The Author’s Corner with Katherine Gerbner

Christian SlaveryKatharine Gerbner is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Minnesota.  This interview is based on her book,  Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Christian Slavery?

KGI started Christian Slavery with a simple question: how could seemingly good people support something that was morally abhorrent? Specifically, I wanted to know why European Christians, and especially missionaries, accepted slavery. What I was uncovered was a deeply troubling story that is important to understand today. It shows how people with good intentions can play a terrible role in perpetuating injustice, and it demonstrates the long history of complicity between Christianity and slavery.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Christian Slavery?

KGI have three main arguments: (1) far from being forced to convert, enslaved and free blacks had to fight their way into Protestant churches; (2) Protestant missionaries paved the way for pro-slavery theology by arguing that conversion would not lead to freedom for the enslaved; and (3) White Supremacy grew out of “Protestant Supremacy”—the idea that enslaved people could not become Christian.

JF: Why do we need to read Christian Slavery?

KGThere’s a lot of discussion about White Supremacy right now. In those conversations, it’s essential to explore what we mean by “whiteness” and where this term comes from. What history shows us is that the word “white” replaced the word “Christian” in colonial records as a way to justify enslavement. In other words, whiteness was created under slavery in order to exclude people of African descent from freedom. So if we really want to understand White Supremacy, and to combat it, we have to acknowledge the complex relationship between Christianity and slavery.

My book also shows the possibilities for combating racism & White Supremacy. Some evangelical Christians and Quakers played a central role in the abolitionist movement, showing that Christianity could be used to support emancipation. And most importantly, enslaved and free blacks who fought their way into Protestant churches defined their faith around the concept of liberation, in opposition to pro-slavery theology.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KGI studied Religion and Middle Eastern Studies in college. But when it came time to write a Senior Thesis, I chose a historical document: the first antislavery petition written in the Americas, which was authored by German and Dutch Quakers in 17th c. Pennsylvania. I started by researching the origin of that document and its reception. As I did so, I realized that the anti-slavery Protest was rejected by English Quakers in Philadelphia. I was surprised by this—I grew up in Philadelphia and attended a Quaker school, but I had only learned about Quaker abolitionism. I was shocked to discover that there were Quakers who owned slaves. I wanted to know what else had been left out of the conventional histories. I started there, and I haven’t stopped researching since.

JFWhat is your next project?

KGI’m writing a book about slave rebellion and religious freedom, tentatively called Constructing Religion, Defining Crime. I noticed in my research for Christian Slavery that black Christians and other religious leaders were often blamed for slave rebellions. In response, white authorities created laws designed to criminalize black religious practices. My new research suggests that we cannot understand religion – or religious freedom – without examining slave rebellion. The history of slavery can help us to understand how and why some religious practices have been, and continue to be, excluded from the lexicon of “religion” and even criminalized.

JF: Thanks, Katherine!

The Bible: Whites Used It to Justify Slavery and Africans Used It to Promote Freedom

Slave Bible 2

Check out Julie Zauzmer’s nice piece on the Bible and slavery at The Washington Post.  It draws from some of the best scholars on slavery, American religion, and the Bible, including Mark Noll and Yolanda Pierce.  Here is a taste:

As America commemorates the 400th anniversary of the creation of representative government in what would become the United States, and the first documented recording of captive Africans being brought to its shores, it is also grappling with the ways the country justified slavery. Nowhere is that discussion more fraught than in its churches.

“Christianity was proslavery,” said Yolanda Pierce, the dean of the divinity school at Howard University. “So much of early American Christian identity is predicated on a proslavery theology. From the naming of the slave ships, to who sponsored some of these journeys including some churches, to the fact that so much of early American religious rhetoric is deeply intertwined . . . with slaveholding: It is proslavery.” Some Christian institutions, notably Georgetown University in the District, are engaged in a reckoning about what it means that their past was rooted in slaveholding. But others have not confronted the topic. “In a certain sense, we’ve never completely come to terms with that in this nation,” Pierce said.

The Africans who were brought to America from 1619 onward carried with them diverse religious traditions. About 20 to 30 percent were Muslim, Pierce said. Some had learned of Christianity before coming to America, but many practiced African spiritual traditions.

Early on, many slaveholders were not concerned with the spiritual well-being of Africans. But few had qualms about using Christianity to justify slavery.

Some theologians said it was providence that had brought Africans to America as slaves, since their enslavement would allow them to encounter the Christian message and thus their eternal souls would be saved, said Mark Noll, a historian of American Christianity.

Read the entire piece here.

Episode 43: Reconciling the Church and Slavery

PodcastSadly, the Church, both in America and abroad, has a long history of supporting the institution of slavery. So what can a single congregation do to reconcile their past with a contemporary commitment to social justice? In today’s episode, host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling discuss truth and reconciliation within the Church. They are joined by public historian Chris Graham, who serves as the chair of the History and Reconciliation Initiative at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.


Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).


