On Jan. 4, 1861, a Catholic bishop named Rev. A. Verot ascended a pulpit in The Church of St. Augustine, Florida, and defended the right of white people to own slaves.
The apostle Paul, Verot claimed in his sermon, instructs slaves to obey their masters as a “necessary means of salvation.” Quoting Colossians 3:22, he said, “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not serving to the eye, as pleasing men, but in simplicity of heart, fearing God.”
It’s no secret that hundreds of Christian pastors like Verot used the Bible during the Civil War to justify slavery. But the massacre last week of nine black people inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, has once again forced white Christians in America to re-examine the white church’s historical ties to racism — and how hateful rhetoric like Verot’s had more power because it came from the pulpit.
White Christians in the South didn’t just support slavery — the Southern church was the backbone of the Confederacy and its attempts to keep African Americans in bondage, according to Harry Stout, Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Religious History at Yale University.
“If you pull the church out of the whole equation, it’s highly likely that there never would have been a Civil War,” Stout told The Huffington Post. “Southern clergy had no doubt that slavery was not a sin.”
After they lost the war, white Southerners and their religious leaders tried to recast it by observing the “religion of the lost cause” — arguing that the South fought righteously not to keep slaves in chains, but to fight for states’ rights or to protect themselves from Northern aggression. As part of this “lost cause” religion, they began to idolize fallen Confederate war heroes and celebrate the Confederate flag.
Black activists and many others consider it a symbol of oppression, and a reminder of a government that longed to keep black people in chains forever. In a piece for The Atlantic, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the Confederate flag a “symbol of white supremacists.”
“The Confederate flag’s defenders often claim it represents ‘heritage not hate.’ I agree — the heritage of White Supremacy was not so much birthed by hate as by the impulse toward plunder.”
This rhetoric of supremacy sanctioned by God was repeated in churches across the South.
While God was left out of the preamble to the United States Constitution, the leaders of the Confederate States of America made sure to invoke the power of the divine in their own constitution — making it clear from the start they saw Christianity as an integral part of their new union of slaveholders.
Christian leaders in the South would refer to the presence of slavery in the Old Testament and to verses from the Apostle Paul that instruct slaves to be obedient to their masters. While some pastors thought of slavery as a “necessary evil,” others went so far as to claim that black people would continue to be slaves in heaven, Stout said. They traced their theology back to the story of Noah and his son Ham, who is believed to have mocked his father and been condemned to walk the earth as a servant as a result.
The church was slow to speak out against racism in the years following the Civil War, and it wasn’t until after the civil rights movement that this type of overt racism began to fade from Southern pulpits.
In 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention split away from the church after northern Baptists refused to allow slave owners to become missionaries. Now the largest Protestant denomination in the country, the SBC has in recent years spent a considerable amount of time trying to confront its past. In 1995, the church passed a resolution formally apologizing for “condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime.”
In light of the attacks in Charleston, Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is calling for Christians in the South to forsake their cultural ties to the Confederate flag.
“The Confederate Battle Flag was the emblem of Jim Crow defiance to the civil rights movement, of the Dixiecrat opposition to integration, and of the domestic terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Councils of our all too recent, all too awful history,” Moore wrote last week in an op-ed. “White Christians ought to think about what that flag says to our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ, especially in the aftermath of yet another act of white supremacist terrorism against them.”