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

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