The Worst Kind of Slavery: Presbyterian Slave Hiring in the Antebellum South


Paul Harvey

While we're on the theme of religion/slavery/Civil War, the subject of a few posts here lately, just one more recommend for ya'll, which I just read today: Jennifer Oast, " 'The Worst Kind of Slavery': Slave-Owning Presbyterian Churches in Prince Edward County, Virginia," Journal of Southern History LXXVI (November 2010): 867-900. It's not online; you'll need to get it by joining the Southern Historical Association, which is the best deal in town for scholarly societies at just $40, and the annual meetings are fun. The November 2010 issue of the Journal of Southern History is terrific all the way through, featuring articles on mortgaging slave property, on the slave-owning churches as we're discussing here, on fighting contests and masculinity on the plantations, and on the working-class roots of civil rights in Birmingham. All the pieces feature the rigorous research and editing for which the journal is known.

Oast's piece discusses some Presbyterian churches in Prince Edward County which were bequeathed some slaves in the 1760s. By natural increase, the churches tended to an ever-growing extended family of those slaves. The churches hired them out, mostly locally, through the year; Christmas day apparently was the annual hiring season. Because these slaves were "owned by a congregation rather than an individual, they lacked the basic protections that a master's self-interest usually brought." As southerners developed ideas of Christian paternalism to justify slavery, "the slaves of Briery Presbyterian Church had no such paternal identifiable master." The hiring out of the churches' slaves also widened the circle of the beneficiaries of slavery, allowing ordinary whites to enter into the institution at a low cost through the provision of temporary hires. Of course, slave hiring (and mortgaging slaves as collateral to help fund economic expansion) was common, but, as Oast points out, "what made institutional slave hiring different is that all the slaves had to be hired out every year," no matter their age or health; and the records of some of these temporary owners evidenced remarkable brutality. Children of these slaves experienced shockingly high mortality rates, even by the already depressing standards for slaves in that era, and ultimately lacked any patron with a long-term interest in their welfare.

This is a wonderfully researched, compelling, and very sobering piece; hope some of you will check it out, and join the SHA while you're at it.


JMUtzinger at: January 9, 2011 at 11:51 AM said...


I thought you all might be interested to know that the Presbyterian Church pictured in your blog is Briery Church about ten miles south of Hampden-Sydney College. The church was designed by Robert Lewis Dabney, who was not only a theologian and amateur architect but a major defender of slavery by using the Bible. Thanks for bring this article to our attention.

Angie Van De Merwe at: January 9, 2011 at 1:49 PM said...

Wow, I never heard of churches holding slaves! And the distinction you make about patron's interest in valuing their slaves versus the lack of interest the Church had in theirs is astounding! How did the Church justify such a view? Were these slaves of a particular race, class? What was the business contract, back then?

Angie Van De Merwe at: January 9, 2011 at 2:41 PM said...

One other question. Do these churches base their justification on "exile" of the disobedient/unreprentant/unorthodox?

Paul Harvey at: January 9, 2011 at 4:45 PM said...

Mike: Yes, the article deals a lot with Briery, which seems to have a very good set of church records from the period.

Angie: The church owned black slaves, not unusual in the antebellum South. As for the rest of your questions, the article deals with them at great length.

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