Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Origins of Proslavery Christianity

A Brief Book Introduction for our Blog Readers

Kevin Levin of the Cliopatria award-winning blog, Civil War Memory has posted a brief overview of a new book by historian Charles F. Irons entitled, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia. The book is still relatively new, having been released in May of this year. The University of North Carolina Press had the following to say on Irons' work:

"As Charles Irons persuasively argues, white evangelicals' ideas about slavery grew directly out of their interactions with black evangelicals. Set in Virginia, the largest slave holding state and the hearth of the southern evangelical movement, this book draws from church records, denominational newspapers, slave narratives, and private letters and diaries to illuminate the dynamic relationship between whites and blacks within the evangelical fold. Irons reveals that when whites theorized about their moral responsibilities toward slaves, they thought first of their relationships with bondmen in their own churches. Thus, African American evangelicals inadvertently shaped the nature of the pro slavery argument. When they chose which churches to join, used the procedures set up for church discipline, rejected colonization, or built quasi-independent congregations, for example, black churchgoers spurred their white coreligionists to further develop the religious defense of slavery."
From what I can tell from the few book reviews that are available, the book has been very well received. For example, historian Mark Noll had this to say about the book:

"This exceedingly effective study pushes consideration of its complex subjects to unprecedented levels of insight. Irons argues that white-black interactions played the key role in shaping the antebellum evangelical defense of slavery. The argument, based on deep research and presented with meticulous care, is powerfully convincing."
In addition, Donald G. Mathews of the University of North Carolina stated:

"Unlike many scholars, Charles Irons takes seriously the interaction between black and white believers in the antebellum South. In this innovative and painstaking study, the author demonstrates how this interaction--flawed, agonistic, and paradoxical--played out within institutions where both races engaged each other. The result is an understanding of the ambiguity and irony that afflicted religion in the Old South, which was not the result of a simple story as much as stories in collision."
Sounds like an interesting take on a topic that is often lost in the muddle of early American religious studies. I hope it will be worth adding to my "to read" list.


Tom Van Dyke said...

More provocative than helpful, Brad, without a clue on Irons' thesis. [I can't find anything on the internet, either.]

I'd guess the rationale was a paternal one, noblesse oblige, resembling the attitude of the feudal lord toward his serfs. If not the norm, feudalism and slavery were a significant norm throughout all recorded human history.

Therefore, even if "brothers in Christ," which would be an essential equality, there was the attitude that all men were not equal in practical terms. Judging by the underdevelopedness of their home continent of Africa, reinforced by the deprived [if not depraved] conditions they kept their slaves in here, they assumed the comfortable rationalization that their slaves by nature couldn't take care of themselves and were better off as "beloved" property. ["Property" being just another political state, and one with a long human history, and we Americans love our cars, for instance, don't we?]

Indeed, Frederick Douglass himself, surely one of the most brilliant Americans in history, doubted his own humanity until he taught himself to read.

Once you impose gradations on equality---what it is to be human!---keeping slaves could perversely become an act of Christian charity, and I have no doubt at least some convinced themselves that it was.

Anonymous said...

I'm so tired of the American South receiving an undue burden of blame for all things slavery. It makes a large population feel good about itself through an "We cared more" attitude and claim the moral high ground.

Brad Hart said... guess is you won't be reading the book then.