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The Heretical South: Slavery and Christian Betrayal

The Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia flies no more on the lawn of the South Carolina capitol grounds. In the rush of emotion that followed Dylan Roof’s killings, the debate among Christians shifted from the subject of race and Christianity to a debate—though it wasn’t really a debate, more of a en-masse screed—on the legacy of historical memory of race and slavery and how memory affects Christian practice. Ink by the boatloads was spilled by throngs of commentators Christian and secular, black and white. But much of the Christian ink seemed little more than the particular commentator adopting the cultural aesthetic of American secular modernity and offering nothing but a latitudinal Christian veneer for the sake of respectability among “Bible-believing” Christians.

The dearth of Christian orthodoxy in Evangelical debate on race may stem from the fact that many American Christians routinely practice a Christianity that simply affirms the American cultural norms of the day but adds a proof-texted scriptural affirmation to said cultural norm. We live, thankfully, in an age and culture that abhors racism. But why do we abhor racism? Usually even Christians appeal to societal conceptions of equality. Our society has decided the cultural ideals of diversity and equality is good and therefore racism is bad. And the usual (but unfortunately fatuous) lip-service offered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ is that Jesus told us to love one another. While well-intentioned, these types of defenses prove anything but enduring. In fact, the conceptions of the society of the moment provide a shaky and unreliable foundation for the Christian to reject racism.

Modern Christians often resort to merely mimicking the culture, tweeting anti-racist platitudes, and throwing a splash of Evangelical affirmation on a discussion dominated by a cultural articulation that more and more rejects Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy. There are very good reasons why racism and symbols coopted by racists, like the Battle Flag, should not be publicly affirmed by orthodox Christians. Few of those reasons, however, have been articulated or noted in the cacophony that tends to parade as public debate in modern American society. Why might (not should—I leave this to the Holy Spirit) a Christian find it distasteful for the state of South Carolina to publicly affirm the Battle Flag? Not because of unexamined notions of equality, or because it is unpopular with the societal grandees of 2015. No, in fact, a main reason for Christians to be critical of the flag is that the Confederate States of America was founded on a societal ideal that increasingly rejected Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy in favor of a culturally driven ideals, ideals that appealed to Christian aesthetics, in order to curry favor with the dispositions of the contemporary cultural elite.

Pro-slavery southern intellectuals, sometimes dubbed the Fire-Eaters, abrogated Christian orthodoxy on race and slavery to make Christianity more palatable to the societal moment. By doing this they knowingly revolted against at least 1500 (probably closer to 1700) years of Christian doctrine and practice.

A longer scope of history easily shows that Christianity had earlier tolerated slavery but generally understood it as a testament to the Fall, not a positive good. Saint Bathilde, queen of the Franks from ca 640-660 AD, outlawed slavery in the Frankish realm after having lived as a slave herself as an adolescent. The Normans ostensibly outlawed most forms of slavery in the years following Hastings. In Christian Iberia, slavery persisted but remained limited to those captured in wars and convicted of crimes. Indeed, Orthodox Christianity never pronounced slavery a societal good or a transcendent facet of Christian human society.1

But starting in the third decade of the nineteenth century, a remarkably swift change occurred amongst American Christians, especially in the South. The change was revolutionary and a rejection of centuries of Christian truth. Historian Lacy K. Ford noted that as late as 1830 orthodoxy affirmed that a slaveholder might be a Christian provided they catechized their slaves, taught them Christian precepts, and allowed them to practice their faiths. Yet, as Ford notes and many slaveholders realized, Christian teaching when taken seriously “made it clear that it was no easy matter for a slaveholder to practice Christianity.” By implication, it was also quite rare for a Christian to practice his faith in a consistent way and to be an enthusiastic slaveholder. Many pre-1830 slaveholders and certainly orthodox Christians understood that slavery was in many ways at war with the Gospel. Some well-intentioned Christians hoped to heal the division between orthodoxy and the culture of the day. Richard Furman, South Carolina’s best known Baptist and the namesake of Furman University, thundered in 1822 that “the right of holding slaves is clearly established in scripture, both by precept and example.” Furman spoke truth, but failed to remind his parishioners that Christian orthopraxy made Christian slaveholding extremely difficult. Furman probably intended well, but he unintentionally spoke a half-truth. He and the brilliant Presbyterian luminary James Henley Thornwell claimed with veracity that Christians society might function with slavery, and that slaveholders might very well be Christians. Solomon Northrup, the subject of Steve McQueen’s Academy Award-winning film Twelve Years A Slave, said as much about his first master, William Ford. In my opinion, claimed Northrup, “there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection.”2

