(Image Source: Wikipedia)
It’s time for another entry in the ongoing series “The Preachers”, in which I look at some of the United States’ most influential spiritual/religious leaders. All of the previous entries are of people who had their biggest impact in the 20th Century, even if they were born in the 19th. This post, however, will take us back to the Antebellum Period, when the Industrial Revolution was just taking off in the North and cotton was king in the South. Oh, and there were thousands and thousands and thousands of Black slaves.
The slaves, coming from various countries (mostly in west Africa), originally spoke different languages and followed different religions. From Kimberly Sambol-Tosco at PBS:
At the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, African religious beliefs and practices were numerous and varied. In addition to a wide variety of polytheistic religions, a significant portion of the continent had for centuries fallen under Islamic influence. Despite this diversity, there were some common threads across cultural groups. For instance, West African societies, the largest source for American slaves, shared a belief in a Supreme Creator, a chief deity among lesser gods, to whom they prayed and made sacrifices. Through laws and customs honoring the gods, the ancestors of one’s people, and the elderly, West Africans sought a harmonious balance between the natural and spiritual worlds. Further, they made music and dance vital components of their worship practices. Enslaved men and women kept the rites, rituals, and cosmologies of Africa alive in America through stories, healing arts, song, and other forms of cultural expression, creating a spiritual space apart from the white European world.
Africans and African descendents working in the early modern Atlantic commercial system were exposed to the world of European Christianity as early as the fifteenth century, when Portuguese missionaries came to the coasts of Africa. Some slaves, therefore, brought Christian beliefs with them when they were thrust into slavery. Others converted in America. During the seventeenth century blacks in the Dutch New Netherlands and Spanish Florida baptized their children and were married by the church. In part, this participation in the dominant European religion reflected (and helped to bring about) a colonial society in which blacks were more fully integrated and enjoyed greater rights than later generations of slaves would.
But the experiences of African slaves under those crowns were not the same as those living in the British colonies that later became the U.S. More:
During the early eighteenth century Anglican missionaries attempting to bring Christianity to slaves in the Southern colonies often found themselves butting up against not only uncooperative masters, but also resistant slaves. An unquestionable obstacle to the acceptance of Christianity among slaves was their desire to continue to adhere as much as possible to the religious beliefs and rituals of their African ancestors. Missionaries working in the South were especially displeased with slave retention of African practices such as polygamy and what they called idolatrous dancing. In fact, even blacks who embraced Christianity in America did not completely abandon Old World religion. Instead, they engaged in syncretism, blending Christian influences with traditional African rites and beliefs.
As late as 1800 most slaves in the U.S. had not been converted to Christianity. In the years that followed, however, widespread Protestant Evangelicalism, emphasizing individual freedom and direct communication with God, brought about the first large-scale conversion of enslaved men and women. At first, itinerant ministers, captivating large audiences at revivals and camp meetings across the North and South during the middle part of the century, reached only a small percentage of the slave population with their calls to Christianity. Larger numbers of black men and women were converted during the resurgence and intensification of revivalism during the Second Great Awakening of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Whereas an earlier generation of evangelical preachers had opposed slavery in the South during the early nineteenth century, Protestant clergymen began to defend the institution, invoking a Christian hierarchy in which slaves were bound to obey their masters.
Slaves baptized in a Moravian congregation, drawing entitled “Excorcism-Baptism of the Negroes” in a German history of the Moravians (United Brethren) in Pennsylvania, 1757 (detail) (Image and Caption via National Humanities Center)
Enter Charles Colcock Jones, a Presbyterian pastor, educator, and plantation owner from Georgia. Born in 1804, he would attend a number of prominent seminaries, including Princeton, in preparation for ministry. While he had qualms about the morality of people owning people, he never did come around to freeing his own slaves (shocker). Jones wasn’t alone in this “conundrum”. In “Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Growing Deity“, Matthew Paul Turner writes:
In the 1840s, God was a slave owner. In fact, God had been championing slavery in America almost from the beginning. America’s pro-slave-owning God was, by most people’s accounts, the same God who’d spent the last forty-some years manifesting spiritual havoc in America, giving people the Holy Ghost shakes, slaying them prostrate, paralyzing their bodies, and slowly molding America into one nation under himself.
Believing that God was a proponent of slavery made sense to many Christians at the time. After all, owning slaves was addressed in the Bible as a functioning part of everyday society. In the Book of Titus, chapter two, the Apostle Paul wrote: Exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things. Paul also addressed “servants” in the Book of Ephesians, chapter six: Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ. Like the majority of America’s Christians, fans of slavery cherry-picked the parts of the Bible that worked best with their lifestyle. Besides having the support of the holy scriptures, slave owners also had the support of some of America’s best-known Christian saints. How could you argue against the spiritual logic of Jonathan Edwards, the great Calvinist orator who was famous for promoting God’s passion for roasting souls over hellfire? In spite of his “glory,” Edwards’s dirty well-known secret was that he owned slaves. Though his son, Jon Jr., eventually joined the abolitionist movement, Edwards himself remained a slave owner until he died in 1758.
