Southern Religion and the (New?) Materialists

Charles F. Irons

is Associate Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History and Geography at Elon University.

Cite this Article

Charles Irons, "Southern Religion and the (New?) Materialists," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

Open-access license

This work is licensed CC-BY. You are encouraged to make free use of this publication.
Creative Commons License

Edward Baptist, Walter Johnson, and Sven Beckert, authors of sweeping works on the political economy of slavery, are not particularly interested in southern religion—at least not in evangelical Protestantism. They present slaveholders as acquisitive capitalists, wringing labor from the bodies of enslaved men and women as players within a modernizing, global system of cotton production. Moreover, these authors and others falling in line with the new materialist orthodoxy avoid depictions of spiritually charged negotiations between blacks and whites—of the sort that often happened in religious communities and were made archetypal in Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll—and focus instead, as Johnson memorably put it, on the “bare-life processes and material exchanges” that constituted enslavement: on “sun, water, and soil; animal energy, human labor, and mother wit; grain, flesh, and cotton; pain, hunger, and fatigue; blood, milk, semen, and shit.”[1]

As a way of approaching the question whether new histories of slavery require (or enable) new histories of Southern evangelicalism, I intend to consider the “new materialists” in light of two main currents in the historiography. The first current, which dates back at least forty years, emphasizes negotiation and interracialism as key dynamics of slavery in general and Southern evangelicalism in particular. At the core of the conflict between this older tradition and the works of Baptist, Johnson, and Beckert is the question of agency, revolving around the extent to which enslaved people influenced the terms or conditions of their enslavement. The second stream is more recent; it consists of attempts to rewrite American religious history in light of more malleable definitions of “religion” now current within the academy. If John Lardas Modern can find the metaphysical in Sing Sing State Penitentiary and steam power, there ought to be interesting ways to map the changing racial/political/economic fantasies of proslavery capitalists onto changing religious (even evangelical) sensibilities.[2]

Genovese announced through the provocative subtitle to his 1972 magnum opus, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, the idea that black southerners shaped the conditions of their enslavement. He posited that they demonstrated so-called “agency” in part by adopting Christianity, harnessing its resources for emotional support, and using its tenets to critique slavery (but also by breaking tools, engaging in work slowdowns, etc.). [3] To Genovese and many others after him (Milton Sernett, Mechal Sobel, John Boles, Janet Cornelius, Erskine Clarke, and Paul Harvey, for instance) black Southerners found in evangelicalism both the institutional setting and the shared vocabulary for negotiations with whites regarding the terms of their enslavement.[4] Myriad scholars eschew the element of “negotiation” in Genovese’s construct but have fully embraced the idea that black Americans (North and South) mobilized Christianity as a tool of resistance to oppression (for example, consider Cedrick May, Rita Roberts, Sandy Martin, James Sidbury, etc.).[5]

The new materialists might give only scant attention to religion, but Baptist and Johnson deal directly with the question of slave agency, bringing them into conversation with scholars of southern evangelicalism and African American Christianity. In their accounts, enslaved men and women do not “negotiate” anything. Slaveowners hold all the cards, and bondpeople simply endure. Baptist, for his part, warns that scholars who “focus on the development of an independent black culture” as a mark of agency and an effective hedge against slaveowner power are endorsing, albeit in a roundabout way, the idea that slavery was not as harsh and demoralizing an institution as it in fact was.[6] At the same time as Baptist resists the urge to sugarcoat his account by seeding it with too-rosy depictions of black resistance (physical, cultural, spiritual, or otherwise), he creates a difficult rhetorical situation for himself by attempting to present the perspective of enslaved people in as sympathetic a manner as possible. When one of his many African American protagonists weathers a storm or enjoys a small victory, Baptist is forced to make the impossible narrative choice between celebrating either his historical actors or dismissing their achievements by contextualizing them as tragic and ineffectual counterstrikes within a relentlessly oppressive regime. Baptist tends to err on the side of tragedy; he refuses to treat enslaved people’s victories as a steps forward in a paternalist dance (cf. Ira Berlin’s memorable formulation[7]) or as a subtle erosion of slavery’s formidable defenses. Enslaved people do not “make worlds” in his account. Bondpeople’s sole Sisyphean reward for survival “was to endure a brutal transition to new ways of labor that made them reinvent themselves every day.”[8]

