A Rebbe With a Cause or Nathan B. Forrest Was Not a Good Christian No Matter How You Slice It

I think I caught this guy once counseling couples and troubled families on the Oprah Winfrey Show.  Rabbi Schmuley Boteach addresses a strand of Civil War culture and memory that I've never understood and probably never will. 

Which leads me to another conundrum. Many of the Southerners who romanticize the Confederacy are religious Christians who lead lives devoted to moral excellence. How is it possible that they would make heroes of men who betrayed the Bible’s essential message: that G-d is the father of all humankind, and all of us therefore are equal before Him?

There is no easy answer to this question. Some would say that the original sin of the Confederacy’s Christians was to talk themselves into believing that slavery was really a benevolent institution, granting support, food, and shelter to a population who they believed could not fend for themselves. The perpetuation of that sin would be lionizing the Confederate leaders and believing that it does not offend the South’s black citizens or undermine its morality. Still others would say that when G-d-fearing Christians honor the Confederate leaders today, they do so as a means of honoring the South and a lost way of life rather than focusing on slavery. It’s collective amnesia. The horrors of slavery have been forgotten and only the charm of the old South has remained.

But all these answers ring hollow. For people of religion should be lionizing only those whose lives captured the divine ideals that they hold dear. And those who fought to preserve slavery, to use an understatement, simply don’t make the grade.

When religious southern Christians engage in nostalgia for the Confederacy, they are making the mistake of putting Southern sentiment before religious conviction, in effect elevating an inferior part of their identity over the most central part. Regional loyalty must never come before eternal principle.

Since it is the weekend let's have a little fun.  We all know that comments like these are almost always perceived as an attack on "Southern Heritage" so why don't we pretend for a moment that the history of the South extends beyond 1861-1865.  Let's see if we can come up with a list of Southern-born folks that more closely approximate the essential teachings of Jesus other than Lee, Jackson, Forrest, and the rest of the gang.

Note: Thanks for the comments, but at this point I think this discussion thread has been played out.  Therefore, I've decided to close the comments on this post.  🙂

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sherree Sep 28, 2008 @ 8:44


    That is my point as well, and I stated as much above more than once. Dr. King is also my hero, as I have also stated on your blog more than once.

    Richard will have to speak for himself.

    Have a good day. Thanks again for the conversation.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 28, 2008 @ 8:21

    Richard and Sherree, — All of this is very interesting and worthy of discussion. I just want to point out that my intention from the beginning was first to acknowlege a point made by Rabbi Schmuley that individuals like R.E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and others are regularly pointed to as having lived lives that reflect the teachings of Jesus and are therefore worthy of emulation. It seems to me that slaveowning and Jesus are two things that simply do not go together no matter how you slice it. Therefore, I am curious as to whether we can find others within the rich history of the South that more closely approximate what, in fact, Jesus asked of us.

    Here’s one: Dr. Martin Luther King

    King lived a philosophy of non-violence and worked throughout his adult life as an advocate of civil rights for all Americans. I would argue that this is more worthy of attention than Lee, Jackson, and Forrest who engaged in violence and denied civil rights to an entire race.

    Does Southern Christian Heritage really not extend beyond the four years of the Civil War and individuals who owned other human beings?

    C’mon…I know we can do better than this.

  • Sherree Sep 28, 2008 @ 8:07


    I would like to add a footnote to my last comment.

    A quick google search on my part has revealed that Martin Luther was indeed in his later years an anti-Semite. Therefore, Luther most certainly does not represent my beliefs when it comes to Jewish men and women. Yet, it was in a Lutheran Church that I was taught tolerance. Another unsolvable paradox.

    I do believe that it is google that will change the world, after all.

    As to the discussion at hand: a man or woman’s belief system determines how he or she acts in the world and on the stage of world history. I think that is rather obvious to everyone. Christianity was used to prop up one of the most immoral systems ever imagined in humanity’s less than admirable moments: slavery. Therefore, it is the responsibility of Christianity and of modern Christians to help heal the wounds of the past and to bring justice to the aggrieved, not to add new injustices, and many Christians have, and are, doing this. Yet, many others are not. That is the issue.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 28, 2008 @ 7:17

    Richard, — Thanks again. I am proceeding on the assumption that we can distinguish between ethics/morality and theology for a moment. It seems to me that Christians today of various stripes ought to be able to come to agreement over specific moral principles found in the Old/New Testament.

