A Review of Sacred Conviction: The South’s Stand for Biblical Authority (Shotwell Publishing, 2018) by Joseph Jay

Shotwell Publishing and author Joseph Jay have produced a wonderful short study of the theological divisions that existed between Northern and Southern churches in the antebellum period, and its contribution as a cause of the War Between the States. Many people are familiar with the divisions that occurred in some American Denominations caused by the issues of slavery and abolition, but they may be less familiar with the context of the debate at the time and its subsequent ramifications beyond denominational splits, making Jay’s work one of importance in my opinion. In the preface to Sacred Conviction Joseph Jay writes:

Much Ink has been spilled on the constitutionality of secession, the Fugitive Slave Act, protectionist tariffs, and the abolitionist movement. As a result, the conflict is often cast as “the commercial North against the agrarian South,” “Puritans against Cavaliers,” “centralization against State’s rights,” and of course “freedom against slavery.” In our own day and age, the issue may well be summarized by younger Americans as “equality against inequality.” While many of these re-tellings have some truth to them, they tend to ignore one vitally important element – theology.

With that the stage is set for an intriguing historical look at British-American Christianity from the colonial period up until the mid-nineteenth century, with an emphasis on the degeneration of fundamental Christian orthodoxy among the descendants of the New England Puritans. The cover art of Sacred Conviction: The South’s Stand for Biblical Authority depicts St. Michael’s Episcopal Church Charleston, S.C. (in the foreground one can also see the old Catholic Cathedral of St John & St. Finbar). St. Michael’s is a colonial era Anglican/Episcopal Church dating back to the 1760’s. This was the Church where President George Washington worshiped while staying in Charleston, and was also frequented by Robert E. Lee while stationed there in the early period of the War Between the States, prior to his taking command of the Army of Northern Virginia. On a personal note I can say that this church was regularly attended by my eighth great-uncle’s family (The Bull family of Ashley Hall Plantation) from the year the church was built until the family estate was destroyed at the time of Sherman’s march through Georgia and South Carolina in 1864.

St. Michael’s remains to this day a solid confessional Anglican Church body, still subscribing to the Ecumenical Creeds and Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Thus St. Michael’s is representative of the survival of traditional Christian orthodoxy in the American South. South Carolina is home to other notable confessional church bodies in the old mainline denominations, for example First Presbyterian of Columbia, the home church of the great theologian, Rev. Dr. James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862), which stands as a paragon of confessional and evangelical conservatism in the Reformed ecclesial tradition.

In contrast to St. Michael’s, let us momentarily look at another colonial era church with some connection with my ancestors. The First (Congregational) Church in Boston was founded by Governor John Winthrop’s original Boston settlement in 1630. The Puritan Anglican’s in England who felt strongly enough to become “separatists” Puritan’s and form the British Colony of Massachusetts, were at first staunchly dedicated to the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation and would have obviously defended the authority of Holy Scripture, sometimes referred to in Reformation parlance as Sola Scriptura. My 7th Great-Grandfather, Richard Holden, was from Groton, Suffolk, England, which was the village of John Winthrop’s family Manor. Richard was acquainted with Winthrop, and probably Rev. John Wilson who was an Anglican minister at Sudbury about eight miles away. Rev. Wilson would become the original Pastor of First Church in Boston after sailing with the Winthrop Fleet to New England in 1630. Richard Holden would follow Winthrop in 1634 and ultimately settle in the namesake of his village in England, Groton, Mass. (later generations of my Holden forebears would move south and west). No doubt Richard, and other of my ancestors, sat at The First Church in Boston listening to fiery Calvinistic sermons by his old neighbor John Wilson, or perhaps the associate Pastor, Rev. John Cotton, the onetime Vicar of St. Botolph’s in Boston, Lincolnshire, who had spent years as a conformist Anglican Puritan before finally relenting to separate and join Winthrop and other friends of his in New England in 1634. Cotton was a sort of absentee delegate at the Westminster Assembly 1643, during the time of the Commonwealth, and sent letters advocating the newly formed teaching of “Congregational Church government” as a replacement of Episcopal or Presbyterian Church polity (which suggestion was rejected by the Convention). Besides ecclesiastical polity, what we might call essential doctrinal disputations were not at stake. As a matter of fact, if Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, had not been particularly cracking down on Puritan clerics within the Church in the days of Charles I, Rev. John Cotton would probably have never joined Massachusetts Colony.

