In Their Own Words: A review from 1857 of The American Citizen by John Henry Hopkins

Sewanee Watercolor by John Henry Hopkins. No. 28, View near Bower’s Chalybeate Spring, February 25, 1860.

Why are we giving so much attention in our blog Meridiana to the words and thoughts of the Bishop of Vermont, John Henry Hopkins? Neither the state nor the diocese of Vermont had anything much to do with the founding of the University of the South, and Hopkins himself was not officially a “founder.” The time in the 1850s that he spent in the actual presence of the two bishops most important to the university campaign, Leonidas Polk and Stephen Elliott, can be counted in days instead of weeks. His grand plan of the university’s campus was supplanted in the late 1880s and 1890s by other visions.

All of that granted, Hopkins still was the most influential Episcopal Church figure from outside the “plantation states” of the South to lend credence, enthusiasm, and meaning to the enterprise of the southern university. Collaborating with Elliott and Polk, and bringing his considerable experience as a designer of church architecture and Romantic landscapes, he helped conjure up a magnificent vision of the mountaintop university embowered in the forests of the Cumberland Plateau. Putting his head together with those of the southern bishops and kneeling in prayer with them, he also wrote and published several carefully reasoned and influential justifications of the enslavement of Black people. In Hopkins’s pronouncements on “the happy fruits of slavery in the regeneration of Africa from her long bondage of barbarism and idolatry,” we can hear Stephen Elliott’s hymns to the “divinely-guarded institution” of slavery and all the good it did for the enslaved. In doing so, Hopkins revealed the indebtedness of his proslavery arguments to those of his southern friends and the comfort and encouragement the southern bishops took from his words in defense of their peculiar institution. Hopkins’s assertions on behalf of slavery and the goodness of “southern masters” further disclose the genetic code of the charming watercolors he painted during his two-month sojourn in Sewanee in 1859. Upon close inspection, the renderings of the Natural Bridge or the rock formations near Bower’s Chalybeate Spring on the plateau’s edge illuminate the bond between bishops Hopkins, Elliott, and Polk and expose the violence of slavery that the bishops’ vision of the University of the South sought to hide and deny.

Friendly as white southerners were to Hopkins’s views, critics outside the South saw the dark connections between Hopkins’s writings and his friendliness toward Episcopal enslavers and pounced on the bishop’s defense of slavery. “Lament,” an Episcopal priest (John Burke) implored Vermonters, that Hopkins offered the reassuring balm of the bishop’s blessings instead of condemning “Those villa[i]nous cravens,” or cowards, “who fatten the ravens with blood from the heart of a slave!”

The following review in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science, and Art was more economical, if equally unsparing, in its denunciation of Hopkins’s American Citizen. Founded in 1853, Putnam’s Monthly was one of the two leading high-minded magazines in the United States catering to the literary and cultural tastes and preferences of America’s elite. The other and older magazine, Harper’s Monthly, was cosmopolitan in its outlook, publishing and paying attention to writers and cultural happenings in England and on the European continent. Putnam’s Monthly was nationalist in design and intent, focusing more exclusively on American writers and subjects. Its politics in the 1850s followed the mainstream of moral arguments against antislavery instead of the more militant demands of abolitionists. Such distinctions were lost on white southerners. A writer under the name “Python,” commenting in the South’s leading magazine, DeBow’s Review, in 1856, dismissed Putnam’s Monthly as “the leading Review of the Black Republican party.”

A review of John Henry Hopkins, The American Citizen: His Rights and Duties, According to the Spirit of the Constitution of the United States, from Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science, and Art, May 1857, 550-51. The original of the review can be found here.

The Right Reverend John Henry Hopkins, D. D., LL. D., Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the diocese of Vermont, has published a work, in which he states that he thinks it wrong for the American citizen to dance the polka, but perfectly proper for him to hold his brother in slavery. The bishop says, he holds “conversation parties” to be innocent, and equally so the selling a child from its mother. He says, that Canaan was cursed, and, therefore, Governor Wise may dispose of black men and women at the highest rates. The Right Reverend John Henry Hopkins has written some four or five hundred pages to show that the citizens should obey the law ; but omits to state what his pastoral advice would have been to mothers with babes under two years of age in the latter days of the lawgiver Herod of Judea.

He also does not find room in his prolix disquisition upon the duties of the American Citizen, which is the title of his book, to inform his pupil what he is to do when the law of the land contravenes the plain law of God. For it is evident that, if a law is to be obeyed, because it is a law, a regulation to lie, or to steal, or to deliver up the fugitive, so it be legally enacted, has the same authority as one to collect taxes. But if the discretion of the citizen or his conscience are ever to interfere, or, in other words, if there be the individual and collective right of rebellion, it would be only complaisant in a bishop, who writes a book in which he finds room to discuss the propriety and morality of dancing, to indicate when that right may be asserted.

Do you think that any honest Christian man supposes for a solitary instant that [a slave] trader to be any better than a devil—and a servant of God only as all criminals are?

Putnam’s Monthly Magazine

The single point of interest in the American Citizen is the elaborate reiteration of the scriptural argument for slavery, which is easily enough refuted by the younger classes of Sunday-school girls, and which falls at this day, and in this country, with peculiar edification from the lips of a high dignitary in the church of Him who said, “Do unto others as ye would they should do unto you.” Bishop Hopkins anticipates a millennium when “the whole world shall behold the happy fruits of slavery in the regeneration of Africa from her long bondage of barbarism and idolatry.” If it were not so tragical, this would be too ludicrous. Let this gentleman consider one question: Even if you knew that some of the Africans, who should survive the horrors of the slave-ship, and the long, dreadful, compulsory labor in swamps and fields, the gradual imbruting of human beings treated as cattle, with every natural right and affection outraged—even if you knew some could survive it all and attain a kind of fond and ignorant feeling that you would call Christianity, do you, as a man, not as a bishop, believe for one moment that the trader, who paid money for a single one of those victims, was doing anything but an accursed act? Do you think that any honest Christian man supposes for a solitary instant that trader to be any better than a devil—and a servant of God only as all criminals are?

Of course God will bring good out of it. God brings good out of everything. Would that reflection reconcile Bishop Hopkins to having his house burnt down and all that was dearest to him in it? There was one who said, “It must needs be that offenses come; but woe to him by whom the offense cometh.” With the usual inconsequence of the south-side of the slavery discussion, after having made slavery the instrument of the Christian regeneration of Africa, the bishop undertakes to show the inexpediency of slavery. But let the bishop take comfort. If the Lord has made slavery right, he will also, in view of its hold upon this country, make it expedient. And if it be the Christianizing process for Africa, what right has Bishop Hopkins or any other pious man to resist the due operation of that process? Excepting the portion of the volume we have indicated, which attracts attention solely by its subject and not at all by the ability with which it is treated, The American Citizen is like a series of a country clergyman’s weekly lectures. We do not advise any American who wishes to improve himself as a man, a Christian, or a patriot, to leave his South, Tillotson, Hooker, Herbert, or Jeremy Taylor, and take to Hopkins.


Image courtesy of the William R. Laurie University Archives and Special Collections: The University of the South

In Their Own Words: John Henry Hopkins, The American Citizen (Part 3)

I have defended, frankly and fully, the lawfulness of African slavery, in the Southern States, from the Scriptures, from the principles of true philanthropy, and from the Constitution.

John Henry Hopkins

Bishop John Henry Hopkins begins Chapter IX, the first of two concluding chapters on slavery in The American Citizen (1857), by summarizing his previous entries on bondage in the United States. “I have defended, frankly and fully,” he continues, “the lawfulness of African slavery, in the Southern States, from the Scriptures, from the principles of true philanthropy, and from the Constitution.” But, he adds, “The expediency of its continuance to the interests of the South and of the Union, is a different question.”

Hopkins elaborates on that “different question” and the “expediency” of defending and preserving slavery and yielding on the controversy to the leadership of southern slaveholders, all while working toward slavery’s ultimate abolition in the far-distant future. In Chapter IX, Hopkins explains that the true victims of slavery are not the enslaved but the enslavers, and that slavery should be abolished to preserve “the lasting union of this glorious nation” and the “prosperity of the Southern States themselves.” In the concluding Chapter X, he asserts that the only legal, moral, and effective way to end slavery is “to get rid of the slaves, and send them to Africa, as fast as possible” and after compensating their owners for their financial loss. In “the land of their fathers,” the former slaves would spread the blessings bestowed on them by Southern bondage and fulfill the underlying Christian purpose of slavery: to “raise up poor degraded Africa from heathen darkness and barbarity, and open that golden continent to the blessings of Christianity, civilization, and commerce.”

These excerpts conclude our blog posts on The American Citizen. We will follow next with posts examining the reaction of Hopkins’s critics to his pro-slavery writings.

John Henry Hopkins, The American Citizen: His Rights and Duties, According to the Spirit of the Constitution of the United States (1857).

CHAPTER IX: On the Expediency of Abolition

I HAVE defended, frankly and fully, the lawfulness of African slavery, in the Southern States, from the Scriptures, from the principles of true philanthropy, and from the Constitution. The expediency of its continuance to the interests of the South and of the Union, is a different question …

Slavery may be easily shown to have been, thus far, a benefit to the negro, when we remember the awful depth of heathen barbarism and wretchedness, from which it has raised him to his present state, in the hands of his Southern master. But it does not follow that it has been of advantage to the owners of the slaves. On the contrary, I believe that it entails upon them a very serious amount of loss, of danger, and of peculiar responsibility, which it would certainly be desirable to avoid, as soon as may be peacefully and judiciously practicable.

The loss to the master, in my humble judgment, must be considerable.

John Henry Hopkins

The loss to the master, in my humble judgment, must be considerable. Computing the price of an able-bodied slave at $900, the interest on this may be rated annually at $70 or $80; in addition to which, he must be fed and clothed, and his children must be maintained for many years before they can earn their living, and he and his wife must be supported in old age, long after they are of any use to their owner. We must also take into account the fact that it requires two negroes, on an average, to do the work of one white man. Certainly this proves that there is no laborer so dear and costly as the slave, since the same amount of toil could be obtained from the Irish or the German for less than half the actual expenditure. …

But the second branch of the argument, namely, the danger of the system, is still more worthy of attention. Although I believe that the great body of our southern slaves are perhaps the happiest and most contented laborers in the world, yet there are always some likely to be among them of a very different temper, prone to feelings of resentment, and disposed to regard their masters as oppressors, whom it would be no sin, but a virtue, to destroy. Instances have occurred, in all ages, of the terrible result of passion and revenge on the part of slaves. The histories of ancient Greece and Rome are full of them. In modern times, we cannot fail to think of St. Domingo; and in the Southern States themselves, there have been not a few lamentable outbreaks, which carried horror and misery in their train. Hence the insecurity, the constant sense of peril, which must attend the possession of slaves, even under the best of circumstances. Doubtless, habit may go far to reconcile their owners to the danger, and even to make them altogether insensible to their risk. But I have met with cases, in my small acquaintance, where it was a source of continual apprehensiveness; and this alone would be a serious objection to the system, if there were no other …

The third head of my suggestions, namely, the responsibility which is inseparable from the system, outweighs, in my own mind, all the rest. The whole burden of this responsibility rests on the master and the mistress, because the slaves, in general, are as thoughtless and careless as children, and need to be watched over, and provided for, with a sort of care, which is enough, of itself, to wear out the firmest nerves, and break down the strongest spirit of a conscientious guardian. They have to be taught the principles of morality and religion, by oral instruction; they have to be restrained from folly and from sin; their clothing and their dwellings must be inspected; their amusements and recreations must be regulated; their tempers towards each other must be governed; and in sickness they must be attended by eyes far more watchful than their own, in order to satisfy the feelings of a Christian. The overseer can be expected to do but little of all this, for if he looks after them in their hours of labor, it is as much as he is likely to perform, and more than he always performs as he ought for the advantage of the employer. But when these other duties are discharged towards a body of a hundred or perhaps several hundred of those simple and dependent creatures, the master and the mistress become slaves in a far more painful sense, than any of those who are under their control …

I say then, that it is expedient, good, yea necessary, not only to the lasting union of this glorious nation, but to the prosperity of the Southern States themselves, that they should get rid of the slaves, and send them to Africa, as fast as possible. But this neither can nor ought to be done at the ruin of their owners. The whole country is equally interested in the result, and the whole country should be equally charged with the cost of the operation. Our southern brethren were led into the system by no fault of theirs. England herself introduced it into her colonies, long before the birth of our national Constitution, and at a time when it was in accordance with the sentiments and practice of the civilized world. It took a deeper hold at the South, because it agreed with the climate, and the peculiar products of the soil, the cotton-plant and sugar-cane. And the North has no right to reproach the South, for results which I have shown to be consistent with law and Gospel, and thus far highly beneficial to the slaves themselves, in the view of all true philanthropy.

But how can three millions of souls be emancipated and sent away? The magnitude of the difficulty is appalling. I grant it freely. The difficulty, however, is only increased by delay. And great as it certainly is, I do not believe that it is insurmountable. Let me invoke the kindly attention of the reader to the various modes in which I am persuaded that it may be accomplished, if the intelligent, zealous, and sincere lovers of their country, in the North and in the South, will only come together in the spirit of cordial patriotism and fraternity.

