Although slaveholding southerners and Catholics in general had little in common, both groups found themselves relentlessly attacked in the northern evangelical press during the decades leading up to the Civil War.
Samford University history professor Jason Wallace, in his new book Catholics, Slaveholders, and the Dilemma of American Evangelicalism, 1835-1860, examines why antebellum northern evangelical Protestants were consistent in opposing both slavery and Catholicism. The book was published in October by the University of Notre Dame Press.
Dr. Wallace examines sermons, books, newspaper articles and private correspondence of members of the three groups—northern evangelicals, southern evangelicals and Catholics—and argues that the divisions among them stemmed in part from disagreements over the role that religious convictions played in a free society.
Capsuling the positions of the three groups, he discovered that:
- * Northern evangelicals believed a consensus Protestantism could promote public virtue, an approach favored in New England. When the other two groups disagreed, the northerners attacked them in journals such as Zion’s Herald, The New York Evangelist and The New York Observer, saying their authoritarianism was immoral.
- * Southern evangelicals thought Northern evangelicals exaggerated the human potential for moral improvement. They justified a more conservative social vision that valued hierarchy and left room for natural conditions of human inequality including slavery. Yet, this left some southerners conflicted because their Protestantism included leveling democratic impulses.
- * Catholics simply refused to proceed on principles based on Protestant biblical positions. At the same time, they believed the Catholic church’s social vision had to be grounded in the political realities of the day. They also defended the contributions the Catholic church made to American principles such as religious liberty and separation of church and state.
- The conflicting positions, Wallace points out, produced the evangelical dilemma over what it meant to be an American and a Christian.
A Samford history faculty member since 2004, Wallace teaches European and American intellectual history. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Auburn University, master of divinity from Westminster Theological Seminary and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.