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Lecture 8, The Convenient Sin, by Dr.  Terry Matthews

A House Divided

        This chapter may have been part of a course on Religion in America taught in 1995, by Dr. Matthews, who was a United Methodist clergyman and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Religion at Duke and / or Wake Forest University]. I got it from the W F U web site, but it was no longer there as of 05 / 26 / 12.

As the anti-slavery movement in the South was being displaced by a rising tide of sentiment that held slavery to be a positive good, one should be sensitive to the religious dynamic at work in this shift.  The growing assault on slavery from outside the region and the extreme defensiveness that it produced were both rooted in the revivals of the Second Great Awakening.
        The attack on Slavery, for instance, was financed in large part by Arthur and Lewis Tappan, two prosperous merchants converted in the revivals of the Second Great Awakening.  They poured their fortune into the effort to end slavery through "immediate emancipation, to be accomplished gradually."  They financed the issuing of countless tracts, as well as the forming of societies and state conventions to advance the cause of abolition.  Many of those drawn to the abolition movement by their efforts were also converts from the revivals of the Second Great Awakening, and were attracted to this effort to purge the nation of the sinful stain of slavery.
        The attacks on slavery mounted by the Abolitionists stung Southern evangelicals, and denominational authorities from both North and South reacted strongly to the abolitionist campaign.  One example of this reactivity was the effort made by Methodists to gag abolitionists in the church, who were deemed to be a threat to the order of the church.  The Bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church ordered their preachers "to abstain from all abolition movements and associations, and to refrain from patronizing any of their publications."  They were willing to take this step because they feared that such advocacy might hurt the patronage of the church in the South.  Nor were the Methodists alone in this.  Roman Catholic bishops did something very similar, when they refused to pronounce slavery an evil.
        Another response to the growing campaign of the abolitionists was the effort on the part of Southern religious leaders to ground the institution of slavery in ultimate reality.  Slavery was part of the divine plan, they argued.  Not only did God's Word make it clear that slavery was not evil, it was, in fact, a part of the divinely established social order.
        At the same time they sought to ground slavery in ultimate reality, Southern religious leaders also sought to defend the Bible from attack.  Already questions were being raised about whether the Bible was literally true.  It had already been noticed, for instance that while the Bible attributes its first five books to the authorship of Moses, these books include the story of his death.  Now, the South felt it necessary to defend the Bible as inerrant truth, with no mixture of error because Southerners came to believe that anything that threatened to undermine the authority of scripture also undermined one of their best defenses of slavery.  Robert Lewis Dabney clearly described the deliberate nature of this strategy when he wrote in 1851: "Here is our policy then...to push the Bible argument continually, to drive Abolitionism to the wall, to compel it to assume an anti-Christian position."  Like other Southerners, he felt if the abolitionists could be made out to be attacking God's Word as well as slavery, their influence among the public could be limited.  Another leading Southerner, James Henley Thornwell went so far as to say that calling Slavery sinful was to reject the Bible in favor of a rationalistic mode of thought.  And some Southern religious leaders who went so far as to attack the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Bill of Rights, as having sprung from the same infidel philosophy which bred abolitionism.
        Within a generation, the evangelicalism of the Second Great Awakening was profoundly divided, and at odds with itself.  On the one hand were the Christian abolitionists who saw slavery as a violation of the Christian gospel.  They focused on the spirit and teachings of Jesus, and believed that the Golden Rule had superseded the ethic of the Old Testament.  They saw scripture as a progressive revelation, and therefore gave greater weight to the New Testament teaching concerning the law of love.  On the other hand was the South, with its claim that slavery was divinely ordained.  Southern clergy cited scriptural texts to prove their point, and insisted that those who differed from them were denying the truthfulness of God's Word.  Where evangelicals in the North came to see the struggle against slavery as a crusade to wipe out the sin of human bondage, the South saw itself engaged in a battle to defend the cause of God and religion from the infidelity of scripture-denying abolitionists.

