Reading a Pro-slavery Sermon from 1863

Family_of_African_American_slaves_on_Smith's_Plantation_Beaufort_South_Carolina

Family on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, circa 1862. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress and learnnc.org

This is an excerpt from a sermon given at Christ Church in Savannah in 1863. It is a pro-slavery, pro-Confederacy sermon. I’m sharing it, with my commentary, because I think it illumines contemporary rhetoric about race, history, war, international politics, and the South. I’ve added emphasis where I think the rhetoric is particularly interesting.

Preachers need to understand preaching history because we often replicate the rhetoric of pundits and politicians in sermons. Churches soothe the moral conscience of parishioners by repeating the talking points of our dominant culture. But how do you know when you are preaching the gospel, and when you are preaching Empire? How can you determine when you are preaching prophetically, and when you are accommodating the culture?

It’s important to learn from the past, to watch the dance of rhetoric and ethics that preachers have done every Sunday for centuries. It isn’t surprising that white Southern Christian preachers justified both slavery and war. Some of their talking points sound awfully familiar.

This preacher (Stephen Ellis) preaches a sermon to encourage the young Confederacy. At 24 pages, it was probably at least an hour long. It is verbose, in the way of 19th-century homileticians, who were well-educated and thought it important to speak in a way that fit their class. He quotes Greek philosophers, contemporary statesmen, and news reports. He refers to the Greek language. He comes off as smart and well-spoken.

The scripture is the story of Samson getting honey from the corpse of a lion he killed. There is no exegesis of the text. It’s simply a jumping-off point for the speech that follows. Out of a strong conflict will come something sweet.

He touches on some familiar themes: the danger of appeasement, the difference between a just peace and an unjust peace, the horrors of war, and endurance through trying times. He uses flowery language and long, image-heavy descriptions.

But delightful as is the word [peace], and attractive as are its associations, we should not be seduced by them to yield up either right or truth or justice for its attainment. It would indeed be a great burden rolled from our hearts if we could take our children to our bosoms, and feel that they indeed had a country–if we could look upon our noble sons and rejoice that they were freed with honour from any further conflict with foemen so unworthy of their steel–if we could glance around our hearthstones and be satisfied that no rude trumpet would again disturb their peace, no roar of cannon drive us from their shadow–if we could enter the temples of God and sing the angels song of peace on earth, good will towards men.

White men, that is.

The preacher has done a good job setting up the siren song of peace. He indicated early on that he is crafting this image simply to undo it. This illusion is no real peace, he says.

Missing, of course, is any reference to the lives of slaves. (Presumably, the life of a slave is all peace.)

But until we can do so with honor and with security, let us banish the idea from our thoughts. Let there be no making haste to find Peace. It will come when God sees that war has accomplished his purposes, and it ought to come no sooner. Unless we follow his guidance in this matter, we shall fall into temptation and a snare, and in grasping at a shadow, lose the substance which we have already gained at the cost of so much precious blood.

In other words, dreams of peace must be put aside, for now, or else all the troops will have died in vain. This is a common pro-war talking point in any conflict.

“Precious blood,” of course, has theological overtones—it’s Jesus’ precious blood that saves us from hell and punishment, according to penal substitutionary atonement theory.

I believe this atonement theory is especially prevalent in the South because it helped justify slavery. If you want to exterminate indigenous people and base an economy on slavery, it helps to frame sin as “rebellion,” and God’s justice as physical, painful retribution—in this life or the next. The requirement of justice is the violent death of someone—and the unjust death of an innocent man, a lynching, helps restore equilibrium. Any violence you then use to enforce social order and compliance is infinitely more merciful than social anarchy or the eternal flames of hell. For the good of the nation, the powerless must die. But their deaths are noble. Preserving social order, the Great Chain of Being ordained by God, is necessary to prevent a slide down the slippery slope into the anarchy of the savages.

The preacher also establishes that the war, a historical necessity, must be the will of God. War is a refining, purifying fire, in which the mettle of their (manly) resolve is tested.

