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

By McKenna, George | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, March 2006 | Go to article overview

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


McKenna, George, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


BRIEFLY NOTED 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 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 very differently, and even the God to Whom they prayed was not quite the same: He remained firmly Trinitarian in the South, while sliding toward Unitarian in the North. Southern Protestant theologians denounced their Northern brethren for leaving the 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," and it deeply influenced the Souths social structure, economy, and culture. Southern defenders of slavery, who increased not only in numbers but in the extravagance of their claims in the 184Os and 185Os, availed themselves of whatever they could find to defend their "peculiar institution." 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 seemed to be sanctioned. 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; some even boldly declared that if the Bible sanctioned slavery they wanted no more to do with it. But the religious differences turned on more than Scripture. The authors paint a picture of different approaches to such meta-religious topics as historical change, social morality, and the legitimacy of government. …

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