Moving Beyond Stonewall Jackson’s Black Sunday School

There is a fairly popular narrative that places slaveowners at the center of a progressive movement to minister to and educate slaves in the decades leading to the Civil War. It tends to focus on high-ranking Confederate officers as part of a larger attempt to get the Confederacy itself right on slavery and race relations. One such book, which explores Thomas J. Jackson’s efforts to educate slaves in Lexington, concludes that he was “the black man’s friend.”

These accounts fail to place changes in the evangelical mission that many Christians embraced in the 1830s alongside the fear that ensued as a result of Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831. They ignore laws that barred blacks from preaching to free and enslaved blacks and they fail to address the emphasis placed on service and loyalty to one’s master as opposed to stories of liberation.

The ways in which religion, faith, and slavery were intertwined during the last few decades of the antebellum period are complex. I’ve found Charles Irons’s book, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia to be incredibly helpful. But if you don’t have time to read this book check out this recent talk that Ed Ayers delivered to an audience at Richmond’s First Presbyterian Church. It’s quite good.

If you haven’t done so already, check out my recent interview with Ayers on BackStory With the History Guys.

11 thoughts on “Moving Beyond Stonewall Jackson’s Black Sunday School

  1. Robert Moore

    Actually, encouragement to minister to slaves predates 1830. In the mid-1810s, Rev. William Meade (later the third Episcopal bishop of the Virginia Diocese) republished an 18th century work, and included additional commentary. A problem I’ve identified is that too many people focus on one aspect of this and (from what I can tell so far) ignore additional aspects in some (not all) who endorsed preaching to slaves. Meade, for example, was also in the leadership of the American Colonization Society. Now, I know there are some who have negative opinions of even this, but I have to challenge those same folks to take a closer look at the ACS’s actual written “purposing”. I’ll be posting on this at some future time.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Actually, encouragement to minister to slaves predates 1830.

      Sure. We see it in the years following the Revolution and in the struggle of men like Richard Randolph, whose religious awakening led to the emancipation of his slaves. I referenced 1830, in part, because Ayers’s presentation is set in this period and it is clear that Turner’s Rebellion led to a great deal of debate over how to minister to slaves within a slave society that was perceived to be under internal and external threats. Looking forward to your post and thanks for the comment. I tend to take your lead on these matters, especially when it comes to the Valley.

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  2. Rob Baker

    I think another interesting aspect that many Southerners do not take into account is Jackson’s theology. Jackson was a member of the Presbyterian Church and from what I gather, an ardent Calvinist. The theological concept of pre-destination provides some insight into Jackson’s view on slaves; they were slaves because God wanted them to be slaves. If God predetermined slaves to be slaves, it only makes sense that Jackson would facilitate that process by preaching to them about their role as slaves.

    I think Gods and Generals did a particularly good job of portraying Jackson’s nonchalant attitude towards slavery. To him, it’s in God’s hands. Though I think this is often misinterpreted as a Lost Cause approach that slavery was not a prominent issue in the war. I’d argue the rest of the movie certainly reinforces the latter.

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  3. cagraham

    Both Donald Mathews and Erskine Clark have written about the “mission to the slaves” developed by Presbyterian Charles Colcock Jones and Methodist William Capers in the Georgia/South Carolina lowcountry. As noted above, this was one iteration of broad evangelical engagement with slavery and enslaved people that took many forms over time. Theirs, I think, was less directly shaped by the experience of Nat Turner–Jones, at least, was awakened by his time at Andover and Princeton in the 1820s. I would expect that Jackson’s initiative was inspired by Jones, who spent a great deal of time in the 1840s promulgating his “mission” through Presbyterian synods and presbyteries across the slaveholding south. (North Carolina’s Presbytery of Concord reviewed and approved–with adaptations–Jones’ proposals in 1844. In practice, it worked different in the southern upcountry because demographics prevented the formation of sustainable black Presbyterian congregations the way they could in Jones’ sea islands.)

    The Calvinist churches certainly took the lead in this particular mission (if not in manumission and colonization societies of an earlier generation that Methodists and Quakers dominated). Their theology prioritized covenantal relationships–those of mutual obligation between unequal hierarchies. God has obligations to man and man has obligations to God and the same went for men’s obligation to women, whites’ obligations to blacks, and vice versa. This is the primary theme in Georgia Baptist A.T. Holmes’ essay “The Duties of Christian Masters.” (1851) https://archive.org/stream/dutiesofmasterst01mcty#page/130/mode/2up (That Calvinist and evangelical theology blends so well with secular racial, masculine, and political ideology is no surprise. More difficult to discern is how and if individual believers–Jackson or anyone else–understood and prioritized the differences. I doubt they thought about it as much as we do.) Anyhow, alongside Presbyterians and Baptists, I’ve got German Reformed churches–also Calvinist–in NC’s western piedmont during the late 1840s also adjusting their discipline to draw in, accommodate, and catechize to local enslaved people.

    The interesting connection is that Calvinists–in the form of Presbyterians and Congregationalists–dominated the broad national mission and reform organizations historians used to call the “Evangelical United Front” or the “Benevolent Empire” that flourished in the first half of the nineteenth century. These organizations included the American Bible Society, American Tract Society, and the American Sunday School Union and they all had as their goal the evangelization of individuals and regeneration of society through means made available through various printing, communication, transportation revolutions begin in the early republic. They also served as fertile ground for the flourishing of more radical reform efforts–women’s rights, temperance, and abolition, among others. The point is that the Jones’ mission to the slaves and Jackson’s (and thousands of others’) related interest in Sunday Schools are more than just a reactionary response to Nat Turner or abolitionists, but part of a larger national-cultural embrace of these particular institutional means (Sunday Schools, tracts, etc.) and goals (societal regeneration/perfection). (This helps with the chronological positioning in the 1840/50s and helps distinguish it all from manumission and colonization efforts of earlier generations.)

    Hell, didn’t mean to carry on like this, but that particular chapter is getting revised this week, so it’s all on my mind.

    My 500-level class is reading Irons’ book in two weeks. Can’t wait.

    See Donald G. Mathews, “Charles Colcock Jones and the Southern Evangelical Crusade to Form a Biracial Community,” Journal of Southern History 40 (August 1975); Erskine Clark, Wrestlin’ Jacob: A Portrait of Religion in the Old South (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979); and Mitchell Snay, Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

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    1. Rob Baker

      Dabney was one of the South’s religious defenders of slavery. He was also sort of a patriarch of the “Old School” theology of the Presbyterian church which aided in the Schism that occurred in the 1850s over slavery. Dabney continued his defense of slavery even after the war, citing that it was scriptural credible. Of course, Dabney also preached the “good owner” idea; abusive owners were not following Christian doctrine in his mind.

      Interesting fun fact, Dabney was cousins with Jackson’s wife. Of course, Dabney wasn’t the one that led Jackson to Calvinism. That was a Lexington minister by the name of White. I’ve always wondered about the influence though. It’s very unfortunate that Jackson did not leave behind any opinions on slavery.

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