Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690-1990

By Erskine Clarke | Go to book overview

11
Slavery "That Course Indicated by Stern Necessity"

AT THE TIME of the Denmark Vesey plot, Governor Thomas Bennett, Jr., of the Circular Congregational Church reached an unhappy conclusion: while slavery "abstractly considered would perhaps lead every mind" to wish for its end, "the period has long since passed when a correction might have been applied." For Bennett the "treasures of learning, the gifts of ingenuity and the stores of experience have been exhausted in the fruitless search for a practical remedy." Now, wrote Bennett, the institution is established, "the evil is entailed and we can do no more than steadily to pursue that course indicated by stern necessity."1

For some few low country whites, there would be a lingering hope that slavery might gradually die a natural death. Such hopes, however, had difficulty living in the low country world of the whites, for they increasingly seemed utopian in the pejorative sense--that is, impossible to realize. And of course such hopes were merely utopian from the perspectives of these low country whites, for to realize them would mean a radical new order--an overturning of the present social order--and that was a prospect the whites could only envision with horror.2 From the whites' perspective, their world had no room, no possibility, for emancipation but only for "that course indicated by stern necessity."

For the low country Reformed community, the pursuit of "that course" meant following an increasingly lonely and isolated path. As the antebellum period moved toward its bitter conclusion, the community, as it sought to follow its middle way, found itself under growing attacks from the left, which began to insist that the only "stern necessity" was the liberation of the oppressed slave, and from the right, which began to call "stern necessity" a "positive good."3 The attacks, especially from outside antislavery forces, encouraged the community to articulate its hopes and to move toward a conservative utopian vision of the good society. Drawing on impulses deep within its tradition and reacting to its social and historical context, the community began to envision a holy commonwealth in which a paternalistic social order would be balanced with social justice and the claims of society would be in harmony with

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