I love the Christmas season, and like everyone else with eyes, I can see that it has long since become commercialized and full of flaws. I don’t intend to run it down for those reasons, however, but rather to point to one aspect that we probably do not consider as much. I would like you to consider not so much all the things with which we have covered up Christmas, but what we have allowed Christmas feels to cover up.
Here’s a throwback example I crossed while writing The Problem of Slavery in Christian America.
John N. Evans wrote in 1836, after providing his slaves with a day-off for a Christmas celebration: “I am much more reconciled to my condition as a slaveowner when I see how cheerful and happy my fellow creatures can be in a state of servitude, how much I have it in my power to minister to their happiness.”1
Such instances of relative cheer were of course only one or two days a year—that is, they were the great exception to the rule. In the bigger picture, it goes to show just how easily such slaveowners could sate their consciences and convince themselves that their plantations were in fact centers of paternalistic love and care. These celebrations were, then, not so much a time for slaves to be made happy in their situation, but for men like Evans to make themselves happier about keeping their slaves in their normal condition.
And the rest of the story follows that script. Evans and his mother Sarah inherited many of their slaves from John’s father, Nathan, but not in full. At the estate sale upon Nathan’s death, several of his slave families were sold off and broken apart in the process. This was a commonality in the slave life: husbands and wives ripped apart, and children taken from parents, never to see each other again. John inherited fractured families of slaves, but began to try to rebuild the group with new purchases in the 1830s and 40s. These new slaves married and created new families during the next couple of decades.
Were it not already clear enough in the exceptional nature of Evans’s Christmas event, we can see the breakdown in his commitment to the slaves “happiness” at the end of his own generation. When Sarah died, those slaves that were solely part of her estate were sold off. But many of these had married with slaves held by John, and so once again, slave families were ruptured by transactions conducted as coldly as one would sell horses or cows.2
This could easily have been prevented through, at the very least, mutual arrangement between John and Sarah, and simple paper work. They should have done much more than this, in fact, but they did nothing.
Churches, slavery, and guilt
There is all kinds of discussion and debate in the literature over whether slaveholders felt guilt and uneasy consciences. The indication seems to be yes, as a generality, though they often acted coldly in contradiction to whatever guilt they may have privately expressed, and also, not every claim made in support of the idea has equal merit. Perhaps the single most overwhelming piece of evidence is the “startlingly frequent declarations” among them that “when they died they would go to hell.” For example, Florida slaveholder Robert Reid judged his “prospects in this world—and no prospects in another—are all gloomy and fill me with dismay. Would I were a Christian, but I cannot be a hypocrite.” Likewise, Georgian James Barrow confessed, “I am watching for the messenger which is to remove me to the other world, but every day proves to me that I have a wretched wicked heart.” With even greater candor, one Mississippian admitted he could no longer in conscience attend revival meetings: “I used to go to the meetings with as much sincerity and soberness as anybody could. . . . I did think I was a converted man, but of course, I aint, and I ‘spose ‘twarnt the right sort, and I don’t reckon I shall have another chance.”3 A Louisiana mistress was just as clear: “Always I felt the moral guilt of it,” she said, and confessed she “felt how impossible it must be for an owner of slaves to win his way to heaven.”4
Oakes comments on the slaveholders’ predicament: “All of their training, indeed their entire secular culture, pressured the slaveholders to behave in ways their religious convictions told them were wrong and sinful. Thus while few slaveholders expressed remorse, many spoke of themselves as trapped into slavery by the circumstances of their birth, and, not surprisingly, ministers felt these contradictions most acutely.”5
Given these facts, though, the church was the only institution that was in a position to effect change—to advance those suppressed religious convictions and bring prophetic denunciation against that “entire secular culture.” Instead, it not only did not, it became the chief proponent of the chief sin of that culture. The guilt thesis is especially painful to accept in light of the fact that the churches were so energetic in spreading proslavery ideology in the name of Christ and the Bible.