Even the presence of some paternalistic masters who cared for their slaves never freed slavery from being intrinsically at war with Christian ideals. Yet as the nineteenth century progressed, Christians rebelled against the Church’s teachings and proclaimed slavery something to be celebrated. In 1854, a devout Episcopalian, of the Anglo-Catholic bent, from Prince William County, Virginia wrote a treatise on southern society. George Fitzhugh believed in Christ, as American Evangelicals might say. In fact like many Evangelicals today he praised Christian influence on society and the good that people of faith brought to their culture. But unlike American Christians in 2015, Fitzhugh lived in a society that held deep objections and reservations about civil and social equality for African Americans, and also for lower-class whites as well. So convinced about this point was Fitzhugh that he proclaimed “slavery and Christianity bring about a lasting peace, not a ‘hollow truce.’” Fitzhugh saw Christianity as a boon to his theory. African Americans and poor whites seemed incapable of what the societal majority perceived as morality. The only way Fitzhugh saw for slaves and poor whites to be good moral Christians was to change Christian truth and practice. Thus Fitzhugh proclaimed slavery was not an abrogation of the Gospel but was instead the actualization of a Christian civil and social order. A more egregious and dangerous bastardization of the Gospel’s proclamations on slavery is hard to imagine. The precepts of the Protestant Reformation particularly enraged Fitzhugh. That man as an image bearer might be guaranteed a measure of liberty, simply by nature’s law prescribed by nature’s God, infuriated the Virginian. The Confederacy, he proclaimed, was “reactionary and conservative—a rolling back of the excesses of the Reformation—of Reformation run mad—a solemn protest against the doctrines of natural liberty.” That God might mandate through natural law enraged Fitzhugh, who seemed convinced that the southern societal order of 1861 provided the best basis for ordering human behavior.3

Southerners of the Civil War Era embraced an increasingly unorthodox conception of humanity’s origins to justify holding human beings as property. As mentioned, Christians had tolerated slavery, but as a testament to the fall, for over eighteen centuries. Never, however, had Christian orthodoxy proclaimed slavery a positive good. Nor had slave marriages performed by the church been broken up. Slaveholders in the American South eventually refused slaves church marriages en masse, and then fought a war to uphold a system wherein a sizeable number (and most likely a sizeable majority) of Christian slaveholders rejected Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy on the issues of race and slavery. They formed a government, built an army, and fought a war not just to preserve slavery, but for an increasingly unorthodox conception of Christian slavery while they simultaneously rejected long-held understanding of Natural law and God’s created order. Fitzhugh ominously appealed to society to affirm his slave-society.

Our history is a remarkable one; and there is nothing for which it is more remarkable than for the sound judgment and resolute good sense with which the nation, as a whole, has always set to work to cure any positive malady that might disturb its functions. At the same time, it has never troubled itself with imaginary evils, nor sought to make itself speculatively better, when the result would only be, probably, to make itself practically worse.

Fitzhugh sneered at Christians in the North (and even sometimes even in the South) who worried that a reliance on contemporary culture and society might be a shaky foundation for transcendent truth. Christians should worry only about “some palpable wrong, some tangible grievance, some proved abuse” instead of ephemeral, inconvenient, and unworkable ethical and moral truths hidden in eons-old scripture.

George Fitzhugh and Southern intellectuals proved enthusiastic supporters of the Confederate cause. And while the flag that flew in South Carolina was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, to assign it the values Fitzhugh articulated is not a historical overstatement. The battle was itself caused by the secession, and Southern states seceded to defend slavery. The Army of Northern Virginia fought to preserve a republic devoted to maintaining slavery. (An excellent work for any Christian who sees slavery as anything but a primary cause for secession is Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion.) The Battle Flag has, thus, always had this direct association, and it is an association with some measure of heterodoxy. Indeed, the effect of this deviation from orthodoxy was tragically total. Even otherwise generally orthodox Southern intellectuals, with a few exceptions, increasingly affirmed the unorthodox and unbiblical societal formulations of Fitzhugh.

