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

By Charles F. Irons | Go to book overview

Chapter Six
RELUCTANT, EVANGELICAL
CONFEDERATES, 1856–1861

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the
powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the
ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
—Romans 13:1–2

Virginia’s white evangelicals helped to start a regionwide campaign for slave missions when Nat Turner compelled them to rethink the relationship between slavery and evangelicalism. In the years following the Southampton Insurrection, southern whites traded strategies for Christianizing the remaining unchurched slaves in their respective states and built a regional identity around the role that they assumed as stewards of black evangelical development. But solidarity among southern white evangelicals on the mission to the slaves belied division on the probity of Confederate nationalism. Though they stood shoulder to shoulder with their coreligionists in the Lower South on the justice of slavery and on the need for ecclesiastical separation from northern abolitionists, white evangelicals in Virginia and the Upper South emphatically rejected secession until the eleventh hour. Unlike their counterparts in the Lower South, who believed by late 1860 that white southerners could best obey God by forming a sovereign, slaveholding republic, Virginia clergymen continued to preach the sinfulness of disunion until Lincoln called for troops to suppress what he classified as a rebellion. Articulating the Unionist position held by a wide majority of voting Virginians, evangelical leaders in the Old Dominion stressed the biblical obligation of citizens to honor the federal compact at the same time that they affirmed the justice of slavery.

Black evangelicals, who so strongly influenced how white evangelicals understood slavery and master-slave relations from the colonial period through the Civil War, play a less conspicuous role in this chapter. African

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