Now the preacher turns to the political part of his sermon, justifying secession and portraying the Northern aggressors in negative terms:

We seceded from the Government of which we were once a part, because we felt that under it we no longer had a country. For what is our country? Our country is in its constitution, and its provisions were openly and shamefully violated–our country is in its religion, and its altars were desecrated by infidelity and the vilest fanaticism–our country is in its institutions, and they were threatened with total subversion –our country is in its social life, and that was covered all over with rude abuse and malignant defamation. And shall we, for peace sake, think for a moment of returning to the embrace of such an Union? God forbid! Let us learn at once the stern truth that we have no country until we make one. We can never go back to that whence we came out. We should not recognize it in its present garb of tyranny. We should not discern that once proud Republic under the mask which it now wears, with the oriental despotism that rules over it, and the oriental submission that kisses its feet. In its delirium it has lost all sense of regulated liberty–it remembers only passion and vengeance. Closing its eyes against all truth, and shutting its ears against all wisdom, it is striking at man madly in its rage, and it is cursing God who has placed the bit in its mouth, and is saying to it, “Thus far shalt thou go and no further.”

Abraham Lincoln? He’s no Christian. He’s an “oriental despot.” (Today, he might be called a Muslim tyrant.) He’s no Western statesman who believes in representative government (for white men).

The preacher describes four kinds of federal overreach—constitutional, religious, institutional (the unnamed institution being slavery), and social. In all of these ways, he says, the South was a victim. Abolitionists and the North have closed their eyes “against all truth” and shut their ears “against all wisdom.” They are examples of the “vilest fanaticism,” impugning the character of honest Southerners.

When activists recently advocated for marriage equality, they were likewise shaking their fist at God, according to Franklin Graham, and undermining the institution of marriage. They subjected their opponents to “malignant defamation” by calling them bigots, or worse.

People who support status quo inequality between white and black folks, who object to discussion of white supremacy and systemic racism, continue to complain about the “malignant defamation” that white people or police officers or America receives at the hands of activists. Advocating for justice is perceived as “vile fanaticism,” an attack upon our country and our way of life.

Yet the preacher offers patriarchal hope to his congregation:

In quietness and confidence is our strength. Manly fortitude and heroic patience will accomplish for us in due time all that we are contending for. We did not enter upon this conflict in the temper of children, who were quarrelling for some mere point of pique, but with the resolution of men who perceived that every thing which made life tolerable was trembling in the balance. Let peace come to us, and let us not forget our manhood and go in search of peace.

The preacher moves on to mourn the fact that the international community has not come to the aid of the South. He only gets around to mentioning slavery toward the end, but it forms the background of everything he says. At first, it’s only an oblique reference: “the peculiar conditions of our labor and climate.”

At the commencement of our revolution… we believed very sincerely that the cotton interest constituted so large a portion of [England and France’s] manufacturing and commercial wealth, that any serious interruption of the supply would create not only great distress in those countries, but would perhaps produce revolution. Under this delusion we continued for eighteen months after our movement began, and it is not yet entirely dissipated. It will require at least two years more of British endurance to convince us of our mistake, but we are, nevertheless, learning our lesson by degrees. We are finding out that God does not permit, under his Providential arrangements, any one nation to hold in its hand the fate, or even the destiny of other nations, but that climate, soil, labor, staples, are so distributed throughout the world, that if a supply of any necessary article is dried up in one direction, its production can be forced in some other direction.

England can replace the slave labor of the South with India. Such is the law of the marketplace.

That we hold great advantages over any other portion of the earth in the growth of our great staples, no one can deny. We can defy competition, because of the peculiar conditions of our labor and climate, but we cannot rule the world as we once conceived that we could.

This line gets me every time I read it: “The peculiar conditions of our labor and climate.” Wow.

