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.