James Henley Thornwell and Southern Religion

Thornwell

The God-fearing, Bible-reading, hymn-singing Confederate army grew out of a Southern soil well cultivated during the long struggle of countless, if largely unsung, preachers to civilize a harsh and violent frontier. Personal piety and Bible-centered family circles bolstered the churches in a successful effort to shape the regional culture. The churches assumed responsibility for the education, especially moral, of the people, high and low and to a degree rarely appreciated, they set the terms for a vast consensus on the proper foundations of the social order. Let there be no mistake: a firm commitment to slavery-lay at the heart of that consensus, but few dared to enter public dis­cussion of slavery’s character and consequences without being pre­pared to ground their views in Scripture. For unlike the North, the South resisted the rising pressure to slight the Word and reduce the Spirit to philosophical speculation. In helping to forge that conserva­tive sensibility, the most humble preachers stood with the most so­phisticated theologians. For, much like the leading secular intellectuals (most of whom also took religious ground) they did not suffer that acute alienation from their society which was becoming the hallmark of the intellectuals of the North and, indeed, of the whole of trans-Atlantic bourgeois society.

The Southern intellectuals, lay and clerical, have for the most part been swept into that famous Dustbin of History, to which those who back losing causes are routinely consigned. With a few honorable ex­ceptions, our historians assure us that the Old South had no intellec­tual life worthy of the name and scarcely any intellectuals who remain worth reading today. It would take little effort to expose these assertions as rubbish, but let me settle for the observation that the Southern theologians easily held their own with the Northern, and that, in James Henley Thornwell of South Carolina (1812-1862), the South had a brain second to none.

The son of a particularly successful upcountry overseer and a de­vout Calvinistic Baptist mother, Thornwell had opportunities uncom­mon for his class. Bright and disciplined, he seized them. His widowed mother found patrons to sponsor his education, and he re­ceived some private tutoring to supplement time in an old field school and an academy. He was graduated from South Carolina Col­lege with highest distinction and within a few years returned there to teach. Thornwell’s entry into the ministry surprised his college mates for he had not been especially pious as a student and had been expected to plunge into a political career.

Thornwell rose to become one of the foremost leaders of a state that burst with outstanding men. Calhoun considered him a giant among men, notwithstanding political differences over nullification and much else. He served with distinction as President of South Car­olina College, the finest institution of higher learning in the South and one of the finest in the nation. He edited the prestigious South­ern Presbyterian Review and served as pastor of the socially and po­litically powerful Presbyterian congregation in Columbia. A staunch advocate of jure divine, he was widely recognized as a premier ecclesiologist, even by his adversaries. His impact on eminent and in­fluential Southern divines—Palmer, Adger, Smyth, among others—could hardly be exaggerated. And withal, he emerged, by common consent, as the greatest theologian in the South, arguably in the nation. Among other accomplishments, his contributions to the theory and practice of education could be read with profit today for the light they shed on current concerns.

With regret I must here pass lightly over his theology, for his ser­mons and essays on the Trinity, the personality of God, and other subjects have much to teach about the human condition and its prospects. Our immediate concern is with his social and political thought, and much of his best efforts in defense of orthodox Calvin­ism remain beside the point. For while it is true, and of capital im­portance, that he grounded his world view in theology, the relevant portions of his work pertain less to Calvinist specifics than to those doctrines he shared even with the Arminian Methodists. Had it not been so, not merely for Thornwell but for the Southern divines as a whole, the Old South’s discernibly conservative view of social order and its Christian defense of slavery could never have achieved con­sensus. To put it another way, a particular doctrine of the Fall, origi­nal sin, and the Atonement undergirded his social theory, but it did so at the most general level to which all Christians might subscribe. The Methodist Bishop George Foster Pierce, the Baptist Rev. Thorn­ton Stringfellow, and the New School Presbyterian Rev. Frederick A. Ross, among many others, disagreed among themselves on the ways of salvation but agreed on a defense of slavery that derived from their common Christian principles.

