Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Contested Communion: The Limits of White Solidarity in Nat Turner's Virginia

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Contested Communion: The Limits of White Solidarity in Nat Turner's Virginia

Article excerpt

Southampton County, Virginia, was home to two of the most prominent southern opponents of slavery: Nat Turner and David Barrow. Nat Turner, the prophetic slave-rebel, inspired and led the 1831 Southampton slave revolt, the most famous slave revolt in U.S. history. David Barrow's antislavery activities were less dramatic but no less clear. A Baptist preacher, Barrow tapped into evangelical antislavery sentiment to begin a sustained attack on slavery. Although he owned two slaves, he came to the conclusion in 1782 that slaveholding was "contrary to the laws of God and nature." In 1784, he freed his slaves and encouraged his brethren to do the same. In 1786, the Black Creek Baptist Church, influenced by its antislavery minister, declared slavery "Unrighteous." What one historian calls "the clearest position any Virginia congregation would take in opposition to slavery in the Revolutionary era" led at least three church members to free their slaves over the winter of 1787-88. David Barrow's antislavery activities also extended beyond southern Virginia. In 1790, Barrow was among the delegates in attendance when the General Committee of the Baptist Associations passed a resolution that "called slavery a Violent deprivation of the rights of nature' and urged Baptists to use 'every legal measure, to extirpate the horrid evil from the land.'"1

Barrow's calls to end slavery were no more successful than Turner's revolt. Yet the religiously inspired critique of slavery represented by the white evangelical minister and the black prophet created a problem for the antebellum churches. In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul instructed Christians to try "to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace," but in the South this unity was difficult to achieve. Churches counted an increasing number of slaves and slaveholders among their members, while trying to develop a communion that could include both enslaved and slaveholding members. At the same time, some churches struggled to create a union among those whites who thought that slaves had a duty to "be obedient to them that are your masters" and those who believed that slavery was a "horrid evil." Accepting disunity was impossible for the Baptists who regularly celebrated communion as a sign of their unity in Christian fellowship. Fashioning unity out of such divisions, however, became even more difficult once Nat Turner's revolt changed the dynamics of both intra- and interracial fellowship. Examining the dynamic of communion at David Barrow's churches shows how the unity that southeastern Virginia's white Baptists created left little room for those who opposed an emerging proslavery Christianity.2

According to an autobiographical note written in 1798, Barrow was born in Brunswick County, Virginia, on October 30, 1753. He "was bred to the business of farming," although the trajectory of the young man's life changed sometime in 1770 or 1771, when he joined the Baptist church. Shortly thereafter, the teenager "began to improve a gift," probably a reference to exhorting. His services were soon in demand. Mill Swamp Baptist Church encouraged Barrow to move east to its neighborhood-in Isle of Wight along Southampton County's eastern border-and in June 1774 the twenty-year-old was ordained and began his ministry at the church, one which twenty-four years later Barrow noted had "continued ever since."3

Although Barrow's relationship with Mill Swamp brought him east from Brunswick County, he worked for many churches, and is most famous for his connection to another church, the nearby Black Creek Baptist Church in Southampton County, which he helped organize in 1774. At Black Creek, the full extent of David Barrow's remarkable antislavery ministry emerged, and the church's activities under his leadership have been singled out as a high-water mark for antislavery action in the evangelical churches in the postrevolutionary South. The church's clear declaration that slavery was "Unrighteous" and the evidence of manumissions among church members in the 1780s earned these encomiums. …

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