James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862) was a Presbyterian clergyman from South Carolina who was one of the most articulate defenders of the "Bible sanctions slavery" argument during the three decades preceeding the American Civil War. Unlike John C.Calhoun, who argued that "slavery is a positive good" purely on grounds of social utility (and without a single reference to the Bible), Thornwell advanced a more subtle argument.
While "man-stealing" and the African slave trade were prohibited by the Bible, the institution of slavery itself, he argued, was not prohibited. Christian masters, however, had certain obligations which they must fulfill towards their slaves. Slaves owed their labor to their masters, but nothing more. Thornwell promoted literacy, knowledge of the Bible, establishment of the institution of marriage within slavery, and respect for the slave family.
First heard on the public stage in the 1840's, Thornwell had, by 1860, significantly modified his views. Though pointing to a long list of Bible passages he claimed supported slavery, Thornwell acknoweldged that the institution itself was clearly not within the spirit of the Gospel. Discouraged that masters would be able to consistently fulfill their Christian duties towards slaves, and mindful of the likelihood of terrible war about to break out around the topic, Thornwell was about to unveil his own proposal for the gradual emancipation of all slaves when his fellow South Carolinians fired on Fort Sumter.
Once the issue was joined, however, Thornwell threw his lot in completely with the Confederacy.
History is filled with "what ifs" and "if onlys". The student of history today can only wonder how events would have unfolded had Thornwell come to his epiphany as little as a year before 1860.