Thornwell identified as the foundation of all Christian thought the personality of God and His readiness to condescend to commune with His creatures. He insisted that the Word alone could not save us, for it constituted the means, not the source, of life. “The Spirit and the Bible, this is the great principle of Protestant Christianity.”

But for Thornwell, unlike the liberal theologians and heterodox Calvinists who were sweeping the North and increasingly espousing Abolitionism, the Spirit could not be invoked as an excuse to slight the Word. For without the supremacy of the Word in the popular mind, “the most enormous crimes” would be committed in the name of religion. Hence, we cannot expect to know the Word unless in­fused by the Spirit, for “faith is an intuition awakened by the Holy Ghost.” With that intuition, “the Bible becomes no longer a dead let­ter, but a spirit, and religion is not a tradition, but a life.” In conse­quence, the “true principle, the only infallible source and measure of religious truth is the Word of God…the Sacred Scriptures.”

From these few, firm, general Christian principles Thornwell de­rived his view of the Church and of human affairs. But as with his view of the natural world, he left ample space for the sciences, nat­ural and social, and made signal contributions to the campaign, spearheaded by the Old Presbyterians, to establish true science as being in harmony with Scripture. The attempted reconciliation, pro­moted through advocacy of the Baconian inductive method, ultimate­ly ended in a disaster for the churches, but in the South it fared well before the War. We must pass over it here, but should note that Thornwell’s scripturally grounded socio-political views took full ac­count of the generally accepted political economy and sociology of his day and were by no means lazy extrapolations from selected sa­cred texts.

Thornwell’s contemporaries, intending a compliment, often re­ferred to him as “the Calhoun of the Church,” and historians, not all of whom have intended a compliment, have followed suit. No doubt he was, but we might pause to reflect that no one has ever called Calhoun “the Thornwell of the state.” As a no quarter defender obju­re divino and as the foremost exponent of the republican nature of scripturally sanctioned church polity, Thornwell did in fact parallel Calhoun’s efforts in political theory, as both of them appreciated. Yet there is a danger in the compliment, which his Christian contempo­raries should have seen in the first instance, and which critical histo­rians have seen all too well. For it suggests that Thornwell’s orthodox theology represented a grand apologetic for the political ideology inherent in his views of church and state, considered sepa­rately and in interrelation. To the contrary, his views of church poli­ty and of social order, including his subtle defense of slavery, derived from his theology, for he was concerned, first and foremost, with God and salvation. With undoubted sincerity he declared that if the Southern people could be convinced of the sinfulness of slavery, they would waste no time in putting it on the road to extinction.

Here and elsewhere Thornwell put his finger on an essential fea­ture of the unfolding tragedy of the Old South: The God-fearing Southern people turned to the Bible to justify slavery as God-or­dained, and the Bible did not disappoint them. Their theologians rent the Abolitionists, at least on the essentials, in their war of Bibli­cal exegesis. Increasingly, the Abolitionists had to retreat to argu­ments from the Spirit rather than the Word—a procedure that served them well among the many Northerners for whom the Word was becoming something of a nuisance, but a procedure that ruined them among the country people of the South, who resisted all theo­logical liberalism, however nicely packaged as neo-Calvinism.

Thornwell’s sermons and essays on slavery passed into an extra­ordinary critique of the condition of the modern world and represent a peak moment in the development of Southern thought, but they contain deeply disquieting implications for Southern conservatives and for all others who seek an accurate understanding of a conflict­ed—or, if you prefer, a sinful—world.

