Christianity and Race in the American South: A History

Christianity and Race in the American South: A History

by Paul Harvey


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The history of race and religion in the American South is infused with tragedy, survival, and water—from St. Augustine on the shores of Florida’s Atlantic Coast to the swampy mire of Jamestown to the floodwaters that nearly destroyed New Orleans. Determination, resistance, survival, even transcendence, shape the story of race and southern Christianities. In Christianity and Race in the American South, Paul Harvey gives us a narrative history of the South as it integrates into the story of religious history, fundamentally transforming our understanding of the importance of American Christianity and religious identity.

Harvey chronicles the diversity and complexity in the intertwined histories of race and religion in the South, dating back to the first days of European settlement. He presents a history rife with strange alliances, unlikely parallels, and far too many tragedies, along the way illustrating that ideas about the role of churches in the South were critically shaped by conflicts over slavery and race that defined southern life more broadly. Race, violence, religion, and southern identity remain a volatile brew, and this book is the persuasive historical examination that is essential to making sense of it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226598086
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/28/2018
Series: Chicago History of American Religion Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 1,078,646
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Paul Harvey is professor of history and presidential teaching scholar at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.

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Christianity and Race in the American South

A History

By Paul Harvey

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-41549-9


"Proud and Undutifull": Religion, Violence, and Death in the Early South

Before the South was evangelical, it was largely not Christian. Before the South turned inward and provincial, it looked outward toward a multicultural world. Before it developed a separate cultural and political identity, it was part of a larger colonizing project whose economic entrepôts were in the Caribbean rather than on the North American mainland.

The South's evolution from a polyglot homeland of varied Indian chiefdoms and struggling European outposts to a world of plantations run by powerful slave owners and worked by nearly four million slaves involved a transformation of its religious culture. If an observer in 1700 had picked a location that would in future decades and centuries become famous as the Bible Belt, he or she likely would have chosen Massachusetts or Connecticut. Virginia, with its struggling tobacco economy, would not have been selected, nor would have Florida and its frequently beleaguered Spanish missions, the Caribbean outpost and Indian-slave-trading center at Charles Town, the Creek and Choctaw "shatter zones" in the Mississippi valley, the Catholic refuge of Maryland, or North Carolina and its medley of Quakers, Moravians, Catawbas, skeptics, and indifferent backcountry traders.

Native religious practices, Christian and Islamic traditions of widely varying origins, spiritual worlds based on West and Central African beliefs, and irreligion and indifference coexisted in this early South. They competed with each other in start-up enterprises from hell like Virginia, in Spanish colonial outposts such as Florida, and in precarious French experiments in attempting to create some semblance of what continental Europeans conceived of as civilization in the bayous and swamplands of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.

During these years, religious allegiance was up for grabs. No one could have known who would end up as the victor in a multipolar world where Native peoples as well as European colonial competitors to the English possessed advantageous geographic positions and cultural alliances. No one foresaw the way in which the religious cosmologies and practices of early Anglo-Americans would meld into an evangelical enthusiasm that eventually marked the region indelibly. And finally, none but a few religious visionaries would have understood this troubled European experiment as the eventual base for an Anglo-American empire of slavery and liberty.

Americans later discerned divine plans in this entire process. But contemporaries witnessed the way colonial Christianity fostered and extended Iberian, French, and Anglo-American imperial powers. In the period from the establishment of Saint Augustine by the Spanish in Florida (1565), to the settlement of Jamestown (1607) and Charleston (1670), to the Stono Rebellion (1739), historical currents and imperial contests pressed against each other as they headed toward as-yet-uncertain end points. Arguably, the least likely of those destinations would have been an evangelical empire dominated by an Anglo-American slaveholding class whose ideology depended on the extension of Christian civilization even to the slave quarters.

This chapter and the next, covering the period from Jamestown through the American Revolution, narrate a portion of how that outcome began to emerge by the late eighteenth century. They also point to the surprisingly accidental and precarious process by which the outward-looking global South of the seventeenth century over time began to form an identifiably distinct religious culture that turned inward.