    I am referring to the murdering of slaveowners by their slaves for reasons of coercion and the denial of one’s fundamental right to control their own lives. Admittedly this is not a well thought out example. Hopefully it makes the point, which is that in such a case you would not be able to argue that the murder/killing was morally unjustified because you believed the individual in question to be a good Christian (i.e. taught Sunday School class, taught slave to read and other random acts of kindness notwithstanding). The point is that they failed to act as a good Christian.

    This time it is you that will have to clarify as I don’t understand your claim that slavery and Christianity cannot coexist. Are you making that claim on the assumption that you occupy some objective perspective on what the Bible means? It seems to me the two did in fact coexist quite well up until the Civil War. You quote from Exodus, but as you well know, slaveowners would have referred to any number of passages in the Bible as justification for slavery. Your point serves as a reminder that Christians today do not interpret the Bible to justify slavery. That reflects a change in our ethical/moral claims and not simply a revision in theology and Biblical interpretation. That, however, does not help me understand how slaveowners justified the institution through Biblical text.

    I don’t understand the following: “I don’t accept your premise that they had a moral claim. They had a legal claim, which many transferred, in their own minds, to a moral claim.”

    So, they did and they didn’t have a moral claim? What do you mean by “transferred”? The moral justification for African slavery extended much further back in history than the eventual legal system that came to dominate the Chesapeake by 1720. As you well know, most people who immigrated to Virginia in the 17th century did so as slaves or indentured servants. The line between free and unfree did not follow the racial line early on. It was during the period between 1660 and 1720 when a number of laws were passed that reinforced the racial divide and claims to racial superiority among all white Virginians.

    Finally, I understand that many slaveowners, including Jefferson, believed they were “trapped” by slavery. However, I fail to see how that helps those today who would prop up slaveowners as Christians worthy of emulation. My point, all along, has been that there are much better candidates for such a position outside of this traditional definition of “Southern Christian Heritage” and that even within its contours there are more qualified candidates. It is always the case that individuals struggle with moral-religious beliefs, but why would we intentionally focus on those who failed to do the right thing rather than those who not only acknowledged the morally correct move, but followed up with the requisite act? And please don’t tell me that we are all sinners in the eyes of God – whatever that means. In that case there are sinners who do the right thing and those that do not and we are back to our original problem.

    One more point: I believe your claim that “American slavery was destined for God’s judgment from the beginning” is very dangerous. First, I do not want to get into a debate about the veracity of the claim since I make no assumptions about what God desires – it’s out of my area. However, by making such a claim you remove the responsibility for the decisions which resulted in the extension and reinforcement of the institution of slavery out of the hands of those involved. Following the Revolution every state north of the Mason-Dixon line enacted a policy of gradual abolition. Even in the South politicians debated the morality of slavery and discussed the possibility of abolition. Slaveowners in Virginia in 1831 came very close to ending slavery peacefully. The extension of slavery and the coming of the Civil War were the result of the actions of real people responding to real events within a specific culture. Your notion that war was inevitable or a form of God’s judgment suggests to me that any other type of resolution to the problem was not just unlikely, but impossible. In short, Americans – both North and South – wrought what they sowed.

  • Sherree Sep 28, 2008 @ 6:57

    “I will take a Unitarian non-slaveowner/advocate for emancipation over a Presbyterian slaveowner any day of the week.”

    “I understand Kevin, but, again, he was not an orthodox Christian and that was central to the discussion.”

    Good Morning all, and hold on!


    Now we are further into this discussion by necessity, because it appears that you are speaking for all Christians, and you are not. I respect your position, but you will have to define “orthodox Christian” in more detail.

