New Histories of Slavery and Religion in the Old South

Beth Barton Schweiger

Beth Barton Schweiger is an independent scholar working in the greater Seattle, Washington, area.

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Beth Barton Schweiger, "New Histories of Slavery and Religion in the Old South," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016): jsreligion.org/vol18/schweiger.

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The question of whether the new histories of American slavery should change our view of religion in the Old South turns on how we comprehend modernity. Michael O’Brien’s 1981 essay, “Modernization and the Nineteenth-Century South,” ended with an eloquent call for more work not only on modernity in “the American South, one of the Industrial Revolution’s most important stepchildren,” but also on modernization itself. There are, he argued, “varieties of modernity, of which none are conceptually definitive.” The implication, of course, is that one or more of those varieties flourished in the Old South.[1]

O’Brien’s history of intellectual life described one aspect of southern modernity; the new histories of American slavery describe another. The consensus that American slavery was a varietal of modern liberal capitalism matters to histories of religion because, although rarely stated outright, a premodern slavery was presumed to rest on a premodern religion. That is to say, revivals spawned a religious establishment that was frozen in the amber of an antiquated slave society. Fortunately, this view has been set aside. Recent work has declared that revivals were modern; that denominational structures, academies, and colleges were created out of a modern sensibility; and that religious nationalism, religious honor, and religious violence were undeniably modern. Civil War and emancipation are being “unwritten” as a narrative of liberal freedom. Slaves were emancipated from a modern society into a modern society, both of which nurtured a vibrant religion and a vigorous racism. Yet it is one thing to assert that religion in the Old South was modern, and it is another to understand what this meant and why it might matter. As O’Brien has shown for the history of intellectuals, such an account will require subtle argument and a deep knowledge of the sources. This is good news, for not only does much work remain to be done, but the field now rests on decades of work that offers an a fine foundation on which to frame more subtle perspectives. I can suggest only a few of the directions that work might take.

Of obvious relevance is an account of the enormous amount of money wielded by pastors and laity. Huge sums were donated to churches and a wide array of reform societies.  These voluntary donations, as Frederick Douglass sharply observed, were the fruit of involuntary labor. “Men are sold to build churches—babies are sold to buy Bibles,” he told a London audience in the spring of 1846. “The blood sold on the auction-block goes into the treasury of the Church, and the pulpit in return covers it with the garb of Christianity.” Church people funded missionaries abroad, capital expenditures on buildings for churches, seminaries, and colleges, and reform societies of all kinds, including those devoted to temperance and distributing religious literature. Denominations compiled statistics with abandon, counting the progress of the Kingdom of God in ledger books. Few studies have investigated the details of how this all worked or what church leaders and laity said about money; those that have were written during a time of near-consensus that the Old South was a premodern society. Revisiting these questions in ways similar to John Quist’s pioneering comparative study of voluntary organizations in northern and southern states will require painstaking work, but can offer a better understanding of how church leaders and laity raised and spent money. Likewise, analyses of the material bases of religious practice, such as architecture, can illuminate the values and priorities of congregations.[2]

Money was critical to congregational life, but much of what religious people held dear concerned material wealth only indirectly. Future work should build on Jon Wells’s groundbreaking study of middle-class people and Hunter Price’s suggestive work on the social capital accrued by itinerants to further explore what Donald G. Mathews described as “one of the most important and least understood historical processes that have shaped our nation—the creation of a large southern social constituency that was not quite a class—although it was first expressed as a class movement.” The hunger for what Mathews termed “elevation” was more, he wrote, than “mere social mobility—although for many people it was surely that—but the conversion from illiteracy, ignorance, and powerlessness to learning, power, and self-respect.” The assertion that religious people, black and white, in a rural slave society used faith to achieve social mobility has never been fully explored. Most strikingly, in an era of voluntary education, religious people sanctified learning for the most modern of reasons, the Romantic obsession with the self. Much of this was accomplished beyond the reach of institutions; regardless, the South abounded in religiously inspired learning. Lonely autodidacts, Sunday schools, informal schools that convened around kitchen tables, private academies and colleges where hundreds of students gathered behind Greek revival façades—all were endeavors to reform white selves in the Old South and all were supported by church leaders and laity who had such an inexhaustible faith in learning that it sometimes seemed to rival their faith in God. The promise of learning also lured slaves and free blacks in the decades before emancipation, and fostered the hunger for learning that drove the actions of so many freedmen and women after emancipation. It is beyond time for scholars to revisit the relationship of religion, faith, and learning in the Old South.[3]

Third, scholars have too often treated the Old South as if it were cut off from the rest of the world. Slavery created connections with the world rather than disabled them, we have learned. The borders of the region were permeable; people, print, and ideas moved across them. Pastors and laity were keenly aware of religious developments in Europe and Britain, particularly regarding revivals and the ways Christianity bolstered Western imperial ambitions. Pamphlets, newspapers and magazines spread news of missionaries in Asia, monarchs in Europe, and mountains in South America. People rode trains over state lines, plied coastlines and crossed oceans on ships. A wide array of doctrines was propagated in a hail of publications such as Methodist magazines, Mormon tracts and Universalist newspapers that were argued over and inwardly digested. Mary Chesnut’s skepticism and William Gilmore Simms’s interest in spiritualism did not emerge in isolation; their ideas, as those of all people, emerged in community. Interest in hounding out a definitive “southern evangelicalism” or “Bible belt” should be set aside in favor of a nuanced inquiry into how the currents of the nineteenth century nourished the broad range of (often contradictory) convictions held by enslaved and free people in a modern slave society.

Finally, understanding people of faith in a modern Old South is hardly straightforward. The dead share our tendency to misconstrue things and even to lie to themselves. They have left behind proclamations that their religion eschewed novelty and reproduced tradition, whether in revival campgrounds or in city pulpits.  Young Charles Colcock Jones, perhaps the most pious of the preacher slaveholders, believed fervently that his quite modern attempt to reform slavery would strengthen his hold on family tradition on the land he loved. We might declare that such people were moderns in their ambivalence about change—that they simultaneously denounced it and yet acted to support it—but they will insist that they were preserving tradition (read: orthodoxy) as they hurtled toward mid-century in a generation that birthed skeptics in ever greater numbers.  Like us, people in the Old South raced ahead with wild hopes about the technological miracles and human progress only to bemoan what was being forever lost as that progress arrived. In this way, casting religious people in the Old South as modern will bring us closer to understanding them, but perhaps also ourselves.


[1]Michael O’Brien, “Modernization and the Nineteenth-Century South,” in Rethinking the South: Essays in Intellectual History (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), 128.

[2] Frederick Douglass, “Emancipation is an Individual, a National, and an International Responsibility: An Address Delivered in London, England, on May 18, 1846,” The Papers of Frederick Douglass Digital Edition, Vol. 1, 256 <http://frederickdouglass.infoset.io/islandora/object/islandora%3A461#page/1/mode/1up>; Kenneth Moore Startup, The Root of All Evil: The Protestant Clergy and the Economic Mind of the Old South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997); Mark A. Noll, ed., God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790–1860, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); John W. Quist, Restless Visionaries: The Social Roots of Antebellum Reform in Alabama and Michigan (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998).

[3] Jonathan Daniel Wells, The Origins of the Southern Middle Class, 1800–1861 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2004); Matthew Hunter Price, “Methodism and Social Capital on the Southern Frontier” (Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, 2014); Donald G. Mathews, Religion in the Old South (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), xiv, 94.

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