La Florida

Thanks to their vast expansion into and wealth in silver and slaves from Mexico and Central and South America, the Spanish and Portuguese established the advantage in the early South. In the northern reaches of their early empire, Florida was a key outpost on the North American continent. Florida blocked English expansion, Spanish imperial theorists believed, and thus defended the one true faith against heretics and heathens. It also proved valuable in servicing Spain's more important colonies in the Caribbean. King Philip II ordered Menendez de Aviles to deal with the threat of French settlement in La Florida. He did so, cold-bloodedly, in 1565, overrunning the French settlement at Fort Caroline and executing most of the survivors of a French shipwreck who washed ashore at Saint Augustine. The Spanish Crown also encouraged the establishment of missions wherever the Spanish Empire reached. Conversion was to foster and further conquest.

The Franciscans saw La Florida as a testing ground for their missionary enterprise. They could scarcely have picked a less promising spot. Spanish ideas of Roman Catholic ritual depended on settled towns for the imparting of sacraments. In 1568 Father Juan Rogel labored to teach the Calusa Indians the catechism. He disapproved of their visits to burial grounds to ask the advice of the spirits of the departed. The Calusas, Rogel noted, "told me to leave them alone; they did not want to listen to me." He bribed them with handouts of corn, but when the food ran out, so did the Indians.

Throughout the seventeenth century, the number of Spanish missions grew in La Florida. Persistent conflicts with the Natives, both Christianized and those who resisted the gospel, hampered any effective mission system. Hostile Indian responses to Christianity in the seventeenth century culminated when the Guales of Florida burned down the largest early mission and killed several friars. "What have we to hope for except to become slaves?" asked the Guale leader of the revolt. Conversion efforts then extended into the interior and Panhandle regions of Florida. These initially appeared to have some success, in part because the Spanish adopted ceremonial gift-giving rather than coercion and condemnation as their conversion strategy. Also, the friars learned to honor the lineage and inheritance patterns of Natives. Friars established doctrinas, essentially mission villages where resident priests instructed the Indians of local chiefdoms, and visitas, where friars visited satellite villages of more distant places to say Mass. Missions moved westward from the Atlantic coast into the interior of La Florida, numbering twenty-three by 1616. By the 1620s, ten additional ones reached as far northward as the Santa Catalina mission on Saint Catherines Island off the coast of present-day Georgia. By midcentury, about forty doctrinas served about 15,000 Indians. Eighty-five percent of them were in Apalachee, in the present-day Florida Panhandle.

Beginning in the 1630s, the Spanish focused their efforts among the Apalachee in present-day northern Florida. They extended gifts of Spanish products to Apalachee leaders, who saw a promise of access to power as well as material goods. By the 1640s a Spanish deputy governor took up residence to represent the interests of the Crown in a part of the province located far away from Saint Augustine. Boats carrying goods from Apalachee to Havana and Veracruz evaded the taxes required when going through Saint Augustine. Smuggling by soldiers and friars also brought considerable wealth to northern Florida. Hostility toward the demands of the Spanish exploded again in 1647, when mission work in Apalachee halted following the assassination of three Franciscans stationed there. Led by non-Christian Apalachee and Chisca Indians, the 1647 rebellion resulted in the burning of several missions and a huge ensuing battle between a Spanish army and thousands of Indian warriors. The Franciscans blamed that revolt on Spanish soldiers and secular rulers, who had made exorbitant demands for tribute and labor from Indians. The Spanish military shot back that the religious demands imposed by the friars, including the cessation of Native religious customs, had enraged Native Floridians and caused them to revolt.

