This Post Isn’t Really About Stonewall Jackson

I came across this entertaining little video from the Christian Broadcasting Network which examines the religious convictions of John Jasper, R.E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson.  It is somewhat humorous to find these two men being raised to something along the lines of civil rights activists.  The questionable story of Lee accepting communion in a Richmond church next to a black man and just after the war is explored along with Jackson’s mission to educate his slaves and other blacks in the Lexington area.  I found this passage by James I. Robertson to be just a bit curious:

As he saw it, slavery was something that God ordained upon black people in America for God’s own reasons," Robertson said. "And he had no right to challenge God’s will. That was blasphemy. And so, while he hated slavery, he was opposed to slavery, Jackson had to obey his Heavenly Father and accept the system. And he accepted it through doing the Golden Rule, do unto others as he would wish they do unto him.

Here is what I don’t understand.  If God brought slavery to black people than how is it possible that Jackson "hated" or was "opposed" to it?  To put it another way, isn’t God’s ordaining something to be the case a justification of its existence?  As I understand it, if Jackson questioned slavery than he was also questioning God’s justification for it – whether he understood the reasons or not.  I don’t see how it is possible to reconcile the claim that Jackson "had no right to challenge God’s will" on the one hand and the belief that he hated slavery.  On what grounds could Jackson question slavery without coming into conflict with God’s willing it to be the case?  I am the first to admit that I am no expert on these difficult religious issues. 

There is something very disturbing about this evangelical view of religion.  On 9-11 I lost a cousin to religious fanatics who fervently believed that their God demanded that they fly planes into buildings and kill innocent people.  No one reading this blog would have been disappointed if before the attack one or more of the terrorists had come to the realization that this in fact is not what God demands.  We wouldn’t argue that this revised/non-violent view is "blasphemous", but that it is in fact closer to a proper religious/moral life. We expect people to question the way they treat others. 

This brings me back to the question of why we are so tolerant of this authoritarian mindset in other cases.  The idea that a slaveowner had no reason to or couldn’t question the theological foundations of slavery is ludicrous.  By the mid-19th century there were plenty of examples in both north and south of individuals and groups who repudiated the idea that God sanctioned or imposed slavery on blacks.  The idea that Jackson was unaware of such movements is impossible to imagine.  Did Jackson believe that those people who were working towards the freedom of slaves on religious grounds were disobeying God’s law?  If so, then who ought we be critical of and who, in fact, should we celebrate for doing God’s work?  I am not criticizing Jackson’s Presbyterian convictions, but what I am wary of is what appears to be an authoritarian psychology that allows for little questioning or the possibility that one’s moral view of the world needs to evolve.  We’ve seen the consequences of blind obedience over the course of the twentieth-century, from the Nazis to Stanley Milgram’s labs at Yale.      

The other thing that irks me is this notion that we can make sense of the Golden Rule within a slave system.  I am always left with the same question: does a slaveowner wish to be treated like a slave?  What about the perspective of the slaves themselves – where do they fit in?  Did Jackson’s slaves believe that the Golden Rule was being followed?  Is the lesson of Jackson that as long as we apply the Golden Rule within our own set of assumptions regarding its extension than it is safe to conclude that we are living a moral life or carrying out God’s expectations?  I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that slaveowners do not properly apply the Golden Rule.  Seems to me there are plenty of examples of individuals in history who come much closer to doing justice to this beautiful moral/ethical concept than a slaveowner.

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6 comments… add one
  • Anonymous Nov 17, 2007 @ 2:08

    Great post, Kevin.

    That video is a classic of Christian Right authoritarianism. It’s also a reminder of what the late Steve Gilliard, one of the pioneers of political blogging, used to remind his readers periodically, that the “Christian Right fundamentalists” and “white people who don’t much like blacks” are two heavily overlapping groups. This video, of course, is a clean-shaven version.

    You make a very important point that there were plenty of contemporary Christians who opposed slavery on Biblical and Christian grounds. It’s not reading today’s standards back into that time to question Jackson’s supposed interpretation of Christianity.

    One thing that struck me in Frederick Douglass’ Autobiography is something I’ve seen in other slave narrative, is the observation that when slaveowners “got religion”, it often made them more severe with their slaves, not less. For some people, religion gets them in touch with God. For others, it gets them in touch with their own self-righteousness and meanness and pretend it’s God.