The limitations of Baptist’s approach to agency show up starkly in his portrayal of Israel Campbell at a camp meeting. Before beginning a string of ultimately successful attempts to flee slavery in 1847 or converting to Christianity at a camp meeting in 1837, Campbell had witnessed the particularly gruesome suppression of a rumored revolt in 1835 or 1836. In setting the stage for his description of Cambpell’s participation in the camp meeting, Baptist suggests that Campbell was having a hard time making his “peace with God” after witnessing the whitewashed skulls of supposed rebels that white vigilantes had displayed. Baptist goes on to cite other painful moments from Campbell’s life and characterizes them as obstacles to conversion, especially his separation from his mother. “Despite all his mother’s prayers, something—whether God, or the universe, or fate—had torn Israel from her,” he writes, “strapped a young man who had once been an infant at her breast into the leather of the whipping-machine.” Even though Baptist acknowledges that Campbell’s wife converted on the fourth day of the revival, he chooses to leave Campbell in the place of near-existential despair. He closes his chapter entitled “Breath” with Campbell on his knees “almost alone,” save for the presence of an aged black minister, Reeves, who stood near him and “looked straight ahead, impassive as a king.” Baptist does not give Campbell or the reader the satisfaction of a conversion experience but ends with a solemn declaration (echoing the chapter title) that Reeves “bent down and breathed into Israel’s ear: ‘Pray on, young brother.’”[9] Consistent with Baptist’s approach throughout, Campbell achieves no victory through faith, nor does he find in it any consolation for the wrongs he has suffered—much less any check, however modest, on slaveowner hegemony.

In Israel Campbell’s Autobiography, published in 1861, Campbell himself (by then free and a Baptist minister) placed a very different frame around the same episode. Campbell began his account where Baptist left off. According to the preacher, he didn’t begin to pray in earnest that night until after he had received the exhortation from Reeves to “Pray on, my young brother. Your wife has found the Lord.” At that point, Campbell explained that he found it hard to concentrate because he could not stop thinking about his own sins, not because he fixated on past injustices perpetrated by whites (“my sins rose up before me so fast and in such abundance,” he remembered, “that they seemed like a swarm of bees flying thickly before me.”) Moreover, Campbell gave readers the release that Baptist would later deny to them, proudly proclaiming that before he arose from his knees he had experienced real transformation. “All at once, in a moment of time, the darkness vanished, light sprang up, and my soul was filled with joy,” he recounted. “I felt alive in Christ; I felt that I was new born in Christ. I rose up and cried out, ‘The Lord be praised for evermore!’ I loved everybody; I had no feeling of hatred in my heart. My wife met me and threw her arms around my neck, and we had a time of rejoicing together.” Even though Campbell went through additional cycles of doubt, his faith became for him an anchor and a shield against enslavement’s worst psychic blows.[10]

The emotional fulfillment Campbell says he derived from his conversion raises questions about agency and how best to write an ethical account of slavery and Southern religion.[11] Beyond “glass-half full or half-empty,” what are the stakes and costs of acknowledging enslaved people’s individual and corporate transcendence over suffering? How should historians evaluate and categorize professions of internal victory? Does an emphasis on the material basis of slavery (and the raw physical suffering of the enslaved) leave any room for mental/psychic constructions that do not conform to physical reality?

