Having written recently about what really caused the Confederacy to secede, I wanted to say some more about the topic. I’ve previously discussed the religious foundations of the CSA and how they repeatedly appealed to God and Christianity as a defense of the rightness of slavery, and I’d like to add some more evidence on that subject.
Benjamin Palmer was born in Charleston in 1818 and became one of the preeminent Christian preachers of the antebellum era. He served as Moderator of the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. – the highest elected position in that body – and wrote several works on theology which, according to the Southern Presbyterian Review, are still in print. When he died in 1902, a Christian magazine, The Interior, eulogized that “Dr. Palmer served God and his generation as a symbol of the immutability of the great essentials of our religion” and praised “his faithful witness to Jesus Christ in the word of his preaching”, which “gave him such power… as few of the Lord’s ambassadors have ever wielded in any age of the church”.
But Palmer was known for one other thing as well. In November 1860, just days after Abraham Lincoln’s election, he gave a famous sermon at his church in South Carolina. In that sermon, he said that “I have never intermeddled with political questions,” but that he was compelled to speak on politics because “we are in the most fearful and perilous crisis which has occurred in our history as a nation”. Since Palmer was the representative of “a class whose opinions in such a controversy are of cardinal importance”, namely the clergy, he felt that it was now his obligation to speak out.
And what vital message did he have to impart?
A nation often has a character as well defined and intense as that of an individual…. this individuality of character alone makes any people truly historic, competent to work out its specific mission, and to become a factor in the world’s progress. The particular trust assigned to such a people becomes the pledge of the divine protection; and their fidelity to it determines the fate by which it is finally overtaken… If then the South is such a people, what, at this juncture, is their providential trust? I answer, that it is to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing.
Palmer argued that enslaving black men and women wasn’t just the South’s divine mission, but that it was doing them a kindness, since “their character fits them for dependence and servitude”, and that if liberated, they would be helpless, would soon “relapse into their primitive barbarism” and die of starvation or anarchy. But most of all, he was convinced that God was on the South’s side in this struggle, since after all, slavery was “recognized and sanctioned in the scriptures of God”.
Without, therefore, determining the question of duty for future generations, I simply say that for us as now situated, the duty is plain of conserving and transmitting the system of slavery, with the freest scope for its natural development and extension… My own conviction is, that we should at once lift ourselves, intelligently, to the highest moral ground and proclaim to all the world that we hold this trust from God, and in its occupancy we are prepared to stand or fall as God may appoint. If the critical moment has arrived at which the great issue is joined, let us say that, in the sight of all perils, we will stand by our trust; and God be with the right!
And if God was on the side of the slaveholders, then what motivated the abolitionists? Well, Palmer had the answer to that one too:
…in this great struggle, we defend the cause of God and religion. The abolition spirit is undeniably atheistic. The demon which erected its throne upon the guillotine in the days of Robespierre and Marat, which abolished the Sabbath and worshipped reason in the person of a harlot, yet survives to work other horrors, of which those of the French Revolution are but the type. Among a people so generally religious as the American, a disguise must be worn; but it is the same old threadbare disguise of the advocacy of human rights. From a thousand Jacobin clubs here, as in France, the decree has gone forth which strikes at God by striking at all subordination and law.
…This spirit of atheism, which knows no God who tolerates evil, no Bible which sanctions law, and no conscience that can be bound by oaths and covenants, has selected us for its victims, and slavery for its issue. Its banner-cry rings out already upon the air — “liberty, equality, fraternity,” which simply interpreted mean bondage, confiscation and massacre.
Speaking on behalf of the modern atheist movement, let me just say: Thanks, Dr. Palmer! I realize you meant that passage as a polemical insult against your adversaries, not as an actual description of their beliefs – but if you want to give us atheists the credit for abolishing slavery, I’m happy to accept it.
We see this pattern repeated throughout history: every social or political reform movement is demonized by the religious conservatives of its day as sinful, heretical, atheist – and then when the good guys win out and the cause is triumphant, the believers of the next generation claim that it was a religious movement all along. (This is exactly what happened with the U.S. Constitution, to name another example, and there are others.)
Whatever the evil of the day, religion almost always plays a major role in justifying it. That’s because the unknown will of an unseen deity can be appealed to as a means of sanctifying any injustice, whereas a morality based on human rights and equality isn’t nearly so flexible and accomodating. Small wonder, then, that the preachers have always seen atheists lurking in every corner of the opposition. In a sense, they’re quite right – because we’re the defenders of the morality of human beings, the morality of this world. Even back then, preachers like Benjamin Palmer must have known that ceasing our reliance on the alleged will of God, and unleashing reason as a source of morality, could only lead to the rise and growth of atheism. The only difference is that he refused to admit that was a good thing!