Within two generations of this time the ultra Calvinism of the New England Puritans was waning, and doomed to be entirely extinguished. While officially the Congregationalist Puritans in New England subscribed to the doctrinal portions of the Westminster Standards (formally adopting them at the Cambridge Synod of 1648), congregational church governance effectively led them to the ominous final verse of the Book of Judges. There was no ecclesial authority holding the churches accountable. As David J. Engelsma describes this fundamental theological problem in his review article The Cambridge Platform: A Reformed Option?, “[congregational government] denies the kingship of Christ over the church in its two basic respects: rule over the congregation by a body of elders and authority over the united congregations in prescribed areas by an authoritative synod” (Protestant Reformed Theological Journal XXIX, 1995).

Scriptural authority was no longer central to Congregational teaching or preaching by the mid-eighteenth century, and it was not only the so-called five points of Calvinism, or even the Five Solas of the Reformation, that were at stake but the doctrines of: the atonement, the virgin birth of Messiah, and the Holy Trinity. The ancient Creeds of the Church Universal linking Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant alike were being questioned or denied. In short, the noble protestant savage of New England, with his Bible alone in hand, was becoming a Unitarian.

By the time of the Great Awakening many New England Congregational Churches had lapsed into Unitarianism and Universalism. Indeed, that fact was the reason an “awakening” was even warranted. It is also worth noting that, other than the Congregationalist preacher Jonathan Edwards and Presbyterian Samuel Davies (a minister virtually unknown to Yankees), most of the influential awakening ministers were not home grown colonials but Anglican’s from England. So what of First Church Boston – where the Westminster Standards had once been heralded and confessed? Universalist preacher, Charles Chauncy, became Pastor of First Church Boston in 1727 and ministered there until his death in 1787. Joseph Jay writes in chapter One of Sacred Conviction (pg. 5):

Educators like Joseph Stevens Buckminster infiltrated Northern Universities, ushering in an era of German Higher Criticism. Harvard University itself went Unitarian with the election of Reverend Henry Ware as Hollis Professor of Divinity in 1805, an event that “not only [made it] the seat of liberalism but also, by necessity, the seat of anti-Calvinism.” Even the First Church in Boston, founded by John Winthrop, became Unitarian under the guidance of Jonathan Edwards’s opponent, Charles Chauncy.

The descendants of the Puritans retained their pharisaical self-righteous bent, but began to transfer their religious fervor toward secular issues. The conviction that once led to sermons against donning vestments at chapel, and their zeal for burning witches was now filtered through the materialism of Hobbes and the empiricism of Hume and Lock. Social causes, closely linked with the radical egalitarian views of the French Revolution, often became the new dogma of the apostate Yankee; while even the traditionally non conformist/dissenter churches of the South (e.g. Baptists) were more or less traditionally orthodox in their Christian expressions.

This division widened as political debates driven by regional and economic concerns in the United States began to take on themselves a religious character through the writings and preachers of Northern Abolitionists. And as Jay states that there “is no doubt the gospel preached by the evangelical abolitionists was not the traditional gospel of orthodox Christianity” (pg. 66). At the risk of generalization, the Northern abolitionist condemned the institution of slavery as an inherently sinful and wicked institution, while giving the slave trade a pass, as it was a staple of New England commerce. Southerners tended to have the opposite view. Southern clerics did not find any wholesale prohibition on the institution of bond labour in Holy Scripture, although they confessed that every social and political enterprise was tainted by sin and in a fallen condition; while they did find biblical mandates opposing the slave trade (Exodus 21:16; 1 Timothy 1:9-10) much to the chagrin on Yankee venture-capitalists more than willing to profit by slavery as long as they did not have to live in the environment themselves.

While abolitionists used the image of redemption in Christ as a political and material redemption, Southrons objected to this as an aberration from the orthodox understanding of the fallen nature of sinful man being justified before a Holy God. These factors contributed to a turbulent theological division that ultimately split many denominations.

