The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia

By Charles F. Irons | Go to book overview

Chapter Three
THE FLOURISHING OF BIRACIAL
CHRISTIANITY, 1815–1831

Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!
—Psalm 133:1

Politicians and evangelical clergymen pulled the country in different directions in the years between the War of 1812 and the Southampton Insurrection in 1831. Representatives of slave and free labor regimes competed in Congress for access to western lands and, in 1819, rehearsed the fatal debate over slavery’s expansion when Missouri applied for statehood. There was no corresponding cataclysm in the nation’s evangelical churches, however, no “fire bell in the night.”1 Northern and southern evangelicals actually cooperated more closely in this period, building rather than tearing down bridges between the sections. Southern white evangelicals, particularly in places like Virginia, where they had agreed to disagree over slavery, did not suspect that conflict over slavery would disrupt their communion with their northern brethren.

Virginia’s white evangelicals celebrated in the 1810s and 1820s their most exciting triumphs since the Great Revival of 1785 to 1792. They cheered growing membership rolls, resolution of internal disagreements over slavery, and the inauguration of a number of benevolent enterprises. Moreover, whites from different denominations began to forge common bonds with one another. Presbyterians who had initially resisted identification as evangelicals, particularly those from the Valley, and Episcopalians who had languished after disestablishment, now worked to identify themselves as evangelicals and to share in the fruits of the evangelical ascendancy. Thanks to the efforts of black men and women in the previous decades to keep evangelicalism biracial, one of the most important issues that new evangelicals needed to consider was how they might better advance the conversion of African American Virginians.

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