African American history is not a lesser part or sidelight of American history. African American history is American history.
— Houston Bryan Roberson, late Professor of African American History at the University of the South
In this soil, there is the sweat of the enslaved. In the soil there is the blood of victims of racial violence and lynching. There are tears in the soil from all those who labored under the indignation and humiliation of segregation. But in the soil there is also the opportunity for new life, a chance to grow something hopeful and healing for the future.
The Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation condemns the racist violence that killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. We feel what so many others, from Sewanee and elsewhere, are feeling now: sorrow, grief, and outrage over these needless deaths; an urgent wish that our country’s racial divisions can be healed, and a demoralizing recognition of how far we are from that goal. We stand in solidarity with Black students, alumni, faculty and staff at the University, and we fully support the Sewanee community’s determination to bear witness against racial division and injustice in this nation.
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.
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.”