Slavery, Racial Hierarchy, Charles Hodge, and Old School Presbyterianism

Portrait of Charles Hodge (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Hodge was a Presbyterian theologian known for his orthodox Reformed theology, his leadership in Old School Presbyterianism, and for being a preeminent voice for Princeton theology. During my seminary studies and associated internship, Hodge was lifted up as an exemplary Christian figure within the Reformed tradition who stood strongly for theological conservatism in the wake of new theological innovations.

A part of Hodge’s career as a theologian that does not get as much of the limelight in theologically conservative circles are his views on slavery and race. Scholarship on Hodge’s views on the institution of slavery is complex, due to the fact that opinions differ as to whether Hodge had an evolution in his convictions over time.

Between the time that Hodge published his commentary on the book of Romans and a history of Presbyterianism in the United States, provided leadership for the Old School faction during the Old School-New School debate, and served as the only senior Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary after the deaths of Samuel Miller and Archibald Alexander, Hodge published two articles in the Princeton Review that encapsulated his views at that time on the institution of slavery and race relations as a whole. Both articles are available for free online thanks to Google.

“Slavery” (c. 1836):

As a proponent of a doctrine called the “spirituality of the church,” Hodge argued that the institutional church had a strictly spiritual charter. The church can only speak where God has spoken in his Word and not dabble in matters political, social, or cultural. As such, certain matters were classified as adiaphora to the mission of the church, meaning that they were things indifferent where the Scriptures have neither condoned nor prohibited. These adiaphora were left up to the conscience of the individual believer to determine whether they were morally right or wrong.

Hodge claims an analogy between political despotism and the institution of chattel slavery in America. With this analogy as his foundation, Hodge argues that both despotism and slavery are both adiaphora:

“…both political despotism and domestic slavery, belong in morals to the adiaphora, to things indifferent. They may be expedient or inexpedient, right or wrong according to circumstances. Belonging to the same class, they should be treated in the same way. Neither is to be denounced as necessarily sinful, and to be abolished immediately under all circumstances and at all hazards…

…The possession of despotic power is thus admitted not to be a crime, even when it extends over millions of men, and subjects their lives as well as their property and services to the will of an individual. What becomes then of the arguments and denunciation of slaveholding, which is despotism on a small scale?”

While Hodge was willing to say that the abuse of despotism and slavery were inherently sinful, the institutions themselves were morally neutral. In fact, Hodge argues analogously that just as Romans 13 commands Christians to submit to civil magistrates, the institution of slavery was protected from being overturned.

Hodge addresses a common argument by abolitionists that slavery takes away the inalienable rights of men — rights due to all by nature of creation and protected within the founding documents of the United States.

“…It is, however, argued that slavery must be sinful because it interferes with the inalienable rights of men. We have already remarked, that slavery, in itself, is a state of bondage, and nothing more. It is the condition of an individual who is deprived of his personal liberty, and is obliged to labor for another, who has the right to transfer this claim of service, at pleasure. That this condition involves the loss of many of the rights which are commonly and properly called natural, because belonging to men, as men, is readily admitted.”

Hodge readily admits that the loss of natural, inalienable rights is a result of the institution of slavery. However, he goes on to claim that the deprivation of natural rights is not inherently sinful. In fact, he argues, with another analogy, that just as women are deprived of the right of self-government for the “good of the whole” of society, it is necessary to deprive Blacks of their rights for the good of society.

