Moral Bankrupts – The Corruption of Southern Religion by the Planter elite

“…Man is a marvelous curiosity. When he is at his very very best he is a sort of low grade nickel-plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and all the time he is a sarcasm. Yet he blandly and in all sincerity calls himself the ‘noblest work of God.'”
[Mark Twain, “Letters From the Earth”]

Christianity has long been a source of great joy and anguish. In America, Christians have used their religion to promote great reforms. They have also performed disgraceful deeds based on religion. The American Civil War is an excellent example of the dual nature of American Christianity. Many of the Northern abolition movements got their start as church organizations. When the gauntlet was cast, Southern plantation owners used religion to defend their slave system. Plantation owners approached the religious defense of slavery in several ways. The planter elite corrupted or bullied southern Christian denominations to take pro-slavery stances. Planter’s claimed bringing Africans into slavery Christianized a pagan civilization. Plantation owners and clergy also sited the Bible in justification of slavery. Lastly, what kind of effect did all of this have on the post Civil War society?

The Methodist church had first come out against slavery in 1780. A conference of seventeen ministers in Baltimore stated: “Slavery is contrary to the laws of God, man and nature and hurtful to society, contrary to the dictates of conscience and pure religion, and doing that which we would not that others should do to us and ours.” One of the Methodist church founders, John Wesley had called the slave trade the “sum of all villainies.” Again in 1794 Methodists made a determined proclamation to force emancipation and excommunicate all those who did not do so within two years.

Slaveholders did not appreciate these attacks on their way of life. Many of the slaveholders felt themselves the heirs to the feudal lords of Europe and were ready to defend their honor. Reverend Thomas Coke came to Virginia in 1785 amid this tense atmosphere between the planter elite and the Methodist church. Reverend Coke proceeded to preach on the evils of slavery. A mob had Reverend Coke arrested and formally charged. Reverend Coke “barely escaped bodily violence.” In a speech to Methodist church leaders Reverend Coke expressed that he “thought it prudent to suspend the minute concerning slavery, on account of the great opposition that has been given to it, our work being in too infantile a state to push things to an extremity.” Also added at the conference: “N. B.–We do hold in the deepest abhorrence the practice of slavery, and shall not cease to seek its destruction by all wise and prudent means.”

Those Methodists seeking to battle the slaveocracy on its own turf would find the fight exceedingly difficult. Toward the end of the Second Great Awakening in the 1830s, the planter elite joined the Methodist and other evangelical churches in large numbers. With rich planters filling their pews, and their collection plates, ministers were not inclined to inflame their parishioners with anti-slavery sermons. Some touring revivalists, such as Peter Cartwright, were barred from preaching.

Methodists in the North and South remained under one church for some time, despite clashing views on slavery. During an 1844 conference in Lexington, Kentucky the situation came to a head. Bishop Andrews of Oxford, Georgia married into slavery. Bishop Andrews’s new wife owned a slave she had inherited. The new majority gathered from Methodist growth in North Western and Western territories voted 111 to 69 that Bishop Andrews “desist from the exercise of his episcopal office so long as this impediment remained.”
The Methodist church split over the issue. The southern Methodists formed the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Two years after it formed, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South had 447,961 members. Slaves comprised 118,904 of those members. Now, with the major abolition contingent gone, few were left to challenge proslavery opinions.

The Presbyterian Church too was rocked by competing opinions on slavery. Reverend George Bourne wrote a scathing antislavery book in 1816 titled “The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable”. Reverend Bourne’s book used the Bible to show slavery as a sin. Earlier, in 1815, Reverend Bourne questioned whether one could be a Christian and own slaves. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church disposed Reverend Bourne from his position in 1816. Reverend Bourne appealed, but the decision was upheld by the General Assembly in 1818. The General Assembly also chose this opportunity to make their views on slavery known. Presbyterians believed in abolition in the abstract. Yet they stated “hasty emancipation to be a greater curse than bondage itself.”

This weak-knee stance continued until 1845. The General Assembly delivered a resolution declaring that “since Christ and his inspired Apostles did not make the holding of slaves a bar to communion, we, as a Court of Christ, have no authority to do so; since they did not attempt to remove it from the Church by legislation, we have no authority to legislate on that subject.” The resolution went on to state “the progress of the slaves could not be obtained by ecclesiastical legislation or by indiscriminate denunciations against slaveholders, without regard to their character or circumstances.”