CHAPTER X: On the Mode of Abolition

… The adoption of such a measure, in my humble judgment, would produce complete internal peace, and its future advantages would probably exceed the most sanguine calculation.

1. It would put down, at once and forever, the dangerous, inflammatory, and revolutionizing plague of political abolitionism, which scatters firebrands throughout the land, and has already brought us to the awful verge of civil war.

2. It would restore the kind and fraternal spirit between the North and the South, and give a vast impulse to the influence and power of the Union.

3. It would relieve our Southern brethren from a very costly burden, give them the advantages of free labor, improve their exhausted soil, deliver them from the inevitable risks of slave insurrection, raise the price of their lands to treble or quadruple their present value, and bring to them, in crowds, the accession of new settlers, from the free States and from Europe, which the prevailing prejudice against slavery now keeps away.

4. It would elevate the character of our noble republic to the highest point, amongst all foreign nations, by removing the only obstacle which hinders their confidence in our principles of human liberty.

[Sending slaves to Liberia] would furnish the most sublime example which the world has ever seen, by sending forth a million of emancipated slaves, under proper officers, to regenerate the land of their fathers, to raise up poor degraded Africa from heathen darkness and barbarity, and open that golden continent to the blessings of Christianity, civilization, and commerce.

John Henry Hopkins

5. It would furnish the most sublime example which the world has ever seen, by sending forth a million of emancipated slaves, under proper officers, to regenerate the land of their fathers, to raise up poor degraded Africa from heathen darkness and barbarity, and open that golden continent to the blessings of Christianity, civilization, and commerce. There is the proper home of the negro race, since it is the only race adapted to the climate. And there must the happy consummation be effected, which divine Providence seems to have intended in the great work of Southern slavery. For those negroes could not have been qualified for such a mission, if they had not first learned, in the South, the lessons of sacred truth and moral principle. And they could not have had the opportunity of thus learning, unless their fathers had been placed in the condition of bondmen. And the elevation conferred on them could have produced no correspondent influence on Africa, unless they had been sent, by the beneficence of the United States, to that benighted region, and thus enabled to establish themselves in the full enjoyment of freedom, and lead its pagan tribes to the knowledge of religion, arts, and government. Surely no reflecting American can dwell upon the result without a thrill of grateful exultation, when he contemplates a chain of prosperous negro communities, framed upon our own model, and planted along the old slave coast; when he thinks of Liberia, multiplied a hundred-fold, beholding her kindred tribes coming to the light of the Gospel, and learning the benefits of education, of order, and of law; and when he can look to the noble energy of his own United States, and challenge the experience of mankind to show such a glorious product of generous zeal, for the best interests of humanity …

Read the introduction to Bishop John Henry Hopkins here.

In Their Own Words: John Henry Hopkins, The American Citizen (Part 2)

In the first excerpt from The American Citizen (1857) by John Henry Hopkins (1792-1868), the Bishop of Vermont dispensed with the antislavery argument that slavery was “a sin against God, and a crime against humanity.” The Bible, he contended, was mostly silent on the subject of slavery and provided no basis for arguments for the immorality of its practice in the United States.

The following four chapters in his book (VII through X) continued his case for the essential benevolence of slavery and yet the need for its abolition as follows:

Chapter VII. That slavery directly benefited the enslaved and was in actuality an act of Christian philanthropy on the part of Southern slaveholders;

Chapter VIII. That slavery was lawful and protected under the U.S. Constitution, thus obliging all American citizens to withhold their protests against it and respect the property rights of slaveholders;

Chapter IX. That the true victims of slavery were not the enslaved but the enslavers, and that slavery should be abolished to preserve “the lasting union of this glorious nation” and the “prosperity of the Southern States themselves”;

Chapter X. And, finally, that the only legal, moral, and effective way to end slavery was “to get rid of the slaves, and send them to Africa, as fast as possible” and after compensating their owners for their financial loss. In “the land of their fathers,” the former slaves would spread the blessings bestowed on them by Southern bondage and fulfill the underlying Christian purpose of slavery: to “raise up poor degraded Africa from heathen darkness and barbarity, and open that golden continent to the blessings of Christianity, civilization, and commerce.”

Today we publish excerpts from chapters VII and VIII on the “good” of slavery and the lawfulness of slavery. In Part 3, we will publish chapters XI and X on the “why” and “how” of Hopkins’s argument for bringing about the end of slavery.

John Henry Hopkins, The American Citizen: His Rights and Duties, According to the Spirit of the Constitution of the United States (1857).

CHAPTER VII: On Slavery, Considered in the Aspect of Philanthropy

Let us next, therefore, examine the practical system of African slavery, as it exists at the South, under the aspect of philanthropy. And in order to do this fairly, we are bound to look at the subject, not in the narrow light of a few cases of individual hardship, but in the broad relation which it bears to the welfare of the slaves themselves, and to the future results upon the vast continent of Africa …

It is the testimony of all candid observers that the free negro, other things being equal, is in a worse condition than the slave, physically and morally – less happy, less healthy, less contented, less secure, less religious.

John Henry Hopkins

Here, then, we take African slavery as a fact. We may compare the condition of the slaves with our own condition as freemen, and mourn, to our hearts’ content, over the restraints, the hardships, the ignorance, the immorality of their bondage, and imagine how much happier they would be, if they were all emancipated, and placed in our own circumstances. But is this a fair or just process of comparison? Suppose them to be emancipated, would that enable them to ascend to our level? The answer is obvious when we look at those who are already free. And it is the testimony of all candid observers that the free negro, other things being equal, is in a worse condition than the slave, physically and morally –less happy, less healthy, less contented, less secure, less religious. It is notorious that many of those who had escaped have returned to their masters of their own accord, glad to escape from the wretchedness of their freedom. It is notorious that in the Southern States the slaves look down upon the free negroes with pity, and often with disdain, as being altogether in a position inferior to their own. For they feel themselves to be connected for life with the family of their master, sure of protection, sure of a comfortable home, sure of a plentiful subsistence, sure of kind attendance in sickness and old age, and sure of affection and confidence, unless they forfeit them by unfaithfulness or rebellion. These advantages are lost to the free negro, and the slaves have no difficulty in understanding that he has nothing to replace them. True, they must work. But so must the free negro; so must the laboring class in every civilized community. And when we compare their condition with that of our own hirelings, there are many points which seem to be greatly in their favor. For their work is light and regular, as a general rule. They have abundant time allowed for recreation and for holidays. They are not, like the free laborer, liable to be dismissed at a moment’s warning, and forced to beg or suffer for want of work to do. They are not tempted to strike for higher wages, when the ordinary rates are too low for the necessaries of life. They are not exposed to the melancholy refuge of the poorhouse, and turned out to die in poverty and neglect, after their strength has been exhausted in a long struggle with hardship and with toil. They are not sent adrift amongst the dens of infamy and pollution which contaminate all our free cities, bidding defiance to the hands of the police and the hearts of the benevolent. And if it be indeed a disadvantage that they cannot change their masters, it is in most cases more than a counterbalance for this that they could gain nothing by the change; since every laborer must have some master in order to live, and the slave possesses the only security of always having a master who is bound to keep him from destitution, for years after the decays of nature have taken the power of earning his livelihood away.

When philanthropy, therefore, gets rid of prejudice, and surveys the comparative advantages of the two systems with impartial candor, and casts aside the odium which attaches to the name of slave, it will not appear so easy to determine that slavery is a calamity to the race of Africa. On the contrary, it exhibits the nearest approach to the patriarchal times, when Abraham had three hundred and eighteen servants born in his own house, over whom he ruled with absolute power, but with far more substantial comfort and advantage to them than if they had been a band of ordinary hirelings. For however we may talk about the blessings of individual liberty, the true interest of the laboring class demands a large amount of mutual dependence and association. The master feels for his slaves, because they are his own. The slaves are attached to him in turn, because they make a part of his household, bred up under his care from childhood, and directly concerned in all that belongs to him, as their ruler and protector. The hearts and sympathies of both, therefore, are brought into constant play by this long and close affinity of interest. And there, after all, is the surest element of human welfare and security, if it were rightly governed by the laws of religious responsibility.

But how does this element exist in the free system of the hireling and his wages? Where is the heart or sympathy between the moneyed capitalist and his operatives? The whole essence of the business is resolved into dollars and cents …

[T]he fact remains undeniable that the slaves at the South are, on the whole, the happiest class of laborers in the world, and the most perfectly contented with their own condition. And this fact is of more value than all the reasonings of abolitionism. That a portion of the slaves will always be found worthy to be emancipated, as being possessed of more industry and talent than the average, is doubtless true; and such cases may safely be trusted to their master’s liberality, or to the interest which they rarely fail to excite amongst others. That there is another portion likely to be dissatisfied and refractory is also true, and the number of slaves who run away afford the evidence. But these are exceptions to the general rule …

And for that portion [of slaves] who desire and are qualified for freedom, our Southern philanthropists have provided, of their own accord, the noble colony of Liberia…We know that it was originated and carried forward by slaveholders, who, as a class, are far better acquainted with the characteristics, and much more occupied with the welfare of the negro race, than we of the North can be.

John Henry Hopkins

And for that portion [of slaves] who desire and are qualified for freedom, our Southern philanthropists have provided, of their own accord, the noble colony of Liberia, now advanced so far as to be an object of great interest amongst the nations, and likely, under God, to accomplish a glorious work for the whole continent of Africa, in due time. We know the history of that enlightened and truly admirable enterprise. We know that it was originated and carried forward by slaveholders, who, as a class, are far better acquainted with the characteristics, and much more occupied with the welfare of the negro race, than we of the North can be. For with them, these matters form a constant element of practical life; while with us they are rather the subjects of uncertain speculation. And we know, further, that the disposition to emancipate their more deserving slaves is common amongst our Southern brethren, and that Liberia is constantly receiving accessions from the same generous spirit to which it owes its origin.

Grievously warped by prejudice must that judgment be, in my humble opinion, which fails to see the vast superiority of this plan for the disposal of the small minority of the negro race who desire and are qualified for freedom. For experience has abundantly proved that they can never rise to the average level of the white population, amongst the free States. Their color forms an insuperable barrier, which no art or management can remove. But in the land of their fathers, the true field of upward destiny is thrown open to them. The providence of God has fitted the climate to them, and fitted them to the climate. And I doubt not that our Southern slavery has been ordained, in His wisdom and mercy, to prepare them, under the training of their Christian masters, for the grand consummation which shall yet regenerate the vast tribes of heathen and Mahometan barbarians, throughout the whole of poor benighted Africa, and display, in the eyes of the world, a splendid proof of the mercy and goodness, which direct the mysterious dispensations of the Almighty.

But the philanthropy of our abolitionists can see nothing in the slavery of the African race except evil, and only evil. If their views had governed the counsels of Providence, the negroes imported into these United States would all have remained on their native soil. And what would have been the consequence? They must have lived and died in the darkness of the grossest paganism, accustomed to the very lowest depths of savage degradation …

Southern slavery, therefore, has been the very means of raising them and their posterity, amounting to many millions, from this debased and wretched state, to a far higher place on the scale of humanity; and thus we may readily perceive that the reasons which were assigned to justify the divine law, in allowing the ancient Israelites to buy slaves of the Canaanites, applied, with all their force, to the heathen savages of Africa. What sort of philanthropy is that, which would rather plunge them back into their original condition? What sort of religion is that, which brands with the name of villainy and sin the only plan which the mercy of Providence permitted, in order to rescue those millions from heathen misery and ruin? What sort of benevolence is that, which would prefer that the noble colony of Liberia had never existed, and that the negro race should have lived and died in all the cruel and bloody despotism of Dahomey, rather than become fitted, in the hands of their Southern masters, to dispense the knowledge of God, of liberty, and of civilization throughout the darkest regions of barbarism?

For myself, I can truly say that I have no sympathy with those who depreciate the negro race below the true standard of humanity. I repudiate with all my heart the infidel hypothesis which denies that God hath made of one blood all the nations of the earth. I believe that the negro is capable of all the improvement of mind and moral principle which education can bestow, and am ready to welcome every proof which individual cases have afforded of his genius and his powers. But I do not admit that slavery is the cause, in itself, of either moral or intellectual degradation, if the master be not morally and intellectually degraded … And assuredly there is nothing in the mere bond compelling one to labor for another, which opposes the love of virtue and of truth. On the contrary, if the master be a good man, the effect of such a bond must be to elevate the character of its subject; and the hardship on the one side, in the obligation to serve, is more than equalled on the other, in being obliged to maintain the servant, through every change of circumstances.

But men may differ as they please upon the point of abstract speculation. The fact is, that Southern slavery has raised the African far above his original condition, and enabled him to plant the noble colony of Liberia. And in this, all true philanthropy rejoices, and will rejoice, notwithstanding the hostility of ultra-abolitionism.

