Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The curious case of James Henley Thornwell

James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862) was a Presbyterian clergyman from South Carolina who was one of the most articulate defenders of the "Bible sanctions slavery" argument during the three decades preceeding the American Civil War. Unlike John C.Calhoun, who argued that "slavery is a positive good" purely on grounds of social utility (and without a single reference to the Bible), Thornwell advanced a more subtle argument.

While "man-stealing" and the African slave trade were prohibited by the Bible, the institution of slavery itself, he argued, was not prohibited. Christian masters, however, had certain obligations which they must fulfill towards their slaves. Slaves owed their labor to their masters, but nothing more. Thornwell promoted literacy, knowledge of the Bible, establishment of the institution of marriage within slavery, and respect for the slave family.

First heard on the public stage in the 1840's, Thornwell had, by 1860, significantly modified his views. Though pointing to a long list of Bible passages he claimed supported slavery, Thornwell acknoweldged that the institution itself was clearly not within the spirit of the Gospel. Discouraged that masters would be able to consistently fulfill their Christian duties towards slaves, and mindful of the likelihood of terrible war about to break out around the topic, Thornwell was about to unveil his own proposal for the gradual emancipation of all slaves when his fellow South Carolinians fired on Fort Sumter.

Once the issue was joined, however, Thornwell threw his lot in completely with the Confederacy.

History is filled with "what ifs" and "if onlys". The student of history today can only wonder how events would have unfolded had Thornwell come to his epiphany as little as a year before 1860.


Anonymous said...

It's always interesting to speculate what would have happened "if and only," but history is history, right? Like most controversial issues, this one has a lot of shades of gray between the black and the white, including so-called abolitionists who continued to support slavery in their own ways and pro-slavery advocates who began to soften their conservative views more as the conflicts wore on. Even after slavery had long been abolished in Britain and the United States, the imperialist attitude toward minorities continued to thrive. Take case in point Kipling's verse, "The White Man's Burden." People are people--then and now; cultures and attitudes change somewhat depending upon immediate circumstances, but basic prejudices still manage to thrive, despite the arrogant tendency that so many people have who assume that they own age is more "enlightened" than the people of by-gone ages. Considering the times, I am fascinated by how resilient our ancestors were--it's easy to have 20/20 hindsight. That's why we all need to avoid the tendency toward a revisionist version of history--not that I believe you have, Mr. Leahy, and in fact I think you do a fairly thorough job of laying out the facts of the times. My personal favorite bit of speculation is "what would have happened if Stonewall Jackson had lived?"

Michael Patrick Leahy said...

I admit to a certain interest in speculating "what if ?"

Indeed, the shift in my writing plan precipitated by the publishing of Letter to a Christian Nation has revealed within me a certain undeveloped theme.

Broadly speaking, that theme as it continues to emerge appears to be the importance of two things in the conduct of one's life: (1) The importance of developing and maintaining a consistent world view that is based on faith, either Christian faith, or some variant thereof (2) The importance of bravely and intelligently acting on that world view.

Ponder for a moment these "what if" possibilities:

1. What if William Wilberforce had met John Calhoun and persuaded him of the merits of his brand of Evangelical Christianity ?
2. As you suggest, what if Stonewall Jackson had lived ? What would the outcome of the war been (Note: There is one theory -- generally considered crackpot-- that he was killed by his own men (which, in fact, he was, accidentally) because he was about to pronounce that he favored gradual emancipation.
3. What if Zachary Taylor had died in 1854 instead of 1850 ? (I'll leave that one open ended for speculation by all the Civil War buffs out there).

Anonymous said...

Well said.