Excerpt- Thornwell on Our Great Conflict and True Progress

The following is taken from James Henley Thornwell’s published 1850 sermon The Rights and Duties of Masters. From South Carolina, Thornwell was a pro-slavery Presbyterian theologian and important part of the Reactionary Enlightenment breakthrough in Southern Rightist thought. Here he gives us an exceptionally farsighted perspective on the immense implications of the slavery vs. abolitionism debate. For more from Thornwell, see Recommended Reading.


God has not permitted such a remarkable phenomenon as the unanimity of the civilized world, in its execration of slavery, to take place without design. This great battle with the Abolitionists, has not been fought in vain. The muster of such immense forces – the fury and bitterness of the conflict – the disparity in resources of the parties in the war – the conspicuousness – the unexampled conspicuousness of the event, have all been ordered for wise and beneficent results; and when the smoke shall have rolled away, it will be seen that a real progress has been made in the practical solution of the problems which produced the collision.

What disasters it will be necessary to pass through before the nations can be taught the lessons of Providence – what lights shall be extinguished, and what horrors experienced, no human sagacity can foresee. But that the world is now the theatre of an extraordinary conflict of great principles – that the foundations of society are about to be explored to their depths – and the sources of social and political prosperity laid bare; that the questions in dispute involve all that is dear and precious to man on earth – the most superficial observer cannot fail to perceive. Experiment after experiment may be made – disaster succeed disaster, in carrying out the principles of an atheistic philosophy – until the nations, wearied and heart-sickened with changes without improvement, shall open their eyes to the real causes of their calamities, and learn the lessons which wisdom shall evolve from the events that have passed. Truth must triumph. God will vindicate the appointments of His Providence – and if our institutions are indeed consistent with righteousness and truth, we can calmly afford to bide our time – we can watch the storm which is beating furiously against us, without terror or dismay – we can receive the assault of the civilized world – trusting in Him who has all the elements at His command, and can save as easily by one as a thousand. If our principles are true, the world must come to them; and we can quietly appeal from the verdict of existing generations, to the more impartial verdict of the men who shall have seen the issue of the struggle in which we are now involved. It is not the narrow question of abolitionism or of slavery – not simply whether we shall emancipate our negroes or not; the real question is the relations of man to society – of States to the individual, and of the individual to States; a question as broad as the interests of the human race.

These are the mighty questions which are shaking thrones to their centres – upheaving the masses like an earthquake, and rocking the solid pillars of this Union. The parties in this conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders – they are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, jacobins, on the one side, and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. In one word, the world is the battleground – Christianity and Atheism the combatants; and the progress of humanity the stake. One party seems to regard Society, with all its complicated interests, its divisions and sub-divisions, as the machinery of man – which, as it has been invented and arranged by his ingenuity and skill, may be taken to pieces, re-constructed, altered or repaired, as experience shall indicate defects or confusion in the original plan. The other party beholds in it the ordinance of God; and contemplates “this little scene of human life,” as placed in the middle of a scheme, whose beginnings must be traced to the unfathomable depths of the past, and whose development and completion must be sought in the still more unfathomable depths of the future – a scheme, as Butler expresses it, “not fixed, but progressive – every way incomprehensible” – in which, consequently, irregularity is the confession of our ignorance – disorder the proof of our blindness, and with which it is as awful temerity to tamper as to sport with the name of God.

It is a great lesson that, as the weakness of man can never make that straight which God hath made crooked, true wisdom consists in discharging the duties of every relation; and the true secret of progress is in the improvement and elevation which are gradually super-induced by this spirit.