June 02, 2019
The Janus Effect;
Double Sided Aspects Of Religion, Morality, and Slavery
during the Antebellum period and The War Of the Rebellion
The Romans believed in the god Janus, deemed the god of duality, usually depicted with two faces. The Antebellum period (1789-1861) and American Civil War (1861-65) demonstrates this dichotomy as Christian Americans maintained dual opinions on divine providence and existence of slavery in Christian America. This paper will examine four authors and compare how their specific books use data from the Antebellum period through the Civil War to examine the institution of slavery, society, religion and the impact of the rebellion. A common thread weaved within the books demonstrates duality on God’s word and His providence for the United States and the how the institution of slavery was either justifiable in Scripture, therefore moral, or, non-justifiable, consequently, immoral.
The books to be examined and compared in this paper are:
John Patrick Daly, When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War, Daniel L. Fountain, Slavery, Civil War, and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity,1830-1870, Stanley Harrold, Border War Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War, And Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Additionally, the last paragraph prior to the Conclusion will discuss the authors differing Historiography school of Historical thought.
MarkNoll indicates the country was in a state of flux over the institution of slavery after the November 6, 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency. Lincoln vowed to forbid the expansion of slavery into any new territory developed within the United States, and to help spread that message, the “pulpits of the United States were transformed into instruments of political theology” (Noll 2007, 1). This theology, steered by the pulpit, in conjunction with Lincoln’s election, prompted South Carolina in December of that same year, to secede from the Union. According to Noll, throughout the United States Ministers responded assuredly, “The will of God, as revealed first in the Scriptures and then through reflections on the workings of divine providence, was clear” (Noll, 1). African Methodist Episcopal Minister James Lynch, proclaimed, “the hand of Providence was in the election of Mr. Lincoln to the Presidency” (84).
This “clear” view of God’s providence became muddied at times, as the meaning varied depended on which side of slavery issue one subscribed too. A month prior to South Carolina succession, on December 20th, Governor William Gist had proclaimed November 21, 1860, a Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer. Many southern ministers held special prayers on that day. James Henley Thornwell, the South’s most treasured minister, expressed to his Columbia South Carolina Presbyterian congregation, in his sermon titled Our National Sins, expressed that slavery was organized, compassionate and moral, that “Providence” has provided us with this God sanctioned labor (2). On December 9, in his Day of Prayer, the Reverend Henry Van Dyke presented his sermon The Character And Influence Of Abolitionist to his First Presbyterian Church congregation in Brooklyn. In the sermon, he proclaimed the “influence of abolitionism … [is] an utter rejection of the Scriptures” (3). While on January 4, fourteen days after succession, Rabbi Morris J. Raphall, in his message titled, Bible View of Slavery, to a Jewish Synagogue of New York, cited Hebrew Scriptures, indicating “the highest Law of all… the revealed Law and Word of God” expressed in Genesis 9 states beyond argument, that when Noah cursed his son Ham, he placed “fetish-serving benighted Africa” to everlasting servitude (3). Along with the proslavery prayers, there were a contrasting antislavery litanies by men like the esteemed Henry Ward Beecher in his sermon Peace Be Still, where he states, “[slavery is]the most alarming and most fertile cause of national sin”(2).
It would seem, during this time period, there was a great deal of contrasting – self-serving, and self-biblical interpretations, which demonstrates many citizens were morally concerned, conflicted, and they wanted to know if through some “providential designs for the United States of America” the Bible sanctioned slavery (1).
Along the same thoughts of Noll, reflecting on politically driven dual theology, Stanley Harrold looks at the physical, economic and moral issues dividing border communities of Free and Slave States. Harrold believes the friction caused by Lincoln’s election, and the forthcoming war, were already in place within border communities. He argues, The War of the Rebellion, started long before April 12, 1861, siege on Fort Sumter (Harrold 2011, 12), that the rumblings for emancipation of the slaves started in earnest after the Bible reading slave preacher Nat Turner, who in 1831, decided to instigate a slave revolt in Southampton County, Virginia (Harrold, 6). Harrold suggest, this uprising caused great “excitement among African Americans” causing expectations of danger in the Souths border states (Harrold, 36).
