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.”

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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.

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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.

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INTRODUCING: In Their Own Words …

“Simply put, American history cannot be understood without slavery.” — Ira Berlin, late professor of history, University of Maryland

From the Editors: 

Many of us today have difficulty fathoming the central importance of slavery to the founding of the University of the South in the years from 1856 to 1861. This difficulty is not surprising. Our resistance to understanding that chattel bondage was fundamental to the origins of the Sewanee we know and love differs little from the ways most Americans react to the history of slavery in general. “Americans see themselves as a freedom-loving people,” the historian James Oliver Horton has observed. The history of slavery in the United States does not comport with that. “For a nation steeped in this self-image,” Horton continues, “it is embarrassing, guilt-producing, and disillusioning to consider the role that race and slavery played in shaping the national narrative.” It should come as no surprise, then, that many of us resist knowing or believing that slavery shaped the history of our own university or the Episcopal Church. Continue reading “INTRODUCING: In Their Own Words …”

Keeping the Faith: Sewanee and its Students, 1868-1870

By Colton Williams, C’21 Research Assistant for the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, Summer 2019

Students and others lounging in front of Tremlett Hall, circa 1880. Tremlett Hall, which was built in 1868, honored the English cleric who championed the Confederate cause in England during the Civil War.

In Woodville, Wilkinson County, Mississippi, fourteen years before the state seceded from the Union, the planter and slaveholder Daniel Prosser and his wife Sarah welcomed their son into the world. Ralph Hylton Prosser’s birth in 1847 may seem unfortunate in terms of historical timing, but by the time he came of age Prosser saw it as an opportunity. Prosser was sixteen years old and enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute when the Civil War erupted. With his father’s permission, he left VMI and enlisted in the Confederate Army as a private. He served in Company F of the 43rd Virginia Cavalry, better known as Mosby’s Rangers.[i] On October 8, 1864 — Prosser’s seventeenth birthday — he was captured by Union forces and held at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., and later in Boston Harbor, where he remained until war’s end in June 1865. By this time, Prosser was still a young man, four months shy of both his eighteenth birthday and the anniversary of his capture. But he was not a young man destined to return home according to the now-familiar trope of the destitute and threadbare Confederate, vowing as Scarlett O’Hara did to “never be hungry again.”[ii] That was not in Prosser’s future. Prosser already had the prestige of serving with the Gray Ghost himself, the mythologized John Mosby, and had studied at VMI, a premier military institution for Southern boys of high social standing. With that record, and a changing world before him, Ralph Hylton Prosser’s next step was to prepare for the Episcopal priesthood. In order to do so, in 1869 he became the thirty-sixth student to matriculate at the new University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.[iii]

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Sewanee Black History Digitization Days
Group picture from the July 5th Digitization Day.

We had a productive summer kicking off our Save Sewanee Black History initiative. The Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation hosted two “digitization days” for present and former residents of the historical African American community of Sewanee and their descendants. The events have been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Common Heritage Grant. 

The goal of the events was to build a foundation for a community-based archive of Sewanee’s African American history by capturing and preserving the historical records and memories that are mostly missing from the official stories of Sewanee.

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Filling in the Spaces: A Reconsideration of the Turbulent Desegregation of Sewanee’s School of Theology, 1952-1953, Part II

Image by artist Allan Crite for The Theo-Log (1953)

By Hannah Pommersheim, T’19
Research Assistant for the Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, Summer 2018

[Editor’s note: Hannah Pommersheim here adds a reflection that follows from her earlier post on the resignation of eight of the faculty members of the School of Theology over the university’s decision not to desegregate its graduate program. She urges us to reconsider these events, not as a “crisis” that the university was fortunate to survive, but as an example of Christian witness that remains powerfully meaningful to the Sewanee community today. It is the sacrifice, not the crisis, that Sewanee needs to remember. Read Part 1 here.]

During orientation when I entered the School of Theology in 2016, the new class of students was sent home one night with a copy of the Sewanee Theological Review from 2003 and instructed to read it. Within these pages, I found a surprising story about the racial desegregation of the School of Theology in 1953. I learned that the process of change was instigated in part by the willingness of the Theology faculty to stand up to the university’s governing Trustees and ask for Christian action. When in June 1952 the university refused to desegregate the School of Theology, the Theology faculty published a letter asking the university to reconsider. The letter was not well received by the administration, and under duress from the Vice-Chancellor and the board, the faculty resigned, all leaving before actual desegregation took place in June 1953. This blip in my seminary orientation stuck with me. It seemed to be a story everyone knew, vaguely, but that we didn’t discuss much outside of orientation and Church History class. 

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