    I was brought up in a Lutheran Church in the mountains in the South, and the pastor who was the spiritual leader of our congregation for over thirty years in a mainstream Christian denomination–the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America–taught us that the true meaning of the message of Christ did not include, by any stretch of the imagination, the oppression of another race. This is a constant theme in much of the history of the Lutheran Church. Although Martin Luther has been criticized for being anti-Semitic and the jury is still out on this issue; the church that Luther founded developed along different lines, and it was a Lutheran bishop, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who stood up to the Nazis and was summarily executed for his efforts.

    The issue of what role religion played in upholding a slave society, and what role religion may continue to play in perpetuating racism and division today, is most likely the most germane issue of all of the many issues to be considered. I am attempting to understand my life experience and the life experiences of my family in the mountains for over two hundred years in light of new evidence that is now available to all, thanks to modern technology, which has democratized education to a degree unheard of in previous generations–somewhat like Martin Luther translating the Bible into German so that everyday men and women could read it–and I am rapidly reaching the conclusion that those experiences were different because of religion and religion alone, since all other variables seem to be more or less constant. Specifically, my family was not part of what you might term orthodox Christianity, but that I would term the antithesis to orthodox Christianity as I experienced Christianity in the Lutheran Church, and the antithesis to the teachings of Christ himself, if by orthodox Christianity you mean, in any way, a belief system that includes the oppression of others. I don’t think that you do, but I am not sure from what you have said. What do you mean by orthodox Christianity is my question, and I would like to pose a question of my own, if I may.

    One of the most powerful books I ever read was written by a Catholic priest from Ireland, entitled, “Who Killed Jesus?” The book is complicated and I won’t do the author the disservice of claiming that I represent his thesis in its entirety, because I certainly do not. I think it is safe to say, however, that the core thesis of the book is that the way in which the passion story has been taught and portrayed in many churches for centuries is the root cause of anti-Semitism. After reading the book, I did an informal experiment, and asked different men and women from different denominations of the Christian faith: “Who killed Jesus?” Almost invariably, members of certain denominations said, “The Jewish people”, while others said, “The Romans.” Add this information to a story told to me by a Jewish man who lived through World War II and saw the holocaust unfold, and who always hated Easter because many of the Christian children were given lilies at school, while the Jewish children were not, and who was, almost without fail, chased down the street and called “Christ killer”, and this thesis has a face on it, and not a very attractive one. (This happened in New York City, but I feel certain that it could, and did, happen in the South as well.)

    So who did kill Jesus? My answer would be many of those in the church founded in his name–not all, but many.

    What we are taught from the pulpit or in the temple or in a mosque shapes in dramatic ways what we think and believe, and this cuts across all lines of race, class, and nationality. Slavery was never, and is not now, an institution that is supported by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I think that Christ would be appalled if he could see what we have done with his message.

  • Richard Williams Sep 27, 2008 @ 22:49


    “Well, since I am more interested in ethics/morality, theological questions having to do with the trinity hold little interest for me.”

    We were specifically discussing Christianity. I was clarifying the term from an orthodox perspective.

    I’m a little confused regarding your “experiment”. Are you talking about the murdering the slave owner for the sole reason that he’s a slave owner? That’s a slippery slope. Can you clarify a little?

    “Could it be that slaveowners at any time give up any moral claim to their lives?”

    I’m a little surprised at that question. I don’t accept your premise that they had a moral claim. They had a legal claim, which many transferred, in their own minds, to a moral claim. There are modern analogies I could use here, but that would take us off topic. I assume you mean in their own view? Here’s what I wrote in my book. I discuss this in the context of orthodox Christianity, which I know you don’t care for as it relates to historiography, but if you’ll indulge me, I think you’ll get my point:

    “To argue that slavery and Christianity could peacefully coexist denies the obvious. Since man-stealing and slave-trading was specifically condemned and punishable by death in the Old Testament (see Exodus 21:16: “He that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death”), American slavery was destined for God’s judgment from the beginning. Slavery is inherently accompanied by evils and mistrust. And race-based slavery is particularly evil and sinful. Man-stealing, coupled with the haughty, prideful spirit of superiority by nineteenth-century white Americans—North as well as South— invited the judgment of God. God visited the nation with a war that took more lives than all other American wars combined—decimating a generation of white Americans within four terrible years.”