Eventually Spanish military forces regained control. They provided the protection necessary to extend the mission system during the second half of the seventeenth century. Padres from this era taught Natives how to use the products of European civilization and Christianity, including iron nails for construction. The Spanish built large wooden crosses to replace the ball game poles that historically dominated the central portion of Indian villages. At one mission, an organ pumped out sacred music. At the most successful missions, Indians learned to read Spanish, recited the Ten Commandments and Seven Deadly Sins, and flagellated themselves during Holy Week in remembrance of the suffering of the Christian Savior. The Indians also served as human pack mules for Spanish goods, with Indian porters required to carry seventy-five pounds of cargo on long journeys to and from Saint Augustine. On one such journey, two hundred Apalachee Indians departed, but only ten returned. The rest starved to death. Little wonder that one group of non-Christian Indians, when queried why they would not convert, replied that Christian Natives were effectively enslaved.

The high point of the missions at midcentury would not survive the alliance of European competitors and non-Christian Indians from the north and west, whose raids on Apalachee villages became more frequent toward the end of the century. By then, the colony was a patchwork of indigenous villages of shifting rivalries and alliances. When the Apalachees took up Catholicism, they used alliances with the Spanish to ward off enslavement of themselves and captured people from rival tribes instead. This failed to stem the rapid decline of their regional power.

From the north, the Yamasees, later to fight their own brutal war against the English, attacked Apalachee and other chiefdoms and villages in Florida, seeking slave captives for sale in South Carolina. Soon the raids grew so effective that some Apalachees joined the Yamasees and other rival groups, recognizing that the Spanish could no longer effectively protect them. The English also made alliances with the Muscogulge, a branch of the Apalachees who had moved eastward and lived in the dangerous territory between Carolina and Florida. In 1702 British and Muscogulge troops attacked north Florida and, in the words of a contemporary, "destroy'd the whole Country, burnt the Towns, brought all the Indians, who were not kill'd or made Slaves, into our own Territories, so that there remains not now, so much as one Village with ten Houses in it, in all Florida, that is subject to the Spaniards.

By 1706 the interior of northern Florida had been abandoned, and the system of missions and visitas had virtually disappeared. Spanish efforts returned to protecting their forts along the Atlantic coast. Millennial dreams of Christianizing Natives had perished. Meanwhile, Indians in La Florida had been drawn into a geographically extensive slave trade. This massive exchange system in Indian bodies, centered in Charles Town, compelled a horrific expansion of slaving wars that helped to depopulate the Southeast. Between 1670 and 1717, somewhere between fifteen to thirty thousand people, or at least half the total number of Native slaves sold through Carolina, hailed from La Florida. Through the trade in slaves, Florida ironically supplied much of the material for what economic success early South Carolina experienced.

While the Florida mission system collapsed, the Spanish presence nevertheless consistently menaced the English to the north. The Spanish lured slaves from the English colonies with promises of freedom in exchange for service in the Spanish military. The results would be felt especially during the fight for colonial dominance on the southeastern seaboard and in the interior of North America in the eighteenth century. That struggle would become part of an apocalyptic vision of English-Protestant versus Spanish-Catholic conflict, the battle that surely would (many contemporaries thought) determine the future of Christendom.

Race, Religion, and the Colonization of Early Virginia

The Spanish presence in the New World also fostered English desire for exploration and colonization. Virginia presented many opportunities for the English, who were eager to establish a viable outpost in North America following the earlier adventures of explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh, as well as a small band of Jesuits and an Indian convert who arrived from Cuba in 1570. Early settlers possessed numerous reasons for colonization. They sought to advance Protestantism and the national interest of England, as well as their own profit. By the early seventeenth century, long experience with colonizing and ruling Ireland convinced English investors and propagandists that the best way to transfer a social order and transform a Native population was to plant a tightly controlled colony of people forced to be virtuous by strict oversight. The first Charter for Virginia, from April 1606, delegated lands to English settlers in the hopes of spreading Christianity and civility to those who yet lived in "miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God." Later charters repeated the aim of at once pursuing political and economic aims and Christian goals. "When you advance religion, you advance together with it Your owne profit," an Anglican minister reassured members of the Virginia Company of London.

