In Their Own Words: An introduction John Henry Hopkins — first Bishop of Vermont, artist and architect, and defender of slavery

Hopkins’ watercolor of the Natural Bridge

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.

We know these images best today for their part in the story told about the founding of a great Episcopal university in the late 1850s and the intimate bonds of friendship that joined the Bishops Stephen Elliott of Georgia and Leonidas Polk of Louisiana to their talented counterpart in Vermont. Hopkins’s “versatility,” a fellow Vermonter recalled in 1915, “was truly remarkable, … whether as scholar, author, teacher, orator, poet, artist, architect, or landscape gardener.” He also was an attorney and, of course, a priest. Elliott and Polk drew on all of these facets when they brought him to Sewanee that winter to work and pray with them in planning and designing the layout of the southern university. From the moment he arrived on December 5, 1858, Hopkins threw himself into the task. By the time he departed three months later on February 27, 1859, he had conjured the grand vision: a sprawling campus of landmark buildings along a network of curvilinear roadways, all situated to heighten appreciation of the Cumberland Plateau’s attractive natural features. A map displaying the elaborate design, rendered on a sheet of silk, has survived.

But more than a Romantic’s vision of a university carved out of the raw wilderness was at work in these artistic renderings. Hopkins’s watercolors and his map of the university’s domain also disclose and underscore the centrality of slavery and its defense and promotion to the founding of the University of the South.

In the 1850s a growing proportion of Americans living outside the South came to accept the view presented in works like The Child’s Anti-Slavery Book, published in 1859 by the Sunday School Union: “I want you to remember one great truth regarding slavery, namely, that a slave is a human being, held and used as property by another human being, and that it is always A SIN AGAINST GOD to thus hold and use a human being as property!”

Although the Episcopal Church never took an official position on slavery, no ecclesiastical leader was more vocal, scholarly, eloquent, or productive in defending slavery against its radical and moderate critics than the Bishop of Vermont. From his bishop’s seat, Hopkins launched a campaign to end the controversies over slavery by proving beyond a doubt that the Bible contained no injunction against slavery and therefore slavery was not a sin. Hopkins began with a series of lectures in 1851 and continued with books in 1857 (459 pages) and 1864 (376 pages) and an incendiary pamphlet, Bible View of Slavery, in 1861. From long and deep scholarly study of the Bible, Hopkins maintained that slavery was prevalent in all historical periods represented in the Old and New Testaments, and that its practice was accepted by all authoritative figures, including Jesus. The Bible, he said, did not just fail to condemn slavery; it actually sanctioned it. As he explained in Bible View, the scriptures support “the principle of negro slavery, so long as it is administered in accordance with the precepts laid down by the Apostles.” Notwithstanding the Bible’s sanction, the bishop said, he personally was opposed to slavery. He would rejoice “in the adoption of any plan of gradual abolition which could be accepted peacefully by general consent,” but he decreed that no one otherwise has “any right to interfere with the domestic institutions of the South, either by the law or by the Gospel.”

Hopkins identified himself as an opponent of slavery, not because its practice was sinful in itself, but because it tended to cause harmful or sinful effects. For instance, it tempted white men to take advantage of enslaved women; it undermined the virtue of honest labor in slaveholders; and it bred violent insurrection among the enslaved population. The controversy over slavery was imperiling the United States itself. But bondage, it should be noted, was not bad for the enslaved; it was bad for the enslavers — for the white citizenry.

Hopkins’s operating assumption, which was widely shared among white Americans at the time, was that the “Anglo-Saxon” race was the natural superior to the “negro” race. He laid out his position in this passage from his Bible View of Slavery, explaining how he would respond to the “puerile interrogatory,” How would you like to be a slave?

I should say that whether any condition in life is to be regarded as a loss or an advantage, depends entirely on circumstances … The reason of the difference is obvious, because the employment which would be a degradation to the one, offers promotion and dignity to the other. In like manner, slavery, to an individual of the Anglo-Saxon race, which occupies so high a rank in human estimation, would be a debasement … And yet, to the Guinea negro, sunk in heathen barbarism, it would be a happy change to place him in the hands of a Southern master … How much more would [Southern slaves] prize their present lot, if they understood that, were it not for this very institution of slavery, they would be existing in the darkest idolatry and licentiousness among the savages of Africa, under the despotic King of Dahomey, destitute of every security for earthly comfort, and deprived of all religious hope for the world to come!

John Henry Hopkins, Bishop of Vermont and Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

As seen here, Hopkins came to argue with sharper clarity over time that slavery, for all of its unwanted effects on white men, had a demonstrably positive effect in lifting an inferior race from savagery and barbarism. It followed from this argument that Americans, as Christians, were obliged to uphold the laws enforcing slaveholders’ property rights (like the Fugitive Slave Act), to desist from denouncing slave owners as sinners, and to defer to those who knew slavery best (slave owners) in working through established institutions and the authority of law to gradually end the practice. He personally preferred colonizing emancipated slaves in Africa.

