The Imago Dei Doctrine and Its Influence upon the Stone-Campbell Leaders’ View of Slavery

Leaders of the Stone-Campbell movement believed humanity bore the image of God; human beings were created by God and conferred with dignity and honor. This doctrine shaped their views and teachings regarding slavery, emancipation, and education. For example, Campbell advocated for masters to see it as their duty to educate their servants intellectually, morally, and spiritually, as he wrote in the journal Millennial Harbinger, “Nature prompts the father, and justice the master to be faithful to his wards, whether children or servants, in the discharge of this first and chief of moral duties” (“Morality of Christians—No. III,” Millennial Harbinger 2, no. 3 [Feb. 1838]: 99).
Campbell’s belief that every person was created in the image of God shaped his admonitions and instructions to slave owners, including teaching reading skills for reading the Gospel and even the prospect of eventual emancipation. These views were shared by other Stone-Campbell leaders as well. This is in stark contrast to many of their contemporaries who did not recognize slaves as image bearers of God. Slaves were dehumanized, beaten, and mistreated, and at times Christian leaders justified such behaviors as biblical. This presentation will highlight the views of Stone-Campbell leaders concerning the personhood of slaves, their theological justifications for seeing slaves as possessing the imago Dei, and their instructions on how all persons, including slaves, should be treated as a consequence of this anthropology.

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