“It is, however, incumbent on those who maintain that slavery is, on that account, necessarily sinful, to show that it is criminal, under all circumstances, to deprive any set of men of a portion of their natural rights. That this broad proposition cannot be maintained is evident… in this country we believe that the general good requires us to deprive the whole female sex of the right of self-government. They have no voice in the formation of the laws which dispose of their persons and property. When married, we despoil them almost entirely of a legal existence, and deny them some of the most essential rights of property…our plea for all this is, that the good of the whole is thereby most effectually promoted… it is not enough therefore, in order to prove the sinfulness of slaveholding, to show that it interferes with the natural rights of a portion of the community…” (emphasis added)

Furthermore, Hodge claims, the reason why women (and adolescents) are deprived of these rights is due to the fact that they are deemed incompetent in being able to carry out the duties and responsibilities that come from these rights. By “parity of reason,” therefore, Blacks were deemed to be incompetent to exercise their rights with the safety of society in mind:

“…it is because females and minors are judged… incompetent to the proper discharge of the duties of citizenship, that they are deprived of the right of suffrage… as it is acknowledged that the slaves may be justly deprived of political rights on the ground of their incompetency to exercise them without injury to the community, it must be admitted, by parity of reason, that they may be justly deprived of personal freedom, if incompetent to exercise it with safety to society.”

Interestingly, while Hodge is quick to say that slaveholding is a matter indifferent to Scripture, he is hasty in making the claim that declaring slaveholding a sin is “not only an error, but it is an error fraught with evil consequences” because it “brings its advocates into conflict with the Scriptures,” “embitters and divides members of the community, and distracts the Christian church.”

Contrary to immediate abolitionism, Hodge argued for gradual emancipation. At this point, people applaud Hodge for his willingness to argue that Blacks should eventually be emancipated rather than left in bondage forever. But, the matter of the fact is that Hodge only argues for gradual emancipation because he believes that this was the only way that Blacks could have the competency to responsibly exercise their inalienable rights. This was, according to Hodge, the “gospel method”:

“…The other natural and peaceful mode of extinction, is the gradual elevation of the slaves in knowledge, virtue and property to the point at which it is no longer desirable or possible to keep them in bondage…the gospel method of extinguishing slavery is by improving the condition of the slave.” (Emphasis added)

Hodge’s ultimate concern as a churchman was that if slaveholding was deemed to be inherently a crime and a sin, it would necessarily result in division in the Presbyterian denomination he was a leader in. Recognize that his desire for ecclesiastical unity outweighed the question of Christian ethics at this point:

“Again, the opinion that slaveholding is itself a crime, must operate to produce the disunion of the States, and the division of all ecclesiastical societies in this country… If slaveholding is a heinous crime, slaveholders must be excluded from the church. Several of our judicatories have already taken this position. Should the General Assembly adopt it, the church is, ipso facto, divided.”

To top it off, in a footnote on the last page of this article, Hodge also makes clear his views on African colonization: “…we have said nothing of African colonization, though we regard it as one of the noblest enterprises of modern benevolence.”

“Emancipation” (c.1849)

Written around the time of the death of his wife, Samuel Miller, and Archibald Alexander, “Emancipation” was written more or less at a high point in Hodge’s career just before the time when he stood as the only senior Professor of Princeton Theological Seminary. At this point, over a decade had gone by since he published “Slavery,” yet his views on slavery became more pronounced, and his understanding of race became more apparent.

Echoing his arguments from over a decade ago, Hodge argues:

“It has steadily inculcated on the one hand, that the holding of slaves is analogous to political despotism, and is therefore right or wrong according to circumstances; and, on the other, that neither the slave owner nor despot have a right to use his power to prevent the intellectual, moral, and social improvement of its subjects, in order that his authority may be undisturbed and perpetuated.”

In his own words, as the leader of the Old School Presbyterian faction, the Old School Presbyterians

“…have been the great conservative body, in reference to this subject in our country. They have stood up as a wall against the flood of abolitionism, which would have overwhelmed the Church and riven asunder the State. But at the same time they have been the truest friends of the slaves and the most effectual advocates of emancipation.” (Emphasis added)

The logic of his article from 1836 provides context to this statement. Recall that the reason why gradual emancipation was the “gospel method” was because it was the only way that Blacks could be deemed competent enough to exercise their inalienable rights. By nature, Blacks were not competent to carry out their responsibilities, so the immediacy of abolitionism was deemed wrong-headed at best or “fraught with evil consequences” at worst.