Harrold, explaining in the Preface, conveys how, free states, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, which border the slave states Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri, had promoted and harbored runaway slaves. Additionally, slave holding border communities claimed this action caused considerable amount of physical and economic loss; inducing decades of moral tensions within these border societies (Harrold, xii). The newspaper, Lynchburg Virginian reported, “If the ‘governments of the nonslaveholding states’ did not protect slave property, the border slave states ‘must take their defense into their own hands’” (11). Not only did this strife cause problems at the state line, it also prompted slave states to partitioned Congress for help with their economic losses, along with giving hints of secession, caused Congress to create the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law; hoping to preserve the Union (139). In Free States such as Pennsylvania, they believed “slavery to be an economic, political, and moral evil” (7), and in Lexington Kentucky, the paper, Western Luminary, had an article expressing, slave traders “risked God’s wrath” (Harrold, 20).
Additionally, Harrold believed the seeds of the border conflict were planted early in the 19th century, as reform-revival movements swept through various regions promoting changes in moral, religious, health, educational behavior, and antislavery, with the latter becoming “the largest and most influential of these movements (Harrold, xiii). Moreover, he indicates, this early rethinking of moral social norms eventually challenged the centuries of slavery, dividing communities, states, and the nation, thus, fueling early stages of antislavery actions, such as John Browns 1859 Harpers Ferry incident; thus edging the country closer to the Civil War (183). To help make his case on the moral struggles within border states, Harrold uses a quote by, Kentucky minister, Robert J. Breckinridge, who expressed future generations will hold the border states accountable for their action, “Posterity will hold these six border free States and four border slave States responsible for the fate of this nation in the present crisis” (xii).
Along with Harrold’s review of moral and political difficulties along border states, John Patrick Daly examines Evangelicalism and moral debates over slavery and religion from North and South religious leaders, with a focus on the antebellum South. Protestant evangelicalism stressed the need of a spiritual personal conversion with God, away from the traditional Anglican dogma of piety (Daly 2002, 7). He explains how the 1830s Antebellum evangelicals believed “private virtues would produce public rewards” (2002, 15), indicating southern evangelicals supported free market attitude, individualism, moral improvement, material and technological progress, while they rejected “traditional justifications of social subordination” (156).
This personal conversion with God allowed evangelical ministers to sidestep formal church doctrine, thus changing their message from traditional Anglican dogma, to one of self-controlled salvation. Unrestrained, these ministers championed the marriage of individual ethical decisions with providence, thus ignoring long standing “providential beliefs and attitudes” (18).
Unlike traditional Calvinism, revivalist believe individuals were responsible to God for their actions. That good actions, offered salvation and worldly success. If economic success was found by good, socially responsible, morally upright southern slaveholders, then God must endorse slavery; thus indicating God’s providence was only for the South (142). Daly points out, many Southern slaveholding evangelicals were financially successful, thus, they repeatedly indicated the slaveholding was sanctioned by God as found in the Old Testament, “after all, his prophets, patriarchs, and chosen people all held slaves” (136).
Additionally, he proposed, providence rewarded the “moral” person, while, loss of economic success, or social status, was a direct result of acting with immoral behavior (18). Evangelicals believed, with God’s assistants, they could order their own destinies with “self-power” (8), therefore, southern evangelicals believed God blessed and destined the South for great things” (4). Southerners used the pretense of evangelical moralism to explain slavery was provided for by providence.
Daly, comparable to Harrold, also expressed how the birth of the proslavery movement arrived on the southern doorstep soon after Nat Turners uprising, “There is no mystery in locating the emergence of proslavery ideology after …Turner’s revolt in Southampton Virginia” (Daly 2002, 47). Furthermore, the launching of the Liberator by William Lloyd Garrison, helped spark the 1831 proslavery ideology (Daly, 47). The converging of slavery and new ideological evangelical providence eventually came into a bigger public sphere, where instead of singular church pulpits used to proclaim Gods wisdom to support or denounce slavery; as Noll demonstrated, now, in addition to the pulpit, public debate and mass media would be used to spread propaganda. Unlike the pulpit ministers speaking directly to their congregations, in 1840, the New York Baptist Convention held a debate between two religious’ icons of their day, pro-slavery southern Baptist minister, Richard Fuller (1804-1876), against anti-slavery northern Baptist minister, Francis Wayland (1796-1865). To further spread the inklings of these men, in 1844, the newspaper Christian Reflector, used mass media to publish a series of letters stating each man’s position on religion and slavery (105).