CHAPTER VIII: On Slavery, as a Question of Politics

Now slavery, such as then existed (and still exists, in nearly one half of the States), is expressly recognized in the Constitution. The word, indeed, is not there, but the thing is. No lawyer ever doubted that “persons held to service” (Art. iv. Sec. 3), were the slaves. Such has been the invariable construction of the Supreme Court …

The same section distinctly guards the rights of the master from any interference. “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” …

From this it results, plainly, that no politician can attack the lawfulness of slavery, without attacking the Constitution and laws of his country. And equally manifest it is that no man can swear to support the Constitution in good faith, and at the same time oppose himself to its provisions, without violating his oath of office. While those prominent leaders of Abolitionism who openly avow that they trample on the Constitution, and seek to plunge the nation into the horrors of civil war, in their insane zeal for what they suppose to be the rights of the negro, are indeed more honest and frank than the rest, but certainly are engaged in nothing more nor less than the instigation to treason.

The South has not sought to disturb the North, or to force slavery upon them. It is the North which disturbs the South, and seeks to excite the slaves against their owners.

John Henry Hopkins

For this systematic opposition to the slave States, there is not the slightest really political pretext. Whatever the evil of slavery may be, it cannot be pretended that it is relatively greater than it was at the time when the Constitution was established. Then, the slaves amounted to 600,000, in a population of three millions, which was one-fifth of the whole. Now they have reached about three and a quarter millions in a population of nearly twenty-four millions, which is less than one-seventh. It cannot be said that their treatment is more severe, that their personal comforts are less secure, or that their masters are enabled to exercise any larger share of power, by their means, over the other States in the Union. The spirit of encroachment is all on the other side. The South has not sought to disturb the North, or to force slavery upon them. It is the North which disturbs the South, and seeks to excite the slaves against their owners. On the one side, there is only a firm adherence to the rights guarantied by the Constitution. On the other, there is a constant effort to tear those rights away, at whatever risk of blood and anarchy. The contest is between the supreme legislature of the land, the laws, and the judges; opposed by popular societies, by loud denunciation, and bitter fanaticism. The appeal made by our inflammatory orators is to a “higher law” which exists nowhere, since it is perfectly idle to say that it can be found in the word of God, and equally idle to assert that it may be discovered in the principles of enlightened philanthropy. And the object which has thus concentrated the energy of Abolitionism is such, that it would put arms in the hands of millions of the African race against their masters, and plunge the nation into civil war, without the possibility of foreseeing an end to the horrors of the conflict.

The true politician is bound to love his country, to defend its government, and promote its unity and peace. He may not believe that slavery is expedient or advantageous, although he cannot consistently deny that it is lawful, so long as it is allowed by the laws of God and man. He may think it better for the African race, and better for their Southern masters, that the institution should be abolished, as fast as it can be, with a just regard to the rights of the owners, to the future welfare of the slaves, and to the general interests of the Union. And thinking thus, he may temperately and kindly seek to impress his arguments on the intelligence and virtue of his brethren; and do his utmost, in friendly cooperation with those who are immediately concerned, to bring about some judicious plan of gradual abolition. In a course like this, I should be able to feel a cordial sympathy; and I doubt not that efforts so directed by a just and patriotic spirit, would meet a generous welcome from many of the most influential and noblehearted men in the Southern States. But to deny their rights, to calumniate their principles, to menace their persons when they presume to seek their own under the authority of law, to upbraid them with atrocious sin against heaven and humanity, to preach insurrection to their slaves, to goad them with bitter reproach and insult, to refuse them a place in the Church of Christ, and brand them as if they were destitute of morality, justice, and religion — all this is the work of an incendiary, rather than of a politician. Its necessary result must be, and has been, to increase the evil which it designs to cure. It exasperates and alienates, instead of convincing. And if the mistaken men who have adopted this unhappy course desired to rivet the bondage of the slaves, and thoroughly disgust their owners with every notion of emancipation, they could not possibly have taken a more likely mode of effecting the purpose …

I have used the phrase of a true politician … in the broad and lofty sense of the Constitution, which embraces the United States — the South and the North — the East and the West, in the comprehensive and generous scope of genuine nationality. And in that sense, I regard no man as a true politician, who seeks to gain victory for a part, at the cost of the whole. The statesman worthy of the name may desire, with all earnestness, to relieve the land from the reproach and the ultimate dangers of slavery. But he will approach the subject with a just appreciation of the arguments upon the other side. He will make all fair allowance for the difficulties which surround the question. He will do due honor to the motives and the principles of his Southern brethren. He will remember that the institution is maintained by sovereign States, who alone have the right and the power to determine how it may be safely and gradually done away. He will seek to work with and for those interests which are directly complicated with the desired change, and prove his friendliness and his sincerity by that kindly feeling which belongs to all real philanthropy. And he will be patient and willing to wait, until it pleases Providence to give a lawful impulse to the cause in the right quarter; never willing to do evil, that good may come, nor trampling upon the Constitution and the oath of office, in his intemperate haste to accomplish a change, which must come slowly, wisely, and prudently, if it come at all. That it will come, sooner or later, in the right way, by the favor of God towards our Southern States and towards the race of Africa, is my own strong conviction …

Read the introduction to Bishop John Henry Hopkins here.

In Their Own Words: John Henry Hopkins, The American Citizen (Part 1)

Resolved: That slavery is a sin against God and a crime against man, which no law or usage can make right, and that Christianity, humanity and patriotism alike demand its abolition.

Anti-slavery resolution proposed
at the 1852 national convention of the Free Soil Party

John Henry Hopkins (1792-1868), the Episcopal bishop of Vermont during the period of the University of the South’s founding, always maintained that the end of slavery was his “fervent desire and prayer.” However, this distinction and self-fashioning as an opponent of slavery were overshadowed by the heart of his writings on the subject of bondage. The real force of his words were directed at refuting those who contended that slavery was, to quote the antislavery Free Soil Party, “a sin against God and a crime against man.” But some of his most impassioned arguments outlined the benefits of slavery in the South to the enslaved.

Hopkins publicly broached the subject of slavery first in 1851 in a series of lectures that were published as a small pamphlet. He returned to the subject in 1857 with his book on The American Citizen, which is excerpted here. The section on slavery was only a fraction of the large book. The rest he devoted to such topics as choosing a wife, dancing, and physical education. But Hopkins brought all of his training as a biblical scholar and as a former practicing lawyer to denounce the anti-slavery movements of his day and to defend the legality and positive good of slavery as practiced by southerners such as his dear friends, Leonidas Polk and Stephen Elliott, the bishops of Louisiana and Georgia and the leading organizers of the University of the South. As one reviewer for a Charleston, S.C., newspaper read his work, his “unusual views” on slavery seemed to have been written “from the stand-point of a Southern planter rather than from that of a New England clergyman.”

Review of The American Citizen from the Charleston Mercury, 1857.

Our first excerpt from Hopkins’s The American Citizen concerns his argument that slavery is not a sin according to the Bible. We will follow in coming days with additional excerpts that show his arguments for the benefits of slavery.

The book in its entirety is available here on Google Books.

John Henry Hopkins,The American Citizen: His Rights and Duties, According to the Spirit of the Constitution of the United States (1857), 121-65.

Having proved sufficiently, as I trust, that morals must be founded on religion, and that politics, in the only true sense, must be based upon morals, I should willingly leave without remark the vexed subjects of our day and country, if I were not convinced that it is a duty to contribute my share, however humble, towards the establishment of true practical principle. As a Christian teacher, I am not at liberty to pass over those errors which strike directly at the authority of the Word of God. And as a citizen, and therefore a “partner in the republic,” I may not turn aside from the application of truth to that perilous topic of discussion, which threatens the Constitution itself and, if not set at rest, may ultimately sink our national greatness into ruin … And I declare my convictions, therefore, with no other motive or desire than to discharge honestly my own moral obligation; and to aid the judgment of impartial and reflecting men, in determining the real merits of a deeply exciting and important question.

That slavery, considered in itself, is an evil, I consider to be perfectly clear and incontrovertible. But this goes a very little way towards the settlement of the point under discussion. In the present condition of mankind, we are compelled to submit to innumerable evils, in order to avoid some greater evil; and a choice between evils is frequently the only course left to human wisdom and sagacity. In this aspect of our earthly lot, we account evil to be a good, if it relieve us from a heavier calamity. Thus war is an acknowledged evil – a positive curse. Yet war becomes a good, notwithstanding, if it protect the land from tyranny or violence. The loss of a limb is an evil. Yet if its amputation be necessary to save our life, it is good to suffer the loss, without which life would be sacrificed … A thousand cases might thus be put, in which evil must be preferred, and even maintained, if the consequences of our escape be the exposure to a still more deplorable catastrophe.

But these, it may be alleged, are physical evils, whereas slavery is a moral evil – a crime against humanity – a sin against God. Let us try the validity of this proposition by an appeal to “the higher law,” by which alone we can test the rules of religious and moral obligation.

And here, of course, we are referred to the Bible, because we have no other declaration of His will from the Supreme Lawgiver. I am not aware that there is any “higher law” than this, since I do not hear that there are any modern prophets amongst our ultra-abolitionists, claiming a special authority from heaven, and armed, like the apostles, with the power of miracles to prove their commission. To the Bible, therefore, let us go, and learn what Moses, and Christ Himself and His inspired messengers, said and did, in reference to slavery …

And here it may be well to observe, that the term slave is met with only twice in our standard version of the Bible. The word servant is applied throughout. Yet the meaning is perfectly plain. For the bond-servant was always a slave, while the hired servant was a free man …

Where, then, was the sin of holding them in slavery? When the Almighty commanded His people to buy and own the posterity of the heathen, was it a sin to obey Him? And how could that which He commanded be a crime against morality? Where is the “law” which is “higher” than the code laid down by the Deity? Where is the rule of morals which shall claim supremacy over the Word of God?

But the absurd, though very popular notion, which regards the relation of master and slave as essentially immoral, requires a little more examination to manifest the error. What is this relation? Simply a perpetual obligation which binds the slave to serve the master for life, and binds the master to govern the slave with justice and with reason; to provide for him in sickness as in health; to instruct him in what is necessary to his moral and spiritual welfare, according to his condition and capacity; to maintain his family in comfort, and to bury him decently when life is ended. Where is the immorality in this? …

Thus stood the question of slavery, according to the “higher law,” throughout the whole fifteen centuries of the Mosaic dispensation. At the coming of Christ, the institution was universal. In Judea, and everywhere throughout the old Roman empire,* we find no records of any nation or people without slaves. How did our Lord treat the question? Did He utter one syllable on the subject? Did He make it the topic of a single remark? We know how His sacred rebukes fell thick and fast on every form of iniquity. We know how He inveighed against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the infidelity of the Sadducees, the hardship of Jewish divorce, the venality and corruption which surrounded Him. But the case of the slaveholder was never mentioned, nor could any reader of the Gospels find authority for the notion that He regarded slavery as a sin against God, and a crime against humanity …

And therefore no intelligent and candid mind can be surprised to find that the most violent opponents of slavery in the United States are always ready to wrest the Bible and denounce the Church, because they cannot derive from either the slightest real support in their assaults against the lawfulness of the institution.

Read the introduction to Bishop John Henry Hopkins here.

In Their Own Words: An introduction John Henry Hopkins — first Bishop of Vermont, artist and architect, and defender of slavery

Hopkins’ watercolor of the Natural Bridge

For every candid observer agrees that the negro is happier and better as a slave than as a free man, and no individual belonging to the Anglo-Saxon stock would acknowledge that the intellect of the negro is equal to his own.

John Henry Hopkins, 1861

The series of watercolor landscapes that Bishop John Henry Hopkins (1792-1868) of Vermont executed during his brief sojourn in Sewanee in the winter of 1858-1859 are among the most treasured artifacts in the archival collections of the University of the South. Only five of the two dozen or more watercolors survive, and four depict the mountain’s natural charms, such as the “Chalybeate Spring” and the “Natural Bridge” (shown here). Today the originals are locked away in the University’s Special Collections, but excellent reproductions are on public display at the Sewanee Inn.

We know these images best today for their part in the story told about the founding of a great Episcopal university in the late 1850s and the intimate bonds of friendship that joined the Bishops Stephen Elliott of Georgia and Leonidas Polk of Louisiana to their talented counterpart in Vermont. Hopkins’s “versatility,” a fellow Vermonter recalled in 1915, “was truly remarkable, … whether as scholar, author, teacher, orator, poet, artist, architect, or landscape gardener.” He also was an attorney and, of course, a priest. Elliott and Polk drew on all of these facets when they brought him to Sewanee that winter to work and pray with them in planning and designing the layout of the southern university. From the moment he arrived on December 5, 1858, Hopkins threw himself into the task. By the time he departed three months later on February 27, 1859, he had conjured the grand vision: a sprawling campus of landmark buildings along a network of curvilinear roadways, all situated to heighten appreciation of the Cumberland Plateau’s attractive natural features. A map displaying the elaborate design, rendered on a sheet of silk, has survived.

But more than a Romantic’s vision of a university carved out of the raw wilderness was at work in these artistic renderings. Hopkins’s watercolors and his map of the university’s domain also disclose and underscore the centrality of slavery and its defense and promotion to the founding of the University of the South.

In the 1850s a growing proportion of Americans living outside the South came to accept the view presented in works like The Child’s Anti-Slavery Book, published in 1859 by the Sunday School Union: “I want you to remember one great truth regarding slavery, namely, that a slave is a human being, held and used as property by another human being, and that it is always A SIN AGAINST GOD to thus hold and use a human being as property!”

