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American Thought and Southern Distinctiveness: The Southern Clergy and the Sanctification of Slavery Mitchell Snay On the EVE of secession, the Rev. Benjamin M. Palmer insisted that the impending crisis between the North and South was rooted in an irreconcilable disagreement over slavery that was, "in its origins, a question of morals and religion." Like the New Orleans Presbyterian minister, the clergy of the antebellum South clearly recognized the intimate connection between religion and slavery. When Northern abolitionists had contended that slavery was a sin, the South looked to its clergy to uphold the morality of the peculiar institution. In response, the Southern clergy forged an indissoluble union between religion, morality, and slavery. They developed an elaborate scriptural defense ofhuman bondage, devised a slaveholding ethic to guide the conduct ofmasters toward their servants, and called for religious missions to bring the gospel to the slaves. From the abolitionist crisis of 1835 to secession, the Southern clergy had positioned itself firmly in the proslavery camp. Sanctifying the cause ofslavery was the most visible and perhaps the most important contribution religion made to the emergence of Southern nationalism.1 Forever fond of anomalies, historians have long been intrigued by the dilemmas posed by a Christian clergy defending human bondage. Traditionally , religious historians have tended to portray proslavery Christianity as an aberration from the liberal mainstream of American religion. It was explained away as a contrivance, motivated by either the fear or selfinterest of Southern clergymen.2 More recently, however, historians have I would like to thank David H. Donald, Stanley M. Elkins, Eugene D. Genovese, Michael O'Brien, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, and especially Marvin Myers for theircomments, criticisms, and suggestions on earlier versions of this essay. 1 Fast Day Sermons: Or The Pulpit on the State of the Country (New York: Rudd & Carlton, 1861), 61. 2 Jack P. Maddex, Jr., " 'The Southern Apostacy' Revisited: The Significance of Proslavery Christianity," Marxist Perspectives 7 (Fall 1979): 132-36. For a succinct and incisive Civil War History, Vol. XXXV, No. 4. © 1989 by the Kent State University Press 312CIVIL WAR HISTORY approached proslavery Christianity with new perspectives and an increasing objectivity. Their studies have followed two major lines of inquiry. First, they have sought to place proslavery Christianity back into the mainstream ofAmerican religious and social thought. Donald G. Mathews, for example, has shown with insight and sensitivity how the slaveholding ethic was as logical a deduction from Evangelicalism as was antislavery and other benevolent reforms popular in the North.3 Larry E. Tise, in an important study of the origins of proslavery ideology, has argued that Southern clerical defenders ofslavery were strongly influenced by New England Federalist thought.4 It now seems evident that rather than a mutant offspring of American liberal religion, proslavery Christianity was a logical, and hence legitimate, product of American ideas and values. Second, recent interpretations of the religious defense of slavery have followed the newer approach to proslavery as an ideology, "a key to wider patterns of beliefs and values" in Southern society.5 Jack P. Maddex, for instance, has argued that proslavery Christianity was "a conservative religious expression ofa class ideology."6 An important statement of the relationship between religion, slavery and ideology in the Old South has recently emerged in a series ofarticles by Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. They argue that over the course of the antebellum decades the defense ofblack slavery moved toward an ideal ofslavery as a model for other social relations. Explaining how religion "developed in large part as the world view ofa modern slave society enmeshed in an increasingly capitalist Atlantic world," they also suggest that the divine sanction of slavery led inexorably toward an attack on bourgeois capitalism.7 review of recent literature onsecular proslavery thought see Drew Gilpin Faust "The Peculiar South Revisited: White Society, Culture and Politics in the Antebellum Period, 1800-1860," in Interpeting Southern History: Historiographical Essays in Honor ofSanford W. Higginbotham , ed. John B. Boles and Evelyn Thomas Nolen (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1987), 102-6. 3 Donald G. Mathews, Religion in the OldSouth (Chicago: VnW. of Chicago Press, 1977), 137-84. 4 Larry E. Tise, Proslavery: A History ofthe Defense ofSlavery...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 311-328
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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