During my college’s most recent commencement I found myself completely distracted from the usually entertaining and joyous proceedings. As I sat in the outdoor amphitheatre my eyes and attention were drawn to a small group of earnest looking people seated in front of me. My attention turned completely to them as they were joined by an ever-increasing number of security personnel and paramedics. Throughout the growing commotion, a well-known, influential, and very impressive alumna was addressing our graduates in what I’m sure was a thoughtful and engaging speech. I heard none of it. There was an elephant in the room that prevented me from giving her a moment of my attention; someone was in distress and I was concerned about her wellbeing. This moment made me think about what it might have been like for enslaved men and women to listen to a nineteenth century Christian minister in the South. Imagine what your response would have been to a sermon such as this.
“I want to tell you about a God who made you and me and all that is around us. This powerful being that created you, loves you dearly and wants you to be happy. But you will notice that God has made us differently and has placed you in the care and service of those he made like me. Our loving God has given me the responsibility to teach you his ways and to instruct you on how to have a purposeful life. Likewise, he has given you the responsibility of being obedient to me and my kind in all that we do and say. If you are obedient, you will be well cared for in this life and have treasure in heaven upon your death. If you are disobedient, you will be punished in this life and the next. If you heed my words and those of your masters, all will be well. What say you? Who among you will come and serve the Lord who placed you in my hands?”
It is difficult to imagine that most slaves—or anyone for that matter– would willingly listen to and embrace such words. While some did find a way to move beyond the restrictive tenets of the slaveholders to adopt Christianity, as I argue in Slavery, Civil War, and Salvation, most of the enslaved population did not. Just like the gravely ill woman at commencement, slavery was too great a distraction to allow most people to pay attention to the person and the message before them. The elephant in the room was simply too big.
Daniel L. Fountain is an associate professor of history and director of the public history program at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina. His book, Slavery, Civil War, and Salvation, can be purchased at 40% off during LSU Press’s Civil War Sale.