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Eugene D. Genovese

An Uncertain Trumpet

How Christians in the South sought to reconcile slavery with Scripture.

When the Confederacy collapsed, Southern divines ruefully allowed that God had punished the South for failing to do justice to its slaves. Simultaneously, they reiterated their conviction that they had not sinned in upholding slavery per se. In October 1865, the Baptist Religious Herald of Richmond, Virginia, defiantly asked "whether any combination of capital and labor ever produced greater freedom from want and suffering, and a higher degree of contentment and cheerfulness among the laboring classes, than did Southern slavery." A month later, the South Carolina Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, in a pastoral letter, reiterated that Holy Scripture contains everything necessary for salvation and warned against a misreading of the fall of the Confederacy. It affirmed that the War had settled the question of "the powers that be," whom Southerners were commanded to obey as they rendered unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's. But the conference insisted that the demise of slavery did not invalidate the certainty that God had ordained it in a previous time and place. Educators like the Presbyterian Reverend T. E. Peck of Union Theological Seminary in Richmond firmly contended that, religiously and morally, slavery was by no means a settled issue. The intransigence of the divines may be more readily understood if for "slavery" we substitute "some form of personal servitude" and recall the long efforts to bring their preferred social system up to biblical standards.

Christian Southerners, sadly acknowledging that they had lost the War because a persistent sinfulness had cost them God's favor, recognized a bitter irony. By forfeiting God's favor, they had sentenced themselves to live under the very social system that they had condemned as unchristian in tendency. Punished for their lapses, they now found themselves enmeshed in a materialistic, marketplace society that promoted competitive individualism and worshiped Mammon. From early on, they had feared that ...

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