Although the Episcopal Church never took an official position on slavery, no ecclesiastical leader was more vocal, scholarly, eloquent, or productive in defending slavery against its radical and moderate critics than the Bishop of Vermont. From his bishop’s seat, Hopkins launched a campaign to end the controversies over slavery by proving beyond a doubt that the Bible contained no injunction against slavery and therefore slavery was not a sin. Hopkins began with a series of lectures in 1851 and continued with books in 1857 (459 pages) and 1864 (376 pages) and an incendiary pamphlet, Bible View of Slavery, in 1861. From long and deep scholarly study of the Bible, Hopkins maintained that slavery was prevalent in all historical periods represented in the Old and New Testaments, and that its practice was accepted by all authoritative figures, including Jesus. The Bible, he said, did not just fail to condemn slavery; it actually sanctioned it. As he explained in Bible View, the scriptures support “the principle of negro slavery, so long as it is administered in accordance with the precepts laid down by the Apostles.” Notwithstanding the Bible’s sanction, the bishop said, he personally was opposed to slavery. He would rejoice “in the adoption of any plan of gradual abolition which could be accepted peacefully by general consent,” but he decreed that no one otherwise has “any right to interfere with the domestic institutions of the South, either by the law or by the Gospel.”

Hopkins identified himself as an opponent of slavery, not because its practice was sinful in itself, but because it tended to cause harmful or sinful effects. For instance, it tempted white men to take advantage of enslaved women; it undermined the virtue of honest labor in slaveholders; and it bred violent insurrection among the enslaved population. The controversy over slavery was imperiling the United States itself. But bondage, it should be noted, was not bad for the enslaved; it was bad for the enslavers — for the white citizenry.

Hopkins’s operating assumption, which was widely shared among white Americans at the time, was that the “Anglo-Saxon” race was the natural superior to the “negro” race. He laid out his position in this passage from his Bible View of Slavery, explaining how he would respond to the “puerile interrogatory,” How would you like to be a slave?

I should say that whether any condition in life is to be regarded as a loss or an advantage, depends entirely on circumstances … The reason of the difference is obvious, because the employment which would be a degradation to the one, offers promotion and dignity to the other. In like manner, slavery, to an individual of the Anglo-Saxon race, which occupies so high a rank in human estimation, would be a debasement … And yet, to the Guinea negro, sunk in heathen barbarism, it would be a happy change to place him in the hands of a Southern master … How much more would [Southern slaves] prize their present lot, if they understood that, were it not for this very institution of slavery, they would be existing in the darkest idolatry and licentiousness among the savages of Africa, under the despotic King of Dahomey, destitute of every security for earthly comfort, and deprived of all religious hope for the world to come!

John Henry Hopkins, Bishop of Vermont and Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

As seen here, Hopkins came to argue with sharper clarity over time that slavery, for all of its unwanted effects on white men, had a demonstrably positive effect in lifting an inferior race from savagery and barbarism. It followed from this argument that Americans, as Christians, were obliged to uphold the laws enforcing slaveholders’ property rights (like the Fugitive Slave Act), to desist from denouncing slave owners as sinners, and to defer to those who knew slavery best (slave owners) in working through established institutions and the authority of law to gradually end the practice. He personally preferred colonizing emancipated slaves in Africa.

However futile his efforts to calm the great conflicts of the 1850s, Hopkins labored in his balancing act of both opposing and supporting slavery to chart a middle way of moderation between the radical extremes for and against slavery — and in a way that endeared him to his fellow bishops, Polk and Elliott, in Louisiana and Georgia. These sympathies, especially for slaveholders, appear to have deepened as a result of the time Hopkins spent in the South with Polk and Elliott. In 1855 Hopkins set off on a lecture tour, landing in New Orleans, where he stayed two weeks in the Polk household. And the three bishops collaborated closely in Sewanee over Christmas in 1859. One scholar, James M. Donald, argues that these periods of residing among the enslaved and the enslavers together moved Hopkins’s views on slavery, already compatible with those of Polk and Elliott, even closer to the southerners’ positions on its positive good.

The notice that Vermont Bishop John Henry Hopkins would be residing with Louisiana’s Bishop Leonidas Polk during his lectures tour stop in New Orleans. From New Orleans Times-Picayune, Nov. 28, 1855.

Elliott confirmed his gratitude in a letter to him in July 1866, looking back to Hopkins’s pre-Civil War defense of slavery and paying tribute to him for it: “The South can never forget your manly consistency and dignified self-reliance during all the madness of the people; and future times will do full justice to your wisdom, and your Christian sympathy with a persecuted, oppressed, and now ruined people.” James M. Donald contends that Hopkins’s support of slavery and the trust that position won with southern Episcopal leaders enabled him, as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, to heal the breach between the seceded southern and northern branches of the church by 1868. Hopkins was not the only or necessarily even the most important figure working for reunification after the Civil War, argues Donald, but he “brought with him views and friendships unique among Northern Bishops.” He continues: “There are ample testimonials of Bishop Hopkins’ role in the reunification of the Church to make it more than clear that the circumstances and the man made for an easier transition.” The Rev. Gardiner C. Tucker, a Sewanee student in the 1870s and longtime priest in Mobile, Alabama, stated the case for Hopkins this way in 1932: The Vermont bishop’s “well known pro-slavery views made him particularly persona grata to southerners.”

Hopkins’s residency in Sewanee and the commissioning of his plan for the university came at a propitious time for him. He was building his own school, the Vermont Institute, and the $1,500 that Polk and Elliott promised for his design work was acutely needed for that project. Hopkins spent only three of the six months originally planned and was paid $750. Most of the watercolors were lost, destroyed, or perhaps stolen in the summer of 1863 when Union troops flooded over Sewanee as Confederate forces retreated ahead of them.

Although it may be tempting to do so, the bishop’s endearing watercolors and ambitious campus design cannot be separated from the bishop’s apologies for slavery, statements about the innate inferiority of the “negro,” and praise for the benefits of bondage on the enslaved. Certainly the architects of the southern university, Polk and Elliott, shared with Hopkins a passion for Episcopal education and a devotion to the Episcopal Church. Regardless of those common causes, the Vermont bishop’s encyclopedic array of talents, and his leadership role in the Episcopal Church, Polk and Elliott never would have entrusted Hopkins with the design of their university if he had not won their trust on the primary subject of slavery. By denouncing those who used the Bible to attack slavery and defending those who hailed the ultimate Christian purposes of bondage, Hopkins endeared himself to slave-holding southern Episcopalians, made a lasting mark on the campus design, and composed with his delightful watercolors an enduring commemoration of slavery’s formative role in the founding of the University of the South.

Beginning next week, we will publish excerpts from Hopkins’s The American Citizen: His Rights and Duties, According to the Spirit of the Constitution of the United States (New York, 1857). This massive book addresses an array of subjects. The section on slavery takes up only about a tenth of the book’s 459 pages, but they are critical to understanding how Hopkins won the trust, confidence, and gratitude of Episcopal slaveholders.

Our excerpts will appear in three parts, starting April 21. The first part addresses the bishop’s often repeated position that slavery is not a sin. Following the presentation of Hopkins’s defense of slavery, we will publish documents showing how his critics and opponents of slavery responded to the bishop.


For more information on Hopkins, see James M. Donald, “Bishop Hopkins and the Reunification of the Church,” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 47, no. 1 (March 1978): 73-91; T. Felder Dorn, Challenges on the Emmaus Road: Episcopal Bishops Confront Slavery, Civil War, and Emancipation (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2013), 281-97. The Child’s Anti-Slavery Book can be viewed at this link.

For a contemporary scholar’s examination of the prevalence and integration of slavery in the world inhabited by Jesus, see this video of the recent lecture in Sewanee by Professor Jennifer Glancy of Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. Professor Glancy argues that the New Testament supplies ample evidence of slavery’s importance and the extreme violence of its practice in Jesus’s world. She is struck moreover by the “thoroughgoing integration [of the parables of Jesus] into the larger discourses of slaveholding in the Roman world, normalizing the domination and violence constitutive of slaving, … their equally thorough infiltration of Christian imagination, shaping the ways that Christians came to understand themselves in relationship to god, to one another, and to institutions.“

In Their Own Words: Stephen Elliott, “That the Past May be Vindicated”

The Burial of Latané painted by William Dickinson Washington in 1864 shows the solidarity of white women and children and their slaves as they bury and mourn the death of a Confederate cavalry officer. For generations after the war, this depiction of white women’s devotion and the “faithful slave” served white Americans as a history lesson on the “Lost Cause” of the antebellum South. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

But for [the emancipated slaves] I see no future in this country. Avarice and cupidity and interest will do for their extinction what they have always done for an unprotected inferior race. Poverty, disease, intemperance will follow in their train and do the rest.

Stephen Elliott, May 1866

In February we published (in two parts) an 1862 sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen Elliott, bishop of Georgia, that lays out his understanding and defense of slavery as “a divine arrangement.” Elliott placed the godly purpose of slavery at the heart of the Civil War, another historical instrument by which, he believed, the Christian god was advancing his will in the world. God, he explained, “has caused the African race to be planted here under our political protection and under our christian nurture, for his own ultimate designs, and he will keep it here under that culture until the fulness of his own times.”

In Sewanee lore, however, Elliott often is venerated for the ways in which he accepted military defeat and urged his fellow Confederates to reconcile with the Union. The most familiar story used to characterize Elliott in this way was best told by the university’s chaplain Moultrie Guerry and published in the Sewanee Review in 1933:

The … incident occurred on the roof in his home in Savannah, where [Bishop Elliott] took his baby grandson, Stephen, to see an exquisite sunset. Opposite was a Federal arsenal, from the top of which waved the United States flag. The little boy was instantly attracted by the flag, so bright and waving in the gorgeous twilight, and with a cry of pleasure reached out for it. His mother, who was standing by, struck his hands down, saying “No! No! No!”. But the Bishop quickly stopped  her. “That is his flag; he will never call another flag his own. Teach him to love it and to be loyal.”

The story, as told, is meant to show Elliott’s wise acceptance of the divine judgment of defeat, his nobility of character and generosity of spirit, all of which could have helped heal the wounded and divided nation had he not died only a few months later.

What Guerry made clear in his account — and other tellers of this story usually leave out — is that Elliott’s new loyalty to the Union was partnered with an undiminished loyalty to the South and the “Lost Cause,” which painted the destruction of the Confederacy as solely a military defeat. “We appealed to the God of Battles, and He has given His decision against us,” Elliott conceded. “We accept the result as the work, not of man, but of God.” However, the righteousness of its pre-war civilization remained undaunted and undefeated in his mind. Even if Elliott accepted the emancipation of some 4 million people in bondage as the will of heaven, but he gave no ground on his belief in the justness of the Confederate cause and the benevolence of slaveholders in raising an “inferior race” out of African barbarism. He further insisted that the enslaved, unless their minds had been “meddled” with by Northern abolitionists and opportunists, had remained “faithful and affectionate” toward their masters throughout the course of the war. The unyielding loyalty of slave to master, Elliott contended, was “the sublimest vindication of the institution of slavery” before the eyes of the world.

Elliott, of course, was profoundly wrong about the unquestioning loyalty of the enslaved. “The ‘faithful slave,” writes historian David Blight, “was of course not a complete fiction. The complex, ambivalent, fearful reaction of many slaves to the prospect of freedom and their often heroic protection of their owners’ property from Union forces all gave some basis to the claim of fidelity. But ignored [in celebrations of slave loyalty] were the myriad ways that blacks joined the revolution for their own freedom.” Most obviously, about 180,000 African Americans, most of them from the slave states, served in the Union military. Even more impressive, an estimated 500,000 to a million slaves bolted from plantations as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Countless others rebelled in less visible ways through acts of sabotage, collaboration with Federal forces, and other stealthy methods of resistance. Unwavering and wishful in his belief in black inferiority, Elliott could not fathom that African Americans freely chose to rebel against enslavement and emancipate themselves.

We conclude our series on this founding bishop “in his own words” with Elliott’s address to the Georgia diocesan convention in 1866. In this speech, Elliott offered his commentary on the war, slavery, race and emancipation so “that the past may be vindicated.” There is no apology in this address — no guilt, as he says — but he did mark out the grounds for a defense and even celebration of slavery and what later would be called the religion of the “Lost Cause.” This defense of the “southern way of life” had as its central plank the assertion that slavery, if rightly brought to an end, had never been evil but a moral and benevolent institution, as attested by the “faithful and affectionate” slaves who stayed loyal to their masters. It was not only possible but also necessary to love both the Union, as he told his grandson, and the lost world of slavery.

The address may be read in its entirety here.

Stephen Elliott, Address Before the Fourth Annual Council of the Protestant Episcopal Church, in the Diocese of Georgia, held in St. John’s Church, Savannah, commencing May 10th, 1866.