Thornwell had a taste for polemics and a reputation for swinging hard. Normally, he restrained himself in a manner appropriate to a Southern gentleman, but he had bad moments, as in his denuncia­tion of Charles Hodge. Poor Hodge. There he was, the joy of the Old School Presbyterians in the North, much as Thornwell was in the South; Thornwell’s powerful ally against the New School and against all opponents of orthodoxy; an outspoken defender of Southern rights and of the Scriptural justification for slavery. Yet when he took a conciliatory position on questions of church polity, Thornwell went for his jugular. “Hodge’s argument is utterly rotten.” And that was for openers.

Thornwell was not a man to take lightly questions that others might treat as mere matters of tactic or administration. The struggle concerned the church boards and the rights and powers of the ruling elders. Beneath the specifics lay the question of power and authori­ty—of the relation of the elders to the laity and of the Church to the world. Thornwell took high church ground. Hodge, an ultra-conserv­ative in the North, looked like a liberal temporizer in South Carolina. His concessions to the laity had two defects: They broke with Scrip­ture and, however inadvertently, they opened a wedge to the democ­ratic radicalism that was threatening to inundate church and state. The struggle for order in the Church thus combined an intransigent view of Scriptural authority with a deep commitment to social strati­fication. For Thornwell, the power of the Church “is solely ministerial and declarative….Whatever is not commanded [in the Bible], ex­pressly or implicitly, is unlawful.” Conversely, he condemned the no­tion that whatever is not forbidden is allowable. The silence of Scripture amounts to a prohibition.

The analogy to Calhoun’s constitutional theory could hardly be missed, but Thornwell left nothing to chance. “The Church, like the Government of the United States, is a positive institution, with posi­tive grants of power, and whatever is not given, is withheld.” The Scripturally sanctioned rulers of the Church “stand in the same rela­tion to the Church that the rulers of the United States sustain to the people…The ideal of the freest, noblest government under heaven, which Milton so rapturously sketched, corresponds, without an ex­ception, to our Presbyterian, representative republic.”

Moving from Church to state—significantly, in a sermon on “The Christian Doctrine of Slavery”—he denounced the political radical­ism of the age and upheld “representative, republican government against the despotism of the masses on the one hand, and the su­premacy of a single will on the other.” In this sermon, as in others, Thornwell assailed the Abolitionists for waging wars not merely on slavery as a peculiar form of property, not merely on Southern rights as the bastion of the Constitution, but on the very principle of social order. Implicitly, sometimes explicitly, the Abolitionists were attack­ing all class distinctions and legitimate authority. Indeed, they were attacking Christianity itself since the Bible commanded social stratifi­cation and subordination in the wake of the Fall. Thornwell charged that the Abolitionist argument “fully and legitimately carried out, would condemn every arrangement of society, which did not secure to its members an absolute equality of position; it is the very spirit of socialism and communism.” And in one of his fiercest polemical out­bursts, he added, “The parties in this conflict are not merely Aboli­tionists and Slaveholders; they are Atheists, Socialists, Communists, Red Republicans, Jacobins on the one side, and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. In one word, the world is the battle ground, Christianity and Atheism the combatants, and the progress of humanity the stake.”

Thornwell and his fellow Southern divines argued—and, I regret to say, demonstrated—that the Old Testament established slavery as ordained of God, and that Jesus, who spoke not one word against it and did not exclude slaveholders from the Church, reaffirmed the sanction. But many of the divines, with Thornwell at their head, went further and subsumed slavery under the general principle of social subordination. Thus they repeatedly and forcefully associated the subordination of slaves to masters with the prior subordination of women to men. Thornwell denounced all equality other than spiri­tual as contrary to God’s law and, in effect, made slavery a special case in the general subordination of the laboring classes to the prop­ertied. Note it well: He did not take racial ground, except to the ex­tent that he regarded blacks as inferiors who were peculiarly destined as a race to be among the hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Had Thornwell simply peddled the myth of Ham, according to which blacks lay under a special curse, as many lesser minds and weaker scholars did, his defense of slavery and his social thought in general would be of little interest and would—or should—constitute an embarrassment to his admirers. But, like many other able South­ern divines albeit with greater learning, clarity, and depth, he recog­nized that the Bible sanctioned slavery in general—”in the abstract,” as his contemporaries put it—not black slavery in particular. For God had ordained slavery among the ancient Israelites without re­gard to race, as “race” came to be understood. Thornwell knew, and modern scholarship confirms, that members of all races, including the Caucasian, were subject to lawful enslavement and that slavery was established as a special case of a wider social subordination. It might be noted that Thornwell, while holding blacks to be inferior, assailed the scientific racism according to which blacks were a sepa­rate species, and that he held a cautiously hopeful view of the future of the race. Pseudoscientific theories of race he denounced as un-scriptural. He bravely stood against hostile demonstrations in Charleston to bring blacks into the Church and declared, “We are not ashamed to call him [the black man] our brother\”

