good in God’s plan. They made the case for expanding slavery into the territories, thereby preserving slavery indefinitely and undermining Hodge’s theory that slavery, under Christian influence, would eventually wither away. Throughout the decade Hodge became more intense in his critique of the system of slavery as it was practiced, and blasted the cruelties of the system and the legislative enactments that preserved its injustices. As early as 1849 he began to talk of “negro slavery,” tacitly acknowledging the American form of slavery was tied up in racial issues. Hodge’s views on race are complex. He eloquently proclaimed “the unity of mankind,” yet accepted, as most white Americans did in his time, the inferiority of black Americans. Despite his professed Biblicism, he offered no biblical justification for such a position. Other than African American abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and James Pennington, few church leaders came to grips with the racial assumptions at work in American slavery. Hodge was certainly no exception.
Hodge insisted he had not changed his position, but by the end of the 1850s more than his tone had shifted. This was apparent in his great debates with James Henley Thornwell in the General Assemblies of 1859 and 1860 over the “doctrine of the spirituality of the church,” which Hodge labeled a “new doctrine” that was biblically unwarranted. Hodge said that, taken to its “logical conclusions,” such a doctrine would undermine the Church’s call to “denounce what God forbids, or to proclaim in all ears what God commands.” In his “State of the Country” article in the January 1861 BRPR, Hodge made explicit “there are occasions when political questions rise into the sphere of morals and religion, when the rule for political action is to be sought, not in considerations of state policy, but in the law of God.” Later, during the war itself, Hodge blasted Thornwell for betraying his own convictions regarding “spirituality of the church.” Southern pulpits, he blasted, “rage perpetually with political harangues” supporting the cause of the Confederacy.
The increasing estrangement of southern churchmen in the face of political change, and the election of Lincoln, was deeply disturbing to Hodge. On one hand, he was frustrated by his southern Old School Presbyterian colleagues’ unabashed promotion of slavery as a positive good and the tendency of northerners to capitulate to southern perspectives. In late 1860 he wrote to his brother Hugh, “I am thoroughly disgusted by the poltroonery of Northern Men. If they would take moderate and just ground, and take it firmly, and not go down on their knees and call themselves the sole wrongdoers, there would be some hope.” On the other hand, maintaining unity of the Church was so important to him that he worked hard to convince his fellow Old Schoolers that the Church continued to maintain the twin prongs he had articulated since 1836, that slaveholding was not in itself a sin, and that the northern Church was not supportive of abolitionism.
He reiterated those points in a passionate effort to hold the Church together in a “State of the Country” article in January 1861. Moreover, he argued fiercely that the perceived grievances of the South did not justify secession. The Union is not a “mere partnership…..it is a body politic…and indissoluble.” Secession is a “breach of faith.” Hodge was surprised by the vehemence of the reaction he got to this essay. Northern abolitionists were unhappy with his ongoing defense of slavery’s legitimacy—something he expected. But he was astonished by the fierce response of southern Church leaders who saw it as an “unfair, one sided attack on the south.” Many of those same leaders began to align themselves with the secession movement.
The inability of either nation or Church to hold together deeply pained Hodge. He was particularly distraught that his dear friend J. Leighton Wilson, who had been Secretary of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, would find fault with his arguments against secession. Hodge declared himself in “despair” that “one of the best men [I] knew” could approve of what he considered a crime, and disapprove of what he saw as the plainest truth. “We are almost as far apart as though we did not believe in the same God and Savior, or recognize the same moral law,” Hodge wrote in a twelve page letter to Wilson. If “we who hold the same convictions can be differing so much…what must be the case of those not like minded….If you and I cannot agree, can the north and south agree?” Sadly, the answer was obvious.
Hodge labored in vain to try to hold the Church together, even if the nation divided. As late as April 1861 he shared his hope that the Church would “present to the world the edifying spectacle of Christian brotherhood unbroken by political convulsions.” He opposed the Spring Resolutions in the General Assembly of 1861, which sought to affirm Church loyalty to the federal government, arguing that although the Bible expects obedience to the government, the General Assembly had no right to decide a political question, i.e. to which government a church member owed allegiance. Curiously, Hodge asserted that if a lower governing body such as the Synod of New Jersey had asked for such a declaration of loyalty, he would have supported it on the grounds that it was clear to which government a citizen in that state should affirm allegiance. By 1862, when southerners had broken away from the Union and there was no longer a question of whether one owed loyalty to the state or federal government, Hodge was willing to go along with a General Assembly resolution calling for allegiance to the federal government. His logic, which seemed absolutely clear to him, was bound to seem convoluted to others.
Painful as the secession and the separation of the Old School denomination was, Hodge became freer to criticize certain aspects of the slave system as it was actually practiced, especially the failure of laws to provide protections for marriage and the family. He had to admit there had been no significant improvements in the system in a hundred years, and that while he continued to hope for the system’s gradual evolution leading to emancipation, the South was committed to maintaining and expanding slavery.