This proclamation made the Presbyterians into accessories to the crime. By resolving to do nothing, the Presbyterians effectively stood behind slavery. But one must not completely damn the Presbyterian leadership. As with the Methodist Church, plantation owners had joined the Presbyterian Church during the late 1830s. James Henley Thornwell, son of a plantation overseer, was elected to the General Assembly ten times and once served as head. Thornwell was one of the most outspoken proslavery preachers of his time. The oppressive power of the planter elite was too much for the southern Presbyterians to bear.

The Episcopalian Church has always had strong ties to slavery. As wealth increased in America, many began to see membership in the Anglican Church as a symbol of the elite. Americans felt it showed they were no different from rich English aristocrats. It was no accident that the planter elite became a large base of power for the Episcopalian Church. One study cited that Virginia Episcopalians were slave owners. These church members donations came from their profits of slave labor. Reaping the economic benefits of the slave system, the Episcopalian clergy were not inclined to speak out against it.

The plantation owners were not the only ones to own slaves. U.S. census data shows that bishops James Madison, Richard Channing Moore, William Meade and John Johns owned slaves in Virginia. Ministers also owned slaves. In 1860 103 Episcopalian clergy were accounted for in a Virginia census. 84 of the clergy owned at least one slave.

If they did not own slaves themselves, Episcopalian clergy still gained money from their labor. The above mentioned slaveholder donations was one way. Another was through missionary work. Reverend Jaquelin M. Meredith received a transfer from Virginia to plantations on the Altamaha River in Georgia in 1861. Missionary work on the four plantations, containing roughly 800, earned Reverend Meredith one thousand dollars a year.

When William Lloyd Garrison and other Northern abolitionists began their attacks on slavery southerners rallied to defend their way of life. One of the main arguments used by clergy and laymen was the Christianization of the African peoples. The benefits of spreading the Christian religion far outweighed any negatives abolitionists might note, stated southerners.

When the North spoke of the evils of slavery the southern churches could point to the great amount of missionary work which they did among the slaves. They could truthfully say that slavery had Christianized a heathen race. Therein was sufficient justification for the institution.

Planter elite believed the Africans would have “sunk down to eternal ruin” without the influence of the Gospel. Southerners reasoned they were doing the divine work of God by bringing the Africans into slavery. The clergy soon echoed these feelings.

However the world may judge us in connection with our institution of Slavery, we conscientiously believe it to be a great missionary institution–one arranged by God, as he arranges all the moral and religious influences of the world, so that good may be brought out of seeming evil, and a blessing wrung out of every form of the curse. We believe that we are educating those people as they are educated no where else; that we are elevating them in every generation; that we are working out God’s purposes, whose consummation we are quite willing to leave in his hands

These types of statements attempted to turn Northern abolitionists from anti-slave crusaders, into heathen atheists. If God was on the side of the South, how could the North oppose them?
Bringing religion to the slaves served another purpose as well. Slaveholders welcomed missionaries and religious ideas onto their plantations. Christian teachings, they believed, would pacify their slaves and make them resigned to their fate of servitude. The highlighting of certain preaching taught slaves to turn the other cheek and to “bend in meekness under their bondage and be content with a hopeless lot.” Promises of rewards for the meek in Heaven were also used. In bringing religion to his slaves, a master could hope to “correct [the] evils [of] superstitions, wild, violent religious emotions”

Originally masters were encouraged to teach their slaves to read the Bible. This was soon outlawed. It was felt that if slaves were taught to read the Bible they would soon move on to read more “incendiary” literature. With whites in control of what their slaves were learning they could provide “instruction in such a way that it [would] be comprehended by their immature minds and [would] not be too strongly flavored with the bitterness of bondage.”

Slaveholders and clergy often sited the Bible as a Heavenly example of proslavery literature. God, said Southern theologians, did not create all men as equals. God’s divine plan places some in servitude of others.

