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Was Southern Slavery Really Conservative?

Given the prominence of the legacy of slavery and race at the 2016 Southern Baptist Convention and at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, it stands to reason that discussions over the legacy of race and slavery and their historical relationship with Evangelicalism will continue. Some of these discussions are helpful—one thinks of the dialogue between Thabiti Anyabwile and Doug Wilson—and others are not. They are certainly not new, and they have had an important place in setting the terms and expectations of contemporary political categories. I only write to offer a small historical and contextual corrective in hopes of aiding future conversations

The “Conservative” South

Many Evangelicals identity slavery as a reflexively conservative or reactionary institution because of human bondage’s identification the ostensibly socially  conservative—or sometimes traditionalist—and religious American South. The thematic construction of slavery as a conservative institution owes its origins to antebellum Northern abolitionists seeking to portray the South as intellectually backward and blighted; to post-war Confederate apologies popularizing a romantic “Moonlight and Magnolias” ideal of the South; and finally to Southern progressives in the early twentieth century trying to appeal to the idea of a modern New South shorn of chattel slavery (but, interestingly, not of racism). But in fact most Southerners Evangelicals who supported slavery in the nineteenth century thought of the institution as modern and progressive. As Genovese, and other scholars like Lewis Simpson noted, Southern Evangelicals typically departed from the pro-slavery thought of Calhoun and others because they embraced progress, slavery, and—to their credit and unlike Calhoun—remained committed to Christian orthodoxy.

Evangelicals formed a prominent cadre of pro-slavery thinkers before and during the U.S. Civil War. In his magisterial works on the religious and intellectual lives of pro-slavery Southerners, Eugene D. Genovese argued that far from being pre-modern or pining for Medieval social norms, Southern Evangelicals remained committed to Biblical orthodoxy in a Reformed context. “The South,” Genovese argued, “remained a Christian society, properly reformed in  the Protestant sense, and stood as a bastion against the infidelity and heresies of the bourgeois perversion of modernity, which had bafly flawed the Enlightenment and brought forth the horrors of the French Revolution, the Terror, political radicalism, and growing social disorder.” Pro-slavery Evangelicals believed that their society stood unabashedly for “progress and modernity without the terrible evils that plagued the bourgeois societies.” The South erected “not some refurbished medievalism, with the social stagnation it implied, but a modern and progressive slave society that rested upon time-honored social and spiritual foundations.”1

The Arch of Progress

Government, labor, and their place and nature in society filled the minds of Evangelicals in an era when the people of the United States still thought of themselves as a part of an experiment, albeit one with providential protection. Southerners affirmed the broader national sense of the United States representing an epoch in modern progress. Most Presbyterians across the United States believed that God would guide the Church and society into a future Christian era that would be consummated by the Second Advent of Jesus Christ, an eschatological view popularly known as Postmillennialism. Most prominent Presbyterians proved enthusiastic Postmillennialists. Samuel Miller, the great Princeton Seminary Professor, told his listeners that a time coming “when this world, so long the theater of rebellion against God, and of all that complicated suffering which is the natural offspring of such rebellion—shall be restored to reign of truth, and purity, and peace, and blessedness.” Miller called Postmillennialism “the almost unanimous expectation of all who bear the Christian name…Blessed renovation! Happy World!”2

Southern slaveholding Presbyterians agreed with Postmillennialists that while humans remained depraved and imperfect, God might nonetheless ordain the means of human and natural progress. The birth of the United States certainly didn’t represent some sort of alternative Covenant created with a “New Israel,” but it did serve providential purposes. The editors of the Southern Presbyterian Review applauded modern American material and political progress because “Providence had ordained that a palpable advance should be made, at this time, in the progress of mankind to liberty.” And they believed that slavery held some role in that progress. By the middle of the nineteenth century Southerners argued that slavery formed a vanguard of humanity’s natural progress by placing humans in a more organics institution than in what many Southern Evangelicals saw as dehumanizing industrial capitalism.3

A “Fix” For Modern Capitalism

Slavery was also used by Southerners as something of a solution to the excesses of industrial capitalism. For example, George D. Armstrong, pastor of Norfolk, Virginia’s First Presbyterian Church, argued vehemently against the scientific theories of the day that relegated African Americans to sub-human status. He also believed that human society would eventually move beyond industrialism and capitalism, which he saw as dehumanizing blights on natural moral progress.  But curiously to modern readers, he praised slavery as a providential modern social instrument.

