Evangelical Anti-Abolitionists

Even in slaveholding states, many white Americans were uneasy about the morality of black slavery in the decades that preceded the Civil War

“Some conservative white evangelicals believed that the Bible endorsed some systems of slavery but not that found in America. Most, however, felt that any sort of vigorous opposition to slavery struck at the biblical bedrock of their faith. And therefore they could not embrace true antislavery positions.”

 

Even in slaveholding states, many white Americans were uneasy about the morality of black slavery in the decades that preceded the Civil War. However, there were two things such Americans disliked far more than slavery: black people and abolitionists.

According to Luke Harlow’s recently published Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, those double hatreds explain much about the trajectory of religion and politics in the Bluegrass State between 1830 and 1880. Although Kentucky’s antebellum white evangelicals were divided between those who favored gradual emancipation and those who supported the persistence of slavery, they were united in their opposition to abolitionism and in their support for white supremacy.

Having not seceded (and having only a small portion of its territory occupied by Confederate troops), Kentucky did not need to be “redeemed” from Republican rule like other southern states. Nevertheless, in their vigorous opposition to Republican Reconstruction, white evangelicals found a greater degree of unity after the war. “Racist religion,” Harlow explains, “…created cultural and political solidarity with the white South,” a solidarity undergirded by a theological consensus once partly obscured by pre-war political disagreements. “The [postwar] result,” Harlow concludes, “racist unity legitimated by postbellum clergy and laity who rejected civil rights for African Americans, embraced a Confederate memory of the war, and paved the way for the emergence of a dominant white Democratic political bloc in the state.” White Kentuckians embraced a cause lost by others and made it their own.

White evangelicals dominated Kentucky religion, as much as anywhere in the nation. By the end of the war, nearly all agreed that churches and ministers should eschew the political and focus on the spiritual. The spirituality of the church, however, meant the practical sanctification of white supremacy. “Conservative religion,” Harlow concludes pointedly, “made Confederate Kentucky.”

Harlow reaches those sober conclusions through careful research and portraits of white Kentucky evangelicals. His is a fascinating cast of characters. Baptists and Methodists were numerically dominant in Kentucky, but Presbyterians exercised tremendous public influence. And Robert J. Breckinridge (whose nephew John C. Breckinridge gained the support of southern Democrats in the 1860 presidential election) towered over most of his fellow Presbyterians. Breckinridge, politician-turned-minister and college president, was an antislavery slave owner. As that latter fact suggests, his antislavery was more theoretical than actual. During the Civil War, he tried — apparently without success to retrieve his slaves from a Union camp. Breckinridge favored gradual emancipation and the colonization of African Americans to Liberia. Like many technically antislavery whites, Breckinridge feared the presence of free black people far more than he disliked slavery. Thus, like a good number of other Americans, Breckinridge was an emancipationist who never emancipated.

Moreover, while Breckinridge disagreed with proslavery Kentuckians on the morality and wisdom of American slavery, he thoroughly agree with them on the dangers of abolitionism. Anti-abolitionism united nearly all white Kentuckians. It is important here to understand Harlow’s distinction between emancipationists and abolitionists. Some Kentuckians, like Breckinridge, supported the former. Nearly all vigorously opposed the latter. They considered abolitionists heretics because of their approach to the Bible and dangerous because they threatened white supremacy. Emancipationists and proslavery evangelicals were united theologically even if at political odds prior to the war.

Read More