Walter Johnson even more explicitly addresses the concept of slave “agency” in the face of overwhelming slaveowner power. In a provocative, insightful piece in The Journal of Social History in 2003, he offered a withering critique of the trope, not only citing the conflation of concepts of agency, resistance, and recognition of the “humanity” of the enslaved, but also identifying the recognition of “agency” as a clumsy verbal marker used by white scholars to show solidarity with black Americans, one no longer meaningful after the Civil Rights battles of the 1960s and 1970s. Anticipating his approach in River of Dark Dreams, Johnson went on to explain, “For enslaved people the most basic features of their lives—feeling hungry, cold, tired, needing to go to the bathroom—revealed the extent to which even the bare life sensations of their physical bodies were sedimented with their enslavement.” He continued, “They cannot simply be reformatted as resistance in a liberatory gesture which paradoxically reduces even the most intimate actions of human beings to (resistant) features of the system that enslaved them.”[12] In the monograph, however, he struggles to write in a manner consistent with these theoretical insights. On the one hand, he deconstructs the example of stealing food (a favorite trope of Genovese’s) to show how imperfectly theft signals “agency.” “Indeed,” he writes, “[Henry] Bibb’s saving argument that the food he ‘took’ was (re)converted to his owner’s service through his labor betrays the extent to which the terms of his resistance reflected the terms of his oppression—the extent to which slaves’ ‘agency’ was structured in dominance.” Again, Johnson seems to deflate the idea of “agency” and to jettison the concept along with its liberal, white baggage when he writes, “Slaves acted in solidarity because they recognized their fellow slaves not as ‘agents,’ but as family members, lovers, Christians, Africans, blacks, workers, fellow travelers, women, men, co-conspirators, competitors, and so on.”[13]

At the same time that he demystifies and depoliticizes agency, Johnson also implies that a mysterious tipping point existed—one to which he refers only in abstract terms—at which individual, everyday actions accumulated to become real, efficacious resistance (dare I say, “agency”?). When qualifying his assertion of planter hegemony in the case of stealing food, for instance, he writes, “Yet the determining limits of the prevailing order did not exhaust the meaning of enslaved resistance—nor, finally, did they remain its limit.” Again, after depoliticizing demonstrations of solidarity by rooting them in affective relationships, he hedges: “Even as their enslavement provided the circumstances of their actions, it occasioned the expression and reproduction of ethics of care and solidarity that transcended and actively shaped their enslavement.”[14] It is difficult to harmonize fully Johnson’s competing statements about slave agency and resistance without getting bogged down in semantics, but he forces readers to accept the compelling lesson not to demean or fetishize black Americans by over interpreting situations in which enslaved people acted just as any other human being would have done. Scholars of religion have much to learn from this.

Beckert does not directly address the trope of agency among the enslaved, but his account of how European and American capitalists harnessed the power of the state to exploit enslaved workers and seize indigenous lands nonetheless shares much in common with that of Baptist and Johnson. In Empire of Cotton, enslaved people rarely do anything of their own initiative, nor do they linger in the spotlight as anything other than victims of a global process beyond their comprehension or control. To be sure, Beckert pays more attention to “cotton capitalists” than to enslaved persons because doing so enables him to focus on global connections and the interplay between national interests and capitalists’ interests that are at the heart of his account. In so doing, however, he reinforces the idea that history happened to those on the outside of political and economic power. On a global scale, his work is functionally a (slightly anachronistic) mirror of Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s subaltern manifesto, The Many-Headed Hydra, paying attention to the pressures from above instead of the resistance from below. In the United States context, it is an endorsement of the idea that the internal dramas that may have unfolded in the minds of enslaved persons were irrelevant to the broader sweep of human history.[15]

One reason historians of southern religion still have a place in the conversation about American slavery is that, almost axiomatically, they have to deal directly with the enslaved and free black worshippers who claimed Christian commitment and inhabited the same institutions as southern whites—and have to wrestle with corollary questions about agency and its limits. In different hands, the Bible could be a tool for oppression or liberation; in different contexts religious adherence an opiate or a spur to resistance—so religious history is automatically configured to address the dialectic between domination and resistance, and to illuminate not only hegemonic patterns but also subaltern ones. As Paul Harvey recently wrote, “Biblical passages were powerful but ambiguous, and arguments about God’s providence in colonization, the slave trade, and Christian missions to slaves were contentious. Christian myths and stories were central to the project of creating racial categories in the modern world. But the central text of Christianity, the Bible, was also amenable to more universalist visions.”[16] To study religious history is to fix one’s gaze on how individuals and groups ordered and reordered their interior lives and corporate obligations in the face of new realities, sometimes accommodating and at other times challenging the status quo. It is to accept the paradoxical coexistence of hope and oppression as something fundamental to the human condition rather than a species of false consciousness.

