“I am owned by the blood of all of them
Who ever were owned by my blood.
We cannot be free of each other.”
– Wendell Berry, “My Great-Grandfather’s Slaves”
We are struggling as a nation to know ourselves better, to tell our stories more honestly and to acknowledge the profound ambiguities of our history. This is no easy task in our consumer culture with its entertainment empires seeking to distract us and in our political culture with its lies and tawdry deceits. Nor is it easy to know ourselves better when we think we have no deep connections with our ancestors — that we modern, individualistic Americans appeared in the present moment through the miracle of self-generation like frogs springing up out of the waters of the Nile. Nevertheless, we are – despite the odds – struggling to know ourselves better. And nowhere is this struggle more clearly visible than in our attempts to understand and acknowledge the role of slavery and racism in the history of the nation.
We are learning, for example, that slavery’s power and influence reached into almost every institution in the nation’s life: banking and insurance, transportation and manufacturing, federal courts and church assemblies. The nation’s leading colleges and universities – from Harvard, Yale and Princeton to Rutgers, Williams and the University of North Carolina – were rooted in slavery and a slave economy. To a large extent, money from slave labor and enslaved bodies built the campuses of schools, North and South, filled their libraries and provided for their endowments. College presidents and trustees, North and South, owned slaves. Faculty and students, North and South, had slaves wait on them. “The academy,” wrote historian Craig Steven Wilder, “never stood apart from American slavery — in fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage.”
The church is one of three pillars “of a civilization built on bondage” — that is a hard lesson in self-knowledge for those of us nurtured in the love and companionships of church families. Yet the compelling need to know ourselves better, to tell our church story more honestly and to acknowledge more openly the profound ambiguities of our story make us look more carefully into the shadows of our church family.
Religious papers and journals multiplied in the slave economy of the antebellum period. And among these multiplying papers and journals were ancestors of the Presbyterian Outlook. Their editors are our great grandfathers whose legacies rumble deep within us despite our modern illusions about our freedom from history. No more than Wendell Berry, the Outlook and its family of readers cannot be free from its entanglement in the lives of enslaved black men, women and children. Indeed, the genealogy of the Outlook can help white Presbyterians today know ourselves better and understand more clearly the deep impulses that help to shape our responses to the racism surging through our national life. We can see in the Outlook’s history how people of good intentions can go so badly astray, how the self-interests of daily life can seduce us and how even reformers and progressives can provide ideological support for a deeply oppressive system. And in all of this we can perhaps catch glimpses of truth about ourselves — truth that is complex and ambiguous and at the same time demands a decision: that we stand on one side or the other in the great struggles of our time.
Three antebellum editors provide important windows into the world of our white Presbyterian ancestors and their efforts to be faithful in the midst of slavery.
Benjamin Gildersleeve was the editor of the influential Charleston Observer. Located in Charleston, South Carolina, the wealthiest city in the country, he was a part of a brilliant generation of white antebellum Presbyterian leaders who were deeply committed to finding a middle way on slavery — a middle way between abolitionists who were calling for the immediate end of slavery and radical pro-slavery advocates who were calling slavery a “positive good” and who were turning to a scientific racism to justify the enslavement of African Americans. Gildersleeve believed that such “extremes” were dangerous and distorted the true character of American slavery. He sought a middle place not simply as a practical place but as the place where truth most likely resided. He, like so many other Presbyterians of his time, believed the Proverb when it declared, “I wisdom dwell with prudence.” To be prudent meant not to run ahead of providence, to let slavery die in God’s own good time and, in the meantime, it meant to try to make the institution of slavery more humane and to help prepare enslaved people for their eventual freedom. So he published articles that advocated a paternalistic concern for the enslaved without calling for an end of the system of slavery.
If the planter grinds his people — endeavoring to get as much out of them, and give as little in return to them as he possibly can; if he pays little or no regard to the quality and quantity of their food, any further than interest dictates; if he does not respect and cherish their efforts to assist themselves; if he permits them to live immorally; if he makes the neglect or omission of his work the greatest crime which they can commit, and calling for the severest punishment; and if he inflicts that punishment without reproof or gentleness; if he gives religious instruction with the evident design of promoting his worldly interest by making them more obedient to his commands; if he is one way in the “Praise House,” and another in the Field; God in the House and mammon out of it, the sooner he resigns his office of religious instructor, the better for himself and his people.
Gildersleeve also published letters and reports that attacked demeaning stereotypes of Africans and African Americans. Leighton Wilson, the great South Carolina missionary to West Africa who had freed his inherited slaves and who was a fierce foe of the international slave trade, wrote to a group of wealthy planters about the Grebo children in the mission school. Gildersleeve published the letter that insisted:
The progress of the children in learning I would not say is good but extraordinary. A large proportion of the boys and girls can read the English testament with as much ease and facility as the children of similar ages and advantages in any school in the world. I am aware that many persons regard the inhabitants of Africa as a stupid, dull race of men, but I feel confident no one would who would look into the progress of these children.