The emancipation of the slaves, which has practically taken place since our last meeting, has placed the Diocese of Georgia under no new obligations; it has rather freed her from a fearful responsibility. The Church in our Diocese needed no instruction from abroad upon her duty to the slaves within her border. She had always considered slavery as a trust to be held by her until taken out of her hands by permission of the same power who placed it there. Slavery was no institution of her making. Georgia protested against its introduction into her limits again and again, but it was thrust upon her by English and New England cupidity. When thus forced upon her, without her desire, its descent from father to son and its rapid increase make no difference in its guilt, if guilt there was. That still rested upon those who brought it here, following after them to judgment, where it will one day meet them. The duty of the Church was to act under certain circumstances in which she found herself—circumstances not created by herself, but permitted to exist for the trial of her faith and zeal. And wonderfully has she performed her work.

Never, in the history of the world, has there been such a rapid and effective missionary work as the Christian church has performed in this land in connection with slavery.

Stephen Elliott

Never, in the history of the world, has there been such a rapid and effective missionary work as the Christian church has performed in this land in connection with slavery. For we must remember that the slaves when brought here, up to a period as late as 1808, were the same savages as our missionaries are now combatting, with so very little effect, upon the coast of Africa; were the same savages as are cutting each other’s throats, day after day, and perpetrating enormities which disgrace humanity, even upon their own soil, even in the very sight of missionary operations. And yet, within the period of two centuries, there has been made out of these savages a Christian people, having a clear discernment of right and wrong, understanding very distinctly the system of our religion, having educated teachers of their own color and their own race; gentle, kind, and, until they are meddled with, faithful and affectionate. The number of communicants in the various churches of the South far exceeds in proportion that of the whites. They had churches of their own in all the large cities, managed by themselves, containing thousands of communicants, and in the rural districts they were visited by missionaries appointed specially for their benefit, or they mingled in the same religious instruction with their owners, eating of the same consecrated bread, and drinking of the same consecrated wine. Their behavior doling the long, fierce war which has now terminated, is the sublimest vindication of the institution of slavery, as it existed among us, which could have been afforded to the world. With years of preliminary agitations about the rights of the slaves and the cruelty and barbarism of the masters; with hordes of deceitful fanatics scattered through the Southern country, some in the guise of teachers, some of peddlers, some of book agents, some of mechanics, and all alike tampering with the slaves; with a war which required the absence of all the able-bodied and the warlike from home; with a proclamation of emancipation sounded in their ear as early as 1862, and summoning them virtually to strike for their rights; with large armies of those who called themselves their friends traversing the country and thundering at their very doors, these people never once lifted their hands or their voices voluntarily against their owners, but with nobody to coerce and restrain them save weak women and infirm men, and boys too young for military purposes, they remained quiet, docile, industrious, obedient, exhibiting in no case, that I have ever heard of, insubordination or disorder. Any cruelty they may have since exhibited, they have learned from other teaching than ours—any barbarism into which they may have since relapsed, they have fallen into after they had passed from under our influence.

Where in the world’s history has there been a case like this of forbearance and quietness where an inferior race has been opposed by a superior, and had the means given it of vengeance? Our own times furnish us two instances in fearful contrast — the one of the ferocity of the French in their terrible overthrow of the Church, the monarchy and the aristocracy; and that of the negroes of St. Domingo, who have furnished to this age a name for everything inhuman and barbarous. One of two things is therefore clear—either that these people suffered no oppression worth the name, or that slavery has produced Christian virtues, through its teaching and discipline, of the most rare and striking character. This aspect of things leads to two important practical results. First, it vindicates the Christian Church in the South from the obloquy that has been poured upon it, as if it was winking at a barbarous and unchristian system, and doing nothing to ameliorate it—a vindication which it ought to have, and which I now lay humbly upon its altar. No people have ever labored more faithfully, more devotedly, with more self-denial, than have Southern Christians to do their best for the slaves committed to their trust. Very many have I known who have given up their lives for their religious instruction — many who have impoverished themselves that their slaves might be comfortable or free. Almost every minister for half a century past has devoted some of his time to these poorer members of his flock, and very many more would have kneeled at our altars, had they not preferred a more enthusiastic exhibition of their feelings than we allowed. I say without any fear of rightful contradiction, that if a slave did not receive religious instruction it was because he did not care about it, or because he was in some remote position, where the whites were as badly off as himself.

The other practical point is that we have no need to change our system of instruction because of his emancipation, or to call in any foreign help to our assistance. The Church in Georgia has always taught the colored race so far as the number of clergymen and the rivalry of other denominations would permit her. We must simply carry on the same plan in the future. We have always had Sunday schools for them; let us continue the same. We have always welcomed them to our churches and altars; let us continue the same. We have permitted them to organize churches for themselves — they have been free as all upon this point; let us continue the same. If those churches are organized as Episcopal churches, we shall be glad to assist them in the way of true goodliness. I see no necessity to change our course for the present; nor do I see that we need any help from abroad in their religious culture. We have Christian men and Christian women in abundance among us, who will undertake any work for the Church. Organize them in your various parishes, and they will do the work more efficiently than any others can.

None understand the colored race as well as we do — none have its confidence as fully as we have. My sincere conviction is that if any future good or blessing is to come for these people, it must be of home growth; it must be the continuation of the same kindly feeling between the races which has heretofore existed. Every person imported from abroad to instruct or teach these people is an influence, unintentionally perhaps, but really, widening the breach between the races. This work must be done by ourselves — done faithfully, earnestly and as in the sight of God. Love must go long with it; gratitude for their past services; memories of our infancy and childhood; thoughts of the glory which will accrue to us, when we shall lead these people, once our servants, but not now as servants, but above servants, as brethren beloved, and present them to Christ as our offering of repentance for what we have failed to fulfill, in the past, of our trust.

But it may be asked, do you regret the abolition of slavery? For myself and my race, No! I rather rejoice in it; but for them, most deeply. I sincerely believe it the greatest calamity which could have befallen them; the heaviest stroke which has been struck against the religious advancement in this land. I would not, if I could, have it restored for any benefit to me or mine, or my countrymen. I have met nobody who would. But for them I see no future in this country. Avarice and cupidity and interest will do for their extinction what they have always done for an unprotected inferior race. Poverty, disease, intemperance will follow in their train and do the rest. I say these things from no ill feeling against the race, for God is my witness, I have loved them and do love them, and have labored for them all my life, but because at this moment I think it my duty to put these opinions upon record, that the past may be vindicated and the future take none by surprise.

Transcribe the papers of Stephen Elliott on From the Page.


Elliott’s address is taken from a reprint in the Weekly Colusa (California) Sun, 8 September 1866, accessible through the California Digital Newspaper Collection, https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=WCS18660908.

In Their Own Words: Stephen Elliott, “Our cause in harmony with the purposes of God in Christ Jesus” (Part 2)

Today we publish the second part of the sermon by the Right Rev. Stephen Elliott. Here, in his own words, he defends the institution of slavery as “a sacred trust from God,” the cause the Confederacy was founded to defend and protect, and the cause of the Civil War that had killed more than 200,000 by the time he spoke these words in September 1862. The bracketed numbers in the text here refer to the pages in the published sermon, which may be read in its entirety on this website.

Find Part 1 of this sermon and the introduction here.

A sermon preached in Christ Church, Savannah, on Thursday, September 18th, 1862, being the day set forth by the President of the Confederate States, as a day of prayer and thanksgiving, for our manifold victories, and especially for the fields of Manassas and Richmond, Ky.

It is very curious and very striking, in this connexion, to trace out the history of slavery in this country, and to observe [12] God’s providential care over it ever since its introduction. Strange to say, African slavery, upon this Continent, had its origin in an act of mercy. The negro was first brought across the ocean to save the Indian from a toil which was destroying him, but while the Indian has perished, the substitute who was brought to die in his place, has lived, prospered and multiplied. When the slave trade had become so hateful to all civilized nations, because of the horrors which accompanied it, that with one consent it was abolished and put under the ban of the world, that which was supposed to have dealt a fatal blow to slavery proved its salvation and rapid increase. The inability any longer to procure slaves through importation, forced upon masters in these States a greater attention to the comforts and morals of their slaves. The family relation was fostered, the marriage tie grew in importance, and the eight hundred thousand slaves who inhabited these States at the closing of our ports in 1808, have, in the short space of fifty years, grown into four millions! When slavery was once again endangered by the very scanty profits which were yielded to the planters by their old staples of indigo and rice, articles of only partial consumption, God permitted a new staple to be introduced — men called it an happy accident — the staple of cotton, which seems to have no limit to its consumption, and which cannot be increased too fast for the wants of the world. When the border States, which could not profitably grow this staple, were calculating the value of the slave institution for themselves, and were actually debating, in conventions, its speedy extinction, a sudden and unexpected value was given to their old staples of wheat and tobacco — men called it again an happy accident — and the slave rose once again into importance, and God used self-interest to check the disposition towards emancipation. When the false philanthropy of Europe was making many converts to its views, even in the Southern States, and earnest minds were deeply agitated upon the question of the sinfulness of slavery, God permitted a Christian nation to try the experiment of emancipation upon a small scale — to try it in the face of the world — and the wretched and ruinous [13] result of idleness, of dissipation, of anarchy which followed in the most fertile and beautiful Islands of the globe, satisfied our people that it was the veriest mistake ever made by a wise nation. When, in these still more recent times, the institution was denounced as unscriptural, and contrary to the spirit of Christianity, and the finger of scorn was pointed at us and we were unchurched for our adherence to it, and were called to bear the shock of opinion striking upon us from the christian world, such an host of writers from every department of literature sprang into the arena — statesmen, economists, philosophers, divines, as if raised up by God — and refuted those calumnies so overwhelmingly, that the public mind became settled to an unusual degree, and we were prepared to contend for it as for one of our most sacred domestic relations. God protected it at every point, made all assaults upon it to turn to its more permanent establishment, caused the laws of nature to work in its behalf, furnished new products to ensure its continuance and, at the same time, ameliorate its circumstances, made its bitterest antagonists to furnish arguments against its destruction, and raised up advocates who placed it, through reasoning drawn directly from the Bible, upon an impregnable basis of truth and necessity, connecting it, as we have shewn you, with sublime spiritual purposes in the future. And, finally, when the deeply-laid conspiracy of Black Republicanism threatened to undermine this divinely-guarded institution, God produced for its defence within the more Southern States an unanimity of sentiment, and a devoted spirit of self-sacrifice almost unexampled in the world and has so directed affairs as to discipline into a like sympathy those border States which were not at first prepared to risk a revolution in its defence. We have been gathered together to-day by a proclamation of our President to return thanks to Almighty God for a series of brilliant victories won by our gallant soldiers over the invaders of our soil. Most fervently do we thank Him for his presence with us upon those fields of terrible conflict, for the skill of our commanding generals, for the heroism of our officers of every grade, for the valour and self-sacrifice of our [14] soldiers, for the glorious results which have followed upon the success of our arms. Most devoutly do we praise and bless His holy name, this day, for the deliverance of our country from the polluting tread of the enemy and for the punishment which he has seen fit to inflict upon those who vainly boasted that they would devour us. We give all the glory to Him, while we cannot forget the living heroes whose inspired courage led them triumphant over fields of desperate carnage, nor the martyred dead who have poured out the gushing tide of their young and noble life-blood for the sacred cause which carried them to the battle field. But battles, at last, even with all the dazzling halo which surrounds them, are but fields of slaughter, unless made illustrious by the principles which they involved or by the spirit which animated and ruled over them. The meeting of barbaric hordes upon fields of blood, of which history is full, where men fought with the instinct and ferocity of beasts, simply for hatred’s sake or the love of war, is disgusting to the noble mind, and carries with it no idea save that of brutality. We could not thank God for victories such as those, and therefore, in keeping this Holy Festival our thankfulness must rest more upon the cause for which he has called us to arms, upon the spirit which has accompanied it, and upon the guardianship which he has established over us, than upon the mere triumphs of the battle field.

God protected it at every point, made all assaults upon it to turn to its more permanent establishment, caused the laws of nature to work in its behalf, furnished new products to ensure its continuance and, at the same time, ameliorate its circumstances, made its bitterest antagonists to furnish arguments against its destruction, and raised up advocates who placed it, through reasoning drawn directly from the Bible, upon an impregnable basis of truth and necessity, connecting it, as we have shewn you, with sublime spiritual purposes in the future.

Bishop Stephen Elliott

We do not place our cause upon its highest level until we grasp the idea that God has made us the guardians and champions of a people whom he is preparing for his own purposes and against whom the whole world is banded. The most solemn relation upon earth is that between parent and child, because in it immortal souls are committed to the training of man not only for time but for eternity. There is no measure to its sublimity, for it stretches upwards to the throne of God and links us with immortality. We tremble when we meditate upon it and cry for divine help when we weigh its responsibilities. What shall we think, then, of the relation which subsists between a dominant race professing to believe in God [15] and to acknowledge Christ and a subject race, brought from their distant homes and placed under its charge for culture, for elevation and for salvation, and while so placed contributing by its labor to the welfare and comfort of the world. What a trust from God! What reliance has he placed upon our faithfulness and our integrity! What a sure confidence does it give us in his protection and favor! His divine arrangements are placed in our keeping. Will he not preserve them? His divine purposes seem to be intermingled with our success. Will he not be careful to give us that success and just in the way that he shall see to be best for us? His purposes are yea and amen in Christ Jesus and cannot be overturned by man. It places our warfare above any estimate which unspiritual minds can make of it. While many other motives are urging us to the battle-field and we rush forward to defend our liberties, our homes, our altars, God is super-adding this other motive — the secret of his own will — is making it to produce within us, unconsciously perhaps to ourselves, a power which is irresistible. Our conscience in this war is thus made right towards God and towards man; our heart is filled with his fear and his love; our arm is nerved with almost super-human strength, and we have reason to thank him, not only for what he has done for us, but for what he has restrained us from doing for ourselves and others from doing for us. This noble cause has made him our guide and our overruling governor, and we are moving forward, as I firmly believe, as truly under his direction, as did the people of Israel when he led them with a pillar of cloud by clay and of fire by night….