Religious historians are better positioned to capture the stories of diverse populations than are the new materialists because they do not need to discount the accounts of those without material resources. Baptist, Johnson, and Beckert have traced with more precision than ever how slaveowners dragged cotton production and human beings into the interior of North America, and Baptist and Johnson have been commendably sensitive to the toll of this capitalist experiment on enslaved people. In general, though, all three scholars make slaveowners and cotton merchants the primary actors and enslaved men and women the objects of their exploitative schemes. Since religious historians are interested in the development of cultural ideas and institutions rather than the multiplication of acres planted, spindles installed, or bales produced, they are naturally able to feature a broader set of lead actors. Nonslaveholding whites play a prominent role in religious history, for instance, as do the women who made up a majority of church members—not to mention the enslaved and free blacks who joined churches at a pace exceeding that of southern whites during the nineteenth century. To the extent that demographic coverage is a component of a truly “democratic” history, scholars of religious history appear destined to have a seat at the table for at least another spin of the historiographical wheel.

Religious historians might be able to complement the important work of Baptist, Johnson, and Beckert most effectively if they build upon recent work emphasizing the malleability of the definition of “religion.” Some of the most innovative scholars of religion have recently found ways to get an interpretive payoff from the definitional crisis surrounding the object of their study and have shown the interpenetration of “religious” ideas and forms with ostensibly secular activities. The exemplars are Kathryn Lofton, who presents Oprah book clubs as analogs to Bible studies, and John Lardas Modern, who in his account of secularism explores the interconnectedness of Protestant voluntarism and a million other things.[17] As one example of how a more capacious view of evangelicalism might open up fascinating corollaries to the work of the new materialists, consider the faith of cotton planters, factors, and merchants in proslavery imperialism. In his chapter, “Tales of Mississippi Empire,” Johnson gives hints of what bringing a more supple definition of religion to his subject might look like, observing that proslavery imperialists shared an outlook in which “in the style of the slave market and the tent revival, [they] took outward appearances to be evidence of inward essences, and thus sought to smoke out the eternal truths buried within what might appear from another perspective to be contingencies, coincidences, or even accidents.”[18]

It would have only been a half step for Johnson to leap next to Benjamin Palmer—to shift from simile (in the style of the tent revival) to exposition (of the substance of planters’ faith). Palmer, from the pulpit of New Orleans’ First Presbyterian Church, incorporated new theologies of cotton into the most-read sermon of the antebellum period, “The South: Her Peril and Her Duty.” In the sermon, which bears quoting extensively, Palmer offered a worldview based not on scripture or Christian tradition but on antiblack racism, the cotton dreams identified by Baptist and Johnson, and the recognition of the relation between state power and economic growth elaborated by Beckert. Absent from the new materialists’ work as a result of the overtly religious context in which he worked, Palmer nonetheless gave voice to some of their most provocative interpretations. Palmer taught:

A nation often has a character as well defined and intense as that of the individual. … this individuality of character alone makes any people truly historic, competent to work out its specific mission, and to become a factor in the world’s progress. The particular trust assigned to such a people becomes the pledge of the divine protection; and their fidelity to it determines the fate by which it is finally overtaken. What that trust is must be ascertained from the necesities (sic) of their position, the institutions which are the outgrowth of their principles and the conflicts through which they preserve their identity and independence. If then the South is such a people, what, at this juncture, is their providential trust? I answer, that it is to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing.[19]

It might be tempting to reduce Palmer’s proslavery oration to an epiphenomenon, the bald attempt of a chaplain to planters to defend his patrons’ economic interests. Yet many of Palmer’s works remain in print today, signposts for a current generation of conservative Presbyterians.[20] His story did not end with cotton, and literally millions of southern whites in the century and a half after emancipation have inhabited the anti-black, proslavery mental categories he helped to create.