    It’s also worth noting that the human property that those Christian slaveowners held were also mostly Christians. And the slaves’ understanding of Christianity managed to find a prominent place for the Exodus story, the basic narrative of the Jewish religion, that features a God that leads his people out of slavery. But I guess Jackson’s Bible could have been missing that section.

  • matthew mckeon Nov 16, 2007 @ 15:52

    A good part of “Jackson, the slave’s best friend,” is simply polishing the image, assigning what we would consider virtues to a famous figure in the past. So Richard Randolph isn’t famous enough for any other accomplishments to make his emancipation of his slaves more than a footnote. It’s an urge that goes on with all sorts of historic figures.

    The Bible of course, sanctions slavery. I seem to recall English abolitionist William Wilberforce constructing arguments that slavery and religion didn’t mix. I think most people grew up, perhaps thinking that there are proper things a good slaveowner did, and evil things that a bad slaveowner did, but rarely questioning the institution itself as anything other than perfectly OK with Jesus.

    Personally, I prefer Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce’s definition of Christianity as the best description of the slave owners faith.

  • Kevin Levin Nov 16, 2007 @ 14:43

    Cash, — Thanks for chiming in on this one. You said, “in my view Jackson was doing his best to live by a moral code based on what he honestly believed was what God intended.” As a descriptive claim you are no doubt right, but it leads right back to the point of my post. The inability to question the content of one’s religious belief is J’s problem and in my view makes his position indefensible. My problem is not with Jackson, but with those who continue to celebrate and sanction this particular view of religion, which does not allow for any kind of revision. For the life of me I do not understand why people still hold up this particular form of evangelicalism as something to admire. There is a very dangerous authoritarian streak that runs through it that can lead to all kinds of problems.

  • Cash Nov 16, 2007 @ 13:28


    Regarding the Golden Rule and its application to slavery, the white slaveowner’s preferred interpretation at the time was that the Golden Rule applied if the slaveowner treated his slaves as he would want to be treated if he were a slave. Quite obviously a self-serving interpretation, but nevertheless that’s what they used to claim they applied the Golden Rule. For what it’s worth, I agree with you they weren’t applying it correctly.

    Yes, Jackson was most certainly aware of others questioning the ordaining of slavery by God, but Jackson viewed them as in the wrong. Your concerns about blind obedience are, I think, spot on. In many ways, Jackson was blindly obedient to his interpretation of God’s ordinations. This leads to logical inconsistencies we can readily identify because as you show very clearly some of those interpretations fell very heavily on the proslavery side of the equation. That being said, in my view Jackson was doing his best to live by a moral code based on what he honestly believed was what God intended.


  • Kevin Levin Nov 16, 2007 @ 8:22

    Jefferson is an obvious example, but how about another Virginian, Richard Randolph, whose will (1796) not only freed his slaves but gave them land that became Israel Hill.

    “To exculpate myself, tho those who may perchance to think or hear of me after death, from the black crime, which might otherwise be imputed to me, of voluntarily holding the above mentioned miserable beings in the same state of aject slavery in which I found them on receiving my patrimony, at Lawful age; To impress my children with just horror at a crime so enormous & indelibel, to enjure them in the last words of a fond father never to participate in it, in any the remotest degree, however sanctioned by Laws (formed by the tyrants themselves who oppose them,) or supported by false reasoning used always to soiol the sordid views of avarice, and the lust of power.”

    From Mel Ely’s NYT’s article based on his book, _Israel on the Appomattox_: “Sam White’s master, Richard Randolph, had offered a radical answer to Jefferson’s moral dilemma: he denied that any dilemma existed. Randolph was not content to restore to his slaves their God-given freedom; he also called for them to receive four hundred acres of his land on which to build new lives as independent men and women. When Randolph’s family carried out his will in 1810 after years of delay, his ex-slaves gave the name Israel Hill to their new home in the rolling terrain of Prince Edward County, and they called themselves “Israelites.” This was their Promised Land, to which they had been delivered out of bondage.”

    How about celebrating Richard Randolph as someone who came to understand what God demands of his children?

  • John Maass Nov 16, 2007 @ 7:41

    I think Jefferson was one who, as you say Kevin, “repudiated the idea that God sanctioned or imposed slavery on blacks.” Isn’t that what he meant when he wrote that “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever”? The position writers take that so and so hated slavery but the times prevented them from acting is hog wash. Jefferson, and perhaps Jackson, were too set on keeping the status quo for their own comfort and benefit to free slaves.

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