    “Yet many patriotic and prominent Southern Christians believed they were trapped by foreboding circumstances beyond their control. They were uncomfortably aware that the South’s future was precarious because of slavery. Most saw the storm clouds of war on the horizon, and they heard what one slave described as ‘de rumblin’ o’ de wheels.’ Many would have agreed with George Washington Parke Custis, the father of Mary Custis Lee and the adopted son of George Washington, who taught his children that slavery was “a curse upon their section by the folly of their ancestors.”

    So, to answer your question, yes. Biblically and, in my view, morally speaking, killing another human being is justified to preserve one’s own life. That, of course, would have applied to the slaves as well – in the defense of the unjust taking of his own life, or that of another.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 27, 2008 @ 22:11

    Richard, — Well, since I am more interested in ethics/morality, theological questions having to do with the trinity hold little interest for me. What matters is how we perceive and treat other people. Good question re: Conway and colonization. I recently read a book on Virginia’s colonization program, but unfortunately, it does not mention Conway.

    This is going to sound a bit rough, but let’s imagine a little thought experiment How are we to evaluate a situation involving the killing of Lee or Jackson by one of their slaves? It seems to me that the killing would be morally justified given that the slave has no moral or legal recourse. But if the killing of a slaveowner is justified than the act must have something to do with the individual in question. The act of killing points to the core of the slaveowners identity regardless of whether he taught the slave to read or whether he engaged in other forms of Christian charity. The master-slave relationship implies absolute control and forces the slave in question to resort to extreme methods as a means to attaining freedom. In a sense the extreme immorality of the slaveowner forces the slave to resort to means that under normal circumstances would be condemned.

    Could it be that slaveowners at any time give up any moral claim to their lives?

  • Richard Williams Sep 27, 2008 @ 21:35

    “I will take a Unitarian non-slaveowner/advocate for emancipation over a Presbyterian slaveowner any day of the week.”

    I understand Kevin, but, again, he was not an orthodox Christian and that was central to the discussion.

    It would also be interesting to know, for the sake of the discussion, whether or not Conway was also an advocate of colonization, as many of the abolitionists were.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 27, 2008 @ 20:54

    Richard, — I do appreciate the additional information, but I am not concerned about a Unitarian affiliation. To put it another way, I will take a Unitarian non-slaveowner/advocate for emancipation over a Presbyterian slaveowner any day of the week. (LOL) I am still reading Charles F. Irons’s _The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia_ (UNC Press, 2008) which has introduced me to a number of people that I could substitute for Conway.

    Matthew, — I’m not sure who your comment was meant for, but I can say that the issue for me is not whether they were honorable or worthy of hero status, but whether their behavior ought to be interpreted as a paragon of Christian virtue.

  • Richard Williams Sep 27, 2008 @ 20:16


    While I have no desire of getting into a theological debate, I think its important to point out that Moncure Conways was an ordained Unitarian minister. Unitarians reject many of the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, i.e., the doctrine of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ.

    No orthodox, evangelical Christian would hold such a person(s) up as “the best examples of Christianity in practice.”


  • Sherree Sep 27, 2008 @ 18:28

    Fascinating, informative, and productive–if for no other reason than Kevin and Richard had a moment in which they agreed with one another: ie, when they both agreed that I, Sherree, was wrong! lol

    I don’t know if I am just old, pollyannish, or a foolish optimist and idealist, but I truly believe that we, in this country, and more broadly, we, in the world at large, are at the dawning of a new age that will eventually bring all that humankind has hoped for in every culture in every age. I truly hope so.

    I remember an article that was in Time magazine years ago (maybe Newsweek, it has been a while) The journalist who wrote the article described the meeting between a prominent rabbi and a former member of the KKK. The rabbi asked for the meeting, if I remember correctly. The expectations for the meeting were low. After all, what could anyone reasonably expect from such a meeting? The rabbi simply wanted to talk to the man. As the meeting progressed, however, a small miracle began to take place and the journalist chronicled how the man who was a member of the KKK discovered during the course of the meeting what the rabbi had known all along: that they were both just men, nothing more, nothing less. I am not making comparisons to the present discussion. I am just relating the story. It seemed appropriate, in honor of the rabbi who sparked the discussion.