Another issue addressed in the book is done so under the heading “The Slave as Human” (pg. 31) and deals with the impact of Darwinism on Yankee ideology. While Hollywood has attempted to reverse the rolls on this subject, historical evidence is clear. Pop culture would brand Southerners as the racists who questioned the full humanity of their sometime subservient, but Jay reveals that it was rather in the North where a growing belief in human evolution from lower forms was impacting social understanding of their newly developing race theory. He cites several Northern scientists who claimed that they had “proved” that blacks were a separate species than whites (pg. 32). It was often scientific and eugenic concerns that drove abolitionist activism in the mission to eliminate the slave-system and deport the former slaves, as they saw both free and bond Negroes as a threat to racial purity. It was from Southern pulpits and publishers that opposition to the growing Darwinian consensus was most loudly voiced. Clergyman such as the Rev. J. H. Thornwell were outspoken against these liberal theologians and scientists insisting upon the full humanity of Africans on a Scriptural understanding: “The Negro is of one blood [Acts 17:26} with ourselves – that he has sinned as we have, and that he has an equal interest with us in the great redemption …We are not ashamed to call him our brother” (Pg.33). One can almost feel the Yankee ridicule for a deplorable, such as Thornwell, clinging to his Bible and guns.

Joseph Jay summarizes the Northern humanistic utopianism at odds with Southern traditionalism stating: “The war came down to a fight over two visions of reality – the world in which man creates an earthly paradise on the one hand, or the world in which men await a heavenly reward on the other” (pg. 79).

David Hackett Fischer gives a relevant anecdote when speaking of Bruton Parish Anglican Church, in his 1989 tome Albion’s Seed (pg. 335): “The baptismal font is said to have been brought from the old church at Jamestown; George Washington stood as godfather to at least fourteen slaves who were baptized here.” Here is an image of the American tradition, such as it is, written large – warts and all: George Washington, Father of our country, standing in Bruton Church at Williamsburg, indeed at the old font originally from Jamestown, in the role of baptismal sponsor for 14 slaves as they were received into Christian fellowship.

Garrett Agajanian

Garrett Agajanian has a bachelor's degree in theology and is an independent historian.

One Comment

  • James Kennedy says:

    I would love to read a study done comparing, in a very general sense, northern vs Southern Eschatology among theologically conservative churches on both sides. So many churches in the South being Reformed, including the mainline Presbyterians, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian church, most Baptist churches, Lutheran and German Reformed churches, and even Anglican churches, all of these sharing much in common as far as doctrine is concerned.

    I’m Baptist, and grew up with one foot in the SBC, one foot in Independent Fundamental Baptist circles, but all of my religious education in grade school (Robert E. Lee Christian Academy) was Reformed, with the Westminster catechism and Luther’s catechism as text books, along with various other books. I consider myself Reformed, and I currently attend an ARP church a short ways out of town. There are no Reformed Baptist churches or Reformed leaning SBC churches in my county here in Western NC. The 5 or so Presbyterian churches in this county are all PCUSA, all liberal, and all dying out.

    Mother’s side of the family was largely from here in Rutherford County. Two of my great grandfather’s were deacons at Sandy Run Baptist church, the oldest Baptist church in these parts, and very Calvinist in it’s origin. Others in that side of the family were Palatine Germans who settled the Catawba River Valley, near Newton/Hickory NC. They were Lutherans/

    Dad’s side of the family were all Aristocrats and upper middle class planters and professionals from Eastern NC. The Kennedy’s, Cox’s, Hood’s, Everette’s. McKinne’s from what is now Wayne County (Goldsboro). influential planters, state senators, contractors, Sheriff’s, Justices of the peace, military officers, and so on. Some were Quaker, some became Methodist and Baptist, but nearly all Anglican when first arriving to North Carolina in the early decades of the 18th century, with membership and periodical attendance at St Thomas in Bath, St. Paul’s in Edenton, and Christ Church in New Bern.

    Another side of dad’s family was the Bruce family of Guilford County. Charles Bruce, educated at the University of Edinburgh, a planter, prominent whig, was a quartermaster and recruiter and NC continental troops and militia during the war for independence, was a delegate to the Halifax convention and the assembly that crafted the original state constitution, nearly lost his plantation to Tarleton just prior to Guilford Courthouse, and Light Horse Harry Lee’s bugler boy is buried in the Bruce family cemetery after being slaughtered by Tarleton’s dragoons. Bruce also served on the council of state, was a state senator, and was Andrew Jackson’s mentor in the study of law, and became a close friend to Jackson, and introduced Jackson to influential friends and helped Jackson rise in society. Bruce was Anglican who became a Baptist.

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