Portrait of Bishop Stephen Elliott, painted by his nephew, James Stuart. This portrait hangs in the Vice-Chancellor’s office in Sewanee.

We have great cause, moreover, to be thankful to Almighty God that he has restrained the powers of Europe from any interference in our behalf, and has permitted us to gain these glorious victories under his auspices alone. It was highly important for our future to prove the strength of our institutions and to convince the world that the African with us was not a source of weakness or an object of fear, but was a comfort and a help. And in no manner could this have been so fully demonstrated as by leaving us to struggle alone with the mighty power which has been endeavoring to crush us, while this people was in the midst of us, almost equal in numbers and unrestrained by the presence of armies. ’Tis true that in some districts they have flocked to the banner of freedom, which they consider equivalent to idleness, just as children would rush after any new thing or boys would be tempted by a holiday. But nowhere has any disaffection manifested itself or any hatred to the white race been developed. They have mingled freely in all our counsels, have been restrained in no unusual degree, have been permitted to go in and out very much as they pleased, have followed their masters to the field and been faithful to them in danger, in suffering and in death. They have shewn themselves a docile, and, in many instances, a most affectionate race, and have sadly disappointed those who counted upon their alliance and co-operation. This circumstance has already impressed itself not only upon Europe but upon our very antagonists, and they have been forced to confess that the slave was not as ready to embrace freedom as they had supposed him.* The interference of European powers [21] could have done us no service and might have done us great mischief, and what, at one time, we considered injustice and selfishness, has turned out for us the richest mercy. We can now say confidently to the world, “God has protected us in the hour of our necessity and has made this people, whom you calumniated and vilified as an oppressed and down-trodden people, to honor us in the face of all the nations, and to refute for us the slanders of politicians and the lies of hypocrisy. They have adhered to us in our difficulties, have borne with us our poverty, have comforted us in our sorrows, have never once lifted their arms against us and now testify to the world that our culture has changed them from savages into servants, from barbarians into men of Christian feeling and Christian sympathy.”

I cannot see, as yet, the termination of this war because I do not think that all the moral results have been produced which are to come out of it. We have yet much trouble before us and many trials to endure ere it shall be ended. God does not permit his creatures, especially those who are bound to him in the bond of the Christian covenant, to be slaughtered as they have been slaughtered in this war without meaning to produce effects adequate to the punishment. If the armies which have been brought into the field have at all approached in numbers what they have been officially reported to be, then I cannot be far wrong when I affirm that already, in the brief space of eighteen months, a quarter of a million of human beings have been swept away by disease, by wounds and by death upon the battle field. What a terrible reckoning! It cannot be for nothing! And it must go on until England shall be convinced that slavery, as we hold it here, is essential to the welfare of the world, until the North shall find that her fanaticism was a madness and delusion, until we ourselves shall learn to value the institution above any estimate we have ever placed upon it, and to treat it as a sacred trust from God, until all shall acknowledge, with one consent, that it is a divinely guarded system, planted by God, protected by [22] God and arranged for his own wise purposes in the future of him, with whom one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.

Transcribe the papers of Stephen Elliott on From the Page.

Images Courtesy of the William R. Laurie University Archives and Special Collections: The University of the South

In Their Own Words: Stephen Elliott, “Our cause in harmony with the purposes of God in Christ Jesus” (Part 1)

The Rt. Rev. Stephen Elliott. He was the first Bishop of Georgia and the first and only Presiding Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America.

The great revolution [of Civil War] through which we are passing certainly turns upon this point of slavery, and our future destiny is bound up with it.

Stephen Elliott, September 4, 1862

Of the three Episcopal bishops who launched the campaign in 1856 to found a “Southern university,” Georgia’s Stephen Elliott has received less recognition than Leonidas Polk of Louisiana and James Hervey Otey of Tennessee. But Elliott deserves greater attention especially for his eloquence in articulating a Christian mission for human bondage and for his influence in designing the University of the South as an instrument in the realization of that mission.

Elliott (1806-1866) was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, an heir to the immense wealth, social prestige, and refinement of one of the Low Country’s most powerful slaveholding families. He studied for a year at Harvard College, returned to South Carolina to finish his degree at the state university, then pursued a career in law. However, like Otey and Polk, he was swept into the wave of religious awakenings that washed over the nation in the 1830s. A conversion experience in response to a revival sermon in 1831 led him to prepare for the priesthood. He was ordained in 1836; five years later he was made Georgia’s first Episcopal bishop.

Elliott’s defense of the slaveholding civilization of the South affiliated him more closely with his friend Leonidas Polk than with Otey of Tennessee. By the mid-1850s Elliott and Polk were ardent southern nationalists. Together they passionately argued in defense of slavery and used their priestly and ecclesiastical authority to advocate for the formation of the slave states into their own separate nation. Otey, on the other hand, believed the American nation could yet be redeemed and saved and wished to preserve the original union. But on one thing they all agreed: the rightness of slavery in the eyes of their god. All three of the bishops — Otey, Polk, and Elliott — imagined the University of the South as a bulwark against the greatest dangers of the age: fanaticism and infidelity. Both words were synonyms for what religious defenders of slavery denounced as the cruel and atheistic ravings of abolitionism.

Even before the university campaign began in 1856, the three bishops worked hard to persuade their communicants — most of whom were slaveholders — to stop their usual practice of neglecting the souls of their “servants” and to evangelize them. Doing so, they believed, would demonstrate the positive good of slavery because it uplifted persons of African descent out of barbarism and into the light of true religion. (Christian slaves, they and other defenders of slavery contended, also would be more pliant and productive workers.) But Elliott was especially outspoken and eloquent in arguing that human bondage had an even larger divinely appointed purpose in advancing the will of his god and hastening the arrival of the Kingdom of Christ on earth.

Consider, for instance, this sermon, delivered in the midst of the Civil War in the late summer of 1862. After victories over Federal forces at the Second Manassas and Richmond, Kentucky, the Confederate President Jefferson Davis called on churches across the South to celebrate a day of prayer and thanksgiving, “not now in the garb of fasting and sorrow, but with joy and gladness.” On September 18th, the Right Rev. Elliott did that and more. In the thanksgiving sermon we are republishing here, Elliott placed the divine purpose of slavery at the heart of the Civil War, another historical instrument by which, he believed, the Christian god was advancing his will in the world. Slavery, according to Elliott, was the cause of the war in two senses of the word. Slavery caused the war to be fought even as it also was the divine cause for which white southerners were fighting. Read on to see how, in Elliott’s belief, slavery positively served his god’s “ultimate designs.”

We are publishing this edited version of Elliott’s own words in two parts because of its length. The second part will appear on Meridiana on February 11, 2020. The bracketed numbers in the text here refer to the pages in the published sermon, which may be read in its entirety on this website.

A sermon preached in Christ Church, Savannah, on Thursday, September 18th, 1862, being the day set forth by the President of the Confederate States, as a day of prayer and thanksgiving, for our manifold victories, and especially for the fields of Manassas and Richmond, KY.

If the affairs of the world are regulated at all by God, we cannot suppose that the destiny of a great Christian nation, [7] such as these United States were, would be disregarded by him or unaffected by his control. It was rapidly becoming, at the moment when this civil convulsion began, a mighty power in the earth, a controlling element in the progress of the world. A century more would have made it not only the mightiest nation of modern times, but would have exalted it to an equality with the greatest Empires which have ever swayed the earth. Vast then must have been the interest which was permitted to shatter it while yet ascending to its greatness; heinous the sin which could deserve such a punishment as is now scourging it from its one ocean to the other. We can find that interest only in the institution of slavery which was the immediate cause of this revolution. We can find the sin only in that presumptuous interference with the will and ways of God, which, beginning in an overmuch righteousness, coalesced rapidly with infidelity, and ended in a bold defiance of the word of God, and of the principles of his moral government.

As the world draws towards its end, the hand of God becomes more visible in its affairs. Even in human arrangements where a scheme or a policy is complicated, ordinary men can understand but little of them in their beginning or during much of their progress. But when they draw near to their consummation, the purpose becomes more evident, the converging movements more perceptible, the final result more clear and determined…. But as the period approaches when God’s economy of grace is to be consummated, then are we permitted to gather up all the interlacing threads and to distinguish the glorious pattern which the Almighty Artist has been working out through the instruments which he is wielding, and has been wielding for ages. That work is the regeneration of a fallen world, and that regeneration is to be wrought out through the preaching of the gospel to every creature, through his opening all the Continents of the earth to the influence of the religion of Jesus Christ. When this shall have been accomplished, when the gospel shall have been preached as a witness to all the world, then will the end come, and Christ shall be set upon his Holy Hill of Zion.

Elliott Hall, 1923. The all-male dorm was named for Stephen Elliott in 1953 and is still in use today.

If we examine the religious condition of the world, keeping this purpose in our view, we will perceive that paramount Christian influences are steadily at work every where else except in Africa. Europe is Christian in its entire length and breadth, that is, has had the gospel preached as a witness to all her various kingdoms and empires. America has been repeopled altogether from Christian nations, and the cross is adored over all her wide area, save where the rapidly expiring Indian tribes yet break its continuity…. Africa alone is uninfluenced by Christianity, and whence is that influence to proceed? ’Tis true, that here and there, along her outward limits, Christian Churches have [9] planted their feeble settlements, and Christian missionaries have devoted themselves in faith to the service of the Lord. But they have gone, for the most part, only to die, and have made no impression upon that vast interior which swarms with life and knows no religion save that of Nature, or the fraudulent devices of man. How, then, is that dark spot upon the world’s surface to be enlightened? Who is to pierce those pestilential regions and preach the everlasting Gospel, even though it be only for a witness? And echo answers who? for all have attempted it, and all alike have failed. The self-denying missionaries of Rome — men who have gained a foothold in all other regions — have tried it, but have been swept away before the flood of barbarism and incivility. The highly educated missionaries of the English Church have tried it, and neither their knowledge, nor their devotion, nor the prestige of English power, have availed any thing against climate and disease. The indomitable missionaries of the Moravian Church have tried it until Sierra Leone has been a very Golgotha to them. The enterprising missionaries of the American Churches have tried it, and while their previous knowledge of the African in this country had, in a measure, prepared them for their work, they too have failed, because the Caucasian blood has not been able to bear the enervating heats and destructive fevers of the torrid zone. Whence, then, is their regeneration to come, for come it must, if the Bible be the word of God, ere the present economy of things shall terminate? We are driven to look for it from some agency which shall be able, through national affinities, through a like physiological structure, through a oneness of blood and of race, to bear the burden of this work, and ultimately, in God’s own time, to plant the gospel in their Father-land, after they themselves shall have been prepared, through a proper discipline, for the performance of this duty. And I find this agency in the African slaves now dwelling upon this Continent and educating among ourselves. I see here the instruments whom God is preparing, in his own inscrutable way, to co-operate with the other instruments who [10] are at work upon the other Continents to bring in the kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and it is this conviction, and not any merit in ourselves, which makes me confident that we shall be safely preserved through this conflict.

[God] has caused the African race to be planted here under our political protection and under our christian nurture, for his own ultimate designs, and he will keep it here under that culture until the fulness of his own times, and any people which strives against this divine arrangement will find that it is running against the thick bosses of Jehovah’s buckler.

Bishop Stephen Elliott

Most of you are looking to other causes for our success and our preservation, to the valor of our troops, to the skill of our generals, to the extent of our territorial surface, to foreign influence, to the power of commerce and of trade. I am looking to the poor despised slave as the source of our security, because I firmly believe that God will not permit his purposes to be overthrown or his arrangements to be interfered with. He has caused the African race to be planted here under our political protection and under our christian nurture, for his own ultimate designs, and he will keep it here under that culture until the fulness of his own times, and any people which strives against this divine arrangement will find that it is running against the thick bosses of Jehovah’s buckler. Those who have looked at slavery superficially, have permitted themselves to be moved away from scriptural decrees by such trivial things as are the necessary accompaniments of all bondage, and have rashly yielded to their sensibilities the conclusions which ought to be drawn exclusively from the word of God. They have passionately decided that God could have nothing to do with an institution bearing upon its face the evils and miseries which attend the enslavement of any people. They seem strangely to forget that he kept his own chosen people — the descendants after the flesh of that Abraham whom he called his friend — the children of that Jacob whom he surnamed a Prince with God — in bondage to Egypt for four hundred years, until they were disciplined to go forth and become a nation among the nations. What cared He, in his stern, unbending preparation of a people educating for divine ends and for immortal purposes, for such trivial things as slavery, as toil, as the sufferings of a subject race? There were they kept under the yoke until he saw fit to break it and to carry them, a humbled and prepared people, into the land which had been marked out for them as the scene of their [11] future glory — a glory of spiritual triumphs. Will man learn nothing from the past? Shall God unveil his purposes and his dealings to his sight, and will he forever turn away besotted and without perception? With this treatment by God of his own chosen people full in their view, with a clear perception of the necessity of a people, of African lineage, to be disciplined and educated for the work of the Lord, will Christian nations be yet so blinded by their passions, and so deceived by their sensibilities, as to combine to overturn a divine missionary scheme, and blot it out from the face of the earth? But it will be all in vain, and the Church of the future will see and confess that as Egypt was the land of refuge and the school of nurture for the race of Israel, so were these Southern States first the home and then the nursing mother of those who were to go forth and regenerate the dark recesses of a benighted Continent.

