Lumen Scholar studies church reactions to slavery

Churches have always split on doctrinal or political grounds, and prior to the Civil War, that wedge issue, more often than not, was slavery. Elon University senior Amber Woods explored how early churches in Kentucky responded to debates over emancipation, and her undergraduate research is the latest to be featured in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2011.

Woods, a native of Knoxville, Tenn., and her mentor, associate professor of history Charles Irons, were interested in how church leaders dealt with slavery between the Revolution and the Civil War. Between 1800 and 1810, many individual churches separated because members could not agree on the issue.

Local rifts became national rifts in the 1840s and 1850s when the Baptist and Methodist denominations split along slaveholding lines.

Woods, a history major, plans to continue her education at graduate school and has already applied to several programs in North Carolina, including the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and North Carolina State University.

In addition to her Lumen Prize work, the Honors Fellow received a Student Initiative Grant last spring to assist with the development of educational programs at the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum, a historic site in Sedalia, N.C. Woods also teaches swim lessons at the YMCA in Burlington and is a member of Alpha Phi Omega Service Fraternity, Phi Alpha Theta, Phi Eta Sigma and Pi Gamma Mu.

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.

The program includes coursework, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad, internships locally and abroad, program development, and creative productions and performances.

Woods recently sat down with the Office of University Relations to share details of her research.

Are you only looking at Kentucky?
Yes. I decided on Kentucky because it is a border state. It was also a frontier state, not one of the original 13 colonies, so it was still being formed. Up until about 1810 and 1820 they were still in the process of developing this state, arguing about whether it was going to be a pro or anti slavery state, so there was turmoil over that. It seemed like it would have the most opportunity for the kinds of conflict that I was looking for.

What is the inspiration behind this research? What made you want to look at how the church dealt with this very controversial issue?
I actually started by looking at cult religions like communes. I realized that some of them were treating black Americans on equal terms, but then some of them were still treating them as slaves. And so I got interested in how the church responded to slavery because obviously slavery’s in the Bible, but it’s obviously not the “loving your neighbor” kind of thing. And I am looking at it from a historical perspective. I’m not trying to get into the theology of whether slavery is right within the church. I was just looking at how the church responded to it and it became a lot easier with a mentor here who is used to working with evangelicals in Virginia.

What were your findings?
My main finding was that the places in which Kentuckians debated slavery changed throughout the 19th century from local churches within Kentucky to larger governing bodies that spanned the nation. At the revolution, people were talking about equality for everyone: liberty and the pursuit of happiness, every man is equal. It kind of got weird because of slavery, and obviously people aren’t equal in slavery. Antislavery advocates in Kentucky were trying to find a place where they can talk about slavery but the government and church governing bodies were too weak to take up the issue with any type of control. So antislavery evangelicals started talking about it in local churches and some end up splitting over the issue or trying to work it out peacefully by saying, “you go your way and I’ll go my way.”

When you get into the 1830s and 1840s, the venue moves to the national scene because the larger bodies become more powerful and are less threatened by disagreement. You have people, even from different denominations and states that are trying to get into these groups with each other to figure out where everyone stands on slavery. It gets a lot more confusing in the decades leading up to the Civil War because the debate spreads across the nation instead of simply staying in Kentucky. I have the notes from a meeting for the Friends of Emancipation, and it has lists of delegates from Kentucky, and a bunch of them have slaves. But they’re at this conference talking about ways to free the slaves with gradual emancipation or colonization.

What is the significance of these results, and what do you hope other people will take away from this work?
Churches are still involved in big social conflicts today, over abortion and immigration, for example. So it’s important to see how churches have handled issues in the past and how precedents are set up. I’m finding both situations in which people refused even to discuss important social issues with those whose viewpoints differed from their own and situations in which people said one thing but did another—both of which happen today.

Were you surprised by any of the results?
One of the most surprising things for me was there seems to be this weird middle ground where slave holders are talking about emancipation and they’re talking about ways to end slavery, but they’re still relying on this slave labor force. They’re obviously not about to free their slaves, so I think that’s an interesting juxtaposition. I was expecting it to be a lot more clear-cut, to look in the records and be like, “Oh, obviously church A is pro slavery and church B is anti slavery.”

Do you plan to continue this research after college?
Probably not. I have gotten into museum studies, working in historical museums or historical sites, so I’m planning to go to graduate school for public history. I don’t know how much room there’s going to be for continuing this particular research project, but it’s definitely going to be something I bring into whatever I’m doing. Religion is always going to be present so I think having this basic understanding of the issues, but also the process that people go through to do research, all of the work in the archives that I’ve been able to do, all of the processing through all of the secondary material, I think that will benefit me in understanding collections at a museum or understanding how to put an exhibit together.

Can you talk a little a little bit about how the Lumen Prize helped in the pursuit of this research?
I was able to spend an entire Winter Term in Kentucky to visit archives. I went to the University of Kentucky, the South Baptist Theological Seminary and the Louisville Presbyterian seminary. I also looked at state archives and went to the Southern Baptist Historical Library in Nashville, so I was able to go to all of the different archives and look at manuscripts, church minutes, pamphlets, things that are in special collections that you can’t interlibrary loan. There’s no way I would have been able to do my research on Kentucky from here if I hadn’t had the Lumen Prize and been able to spend those weeks up there working, living and spending eight hours a day in the archives looking through all the handwritten documents and deciphering handwriting and learning all kinds of useful information.

– Interview by Sarah Costello ’11, Office of University Relations