The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790-1860

By Robert Elder | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Social Death and Everlasting Life
Slave Identity, Honor, and Ritual

“On my arrival to South Carolina,” wrote William Thomson, a Scottish weaver, “the first thing that particularly attracted my attention was negro slavery.” Only days after Thomson arrived on the Sea Islands near Beaufort, South Carolina, in 1840, he heard that the local Baptist church was going to baptize “sixteen or eighteen negro slaves.” Thomson decided to attend, arriving at the river early on a clear October Sunday morning to find “hundreds” of slaves and a few whites already gathered on the banks of the river. The Baptist preacher waded into the river wearing a white gown, while a large black deacon named Jacob stood by to make sure the river did not sweep away the new members of God’s family. As the slaves entered the river one by one, Thomson could clearly hear the preacher’s voice repeating the phrase, “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost—Amen,” as he immersed each slave in succession. Then, when they had finished, “they came up from the river, in a body” singing, “I’m not ashamed to own my Lord/ Or to defend his cause/ Maintain the glory of his cross, And honour all his laws.”

Thomson was deeply affected by what he had seen. “I almost expected to see something ridiculous,” he wrote, “but, in reality, the whole affair had rather an imposing and solemn effect.” Thomson was most impressed by the weight the slaves seemed to attach to the entire scene. Later that morning, at a service at the Baptist church, which Thomson believed had “twelve or fourteen hundred negro members,” the preacher asked all those who had been baptized to stand up as he addressed them on their Christian duties “to God and to their master,” and urged them to hold fast to the faith they had professed. Then, in another scene that particularly impressed Thomson, the preacher asked each of the slaves baptized that morning to come forward and receive the “right hand of fellowship” from the preacher and the church elders. Thomson emphasized the unusual and genuine nature of the contact between the minister and the slaves. “I took particular notice of the shaking of the hands. It was a real transaction,” he wrote with surprise. That evening, with blacks and whites gathered together, the church took the Lord’s Supper,

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