The physical debate in conjunction with newspapers, sparked much excitement, which led to several public and literary debates between Pro and Anti-slavery opponents, such as, the 1845 debate between Presbyterians Jonathan Blanchard (1811-1892) and David Rice (1733-1816), and the 1858, debate between Methodists Alexander Pryne and William Brownlow (73). These deliberations brought the divided issue on slavery and morality further into the public conscious. This division between the North and South Baptist has an invisible, yet noticeable border between difference in doctrine, which is not unlike the very real border clashes discussed by Harrold.
Additionally, public dichotomy help to spread the ever-increasing discord of evangelical moralism (56), and southern ministers picked up the torch and fueled the flames opposing abolitionism, which at first split two denominations the Methodists in 1844, then in 1845, the Baptists, while the Presbyterians split in 1837. As time and debate continued, several more denominations fragmented. Furthermore, Daly states, starting in 1846, pro-slavery Southern ministers took to their pulpits in earnest, as they found a message to preach which resonated with the times, moreover, southern evangelical publishers jumped on the pro-slavery bandwagon of printing pro-slavery literature until 1865 (73).
Like Harrold’s “providence and power of the individual choice”, Daly also discusses this concept, by using Richard Fullers statement, “the Gospel operates gradually and indirectly . . . chiefly through Christian character in individuals …never with masses” (92,93). Moreover, Daly explains, this new message of evangelicalism, i.e., individual control of salvation, had an “profound” effect on revivals, that waves of spiritual renewals swept across the South between 1801 and 1831 in the epic phenomena known as The Great Revivals. It was during this event that evangelical pastors “won souls throughout the South” (7). Also, during this time southern evangelical pastors reached their height of cultural preeminence and power; while crafting a skillful argument for slavery (69).
Noll, suggested, some abolitionist evangelicals asserted, “[Christian slaves] must be treated as full members of the Body of Christ”, while leading early evangelicals proslavery advocates, like Rev. George Whitefield (1714-1770) professed, salvation of black souls would not affect their station as a slave (61). Additionally, Noll, remarks, “the pervasive biblicism of black spirituals and black preaching provides solid evidence for how deeply Scripture had entered into African American consciousness” (64).
While Daly and Noll, discuss revivals and the saving of souls, in conjunction with Scripture and African American Biblical consciousness, Daniel Fountain has a contrasting view on how Christianity influenced slaves pre-Civil War. Fountain maintains prior to 1865, many of the slaves never converted to Christianity. He maintains, regardless of the multitudes of converts during the two Great Awakenings, the possibility exists that “Christianity never replaced African-based religions” (Fountain 2011, 5). Furthermore, he adds, slaves did not convert in earnest until they were delivered out of bondage. He suggests the message of freedom was the catalyst to convert, without it, “hope of freedom, the ring shouts and baptisms… were meaningless for most slaves” (5). His book gives insight into how many slaves of various diverse backgrounds clung to and mixed their native religious practices, through oral narratives, and at times, this blended with and created hybrid versions of Christianity. He believes these varied religions provided them with some comfort while enslaved in a land with foreign religions and customs (1).
Furthermore, he suggest, slaves, formed solidarity within a hostile environment by clinging to and blending their familiar cultural beliefs (2). Additionally, in a survey he conducted on pre-war slave narratives, suggests, only 38 percent of slaves specify they converted to Christianity (3). Additionally, Fountain advocates, this need to cling to past religious beliefs could have been further fueled after Nat Turner’s uprising, when many Upper South slave masters prohibited religious instructions, thus leaving them to combined what Christian instruction they had with their familiar religious beliefs (24). Moreover, this isolation from additional Christian teachings, eventually integrated within a diverse set of African religions, helping to spawn, Voodoo, Hoodoo, and Conjure beliefs within the slave communities. Fountain suggest, whites which generally labeled this strange, unfamiliar religions as, “hoodoo and conjure” (4,5).
