Southern white Christians were not confused about slavery

The Rev. William Sachs, of Richmond’s St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church recently reviewed R. David Cox’s new religious biography of Robert E. Lee in the RTD. The book traces the development of Lee’s religious beliefs and explores how those beliefs shaped his courses of action in the secession crisis, war, and post-war world. I haven’t actually read Cox’s book (yet), but I wanted to chew on some of Sachs’ observations, because I see them all the time.

Sachs follows Cox’s explanation of mid-19th century evangelicals’ views on providentialism, sin, and action, but is tripped up by what appears to be a contradiction regarding slavery, “what sort of religion,” Sachs asks, “allowed such wrong?” He is so incredulous that he repeats the question, “how could Christian faith allow slavery and oppose its abolition?”

Christians today so thoroughly identify with the abolitionist and the Civil Rights-era interpretation of scripture, that any deviation is deemed hypocritical, delusional, heretical, and sinful. This view of a Civil Rights Christianity is so self-evidently sound and settled that we can hardly imagine that debate ever existed or that the abolitionist view was once the heretical, innovative, outsider to an orthodox Christianity.

Sachs searches for an explanation that I also see quite a lot. It includes two parts. First, “Lee, like others in his family saw slavery as evil, even as they owned human beings.” Again, I haven’t read this book, so I don’t know how Cox explains what Lee actually said, but this explanation allows slaveholders to have a moral conscience in accordance with ours while being helpless victims of 19th century material realities. At worst, they’re guilty of failing to turn belief into action, but they were ok because they “saw slavery as evil.”

The second part is this: “His turn to leadership of Southern forces was no defense of slavery in his mind. He expressed a sense of duty to his family and a way of life.” I see this frequently, not just in religious circles, but also in broader explanations for Confederate motivations. It compartmentalizes slavery, separates it from other categories like honor, family, home, and nationalist visions. This allows us to set slavery aside—yeah, it was bad, they knew that; we know that; but it was an aberration that didn’t have anything to do with larger motivations.

It all boils down to a notion that they couldn’t possibly have believed in slavery because as good Christians, they couldn’t have. But this is wrong. They believed in slavery because they were good Christians. Proslavery theology serves as a much more satisfying explanation for what we see than describing them as tragically confused.

Sarah Valentine, a young Richmonder and teacher in a black Sunday School at St. James Episcopal Church succinctly summarized a generation’s worth of evangelical (and Episcopalian) thinking on slavery and Christianity when she wrote in 1860,

God hath in a mysterious union forever united the master and slave. Man may not, man cannot put them asunder. Ah when the great day on which all hearts shall stand revealed arrives,–we shall not tremble at the thought that we enslaved our brother, but if we have neglected to observe the meaning of that providence that led us thus to act, then shall we find ourselves indeed “unprofitable servants” to the best of Masters. Irrevocable then will be our doom. Ah do not those on whom this mighty work has fallen, seem to meet the prayers instead of imprecations of world.

White Christians (they discerned from the Bible and discovered in providence) had a sacred obligation to enslave blacks, to better bring them to Christ. When white Christians condemned slavery as evil, they invariably did so when slaveowners failed to fulfill that sacred obligation. Alleviation of the evils of slavery, then, was not an end to slavery, but an improvement of it. The Diocese of Virginia promoted this view repeatedly in the 1850s with initiatives they called “Religious Instruction of the Colored People.

Robert E. Lee’s fellow Christians not only regarded slavery as a divine obligation to fulfill, but viewed it as integral to every other part of life. Christian slaveholding upheld honor, and because slavery and Christianity worked together to  temper the allegedly violent impulses of black people, in a direct way it ensured the safety of households and families. White Christians sneered at northern “philanthropists” who called for abolition because that would not only violate God’s providence, but also expose southern white families to rape and murder (and blacks to extinction). Our explanations, then, cannot compartmentalize slavery—it was integral and essential to their larger view of the world; the world they sought to defend by secession. Even in the middle of the Civil War, Christian clergy gathered in Richmond to affirm this: “men in deadly contention wrestle in fields of blood, protesting against the crimes that, in the name of liberty and philanthropy, are attempted!” Those crimes were, very explicitly, emancipation and its consequences.

Academics understand proslavery Christianity fairly well, but because this prevalence to convolute an explanation for Christian slaveholding (they were mistaken!) by the wider public suggests that academic inquiries have limited reach. This has consequences. To deeply absorb and understand that proslavery Christians (e.g.—most white southern Christians) actually believed what they said opens the door for the work of more authentic historical accountability. And it helps us better articulate and understand how white supremacy worked and has evolved into whatever form it has today. Slavery, after all, was just the beginning of this. But I believe that standing up and simply saying you’re mistaken is not an effective approach to solving today’s problems any more than it is to understanding and explaining the past. Confronting this history prepares us to do better today.

[Please note: I don’t know Rev. Sachs, but he has an outstanding reputation as the director of the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation here in Richmond, and a leader in bridge-building with the Muslim community. This post is my reaction to larger questions I frequently encounter that I see reflected in his words, but should in no way be construed as a criticism of him or his perspective.]

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