So why were all the pro-slavery Christians in the South?

I just experienced one of those great, spontaneous teaching moments in class where a student asks a fantastic question that allows you to naturally move to a deeper level of critical analysis. For the past few days, in my intro to American religion, we’ve been talking about the religious dimension to the slavery debate and the Civil War. My driving objective has been to help students see the logic that structured positions on each side. Today a student asked: So if this was a matter of different religious beliefs, why did people in the South embrace pro-slavery interpretations of Christianity and people in the North embrace anti-slavery ones? Why weren’t the pro- and anti-slavery folks distributed more evenly across the country?

My response, of course, was to talk about the socioeconomic situation–the base, as Marxists would say: the fact that the Southern plantation system was built on slave labor whereas in the North the Industrial Revolution was underway, and there were plenty of immigrants to provide a non-slave workforce to sustain that economy. I loved how the cultural theory rose spontaneously out of the discussion as a solution to a student-identified problem. Had I instead given the class some Marx to read and formally lectured on base and superstructure, I’m sure I would have had a harder time helping them grasp the concept and its relevance.

Looking back, I’m already sensing an irony in the situation, though: I have a hunch that the discussion served to ease student anxiety about the logical coherence of the pro-slavery argument. Students can now dismiss the biblically based arguments for slavery as Southern slaveowners just rationalizing a system to which they were “really” committed for crass economic reasons. If that’s what’s going on in some of the students’ minds, then they’re latching onto a Marxist notion of the epiphenomenal nature of the superstructure in order to preserve the authority of the Bible. That’s . . . an interesting move. I’m not inclined to intervene–this is their issue to grapple with–but it’s intriguing to observe.

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One thought on “So why were all the pro-slavery Christians in the South?

  1. Professor, your students appear to be in very good hands. As to the contradiction you grappled with in your last paragraph, the “superstructure,” if you will, can (and this case, does) include the biblical component. Slavery in the Americas was different from slavery in places like the Ottoman Empire in that slaves were used very specifically for capital accumulation rather than predominantly as personal attendants.

    That accounts for the extraordinary harshness of slavery as practiced by European settlers in the New World. Slaves were exploited for economic reasons, but the justifications had to come from elsewhere. Racism was developed to “justify” the slavery of Africans and the Bible was an existing source of justification. Biblical justifications long predated New World slavery, but fit in perfectly with the settlers’ Christianity.

    There are always cultural, political, sociological and geographical components to any society and these both shape and are shaped by the economic system that is in place. Southern slavery, as a feudal relic, was ultimately doomed because the rising capitalism of the industrializing North was going to push it out just as modern capitalism has penetrated virtually ever corner of the globe, pushing out traditional ways of life where ever it advances.

    The authority of the Bible was a crucial component of the political structure that kept Southern slavery in place. Although it is beyond question that the economic interest of the aristocracy was the bottom line in slavery, the political, religious and other cultural aspects were indispensable. No matter what the economic interest is, there are always a web of other factors keeping any system in place; it can never be reduced to simple economics.

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