Black History Month: Review of “Stonewall Jackson’s Black Sunday School” by Rickey E. Pittman; Illustrated by Lynn Hosegood

This hagiography of Stonewall Jackson for children features a cover picture of someone who looks like a mixed-race version of Stonewall Jackson, reading the Holy Bible to three happy black children.

A More Accurately Hued Stonewall Jackson

Stonewall Jackson, the famous general of the Confederacy, is depicted as a benevolent leader and mentor of black slaves. He did in fact establish the Lexington Presbyterian Church Sunday School in Lexington, Virginia in 1855. And he did this in spite of Virginia laws making it illegal to teach blacks to read and write. (In one illustration, the book shows him confronting two much-whiter townspeople, arguing to them that it was not “Christian” of them to object to his Sunday School.)

At the School, students were taught the gospels, Old Testament history, The Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed.

According to the author, it was because of Jackson that “three black churches were created in Lexington, and a good number of Professor Jackson’s students became members of those churches.” They and their children also contributed “liberally” to the erection of Jackson’s statue and to other memorials to Jackson.

Discussion: In any historical account, it is useful to examine what has been omitted, which is just as important (if not more so) that what has been included. Not only does omission enable immunity from notice and criticism, but it also provides support for the assumptions undergirding the omissions. In this case, these assumptions include such ideas as: slaves were happy and well-treated; at least one Confederate general loved black slaves and was concerned for their well-being; and General Jackson, this great white spiritual leader of blacks, was almost single-handedly responsible for the creation of black churches after the Civil War in Lexington. We must not forget there is an agenda to culturally mediated memories that misrepresent and even romanticize the past. As French theorist Bourdieu pointed out, unspoken suggestions may be even more tenacious than overt representations “because they are silent and insidious, insistent and insinuating.” And who is there to rebut that which isn’t even included?

And so we must ask, why did this stalwart Confederate, this graduate of West Point who left the Union to lead troops in the South, start a Sunday School for black slave children?

A critical consideration underlying any discussion of what motivated Southerners committed to the system of slavery to take up the banner of Christianity and preach to the slaves, is the effect of Nat Turner’s rebellion on Southern equanimity. (I would like to acknowledge the influence of Civil War historian Kevin Levin on this discussion.)

Nat Turner was a 30-year old slave who led a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia during August 1831. He and about sixty followers killed some 55-61 white people, the highest number of fatalities caused by a slave uprising in the South. The rebellion lasted only 48 hours, but in the aftermath, there was widespread fear in the South, and white militias organized in retaliation against slaves. Turner himself was hanged, then skinned and dissected.

Blacks were randomly killed all over Southhampton County; many were beheaded and their heads left along the roads to warn others. At least 100 blacks, and probably more, both slave and free, were killed. Across the South, new laws were passed prohibiting education of slaves and free blacks, restricting rights of assembly and other civil rights for free blacks, and requiring white ministers to be present at black worship services. (Turner had claimed that God had inspired him to take up the yoke of Christ and “fight against the Serpent” so that “the first should be last and the last should be first.” He was, he declared, merely God’s instrument in the holy retribution against slavery.)

1831 Woodcut of the Rebellion

Thus white evangelicals gained a new sensitivity to the danger that Christianity (as well as education generally) could put dangerous ideas into the heads of slaves. Oversight was required to ensure that the “proper” message was conveyed through Christian teachings.

This would not be difficult to accomplish; by 1860, there were almost one half million black church members in the slaveholding states. According to historian Charles F. Irons, these churches were governed by white evangelicals who defended slavery as a divine institution. Jackson, too, shared this belief.

According to Jackson’s wife:

I have heard him say that he would prefer to see the negroes free, but he believed that the Bible taught that slavery was sanctioned by the Creator Himself, who maketh all men to differ, and instituted laws for the bond and free. He therefore accepted slavery, as it existed in the South, not as a thing desirable in itself, but as allowed by Providence for ends which it was not his business to determine.”

