05 April 2011

Southern Slaves & Samuel Davies

Fellow history blogger Michael Aubrecht posted some interesting comments recently about Presbyterian Divine, George Whitefield - one of the most influential evangelicals of the colonial era. Michael's comments explored the contradictions which were intertwined in American slavery and Christianity and our founding principles - an issue I attempted to address in my book about Stonewall Jackson and his black Sunday school class. Another Presbyterian preacher and one who was, in my opinion, just as influential as Whitefield was Samuel Davies. I thought posting an excerpt from my book about Davies's work among slaves might add to the discussion which Michael initiated. The excerpt below was actually a footnote to a mention of the Lexington Presbyterian Church in chapter four of my book:

The Lexington Presbytery was taken from the Hanover Presbytery of central Virginia, arguably one of the most influential Christian organizations and regions of any in America’s Christian history. Founded by the Reverend Samuel Davies (known as “the Apostle of Virginia”) in 1753, Hanover was the mother presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in the South. The Lexington Presbytery inherited a rich heritage from Hanover—that of teaching blacks to read so they could be evangelized and converted to Christ. According to one scholar, “No white person in colonial America was as successful as Davies in stimulating literacy among slaves in the South.” Davies’s purpose in teaching blacks to read was more than utilitarian. “Davies as a Presbyterian believed that the attainment of true religion by anyone, bond or free, black or white, required extensive knowledge that came from not only hearing the word of God but also reading it.” 

Davies’s work among blacks “was the first sustained and successful program by a white clergyman in the South to stimulate large numbers of Africans and African Americans to read in English.” Davies, unlike many of his colonial contemporaries believed in the “full humanity of the African people.” In a 1757 sermon to slave owners, he proclaimed: “His immortality gives him a kind of infinite value. Let him be white or black, bond or free, a native or a foreigner, it is of no moment in this view: he is to live forever!”

Davies laid the responsibility for the slaves’ condition squarely at the feet of their masters: “Your Negroes may be ignorant and stupid as to divine things not for want of capacity, but for want of instruction;not through perverseness, but through your negligence. . . . They are generally as capable of instruction, as the white people.” Davies’s comments regarding slaves being “capable of instruction as the white people” put him at odds with many whites, particularly Northern slave traders and Southern slave holders. So successful were his efforts that James Davenport noted them in a letter to Jonathan Edwards, telling “of a remarkable work of conviction and conversion among whites and negroes, at Hanover in Virginia under the ministry of Mr. Davies.” One hundred years later, Davies’s mantle of success among blacks passed to Thomas J. Jackson. For a thorough treatment of Davies’s efforts, see Jeffrey H. Richards, “Samuel Davies and the Transatlantic Campaign for Slave Literacy in Virginia,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 111, no. 4 (2003).


*I'm still planning on posting a rebuttal to Michael's Tea Party criticisms . . . just a lot going on right now.

24 comments:

Michael Aubrecht said...

Nice post Richard. Although both of these men can be commended for their efforts to spread the good news, they were clearly racists (especially Whitefield who was a political proponent for slavery). Of course you could argue that most white folks were too at that time, but what I find telling is that these guys are being written about today in many Christian publications who appear to leave their darker sides out. That's only half of the man's story. We must come to terms with the fact that many of our “heroes” whether Washington or Jefferson or Jackson or Lee viewed African-Americans as inferior and in many cases, property. We do a great disservice to their history when we only present the parts that we are comfortable with. I have been guilty of this myself and am becoming much more critical when examining these men, whether I like the answers or not.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael - thanks for the comment. I'm not quite sure what you mean by "come to terms with" the views of 18th and 19th century heroes. If, by that, you mean acknowledge and recognize they had flaws and that slavery was evil, I did that a long time ago. I think most Americans have. As a Christian, I recognize that all men are fallen and imperfect. These men were, like all men, products of their times. I'm quite sure future generations will look at some of our moral failings (need we go there?) with the same attitude.

"We do a great disservice to their history when we only present the parts that we are comfortable with."

I would not consider myself part of your "we". As I said, I recognized their flaws a long time ago and don't accept your premise and assumptions regarding overlooking these flaws. You seem to have embraced the school of thought that these flaws must be highlighted and pointed out at every mention of their name - a trend that has become quite popular in certain quarters. I find that preoccupation does a disservice to history. I would go so far as to state that that preoccupation is more about the writer and historian's own desire to feel good about themselves than it is to correct some distorted view of history.

