Give me liberty or give me death.
The author of that famous declaration was a slave owner for most of his adult life. He was elected as the first governor of the state of Virginia in 1776. The liberty he sought for himself, and white slave owners like him, did not extend to the people they treated as property.
The Virginia Declaration or Rights in 1776 stated:
“Religion, or the Duty which we owe our Creator can be directed only by Reason, and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian Forbearance, Love and Charity towards each other.”
The author of that statement was George Mason, prominent politician in Virginia. He practiced Christian love and charity by enslaving at least 300 people. Thomas Jefferson, who also owned hundreds of slaves, was inspired by Mason’s words when he wrote the Declaration of Independence and later, the Bill of Rights.
In 1778, South Carolina’s Constitution defined the relationship between church and state as follows:
“No person shall be eligible to a seat [in government] unless he be of the Protestant religion; the Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed the established religion of the state.”
Notice the use of the masculine pronoun. Women were not eligible for any position in government. So Henry’s liberty was further limited to include only white Christian men.
Step back a few years to 1772, when a British court granted freedom to James Somersett, a slave brought to England by his owner, an American colonist. Somersett had escaped from his owner while in England. He was recaptured, and was about to be sent back to his owner, but he successfully sued for his freedom in a British court that ruled he could not be removed from England against his will.
When word of the Somersett case got to the southern colonies, it galvanized slave owners to support independence. The precedent it set threatened their ownership of a half million slaves. England seemed to be on the road to abolishing slavery, and the colonies were having none of it. Americans who know our early history have heard about “Taxation without representation,” the Stamp Act, and Patrick Henry’s famous declaration quoted above, but according to several historical accounts the Somersett case was a major factor that triggered the War of Independence.[i]
On November 7, 1775, Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation that established martial law, and offered freedom to slaves who would leave their owners and join the British army:
“I do hereby farther declare all indented servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining his Majesty’s troops, as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this colony to a proper sense of their duty, to his Majesty’s crown and dignity”.
The irony is devastating. The Revolutionary War was allegedly fought for liberty, but it was the British, not the Americans, who offered freedom to enslaved people.
That proclamation was the final straw for the southern colonies. They realized that if they remained under British rule, slavery would be abolished. All of our heroes…Washington, Madison, Monroe, Jefferson, and of course Mason and Henry, joined the fight to preserve their right to own slaves. Slavery was legal in all thirteen colonies, although mostly practiced in the southern ones, and it remained legal in the newly declared states until the Civil War, nearly a century later.
From the statements quoted above, it Is clear that the church was fully supportive of slavery, which was not defined by skin color, but by religion. “The Virginia General Assembly issued the following declaration in 1680: “All servants imported and brought into the country who were not Christians in their native land shall be counted and be slaves.”
Jefferson Davis, President of the confederate states went even further:
“(Slavery) was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible in both Testaments, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency of the arts.”
In “Black Theology and Black Power,” author James Cone says:
“The manner in which Christianity was communicated to slaves tended to degrade him. (by teaching him that) his enslavement was due to the fact that he had been cursed by God. Parts of the Bible were carefully selected to prove that God had intended that (he) should be the servant of the white man.”
Yolanda Pierce, dean of the Divinity School at Howard University, told the Washington Post in 2019:
“Christianity was pro-slavery. So much of early American Christian slavery is predicated on a proslavery theology. From the naming of the slave ships, to who sponsored some of those journeys including some churches, to the fact that so much of early American religious rhetoric is deeply intertwined…with slaveholding. It is proslavery.”
Harry Stout, Professor of American Religious History at Yale, said in an interview with Huffington Post in 2015, that the Southern church was the actual backbone of slavery.
“If you pull the church out of the whole equation, it’s highly likely that there never would have been a Civil War. Southern clergy had no doubt that slavery was not a sin.”
Christian apologists often claim that most of the prominent early abolitionists were Christians, and they are probably correct. In the 19th Century, most prominent Americans were Christians. Non-Christians mostly kept a low profile to avoid persecution. But the fact remains that the Christian establishment was fine with slavery.
There is a lot more in our history, about Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, and the continuing attempts by a large part of our society to suppress the rights of non-white people, right up to this day.
Stay tuned for more.
[i] Matter of Color, A. Leon Higginbotham (1978)
Slave Nation, Alfred W. and Ruth Gerber Blumrosen (2006)
Somersett, Philip Goodrich (2020)