The great revolution through which we are passing certainly turns upon this point of slavery, and our future destiny is bound up with it. As we deal with it, so shall we prosper, or so shall we suffer. The responsibility is upon us, and if we rise up, in a true Christian temper, to the sublime work which God has committed to us of educating a subject nation for his divine purposes, we shall be blessed of him as Joseph was, and he will say to us, “Blessed of the Lord be thy land, for the precious things of Heaven, for the clew, and for the deep that coucheth beneath, and for the precious fruits brought forth by the sun, and for the precious things put forth by the moon, and for the chief things of the ancient mountains, and for the precious things of the lasting hills, and for the precious things of the earth and fulness thereof, and for the good will of him that dwelt in the bush.” But if contrariwise, we shall misunderstand our relations and shall assume the dominion of masters without remembering the duties thereof, God will “make them pricks in our eyes and thorns in our sides, and shall vex us in the land wherein we dwell.”

Find Part 2, a continuation of this sermon, here.

Transcribe the papers of Stephen Elliott on From the Page.

Images Courtesy of the William R. Laurie University Archives and Special Collections: The University of the South

INTRODUCING: In Their Own Words …

“Simply put, American history cannot be understood without slavery.” — Ira Berlin, late professor of history, University of Maryland

From the Editors: 

Many of us today have difficulty fathoming the central importance of slavery to the founding of the University of the South in the years from 1856 to 1861. This difficulty is not surprising. Our resistance to understanding that chattel bondage was fundamental to the origins of the Sewanee we know and love differs little from the ways most Americans react to the history of slavery in general. “Americans see themselves as a freedom-loving people,” the historian James Oliver Horton has observed. The history of slavery in the United States does not comport with that. “For a nation steeped in this self-image,” Horton continues, “it is embarrassing, guilt-producing, and disillusioning to consider the role that race and slavery played in shaping the national narrative.” It should come as no surprise, then, that many of us resist knowing or believing that slavery shaped the history of our own university or the Episcopal Church.

But, to borrow and modify the words of the eminent historian Ira Berlin, Sewanee’s history cannot be understood without slavery. The university was founded by slaveholding men — many of them Episcopal bishops and priests  — for the purpose of serving, protecting, and advancing the interests of a civilization built on bondage. 

By studying and learning more about Sewanee’s past — before, during, and after the Civil War — we stand to gain a deeper and more complicated understanding of our own university’s history and of slavery’s core importance to the history of the United States and the world in the nineteenth century. From that study and with that greater understanding, we believe, the broader Sewanee community of people who have worked, lived, or studied here may better discern what that history obligates us to do in order to foster a more just and inclusive community on this mountain and beyond.

With these thoughts in mind, the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation launches a new series called In Their Own Words for our Meridiana blog. Periodically we will publish key documents produced by the first generations of founders of the university — the men and women who brought the idea of the University of the South into existence. In Their Own Words will focus initially on the founders’ thoughts about slavery and slaveholding. In many instances, these documents will be linked to the Project’s crowdsourced transcription site, From the Pageso that you can read the original documents produced by the founders.

Our first In Their Own Words will feature a sermon preached in September 1862 by the Right Rev. Stephen Elliott, one of the three bishops who led in launching the campaign for the “southern university” in 1857-58. In the 1850s and until his death in 1866, Elliott was the Episcopal Bishop of Georgia, but at the time of his sermon, he also served as the Presiding Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America. With the formation of the Confederacy, he had been a leader in establishing the southern Episcopal Church independent of the national church.  For the bishop, slavery was not a proximate cause of the war. In his own words to the parishioners of Savannah’s Christ Church, “The great revolution [of Civil War] through which we are passing certainly turns upon this point of slavery, and our future destiny is bound up with it.” To understand how and why, read Elliott’s sermon, “Our Cause in Harmony with the Purposes of God in Jesus Christ,” which will be published on February 4.

Keeping the Faith: Sewanee and its Students, 1868-1870

By Colton Williams, C’21 Research Assistant for the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, Summer 2019


Students and others lounging in front of Tremlett Hall, circa 1880. Tremlett Hall, which was built in 1868, honored the English cleric who championed the Confederate cause in England during the Civil War.

In Woodville, Wilkinson County, Mississippi, fourteen years before the state seceded from the Union, the planter and slaveholder Daniel Prosser and his wife Sarah welcomed their son into the world. Ralph Hylton Prosser’s birth in 1847 may seem unfortunate in terms of historical timing, but by the time he came of age Prosser saw it as an opportunity. Prosser was sixteen years old and enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute when the Civil War erupted. With his father’s permission, he left VMI and enlisted in the Confederate Army as a private. He served in Company F of the 43rd Virginia Cavalry, better known as Mosby’s Rangers.[i] On October 8, 1864 — Prosser’s seventeenth birthday — he was captured by Union forces and held at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., and later in Boston Harbor, where he remained until war’s end in June 1865. By this time, Prosser was still a young man, four months shy of both his eighteenth birthday and the anniversary of his capture. But he was not a young man destined to return home according to the now-familiar trope of the destitute and threadbare Confederate, vowing as Scarlett O’Hara did to “never be hungry again.”[ii] That was not in Prosser’s future. Prosser already had the prestige of serving with the Gray Ghost himself, the mythologized John Mosby, and had studied at VMI, a premier military institution for Southern boys of high social standing. With that record, and a changing world before him, Ralph Hylton Prosser’s next step was to prepare for the Episcopal priesthood. In order to do so, in 1869 he became the thirty-sixth student to matriculate at the new University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.[iii]

Prosser’s story, though unique, was not unusual. He came to Sewanee for a reason. Like most students in those early years, he ended up leaving before earning a degree. Still, his story sheds light on what the university was in 1869, when it was but an idea being put to the test. For a university steeped so deeply in the histories it tells about itself, there has been a notable absence of study of the very people who were essential in making the university a university: the students. As one myself, I have always felt — in fact, know — that the way students see the university and the culture of Sewanee is often quite different from the official view.

Klarke Stricklen, C’22, Colton Williams, C’21, and Maddy Parks, C’19, summer research assistants

This summer, as I worked as a research assistant for the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, I focused on capturing the profiles of the university’s first generation of students. One question that spurred me forward was what did Sewanee’s first students think about the university’s identity? Claims are often made about what Sewanee was at its ‘refounding’ in 1868, as opposed to the original founding of the university in 1858, the year of its charter. How did the students make and reflect the culture of Sewanee after the ‘refounding’? This question is a slippery one. Over the years those who have studied and written about Sewanee have given greater emphasis to the later, as opposed to the earlier, founding, and sought to explain what that post-war and post-emancipation history has meant to the university’s identity. In celebration of the university’s sesquicentennial moments, books have been published about the ‘refounding,’ the general history of the university, the history of the liberal arts at Sewanee, Reconstruction at Sewanee, and ‘Sewanee places.’ Today, students touch the fabled cornerstone from 1860 before signing the honor code and symbolically enrolling in the university, making a connection to the earliest days of the university when its founders imagined that the “South” the university would encompass — “the land of the sun and the slave,” they proclaimed it — would last forever.[iv] Students like Ralph Hylton Prosser are a crucial link in the history of Sewanee, and yet they often are left out.

Stories of students are usually ancillary to some other point, whether it is about the founders, the curriculum, sports, or the mystique of Sewanee itself. But if we are to understand both the most basic and the most complex questions about this place — for instance, what did people in 1868 think were the ideas that defined the university? — it is imperative to study the students who entered the university in its early years for their own sake and for what they can suggest about the formation of the institution in its post-Civil War years.

The effect of this historical oversight is highlighted by Sewanee Perspectives, the 2008 volume of essays on the university’s history, which is dedicated to “the nine students who matriculated on September 18, 1868 in the Junior Department of the University of the South.”[v] To my surprise I discovered that nowhere in the volume are the histories of those nine students examined. They are important, of course, but the symbolic weight they carry has been assigned to them without studying them in any thorough manner.

Between 1868-1870, 226 students enrolled in the university. Almost none of them graduated with a degree; many left after a single term or year. By studying the early students of Sewanee, we can learn more about what the students who enrolled thought and expected about their education and how they may have shaped the university when it began operations in 1868. Did it still conform to the visions of the founders to create a “body of scholars of whom no country need be ashamed”?[vi] Or did it represent a new enterprise?

Looking at the 226 students from 1868-1870 is not an arbitrary time frame. They represent the first two years of the Rt. Rev. Charles Quintard’s Vice-Chancellorship and contain a large enough sample to make some provisional conclusions about the students during that time. Quintard, who was present at the original laying of the cornerstone, is considered a founder of the university, while his successor, Josiah Gorgas, is rarely, if ever, given that title.[vii] By looking at the students arriving during Quintard’s tenure, more can be learned about what the ‘second founding’ meant in actuality, particularly for the students who came here. Was Sewanee to be a new, modern university for a new south, or did it cater specially to former Confederates, slaveholders, and their progeny? Did the establishment (or re-establishment) of the university in 1868 represent a break with the pre-war political and social order or serve to revive and maintain that order under new circumstances, in the vein of ‘Redeemers’ intent on “dismantling the Reconstruction state”?[viii] Quintard, quoted in the Charleston Evening Record in 1873, explained, “There is something worse than war — something worse than pestilence and famine — something worse than death. It is worse to see a people of high culture, of noble lineage, bow down their backs and become hewers of wood and drawers of water, and in the depths of an overwhelming despair descend from the high position they have occupied and adorned… We need and society needs an educated class.”[ix] In Quintard’s view, it seems, Sewanee was a university with a particular and conservative charge. My research shows that few who went to Sewanee in 1868 were hewing wood and drawing water. They were the sons of the wealthy, the connected, the aristocratic. The sons of Confederates, they were sometimes, like Prosser, Confederates themselves. If Quintard imagined a university that would pick up the charge of a conquered elite and save them from embarrassment and subjugation, did that way of thinking transmit to the first students who obtained their education at Sewanee? Were they, too, afraid of becoming “hewers of wood,” and did they see education — and an education at the University of the South in particular — as the way to reclaim their pre-war position and that of their families?

Most of the students would have fit within this vision of a reborn southern elite. The first students to enter the university came from a fairly representative geographical cross-section of the former Confederacy. Of the 226 students to matriculate from 1868-1870, only 4 were from outside the region.[x] (The trend continued; only 12 of the first 726 students from 1868-1878 were non-southerners):

Students’ Home States,
1868-1870
Number of Students,
1868-1870
Alabama 46
Tennessee 45
Georgia 26
Mississippi 23
Texas 23
Louisiana 22
Florida 18
Arkansas 9
Kentucky 4
North Carolina 3
Missouri 2
Pennsylvania 2
Virginia 1
Illinois 1
New York 1
Total 226

While it may seem obvious why almost all students were white ‘southerners,’ the fact that such young men went to Sewanee was not predetermined. There was a reason. Geographic proximity certainly played a part, but many wealthy southern boys already were going to colleges far away from home, if they were going at all. At VMI, Prosser was a long way from Woodville, Mississippi. While the location of the University of the South was chosen in part because of its centrality to the southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church, it still required effort and money to get to Sewanee. Eight students from 1868-1870 hailed from Galveston, Texas, quite a world away from the top of the Cumberland Plateau. Southern it was, but close it was not. Many of the early students were, of course, Episcopalians, and it seems likely that many came specifically for the church affiliation. But designating their religious affiliation alone as their reason for coming to Sewanee obscures the larger context within which the Episcopal Church operated in the southern region. The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Confederate States of America was the official, sanctioned church of the seceded states during the Civil War. Its first and only Presiding Bishop was Stephen Elliott of Georgia, an instrumental original founder of Sewanee. To be an Episcopalian in the South, even after the Confederate Church no longer existed, was not solely a religious affiliation. It was a hallmark of patrician Southern identity, which had always been tied fundamentally to slavery. Stephen Elliott made this link explicit, saying that what was at stake during the war was “the whole framework of our social life.”[xi]

Higher education at Sewanee in 1868-70 only vaguely resembled the university of today. Students were organized into groups of Gownsmen (18 years of age or older) and Juniors (younger students). In addition to a college, the university consisted of a grammar, or preparatory, school and a theological department for training priests. Most who entered the university were between the ages of 14 and 18.[xii] For this article, I excluded only the grammar school students from my review; I relied on the 1870-1871 Arts and Sciences Catalog for basic information on the first generation of matriculants.[xiii]

The 1860 Slave Schedule for George Fairbanks, father of early student Charles M. Fairbanks

Sixty-one of the 185 students were matched with their parents through a combination of census records, gravesite data, and information pulled from the students’ biographical files. Of these, 35 fathers were confirmed as slaveholders in the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedule. These 35 were the fathers of 45 students, due to siblings matriculating at the same time. This small sample size allows for preliminary conclusions only, although I expect that as I continue my research and match additional students with their parents, the results will show similar patterns. It is unlikely that the 61 students I was able to identify would be disproportionately the offspring of slaveholding parents.

