THE SECTIONAL CHURCH, 1835–1856
Then he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight
and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread,’ … I tell you, though he will not get up
and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will
get up and give him as much as he needs.”—Luke 11:5, 8
Nat Turner not only forced Virginia’s white evangelicals to rethink their relationship with their black brethren, but he also set in motion a chain of events that caused them to rethink their relationship with their codenominationalists in the North. In response to the insurrection, evangelical whites in the South devoted an increasing amount of time and money to missionary efforts among the region’s slaves, an activity about which northern evangelicals were increasingly skeptical. Many northerners doubted whether white southerners could convey an authentic faith under the legal constraints put in place after the Southampton Insurrection. They were suspicious about any program of religious indoctrination that reinforced rather than challenged the practice of slaveholding. In the 1830s and 1840s, Virginia’s white evangelicals thus found that they had much in common with their white coreligionists across the South and little in common with northern churchmen. Southern white evangelicals were united after Turner on the need to maintain the safety of white persons while “saving” the souls of resident blacks. In the pursuit of these goals, they exchanged hundreds of letters, catechisms, and instruction manuals across state lines in which they discussed the best methods to attract slaves to church.
Black, evangelical Virginians lost some of their influence within biracial congregations, but they continued to shape the development of proslavery Christianity. Whites wanted more than anything to increase the number of African Americans enrolled in evangelical churches so that they could better police African American worship. This task was impossible without cooperation from black evangelicals, who had been so effective at bringing their