The Roots of the Family Feud

In our last class, we looked at some of the events surrounding the division of the Methodists and Baptists.  And they were not alone.  Of the major denominations, only the Episcopalians and Roman Catholics remained unified.
        What happened within evangelicalism that helped launch this ecclesiastical civil war?  Why did Southern Christianity feel such a pressing need to defend slavery?  What was going on here?
        One reason for what transpired may relate to who owned slaves.  As you may recall, not every Southerner owned slaves.  In fact, only 1 in 11 did.  But the major molders of public opinion did own slaves.  This was true of educators, doctors, politicians, and preachers.  Indeed, Richard Furman – the originator of the Biblical defense of slavery was one such pastor.  In South Carolina, for instance, 40% of Baptist preachers owned slaves.  It is axiomatic that the beneficiaries of power are generally opposed to measures that would destroy their vested interests.
        . . . This is not to say that Southerners weren't feeling guilty over the shift that was taking place, as James Oakes makes clear in the Ruling Race. In the chapter entitled "The Convenient Sin,"  Oakes examines the diaries and other personal writings of Southerners and discovers that many were deeply troubled by their involvement in slavery, and attempted in various ways to rationalize or justify their participation in this terrible evil.  Many became convinced that they were going to hell.  Yet, there was too much money to be made.  As a result, they could not bring themselves to give up such a lucrative system.  Slavery became a political issue they could not control.  One's faith could only be applied to issues of personal morality like drinking, card-playing, and sex.

The Readers Digest Version of Jame Oakes, The Ruling Race

Oakes argues that the Great Awakening of the 1740's did much to change religious practices in the Northeast, but was not nearly as effective in converting Southerners.  The Awakening's influence did not extend far beyond Hanover County in Virginia where Samuel Davies preached.  As evidence, he cites the 1752 report of the Reverend Devereux Jarratt who visited Albemarle County, Va.  and found "no minister of any persuasion, or any public worship within miles."  The South, he claims, was the one place where George Whitefield did not draw large crowds.  What revivalism did take root quickly collapsed.  When Shubal Stearns – the father of Baptists in the South – died in 1771, his Sandy Creek church declined from its peak of 600 to 14.
        But in the decades immediately preceding and continuing through the Revolution, the backwoods regions of the South swelled with immigrants.  1776 saw the first Methodist Camp Meeting, launching a series of revivals that would be known as the Second Great Awakening.  (Here, I think Oakes is wrong.  Most scholars have recognized the First Awakening moved in phases, first among one denomination and then another.  This outbreak of revival is seen by most scholars as the Methodist Phase of the Awakening.) Revivals became frequent and major occurrences throughout the South, and they transformed the institution of slavery more dramatically than anything else would until the Civil War destroyed it forever.
        The majority of slave owners – small and large – were evangelicals and their presence at the revivals attracted much attention.  In antebellum Mississippi, the Methodist denomination appealed "to all ranks of society, embracing many of the affluent and a majority of the merely independent planters, throughout the state."  In Florida, those who attended a revival in Tallahassee in 1843 were "among the first and more influential classes in society .  .  .   There we saw Physicians, Lawyers, Merchants, Planters and Legislators,"  the minister boasted.  One traveler in the South noted that evangelical religion had become so pervasive that "men talk in public places in the churches, and in bar rooms, in the stage-coach, and at the fireside of their personal and peculiar relationship with the Deity."
        Slave holders often remembered the conversion experience as a central event in their lives.  It was assumed that the conversion experience would manifest itself in Christian behavior.  The first evidence of Christian behavior – and the one that most occupied the minds of slave holding parents – was the moral and religious training of their children.  The mistress of an Alabama Plantation was "determined if the Lord spare me to live, to try and raise my children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.  The greatest desire of my heart,"  she told her daughter, " is that you may be faithful Christians, that you may be useful, and happy, while you live, that you may die happy, and live with God forever." For young Southerners, the pressure to accept Christianity was often as intense as the pressure to succeed.
        What were the unifying principles of evangelicalism which cut across traditional denominational boundaries, and won the loyalty of many Southerners?  At the risk of over-simplification they were: (1) the idea of Divine Providence (God is in control of all events on earth); (2) the state of human affairs is miserable as a result of sin.  (Sin was equated with irreligion, and worldliness, and an inordinate, distracting, and ultimately immoral concern with material things.  Sin was so prevalent in the world, the only explanation for it was a universal human degradation); (3) human beings are not without hope.  The conscious acceptance of Christ symbolized conversion and offered the sinner release from the things of this world, and an entirely new life that would lead to spiritual rebirth and eternal salvation.