Author’s Corner with Leigh Fought

FoughtLeigh Fought is Associate Professor of History at LeMoyne College.  This interview is based on her book Southern Womanhood and Slavery: A Biography of Louisia S. McCord, due out in paperback in September 2018 with University of Missouri Press.

JF: What led you to write Southern Womanhood and Slavery?

LF: The not entirely glib answer is that I wanted to understand my grandmother, a powerful southern woman, who bore many traits of Louisa S. McCord, from the father-worship to the contradictions between her ideals and her life.  The serious answer is that I never bought Mary Chesnut’s lament about “poor slaves, poor women” or that southern women were closet abolitionists. Now, of course that has been entirely dissected in the historiography, but I wrote this manuscript back in the 1990s when much of that research was very new or developing. McCord captured my attention in a section of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s Within the Plantation Household. Not only did she seem more true to a white woman of the planter class, but she was also a woman who married late and widowed early, controlled her own property after marriage, and counselled women to be the “conservative force” behind the scenes while publishing essays on unfeminine subjects like slavery and political economy. I wanted to know more. This became, to the best of my youthful abilities, the book that I wanted to read.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Southern Womanhood and Slavery

LF: Because this was my first book, taken from my dissertation, the implied argument was: “Please give me a PhD and publish my manuscript!” The real argument was that Louisa S. McCord was a female Fire-Eater, one of the Southern political essayists who defended slavery even to secession. She injected women into their white supremacist construction of society, insisting that, while women could match any man intellectually, they must remain subordinate to prevent the nation from descending into chaos because they did not have the physical capacity to control slaves or the working class.

JF: Why do we need to read Southern Womanhood and Slavery?

LF: At this moment in our national life a critical mass of people cannot escape the strains of race and gender that have defined our nation from its inception, and they echo those of Louisa McCord’s time. Indeed, many of the idols of her life have been resurrected in ours, but their purveyors attempting to strip or deny the reality of their historical contexts. At the same time, on the left, especially among white feminist, many editorial and columns ponder the perplexing issue of white women seeming to work against their own political interests.

Louisa McCord’s life and work illustrates aspects of these topics. She portrayed herself as a Roman matron in the cause of the Confederacy and, later, to the memory of the Confederacy, and she made perfectly clear that the Southern society defended by the Confederacy would not and could not exist without slavery. Her anti-woman’s rights position rested on privileges rather than rights. The ability of white men to exercise their rights without restriction would allow them to protect their dependents and thereby keep white women safe from other men, both black and white. She did not see the woman’s rights movement as empowering women to take care of themselves because, in a patriarchal slaveholding society, she understood physical violence as the decisive factor in maintaining order. Women, she believed, could not and should not wield that power. Race and class privilege, therefore, in her mind, came before the individual rights of gender for the preservation of civilization.

If you scratch the surface, of course, you find that she controlled the wealth in her marriage and was a widow for far longer than she was a wife. She found ways to use violence through overseers and the workhouse. She did not follow her own counsel on women remaining within their sphere, and others uniformly considered her a commanding presence. Indeed, many details of her upbringing resemble those of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s, she just took a decidedly different ideological road. She was a challenging woman to encounter as a subject.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LF: I may have decided to become a historian when I was in elementary school, watching Little House on the Prairie and Roots, visiting historic sites like Colonial Williamsburg, reading children’s biographies of Betsey Ross and Annie Oakley or children’s novels about slave girls and Laura Ingalls and captives among the Native Americans. Blame the Bicentennial. That “historian” was an actual job that a person could do did not occur to me until late in college. Then, I simply wanted to tell stories. Since I didn’t have the experience to make them up very well, I turned to history. The stories are already there, you just have to find them, which is even more fun. I especially wanted to learn about and to tell stories about the places where different people meet, be it in the borderlands, on slave plantations, or in a movement for racial justice. Half of those stories always seemed to be missing and mysterious, arousing my curiosity, while I was growing up so sheltered in the suburbs of Houston. I wanted to know the rest of the story, the whole story, and I wanted women to be the main characters.

JF: What is your next project?

LF: The project after Louisa McCord was a short history of Mystic, Connecticut, for a lay audience predominantly of tourists. The one after that was Women in the World of Frederick Douglass. Next, I’m considering either exploring nineteenth-century ideas of race and civilization through Frederick Douglass’s tour of Europe or Little House on the Prairie and the memory of the American borderlands. I’m leaning toward the latter at the moment. There is quite a bit on Laura Ingalls Wilder and her books, mostly within literary studies, but very little on the public history sites, television show, and other iterations of the story. I’m quite interested in the ways that the interpretations attempt to reconcile some of Wilder’s quite contemporary ideas about race and gender with more modern ones. I wonder at what point that becomes no longer possible. After all, the children’s literature award named for her was just un-named because of her racial depictions. I can’t say they were wrong in doing so.

JF: Thanks Leigh!

Romans 13 in American History

Romans-13I wrote a little bit about Romans 13 and the American Revolution in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  Over at The Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz notes that this New Testament passage was also used frequently in the 1840s and 1850s during the debates over slavery.