    Happy Rosh HaShanah, Rabbi Boteach, Richard, Kevin, Michaela, Larry, Matthew, and Anonymous. Shalom. Sherree

  • matthew mckeon Sep 27, 2008 @ 18:13

    So people today should have different heroes than slaveowners, because slaveowning is bad? No slaveowner can be admirable, because slaveowning requires attitudes and actions that aren’t admirable.
    Or is it just the Confederates that can’t be admired, because they were specifically defending a slaveowning society, while someone like Washington, Jefferson etc., can be admired because, while their slaveowning was as bad as anyone’s, their achievements aren’t specifically in the defending slavery line.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 27, 2008 @ 17:17

    Anonymous, — Exactly

  • Anonymous Sep 27, 2008 @ 16:14

    The point of this debate is not to establish if a particular Southerner was or was not a “true” Christian, but why some people hold out examples of Christians who are not the strongest examples of Christianity. Why is Robert E. Lee held out as a paragon of the Christian faith? As you point out, most people have a moral justification for what they do or do not do. Why Lee, instead of someone who did not devote their life to soldiering (a profession which pretty blatantly contradicts some of the central teachings of Jesus the Christ)? Why do we not hold out the Moncure Conways of the South as the best examples of Christianity in practice? The debate descends to the level of arguing how Christian a particular person was a means of avoiding the above questions. I don’t think Kevin, or anyone else for that matter, is arguing that Stonewall Jackson or Lee were not Christians (either by their self-definition or the definition of contemporaries). Rather, why choose these particular people as examples of Christians when stronger examples seem to be present? Is it not a better example of faith to discuss someone who holds to their belief in their personal salvation through Jesus the Christ in contravention to all of society and at great hardship and personal loss throughout a length of time and bears continual witness to their faith as opposed to someone like Nathan Bedford Forrest who converts late in life?

  • Kevin Levin Sep 27, 2008 @ 16:13

    Matthew, — Thanks for chiming in. We’ve lost sight of the original point of the post, which was not to question the historical players themselves, but to inquire into why many today view individuals like Jackson, Lee, Forrest, and others as model Christians that ought to be emulated. I agree with the thrust of Rabbi Schmuley’s commentary which is to question whether slaveowners are models of what we today believe to be a good Christian. Simply put, owning other human beings violates the teachings of Jesus – end of story.

    Your point – if I understand it – however, is not quite right since even at the time of the Civil War there were many people who were questioning the central pillars of slavery based on their religious convictions in both the North and South. They weren’t trying to square anything – they were struggling with contradictory beliefs and working to break free of a society that had used both the legal system and religion to justify and spread a heinous institution. It seems to me that these are the individuals that people today who are interested in identifying heroes from the past ought to be concentrating on. In other words, we ought to be teaching Bible classes not about Stonewall Jackson, but about people who did, in fact, model their lives in a way that more closely approximate (what we now acknowledge to be) the moral worldview of Jesus.

  • matthew mckeon Sep 27, 2008 @ 15:43

    The people at the time of the Civil War squared their understanding of the Bible and what God wanted with participating in slavery themselves, or defending their slaveowning society. That’s not a surprise. Most people are able to square their Sunday church and whatever horrors, sins and compromises their societies demand the rest of the week. Where and when has that not been so?

    I never understand the point of these debates.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 27, 2008 @ 15:21

    Richard, — I think we will indeed disagree, but I don’t believe that our disagreement has anything to do with the number of years spent researching the subject. It seems to me the difference has to do with how we judge or understand what defines a moral life. Of course, I agree with you that Jackson struggled with his faith and that struggle does indeed make for an interesting story. My point is simply that his struggle is not necessarily more worthy of our respect as a Christian than someone who actually lived their life in accordance with those central tenets which point to the humanity of all people regardless of race. I am assuming that this is a central pillar of Jesus’s world view. If you say that he did acknowledge this universal humanity than we have a problem with why he continued to support slavery at a time when many people in both North and South were actively challenging it, and if he didn’t than we ought to look elsewhere for exemplary behavior. Again, it’s not a criticism of Jackson as much as it is a question of how we construct and understand exemplary. moral/ethical behavior.