This evangelical faith reigned in both North and South, but Southern evangelicalism was colored by its context, where it served to meet a major psychological need.  "While a faith that emphasizes a person's depravity can't really be called uplifting, it provided a sense of relief and even pride for the converted.  The South had provided a glorious tradition of leadership in the world's most successful democratic revolution, but in the early national period, the South was determined to separate the question of slavery from the issue of democratic freedom.  In doing so, it sullied its reputation and moral influence by its tenacious resistance to its own egalitarian ideals.  In the larger world, Great Britain was making public penance for its involvement in the slave trade, and Northern abolitionists were passing grave moral judgements on the once-great South, pronouncing slave holders guilty of cruel injustice and shameful sin.  Ridiculed by a foreign power that thrived on the fruits of the South's slave laborers (England), and by a North that treated its own blacks as beneath contempt, it is not surprising that slave holders turned to evangelical Protestantism.  It allowed them to acknowledge their private guilt, but to transform that acknowledgement into visible evidence of their high moral virtue through public declarations of their spiritual rebirth."
        This tendency was most evident on religious holidays that seemed to ease the master's consciences, destroying temporarily their ability to ignore the humanity of blacks.  "I love the Sabbath,"  Jeremiah Clemens wrote in 1834,  "It is a time when slavery itself is free – when it unlooses its shackles, forgets its horrors, and tales its tales of love."  No holiday was more widely celebrated among slaves than Christmas.  "We have had a right merry Christmas; and I did not know when I have seen such an expression of content and happiness as my negroes exhibited during the festival,"  John Evans wrote during 1836, "I am much more reconciled to my condition as a slave owner when I see how cheerful and happy my fellow creatures can be in a state of servitude, how much I have it in my power to minister to their happiness."
        But the soothing message of evangelicalism came at great cost to the slave holders' psychological security.  As human beings, masters were by definition complex beings, capable of holding to contradictory values, motivated by principles at odds with their behavior.  The slave holder's religion addressed but never fully resolved these conflicts, for in its implicit egalitarianism and explicit rejection of materialism, evangelicalism questioned two of the fundamental tendencies of the slave system: the dehumanization of bondsmen and the grasping materialism of their owners. . . In its rejection of a sinful, covetous world, evangelicalism carried a strongly anti-materialistic message that struck slave-holders with peculiar force.  Their society was founded upon the pursuit of material wealth, and was precisely what evangelical ministers attacked so vehemently.  "From the growing love of wealth, which seems to be the all-devouring passion of our country,"  a Virginia Methodist warned, "and from the corruptions and sins which this is sure to bring in its train, I must believe that unless this be repented of and abandoned, God will bring this nation also to the dust."
        Thus the moral lesson slave holding parents stressed most strongly within their families was in sharp contrast to the secular emphasis on individual achievement and material success.  A wealthy Alabama slave holder warned his son: "Don't let this world, or the honors of the world, yea I would add the Riches too, cheat you out of the love, and of course the favor of your blessed savior...I know it is not sinful to be rich, or honorable, but Mr.  Wesley says it is extremely dangerous, therefore we should watch and pray much in order to keep humble and devotional. . . ".
        Evangelical Protestantism sparked in slave holders an intense fear that they were unworthy of the prosperity born of slavery and that their children would not be able to resist the materialism that was so much apart of the market culture.  Many would live in ramshackle homes, wearing tattered clothing, in an effort to show they were not about to succumb to the temptations of wealth.  To reject worldly luxury in this way was to repudiate implicitly a fundamental element of slave society.  Thus one slave holder in the Old Southwest freed his slaves out of "a sense of right, choosing poverty with a good conscience, in preference to all the treasures of the world."
