Charles F. Irons. The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.  384 pp. ISBN 978-0-8078-3194-6. Reviewed by Maura Jane Farrelly, Brandeis University, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
In the wake of Senator Barack Obama's speech on race, religion, and politics, Charles F. Irons' recent exploration of evangelical Christianity in colonial and antebellum Virginia serves as a reminder that Sunday morning was not always the place where "the most segregated hour in American life" could be found.

The mundane and somewhat misleading title of this book (Roman Catholics, after all, had put forth suspiciously "proslavery" interpretations of Christianity as early as the 16th century, and these interpretations influenced Catholic slaveholders in nearby Maryland) belies Irons' extensive research and the insightfulif controversialnature of the arguments he presents.  Utilizing a well-known framework that was painstakingly built over many years by scholars such as David Brion Davis, Eugene Genovese, Rhys Isaac, Donald Matthews, and Albert Raboteau, Irons is interested primarily in cultivating an "appreciation of black agency" in our collective understanding of how evangelical identity developed and spread throughout the antebellum South (2). According to Irons, "biracial worship"—that is to say, worship where blacks and whites belonged to the same congregations and sometimes even sat side-by-side during services—became a fundamental component of evangelical identity in the Upper South during the first half of the nineteenth century. So important was this bi-racialism to white evangelicals' understanding of what it meant to be an evangelical that Presbyterians and Episcopalians "pursued black members. . .as part of their efforts to become more evangelical" (102). These same white Christians experienced an identity crisis when, during and after the Civil War, their black co-religionists abandoned mixed congregations in droves and set up separate, black evangelical churches that were based on very different hermeneutics.

According to Irons, free and enslaved blacks in Virginia, by converting to evangelical Christianity and frequently joining mixed congregations, inadvertently strengthened a "paternalistic justification" for slavery that white evangelicals began to develop after the American Revolution (115). This justification, whereby slavery gradually came to be seen as a pre-requisite for black conversion, was part of a collective effort on the part of white evangelicals to reconcile the ideology of the Revolution with the reality of slavery, while at the same time avoiding a confrontation with the burgeoning anti-slavery sentiment in their midst. Although enslaved African Americans did extract a number of concessions from their white religious brethrenparticularly after Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831, when lawmakers made it illegal for blacks to preach or engage in autonomous assembly, but blacks preached and assembled anyway—"evangelical blacks inadvertently abetted the development of proslavery evangelicalism" and "validated white evangelicals' conviction that chattel slavery and Christianity could go hand in hand" (170).

It is a controversial assertion. While the author certainly makes African Americans agents in much more than just the development of a pro-slavery orientation in evangelical Christianityinsisting that even as they joined white churches, "black evangelicals maintained a set of values so different from whites' that black evangelicalism sometimes seemed a different religion"—the implications of his argument are still unavoidable (209). Irons is suggesting that by embracing evangelical Christianity, black Americans participated in the justification—and perpetuation—of their own exploitation, because they made it possible for ministers across the South to assert  that "the status of black Americans as slaves was a necessary link in the chain that led to their conversion" (215). Not only that, but by converting, black Americans helped create the pan-southern identity that lay at the heart of the Confederacy, because as "southern whites traded strategies for Christianizing the remaining unchurched slaves in their respective states," they "built a regional identity around the role that they assumed as stewards of black evangelical development"  (212).

". . . Irons' most revealing explorations of what formal, evangelical worship meant to antebellum African Americans take place in the context of colonization and Nat Turner's rebellion."  


Irons is not suggesting that African Americans were co-opted by white evangelicals when they converted, but a more extensive discussion of what conversion meant to the slaves—and more specifically, what it meant to them when they joined racially mixed congregations—might have mitigated the discomfort some readers will feel when they encounter his argument. Irons hints at the need for this discussion when he notes that white evangelicals' understanding of the slave mission as something that "proved their righteousness in holding slaves… does not explain why the number of black evangelicals in Virginia doubled between 1830 and 1850" (175). Yet, Irons' most revealing explorations of what formal, evangelical worship meant to antebellum African Americans take place in the context of colonization and Nat Turner's rebellion. The former was a movement that enjoyed a very short-lived popularity among black evangelicals and was really the antithesis of the "biracial worship" that is so important to Irons' thesis. Colonization, after all, sought to place blacks and whites not just in separate congregations, but in separate countries. And the latter was a rather extreme example of just how different black and white understandings of evangelical Christianity could be, making it a problematic window into the meaning of black conversion.

Still, Irons' book adds a novel and provocative chapter to the story of race and evangelical Christianity in the South. Rather than presenting religious defenses of slavery as opportunistic, he asks us to consider that white evangelicals might actually have believed slavery was helping them save thousands of people of African descent—and that this conviction was a byproduct of their success.

Irons' command of the relevant primary and secondary sources is exhaustive, and his writing is fluid—though he does seem at times to stray from his focus on race and religion a little more than is necessary. The appendices he has compiled at the end of his book, wherein he classifies evangelical Virginians according to race, denomination, county, and method of church governance, will undoubtedly serve as valuable resources for future students of evangelicalism in the antebellum South.

Maura Jane Farrelly
Assistant Professor of American Studies
Brandeis University


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