December 25th is the traditional time for celebrating the birth of Jesus. It's in the gentle coming of a Savior that we have to pause and reflect on the message of Christianity, not only today, but also historically, as well as what it can offer the world to come. The faith we practice is one means through which we form and live out our morality, our character, and our impact on the world around us.
And this reminds me of William Davis, who was once enslaved in Hampton, Virginia, before the American Civil War. Similar to Bethany Veney, he found faith in God, which bolstered his character. As an overseer of other enslaved workers on a plantation, Davis was "opposed to corporal punishment, and...none of his fellow slaves ever felt the lash, consequently they worked with three times as much energy and satisfaction. Other owners noticed...and inquired the cause. Davis told them that men worked better when led, not driven" (Blassingame, Slave Testimony, 1977:171).
This example is in contradiction to what happened in the 1830s and 1840s, when there was a movement of evangelizing enslaved individuals, not only as a means for salvation of souls, but more importantly as a way for the then-viewed superior white race to control the then-viewed inferior black race and the character that they developed. Nat Turner's 1831 uprising demonstrated the need for this among civil leaders. And soon Colored Sunday Schools were popping up everywhere, including the one taught by Thomas Jackson in Lexington, Virginia. The catechism focused on moral living and obedience to masters (I'll share about the Slave Bible in the future). Chris Graham of the American Civil War Museum shares it best: "Jackson’s Sunday school fit seamlessly into a proslavery theology that worked not to undermine slavery (as the Sunday School myth claims), but to bolster the institution and make it work according to God’s plans. Proslavery Christianity rested on assumptions of the inherent incapacity of black people to manage their own spiritual lives, and the necessity of superior whites to instruct them in proper religion" (Graham 2017).
This perspective is supported by John Anderson, who was born in 1831 and enslaved as a field hand in Missouri before his escape to freedom. Anderson shared his testimony in the Toronto Weekly Globe, February 22, 1861 through an interviewer that wrote: "Anderson is a Free Will Baptist by profession, and was a regular attendant on the services of that denomination. He never heard any ministers denouncing slavery. Any who would do so would not be allowed to preach" (Blassingame, Slave Testimony, 1977:353).
These ideas weren't just a belief among southern states, it was pervasive to the entirety of our country at the time. A series of interviews by the 1936-38 Federal Writers' Project conducted interviews with former slaves that includes the following account from Charles Brandy on February 26, 1937: "Slaves were not allowed much freedom of worship. The Yankee soldiers and officers played a great part in the slave's moral training, and religious worship. They secretly instructed small gatherings of slaves, at night. The points stressed most were, obedience and the evils of stealing. There were some sections where masters were liberal in their views toward their slaves, and permitted them to worship openly" (Volume XVII, 1941:26).
For me, my faith compels me to share the truth of Christianity. It has not always been wielded the way Jesus would expect. Being a Christian alone does not guarantee that everything we do is the right thing or the best thing. Christianity is not a seal of approval, it is a conviction, there to encourage us when we fail and to remind us of the hope for a better way, if we have the courage to take it.
And this is precisely why the names of Confederate leaders should not be on our public school buildings. Jackson, Lee, Ashby and other Confederate leaders chose state over faith. They chose an established economic tradition and worldview over the unconditional love of Christ. That love accepts all of us and places equal worth in the hearts of all men and women.
SENK is an artist and writer in the Shenandoah Valley. The blog, 52 Weeks, is an ethical contemplation on the importance of choosing public school names that are not divisive within a community. Each post is based on over seven years of research by the author. 52 Weeks is a compassionate appeal to community and school board members to not revert to the names of Confederate leaders for Shenandoah County, Va, public schools.