“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 Page, so 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.