    Sherree, — I agree with Richard’s point entirely.

  • Richard Williams Sep 27, 2008 @ 15:14


    I don’t consider any of Kevin’s comments/questions “accusing”. Pointed, yes, but civil. I think Kevin and I have an understanding and know our limits.

  • Richard Williams Sep 27, 2008 @ 15:10


    “I simply disagree that Jackson’s Sunday School class justifies his place anywhere near the top of a list of exemplary Christians.”

    I spent four years researching the topic. We’ll agree to disagree.

    How does one introduce stories of freedom in the Bible without having to respond to the obvious question: “Why am I not free?”

    One does not. Jackson struggled with that question.

    “we can also conclude that he did not understand the central tenets of his faith.”

    YOU may conclude, not me. I believe Jackson understood the fundamental doctrines of Christianity as well as any non-theologian in 19th century America.

    What were, in your view, “the central tenets of his faith?” Again, I addressed all of these issues head on in my book.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 27, 2008 @ 14:39

    Richard, — I simply disagree that Jackson’s Sunday School class justifies his place anywhere near the top of a list of exemplary Christians. Not compared to other Virginians and white Southerners who understood that slavery was wrong and took steps to end it. Southerners such as Moncure Conway and countless others took much more of a risk by helping slaves gain their freedom in comparison to Jackson who violated a law that was rarely enforced to begin with. In fact, from a certain perspective the introduction of religion into the lives of Lexington slaves leads to even more problems for us. How does one introduce stories of freedom in the Bible without having to respond to the obvious question: “Why am I not free?” It seems to me that not only is Jackson not to be praised in any way for such actions, we can also conclude that he did not understand the central tenets of his faith.

    And how do I know this? Well, because too many of his contemporaries in both the North and South did understand that slavery was both immoral as well as a violation of Christianity.

  • Sherree Sep 27, 2008 @ 14:08


    I would like to rescind the suggestion that Reverend Jackson be included in this group. I was inspired by Reverend Jackson when I heard him speak, and what he said about working for racial harmony that day in West Virginia in the 1980s was inspirational. He did later make anti-Semitic comments, however, I just confirmed by googling his name. I do not know if he has since proven that he is not anti-Semitic, so I cannot support his vision of America until I know. Also, I read your post again. Of course, Dr. King is the obvious and most conspicuous answer. I did not understand what you were asking. Thanks as always for the conversation.

  • Sherree Sep 27, 2008 @ 13:07

    Thanks for responding, Kevin and Richard. Sorry to see that things got heated up so fast. I think that if we would all hold our tempers and stop acusing one another, we might get somewhere, even if discussing certain subjects goes against old adages about not discussing them, as I said earlier.

    If we are going to include African American Christians from the South who strive to live the moral precepts laid down by Christ, I would like to include Reverend Jesse Jackson. I heard Reverend Jackson speak in Charleston West Virginia in the mid 1980s and he was truly inspiring. We all held hands after he spoke–white and black Southerners together–and said a prayer for racial harmony, as Reverend Jackson asked us to do. It was quite a memorable event.

  • Richard Williams Sep 27, 2008 @ 13:01


    I misjudged you. I assumed you would waylay for that comparison. Not ideal, Kevin, but worthy. As I said, “not for their support of slavery, but for their broader attributes as seen in a broad historical context.”

    I answered your question in great detail in my book about Stonewall Jackson and his Sunday school class.

    Now, to your original question. May I nominate Booker T. Washington? One of our most underestimated American heroes and a committed Christian. May I nominate John Jasper? (one of my personal favorites and a hero of mine)Jasper was a slave who volunteered to minister to wounded Confederate soldiers at Chimborazo hospital in Richmond. He did so while one of my great-great grandfathers was there after being wounded.

