John Patrick Daly. When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002. 207 pages. ISBN: 0813122414. Reviewed by Charles F. Irons, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
Whites in the nineteenth-century North and South derived divergent political programs from nearly identical theological assumptions, suggests John Patrick Daly in an important new look at the nexus of evangelical Protestantism and Confederate nationalism – a nexus made familiar by scholars such as Mitchell Snay, C. C. Goen, and James Farmer. In Daly's analysis, Protestants in each region embraced "evangelical moralism," the belief that God granted both spiritual and temporal rewards to individuals of righteous character. Based on this understanding, white, Southern evangelicals looked back from the 1830s on decades of slave-derived prosperity and rapid church growth and reached the conclusion that Southern slaveholders were altogether righteous, so richly had God blessed them. Evangelical Northerners reached similar judgments about their own godliness in the 1850s, on the basis of the success of free labor.
But white evangelicals did more than validate the labor regimes of their respective regions. Since they believed that God had the exclusive prerogative to reward those of exemplary character, Daly maintains in his central fourth chapter, they therefore resisted attempts to interfere with God's providential designs through the political process. In other words, nineteenth-century evangelicals, especially after separating into sectional wings in the 1830s and 1840s, believed that politicians who tried to channel government favors to one section or the other were usurping God's authority by interfering with the working out of the moral economy. Slaveholding Southerners, for example, perceived that Northerners were preventing them from receiving God's blessing by trying to keep slavery out of the Mexican cession. "In the debate on slavery," he concludes, "the North and South declared themselves rivals for the same prize of economic and political power – as rightful heirs to the same tradition" (133). When framed in this fashion, the Civil War emerges as a contest for divine favor; white Northerners and white Southerners each believed that they could prove their moral virtue to the world through military success.
"Though [Daly] agrees with most other historians of the era that white Southerners adopted a more aggressive proslavery stand in the 1830s, he stresses that evangelicals even then did not argue that slavery was a positive good. "
As he tracks the devastating political consequences of Northerners and Southerners' shared theological assumptions, Daly also analyzes the subtle evolution of white southerners' proslavery arguments. Though he agrees with most other historians of the era that white Southerners adopted a more aggressive proslavery stand in the 1830s, he stresses that evangelicals even then did not argue that slavery was a positive good. Captivated by the idea of evangelical moralism, white evangelicals rarely defended slavery categorically and instead evaluated the righteousness of slaveholding by examining the character of individual slaveowners. For owners who proved the integrity of their evangelical character through worldly success, slaveholding was not sin. His explication of this particular manifestation of the proslavery argument gives conceptual unity to Daly's work by showing similar theological assumptions at work in a variety of contexts, even where it does not break new ground on proslavery theory.
More innovatively, in his fifth chapter Daly shows how evangelical Southern whites responded to the ascendancy of Northern free labor advocates in the 1850s by blurring the theological differences between slavery and freedom. Slaves had as much moral agency, as much theological "freedom" to obey or disobey God, as did wage laborers, declared proslavery evangelicals such as Presbyterian James H. Thornwell, the towering figure in the second half of When Slavery Was Called Freedom (and in most other recent works on the theology of slaveholding). This redefinition of freedom allowed even non-slaveholding white Southerners to argue, as they believed, that their region embodied the best Biblical and American ideas and was poised for explosive economic growth. Only with military defeat would white Southerners "turn from prophecy to theodicy" and exchange predictions of slaveholding grandeur for speculation about what slaveholders could have done better (148).
The payoff for linking evangelical Protestantism to the sectional crisis is staggering, for religious commitment connected a broader range of white Southerners than any other ideological system, save a belief in white supremacy. Indeed, tangled somewhere within the annals of evangelical Protestantism likely lies the key to understanding why non-slaveholders gave so much for the Confederacy. Though Daly makes the extremely important step of connecting evangelical moralism to specific policy positions – the disposition of the western lands for example – his work represents only a useful first step to understanding the complex role of evangelicalism in the late antebellum period, the secession crisis, and fratricidal war.
The restricted cast of characters in Daly's work limits its effectiveness more than any other factor. His elite theologians – a familiar cast including Thornwell, Iverson Brookes, Alexander McCaine, etc. – spar intellectually with their Northern counterparts – disproportionately represented by Francis Wayland – but with few others. While too much on the reception of these theologians' ideas might only have distracted from what is otherwise a very coherent and tightly focused argument, Daly needed to articulate the concerns of some rank-and-file churchmen in order to show that white clerics had ideological imperatives beyond defending themselves against abolitionist critiques. Black evangelicals, for example, composed over one-half the members in some antebellum congregations but are utterly silent in this book-talked about but never participating in evangelical life. Surely the presence of so many black churchgoers, or at least the sensational actions of a few evangelical, enslaved rebels, must have had some impact on the development of proslavery evangelicalism. While white women's racial views may have overlapped with the ministers present in Daly's work, he could also have given more attention to the ways in which ministers' defense of their society was a gendered one – and to the way that Northern and Southern evangelicals explained diverging gender roles.
There is another, more fundamental paradox, however, that undermines Daly's efforts to explain the causes of the sectional crisis through evangelicalism. In order for religious commitment to have any explanatory power, it must stand at least partially independent of the more widely recognized economic, political, and cultural sources of sectional animosity. Historians cognizant of this have long puzzled over the relationship between belief and material interest in efforts to discern the difference (however razor-thin) between ideological rationalization and ideological motivation. Though he attempts to finesse this question by arguing that material interest and evangelical belief harmonized in evangelical moralism (76), Daly elsewhere falls into the cultural captivity thesis advanced so ably by Donald Mathews, Christine Heyrman, and others. He describes white evangelicals' movement towards proslavery as an act of accommodation to wealth and privilege, "as slaveholders and slaves displayed the signs of ecstatic conversion evangelicals revered, and as evangelicals gained social prominence" (44). By the 1830s, Daly says that ministers were wholly under the sway of slaveholder interests. "Southern ministers were preaching to the converted from southern pulpits and telling them what they wanted to hear," he writes, and the only "price that masters had to pay for their proslavery defense by ministers was that of attributing the economic behavior they were already engaged in to Christian motives" (74, 78). Thus, at some level, whatever rhetorical wonders that Southern ministers may have worked from the concept of "evangelical moralism," they were merely the mouthpieces of power; their proslavery pronouncements epiphenomena on top of a deep-rooted clash between competing civilizations.
These final reservations must be read not as criticisms, but as laments that one has come so close to explaining the precise connections between white Southerners' religious and political commitments, without finally achieving that magnificent goal. Daly's artfully written work, as accessible an intellectual history as this reader has ever encountered, is a must-read for all interested in antebellum evangelicals or in proslavery theory.
Charles F. Irons, Elon University
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