Moreover, if you'll read the post again about Davies, you'll see that his views were quite "progressive" for his times.

Best,
RGW

Michael Aubrecht said...

Thanks for thr reply. My latest post presents my thoughts on this. I felt compelled to post about this topic after I heard about Rev. Whitefield this week from both people and printed sources who curiously never mentioned his slaveholder past. I find that very telling.

PS. Congrats on the History Press book. I have 2 books out with THP and am very happy with their work.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks. I'm looking forward to working with them and have heard good things about HP. I just received another notice on a writing opportunity which I'm very excited about. Not a book, but quite an opportunity (and honor). I'll discuss more once that project is complete.

13thBama said...

Michael, why do you not allow posts on your website? Did I overlook it?

Michael Aubrecht said...

13th bama, The comments function doesn't work correctly. It sometimes deletes the post when you approve it so I tunred it off. Feel free to email me at ma@pinstripepress.net.

Michael Aubrecht said...

Also Richard I wanted to add, When you said "I'm not quite sure what you mean by "come to terms with" the views of 18th and 19th century heroes." I mean accepting the fact that they aren't heroes at all, or... if they are to be considered heroes, we must present them honestly, which once again, brings them down off that hero pedestal where we can truly learn about and relate to them. For instance, you and I have a particular affection for Stonewall Jackson. When we praise his religious fervor and battlefield might, we can’t ignore his racism, peculiar eccentricities, and social awkwardness. We then see him as a man and not some comic book character as portrayed by the Lost Cause crowd. A Civil War Buff will prop him up, where you and I as historians should simply present the facts and let the reader draw their own conclusions. Maybe it because I’m not a Revolution guy but I don’t have the same “personal attachment” to these guys anymore.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael:

"I mean accepting the fact that they aren't heroes at all"

I reject that out of hand. I think the concept of heroes is important and legitimate. You are guilty of presentism Michael. That's a VERY distorted view of history. You are guilty of that which you are accusing others - distorting history.

I can acknowledge their flaws and weaknesses while honoring their accomplishments, character qualities, and positive contributions to our Nation's history.

By your standards, there are NO heroes.

13thBama said...

Interesting

Michael Aubrecht said...

It’s not presentism. Nor is it a distorted view of history. It is what it is. Racism is racism. Pro-Slavery is pro-slavery. Facts are facts here regardless of the period. My whole point is we must acknowledge both sides and by doing so these guys are no longer mythical-like heroes.

You said "I think the concept of heroes is important and legitimate." Why?

Michael Aubrecht said...

I totally agree with you 100% on this statement of yours: "I can acknowledge their flaws and weaknesses while honoring their accomplishments, character qualities, and positive contributions to our Nation's history." That was my point. That selective memory or hero worship often distorts or minimizes historical scholoarship. I think we agree on this one.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Why? Because heroes serve as inspiration and role models. While I agree we must never overlook human faults, dismissing the inspirational aspect of history makes the study purely academic, boring, and inconsequential. What's the point?

It is those hours I spent in the library in elementary school devouring children's biographies on Washington, Henry, Jefferson, Lee, Jackson, etc that lit the passion for history in my mind - were the emphasis of these heroes have been put upon their faults, why would a young boy be interested? I'd prefer Batman - which is exactly what is the case today.

I feel sorry for you Michael. We all need heroes. My own father and grandfathers, despite their many faults, are my heroes. Don't you want to be a hero to your children?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

So who has selective memory? Be specific. I don't "worship" heroes. I admire and attempt to emulate their good qualities.

Michael Aubrecht said...

"Don't you want to be a hero to your children?" I want them to know who I was, not what they 'want' me to be. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I only have one hero and I know he's your top one too. (Jesus Christ) All the rest are just men.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"Hero" just doesn't seem quite adequate for the Creator and Saviour, IMHO.

"Just" men are what make them heroes, i.e., despite their flaws, they rise to admirable heights and demonstration of character, bravery, and selflessness inspiring the rest of us to do the same.

Michael Aubrecht said...

