The Myth of American Religious Freedom

By David Sehat | Go to book overview

4
THE MORAL PURPOSE OF SLAVERY
AND ABOLITION

1.

The moral establishment was the creation of an active religious minority who believed that God had established moral norms and that it was incumbent upon them to enforce those norms through law. Yet the fairly obvious contradictions in Kent’s claim that “the duties and injunctions of the Christian religion” were “interwoven with the law of the land,” but that it was not an official religion, brought the moral establishment into constant dispute. Problems set in almost immediately, centered on the most contentious moral issue of the first half of the nineteenth century: slavery.1

Originally, there had been no disagreement. In the colonial period, supporters of slavery justified the institution by noting that African slaves were not Christian. As a colonial court ruled in 1694, “[Negroes] are heathens, and therefore a man may have property in them, and … the court, without averment made, will take notice that they are heathens.” Virginia, the first sustained North American British colony, followed this law, but there the equation of race with slavery was not immediate, though the equation of slavery with spiritual unfaithfulness was. As early as 1618 a blue law required each person to go to church on Sunday and on holy days. Any transgressor would have to “be a Slave the week following.” The next year a Dutch ship brought, in John Rolfe’s words, “twenty Negars” to the colony. Over the next fifty years, slavery became a racialized institution, justified by the non-Christian status of Africans. The legislature and the courts juxtaposed Christianity and whiteness with heathenism and blackness to muster support for slavery.2

Yet as some African slaves converted to Christianity, race became the primary legal justification for slavery, though many continued to believe that Africans’ legacy of heathenish barbarism justified their enslavement. This

-73-

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The Myth of American Religious Freedom
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • Introduction - The Myth of American Religious Freedom 1
  • Part I - Moral Law 11
  • 1 - Contested Liberties 13
  • 2 - A Godless Government? 31
  • 3 - The Moral Establishment 51
  • Part II - Challengers 71
  • 4 - The Moral Purpose of Slavery and Abolition 73
  • 5 - Moral Reproduction and the Family 97
  • Part III - Retrenchment 109
  • 6 - Morals, Citizenship, and Segregation 111
  • 7 - Women’s Rights, Woman’s Individuality, and the Bible 133
  • 8 - Religion, Morals, and Law 155
  • Part IV - Fragmentation 181
  • 9 - A Conflict of Authorities 183
  • 10 - Liberal and Conservative Moral Visions 205
  • 11 - The Liberal Moment 227
  • 12 - A Moral Majority? 255
  • Conclusion- Moral Maximalism - And Religious Control 283
  • Acknowledgments 293
  • Notes 297
  • Index 343
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