Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South

Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South

Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South

Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South

Synopsis

The centrality of religion in the life of the Old South, the strongly religious nature of the sectional controversy over slavery, and the close affinity between religion and antebellum American nationalism all point toward the need to explore the role of religion in the development of southern sectionalism. In Gospel of Disunion Mitchell Snay examines the various ways in which religion adapted to and influenced the development of a distinctive southern culture and politics before the Civil War, adding depth and form to the movement that culminated in secession. From the abolitionist crisis of 1835 through the formation of the Confederacy in 1861, Snay shows how religion worked as an active agent in translating the sectional conflict into a struggle of the highest moral significance. At the same time, the slavery controversy sectionalized southern religion, creating separate institutions and driving theology further toward orthodoxy. By establishing a biblical sanction for slavery, developing a slaveholding ethic for Christian masters, and demonstrating the viability of separation from the North through the denominational schisms of the 1830s and 1840s, religion reinforced central elements in southern political culture and contributed to a moral consensus that made secession possible.

Excerpt

At noon on February 18, 1861, the Rev. Basil Manly, pastor of the Baptist church in Montgomery, rode to the capitol in a carriage with Jefferson Davis, Alexander H. Stephens, and their military escort. He delivered a prayer later that afternoon that spoke directly to the event–the inauguration of the president and vice-president of the Confederate States of America. “Thou hast provided us a man,” Manly proclaimed, “to go in and out before us, and to lead thy people.” He also invoked God’s blessing for the new born Southern nation: “Put thy good spirit into our whole people, that they may faithfully do all thy fatherly pleasure,…” Manly called further for truth and peace in the administration of government and righteousness for the people. He concluded, finally, by asking God to “turn the counsel of our enemies into foolishness.”

Present at Manly’s benediction were the politicians who had brought the South to the brink of separate nationhood. Taken together, they embodied the wide spectrum of antebellum Southern politics. William L. Yancey, the fire-eater from Alabama and the leading orator of the secessionist cause, and Robert Barnwell Rhett, the vociferous Southern nationalist from South Carolina and the voice behind the radical Charleston Mercury, were the extremists who had pushed Southerners toward political revolution. Although not as radical as Rhett or Yancey, Davis himself had been a strong advocate of Southern rights as a senator from Mis-

1.“Diary of Basil Manly: January 1. 1858–1878,” Manly Collection, Special Collections, Samford University Library (Microfilm), p. 37. For a brief biographical sketch of Manly, see Samuel S. Hill, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion in the South (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1984), p. 442. Davis’s inauguration is covered in Hudson Strode, Jefferson Davis: American Patriot, 1808–1861 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1955), pp. 406–12; William C. Davis, Jefferson Davis, The Man and His Hour: A Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 307; John M. McCardell, The Idea of a Southern Nation: Southern Nationalists and Southern Nationalism, 1830–1860 (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1979), pp. 334–5; William E. Dodd, Jefferson Davis (Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs & Company, 1907), pp. 223–5.

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