The Origins of Proslavery Christianity

The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 384
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Origins of Proslavery Christianity
    Book Description:

    In the colonial and antebellum South, black and white evangelicals frequently prayed, sang, and worshipped together. Even though white evangelicals claimed spiritual fellowship with those of African descent, they nonetheless emerged as the most effective defenders of race-based slavery.As Charles Irons persuasively argues, white evangelicals' ideas about slavery grew directly out of their interactions with black evangelicals. Set in Virginia, the largest slaveholding state and the hearth of the southern evangelical movement, this book draws from church records, denominational newspapers, slave narratives, and private letters and diaries to illuminate the dynamic relationship between whites and blacks within the evangelical fold. Irons reveals that when whites theorized about their moral responsibilities toward slaves, they thought first of their relationships with bondmen in their own churches. Thus, African American evangelicals inadvertently shaped the nature of the proslavery argument. When they chose which churches to join, used the procedures set up for church discipline, rejected colonization, or built quasi-independent congregations, for example, black churchgoers spurred their white coreligionists to further develop the religious defense of slavery.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0464-0
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction. THE CHIEF CORNERSTONE
    (pp. 1-22)

    Black and white abolitionists in the nineteenth century identified churches, in the words of James G. Birney, as “the bulwarks of American slavery.” While these critics of slavery did not spare northern congregations for their complicity in perpetuating the peculiar institution, they singled out southern churches for particular condemnation. Henry “Box” Brown, a fugitive from slavery in Virginia, asserted in 1849 that “there is not a particle of religion in their slaveholding churches. The great end to which religion is there made to minister, is to keep the slaves in a docile and submissive frame of mind.” Birney and Brown...

  5. Chapter One FISHERS OF MEN, 1680—1792
    (pp. 23-54)

    Anglo-Virginians and African Virginians had a long history of interaction in the Old Dominion before some of them became evangelicals in the 1730s. Despite fluidity in the colony’s early years about the legal status of people of African descent, that history was generally a one-sided story of exploitation.¹ This was true in an ecclesiastical as well as an economic and personal sense. Just as English colonists coerced labor from African bodies and offered precious little in return, so too they suppressed African belief systems but did not invite Africans into their Anglican churches. Until the very end of the eighteenth...

  6. Chapter Two GROWING PAINS, 1792—1815
    (pp. 55-96)

    Baptist Reuben Pickett of the Roanoke Association spoke for the majority of Virginia’s evangelical churchmen when he reported in a 1797 letter to Isaac Backus, “Religion is rather at a low ebb with us, and I suppose it to be generally the case, at least as far as I can hear. Iniquity generally abounds and the love of many hath waxen cold, so that the times are truly lamentable.”¹ Pickett’s complaint was no empty jeremiad; the Great Revival had come to an end, and Virginia’s evangelicals had indeed entered a “wintry season.” Presbyterians had not experienced the same kind of...

    (pp. 97-132)

    Politicians and evangelical clergymen pulled the country in different directions in the years between the War of 1812 and the Southampton Insurrection in 1831. Representatives of slave and free labor regimes competed in Congress for access to western lands and, in 1819, rehearsed the fatal debate over slavery’s expansion when Missouri applied for statehood. There was no corresponding cataclysm in the nation’s evangelical churches, however, no “fire bell in the night.”¹ Northern and southern evangelicals actually cooperated more closely in this period, building rather than tearing down bridges between the sections. Southern white evangelicals, particularly in places like Virginia, where...

    (pp. 133-168)

    Hark, Henry, Nelson, Sam, Jack, and Will arrived at Southampton County’s Cabin Pond early on Sunday, 21 August 1831. Like most other slaves in the commonwealth, they had the Sabbath off from work. Many African Americans marked the day by attending one of several churches in the county with a high proportion of African American members—including the Raccoon Swamp or Black Creek Baptist churches—or by listening to itinerant preachers. But this particular group of friends was celebrating their weekly respite with a roast pig and some apple brandy. Perhaps because their friend Nat Turner had spent the morning...

  9. Chapter Five THE SECTIONAL CHURCH, 1835—1856
    (pp. 169-210)

    Nat Turner not only forced Virginia’s white evangelicals to rethink their relationship with their black brethren, but he also set in motion a chain of events that caused them to rethink their relationship with their codenominationalists in the North. In response to the insurrection, evangelical whites in the South devoted an increasing amount of time and money to missionary efforts among the region’s slaves, an activity about which northern evangelicals were increasingly skeptical. Many northerners doubted whether white southerners could convey an authentic faith under the legal constraints put in place after the Southampton Insurrection. They were suspicious about any...

    (pp. 211-246)

    Virginia’s white evangelicals helped to start a regionwide campaign for slave missions when Nat Turner compelled them to rethink the relationship between slavery and evangelicalism. In the years following the Southampton Insurrection, southern whites traded strategies for Christianizing the remaining unchurched slaves in their respective states and built a regional identity around the role that they assumed as stewards of black evangelical development. But solidarity among southern white evangelicals on the mission to the slaves belied division on the probity of Confederate nationalism. Though they stood shoulder to shoulder with their coreligionists in the Lower South on the justice of...

  11. Epilogue. EXODUS, 1861—1870
    (pp. 247-260)

    Virginia’s African American evangelicals did not perceive the Confederate cause as a holy one. With the exception of occasional deeds of personal loyalty on behalf of their owners—modest acts, such as the protection of valuables, which whites celebrated far out of proportion to their frequency or meaning—blacks sought to retard the southern cause both ecclesiastically and militarily. The chief tool that black evangelicals used to combat the proslavery, pro-Confederate orientation of their white brethren was separation, both from slavery itself and from the white church. Almost half a million slaves from across the South fled from their owners...

  12. APPENDIX A Evangelical Virginians in 1790 and 1850, by Race and Denomination
    (pp. 261-264)
  13. APPENDIX B Distribution of Virginia Evangelicals in 1860, by Denomination and County
    (pp. 265-274)
  14. APPENDIX C Church Governance
    (pp. 275-278)
  15. NOTES
    (pp. 279-326)
    (pp. 327-360)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 361-366)