Here is a taste:

Even at its peak of popularity in the early 1840s, Romans 13:2 still appears only half as often as the single most popular verse for that time period (Luke 18:16, which generally is 5-20 times as common in the corpus as the two verses from Romans 13).

Not surprisingly, when Romans 13 did enter American public discourse at this time, it was usually as part of the national debate over slavery. In 1839, for example, a Congregationalist minister named William Mitchell quoted that passage in support of his argument that “Civil government, however corrupt, is an institution of God.” Orson S. Murray, the abolitionist editor of The Vermont Telegraph, was appalled:

“No matter then how corrupt the government—from the corrupt, hypocritical republic that establishes by law and holds in existence a most abhorrent and diabolical system of robbery, and lust, and murder, down through all the grades of aristocracy and monarchy, originating in, or originating—as a large proportion of them do—popery, Mahomedanism, and idolatry, in all their degrading, dehumanizing, man-destroying, God-dishonoring forms—all, all these corrupt and corrupting institutions are the workmanship of an all-wise, and holy, and just God!!! The consummate absurdity—not to say the involved shocking impiety and blasphemy—of deliberately and intelligently holding to such sentiments, lies out on the face of the declaration. To expose them, it needs no argument or comment. I would not be understood as denouncing, outright, friend Mitchell, as a blasphemer. I am altogether willing to attribute the monstrous heresy to ‘blindness of mind’—the habit of taking upon trust long received opinions—rather than to perverseness of heart.”

Read the rest here.

How Could They Believe in Slavery and Still Call Themselves Christians?

Lee BookChristopher Graham, writing at his blog Whig Hill, brings a dose of historical thinking to our understanding of Christian slaveholders in the 19th-century South.

Graham responds to Rev. William Sachs’s review of David Cox’s book The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee.  Sachs is the director of the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.

According to Graham, Sachs can’t seem to grasp how southern slaveholders like Lee could claim to be Christians and still own slaves.  Graham writes:

Sachs follows Cox’s explanation of mid-19th century evangelicals’ views on providentialism, sin, and action, but is tripped up by what appears to be a contradiction regarding slavery, “what sort of religion,” Sachs asks, “allowed such wrong?” He is so incredulous that he repeats the question, “how could Christian faith allow slavery and oppose its abolition?”

Christians today so thoroughly identify with the abolitionist and the Civil Rights-era interpretation of scripture, that any deviation is deemed hypocritical, delusional, heretical, and sinful. This view of a Civil Rights Christianity is so self-evidently sound and settled that we can hardly imagine that debate ever existed or that the abolitionist view was once the heretical, innovative, outsider to an orthodox Christianity.

Sachs searches for an explanation that I also see quite a lot. It includes two parts. First, “Lee, like others in his family saw slavery as evil, even as they owned human beings.” Again, I haven’t read this book, so I don’t now how Cox explains what Lee actually said, but this explanation allows slaveholders to have a moral conscience in accordance with ours while being helpless victims of 19th century material realities. At worst, they’re guilty of failing to turn belief into action, but they were ok because they “saw slavery as evil.”

The second part is this: “His turn to leadership of Southern forces was no defense of slavery in his mind. He expressed a sense of duty to his family and a way of life.” I see this frequently, not just in religious circles, but also in broader explanations for Confederate motivations. It compartmentalizes slavery, separates it from other categories like honor, family, home, and nationalist visions. This allows us to set slavery aside—yeah, it was bad, they knew that; we know that; but it was an aberration that didn’t have anything to do with larger motivations.

It all boils down to a notion that they couldn’t possibly have believed in slavery because as good Christians, they couldn’t have. But this is wrong. They believed in slavery because they were good Christians. Proslavery theology serves as a much more satisfying explanation for what we see than describing them as tragically confused.

This is a clear example of the differences between historical thinking and other kinds of thinking.  If I read Graham correctly, Cox wants to do more than merely understand Robert E. Lee’s faith as it relates to slavery.  He wants to show that Lee, from the perspective of his understanding of Christianity, is wrong.  This, of course, is a fair and honest exercise and one that theologians and pastors should make.  But, as Graham nicely points out, it strays from the tenets of good historical thinking.

Here is Graham again:

Academics understand proslavery Christianity fairly well, but because this prevalence to convolute an explanation for Christian slaveholding (they were mistaken!) by the wider public suggests that academic inquiries have limited reach. This has consequences. To deeply absorb and understand that proslavery Christians (e.g.—most white southern Christians) actually believed what they said opens the door for the work of more authentic historical accountability. And it helps us better articulate and understand how white supremacy worked and has evolved into whatever form it has today. Slavery, after all, was just the beginning of this. But I believe that standing up and simply saying you’re mistaken is not an effective approach to solving today’s problems any more than it is to understanding and explaining the past. Confronting this history prepares us to do better today.

Read Graham’s entire post here.