New book by Charles Irons examines Christianity & slavery
How did early American white plantation owners justify slavery when they worshipped every Sunday in the same churches alongside the black men and women whom they claimed to own? Elon University history professor Charles Irons examines that question in a new book published this spring.
Irons, an assistant professor of history, authored “The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia,” now out from UNC Press. Irons relied on church records, personal letters, and other historical documents to reach his conclusions.
He was most interested in the theological arguments that whites employed to justify the institution of slavery to themselves, to antislavery critics in the North, and to black Southerners.
“That’s what made me feel uncomfortable,” Irons said. “That was the driving emotional question behind the whole project.”
Irons said that his most interesting findings were that the way white evangelicals in Virginia defended slavery changed over time and that whites often responded to the actions of black Virginians in their formation of these pro-slavery arguments.
“The scriptural arguments themselves didn’t turn out to be that exciting,” Irons said. “Whites tended to rely upon the same, few Bible verses to construct their arguments. But it was remarkable how whites shifted their theological emphasis depending upon what black Virginians were doing.”
In an example of the changing defense of slavery, white Virginians initially argued that it was acceptable to enslave Africans in perpetuity because—like non-Hebrews in the Old Testament—they were not Christian and therefore outside of a covenant relationship with God.
Moral concerns started to arise, however, as black men and women began converting to Christianity. The Christian/heathen rationale no longer applied, and whites began to emphasize other scriptural arguments.
In another instance, following Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, in which Turner and his comrades killed five dozen whites, slave owners across the South clamped down on black participation in church services and forbade blacks to preach or learn to read. Doing so, they believed, would reduce the possibility of future revolts.
To compensate for new restrictions on black church attendance, whites began to organize “missions” to orally teach the lessons of Christ. The rapid growth in the number of Christian slaves, when compared to the slow growth of Christianity among freed blacks in the North, bolstered the belief among white Southerners that by keeping slavery in place, they were actually doing God’s work.
This was the theological justification most often found among whites when war erupted between the Northern and Southern states.
“Scholars have long recognized Turner’s rebellion as a watershed event,” Irons explained, “but we are just now beginning to appreciate the tremendous religious changes that Turner set in motion.”
Irons, who has a doctorate from the University of Virginia, joined the Elon faculty in 2003. He teaches courses on slavery, the Civil War, American religious history, and the 19th century South. His new research is on the process through which African-American men and women left biracial churches after the Civil War.
In 2007, Irons was named one of ten Young Scholars in American Religion by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, a research and public outreach institute devoted to the promotion of the understanding of the relation between religion and other features of American culture.