Another proponent for slavery was George Whitefield. In addition to lobbying on behalf of slavery in his favored state of Georgia, he was known for trying to rectify his potentially guilty conscience by looking for contextual possibilities (or lame excuses) within the biblical narrative. In a letter to a friend from Great Britain, Whitefield wrote:
As for the lawfulness of keeping slaves, I have no doubt, since I hear of some that were bought with Abraham’s money, and some that were born in his house. And I cannot help thinking, that some of those servants mentioned by the Apostles in their epistles, were or had been slaves. It is plain, that the Gibeonites were doomed to perpetual slavery, and though liberty is a sweet thing to such as are born free, yet to those who never knew the sweets of it, slavery perhaps may not be so irksome.
However, the grossest and most ludicrous way in which Whitefield spiritually condoned slavery was by celebrating how many of his own slaves experienced “new birth.” Later in the same letter he wrote, “It rejoiced my soul, to hear that one of my poor negroes in Carolina was made a brother in Christ.”
Whitefield often wrote or spoke about the evangelism of slaves as if “hearing the Gospel” made being owned all better.
I’ll pause here to note my utter disgust with those quotes, those men, and with the topic in general. Reading these men twist, turn, and mutilate Scripture to try to justify their own evil is revolting. But this HAPPENED. The great leaders and founders of many of the nation’s first governments, schools and churches were also slaveowners. It’s insulting that so many Christians of today want to seemingly whitewash over this ugly bit of their denominations’ histories. Or downplay the horror of it all by saying “That was just how people were back then.” Uh, no. Turner notes that Christians such as John Wesley and Francis Asbury weren’t about that life, and vehemently opposed it.
I’m a Christian, born in the U.S., a woman of color. In the last few years, I’ve personally watched as a number of people, in my same demographic, have dropped out of the Christian Church, and for some, it’s tied to the way people like Jones and all of his spiritual descendants are lauded without even a cursory acknowledgement that the man held people as possessions for decades. Take for example this entry at This Day In Presbyterian History which honored Jones as “A Martyr in His Missionary Zeal to Evangelize Blacks”. “Martyr”? He wasn’t killed but died at age 59, which it being the 1860’s was not really considered premature. The post then ends with “In 1863, he went to his heavenly home, where color lines do not count among the saints.” Thankfully with the Union winning the Civil War two years later, at least his slaves gained some freedom, even if the earthly color lines would keep them constrained.
Sigh. Big digression, I know, but this stuff is hard to stomach. But let’s look at Jones’ own words in his seminal 1842 book, “The Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the United States“:
From childhood we have been accustomed to their slovenly, and too frequently, their scanty dress; to their broken English, ignorance, vulgarity, and vice. What in them would disgust or grieve a stranger, or truly afflict us if seen in white persons, we pass by with little or no impression, as a matter of course;–they are Negroes. Their character is held in low estimation, throughout the United States; and, considering what it is, not without reason; for that character cannot be esteemed which in itself is not estimable. Whatever is idle, dissolute, criminal, and worthless, attaches to them. Unconsciously, or rather, instinctively, we determine what the fruits must be from their known character, condition, and circumstances; and when they do appear, we are not surprised. We say, “What better can be expected?”
Such a general corruption of morals as would blast the reputation of any white community, is known to exist among them; and yet how unaffected are we by it? Indeed, the habit of our mind is to consider them in a state of moral degradation; to expect little that is truly excellent and praiseworthy; and to feel lightly, and to pass over as well as we can, what is revolting in them. We are disposed not to try them as we would others by that standard which is holy, just, and good; but by a low and worldly standard, accommodated to their character and circumstances. Vice seems to lose its hideousness in proportion as it shades itself in black; as in painting, with black we obliterate the warm light and soft shades, and native hues, which gave depth and life and beauty to the picture, and the eye rests upon the dark, dead surface without emotion.
So Blacks were slovenly, immoral and full of vice; why look at paintings, the color black just obscures and destroys the beauty of the rest of the colors of the art, and Black people are just like black paint. Or something. More:
At the head of the varieties of the human race, stands the fair, or Caucasian variety; “which,” to use the language of another, “has given birth to the most civilized nations of ancient and modern times, and has exhibited the moral and intellectual powers of human nature in their highest degree of perfection” At the foot, stands the black or Ethiopian variety, “which has ever remained in a rude and barbarous state; and been looked upon and treated as inferior by all the other varieties of the human race, from time immemorial.”
Jones takes great care to extol Southern Whites, such as himself, while trashing Northern Whites, in the way they relate to their “Lessers”, the Negroes. The Northern Whites, in his estimation, were uppity, praising their “free” Colored men with obviously false attributes of being hardworking and peaceful, in order to support their false belief that they were more moral than their Southern counterparts.
In the South we spiritedly repel the charge of the injustice of the present constitution of society, by referring our opponents to the sacred scriptures, which afford us their support, and to the argument drawn from expediency and necessity. On the charge of inhumanity we appeal to the ample provision of food and clothing; to the attention paid to the sick and the aged; to the lightness of the labor and the punishments; and to the good health, the spirits, and increase of the people in question. We compare their physical comfort and the amount of labor which they perform, with that of the laboring classes in England and on the continent of Europe and elsewhere, and we do not suffer at all by the comparison.
