Southern Cultures 10.4 (2004) 55-75
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King Solomon's Dilemma— and the Confederacy's
Eugene D. Genovese
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| Figure 1 |
In order to break the historical cycle of glory followed by decline, southerners knew that they had to earn divine favor. By the time this sheet music cover was printed in Confederate Richmond, they had long been pleading, "God Save the South." Courtesy of the collections of the Library of Congress.
"Think, too, how difficult it would be, even if you were fighting feeble opponents, to preserve the purity of your religion, and how you will be forced to transgress the very laws which furnish your chief hope of making God your ally, and so will alienate Him.... But if in the war you transgress your ancestral Law, I don't see what you have left to fight for, since your one desire is that none of your ancestral customs should be broken. How then will you be able to call the Deity to your aid, if you deliberately deny Him the service that is His due?"
The dream. The slaveholding South could do what no society or nation had ever done: avoid moral decay and thereby break the historical cycle of power, glory, and greatness followed by corruption, decadence, and collapse through which all nations and empires have passed. The classical cyclical theory of history,
most notably associated with Polybius, deeply impressed educated southerners, especially those active in the intellectual and moral defense of slavery. Yet these same southerners also embraced the broadside attack on cyclical theory launched by Augustine and other Christian thinkers. The Greek and Roman classics and the Bible constituted the foundations of southern education, but they did not always make comfortable bed partners. "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" asked Tertullian, the eminent and controversial Christian writer of the second and third centuries B.C. "What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians?" Southerners, having been schooled in the philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, answered that Athens had a good deal to do with Jerusalem, that philosophy and science were essentially compatible with Christian doctrine.2
Proslavery theorists aspired to break the cycle by establishing a "Christian society" resistant to the corruption and collapse that had bedeviled all preceding societies but need not be considered inevitable. For those who sought to create a cycle-breaking South, realization of the dream depended upon the Christian character of the slave society they were intent on building. Before and after secession the churches preached against a broad variety of transgressions, from the overarching sins of pride and envy to such specifics as Sabbath-breaking, violation of family norms, and "extortion," or wartime price-gouging, as well as the abuses attendant upon slaveholding. For while all but a handful of preachers firmly endorsed slavery as God-ordained, they also spoke out against its abuse at [End Page 56] the hands of irresponsible and cruel masters. If southerners did not live up to Christian standards in their daily lives and, in particular, bring slavery up to Abramic standards, they warned, a wrathful God would use the heathen Yankees, as He had used heathens of yore, to smite his Chosen People. For southern Christians, then, the war of 1861-1865 was a test of their faithfulness to God—a test they failed.3
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| Figure 2 |
Southern clergy generally defended their region's institution of slavery as divinely ordained—but they recognized that it did not yet meet relatively benign Abramic standards. Interior of a slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia, courtesy of the collections of the Library of Congress.
Long before Appomattox the Bible to which southern Christians appealed as guide and court of last resort mocked them. During the eighteenth century a shift took place from a literal reading of the Bible as history—historical referents for biblical stories—to a textual reading that offered the most plausible explanation as evidence of an accurate report of...