The limits of Confederate exceptionalism have become clear to the preacher. But slavery? It’s still hunky-dory:

Until within a year after our war began, many of our own people, and almost all the nations outside of us, considered the institution of slavery as resting upon a very insecure basis. They almost universally believed that domestic insurrection would accompany foreign war, and that we should find our slaves rising “en masse,” and distracting all our efforts. Those who had studied this question most thoroughly, and looked at it in the light of philosophy, and especially of the Scriptures, did not fall into this error, and were satisfied from the beginning that the institution would come out of the war stronger than it went into it. Two years of the war have rid every one of any evil anticipations upon this head, and have satisfied the United States government that if these people are to change their condition, it must be changed for them by external force. And while this quiescence on the part of our servants vindicates us from the charges of cruelty and barbarity which have been so industriously circulated against us, it is also teaching us that we can, hereafter, with entire safety, and with most excellent results to ourselves, introduce them gradually to a higher moral and religious life. They know all that is going on. They are well informed about the proceedings of our enemies, and about their pretended philanthropy, and yet what advantage have they taken of it?

One of the favorite tropes of white-privilege apologists is that anyone who stirs up conversation of racial inequality is not really interested in racism, but simply exploiting racial tension for political gain. It is pretended philanthropy. But our black folks are happy just the way they are.

Dang, this strategy is old.

When were they ever more quiet, more civil, more useful, more contented than they now are? Ignorance is really our worst enemy amongst them, and I sincerely hope that when this war is over, we shall, in token of their fidelity and good will, render their domestic relations more permanent, and consult more closely their feelings and affections…

Wow. We’ll let them keep their families together.

Of course, you could also read “domestic relations” as perpetual servanthood. And they didn’t need slavery to do that. They had Jim Crow.

Take a look at this logic:
1. Our slaves (black folks) are fine and happy.
2. If they wanted to change their condition, they would do so themselves.
3. It’s wrong for outsiders to come in and stir them up toward rebellion
4. We’ll help them improve their condition when other conditions are met.

See, it’s all benevolent. Heritage, not hate.

It belies the fact that the Southern elite were terrified of slave revolt, and had spent a century passing more and more restrictive laws to keep poor whites and black slaves from working together or colluding to overthrow the institution of slavery. The preacher himself mentions Harpers Ferry early in the sermon.

Toward the end, the preacher swells to a crescendo praising the Confederacy:

But at the war-cry of her children, “Sic semper Tyrannis,” how her rich blood has rushed back upon her heart, and startled her into life! The sound of freedom’s cry has disenchanted her, and she has sprung full armed into the arena. Her noble sons have gathered around her from her hills and from her valleys, from all her fields of historic fame, from the blue waters of the Chesapeake to the dark rushing torrent of the Kanawha–sons worthy of such a mother. All her old energy has come back to her. All her power of self-denial and self-sacrifice has revived within her. Proud, fearless, indomitable, she looks into the very eye of tyranny, and makes it quail before her majesty of right and truth! The mother of States, she bares her bosom to receive upon it the strokes which are aimed at her children. Hurling defiance in the teeth of her oppressors, she prepares herself to conquer or to die. She hopes, she prays, she struggles for victory, but knowing that everything is in the hands of God, she presses on, uttering the noble words of DeRanville–“If the genius of evil is to prove triumphant, if legitimate government is again to fall, let it at least fall with honor; shame alone has no future.”

And thus white supremacy held onto the notion that it would be justified by God and history well after the war’s end. It wed notions of Christian destiny, feudal honor, patriarchy, slavery, and violent atonement theory.

White patriarchy continues to use this same rhetoric. It appropriates the language of oppression and justice, hoping to turn the tables on activists by pointing out their “vile fanaticism” as a cowardly mask for political or financial gain. People who advocate for equality are “tyrants” who will oppress the majority, if they ever get their hands on political power. We fear our own sin so much that we project it onto our enemies, imagining that they will be just as oppressive as we are—while denying that oppression even exists.

We are such gentle rulers. They will be such harsh ones. That is why they must be kept in their place.

Same song. Different verse. White supremacy did not need to rise again; it was never defeated. It has been hiding in plain sight (from white Christians, anyway) for a long, long time.

I like to imagine how someone in 200 years will read my sermons. I cannot imagine what my blind spots are—that’s why they are blind spots. But if we do not study preaching history, our cosmic vision of what God is up to in the world is limited to our immediate pastoral, ecclesial, political, and social concerns. We will miss the ways that God is working with the church—and in spite of the church—to bend the arc of history toward justice.