Monday, September 29, 2014

When White Evangelicals Learned To Tolerate Slavery

I'm reading Alan Taylor's prizewinning new book, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832. Describing Virginia's post-revolutionary path to retrenchment rather than reform, Taylor writes that Virginia's white evangelicals urged the state to adopt a plan of gradual abolition. Here's Taylor:
They insisted that as republicans as well as Christians, Virginians needed to do right by their slaves. "The holding, tyrannizing over, and driving slaves, I view as contrary to the laws of God and nature," declared the Baptist preacher David Barrow, who regarded liberty as "the unalienable privilege of all complexions, shapes, and sizes of men." Citing the Golden Rule, Barrow wished that masters would be "doing as they would others should do to them!"
The legislature, unmoved, unanimously rejected abolition. Again, Taylor:
Sobered by this defeat, the Methodists and Baptists retreated from antislavery activity...Most leading evangelicals sought respectability as middle-class men of property. Preferring neighborhood peace and acceptance, they marginalized any radicals who continued to agitate the issue. Becoming more conservative, mainstream evangelicals reframed their message, urging slaves to obey their masters and wait for freedom after death in heaven. Among the state's Christians, only Quakers clung to antislavery principles, but they comprised a small and increasingly despised sect in Virginia.
They could stand up for the oppressed, or they could be good neighbors and respectable people. They could not, in the eyes of the great majority of White Virginians, do both. Don't look down on them. These are the same calculations we're making today. These are the sorts of accommodations from which White evangelicalism has yet to recover.

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