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

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