        Attacks on materialism were part and parcel of Christian tradition: but within the context of a slave society they served as a psychological medium through which masters expressed their misgivings about bondage.  They complained repeatedly about the difficulty of serving God and Mammon.  Slave holding ministers felt most strongly that Christianity could not be reconciled with the treatment of slaves.  "It is exceedingly difficult to use them as money"  one preacher admitted, "to treat them as property, and at the same time render to them that which is just and equal as immortal and accountable human beings, and as heirs of the grace of life, equally with ourselves.
        The important place of religion in the pro-slavery defense is an indication of how deeply slave-holders felt the need to bring their ethical convictions into line with daily practices.  The only philosophical justification of slavery that ever gained any real popularity among slave holders was the religious one.
        From the early decades of the colonial period, slave holders associated Christianity with freedom and distinguished slaves from Christians, until the implications of black baptism made (that position) untenable.  Masters were so fearful that Christianized slaves could no longer be held in bondage that beginning in the 1660's Southern legislatures had to settle the issue.  The Virginia legislature ruled in 1667 that  "it is enacted that baptism does not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom; masters freed from this doubt may more carefully propagate Christianity by permitting their slaves to be admitted to the sacrament."  But doubts persisted.  Many felt Christianity had a dangerously liberating effect.  One wrote: "A slave is ten times worse when a Christian, than in his state of Paganism."
        But Evangelicals in the South had reasons to doubt.  "Following an Arkansas camp meeting a Baptist minister reported:  "master and servant, the child and parent, the self-righteous moralist and the profane skeptic bowed at the same altar" . . .  Evangelical protestantism was embracing black worshippers as fundamentally equal at a time when the revolutionary doctrine that all men are created equal was requiring that blacks be defined as an inherently inferior race, and therefore undeserving of basic human rights. . .  Masters remained fearful of slave conversion because the very act of preaching to slaves pointed to the fact they were not sub-human.  This required the preacher to ignore their status as slaves.  Although the missionaries to slaves claimed that it would help make them passive, the slaves knew better.
        As evangelical Protestantism became the dominant religion of the slave holding class, the churches felt strong pressure to back down from their overt opposition to bondage.  Southern Christians were particularly stung by the Abolitionists,  whose major premise was that slave holding was a sin,  so naturally they looked for a defense.  The most useful element of this religious defense was the idea of Divine Providence.  Abolitionists had no right to condemn a divinely ordained social order.  But this reasoning only enhanced the slave holder's fears that they would ultimately be judged by God for their behavior as slave holders for it imposed a great responsibility on the masters.  "No doubt the Lord has placed them under our charge for a wise purpose,"  one minister noted, "and how fearful the consequences, if we withhold the means of salvation from them."  Concern sprang from the dehumanization of slavery, that even the Slave holder recognized.  "This sir is a Christian community"  one Virginia master wrote, "Southerners read in their Bibles, 'Do unto all men as you would have them do unto you'; and this golden rule and slavery are hard to reconcile."
        Throughout the antebellum period, slave holders continued to show signs that despite the best efforts of pro-slavery apologists, evangelical Protestantism still carried an implicit antislavery message.  A South Carolina slave holder complained his father had to much religion to keep his negroes straight.  Deeply religious slave-holders complained about the cruelty built into slavery.  The suspicion that slavery violated fundamental moral dictates unleashed an undercurrent of fear and apprehension throughout the slave-holding South.  Concern that there would be some retribution for wrong.  This fear crystallized in the slave holders attitude toward death.