As Irons reported:

the vast majority of white evangelicals in the South believed that God had ordained slavery in the Old Testament, that Paul had explicitly affirmed it in his Epistles, and that Jesus had not challenged it in the Gospels. There was even a relatively stable corpus of proof texts, featuring prominently the infamous Pauline exhortations for servants to submit to their masters (various expressed, cf. 1 Corinthians 7: 20-24, Ephesians 6: 5-9, and 1 Timothy 6: 1-8, for example). Many, however, did not feel the need to articulate a formal scriptural rationale for their actions.”

They did, however, feel the need to make sure that blacks knew that slavery was a divine commandment. A revealing document on this subject is the book (available online here) The Religious Instruction of the Negroes In the United States by Charles Colcock Jones, 
Savannah: Published by Thomas Purse, 1842. 
 (© This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

Even just by scanning a selection of chapters from the table of contents of this book, one gets a fairly good idea of the goals of white supervision over the religious instruction of blacks.

PART II.
THE MORAL AND RELIGIOUS CONDITION OF THE NEGROES

1. The Moral and Religious Condition of the Slave Population, . . . . . 125

(a) Ignorance of the Doctrines and Duties of Christianity, is prevalent among the Negroes, . . . . . 125
(b) Intimately connected with their ignorance is their Superstition, . . . . . 127
(c) Their sense of obligation to improve their religious privileges is seriously defective, . . . . . 128
(d) They have but a poor standard of moral character, and are indifferent to the general corruption of manners that prevails around them, . . . . . 129
(e) The frequency of Church Discipline and the character of the crimes requiring it, cast light upon their Moral and Religious Condition, . . . . . 131
(f) Brief view of prevailing vices, . . . . . 132
1. Violations of Marriage Contract, . . . . . 132
2. Uncleanness, . . . . . 134
3. Theft, . . . . . 135
4. Falsehood, . . . . . 135
5. Quarreling and Fighting, . . . . . 136
6. Insensibility of heart, . . . . . 137
7. Profane swearing, . . . . . 137
8. Drunkenness, . . . . . 137
9. Sabbath breaking, . . . . . 138

2. Moral and Religious Condition of the Free Negro Population, . . . . . 145
[1.] Prevailing Vices, . . . . . 145
(a) Lovers of pleasure and show, . . . . . 145
(b) Proverbially idle, . . . . . 146
(c) Improvident, . . . . . 146
(d) Addicted to profane swearing, . . . . . 146
(e) Quarreling, . . . . . 146
(f) Sabbath breaking, . . . . . 146
(g) Drunkenness, . . . . . 146
(h) Theft, . . . . . 146
(i) Lewdness, . . . . . 147

PART III.
OBLIGATIONS OF THE CHURCH OF CHRIST TO ATTEMPT THE IMPROVEMENT OF THE MORAL AND RELIGIOUS CONDITION OF THE NEGROES IN THE UNITED STATES, BY AFFORDING THEM THE GOSPEL.

2. It is the duty of the white churches in the Free States to afford the Gospel to the Negroes in those States, . . . . . 171
[1.] Because of their general poverty, . . . . . 171
[2.] Their moral degradation, . . . . . 172
[3.] Their dependence upon the whites, . . . . . 172
[4.] And of consistency, . . . . . 173

IV. Benefits which would flow from the faithful Religious Instruction of the Negroes, . . . . . 206
1. There would be a. better understanding of the relations of Master and Servant, and of their reciprocal duties, . . . . . 206
2. The pecuniary interests of Masters would be increased, . . . . . 208
3. Religious instruction would contribute to safety, . . . . . 210
4. Would promote our own morality and religion, . . . . . 216 
Page xi
5. Much unpleasant discipline would be saved the churches, . . . . . 217
6. The souls of our servants would be saved. Conclusion to Part III, . . . . . 218

(Resumption of Discussion):

Returning to Stonewall Jackson, he may have believed he loved the little black children, and that he was helping them by teaching God’s intentions for their subservient existence. And indeed, there would be less need for harsh treatment of slaves if they were more accepting and compliant. For Jackson did believe in slavery, even if only “as God’s will.” And he believed in the graceful Southern way of life made possible by having slaves. [One is reminded of Thomas Jefferson having the leisure to study and write about all men being created equal because he had over 100 slaves to tend to his needs while he cogitated.]

