White Supremacist Ideas Have Historical Roots In U.S. ChristianityHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, religion, Christianity, segregation, White Supremacy, Evangelical
How respected people of God could openly promote racist views was a question that would trouble many Southerners in the years that followed. Among them was a young woman growing up in East Texas in the 1970s, Carolyn Renée Dupont. The girl's grandmother took her regularly to church, made her listen to sermons on the radio and gave her a quarter for every Bible verse she memorized. But the grandmother believed just as deeply in the superiority of the white race.
"I asked her about that once," Dupont recalled, "and she said, 'I just don't believe Blacks should be treated the same as whites.' " Dupont, now a historian at Eastern Kentucky University, said the experience with her grandmother spurred her to focus her research on the racial views of Southern white evangelicals. "I wanted to understand what seemed like a central riddle about the South," she said. "The part of the country that was the most fervent about religious faith was also the one that practiced white supremacy most enthusiastically." It was the same question that bothered Cross as a young pastor in Montgomery.
At an earlier point in American history, some Christian theologians went so far as to argue that the enslavement of human beings was justifiable from a biblical point of view. James Henley Thornwell, a Harvard-educated scholar who committed huge sections of the Bible to memory, regularly defended slavery and promoted white supremacy from his pulpit at the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C., where he was the senior pastor in the years leading up to the Civil War.
"As long as that [African] race, in its comparative degradation, co-exists side by side with the white," Thornwell declared in a famous 1861 sermon, "bondage is its normal condition." Thornwell was a slave owner, and in his public pronouncements he told fellow Christians they need not feel guilty about enslaving other human beings.
"The relation of master and slave stands on the same foot with the other relations of life," Thornwell insisted. "In itself, it is not inconsistent with the will of God. It is not sinful." The Christian Scriptures, Thornwell said, "not only fail to condemn; they as distinctly sanction slavery as any other social condition of man."
"Slavery, in the minds of many, was necessary for the South to thrive," said Bobby Donaldson, director of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research at the University of South Carolina. "So Thornwell used his pulpit to defend the South against charges by the North, by abolitionists. ... He provided the intellectual defenses that many slaveholders needed."
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