Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview

Article excerpt

THE MIND OF THE MASTER CLASS: HISTORY AND FAITH IN THE SOUTHERN SLAVEHOLDERS' WORLDVIEW by ELIZABETH FOX-GENOVESE and EUGENE GENOVESE Cambridge University Press, 828 pages, $31.99

In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln famously remarked that Northerners and Southerners "read the same Bible, and pray to the same God." In this volume, consisting largely of previously published articles and book chapters, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese suggest the need to qualify that assertion. As the nineteenth century progressed, they argue, Southerners and Northerners developed different, almost antithetical, understandings of Christianity. They read the same Bible but they read it differently, and even the God they prayed to was not quite the same: He remained firmly trinitarian in the South, while sliding toward Unitarian in the more liberal precincts of the North. Southern Protestant theologians denounced their Northern brethren for leaving the Roman Catholic Church as the sole defender of orthodoxy in the region. Behind it all, the Genoveses claim, was slavery. "The American South ranks with ancient Greece and Rome among the few genuine slave societies in world history," and it deeply influenced the South's social structure, economy, and culture. Southern defenders of slavery, who increased not only in numbers but in the extravagance of their claims in the 1840s and 1850s, availed themselves of whatever devices they could find to defend their "peculiar institution." One was a literal reading of the Bible. They challenged the abolitionists to find any place in the Bible where slavery is condemned, and they bolstered their challenge by citing passages where it seems to be sanctioned. Indeed, the authors claim, within that hermeneutical box, the leading abolitionists were hard put to counter the Southerners' arguments. Most of the abolitionists-John Brown being the most prominent exception-eventually adopted a latitudinarian reading of Scripture, emphasizing the spirit while glossing over the word; some even boldly declared that if the Bible sanctioned slavery they wanted no more to do with it. But the religious differences between the two regions turned on more than divergent readings of Scripture. …

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