12 January 2012

Racists, Christianity, and the Antebellum South

One of the biggest oxymorons that I've run across are Christian racists.  The two terms don't really go together.  Yet, many people in the pre-Civil War South claimed Christianity while simultaneously having few qualms about owning other people.  The quarterly journal of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, conveniently named Baptist History & Heritage, recently arrived at my house.  Since I had not yet begun my studies for the semester, I had a chance to read through the articles. 

The article in the Fall 2011 issue of the journal that most caught my attention was "Pastor Elias Lyman Magoon, the Education of Blacks, and his 1846 Departure from Second Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia," by Craig A Sherouse, who is currently the pastor of Second Baptist Church in Richmond.  Sherouse's article deals with on of the biggest concepts that historians study: change over time.  The change that he recounts in this article deals with racial attitudes in nineteenth century Richmond.  While Virginians were nowhere near the most progressive of people when it came to race, in 1813, they were much more tolerant than they would become by 1846. 

In 1813, William H. Crane and Elder David Roper formed a school for free and slave black students in Richmond.  From this school came the missionary team of Lott Carey and Collin Teage, who became Baptist missionaries to the new African nation of Liberia.  Crane was at the meeting that formed the Southern Baptist Convention (formed because the some in the Baptist Triennial Convention rightly refused to commission slaveholding missionaries), and his son William Carey Crane became president of Baylor University.  A finding about another sons, Adoniram Judson Crane, surprised Sherouse, however.  A. J. Crane was a memeber of a committee that brought a report against Second Baptist's pastor, Elias Lyman Magoon, and recommended Magoon's "separation" from the church. 

Why did Magoon incur the wrath of this congregation?  He had been quite popular before took leave to travel to Europe for study.  Sherouse writes: "What was the dismissible charge brought against Pastor  Magoon?  Advocating in the pulpit and in print the education of blacks, both slave and free--the same ministry that A. J. Crane's father had done thirty years earlier, that which had eventuated in Cary and Teage constituting a church in William Crane's parlor.  How ironic to make that discovery while seated under the painting of that historic event."

What changed over the course of thirty years?  Sherouse points out that the laws of Virginia changed.  The education of African Americans became illegal after the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831, led somewhat ironically by a Baptist minister.  Other laws prohibited the meeting of blacks at night and the meeting of blacks without white supervision.  Baptists in Richmond felt that Magoon's advocation for blacks too much to bear, and they asked him to leave.  Other articles in this edition of the journal were David Stratton's "James Madison, Persecuted Baptists, and Religious Liberty," Gary P. Burton's "Armistead Thomson Mason Handey: The Unusual Life and Times of a Nineteenth-Century Church Planter and Pastor in Central Alabama," T. Laine Scales and Craig R. Clarkson's "Preparing College Graduates for Mission: The Role of the Student Volunteer Movement in the Calling and Formation of a 'Baylor Girl,' 1903-1907," and Aaron Douglas Weaver's "'Not in My Backyard' to 'Not in Anyone's Backyard': Black Baptists, the Black Church, and the Environmental Justice Movement." 

This was one of the most interesting issues of the journal that I've read.  I mention the Sherouse article at length because of the major issue that race continues to be, even among people who claim to be Christian.  While much has changed, underlying attitudes often remain the same.  Sherouse's article shows how easy it is for Christians to conform to the culture around them.  This problem is definitely one to be avoided.


  1. I definitely agree that this problem should be avoided. I know many who still disagree with interracial relationships simply because of color. Children are 'disowned' by their own family members because of their racial preference.

  2. Thanks for your comment. The whole passage on neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, etc. in Christ, turns the whole idea of racism on its head IMHO.