How Did the Existence of Slavery Affect the Southern Church and Theology?

Slavery ended 150 years ago. We know that. Many people want to act as though it never happened, however. I am convinced that because the institution of slavery was present at the founding of our nation and because it was encoded into the very DNA of the Republic, that there are long lasting results that accompany such a national heresy. America as deeply affected by the practice. The question is, “How much are we still affected by it?” The fact that the Southern white church gave aid and sanction to the practice complicates things even more. How much was the theology and practice of the church affected by our siding with slaveowners and later, segregationists? Those questions have never been adequately addressed by our theologians. I tackle them straightforwardly in When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus.
Another book that makes some similar claims regarding the affect that slavery had on the Southern consciousness is The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South by Bruce Levine, the J.G. Randall Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In a way, I am glad that I did not read Levine’s book before I wrote my own. I would have quoted from it too much and too often. But, it is comforting to know that there are other scholars working from a secular perspective that have come to similar conclusions that I have come to about the South and the role that racism played in shaping life here. Life here is still shaped by the ghost of slavery and its bitter offspring, Segregation and Racism. Levine tells us how this all began:
Half a century after Appomattox, a historian sympathetic to the masters would say that in the prewar South, owning slaves was less a busines than a way of life. It was, in fact, both. It certainly was a business. As a Montgomery, Alabama, editor explained, “The institution of slavery is simply a branch of the great political question of capital and labor.” The specific economic needs of southern farmers and planters gave rise to slavery, shaped the lives of slaves, and provided a compelling argument for preserving and expanding that system of unfree labor.
But for most masters, slaveholding was not simply an economic necessity. It was not only the source of their own wealth and physical comfort. It was not merely one possible enterprise, one possible investment, among many. It was, instead, the unique basis of the particular outlook, assumptions, norms, habits, and relationships to which masters as a social class had become deeply and reflexively attached. It defined their privileges and shaped their culture, their religion, and even their personalities.
In 1839, Abel P. Upshur, then a judge of the General Court of Virginia and later a U.S. Secretary of State, enunciated the point clearly. The “domestic slavery” that formed “the great distinguishing characteristic of the southern states,” he explained, also “exerts a powerful influence in moulding and modifying both their institutions and their manners.” Benjamin Morgan Palmer, minister of New Orleans’s First Presbyterian Church and a prominent theologian, put the matter squarely in a sermon two decades later. “This system is interwoven with our entire social fabric,” he emphasized. “It has fashioned our modes of life, and determined all our habits of thought and feeling, and moulded the very type of our civilization.”
Over time, more and more masters came to agree. In the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, slavery’s most common justification had been one articulated by Thomas Jefferson – namely, that although it was a poor system, one beset by social, economic, and political “evils,” it was still better than the alternative: emancipation. Because emancipation would impoverish the whites and unleash upon them a huge mass of uncivilized blacks. If slavery was an evil, therefore, it was a “necessary” one.
But during the following decades, growing numbers of slavery’s champions adopted a more aggressive line of argument, one associated most closely with South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun. Slavery was not an evil, insisted Calhoun, but “a good, a positive good.” To Calhoun and his colleagues, indeed, slavery came to appear to be the single, essential, irreplaceable foundation of any good society. It was “the principal cause of civilization,” William Harper claimed in 1838 – even “the sole cause.” They believed, with Abel P. Upshur, that all civilizations rested on the one proposition that “one portion of mankind shall live upon the labor of another portion.” Every advanced society in history, they affirmed, had achieved greatness by assigning its dullest, heaviest, most exhausting, and unrewarding (but no less necessary) labors to one portion of the people. Only such an arrangement could allow the development among another portion of the kind of intellectual, cultural, and political leaders that civilization required. “In all social systems,” James Henry Hammond declared, “there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement.”
In the land-rich and labor-scarce Americas, this could be arranged only by legally fixing the drones in place. And, since it was neigher possible nor desirable to deny freedom to white citizens of the republic, the enslavement of some other people was necessary. “Fortunately for the South,” as Hammond put it in 1858, “she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand,” the children of Africa. Here was “a race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes.”
Slave owners like these had also convinced themselves that slavery was the only secure foundation for a republican form of government – one in which a relatively large section of the population enjoyed the rights of citizens (to vote and hold office). Since Ancient Greece and Rome, republican thinkers had worried and warned about the dangers inherent in conferring full citizenship upon those who performed the republic’s hardest, most disagreeable labor in return for the meanest standard of life. Wouldn’t such poor and unhappy citizens use their freedoms and civic rights to cause trouble? Wouldn’t they protest and act collectively to change their condition? Wouldn’t they elect to public office either one of their own – or some adventurer, some demagogue, some Caesar, who appealed to the mob’s resentments and frustrations in order to gain power for himself? Wouldn’t any of these outcomes doom the republic, just as it had repeatedly done in the ancient world? It was clear as day to Hammond that “slavery is truly the ‘corner-stone’ and foundation of every well-designed and durable ‘republican edifice.'”
Levine’s book is very good. I highly recommend it. His argument that slavery and the privilege and superiority that it spawned was, in fact, the foundation and cornerstone of Southern society is a significant statement. Our collective memory tells us that Christianity was the foundation of society in the South. But, if we dig a little deeper, we find that Greek philosophy actually had a great hold (check Chapter 4 of When Heaven and Earth Collide). Southern notables such as Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor said that the South was more Stoic than Christian and that the South was Christ-haunted, but not Christ-occupied. Levine explains why this is so. Instead of seeing all people created equal in God’s image, the South bought into a stratified approach that declared that it was preferrable to have “haves” and “have-nots.” Who would serve the upper classes if we did not enforce that there be lower classes – even if we had to use the whip, the chain, and the auction block? The fact that the Church was employed to promote this arrangement and then to preach to the slaves that their good duty before God was to serve their white masters in silence is just one example of how this oppressive system worked its way into every Southern institution.
How are we affected today? The Southern plantation owner arranged life to benefit himself and his family. He pursued what best promoted his “way of life.” He was willing to fight and die to defend the Southern “way of life.” The “way” called for the enslavement of an entire race of people for the benefit of the white landowner. He saw that arrangement as a positive good. Today, when we make decisions to benefit our own “way of life” over and above what is best for others, we traffic in the same kind of attitudes that the Southern plantation owner had. What’s best for me? What makes me happy? How do I benefit myself and my family? Do we consider the needs of others? Do we consider others better than ourselves? See Philippians 2:1-11. Following Christ means that we humble ourselves and put the needs of others ahead of our own. When we don’t do that, we repeat the same errors of the past – although perhaps not in the same way or the same degree.
I contend that the theological compromises that allowed the Southern church to find a place of comfort with a society that was more Greek than Christian still exist among us today. We have too easily found our home here in America amongst the wealth and trappings of power that a successful life in this nation afford us. We have not thought much about how past compromises have affected us down to this very day. We wonder why our children leave our churches and leave the faith? Perhaps one reason is because they know that there is little “there” there and they would rather pursue their own way of life in the world instead of using the church to make their life successful. After all, when personal comfort and happiness is your goal, does it really matter which route you take to attain it?
Perhaps Jesus has a better way for us.

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