    Also, many, many Confederate chaplains would fit the mold, as well as scores who formed churches after the War. Moreover, the thousands of Southern evangelical ministers and laymen who were converted after the war and their descendants who continue the work of the Great Commission. Some famous, others not so famous. You could fill a book with their stories.

  • Michaela Sep 27, 2008 @ 12:30

    How about the obvious one: Dr. Martin Luther King.
    And it is OK to demonize those who owned slaves and the society that supported it because it is immoral. And every single soldier who fought in the Civil War must have thought at one point or another when the flees and lice ate away at him lying in the mud far away from home “I am fighting for the South to maintain its hierarchy” or “I hate this and I am not even supporting it” (the simplified version). So every foot soldier is a thinking human being and not an a-political robot. So everybody who lives in a society who supports slavery and who picks up a weapon to defend it or who supports those that fight has a moral responsibility.

    And this ethical/moral responsibility holds true for all other times, during the Roman empire, the 19th Century European empires, the Third Reich, and today when we still fight wars for a wide variety of reasons. Re: the old testament I am not sure I would resign to quote it with the vast availability of sources that have more fundamental historical research and interpretation to offer. And after all lets stay with the Civil War as Kevin runs a Civil War Memory blog.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 27, 2008 @ 12:12

    Larry, — Excellent choice. How about Dr. Martin Luther King?

    Richard, — EXCELLENT, EXCELLENT, EXCELLENT POINT AND ONE THAT I COMPLETELY AGREE WITH!!!!! I say lay into the guy for all it’s worth. That said, at some point I would like you to address the crucial point at hand, which is how one can justify holding up a slaveowner as representative of an ideal Christian life.


  • Richard Williams Sep 27, 2008 @ 12:00


    I don’t know if I’ll write anything or not then, as your post is broader than your challenge. Instead, I may respond to the good Rabbi’s original piece (and yours) on my blog. We’ll see.

    “But all these answers ring hollow. For people of religion should be lionizing only those whose lives captured the divine ideals that they hold dear. And those who fought to preserve slavery, to use an understatement, simply don’t make the grade.”

    Just for a tease, how would Rabbi Boteach respond to the same charge if it was directed to Old Testament figures who supported slavery? Responding to his article will be a challenge as it is so full of misinformation and half truths, I don’t know quite where to begin.

    The Jewish faith “lionizes” (and rightfully so) many OT figures who had no problem with slavery; not for their support of slavery, but for their broader attributes as seen in a broad historical context. The same holds true for the Southerners whom the Rabbi named.

  • Larry Cebula Sep 27, 2008 @ 11:52

    How about George Washington Carver? He was quite the local hero where I used to live but is not properly known nationally. He had an inspiring life story, a commitment to social justice, and a boatload of scientific accomplishments.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 27, 2008 @ 11:28

    Thanks Richard. I look forward to reading it. In the mean time let’s return to my initial challenge.

    Marc, — Very interesting choice, though I admittedly know very little of Parsons.

    How about Virginian Moncure Conway as a start? http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A22595-2004Aug21.html

    Why have we forgotten this man?

  • Richard Williams Sep 27, 2008 @ 11:16


    The answer to the rhetorical question I posed is, of course, William Wilberforce and John Newton who was an Anglican clergyman and former slave-ship captain. He also wrote the hymn, Amazing Grace. I don’t mean to sound presumptive, but I am still surprised at the number of people who are not familiar with Newton’s life and story.

    Both men were committed Christians.

  • Richard Williams Sep 27, 2008 @ 11:13


    Ok, I’ll write up something a little more lengthy later this evening.


    Yes, the ship ended up in Jamestown, long before there was a real distinction between the “North & South.” It left port in 1562, under the English flag, of course.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 27, 2008 @ 10:53

    Sherree, — Just want to clarify that my last comment was directed to Richard and not you. I agree that these issues are sensitive, but I want to be very clear that my own interests are a function of a curiosity about memory and Civil War culture and not an attempt to demonize Christianity or Christians. Again, I am only interested in why people today, who profess to believe in the teachings of Jesus, put forward slaveowners as the clearest examples of such teachings.

