Stonewall Jackson and the Catholic Fathers

Paul Harvey

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin has an excellent post where, as usual on his blog, he whacks down some more persistent neo-Confederate mythology, this time concerning how Stonewall Jackson's Sunday Schools made the General a great friend of the black man. Levin uses our friend Charles Irons's The Origins of Proslavery Christianity to set this particular mission to the slaves in proper context:

Earlier I referenced Nat Turner and I did so because it is crucial to understanding this story. Charles Irons does a magnificent job of analyzing the degree of cooperation between white and black evangelicals in Virginia through the early 1830s. He notes that by 1830 there one-quarter of black Virginians (115,000) had been converted to evangelical Christianity and thousands more practiced outside of the church. In addition, Turner’s claims that God had inspired him to rise up against the white population worked to reinforce growing concerns among white evangelicals as to their ability to safely monitor black gatherings. Irons is instructive here:

Gripped by fear and mistrust for several months, white Virginians struggled to adjust to the sobering fact that converted slaves could unleash such savagery. Some, particularly nonslaveholders from the western portion of the commonwealth, suggested that only a general emancipation could save the state from racial Armageddon and pushed for a constitutional convention to consider such a measure. Others, including some white evangelicals still shocked by August’s carnage, favored simply denying slaves the privilege of religious expression. Stark choices: emancipation or an end to evangelization. Within two years, however, white evangelicals hadfound a way to move forward without either destroying blackreligion or freeing their slaves. No single ideologue emerged to articulate the new policy of constant white supervision right away; politicians and churchgoers independently stumbled toward the formula of aggressive oversight and proselytization. (p. 143)

Within this context, Jackson’s school makes perfect sense, though it should be pointed out that a school had been established in Lexington as early as 1843. While our popular perceptions paint Jackson as some kind of liberator who was ahead of the curve, Irons’s analysis provides us with a clearer understanding of how the school reinforced slavery and white supremacy in Lexington and the Shenandoah Valley. Jackson admitted as much himself when he noted that God had placed the black race in a subordinate position. Constant oversight allowed Jackson and the rest of thewhite population to continue to proselytize and at the same time monitor his black students’ understanding of themselves in relationship to God and the white community. One can only wonder what Jackson wouldhave said to a student who put forward the notion that slavery stood in contradiction to God’s law.

An ironic parallel with this may be found in our own Michael Pasquier's study Fathers on the Frontier: French Missionaries and the Roman Catholic Priesthood in the United States, 1790-1860, which now is showing up at its Oxford Press website and on Amazon, ready for order -- should be out in a couple of months. A brief description of the book here:

As they became more accustomed to the lifeways of the American South and West, French missionaries expressed anxiety about apparent discrepancies between how they were taught to practice the priesthood in French seminaries and what the Holy See expected them to achieve as representatives of a universal missionary church. At no point did French missionaries engage moredirectly in distinctively American affairs than in the religious debates surrounding slavery, secession, and civil war. These issues, Pasquier argues, compelled even the most politically aloof missionaries to step out of the shadow of Rome and stake their church on the side of the Confederacy. In so doing, they set in motion a strain of Catholicism more amenable to Southern concepts of social conservatism, paternalism, and white supremacy, and strikingly different from the liberal, progressive strain that historians have usually highlighted. Focusing on the collective thoughts, feelings, and actions of priests who found themselves caught between the formal canonical standards of the church and the informal experiences of missionaries in American culture, Fathers on the Frontier illuminates the historical intersection of American, French, and Roman interests in the United States.

In his book, Mike shows the inexorable force of slavery as an ideology and practice, compelling the Catholic missionaries he studies to take their stand. The kinds of informal education they sponsored for slaves ended up looking a lot like what the Protestants did, as well.