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,

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