Hodge became a fierce supporter of the Union and the policies of Abraham Lincoln. In the middle of the war, he reflected on the idea of a “just war.” Following the President, he affirmed the emancipation proclamation as a war measure, and a legitimate means to preserve the Union. But he refuted the idea that an offensive war to end slavery would be legitimate. Preserving the Union and the Constitution was a just cause, but to make “abolition the end of the war is a plain and palpable violation of…the Constitution and the law of God.” Hodge held to the old West Point (and just war) code of the appropriate methodology of fighting war, and was uncomfortable with the increasingly brutal nature of the war and tendency to blur the distinction between civilians and soldier combatants. He found the “aphorism that all things are lawful in war, is not only unchristian, but inhuman.” Following the war, he was disturbed by the calls for vengeance and retribution against the South.
Despite his assertion to the very end that he did not change his views, Hodge became a more ardent supporter of the end of slavery, and less sanguine about its ability to wither away under the natural processes of societal Christianization. Because of what he considered firm biblical principles, he never viewed abolishing slavery as a legitimate end of war. He endorsed the action of the General Assembly in 1864 calling for an end to slavery within the states and territories, admitting finally that the institution of slavery is “so repugnant to the feelings and conscience of the great mass of mankind…..that either national life or slavery must be extinguished.” Nevertheless, he insisted, through a complex analysis of word usage typical of Hodge, that this did NOT mean the endorsement of abolitionism. It is no wonder that people on various sides of the issues found him disarmingly obtuse.
In earlier writings Hodge was more cautious than many of his generation in asserting he knew the will of God. At the beginning of 1863, during a time of discouragement for the North, he admitted that God had various purposes for trials and suffering. Sometimes God “means to punish (people) for their sins; sometimes he designs to try their faith and to make them examples to others; sometimes he intends to develop their character," and sometimes suffering is simply so that “the works of God should be made manifest.” One never knew for sure what was in God’s plan.
But by war’s end, the only way Hodge could explain the rationale for such great suffering as had been experienced in the Civil War was that “God has evidently so overruled the course of events that the destruction of slavery is the inevitable consequence of the triumph of the national arms.” Ending slavery was not an appropriate “just cause” for the war, but saving the Union was. However, by God’s providence and in God’s purpose, slavery had come to an end, a goal that Hodge affirmed even if his theology would never let him fully advocate that position. He found it less easy to provide a providential explanation for the death of Abraham Lincoln. “We cannot see the reason for it, nor conjecture the end it is designed to accomplish through it,” he wrote in a lengthy tribute to Lincoln after his death. “Why Mr. Lincoln should have been murdered just when he was most needed, most loved, and most trusted, is more than any man can tell. God is wont to move in a mysterious way."
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Hodge, although he never explicitly wrote about the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, or Fifteenth Amendments, did affirm the principle that former slaves should become full citizens. Although he had earlier been an advocate of the colonization movement and even of forcing freed slaves to return to Africa (on the frankly racist grounds that black and whites could not easily co-exist), he later changed his mind on the deportation of former slaves—a number of whom, he reminded his readers, had fought to secure their freedom.
Nevertheless, in two lengthy 1865 articles, “President Lincoln” and “The Princeton Review on the State of the Country and of the Church,” Hodge defended his core positions on slavery and abolition, insisting that he held “precisely what he held in 1836.” He could not bring himself to say that slavery was wrong in itself from a biblical point of view, or that the spiritual arc of the Bible bent toward acknowledging slavery as sinful—the view held by many New School colleagues and numerous other evangelicals. Hodge thought that a position other than his own could lead nowhere but to an undermining of the authority of Scripture.
Hodge’s teaching, writings, and ecclesiastical actions helped frame important discussions within the Church. Church leaders took seriously what he said, and yet his positions (which Hodge viewed as biblical, moderate, and principled) were unduly nuanced and ultimately unsatisfying even to many in his own time and in his own Church—though he labored intensely to show himself a passionate supporter of the Union cause. Allen Guelzo suggests that there was “no threat to disunion Hodge feared more than disunion within himself.” Although his core convictions remained the same, how he treated the issue of slavery responded to and reflected the changing political and ecclesiastical circumstances of the era. He did become more ardent in his distaste for slavery and his desire for emancipation, even though he remained incredibly naïve in his hopes for how that might happen. It could be argued that his maturing views of providence enabled him to see the hand of God at work in the extermination of slavery.
Although Hodge was influential in his time, and provided a thoughtful analysis of the issues of his day, his views are not finally satisfying to those of us who live in the 21st century. He ultimately stood on the wrong side of history, not grasping sufficiently the oppressive nature of slavery and especially the racial aspects of its American form. His approach to the Bible seems rigid and too literalistic, tied to the letter and not to the spirit. His approach has not provided a way ahead to deal biblically and theologically with complex issues of morality and justice. Nevertheless, he is an instructive example of one who valued the authority of Scripture and sought for theological consistency while tackling the toughest moral issue of his day.