And, of a Grebo leader, Wilson wrote, his “progress in learning so far is unequaled by anything I have ever known either in America or Africa.”
The paternalism of such a middle place was bitterly attacked by “the far right.” The governor of South Carolina found the opinions published by Gildersleeve in the 1830s “apply the same rules to the black as the white man,” and that they were thereby laying “the foundation for opinions inimical to the peace of the State.” He accused the writers of being abolitionists at heart. But they were far from being abolitionists; they were rather prudent Presbyterians who thought their middle way with its good intentions was the path of faithfulness. But abolitionists found their claims to be pious hypocrisy and thought their middle way was the path of a cowardly self-interest that left the enslaved still enslaved and slave markets still thriving as slavery continued its rapid westward expansion all the way into Texas cotton fields.
Gildersleeve moved to Richmond, Virginia, in 1845 and merged his paper with the Watchman of the South to form the Watchman and Observer, another ancestor of today’s Presbyterian Outlook. The Richmond paper had been edited by the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of the city, William Plumer. He, like Gildersleeve, was an advocate of a paternalistic concern for the enslaved and he too was trying to follow a middle way. He supported a Southern Union for the Religious Instruction of Slaves to promote a paternalistic vision of slavery where “masters render to servants that which is just and equal.” But such an effort seemed threatening to many who insisted the time was not right given the “excited state of the country.” So the plan was dropped and Plumer soon moved North, eventually joining the faculty of Western Theological Seminary, a parent of present-day Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
A third ancestor of the Outlook was the Southern Presbyterian. It too was an advocate for a paternalistic path that avoided going too far to the right or the left. Among its several editors was James Henley Thornwell who left the presidency of the South Carolina College to become professor of theology at Columbia Theological Seminary. In 1850 Thornwell preached the inaugural sermon for what became the Zion Presbyterian Church in Charleston, a great experiment in paternalism. The largest church building in the city was soon built by affluent Presbyterians for Charleston’s black population. Whites had to sit in its balconies and blacks packed its pews and stood around the walls of its main floor making their own judgments about the paternalism of whites and what it had to offer enslaved people.
Thornwell’s inaugural sermon, preached to whites only, was the most comprehensive statement of Presbyterian paternalism in the antebellum South. He challenged the assumption of abolitionists that the heart of slavery was the ownership of another person. Rather, Thornwell made a stunning definition of slavery — that the right of the master was only to the labor of the slave. That was, he said, all that a Christian could concede about the rights of masters. The right of the slave, on the other hand, involved “all the essential rights of humanity” and included such temporal rights as the right to acquire knowledge, the right of the family and the right to personal safety. Such rights were sacred, and the state had a responsibility to protect them for the slave.
Thornwell insisted that “it is no part of the essence of slavery” that the “rights of the slave should be left to the caprice or to the interest of the master.” In this Thornwell was challenging the most fundamental assumption of the slave-holding South: that masters, and masters alone, had full dominion over the whole person of the slave; that masters and masters alone had the right to decide if a slave was to be sold and a family divided.
Thornwell’s sermon made clear that he was attacking the basic assumptions of both abolitionists and of the white slave-holding South. His was fundamentally a reformist position that both abolitionists and white Southerners dismissed as rooted in illusions. But he was trying to forge a middle way between what he regarded as the dangers of extremes, of what he called “Scylla on the one side and Charybdis on the other.”
When Abraham Lincoln was elected president and when red-hot mortar shells exploded over Fort Sumter, paternalistic white Southern Presbyterians found that their middle way had come to an end; they had to decide for slavery or for freedom. They chose slavery and saw in that choice a choice for home and homeland, a choice for all that was familiar and dear and a choice for their own freedom from what they regarded as Yankee imperialism. Thornwell, an ardent Confederate, saw the irony of their choice. He foresaw that if the South lost the war, “the civilized world will look coldly upon us or even jeer us with the taunt that we have deservedly lost our own freedom in seeking to perpetuate the slavery of others.” Such is the burden of the Presbyterian Outlook’s ancestry.
So we white Presbyterians struggle to know ourselves better, to tell our church story more honestly and to acknowledge more openly the profound ambiguities and ironies of our story. How easy it is to deceive ourselves — perhaps especially those of us who think of ourselves as progressive whites who have escaped the entrapments of racism. How easy it is for our good intentions to go astray as they conceal deep self-interests. One thing, however, seems clear: We cannot be free of those who were enslaved or of their children who have had to bear over the years the burden of white Presbyterian paternalism, of our prudence and middle way. They have their own story to tell that we must hear — not only for its intrinsic importance but also because their bitter story of oppression and our white story of paternalistic good intentions are tightly intertwined. “We cannot be free of each other,” and in this painful mutual bondage – that is a fundamental part of the story of the Presbyterian Outlook – we encounter one another, find one another and find together the possibility for courageous decisions and more faithful paths.
Erskine Clarke is professor emeritus of American Religious History at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. His book “Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic” received the Bancroft Prize given by Columbia University for a work of exceptional merit in American history.