Slavery's Champions Stood at Odds: Polygenesis and the Defense of Slavery

By Luse, Christopher A. | Civil War History, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Slavery's Champions Stood at Odds: Polygenesis and the Defense of Slavery


Luse, Christopher A., Civil War History


One of the profound tragedies of American history is that racism has long survived the destruction of slavery. Historians continue to heatedly contest the nature of American slavery and its relationship to race. In antebellum America, whites from both the slave South and the free labor North embraced a vicious racism. This study examines a little-studied anomaly of American race relations: the opposition by white, Southern Christians to the growing power of scientific racism. Led by Southern clergymen, they defended religious orthodoxy and an idealized vision of Christian slavery as more important than race in preserving slavery. This defense of a paternalistic, Christian slavery demonstrates a more complicated connection between slavery and race than previously realized. For many white Southerners, slavery was not only a system of racial domination but also the foundation of a conservative worldview that they defended with their lives in a bloody Civil War. (1) On the eve of the secession of South Carolina, the Presbyterian Reverend James Henley Thornwell delivered a Fast Day jeremiad, measuring slaveholders against the standard of the scriptures, which they sorely failed to meet. Thornwell, a reluctant secessionist, called upon the Southern people to repent if they were to defend their embattled community based upon the ideal of Christian slavery. Thornwell, one of the most prestigious clergymen of the Old South, widely referred to as "the Calhoun of the Church," denounced a grave threat to slavery. The target of his wrath was not only the fanatical ravings of abolitionists but also an internal danger. He assaulted the "science, falsely so-called" that defended slavery by making "the slave a different kind of being from his master." Thornwell denounced those "who defend slavery upon the plea that the African is not of the same stock with ourselves" for threatening the legitimacy of slavery "by bringing it into conflict with the dearest doctrines of the Gospel." Thornwell was alarmed by the rising popularity in the South of a previously obscure doctrine within ethnology, the science of races. This emerging school of ethnology advanced the "diversity of the races," not merely classifying "lower" races as inferior, but as a separately created species, with a fundamentally different origin and nature. The ethnologists relentlessly attacked Genesis' account of the common creation of humanity. Within the South, a paradoxical debate raged. White Southern Christians, staunch advocates of slavery, attacked this rising form of scientific racism and vigorously defended the humanity of black slaves. The Southern opponents of polygenesis even employed many of the same arguments and sources used by abolitionists to attack white prejudice. Thornwell harshly denounced white Southerners who, impressed with the growing prestige of science, adopted "infidel" theories to preserve slavery. Thornwell admitted that "our offense has been, that in some instances we have accepted and converted into a plea, the conclusions of this vain conceit." (2) Southern clergymen played a prominent role in developing a coherent defense of slavery prior to the Civil War. Under an intensifying assault from Northern antislavery forces, Southern ministers proclaimed that slavery was no sin, but a divine institution ordained by God as the foundation of a Christian society. Proslavery Christians merged a literalist interpretation of the Bible with a paternalistic ideal of the master-slave relationship to create a conservative vision of Southern slavery. The literalist reading of the scriptures formed the bedrock of the religious defense of slavery. Southern Christians expressed supreme confidence that the Bible defended slavery. But as a writer to the Quarterly Review of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South contended, if the scriptures condemned slavery "at whatever cost of money or blood.... Let the will of the Almighty be accomplished." Southern Christians repeatedly announced that scripture represented the chief and sole legitimate defense of slavery.

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