For Thornwell, the essential problem remained that of a proper Christian social order. With George Fitzhugh, he considered the race question a regionally specific complication. He pointed to the deep­ening crisis of European society, which he observed firsthand in his travels, and expressed horror at the condition of the English poor. He concluded that Europe was already facing, and the North would soon face, all-out class war and revolutionary turmoil. Consequently, he projected slavery as the Christian solution to the Social Question. In the bluntest possible language, he predicted that the capitalist countries would have to institute a labor system so close to Southern slavery as to be indistinguishable from it.

Now, Thornwell had studied political economy and did not chal­lenge its reigning Ricardian and Malthusian “laws.” He could not, however, rest comfortably with its callous disregard of the human misery inherent in capitalist economic development. He must surely have gagged on the analysis of George Tucker, Virginia’s outstanding political economist, according to which slavery would disappear as the price of free labor fell below that of slave. For stripped of the complacent, not to say cold-blooded, celebration of economic progress, the analysis pointed toward the immiseration of the labor­ing classes, white and black. Thornwell acknowledged that those economic laws, if left to work themselves out in a marketplace soci­ety, would generate the result, but he had the wit to know that eco­nomic laws alone do not direct the course of man. He expected the suffering laborers to rise with revolutionary violence against so mon­strous a system, and he sought a solution that would be conservative in its adherence to the principles of social order and yet humane in its insistence that the privileged classes accept responsibility for their inferiors. He found that solution in the personal subordination of the laborer to some form of slavery or industrial serfdom. That such a solution would have impeded economic progress he surely knew, but we may doubt that he lost much sleep over the prospect.

Thornwell marched at the head of a swelling army of Southern divines of all denominations, who were in tandem with the secular theorists. Indeed, twenty years earlier the great Thomas Roderick Dew, notwithstanding his utter devotion to the Manchester School and his enthusiasm for the progress of capitalism and free society, gloomily projected a worldwide proslavery reaction. Yet in one sense Thornwell was no friend to slavery at all. Like many Southern di­vines he ruthlessly criticized its evils and demanded such sweeping reforms as the legal sanction of slave marriages, repeal of the laws against slave literacy, and effective measures to punish cruel mas­ters. In short, he demanded that Southern slavery be made to con­form to Biblical and Christian standards. On the eve of secession he even flirted with the idea of proposing gradual emancipation.

But what did Thornwell understand by emancipation? This, after all, was the same man who, at that very moment, was recommend­ing slavery as a solution to Europe’s Social Question. He meant rais­ing the blacks out of chattel slavery into some kind of industrial serfdom or “warranteeism,” as Henry Hughes of Mississippi called it—raising the blacks, with requisite racial qualification, to the level of the white laboring classes that were on their way to the same fate. He envisioned a system that would subordinate all laborers to per­sonal masters while it guaranteed not only cradle-to-grave security but respect for the individual and the family beyond that which the existing Southern system as yet provided.