    I can read Gaines Foster’s _Baptized in Blood_ for the history of how the Lost Cause and Christianity became joined at the hip following the war, but I want to hear more about its continued influence today.

  • Sherree Sep 27, 2008 @ 10:42

    Kevin, I am not defending slavery, slave owners, or Nathan B. Forrest. I think you know that. You asked if anyone knew Southerners who were Christians who tried to live their lives according to the moral precepts of Jesus, and I gave you an example.

    Richard, thanks for the information. I actually did think that the Goodship Jesus was a Southern slave ship. I am sure that many of the slaves brought over on that ship ended up in the South, however, in “Christian” homes.

    I am going to follow the old adage of not engaging in discussions about religion and politics and sign off. Have a great day and a great discussion.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 27, 2008 @ 10:15

    Richard, — No, I don’t watch Oprah on a regular basis as I am rarely home at that hour. I am not ignoring the “elephant in the room” as you say. In fact, I will grant you everything re: the moral responsibility of northerners in furthering slavery throughout the antebellum period. My goal is not in any way to make a comparative point about which region is morally superior. That would be silly and uninteresting. Now, if you will return to the issue at hand. As I stated, I am simply interested in why slaveowners are continually touted within certain communities as embodying the moral precepts that Jesus taught. There seems to me to be a contradiction there. If you would like to explain that to me it would be greatly appreciated.

    Finally, of course I am kidding re: the search for non-slaveowners in the South. My point is that they are easily found and many of them certainly led/live lives closer to the moral precepts of Jesus, relative to slaveowners.

  • Richard Williams Sep 27, 2008 @ 10:02


    You watch Oprah?

    “I’m just wondering if we can find some people [Southerners] who were/are not slaveowners.”

    You’re kidding, right?

    “We all know that comments like these are almost always perceived as an attack on “Southern Heritage”

    That’s because you ignore the elephant in the room: the North’s burden for the sin of slavery. And, yes, it is a relevant point in the discussion-if we’re to have a fair one.


    “As for the “Christians” of the past who named slave ships “the Goodship Jesus”

    Just to be clear, that ship was an English slave ship, not a Southern one.

    And if we are going to bring Englishmen into the discussion, what two persons in English history were most responsible for the demise of the slave trade in England?

  • Marc Ferguson Sep 27, 2008 @ 9:54

    Kevin, I don’t know anything about his religious beliefs, but I would nominate Albert Parsons. As a young man from Alabama, he enlisted with the Confederacy, but later became a journalist in Texas, married a “colored” woman of mixed-race ancestry, unsuccessfully entered politics as a Republican, and as a result of racial prejudice later moved to Chicago. There he was an important labor organizer, being involved in the 1877 Railroad Strike, and was one of those organizers hanged as a result of the Haymarket Square riot.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 27, 2008 @ 9:15

    With this in mind let’s broaden our search. Perhaps we can find non-Christian southerners who come closer to Jesus’s moral example than our slaveowner friends. Of course we can.

  • Sherree Sep 27, 2008 @ 9:09

    Interesting post, Kevin. Although the overall history of Christianity–and the history of Christianity in the South–leave a lot to be desired, I know many Southerners who attempt to lead their lives based upon the teachings of Christ, just as members of various faiths and beliefs attempt to lead their lives according to the teachings of Buddha, Mohammed, Wakantanka, Tunkashila, the Great Spirit, or Yahweh. One of the most prominent people would be the Southern Lutheran pastor who, in the 1960s, married a Jewish man and a Catholic woman–a couple whom I know intimately–when all Jewish rabbis and Catholic priests approached by this couple refused to marry them. One example among many. As for the “Christians” of the past who named slave ships “the Goodship Jesus”–if God is there, I am sure that He (She?) has the situation fully in hand, just as He (She) will, in due time, sufficiently deal with men and women of all faiths who kill, starve, and abuse others in the name of God. If God is not there? Well, maybe those men and women will stumble on a rock, hit their heads, and see the light.