Dr. Joseph Moore ’11 isn’t trying to make a political or religious statement with his new book “Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution.” Simply put, he wants to revive the memory of an almost completely forgotten group.

Founding Sin book cover photo courtesy of Oxford University Press.

Book cover photo courtesy of Oxford University Press.

In 2008, Moore, a PhD candidate in UNCG’s history department, visited the archives at Duke University to review sermons and writings from ministers in the Carolinas that had rarely been touched by historians. The documents, dating back to the 1840s, made the argument for the immorality of slavery – a completely radical idea given the time period and geographic region.

Moore was fascinated by the writings of these anti-slavery South Carolinians, and soon discovered the group had a name: the Covenanters.

“They were ardent Christian nationalists who felt that Christian nations couldn’t have slavery,” Moore said. “This was the original religious right, and their argument was the exact opposite of today’s religious right. America was not a Christian nation, because the Constitution included slavery and excluded Jesus.”

By following the trail of these people and their ideas, Moore discovered that the story of the Covenanters dated back to 17th-century Scotland. These Scottish Presbyterians had a violent, deeply political history. In 1638, they led a revolution in Scotland, overtaking the government and wielding power for 13 years before being thrown out and deemed outlaws. The radicals fled to Ireland, and eventually immigrated to America in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The group became the focus of his dissertation, “Irish Radicals, Southern Conservatives: Slavery, religious liberty and the Presbyterian fringe in the Atlantic Word, 1637-1877,” which eventually evolved into Founding Sins. The book was published Oct. 13 by Oxford University Press.

One of the most interesting findings in Moore’s research is that the Covenanters had an audience with President Abraham Lincoln. The group had two meetings with him, one in 1862 and another in 1864, proposing the idea of amending the Constitution to recognize God’s authority over the nation. In their minds, Lincoln was already reversing one of the original founding sins – slavery – and should proceed with amending the other – the absence of God in government.

Lincoln not only considered their pitch, but he planned to include it in his State of the Union address in December of 1864. When his Cabinet found out about it, they unanimously advised him to remove the proposal.

“That Lincoln would consider Christianizing American government is a completely unknown tidbit of history,” Moore said. “It shows us how contingent American history really is.”

According to Moore, diving into the world of the Covenanters has relevant implications for today’s discourse on the intersection of religion and politics.

“If we remember these people, what do we learn that helps us understand today? They offer a very different critique of religious nationalism than we’ve heard before.”

An assistant professor at Gardner-Webb University, Moore teaches courses on slavery in the Atlantic, Revolutionary America and the civil rights movement. He is currently working on a new project that examines how Catholics, Covenanters, Quakers, Wesleyans and enslaved African soldiers in Southern states maintained their antislavery voices.

Click here to learn more about Founding Sins. UNCG students, faculty and staff can access the eBook at library.uncg.edu.


Story by Alyssa Bedrosian, University Relations
Book cover image courtesy of Oxford University Press