Before the fateful turn of sentiment and emotion in the early 1830s (following the rise of William Lloyd Garrison and the Nat Turner rebellion), there were at least a few attempts by a few churches to discipline slaveholders for abuses. Oakes notes a few instances, notably the Hepzibah Baptist Church of Louisiana. This body on one occasion rejected a man’s application for membership “for whipping a black Brother of the church,” and on another, excommunicating a fellow for abusing his slaves. (Oakes, 108.) But an emphasis on master-slave relational duty overseen by the church also worked to perpetuate the institution by its nature. One slave owning woman, Mary Burruss, explained to her brother, “God knows I would gladly make them freemen if I could. But in his Providence we are called to their care & of course, their government.”6
Others saw the Christian faith as a hindrance to the level of “care” and “government” blacks really needed. For example, one South Carolinian judged that his father “had too much religion to keep his negroes straight.” Likewise, a neighboring North Carolinian lamented that “Slavery & Tyranny must go together—and there is no such thing as having an obedient and useful slave, without the painful exercise of undue and tyrannical authority.”7
And the fundamental racism at the root of it was never erased either; it was a sin hanging in the very prayers of Southern slave owners: “it would be better if there wasn’t any n—–s in the world,” one said, to the virtual echo of another: “Lord send that there was no negro in all America.”8
Consciousness of sin alone was rarely a powerful enough deterrent. Money and power are a more powerful effect, as Alabama’s Henry Watson, Jr., pointed out: “If we do commit a sin owning slaves, it is certainly one which is attended with great conveniences.”9
The aforementioned Mary Burruss (later McGehee) pulled back the curtain: “Fond benevolent feelings, tender regard for the good of souls, evils of slavery, &c. &c., are all less than dust of the balance when weighed against the charms of some wealthy heiress, possessor of slaves, and the hope of winning her & enjoying the ease of the paternal mansion banishes all thought of Abolition or benevolence.”10
In the end, it seems more frequently to have been the case that greed, lust, and “convenience,” ruled the day, despite Christians’ (as well as professed non-Christians’) understandings that what they were doing was wrong, and the general silence of the churches on not only abuses, but the sins inherent in the system. Add to this the fact that the civil laws in most cases, certainly by this time, made it virtually impossible to manumit slaves even if owners had wanted to, and you had whole society that had codified sin and rebellion.
And yet all that was really needed for some people to convince themselves of their own benevolent and paternalistic intentions, was a Christmas party where their slaves got to enjoy themselves for a few hours. From this, a John Evans could walk away feeling better about himself, and thinking that his slaves could be “cheerful and happy” in their normal state of slavery the rest of the year.
A Christmas devotion
If we compare then to now, the issues may have changed some, but the psychological and spiritual dynamics have not. The dominant or mainstream elements of Christianity can attend church and speak Christianity daily while rubbing up against the realities of racism, poverty, abortion, unjust government, and much more with as much indifference as one would sweep crumbs from a table. At any moment, should the realities of our manifold injustice impinge upon our consciences in the slightest, we can assuage the discomfort by making “Providence” into a theological sedative, and we can reassure ourselves of our general benevolence by putting a bow and lights on a few special days a year.
When we perpetuate the manifold slaveries in our own midst with the equivalent of telling them, “Merry Christmas, slave,” not only to do nothing about them, but expending most of our theological energy justifying them or justifying ignoring them, then we ourselves show that we are even greater slaves to our sins than are the suffering in our midst. It’s the very stuff of which Jesus spoke so many beatitudes. Would that we were all more meek, and more free.
- Quoted in James Oakes, The Ruling Race, 102.(↩)
- Ann Patton Malone, Sweet Chariot: Slave Families and Household Structure in Nineteenth-Century Louisiana (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 180.(↩)
- Quoted in Oakes, 114.(↩)
- Quoted in Oakes, 115.(↩)
- Oakes, 120.(↩)
- Quoted in Oakes, 108.(↩)
- Quoted in Oakes, 109.(↩)
- Quoted in Oakes, 120.(↩)
- Quoted in Oakes, 121.(↩)
- Quoted in Oakes, 121.(↩)