However futile his efforts to calm the great conflicts of the 1850s, Hopkins labored in his balancing act of both opposing and supporting slavery to chart a middle way of moderation between the radical extremes for and against slavery — and in a way that endeared him to his fellow bishops, Polk and Elliott, in Louisiana and Georgia. These sympathies, especially for slaveholders, appear to have deepened as a result of the time Hopkins spent in the South with Polk and Elliott. In 1855 Hopkins set off on a lecture tour, landing in New Orleans, where he stayed two weeks in the Polk household. And the three bishops collaborated closely in Sewanee over Christmas in 1859. One scholar, James M. Donald, argues that these periods of residing among the enslaved and the enslavers together moved Hopkins’s views on slavery, already compatible with those of Polk and Elliott, even closer to the southerners’ positions on its positive good.

The notice that Vermont Bishop John Henry Hopkins would be residing with Louisiana’s Bishop Leonidas Polk during his lectures tour stop in New Orleans. From New Orleans Times-Picayune, Nov. 28, 1855.

Elliott confirmed his gratitude in a letter to him in July 1866, looking back to Hopkins’s pre-Civil War defense of slavery and paying tribute to him for it: “The South can never forget your manly consistency and dignified self-reliance during all the madness of the people; and future times will do full justice to your wisdom, and your Christian sympathy with a persecuted, oppressed, and now ruined people.” James M. Donald contends that Hopkins’s support of slavery and the trust that position won with southern Episcopal leaders enabled him, as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, to heal the breach between the seceded southern and northern branches of the church by 1868. Hopkins was not the only or necessarily even the most important figure working for reunification after the Civil War, argues Donald, but he “brought with him views and friendships unique among Northern Bishops.” He continues: “There are ample testimonials of Bishop Hopkins’ role in the reunification of the Church to make it more than clear that the circumstances and the man made for an easier transition.” The Rev. Gardiner C. Tucker, a Sewanee student in the 1870s and longtime priest in Mobile, Alabama, stated the case for Hopkins this way in 1932: The Vermont bishop’s “well known pro-slavery views made him particularly persona grata to southerners.”

Hopkins’s residency in Sewanee and the commissioning of his plan for the university came at a propitious time for him. He was building his own school, the Vermont Institute, and the $1,500 that Polk and Elliott promised for his design work was acutely needed for that project. Hopkins spent only three of the six months originally planned and was paid $750. Most of the watercolors were lost, destroyed, or perhaps stolen in the summer of 1863 when Union troops flooded over Sewanee as Confederate forces retreated ahead of them.

Although it may be tempting to do so, the bishop’s endearing watercolors and ambitious campus design cannot be separated from the bishop’s apologies for slavery, statements about the innate inferiority of the “negro,” and praise for the benefits of bondage on the enslaved. Certainly the architects of the southern university, Polk and Elliott, shared with Hopkins a passion for Episcopal education and a devotion to the Episcopal Church. Regardless of those common causes, the Vermont bishop’s encyclopedic array of talents, and his leadership role in the Episcopal Church, Polk and Elliott never would have entrusted Hopkins with the design of their university if he had not won their trust on the primary subject of slavery. By denouncing those who used the Bible to attack slavery and defending those who hailed the ultimate Christian purposes of bondage, Hopkins endeared himself to slave-holding southern Episcopalians, made a lasting mark on the campus design, and composed with his delightful watercolors an enduring commemoration of slavery’s formative role in the founding of the University of the South.

Beginning next week, we will publish excerpts from Hopkins’s The American Citizen: His Rights and Duties, According to the Spirit of the Constitution of the United States (New York, 1857). This massive book addresses an array of subjects. The section on slavery takes up only about a tenth of the book’s 459 pages, but they are critical to understanding how Hopkins won the trust, confidence, and gratitude of Episcopal slaveholders.

Our excerpts will appear in three parts, starting April 21. The first part addresses the bishop’s often repeated position that slavery is not a sin. Following the presentation of Hopkins’s defense of slavery, we will publish documents showing how his critics and opponents of slavery responded to the bishop.

For more information on Hopkins, see James M. Donald, “Bishop Hopkins and the Reunification of the Church,” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 47, no. 1 (March 1978): 73-91; T. Felder Dorn, Challenges on the Emmaus Road: Episcopal Bishops Confront Slavery, Civil War, and Emancipation (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2013), 281-97. The Child’s Anti-Slavery Book can be viewed at this link.

For a contemporary scholar’s examination of the prevalence and integration of slavery in the world inhabited by Jesus, see this video of the recent lecture in Sewanee by Professor Jennifer Glancy of Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. Professor Glancy argues that the New Testament supplies ample evidence of slavery’s importance and the extreme violence of its practice in Jesus’s world. She is struck moreover by the “thoroughgoing integration [of the parables of Jesus] into the larger discourses of slaveholding in the Roman world, normalizing the domination and violence constitutive of slaving, … their equally thorough infiltration of Christian imagination, shaping the ways that Christians came to understand themselves in relationship to god, to one another, and to institutions.“

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