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V T H E S O U L S O F M E N The Negro's Spiritual Nature DESPITE THEIR INTIMATE CONTACTS WITH NEGROES, THE American colonists generally made little conscious effort to assess the nature of the people they enslaved and took to bed. They felt no pressing need for assessment because both the Negro and slavery were, by and large, self-explanatory. Negroes were people from Africa bought for the purpose of performing labor. What fact could be more obvious and natural, less demanding of explanation? There were strains, of course, beneath this calm surface of placid acceptance. Even when the colonists did not "think" about the Negro, they felt the tug of two opposing ways of looking at his essential nature. One view derived from his uniquely base status in colonial society. In all societies men tend to extrapolate from social status to actual inherent character, to impute to individuals characteristics suited to their social roles. As one member of a much older slave society put it, some men were "slaves by nature." In the face of Aristotle's contention, the societies in the Western tradition have always minimized this tendency and have emphasized the contrary idea that all individuals possess inherently the same fundamental nature. This emphasis originally drew much of its strength from the doctrines of Christianity, and still in the seventeenth century any assertion of human unity was bound to be made in religious terms. No matter in what terms asserted, though, the deep sense of the oneness of humanity clashed head on with the sense that the lowly members of society must necessarily be possessed of low nature. Inevitably then, the introduction of chattel slavery by Europeans into their American settlements was an invitation to conflict. There were inherent conflicts and tensions long before the abolition movement , the Civil War, and more recent crises. Perhaps it is a credit to Western culture, however, that there was any tension at all. l>79] W H I T E O V E R B L A C K 1. CHRISTIAN PRINCIPLES AND THE FAILURE OF CONVERSION Indications of internal stress bubbled quickly to the surface because the Christian tradition demanded that the souls of men be given spiritual care while still on earth; not just some souls but all, for Christianity was on this point firmly universalist. The obligation of English Christians to convert Indians and Negroes was as obvious and undeniable in the eighteenth century as it had been two hundred years earlier. Yet many of the Englishmen who settled in America proved reluctant or downright unwilling to meet this obligation. In part their failure was owing to practical considerations arising from the exigencies of plantation management. Inescapably, however, since conversion was the necessary outward manifestation of the assumption of inner sameness in all men, any opposition to conversion—even when grounded on "necessity"— represented direct denial of inner similarity between the master and his lowly slave. Furthermore, by allowing slaves to remain unconverted , masters were perpetuating the outward differences between the two peoples, and thus in an important sense opposition to conversion fed upon itself. Not only is it extremely difficult to sort out the practical considerations underlying opposition to conversion of Negroes from more subtle sources of hostility, but it is impossible to determine just how much opposition there actually was. Most of the evidence of opposition derives from indignant assertions by men keenly interested in seeing conversion accomplished. These men, usually members of the clergy, can scarcely be regarded as disinterested observers. It is possible, however, to infer from their reports a good deal about the attitudes of slaveowners: amid the blare of trumpets rallying Christians to the work of God one can easily detect the shuffle of dragging feet. The first hurdle in the path of conversion was the vague but persistent notion that no Christian might lawfully hold another Christian as a slave. Unless something was done to clear up this matter, missionaries to the Negroes were going to run into insurmountable opposition at every turn. For roughly half a century after 1660, legislative assemblies in the colonies, colonial officials in England, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (the S.P.G.), the Church of England, and ministers of colonial churches cooperated in stuffing this somewhat amorphous but [i8o] The Souls of Men inconveniently persistent notion into the trash can.1 Long before 1729, when the Crown's attorney-general and solicitor-general...


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