Known Unknown Or Unknown Known
The last thing PG needs is another podcast website. Yesterday, Back Story Radio walked through the door. BSR is a history project, facilitated by academics in Virginia. They have three talkers, the 18th century guy, the 19th century guy, and the 20th century guy. The 21st century guy is in the second grade, and will join them in a few years.
In January of 2011, BSR had a three part series, The Civil War, 150 Years Later. We are currently in the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States. Yesterday it was the Battle of Antietam, aka the bloodiest day in American history.
There is going to be relatively little original writing today. Instead, there is going to be a quote from the transcript. PO, EA, and BB (Peter Onuf, Ed Ayers, Brian Balogh) are the three announcers, and Blake called in a question. We will try to think of a phrase for EA to stand for.
The subject is religion in the south. It is often said that the Bible was used to justify slavery. PG has not seen this, but will take peoples word. If you ask Mr. Google, he will tell you about it. According to this quote, the preachers in the south thought that the north was a secular place. When you fought for the south, you were fighting for righteousness.
There was also the idea that having a society where one race dominated the other was morally superior to equality. The Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander H. Stephens, once gave a speech.
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Another side of this discussion is the role of the Jesus Worship church in the African American society. This church is a powerful, and loud, part of America. It is highly ironic that this European religion has been so fervently embraced by African America. It is even stranger when you consider that this religion was forced on this population as a part of being enslaved. It is even stranger when you consider that some white people considered this shotgun marriage… of an enslaved people to the religion of a Jew … as a moral justification for horrific war.
If you find yourself thinking too hard, just skip ahead to the pictures. They are from The Library of Congress. The men in these images are Union soldiers from the War Between The States. This was written like William Shakespeare.
PO: We’ve got another call and it’s a local call from right here in Charlottesville, Virginia. Blake— welcome to the show.
Caller (Blake): Hello.
PO: So, what’s on your mind?
Caller (Blake): Well, you know, I was brought up in Virginia and have lived I guess with the Civil War for my whole life and remember very vividly the Centennial in Richmond, but recently I have been trying to learn a little bit about the, for lack of a better word, the causes and have been reading particularly about the influence of the church, in this case, mostly Methodist and Presbyterian churches in the South and was wondering how you guys viewed that. Do you feel the preachers from their pulpits and their writings led the South to the Civil War and to secession?
PO: Well, Blake, that’s a great question. Blake wants to know whether the preachers are responsible for the Civil War. That’s the short version of it. Obviously, they didn’t do it all by themselves. I’d say this is a point of departure. Many Southerners believe there was a piety deficit between North and South, that the South was a more Christian place and the North was riven by heresy and socialism and secularism and so Southern preachers did a couple of important things, I think, and that is, on one hand, to tell Southerners that they had God on their side, that they were good Christians, and second, preachers played an absolutely crucial role in the emerging pro-slavery argument.
EA: That’s really well put, Peter. I think the preachers make a real point of saying, hey, hey, hey, the pulpit is no place to talk about politics.
EA: All that we say is that slavery has God’s divine sanction. Other than that, we have no political position at all to make.
PO: That’s all.
EA: That’s right. So, Southern preachers do not lead the South into secession but as Peter says, as soon as providence seems to dictate that that’s the way to go, the ministers are some of the most vocal advocates of the Confederacy.
PO: But, Ed, it’s my impression from historians who’ve written on this subject that in fact Southerners had ample ground in scriptural reference for the support of slavery and they might even have had the edge over their Northerner counterparts, at least if you’re looking for literal readings of the Bible and what it tells us.
EA:Well, that’s the crucial point, Peter. The literal historic injunctions, especially in the Old Testament do accept slavery as a reality. Increasingly, what happens in the North is that people look at the spirit of the New Testament instead. It said how can you possibly love someone as your brother and hold them in perpetual bondage so there’s plenty of energy in the Bible—
PO: Yeah, yeah.
EA: For both pro- and anti-slavery.
PO: No question, but what is also going on and what’s important for white Southerners is that they believe that they have been successful in a great missionary campaign to Christianize the quarters and it’s one of the reasons why they’re comfortable with slavery is that they have taken an instrumental role in spreading Christianity in the slave population so the idea that the slaves were an internal enemy or dangerous subversives who would rise up and revolt, that had been mitigated if not altogether eliminated for many Southerners because they thought of Christianity as a profound bond of union between black and white, even if they worshipped separately.
Caller (Blake): But would that be a true belief, do you think, or more or less just an apology for the burdens that they’d put on African American through slavery.
PO: Hey, Blake, what is a true belief?
Caller (Blake): [laughter]
PO: It’s a known unknown or unknown known. Do they believe it? I think absolutely. One of the things that we learn as historians is to take our subject seriously. They may be by our standards deluded and self-serving, but that Southerners believe they were good Christians, I believe that’s absolutely true.
EA: As a matter of fact, the South says we are in the process of creating the most Christian nation on the face of the earth, but your question, I think, Blake is right. It doesn’t take long for the end of the war for white Southerners to begin to worry, hmmm, were we fooling ourselves?
EA: Yeah, do they really love us? [laughter] The fact that they’re moving away at the very first moment of freedom really is a confrontation with a kind of truth that the white South is really not ready to embrace.
BB: Hey, Blake, may I add an addendum to your good question?
Caller (Blake): Yes, please.
BB: Guys, I’d like to know— I do know, actually, that the church played such a crucial role in the lives of African Americans after the Civil War. Can you tell me something about religion and slaves during the Civil War?
EA: Well, one of the first thing that happens is the churches which had been the really only inter-racial space in the slave South begins separating. At the very first moment, African Americans seize the opportunity to have their own churches. You know, they’ve always gone off on their private worship ceremonies out in the woods or whatever, but in the Civil War itself, as things begin to fall apart, you find that black ministers step forward and begin leading the African American church, so you find that there’s a kind of freedom that comes maybe first in the religious realm and African Americans are quick to seize it.
PO: Well, Blake, thank you for calling “BackStory.”
Caller (Blake): Thank you very much