Sometimes there was silence from the pulpit. Those pastors played it safe and ignored the elephant in the room. Others put a Biblical spin on the subject, and the congregation went away feeling that enslaving another race was “a good and right thing.” Silent or not, the issue of slavery was viewed as being supported by the church, and Southern pastors were the center of that influence. And so, the system of slavery in America remained unchallenged for nearly three hundred years.
To refer to 19th century America as a religious nation, is clearly an understatement. A brief look at some statistics provides a small window of understanding into how religion controlled society in 1860:
A major newspaper reported that out of a population of 27 million white Americans, 20 million attended church on a regular basis.
An estimated 54,000 church structures existed in America, compared to less than 40 medical colleges. There were far more churches than schools and hospitals combined. Churches were literally on every corner.
The Union army had 98 qualified medical officers, and the Confederate army claimed only 24. However, over 7,000 clergy, priests and missionaries stepped forward to offer their services.
The collective wealth of the South was estimated to be as much as 30% to 40% of the entire nations wealth. Much of that wealth lie with its churches. Southern pastors boasted annual average incomes of $10,600.00, while the national average for other working white men was only $2,500.
Religion breathed life into every aspect of American culture. Many Southerners,as well as Northerners, saw the Civil War as a religious war, and it “was ordained by God.”
As the Civil War ended, so did the institution of slavery, and the tenets of Southern culture. After nearly three hundred years the “evil institution”, as it was called by some, was finished. Slavery, however, had been the thread that had woven their society together; in fact, many Southerners had felt that America itself had been founded on the economic system of slavery. For centuries, many white Southern pastors had preached the gospel of slavery — that it was right, and had been right, to honor that institution, to love and embrace it as if it were akin to Christianity itself.
Over time, this self-serving lie expanded its meaning to include slaves being little more than children, or perhaps creatures – – God’s creatures – and it was the Christian duty for all whites to care for them. Caring for them, of course, meant enslavement.
Reverend Thornton Stringfellow of Virginia spent nearly his entire fifty year career writing books and preaching about the sanctity of slavery. It was in the scriptures where Stringfellow found the answers. His favorite verse was in Paul’s command to the slaves that they needed to “obey their masters in the same manner that they had obeyed Christ.” He confidently wrote, “members of the African race were suited to domestic slavery for life.” He was sure of it, not just because he found it in the Bible, but his own life experience reinforced it. It had been the “law of God that established slavery,” said Stringfellow. His feelings were very likely representative of most white Southerners.
In the 1830’s Reverend Charles Carroll of Maryland tried to dehumanize slaves by brainwashing his followers that slaves did not have a soul. This led Carroll to conclude that slaves “did not have a God.” This argument convinced many that “Negroes were the biblical beasts of the field.”
It was, however, Alabama pastor Fred Ross who expressed what most Southerners believed was the truth. Entitled Slavery Ordained of God, Ross declared: “Slavery is of God, and [should] continue for the good of the slave, the good of the master, the good of the whole American family.”
Most Southerners did not own slaves. Churches existed because of the collections received from its members. That was a reality that pastors understood.Their livelihood depended on parishioners funding their message. They also realized that in that collection, only a few wealthy families provided the lion’s share of the churches’ funds. Almost always, these few families owned slaves.
The twisted arguments of Carroll, Stringfellow, Ross and others clearly tried to justify a system that could not be justified. In that time most white Southerners, including pastors, accepted these long-held beliefs as truths. It was the world they lived in; it was what they had been taught from childhood. Absent from the sermons, however, was any mention of the massive brutalization of slaves, the torture, rape and even murder of slaves. These atrocities were impossible for Southern churches to ignore – – but, they did. The few pastors who voiced their support for the emancipation of slaves were quickly dismissed from their pulpits.