Citing the works of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who argued based off of skull measurements that there was a biologically evident hierarchy of races, Hodge states:

“…there is a marked difference, physical, intellectual and social, between the Caucasian and the Malay. They are indeed of one blood. They are the children of the same parents. They are brethren having the same nature in all its essential attributes, but separation and the protracted operation of physical and moral causes, have given each its peculiar and indelible type. And where there is diversity there is sure to be superiority and inferiority. While therefore we joyfully admit the negro race to bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, to be brethren of the same great family to which we ourselves belong, it would be folly to deny that the blacks are as a race inferior to the whites. This is a fact which the history of the world places beyond dispute. Whether under a process of culture, extending through generations, they might rise to an equality with their more favored brethren, is a question which we need not discuss. It is probably that in their highest development they would retain their distinctive characteristics, and be our superiors in some of our common nature, and our inferiors in others.” (Emphasis added)

Hodge echoes again his arguments from “Slavery,” but this time with more force to demonstrate that

“…there is no foundation in morals for the reckless application of ‘the doctrine of inalienable rights’ to the case of slaves, who from their physical, intellectual, or moral condition, are incompetent to exercise the rights of freedmen.”

Interracial marriage, according to Hodge — a fear-mongering trope that has been propagated since 1619 amongst Whites in America — was not adiaphora, like slavery, but clearly contrary to the will of God and natural law:

“…There are natural laws which forbid the union of distinct races in the same commonwealth… The effect of the amalgamation of distinct races is seen in the physically, intellectually and socially degraded mongrel inhabitants of Mexico and South America… The amalgamation of these races must inevitably lead to the deterioration of both. It would fill the country with a feeble and degraded population, which must ultimately perish. For it is a well ascertained fact that the mulatto is far more frail than either the white man or the Negro. We read in the disastrous physical effects of the amalgamation of the blacks and whites, a clear intimation that such amalgamation is contrary to the will of God, and therefore is not an end which statesmen ought in any way to facilitate.” (Emphasis added)

Segregation after emancipation, according to Hodge, wasn’t even a possibility according to natural law:

“If amalgamation would be productive of the most lamentable evils to the country, it is no less undesirable that the two races should live together as distinct. This again is forbid by natural laws which we can neither abrogate nor counteract. It is a law that the stronger and more numerous race should displace the weaker. The weaker may be absorbed and assimilated, where the difference is slight, but if the difference is so great as to keep the races apart, one of two results seems invariably to follow, either the weaker race dies out, or it is reduced to a state of bondage, and is then kept in a good physical condition as an instrument of labor, at the expense of its intellectual and social improvement.”


It is entirely possible that Hodge’s views progressed over time. It is also entirely possible to say that Hodge repented of these earlier views later in his life. But, these facts do not eliminate the fact that at the snapshot of time of over a decade, Hodge publicly and in print defended slavery, promoted Blumenbach’s theory of a biological hierarchy of races, argued against inalienable rights for Blacks, called interracial marriages contrary to the will of God, and set concerns for ecclesiastical peace and unity over Christian ethics. And all the while he argued for these, he was writing the biblical commentaries we read today, leading the movements we look up to today, and defending the doctrines that we cherish today.

Hodge’s views of slavery and race provide us a clear instance to ask if we have been courageous enough to look long and hard at our heroes from the past. Have we told the story of the past in a way that has been whitewashed, or have we looked at the skeletons in our traditions’ closets and rightfully lamented and been humbled to say, “So also me, but for the grace of God.” To critically assess our heroes gives us the chance to pause and critically assess ourselves. Have we become so engrossed into the pride we have in our tradition and practices that we are unable and unwilling to admit we have blindspots in what we believe and how we live out our beliefs? The excuses we give for our heroes of old will continue to be the excuses we give our heroes of today. If Hodge is exempt from critical assessment because he did great things for the kingdom of God, what’s stopping us from saying the same thing about ourselves when we fall so out of step with the gospel with our lives while being able to cross our Ts and dot our Is on every fine point of doctrine?