“Of the remedial operation of slavery,” Armstrong argued, “we have a striking illustration in the case of the African race in our own country. In the history of nations, it would be difficult to find an instance in which a people have made more rapid progress upward and onward than the African race has made under the operation of American slavery.” Armstrong believed that slaves weren’t ready for self-government. But he claimed them as image bearers and believed that they would eventually exercise every political and social right available to white Americans. “That it may take generations yet, to accomplish the gracious purposes of God in inflicting slavery upon them, is very possible.” In Armstrong’s analysis, slavery brought undeniable progress. It is noteworthy that few if any Southern Presbyterian divines claimed that slavery provided a perfect solution, but many agreed with William L. Breckenridge when he lectured abolitionists on the unorthodoxy of their moral perfectionism. Slavery, Southern Evangelicals believed, allowed the South to hold to orthodoxy and aid in natural moral progress.4

Presbyterian Evangelicals in particular filled the ranks of university professors in the South and exerted an influence upon Southern intellectual life, especially regarding the nature of a slave society. Joseph LeConte, a devout Presbyterian layman, argued that while free labor might suffice for a modernizing state, “as a permanent condition, it is necessarily a failure.” Free labor, in LeConte’s analysis, was an imperfect and often dirty vehicle to a more organic and permanent slave society. “The alternative must eventually be between slavery and some form of organized labor, circumstances, perhaps beyond our control, determining which of these will prevail in different countries.”5

Nineteenth Century Presbyterians never privileged individualism as a facet of modernity. Slavery’s denial of human agency seemed less threatening to divines who insisted that growing political and social association, instead of autonomy, represented natural human progress. John Adger, a Presbyterian minister in Charleston, South Carolina, declared that God “destined man for society and civilization. These and not barbarism and personal savage independence, are his natural state.” Consequently, he argued, “all those rights and various subordinations of personal condition, which are necessary to the perfection of society and to the full development of humanity, are strictly and perfectly natural.” Human association, instead of autonomy, “is as truly natural to which nature in its progress invariably conducts us, as that which is actually born with us.”6

When they compared their society to the North and to increasingly industrial Europe, Southerners applauded the progress they saw in their society. Presbyterian minister A.A. Porter that southern Evangelicals were “well content to remain as we are – a slaveholding people – and invite the world to compare us with our neighbors.” Porter believed that the rest of the world would envy the modern society and moral progress actuated by slavery. The very lack of individual autonomy inherent in slave societies convinced southerners that they stood as a paragon of modernity governed by Christian orthodoxy in a barbaric and lawless nineteenth century increasingly governed by what they perceived to be dehumanizing cruelty associated with capitalism and industrialism.7


Why is this important? It is important because it should be seen that slavery in the American South was not simply a conservation of an ancient way of life, even if it was an attempt to defend the status quo. Rather, Southern slavery was in many ways a progressive reaction to the challenges of modernity, especially economic and social changes having to do with industrial capitalism. In many non-trivial ways, it was the slave-owners who foreshadowed the 20th century’s own instrumentalizing of human life in the service of cultural progress.

  1. Eugene D. Genovese, The Slaveholders’ Dilemma, 7; Lewis P. Simpson, “The South’s Reaction to Modernism: A Problem in the Study of Southern Letters,” in Louis D. Rubin Jr., and C. Hugh Holman eds., Southern Literary Study (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), 55.
  2. Howard Miller, The Revolutionary College: American Presbyterian Higher Education, 1707-1837 (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1976), 93.
  3. “Church and State,” Southern Presbyterian Review 3 (1850): 211
  4. George D. Armstrong, The Christian Doctrine of Slavery (New York: Charles Scribner, 1857), 110-1; William L. Breckenridge, Letters Addressed to the Members of the Presbyterian Churches under the Care of the Synod of Kentucky (Danville: Dismukes, 1835) 8-20.
  5. Joseph LeConte, “The Relation of Organic Science to Sociology, Southern Presbyterian Review 13 (1860): 59.
  6. John Adger, “The Christian Doctrine of Human Rights and Slavery,” Southern Presbyterian Review, 2(1848–1849), 570, 571.
  7. A.A. Porter, “North and South,” Southern Presbyterian Review 3 (1850): 365.

By Miles Smith

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