So what?, might be the response. After all, this was the University of the South, so we would expect the people who attended in 1868, 1869, and 1870 to have been the sons of former slaveholders. While this argument does get one point right — that the region had been a slave society, built on “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces”[xiv] — that observation misses the larger point. According to the 1860 U.S. Census, roughly 25% of households in the South owned slaves.[xv] This is a marked contrast to the 74% of Sewanee students from the confirmed data set who came from slaveholding households. For instance, Sewanee student Burton Bellamy (M’69)[xvi] from Monticello, Florida, was born into a slaveholding family. He lived as a young master until his early teenage years, as his family enslaved 97 persons, from a one-year-old girl to a 55-year-old woman. The family of Thomas Barnett (M’69), from Montgomery, Alabama, enslaved people, too, and so did that of Philip Marbury (M’68) from McMinnville, Tennessee. The list goes on. These students, the scions of the master class and race, were the students the founders originally had in mind. The former “masters” in Sewanee weren’t just the faculty and residents, but the students themselves.

How did the experiences and backgrounds of these students affect the character of Sewanee after the ‘refounding’? Did their pasts as slaveholders leave a mark on the atmosphere of the university? John Bradford, one of the few students to matriculate from outside of the South, remembers the complicated environment at Sewanee in 1869. Bradford came to Sewanee from Springfield, Illinois, persuaded to enter the college by an Episcopal priest in his hometown. In 1937 Bradford recalled that Sewanee boys were of “gentle birth and breeding,” yet he still remembered being “taunted with having come from the home of Abraham Lincoln and being too friendly with the negro servants.” He remembered that he “loafed in the kitchen and made myself solid with Old Isaac the cook and got an extra piece of pie and some cold biscuit.” Bradford’s story suggests he was the only one doing this. He had no problem with befriending ‘Old Isaac,’ a step none of the other students deigned to take. Bradford also had no problem with befriending the boys who likely had enslaved many persons like ‘Old Isaac’ only a few years before.[xvii]

Slavery was not in the distant past for these students. It was not in the periphery of their lives. It was foundational to the fact that they were even at a university, especially one called the University of the South. How would a university founded to prove “that a slaveholding people” could be of “high moral and intellectual culture,” as Bishops Polk and Elliott wrote in an 1859 fundraising pamphlet, adapt to a world without slavery? To what degree would a university founded to assert slaveholders’ “rightful place among the learned of the earth” position itself in relation to the political, economic, and moral order of its slaveholding past?[xviii] Without their slaves, where did these original, foundational principles and the social order they underwrote go when the university opened its doors in 1868? The change necessitated a different goal. It was no longer Elliott’s vision, but Quintard’s. Sewanee was not to prove slaveholders’ “high intellectual and moral culture,” but to save the Southern elite from “something worse than death,” to save them from “the depths of an overwhelming despair” by losing their social position. The University of the South was the way to do that.

Higher education was, for these students and their families, a way of maintaining or recovering their standing. While slaveholding families experienced unprecedented wealth losses in the decade after the Civil War, these economic setbacks were not transmitted to their sons’ generation. Instead, a group of scholars recently argued, “sons that grew up in slaveholding households quickly surpassed the economic status of sons of comparable households.” By 1880, the sons of slaveholders had accumulated wealth on par with the sons of similarly wealthy non-slaveholding households. But by 1900, the sons of slaveholders had surpassed all of their counterparts in terms of occupation-based wealth and earnings.[xix]

This increase in wealth is likely not attributable to superior industriousness, entrepreneurial zeal, or intelligence on the part of the sons of slaveholders. Nor would we expect the sons of slaveholders to have been endowed with more business acumen and ability than their similarly wealthy non-slaveholding counterparts. Instead, sons of slaveholders were able to increase their wealth through social capital, access to credit, and family connections. University represented an opportunity to strengthen existing social networks and create new ones.

Of the 185 students with biographical files, I was able to confirm the careers or subsequent occupations of 67 of them. They are broken down in the chart below:

Occupation # of Students Engaged in Work
Planting/Farming/Cotton Business 12
Law 11
Clergy 9
Politics 5
Medicine 4
Real Estate 4
Finance 4
Mercantile Pursuits 3
Insurance 3
Engineering 3
Journalism 2
Freight 2
Surveying 1
Dairyman 1
Interior Decoration 1
Salt Mining (Proprietor) 1
Lumber (Proprietor) 1
Total 67

Again, these conclusions must be preliminary due to the incompleteness of my research thus far. However, there does seem to have been a trend. With the exception perhaps of the lone dairyman in New Orleans, all of these students pursued white collar work after their time at Sewanee. Careers variously listed as “cotton broker,” “cotton business,” “cotton,” “planter,” and “farmer” were all put into one category for the assumptions one must make if a college-educated male in 1870 was going into farming. He was likely not himself the one behind the plow. This data conflicts with the myth of a devastated and reconstructed South post-war. The sons of slaveholders remade their wealth in new ways. Whether they were keeping the status quo by engaging in the ‘cotton business’ or entering into law, real estate, the clergy, or medicine, these Sewanee students seem to have maintained or reconstituted their position and wealth in the post-war world.

One might reasonably make the argument that anyone going to college at the time would subsequently be engaged in white collar work. This may be true, but that fact in and of itself gives way to a larger truth about early Sewanee: the creation of the university in a slaveholding society allowed for wealthy sons of slaveholders to be educated at Sewanee and maintain their wealth and status. It meant something for former slaveholders to send their sons to Sewanee, and those sons turned around with their Sewanee education and entered society with a status not much changed from their fathers’. They were clergymen with prestigious positions like Charles McIlvaine Gray (M’69). They were members of the Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1901 like Cecil Browne (M’70). They were physicians in Mexico like Cornelius Gregg (M’70). They ran mining companies, lumber companies, worked in real estate acquisition, were financiers, and entered politics. They were able to do all of this, undoubtedly, because they had a leg up. They emerged from a society based on the institution of slavery, and they were the generational inheritors of wealth, power, and prestige built on slavery. It was no meritocracy.

The students understood Sewanee as an institution of the South, too. They considered Sewanee a continuation of the old order, not a break from it. John Sharp Williams (M’70), who went on to become a U.S. Senator from Mississippi, observed as much in 1919: “Nor must we forget that the very name ‘University of the South’ suggests the idea that ‘the South’ faces a new era and has an important part to play in the work of social reorganization. I, for one, have never known any ‘New South!’ I know only the same Old South, and I want its leaders to be like the traditional leaders of the South always have been — men of high ideals, honest purpose, of noble instincts, of gentlemanly conduct, even though they were not always men of clear insight into the future of the world. An alumnus of the University of the South myself, although I spent a very short time there, I earnestly bespeak for her, for her work and for her mission your full consideration and your help.”[xx]

Written in a fundraising letter in 1919, Williams’s words were influenced by his own time. Nearly 50 years after Williams matriculated, the Lost Cause mythology had taken root and gained general acceptance among white Americans across the United States. But for these early students, their own words are often what has to be relied on. It struck Williams as a key selling point that Sewanee was an institution of the “same Old South,” and he knew it would appeal to the readers of the letter if he wrote about never knowing any “New South!” and that Sewanee has an important role to play in “social reorganization.” To whatever degree his thinking was molded by the South of 1919, he saw Sewanee in the same light: Sewanee was still as it was in 1870, that is, a place that more than anywhere else resembled 1850.

Williams’s remarks underscore the need to study Sewanee’s post-Civil War history as just as fraught and complex as any pre-war history. There is a lot to be uncovered and examined in a Sewanee history that incorporates the people who attended the university — and without which the university would not have existed — along with the usual emphasis on the lives of Vice-Chancellors and founders and benefactors. Knowing who comprised the student body and who those people really were is integral to understanding the history of the university as a whole. This work isn’t final or definitive, though it does attempt to put some evidence to the story. More study ought to be done and will be done on the early students of Sewanee, how they shaped the university, and how the university shaped them. Instead of conjecture and assumption about what the early students believed and what they did, instead of using the students to further one idea of the university’s past or another, their histories can actually be discovered. In my estimation, the more we learn about the students, the more we will learn about the university. Some students can provide small windows into the university’s past, others larger entryways. Sometimes, the stories speak for themselves.

Obituary of Ralph Prosser

After Sewanee, Ralph Prosser finished his education at Nashotah House, an Episcopal seminary in Wisconsin. But he returned South again, as he always had, and was ordained in his native Mississippi by a legendary Sewanee man, Bishop William Mercer Green. He spent the rest of his life as a priest in the Diocese of Louisiana, before succumbing to blood poisoning in 1923. “Ever a loyal confederate,” Prosser never let go of the Southern cause. He was chosen by fellow former Confederates as the Chaplain General of the Louisiana Division of Confederate Veterans, a position he proudly held until his death. It had been nearly 60 years since teenaged Prosser’s brief enlistment in the Confederate military, even longer since he was a young master of at least twenty enslaved persons, but as he was buried, his coffin was lowered into the grave draped in a Confederate battle flag. Prosser had no qualms about who he was or what it meant to have fought to preserve the right to enslave black people. A verse from 2 Timothy closed out his obituary: “I have fought a good fight, I have kept the faith.”[xxi]


Notes to the Text

Thank you to the University Archives and Special Collections at Sewanee for the images used in this story.

[i] Prosser’s father served in the Confederate military, too, and as early as 1850 he had signed his name to a letter in the Woodville Republican decrying the “struggle between Northern might and Southern right.”  Letter, “To Hon. Jefferson Davis,” Woodville (Miss.) Republican, November 26, 1850, Newspapers.com, accessed October 21, 2019, https://www.newspapers.com/image/334868864/?terms=Prosser.

[ii] Gone With the Wind, directed by Victor Fleming (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., 1939).

[iii] “A Loyal Soldier Goes to Receive his Award,” copy of article that appeared in Episcopal Church Paper, “The Diocese of Louisiana, Vol. 28, No. 3, published at New Orleans September 1923, which issue was dedicated to Sewanee”; R.H. Prosser biographical file, William R. Laurie University Archives and Special Collections, Sewanee, Tennessee, USA (hereafter cited as UA).

[iv] Address of the Board of Trustees of the University of the South, to the Southern Dioceses, in Reference to Its Choice of the Site for the University (Savannah: George H. Nichols, 1858), 104.

[v] Dedication, Sewanee Perspectives: On the History of the University of the South, ed. Gerald L. Smith and Samuel R. Williamson, Jr. (Sewanee: Sesquicentennial History Project, 2008).

[vi] “Address of the Commissioners for Raising the Endowment of the University of the South,” February 24, 1859, quoted in Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., “Aspirations, Success, and Civil War, 1832-1865” in Sewanee Sesquicentennial History: The Making of the University of the South (Sewanee: Sesquicentennial History Project, 2008), 8.

[vii] Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., “Quintard: The Third Founder and His Colleagues, 1865-1866,” in The ReFounding of Sewanee, eds. Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., Gerald L. Smith, and John M. McCardell, Jr. (Sewanee: Sesquicentennial History Project, 2018), 41.

[viii] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 588.

[ix] Williamson, Sewanee Sesquicentennial History, 36.

[x] University of the South Arts and Sciences Catalog, 1870-71, College of Arts and Sciences Catalog and Announcements, UA.

[xi] Eugene D. Genovese, A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 3.

[xii] Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., “Success, Frustration, and at Last a Glimpse of a University, 1869-1870,” in The ReFounding of Sewanee, 122.

[xiii] The catalog supplied basic information such as the students’ names, hometowns, and matriculation year. In addition, 185 of the 226 students had “biographical files” at the University Archives, which contained the students’ registration cards (names, matriculation years, hometowns, etc.) and some additional information if it was available, such as subsequent careers and death dates. Some files included correspondence with university officials, newspaper clippings, photographs, letters, and information filled out by relatives or descendants.

[xiv] Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address,” The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, accessed July 11, 2019, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln2.asp.

[xv] Joseph P. Glatthaar, Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served Under Robert E. Lee (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 154.

[xvi]M’” for ‘matriculated,’ as in “C’” for class graduation year.

[xvii] Letter, “A Backward View of Sewanee,” October 1, 1937, John S. Bradford biographical file, UA.

[xviii] Williamson, Sewanee Sesquicentennial History, 8.

[xix] Philipp Ager, Leah Platt Boustan, Katherine Eriksson, “The Intergenerational Effects of a Large Wealth Stock: White Southerners After the Civil War,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series, National Bureau of Economic Research, March 2019.

[xx] Letter to Rev. N. Logan, Pass Christian, Mississippi, October 18, 1919, John Sharp Williams biographical file, UA.

[xxi] “A Loyal Soldier Goes to Receive his Award”; Prosser biographical file.