The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia

By Charles F. Irons | Go to book overview

Introduction
THE CHIEF CORNERSTONE

Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone,
elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded. Unto you therefore
which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone … [is] a stone
of stumbling, and a rock of offence.—1 Peter 2:6–8

Black and white abolitionists in the nineteenth century identified churches, in the words of James G. Birney, as “the bulwarks of American slavery.” While these critics of slavery did not spare northern congregations for their complicity in perpetuating the peculiar institution, they singled out southern churches for particular condemnation. Henry “Box” Brown, a fugitive from slavery in Virginia, asserted in 1849 that “there is not a particle of religion in their slaveholding churches. The great end to which religion is there made to minister, is to keep the slaves in a docile and submissive frame of mind.” Birney and Brown lashed out at southern churches because they saw the enormous practical and ideological work that white southern Christians were doing to protect slavery. The region’s white Christians penned compelling defenses of slavery for the secular and denominational presses, guarded against insurrection by policing worship meetings in the quarters, gave regional apologists grounds for boasting by converting thousands of slaves to their faith, and enabled those skeptical of slavery’s justice to subvert their concerns through mission work among the enslaved. It is for good reason, then, that historians of slavery and of the sectional conflict have endorsed abolitionists’ contention that the South’s white Christians contributed decisive ideological support to an evil institution.1

At the same time, in Virginia and in other slaveholding states, white Christians shared many religious beliefs and experiences with the men and women of African descent whose enslavement they justified by faith and defended through their churches. For starters, most white and black Virginians who attended church—roughly 88 percent of them by 1850—identi

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