The conventional designation of Virginia as the mercantilist money colony and New England as the religious settlement understates the sense of religious identity of those who envisioned the settlement of the early South. Some early Anglo-Virginians arrived with ideas of Christianizing the New World. Corporate financiers in England funded English settlers, who were to propagate the true faith and reinforce the English empire against its Catholic competitors. They linked "religion" and "civilization" and looked to the world of the supernatural to explain their mission, justify their wars and conquests, and comprehend how God would have them govern the world.

Virginia's leaders reinforced their prayers and pleas with the harsh punishment for sins outlined in the Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, first codified in 1611–12 as an attempt to enforce order in the desperately struggling young colony. The Lawes prescribed oral daily prayers, forbade impious statements against the king or the Christian religion, and punitively penalized an array of other types of misconduct, whether taking corn from another person's ground, practicing sodomy, or blaspheming God (this latter offense being met with the punishment of a "bodkin through [the] tongue"). The code outlined curses against enemies within and external to the colony. Colonial leaders quickly published the laws so that potential investors in the Virginia Company knew what kind of order had been established.

Grim reality soon dashed millennial expectation. Early Jamestown was a death trap; over 80 percent of early settlers died. Placed in a singularly infelicitous location, dogged by mosquito- and water-borne diseases, attacked by Natives (whom they often attacked first), and peopled by a troublesome class of Englishmen, the fort at Jamestown drove men to despair. Virginia governor John Smith, the intrepid English adventurer whose self-aggrandizing but extensive writings provide an indispensable source for the early history of Virginia, realistically assessed the character of many early settlers vis-à-vis the grandiose hopes expressed in Virginia's charters: "Much they blamed us for not converting the Salvages, when those they sent us were little better if not worse." One early colonist, Hugh Pryse, ran out one day in the winter of 1609–10 and cried out, "There is no God!" If there was, he said (according to the 1625 remembrance of an early governor of the colony), he would not allow the sufferings of the settlers to continue. Pryse got his comeuppance the next day when Native people killed him and a companion. Afterward, wolves disemboweled Pryse's corpse.

God's lesson for Mr. Pryse, and for everyone, was unmistakable. Virginians, like New Englanders, knew that events in the natural world communicated divine messages. Virginia was a wilderness where Satan ruled heathen societies. John Smith portrayed Indian religious practices as subservience to Satan. Indians "fashion themselves as neare to his shape as they can imagine," he commented. Many of his descriptions of "the Devill" probably refer to the ambiguous trickster figure Okee, a god (or perhaps a number of figures grouped under that name) solicited and given offerings as part of Powhatan agricultural ritual ceremonies. Within this world of Indian religious ritual, Smith could see the figure only as a singular Satan.

Bodily decorations and coverings of Native Virginians suggested their consorting with the demonic. One English observer saw a Native man wearing through ear piercings a half-yard-long green and yellow snake, which while "lapping her selfe about his necke oftentimes familiarly would kisse his lips." Native religious structures and practices horrified English observers. With their singing, chanting, and use of incense in rituals and festivals, Indian religious customs reminded Protestant Englishmen of papist ritualists or of English witches. One English minister insisted that until "their Priests and Ancients have their throats cut," there would be little hope of converting Native peoples in the Chesapeake.


Excerpted from Christianity and Race in the American South by Paul Harvey. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction / The Transcendental Blues of Southern Religion
One / “Proud and Undutifull”: Religion, Violence, and Death in the Early South
Two / “Tumults and Distractions”: The Revolutionaries and the Revivalists
Three / “Being Affected Together”: Revivalism, Slavery, and Empire
Four / “Was Not Christ Crucified?”: Race and Christianities in the Antebellum Era
Five / “That Was about Equalization after the Freedom”: Religion, War, and Reconstruction
Six / “Death Is Ridin’ All through the Land”: Race and Southern Christianities from Segregation to Civil Rights
Seven / “Trust God and Launch Out into the Deep”: Civil Rights and the Transformations of Southern Religious History
Eight / “They Don’t Have to Be Poor Anymore”: Politics, Prosperity, and Pluralism

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