Award Date


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in History



First Committee Member

David F. Holland

Second Committee Member

Elizabeth W. Nelson

Third Committee Member

Gregory S. Brown

Fourth Committee Member

Colin Loader

Fifth Committee Member

Anne H. Stevens

Number of Pages



In the first six decades of the nineteenth century, America's biblical and constitutional interpreters waged their hermeneutical battles on historical grounds. Biblical scholars across the antebellum religious spectrum, from orthodox Charles Hodge's Calvinism to heterodox Theodore Parker's Transcendentalism, began to emphasize contextual readings. This development, fueled by an exposure to German biblical criticism and its emphasis on historical exegesis, sparked debate about the pertinence of biblical texts and the permanence of their teachings. In the 1830s, the resurfacing slavery issue increased the urgency to explore the biblical past for answers, which exposed differences between ancient and American slavery. Some still posited the persistence of the Bible as a whole and others rescued a Testament, a text or a teaching, but a few, including Parker, proved willing to let the old canon drift into the past.

Slavery bound these arguments to another debate about a historical text from a more recent past. In the 1840s and 1850s, national observers in an expanding political culture focused their attention on the Constitution in hopes of resolving the growing crisis over the peculiar institution. The passing of the founding generation cultivated great interest in founding-era sources and antislavery readers began debating the interpretive importance of publications like Madison's papers (1840). The Fugitive Slave Law (1850), the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), and theDred Scottdecision (1857) further nationalized the issue and put more pressure on constitutional interpreters, who, in turn, scrutinized the founding era for answers. From radical abolitionist Wendell Phillips to southern Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, readers aimed to recover and use the framers' intent to interpret the Constitution. The resulting historical explanations and narrations indicated that much had changed since ratification. Even when antislavery constitutionalists like William Goodell and Lysander Spooner rejected the emphasis on contextual interpretation, their accounts highlighted slavery's presence at the founding and traced the anachronistic rise of the Slave Power since that period. Some upheld the Constitution as a enduring national covenant, others read it in light of the Declaration's egalitarian promises, and a few, including Parker, stood ready to dismiss it as outdated.

More moderate antislavery interpreters, who acknowledged historical distance from the biblical and Revolutionary pasts, formulated readings that allowed them to maintain their religious and legal faith. Biblical scholars like William Channing and Francis Wayland contended that Christ and his apostles had inculcated principles meant to abolish slavery in time, while constitutional interpreters like Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln contended that the framers' had crafted their creation with the expectation that change would remove the national blight. Narratives focused on original expectations cultivated awareness that real historical distances separated Americans from their most favored and familiar pasts, but they also ensured these periods' persistence as usable pasts. In contrast to the traditional view of the shallowness of antebellum historical thought, I argue that historical consciousness in that period took the form of an awareness of historical distance that allowed for and even encouraged the continued use of the past.


Bible and law; Constitution (United States); Slavery; Slavery and the church; Slavery--Emancipation; Theodore Parker


History of Religion | Law | United States History

File Format


Degree Grantor

University of Nevada, Las Vegas




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