Reflections on The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia
By Charles F. Irons, Associate Professor of History, Elon University
The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia
By Charles F. Irons
University of North Carolina Press 2008, 384 pp., $24.95
White Christians who tenaciously defended slavery during the antebellum period have presented interpretive problems for both historians and people of faith for a long, long time.
Historians have sought to understand how Christian churches, especially evangelical Protestant congregations that multiplied so rapidly in the late 18th and 19th centuries, were simultaneously such engines of oppression and sites of personal liberation.
People of faith, especially those concerned with racial reconciliation, have wondered how so many professed believers could shut their hearts so completely to the parable of the Good Samaritan — or could restrict its meaning so severely that it did not lead them to question the practice of American slavery.
For both believers and historians these questions have been complicated by the fact that Sunday morning was not the “most segregated hour” until after the Civil War. Black Southerners worshipped alongside (or behind, or in balconies above) those who justified their bondage through faith.
Examining a Bewildering Dichotomy
I attempted to address these questions in The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia. Using church records, slave narratives, private papers, and denominational newspapers, I tracked the positions of Virginia Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians on slavery through the Civil War.
My most basic finding was that white evangelicals subtly altered their positions on slavery quite frequently — typically in response to the spiritual initiatives of their black congregants. In the 18th century, white Southern evangelicals believed people of African descent could be enslaved because they weren’t Christians. But that changed when thousands of black Southerners voluntarily sought membership in their churches following the American Revolution.
And in the late antebellum period, whites set up quasi-independent black churches in Virginia cities, and in areas with especially high populations of enslaved people, when they realized that whites could more effectively lure men and women out of the “invisible church” of the slave quarters if they offered a measure of autonomy. Elsewhere online, I have attempted to outline some of the historiographical contributions of the book.
Writing for the Perkins Perspective
Now the opportunity to write for the Perkins Perspective has given me the chance to evaluate what the book might have to say to a more theologically engaged audience. Here, I think the research provides a particularly stark set of illustrations of a familiar theme: physical proximity is not enough to ensure racial justice or to advance racial reconciliation.
While there were a few very exceptions, whites in the colonial and antebellum periods generally used the experience of joint worship not to dissolve worldly hierarchies but to explain and “sanctify” them. A prominent white Virginia Baptist minister, Thornton Stringfellow, in fact, argued by the 1840s that slavery was “full of mercy,” for “it has brought within the range of gospel influence, millions of Ham's descendants among ourselves, who but for this institution, would have sunk down to eternal ruin; knowing not God, and strangers to the gospel” (pp. 214-215).
Perhaps when we pursue fellowship without authentic mutual submission, we are salving our consciences rather than helping to realize the beatific vision. When whites worship alongside blacks but refuse to submit their own ideas to blacks’ scrutiny, much less submit their own actions to the ecclesiastical discipline of black officers, they close themselves to the possibility of full fellowship with their neighbors.
Of course, the same could be true of any two groups but, as I have endeavored to show in my book, due to the intertwined ecclesiastical history of blacks and whites in America, this particular relationship is in special need of redemption.
Charles Irons is an associate professor of history at Elon University, Elon, North Carolina. His research focuses on the 19th-century South, particularly on religious history. At Elon, Irons teaches on slavery, the Civil War, American religious history, and the 19th-century South.
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