Richard Reifsnyder retired after 44 years in pastoral ministry in the PC(USA), including 21 years as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Winchester, Virginia. He is a graduate of Duke University, Yale Divinity School, and Princeton Theological Seminary, where he received a Ph.D. in Church History. Among his publications are articles on the history of church organization and leadership in The Presbyterian Presence series. Rich lives in Salisbury, CT.
Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006. This book provides the most sustained treatment of this perspective. A conference at Louisville Theological Seminary and the subsequent collection of many of tfhe essays in a book edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, eds., Religion and the American Civil War, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, was a catalyst in the burgeoning study of religion and the war.
Religious periodicals were widely read and highly influential during this period. They often contained commentary not only on religious matters but were a source of information on social and political matters. See C.C. Goen, Broken Churches, Broken Nation. Denominational Schism and the Coming of the Civil War, Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985, 36-42.
See, for example, John W. Stewart and James H. Moorhead, eds. Charles Hodge Revisited: A Critical Appraisal of His Life and Work, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002. Two recent biographies with different theological slants are W. Andrew Hoffecker, Charles Hodge: the Pride of Princeton, Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing Co, 2011, and Paul G. Gutjahr, Charles Hodge: Guardian of Orthodoxy, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. See also James Moorhead, Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture,Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012, 90-233; E. Brooks Holifield, Theology in American: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003, 370-394; and Mark Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, 316-19, 413-20, 433-35. While Hodge’s theology has largely been eclipsed in mainline Presbyterianism, it is still popular among more conservative Presbyterian and Reformed traditions.
Charles Hodge, “The Princeton Review on the State of the Country and of the Church,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review (October 1865): 628, 656. A.A. Hodge, Life of Charles Hodge, DD, LL.D, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1880, 333-34.
Allen C. Guelzo, "Charles Hodge’s Anti-Slavery Moment” in Stewart and Moorhead, eds., Charles Hodge Revisited, 300-309; David Torbett, Theology and Slavery: Charles Hodge and Horace Bushnell, Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2006, 55-70; Andrew Murray, Presbyterians and the Negro: A History, Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1966, 107-08.
George Marsden’s The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Church, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970, 59-87 provides an excellent overview of the issues leading to the split. See also Hoffecker, Charles Hodge, 178-90.
 Review, by a Pittsburgher, of a pamphlet entitled, View of the Subject of Slavery contained in the Biblical Repertory for April 1836 in which the scriptural argument, it is believed, is very clearly and justly exhibited, Pittsburgh, 1836, for gratuitous distribution, Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Female Anti-Slavery Society, 1836.
Mark Noll, “The Bible and Slavery” in Miller, Stout, and Wilson, eds., Religion and the American Civil War, 49. Noll’s essay gives a nice summary of four major ways in which the Bible was interpreted on this issue.
Torbett, Theology and Slavery, 104-107; Guelzo, "Charles Hodge’s Anti-Slavery Moment” in Stewart and Moorhead, eds., Charles Hodge Revisited, 318-19. Noll’s chapter titled “The Negro Question Lies Far Deeper Than the Slave Question" in his The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 51-74, provides an excellent analysis of the significance of race in how religious leaders addressed slavery.
Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South: Volume One, 1607-1861, Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1963, 510-50; Charles Hodge, “The State of the Country,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review (January 1861): 1; “The Princeton Review on the State of the Country and of the Church."
Charles Hodge, “The State of the Country,” 28-32; “The Princeton Review on the State of the Country and of the Church,” 628-30; Stewart and Moorhead, eds. Charles Hodge Revisited, 91-94.
Leighton Wilson correspondence, RG 376, Box 2, Folder 2; Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, PA.
Louis G. Vander Velde, The Presbyterian Churches and the Federal Union 1861-69, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983, 39-55; James Moorhead, American Apocalypse: Yankee Protestants and the Civil War 1860-69, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978, 31-32; Torbett, Theology and Slavery, 97-99.
Charles Hodge, "The War,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review (January 1863): 140-69; “President Lincoln,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review (July 1865): 455. See Harry Stout, Upon the Altar of a Nation. A Moral History of the Civil War, New York: Viking Press, 2006, 175.
Charles Hodge, “Report on the General Assembly," 549-50; “The Princeton Review on the State of the Country and of the Church," 633-4, 640-41.
Although Hodge’s views on providence were similar to Lincoln’s, the President’s viewpoint was more tentative in assuming he was able to read exactly what God’s purpose was. In the Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln declares, “Yet, IF God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” By the end of the war there was no “if” in Hodge’s thinking. He clearly saw God’s providential hand in ending slavery by means of the war. Charles Hodge, “The War," 142-50; “President Lincoln,” 439-50; Harry Stout, Upon the Altar of a Nation, 146. For an excellent treatment of the important of the idea of providence in the North and South see Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 75-94.