God decreed that Canaan should be a servant of servants to his brother–that is, an abject slave in his posterity. This God effected 800 years afterwards, in the days of Joshua, when the Gibeonites were subjected to perpetual bondage, and made hewers of wood and drawers of water. Joshua ix. 23

The Canaanites that God decreed slaves originated in the area of modern day Israel and Syria. This “Curse of Canaan” is found in the story of Noah. Noah’s son Ham finds him in a drunken sleep. The Bible states that Ham “saw the nakedness of his father”, which in the Bible means to sleep with one’s own mother. Noah places a curse on Ham’s son Canaan and all of his descendents. Noah said “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brethren. Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.” Gen. ix. 25, 26, 27
The Canaanites of the Bible period were African in ethnicity. Therefore, according to the Bible, God’s divine plan included Africans living lives of servitude to atone for their ancestors’ sins.

Proslavery advocates contended that The Curse of Canaan and other lessons of the Bible were not mean to apply only to the time they were written in. The Bible’s words applied to all places and times. The Bible’s directions on the conduct of one’s life, say Southerners, are clear. Just as clear are the Bible’s denunciations of sins. The Bible never mentioned a “grave offence against God without denouncing it directly or impliedly” In fact, Southerners pointed out, the Bible supports slavery in many instances.

Slavery carried out by the Romans is spoken of in the New Testament. The Roman form of slavery extended into all facets of society. Southern theologians concluded that if slavery were a sin God would have punished the Romans, as he a punished so many other sinful peoples in the Bible. “Instead, we find a distinct law of permission, and an unequivocal note of favor, extended to it. The Bible would control and sanctify, but not destroy it.”

Jesus’s own Apostles were slaveholders, claimed Southerners. The Bible proved it. Southerners cited the letters of Peter and Paul in their defense. Paul, in a letter to a church at Colossae (what is now modern day Turkey) wrote that servants should obey their masters in every way. By faithfully serving their master, Paul says, a servant also serves God, which will get them to Heaven. It is not difficult to see how this would serve the purpose of the Southern slaveholder. Not only is it encouragement to slaves, a plantation owner can say to an abolitionist that slaves are only doing the work that an Apostle of Jesus said would get them to heaven.” If one would challenge the word of one of the Apostles they, by extension, challenge Jesus.

Another of the Apostles, Peter, foresaw the enslavement of the Israelites by the Egyptians. Peter told them to “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake. For so is the will of God. Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the forward.” Again Southern theologians could use this to their advantage. Here was an Apostle telling an enslaved people to give in to God’s will and resign themselves to their fate.

A popular passage among proslavery supporters came from Leviticus.

Lev. xxv. 44, 45, 46: Thy bond-men and thy bond-maids which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you: of them shall ye buy bond-men and bond-maids. Moreover, of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land. And they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession, they shall be your bond-men forever.

This passage outlined the very system of slavery the South used. The “heathens” were Africans. Also outlined was the passing on of the children of slaves to the master.

Southerners claimed the Bible was anti-abolitionist. A sect of abolitionists were present in the Bible. These were the Pharisees and Essenes. They believed in universal liberty and spoke out against the Romans claiming they were “unjust, impious, and destroyers of a law of nature.” This law of nature they spoke of, something John Locke theorized centuries later, was a humans right to life, liberty, and property. The Apostle Paul argued the Pharisees and Essenes brought chaos to the orderly divine institutions of God. Here is a direct parallel between the Bible and the antebellum slavery debates.

Many of the arguments presented by proslavery defenders had a profound effect on Southern culture for decades. The religious assertions that God’s ultimate plan called for Africans to be forever in servitude were engrained in Southern minds. The great spirit of reform during the Reconstruction era was tarnished by the antebellum proslavery defense. The establishment of the Jim Crow Laws, forming “separate but equal” treatment that was anything but equal for blacks, sprung from these old Biblical notions. Violent groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, began to maintain the “supremacy of the white race in this Republic[United States].”
The rhetoric of Southern antebellum theologians was felt in the nearly 5,000 lynching in the post-Civil War South, in the hate speech of George Wallace and hoses of Bull Connor. Also the murder of Emmett Till and the bombing of the 16th Street Church that left four little girls dead were products of proslavery arguments. The Southern planter elite twisted the religious denominations of the south to fit their schemes. With them in their pockets, they set to work molding the word of God to speech for enslavement. Some of the era said that if God wished to end slavery He would. And he did, but we are still paying for the Southern misuses of the Bible today.


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