Why did southern Evangelicals (and Catholics and Christians of all sorts) disregard years of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy and embrace pro-slavery ecclesiology and theology? The short answer is that they wished to engage the culture. Slavery enjoyed de facto religious protection (but not necessarily affirmation) in the Colonial Era. Most Colonial Americans, and especially those in the American South, understood slavery as a societal given. Elite slaveholders, who shaped societal and cultural values, typically held looser views, that is to say “less traditional” views, on slavery. In order to gain elite congregants, and in order to engage their culture, orthodox Southern ministers slowly but surely began to preach sermons declaring that slavery, while certainly sinful, surely didn’t represent that much of a societal ill. In a remarkably short time-span, Southern ministers began preaching that slavery was a positive good. Furman’s early conversion was soon joined by Presbyterians like Robert Lewis Dabney. By 1860, the notion that slavery was a positive good was not just extant among southern Christians, it was no longer unusual.

Ironically, a similar breakdown in orthodoxy and orthopraxy has just recently occurred on an issue not unrelated to the history of chattel slavery, though the self-styled progressives would likely not make the connection. And this is where a better grasp of history is essential and why “conservatives” certainly ought not to waste their energy claiming the Lost Cause for themselves. You see, our ongoing marriage controversy does indeed form an interesting parallel to Civil-War humanitarian issues, but in perhaps a way opposite of how it is commonly construed. As Tera Hunter noted in the New York Times, “slaves could not marry legally, they were allowed to do so by custom with the permission of their owners — and most did. But the wedding vows they recited promised not ‘until death do us part,’ but ‘until distance.’” This was anything but traditional Christian practice. The new heretical embrace of slavery actually lead to the destruction of Christian marriage, and slavery’s predilection for destroying the natural family betrayed more than anything the institution’s rebellion against divinely ordered natural law. It was a case of socio-economic pressures and a cultural fixation contradicting Christian tradition and not the other way around. Yet in 2015, self-identified Christians are now celebrating the state’s invasion of marriage as a boon to Christian witness. Matthew Vines, Rachel Held Evans, Jonathan Merritt and others see the church’s orthodoxy and especially its orthopraxy as a stumbling block to Christian unity, a point made particularly clear thanks to cultural advance. So did George Fitzhugh.

Contrary to both the narratives of the paleo-conservatives and the social justice warriors, today’s progressives actually stand in continuity with the motivations of the Confederacy. And so perhaps they ought not be pulling down the Battle Flag after all. It pairs nicely with the rainbow. A more critical evaluation, however, might suggest tossing both.

  1. Paul Fouracre, Richard A. Gerberding (1996), Late Merovingian France: History and Hagiography, 640-720 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press), 97-99; Jonathan Phillips, The Second Crusade: Extending the Frontiers of Christendom (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 260.
  2. Lacy K. Ford, Deliver us From Evil: The Problem of Slavery in the Old South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Solomon Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave.
  3. Fitzhugh, “The Revolutions of 1776 and 1861 Contrasted,” Southern Literary Messenger 37 (1863): 722-23.

By Miles Smith

Dr. Miles Smith IV is assistant professor in the Department of Government, History, and Criminal Justice at Regent University.

5 replies on “The Heretical South: Slavery and Christian Betrayal”

Could we connect the change in how Christians viewed slavery be tied to evolutionary thinking and the subsequent idea of subhuman races?

Miles: I am on vacation, and away from my library . . . but Genovese
argues something quite different on the Christian orthodoxy of the South
(in general)–and especially on the question of the origins of man,
historicity of Adam, etc. According to Genovese, it is the North (generally) that
practiced a type of scientific racism (different races are truly and
fundamentally different, different value, etc.), while the South
(whatever its weaknesses, and again–in general) continued to affirm
that all persons ultimately come from Adam, and hence are all made in
the image of God, are all descendents of Adam–and thus there is a
thoroughgoing unity to the race.

Lewis in Free at Last? notes the difference between Christianity and
Christianity-ism, cultural Christianity. In Letter to Philemon, Paul
argues,”For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a
while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but
more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much
more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (15-16)’ The slave is
your brother, end of story. If you read the book Company H by Sam
Watkins, Confederate soldier, he uses the pro-slavery argument that Noah
meant to curse Ham blue but cursed him black. Very bizarre theology.

Brad and Josiah,

I will let Miles comment directly, but I wanted to point out that his point about heterodox “origins” theory was not actually about the more-commonly talked about polygenesis theories, which were not typically held by Southerners, but rather about the concept that slavery was natural and a positive good, rather than an unfortunate occasionally necessity due to the (unnatural) effects of the Fall.

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