        To fear death in the South was to live in constant terror.  It was not a healthy place to live.  Long hot summers, and vast swamplands created conditions ideal for disease bearing insects.  Inadequate housing, poor diets, and ignorance left many vulnerable.  Periodic outbreaks of cholera, Malaria and yellow fever.  Yellow fever killed a 1000 persons a week in New Orleans during August of 1853.  Southerners were consumed with fear, and in their obsession exposed patterns of behavior and systems of belief which indicated deeply troubled consciences.  The religious meaning that slave holders gave to death is the key to understanding their discomfort with the institution of slavery.  The same religious dogma that implicitly condemned slavery as sinful provided masters with a vivid picture of the eternal consequences of sin.  Death put the fear of the Lord into Slave holders.  Death was viewed as a sign of divine retribution.  During the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1853, Bishop Leonidas Polk of New Orleans asked God to "turn us from the ravage of the pestilence, wherewith our iniquities, thou art now visiting us."  But more than anything else, it was the egalitarianism of death that frightened slave holders.  For if all men are truly equal in the sight of God, death was the moment when all earthly distinctions vanished, when the iniquities that slave holders had perpetuated throughout life would be scrutinized and judged.  Masters were impressed – significantly in view of their racist assumptions – with the equality of blacks and whites at death.  Both died the same death.  Both struggled to hang on to life.
        Often Masters expressed the view that a slave was "gone to a better, fairer place".  This was in contrast to their own fear that when they died, they would go to hell.  This fear was directly related to slavery.  They were concerned that their conduct as masters would be subject to God's judgement at death.  While Masters were convinced that death freed the slaves and made them equal, many were also convinced they would get their just deserts in the afterlife, a point of view that their slaves echoed.  Martha Harrison remembered her master as a man so frightened by his imminent death that he offered her thousands of dollars to secure his salvation.  "But he couldnt'a got out of hell,"  the former slave declared, "the way he beat my mammy."
        The contradiction between evangelicalism's entrenched anti-materialism and the slave holders' secular ethos was no more resolvable than the conflict between their dehumanization of slaves and evangelicalism's recognition of the fundamental equality of blacks and whites.  Slaveholding parents who taught their children by word and deed to accumulate land and slaves with voracious zeal also imparted to their children a religious dogma that promised damnation in return for the sin of greed.  So fundamental were the psychological conflicts bequeathed to the children of slave holders, so great was the rift between their religious convictions and their behavior that for many the resolution seemed dim.
        Many masters were fearful that the rising generation would repeat the sins of its elders.  They were grieved to be bequeathing slaves to their sons.  One even freed his slaves not only because he felt slavery morally wrong, but "because he was not willing to allow his children to be educated as slave masters."
        Even the most convinced slave holders remembered a time when they had been opposed to slavery.  They spoke apologetically of the abandonment of their youthful ideals, but saw themselves trapped in a system that would not allow them to manumit (i.e. liberate) their slaves.  Many blamed their parents for passing on slaves, and many spoke of themselves as trapped into slavery by the circumstances of their birth.  "I cannot do as I would, I do as I can."
        The slave holders confirmed the essential tragedy of their lives by declaring their inability and unwillingness to change.  "We were born under the institution and cannot change or abolish it,"  a Mississippi slave holder declared.  The lure of prosperity continued to attract white Southerners to black slavery despite the moral injunctions in their religious values.  One Southerner was very blunt.  "A gentleman has the right to make the most of his life, when he can't calculate on anything better than roasting in the next."
        Southerners created a system where to succeed was to risk one's soul; to fail in the quest for material wealth was a disgrace.  Herein lies the real tragedy of slavery.  Not only did it do untold damage to blacks, but it created a dehumanizing culture for whites as well."

Here's an interesting internet post: (2013) about southern Christianity:

"In much of the South, "church" seems to define your social group, your friends, your acquaintances. If you do not belong to a church it becomes very difficult to find new friends. Here in the South, a "good" church will make efforts to take care of its members. The social safety net here is rather weak --- it's almost as if "they" want you to be a good church goer -- so government can avoid its duties. Many young folks, or folks up North do not realize this. As a non-church person, I well understand that no one will be willing to help me if I were to,need it here in Texas. Selfish, close minded, immune to facts, and reason characterize most of the "faith community" here. These are folks who will vote AGAINST their self-interest if they SUSPECT it might also help "THEM"."

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