Shortly before his death Thornwell went further. Cautiously, in a “Sermon on National Sins,” preached on the eve of the War, and boldly in a remarkable paper on “Relation of the State to Christ,” prepared for the Presbyterian Church as a memorial to be sent to the Confederate Congress, he called upon the South to dedicate itself to Christ. He criticized the American Founding Fathers for having for­gotten God and for having opened the Republic to the will of the ma­jority. “A foundation was thus laid for the worst of all possible forms of government—a democratic absolutism.” To the extent that the state is a moral person, he insisted, “it must needs be under moral obligation, and moral obligation without reference to a superior will is a flat contradiction in terms.” Thornwell demanded that the new Constitution be amended to declare the Confederacy in submission to Jesus, for “to Jesus Christ all power in heaven and earth is commit­ted.” Vague recognition of God would not do. The state must recog­nize the God of the Bible—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Thornwell made clear that he wanted neither an established Church nor religious tests. The state must guarantee liberty of con­science for all: “He may be Atheist, Deist, infidel, Turk, or Pagan: it is no concern of the State so long as he walks orderly.” Could a Jew become Chief Magistrate? Certainly, so long as he does nothing in of­fice “inconsistent with the Christian religion.” By all means separate Church and state, but do not delude yourself that you can separate the state from religion. At issue lay the moral basis of society, which, Thornwell argued, had to be informed by one religious system and, therefore, in the Protestant South, by Christianity. (I cannot prove that T.S. Eliot read Thornwell’s essay, although I suspect as much, but I would invite a comparison of “Relation of the State to Christ” with Eliot’s celebrated essay “The Idea of a Christian Society.”)

Thornwell’s foray had a sharply critical edge. He warned, in the sternest terms his Calvinist soul could muster, that God was testing his people; that their victory would depend upon repentance; that, specifically, they must be prepared to do justice to the slaves and all others placed in their charge:

God is the ruler among the nations; and the people who refuse Him their alle­giance shall be broken with a rod of iron, or dashed in pieces like a potter’s vessel. Our republic [the CSA] will perish like the Pagan republics of Greece and Rome, unless we baptize it into the name of Christ… We long to see, what the world has never yet beheld, a truly Christian Republic, and we humbly hope that God has reserved it for the people of these Confederate States to re­alize the grand and glorious idea. God has wooed us by extraordinary goodness; He is now tempering us by gentle chastisements. Let the issue be the penitent submission of this great people at the footstool of His Son.

Thornwell’s theology and ecclesiology are not much in fashion to­day, but, then, fashions have a way of waning and returning. And the proslavery specifics of his social thought are, let us pray, interred with him. But it would hardly be wise to discount his larger views, which contain valuable insights into the problem of reconciling democracy with freedom as well as penetrating explorations of hu­man psychology and its political ramifications—explorations I have only been able to hint at. Unbiased study of his work ought to en­lighten anyone, from any part of the political spectrum, who reflects on his heroic attempt to envision a Christian society that could rec­oncile—so far as possible in a world haunted by evil—the conflicting claims of social order with social justice and both with the freedom and dignity of the individual.

I should not presume to tell Southern conservatives where to place Thornwell in their tradition, but, surely, a straight fine runs from him to the Agrarians, who, astonishingly, slighted the thought of all the antebellum theologians. That straight line runs counter to any romance with the ideals and practice of the marketplace, which today entrance Neoconservatives and refurbished nineteenth-century liberals. For if Southern conservatives, in contradistinction to con­servatives who are Southerners, have a tradition to appeal to—and I believe they have a great one—it is a tradition that has resisted bourgeois society, its atomistic culture and its marketplace morality.

Evaluating that tradition and Thornwell’s place in it, I might be told, is your concern, not mine. But the enormities of our century and our common fate in a world of nuclear weapons and a techno­logical capacity for unprecedented assaults on human dignity and the human spirit compel me to risk the presumption. For the ques­tions that that great man raised, the brave if often unacceptable an­swers he advanced, and the insights into ourselves he offered continue to speak to all honest and sane men.

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