Like Noll and Daly, Fountain suggest, white Evangelicals cited the bible to enforce their “vision of southern society” (119). Also, after the war, there were whites who did not believe blacks fully understood their Christian conversion, were condescending, stating, they were, “long on religion and short on Christianity.” This attitude was based on what whites thought, and perhaps disliked, how blacks’ had lively and “animated worship services” (1). Yet, as whites questioned blacks’ Christian religious practices, Fountain demonstrates their former African based religions were not very different from Christianity, “both African Traditional Religion and evangelical Christianity emphasize a single creator God, symbolic death and rebirth, water as a spiritual symbol, blood sacrifice, religious prayer and song, and belief in an afterlife” (2).
One of the examples demonstrating this blending of religions by slaves, was on Saint-Domingue, where they were converted into the Catholic faith. These slaves would “mask” their practice of Haitian Vodun by a merger of Catholic Christian icons and philosophies, thus Catholic saints and their images became the equivalents of African deities, (77,78). Furthermore, in places like the city of New Orleans, Vodun, known as Voodoo, was popular among the slaves as it was used to deal with issues in daily life (78).
The need to cling to past or hybrid religions faded after the American Civil War as emancipated slaves sought Christianity, thus leaving many of non-Christian religions to diminish, “emancipation quickly destroyed what slavery had allowed to survive” (116).
Fountain supports his book by listing several leading scholars who have similar thoughts on the various areas he defends, for example, he used phrasing such as, “a growing list of scholars such as…. all of whom emphasize the existence of religious diversity… [or] Most slavery scholars, such as…” (1,2). He then used selected passages from expert or experts to support his claims. Noll, Harrold and Daly, did similar tactics in supporting their claims, but not to the degree of Fountain.
Furthermore, it seems Fountain was cogitating within the Annales school of thought, researching more like a Cultural Anthropologist or Sociologist, dealing with the society and culture of the blacks, before, during, and after slavery. He outlines the changes within the slave communities, using three steps, 1, Some type of event. 2, Social / Economic structure changes, and, 3, Geographical / Environmental changes. Fountain mentions culture 107 times, with comments like, “the slaves moral and spiritual culture have been sadly neglected” (67), or “plantations and farms of America disrupted much if not most of the enslaved persons’ cultures” (69).
Whereas, Harrold, seems to have followed a school like Marxism, as he looks at class struggles and economic issues between slaves, free slaves, pro-slavery, and abolitionist living along the borders of free and slave states. He, starts the book by stating, “race-based slavery … controlled the South’s economic, social, and political structure” (Harrold, xi), and then stressed, “White southerners had good reason to regard assisted slave escape as war against their economic and social order.” His next supporting statement, “With roots in the American Revolution, black resistance to slavery, and activist religion, abolitionism was strongest in the Northeast” (Harrold, xiii).
Moreover, Daly’s writings could be construed as stemming from a bit of Theodicy school of thought, where during the Antebellum period many whites believed God selected and enforced slavery on the blacks. Daly used statements like, “southern evangelicals expected the Bible to be in perfect… slavery fit into the “genius of the American system… the Bible supported their position… slavery “Bible approved”, to explain the southern thoughts on Christian religion during the time (Daly, 4).
Noll gives the impression he was also in Theodicy school, indicating the Antebellum school of thought was on how God and Providence controlled the lives of both black and white. Providence was mentioned 108 times and God, 265 times, thus indicating their importance to Noll’s argument. His Introduction states, “Ministers throughout the United States responded confidently. The will of God, as revealed ﬁrst in the Scriptures and then through reﬂection on the workings of divine providence, was clear” (1). Daly and Noll make well-defined arguments, that the reigning school of thought during the Antebellum period the was on how God and Providence were in control of individual destiny.
All four books have a common thread of ambiguity of morality and the mystery of Providence woven between them during the American Antebellum period and the Civil War. Each illustrating a dilemma between religion and slavery. This dyad runs through the Country, States, Communities, Churches, Ministers, and Individuals. Throughout the books there is a quest to clarify how God’s Word and His Providence supported or denounced slavery, was the institution of slavery moral and just, or immoral and unjust.
Daly, John Patrick. When Slavery Was Called Freedom : Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
Fountain, Daniel L. Slavery, Civil War, and Salvation : African American Slaves and Christianity, 1830-1870. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011.
Noll, Mark A. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.