Palmer might be a clumsy example, but the point is that historians of religion are acutely aware of the arbitrary distinction between “religious” and “secular” and are therefore particularly well positioned to address the continual cross-pollination of ideas and practices regarding race, state, and national purpose between and across different theaters of American life. Moreover, the interpretive possibilities extend far beyond the rather conventional move suggested above. If Oprah’s book club meetings can be read as Bible studies, for instance, did cotton planters not have devotional and or hermeneutical practices associated with their reading of daily price schedules? Did planters create or employ (religious) rituals to try to guarantee a good crop? Factors were more dependent on price fluctuations that were beyond their control; were they more Calvinist than Arminian northern wage laborers? Some playfulness with analytical categories might lead to even more insights about the far-reaching legacies of the empire of cotton.

Beckert’s insight that even the capitalists devoted to advancing global cotton production through rational financial planning often levied their calculations with more than a pinch of “faith” provides a useful closing example of the way in which religious historians might engage the new materialists. When Union and Confederate forces started slaughtering one another and made the export of US cotton one of the war’s early causalities, cotton capitalists the world round were divided on how they should respond to the crisis of supply. “These rehearsals—for a new postwar, postslavery cotton empire—nurtured two somewhat contradictory faiths,” he explained. One cohort of investors believed that wage laborers could provide more than enough manpower “to permit cotton manufacturing to continue its dramatic expansion even without slavery.” A greater number feared “that freedom would bring a permanent reduction in the supplies of raw cotton.” The difference between black southern Protestants’ belief that God would work through the Union Army to achieve their permanent emancipation and some global capitalists’ belief that the divinely created laws of commerce would enable them to prosper in a world without slavery is razor-thin. Historians might understand their subjects more fully if they allow different kinds of faith commitments to exist in creative tension with one another.

[1] Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013), 9. Please see also Johnson’s acknowledgement of the “materialist turn” in slavery studies on 217 and 473n22.

[2] John Lardas Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[3] Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1972; New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 3. As Walter Johnson observed in “On Agency,” Journal of Social History 37, no. 1 (2003): 117, Genovese made a curious and ultimately unsustainable distinction between acts of individual resistance (which reinforced planter hegemony) and revolutionary attacks against the entire system (which he considered rare), but he nonetheless place resistance of all kids at the heart of his interpretation of the experience of bondage.

[4] Examples include Milton Sernett, Black Religion and American Evangelicalism: White Protestants, Plantation Missions, and the Flowering of Negro Christianity, 1787–1865 (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1975); Donald G. Mathews, Religion in the Old South (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977); Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987); John Boles and Allan Gallay, eds., Masters and Slaves in the House of the Lord: Race and Religion in the American South, 1740-1870 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990); Janet Duitsman Cornelius, Slave Missions and the Black Church in the Antebellum South (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999); Erskine Clarke, Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006); Charles F. Irons, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

[5] This is a nearly limitless list. Relatively recent examples include Sandy Dwayne Martin, For God and Race: The Religious and Political Leadership of AMEZ Bishop James Walker Hood (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999); Cedrick May, Evangelicalism and Resistance in the Black Atlantic, 1760–1835 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008); Rita Roberts, Evangelicalism and the Politics of Reform in Northern Black Thought, 1776–1863 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010).

[6] Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014), xviii.

[7] Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998), 4.

[8] Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told, xxiii.

[9] Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told, 211–213.

[10] Israel Campbell, An Autobiography. Bond and Free: or, Yearnings for Freedom (1861; Documenting the American South, 2001), <>.

[11] For additional concerns about the evidentiary base of The Half Has Never Been Told, see Trevor Burnard, “‘The Righteous Will Shine Like the Sun’: Writing an Evocative History of Antebellum American Slavery,” Slavery and Abolition 36, no. 1 (2015): 180–185.

[12] Johnson, “On Agency,” 115–116.

[13] Johnson, River of Dark Dreams, 214, 217.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000). Linebaugh and Rediker lament the “historic invisibility” of laboring peoples, blaming in part the “violence of abstraction in the writing of history,” an apt critique of Beckert’s later approach.

[16] Harvey, Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 5.

[17] Kathryn Lofton, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America.

[18] Johnson, River of Dark Dreams, 311.

[19] Benjamin Palmer, The South: Her Peril and Her Duty (New Orleans: Office of the True Witness and Sentinel, 1860), 6.

[20] See, for instance, the biographical information and comments at The Southern Presbyterian Review, <> and “The Banner of Truth, <>.