Richard here's my last comment on this topic. I added this to my blog: Yesterday’s post generated some interesting conversations between a few historian friends and me. The general consensus was that we can acknowledge historical figure’s flaws and weaknesses while honoring their accomplishments, character qualities, and positive contributions to our nation's history. At the same time we must be conscious not to allow our own personal biases influence how we analyze them. That’s a given. We also agreed that selective memory or hero worship distorts scholarship and inflates historical figures to mythical-like proportions. The reality is that most of our so-called “heroes” would never live up to our expectations. The strangest part of it all is that we will never meet any of these people, yet we often feel some kind of personal connection to them. So here you have the dilemma of the impersonal becoming personal. Finally we acknowledged that what may have been acceptable then may not be acceptable now and therefore we must keep things in context. I have a friend in the National Park Service who is considered a leading authority and penned one of the most critically-acclaimed Civil War books ever published. He once told me that he had absolutely no historical heroes and that he looked at people simply as they were. That puzzled me at the time, but now I get it.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Good morning Michael.

"The general consensus was that we can acknowledge historical figure’s flaws and weaknesses while honoring their accomplishments, character qualities, and positive contributions to our nation's history."

Nothing profound or new there. I believe most people do precisely that.

"He once told me that he had absolutely no historical heroes and that he looked at people simply as they were. That puzzled me at the time, but now I get it."

That's fine, but I don't get it and have no desire to.

I'm working on a post about heroes, presentism, and the distortion of history. Hope to post tonight or tomorrow.

Best,
RGW

Michael Aubrecht said...

I can compare this change in how we think about heroes by bringing it to the more modern-arena of hero-worship in sports… When we are kids, we look up to athletes and want to emulate them on the field. We hang their posters on our wall, imitate their moves, and collect their memorabilia. Then we grow up into adult hood. We realize that these guys were just athletes. Sometimes they turn out to be jerks, or steroid users, or not half as good as we remember them. Regardless, we no longer place them on pedestals. We may still have an interest in sports, and we may fondly recall that player, but they are no longer heroes to us. What’s the difference?

If you think about it, that example is actually better because those are people we actually see and experience in person. The only thing we know about these 18th and 19th century historical figures is what other people present to us. None of it is based on first-hand experience. So it’s even stranger to have a historical figure be a ‘hero’ because we can only base our impression on what we think is the truth. You and I never met Washington or Jackson so what are we basing our affections for them on? It’s what we read and how they were presented to us. A big part of our impression is based on what historians tell us. If you look at the more popular historians today, the ones who sell the most books and get the most face time on TV, they tend to be the academic crowd who don’t allow their personal thoughts to influence their work. Years from now a kid may read up on a historical figure. Whose version is more credible? The historian who considers him to be a hero? Or the unbiased one?

You stated that you fell in love with historical figures reading books as a kid in elementary school. Do you still look at the world like a kid in elementary school? No, you’re an adult. So how you thought about George Washington then cannot possibly match how you feel about him now. As you mature and learn more you see that Washington was not the man you grew up emulating. He could never possibly live up to his hero status. So is Washington still a hero to you?

As a historian you of all people should get that. I recognize that people do heroic deeds. Look at our film The Angel of Marye’s Heights. Richard Kirkland did something heroic, but I don’t consider him to be a ‘hero.’ He was an ordinary guy who did and extraordinary thing. Far too many people treat the Jeffersons and the Jacksons like they were Santa Clause. They create an impression that is based on more fiction than fact. They grow up emulating people and the part that puzzles me is that more often than not, they still feel the same way about their heroes as they did when they were kids. That’s to me is an immature way of looking at our history, especially when it’s based on people that we never even knew, nor did we live in their time where we could truly least relate to them on some level.

That’s the best way I can explain it.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Your pop culture example of athletes will dovetail perfectly into my post about this. I bring up the same comparison - with quite a different view though.

You ask:

"So is Washington still a hero to you?"

He most certainly is. You mean he's not to you?

Michael Aubrecht said...

My finalized response is here: http://www.pinstripepress.net/PPBlog/index.blog/1425616/can-historians-have-heroes/

Looking forward to yours friend.

Michael Aubrecht said...

We're grown adults my friend. We're too old for heroes.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Frankly Michael - I think that's ridiculous.

Michael Aubrecht said...

OK Richard, I wrote that last one in a moment of frustration. I take it back. (This govt. shutdown issue is wrecking my day.) I will add though... to please keep my comments in context...I am not talking about firemen, or soldiers, or our pastors, or dads here who are heroes to people on a personal level. I'm talking about the mythical-like historical heroes with monuments and stamps and coins.

Here's another thought too...Can you name one public figure alive today who warrants the same type of reverence these "heroes" do? I couldn't think of one. What does that say?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"What does that say?"

Quite a bit in my opinion. Reminds of what I once heard Bud Robertson say:

"Robert E. Lee never existed [in the minds of some] because we don't have a Robert E. Lee today." ~ James I. Robertson, Jr.