Should all this matter for a children’s book?

In fact, it should matter more, for ideas often get inculcated before they are even understood: cultural production informs what is taken for “knowledge.” Moreover, the book jacket states of the author, Rickey Pittman, “his goal is to provide reading audiences with an ‘accurate book written from a Southern perspective’ among ‘the politically driven and often historically inaccurate materials currently available on the Civil War.’” I would totally agree with the last part of that sentence, but I would put this book into that category.

Evaluation:

I really like the quality of the watercolors in this book, even though they consistently portray very happy slaves and a very benevolent (and dark) Thomas Jackson. But the illustrator’s technique is lovely.

I have no complaint with the prose per se, except that its content is ultimately absurd.

I do not feel this book should be read in isolation from a critical analysis. On the contrary, I think this book would make a wonderful teaching and discussion tool for teachers on how “history” is in fact a chronicle of events that reflects a particular perspective of what happened. It is so important for students to understand that historical interpretations are contingent: they are filtered through conceptual lenses that reflect the interests and biases of the writer, and often the social and political agenda of his or her society. The book itself is meant to be pedagogical. Shouldn’t then, teachers ensure that this attempt to construct memories not be allowed to take place without equal consideration of the omissions that truncate and distort the historical documentation?

Rating: 3.5 for illustrations, 1.5 for content

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13 Responses

  1. Excellent post and thanks for the link back to Civil War Memory.

  2. Terrific post! I love how you supported your opinions. Very well said!

  3. Jill, this is a brilliant post. Very well done. I agree with your bottom line assessment: children should be taught to think and question all the “facts” given them. Let’s make that all people should think and question. To me the book comes across as humorous, but looked at from the other perspective, could be considered dangerous.

  4. Your post was excellent and I can see that amount of research and work that went into it. I agree with you about the content of this one…very dangerous indeed!

  5. I feel like you are doing research papers over here for your posts … I feel lazy by comparison. I do think it matters … and I do think history is “fluid” and shaped by those who present it. I am so ready to counter anything “wrong” or “inaccurate” that my Little One is taught in school!

  6. Your research on this is impressive! Well-written, well-reasoned, and a good job of pointing out what looks to be the author’s underlying goal here. Makes me mad just to think about it. Especially when it’s going to be championed in an attempt to glamorize and simplify reality.

  7. You always do such a thorough job on your reviews. I just get caught up in everything you say. Nice job.

  8. I am embarrassed to say that practically the sum total of my knowledge about Stonewall Jackson is contained within “Barbara Frietchie”, which I memorized at age seven. Nothing from history class seems to have stuck with me but I can still recite most of that silly poem.

  9. Many children’s books about historical figures are simplified and white-washed versions of the actual personality and events. That we can take for granted, and let children know that.

    I had to look up the word hagiography. This definitely applies frequently to Helen Keller, a favorite topic for children’s books, yet she was an extremely complex and radical person.

    Anyway, when a children’s book becomes a hagiography or historical fiction, it should be labeled as such!

  10. A fair, thoughtful and objective review. There was actually no intention to render Jackson as mixed race. Relative to the other white people featured in the book, I felt because Jackson spent much more time in the rugged outdoors. When only black and white depictions are available, it was jut my reading of the color of his skin tone. Thanks for thinking the illustrations well done.

  11. As a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans I would like to say that I do approve of this book about a little known aspect of a Southern general and believe it will go a long way towards showing positive aspects of Southern historical heritage.