Still, Jones does take Southern masters to task for not spreading the Gospel to the slaves. After all, it was a Christian nation, and it was a mandate to “go forth”, even to the “foot” of humanity. But where to start?
If we take the mass of the slave population, properly speaking, we shall find but little family government, and for the reason that parents are not qualified, neither are they so circumstanced as to be able to fulfil perfectly the duties devolving upon them as such.
Never mind that slave parents had no legal rights to actually parent their kids. Moms and dads couldn’t actually marry, could not prevent any member of their family being lent to or sold off to another master at any time. They were PROPERTY.
Nor can the adult Negro acquaint himself with duty and the way of salvation through the reading of the Scriptures, any more than can the child. Of those that do read, but few read well enough for the edification of the hearers. Not all the colored preachers read.
Darn the legal strictures that the slavemasters created, enforced and continued practicing that made things so tricky for slaves! Jones cautions White ministers to be very careful with enslaved converts, since many tend to hold secret error-filled beliefs:
All the various perversions of the Gospel are to be met with, and more than probable, pushed to extremes. Antinomianism is not uncommon, and at times, in its worst forms. “Christ,” is made “the minister of sin”– the Christian is safe, do what he may. To know the extent of their ignorance even where they have been accustomed to the sound of the Gospel in white churches, a man should make investigation for himself–the result will frequently surprise and fill him with grief. They scarcely feel shame for their ignorance on the subject of religion, although they may have had abundant opportunity of becoming wiser. Ignorance, they seem to feel, is their lot; and that feeling is intimately associated with another, every way congenial to the natural man, namely, a feeling of irresponsibility– ignorance is a cloak and excuse for crime.
Intimately connected with their ignorance, is their superstition. They believe in second-sight, in apparitions, charms, witchcraft, and in a kind of irresistible Satanic influence. The superstitions brought from Africa have not been wholly laid aside. Ignorance and superstition render them easy dupes to their teachers, doctors, prophets, conjurers; to artful and designing men. When fairly committed to such leaders, they may be brought to the commission of almost any crime. Facts in their history prove this. On certain occasions they have been made to believe that while they carried about their persons some charm with which they had been furnished, they were invulnerable. They have, on certain other occasions, been made to believe that they were under a protection that rendered them invincible. That they might go anywhere and do anything they pleased, and it would be impossible for them to be discovered or known; in fine, to will was to do–safely, successfully. They have been known to be so perfectly and fearfully under the influence of some leader or conjurer or minister, that they have not dared to disobey him in the least particular; nor to disclose their own intended or perpetrated crimes, in view of inevitable death itself; not withstanding all other influences brought to bear upon them.
Ignorant, superstitious, and thieves! Stupendous thieves! Liars and fighters, too! Unkind, violent, drunk, and constantly cursing. So why burden themselves? Because God wants all to be saved, even the “worst”:
It was by the permission of Almighty God, in his inscrutable providence over the affairs of men, that the Negroes were taken from Africa and transported to these shores.
Being brought here they were brought as slaves; in the providence of God we were constituted masters; superiors; and constituted their guardians. And all the laws in relation to them, civilly, socially, and religiously considered, were framed by ourselves. They thus were placed under our control, and not exclusively for our benefit but for theirs also.
… the kind of slavery that existed among the Jews was that allowed in the Old Testament; which may be considered identical with that which prevails amongst us at the present time; and no one will deny that the slavery which existed among the Greeks and Romans and Gentile nations, was identical with our own. All authentic history, and the codification of the Roman laws made in the reign of Justinian, prove it. The slaves were more heterogenous in their national origin, than ours. Among them however existed Negroes: and in no small numbers. Indeed a traffic in Negro slaves had been carried on for centuries before Isabella gave permission for their transportation to these western shores; and they were sold, and scattered over all the east. When therefore the New Testament addresses commands to Masters, we are the identical persons intended.
We are Masters in the New Testament sense. We are addressed as directly and as identically, as when we are Fathers, and it is said “Fathers provoke not your children to wrath.” And what are these commands? “And ye Masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in Heaven: neither is there respect of persons with him.” Eph. 6: 9.
So Jones, in a few paragraphs links Old Testament law with New Testament Pauline commands directly to 1800’s White American Southern slaveowners, even going so far as saying, “we are the identical persons intended.” Cast as neo-Israel, the Negroes as the reoccuring slaves throughout time immemorial, the White slavemaster must due his duty as predestined by God.
Jones died a couple of years before the Confederates lost the Civil War, but his teachings, a perverse combination of white supremacy, Calvinistic theology, Evangelicalism and Southern norms, have continued on, generation after generation. Sadly, the reluctance of too many Christians today to reckon with this hateful heritage has not gone unnoticed by those outside of the church. Either we ALL deal with this, or others will. And others…. and others…