    As to your analysis, I respect where you are coming from in trying to explain the attitudes of white Christian Southerners of that time period (and indeed how many Northern Christians felt toward African Americans based on scriptures). Indeed America and much of the white Christian world at that time (particularly the British Colonies of South Africa and India) shared much the same racial attitudes for non-whites.
    However, as someone who has studied the man himself, while I believe your view of how he saw slavery as an institution and the black man’s role in it is accurate, I do not think that was the sole motivation for Jackson’s creation of a Black Sunday School.
    Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was a Christian man of his time, as such he took the racial views of the time for granted and they were simply second nature, but not the motivation for crating the school.
    He came to Christianity not long after the end of the Mexican War and his respect for the Scriptures, as well as his own noted benevolent treatments of black slaves (including those he owned) was motivated by how he saw Christ’s teachings.
    While he did accept a view of slavery that is unacceptable by modern standards, he was within the limits of his upbringing a decent person of faith. In modern terms he would be considered a Progressive–at least within those racial standards.
    He created the school because he was motivated by the Christian view of going out and teaching all about the Word of God. He saw African-Americans (slave and freedmen) as people who needed to know the word of God and find fulfillment in the teachings and faith.
    Such was his faith and convictions that he even endured the outrage of more outspoken neighbors who were not as understanding in their attitudes and were even hostile and threatened Jackson, despite his status as a prominent citizen of Lexington and his great service to the country (though the latter probably prevented him from being subject to much worse attack, or even threats on his own life).
    Jackson was not motivated to keep anyone “in their proper place” but rather by a sincere view that everyone needed to hear and understand God’s Word and be able to read the scriptures.

    All in all you did present your arguments with no real malice toward Jackson and I respect your civility. I even agree to a degree with your views about white attitudes of the time in America.
    I often wonder what Jackson would think of America and the South today if he were to see it?
    I doubt he would advocate racial hatred upon seeing how both white and black today have progressed as human beings. Nor do I believe he would support individuals and agents of hatred who disgrace America with violence and civil unrest (to a soldier like him unrestrained mob violence would be an abhorrence) .
    Instead he would be saddened at how much of the world views Christianity would be my guess.

    • C.W.
      Thank you for your extensive comments. I think the phrase “benevolent treatment” is problematic with respect to slavery. Certainly there was a continuum of better versus worse treatment, but considering people to be property can never quality in my opinion as benevolent in any way. I also think that Christians who thought enslavement of black people and their progeny was part of God’s plan were either not reading or misreading the Bible. I also don’t believe in imposing religious beliefs on others, especially those who weren’t free to dissent. But I will concede that Jackson was no doubt acting from motives that were from his view benevolent.

    • i don’t think the writer; intended to say that Stonewall’s motive for teaching black children or people was for control only. It deffinatelly
      was a way of life; Stonewall was not a theologion, and he had been
      taught by his Pastors negative theology that black race of people were cursed; one would have to read some of the 18th and 19th century scholars that taught the mark of caine in Genesis is Black skin
      and Ham (Noah’s son) was cursed, who was the Father of the Black
      races in the world. This type teaching Stonewall was exposed too!
      which makes his thinking to be better as a white man then a black man. Today we know that is not the truth. It was preached from the
      pulpits of the main stream Churches; Most believe that until this day.
      The problem with the theology is that the first Church in acts was a mixed Church. Where even the apostle Paul got his orders from the Holy Spirit, to start his missionary journeys. Also Ham was not curse
      his son canaan was cursed they ended up the enemies of the Hebrew
      people. No other Black raced was cursed. The mark on Caine no one
      knows exactly what that mark is. The Idea of one race being better that another is a foolish Idea! Those are dangerous, they are the thoughts of (Hitler). In Acts 17:25,26….from one man he made all men and give them breath…and placed them in their habitation.
      This I believe was the text that Abe Lincoln struggled with; seeing that
      all men are created equal, then Black men could own slaves too!
      Of course the Preachers of that day and in the south would not dare
      let them know that they were equal! We forget that Masters were commanded to treat their servants with respect and love knowing that
      they had a master too! Not rape their women, not sale their children, not beat and hang their Men. I believe Stonewall love for God and his
      Christian walk was to help morally educate them but He also
      know he
      was going into battle and you did not need any enemies behind and on your property!

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