Modern Echoes of Thornwell’s White Supremacy

An adaptation of a piece written for a committee of my church (an Associate Reformed Presbyterian congregation)

Prominent Southern intellectual James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862) is known within Presbyterian circles as a major proponent for the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, his influence in the affairs of the General Assembly, and his racist ideologizing. While the ARP published a statement on ‘race relations’ in the denomination’s history in 2016, I believe we need to reckon more thoroughly with Thornwell’s (and other Presbyterian fathers’) religious thinking on race. It seems to me that ideological echoes of Thornwell’s thought can be found in contemporary Reformed cultural engagement.

Historical and philosophical theories influenced how Thornwell (and other Southern Presbyterians) taught their congregants to recognize threats to the gospel and communal peace. Three are especially significant here. Thornwell advocated for many of the propositions of white supremacy and ‘manifest destiny’ thinking. He also preached that Providence benevolently works through the governing structures of the status quo in societies. White Supremacist ideology and Thornwell’s view of Providence were then united as a religious and cohesive defense of slavery via the conservative principle of the Organicism of society.

 Organicism is an ideology that takes gradual societal change and maintenance of order to be the best means of societal improvement (Farmer 106).  Historian James Farmer writes that comparing society to an organism at the time was a

notable trend, which was both national and especially representative of the Southern mind, away from the mechanistic view of the eighteenth century… Whereas the Enlightenment had emphasized the machinelike precision of the universe, the romantic period focused on the universe as the organism writ large. Aided by the growing popularity of natural history, intellectuals increasingly likened society to a giant and complex organism. Conservatives found such images quite attractive, since they suggested a clear parallel between the ponderously slow and fragile growth of a living organism and the ‘ideal’ pattern of development in human society. Reformers beware, they could argue, you are violating a law of nature. (106)  

Antebellum Southern Presbyterians were exposed to theological training and other influences that emphasized the danger of Enlightenment/Rationalist philosophy to both Christianity and the organic view of society. Organicism and Christianity then became inseperable in the minds of many Southern theologians. As historian Joel Iliff has written, Awakened German scholars played an important role in this process: “’Following the lead of their German mentors, southerner’s deployed Wissenschaft as a tool aimed at desecularizing their society” (Iliff 16). German Wissenschaft viewed theology as a science that existed in full harmony with natural science and sociology; the study of theology in fact could in fact be advanced by the study of these other disciplines. German connections and thought, united with Organicism, provided a strong intellectual push towards taking stark societal development to be oppositional to a ‘natural’ unfolding of God’s providence. One southern intellectual and major developer of the organic concept of society, Joseph LeConte, even claimed that “God had formed coal in the earth in anticipation of man’s development of the steam engine,” showing how theology and science could be brought together to affirm or decry particular forms of social progress (Farmer 107). Farmer goes on to write about the warm reception and heavy influence of this LeConte within the antebellum Southern Presbyterian community, his position being made possible by the earlier sympathies Southern clergy developed through their theological education:

The first presentations of the full implication of this organic concept appeared in the pages of the Southern Presbyterian Review in the late 1850s and the early 1860s. … James Thornwell was the head of the group of Columbia Seminary men who published this influential journal. The articles were the product of long discussions between LeConte and his fellow intellectuals in Columbia during the late 1850s while he was teaching there.  In his autobiography LeConte writes that the faculties of the South Carolina College, the Columbia Theological Seminary, and the Arsenal Hill Military Academy ‘formed the nucleus about which gathered many intellectual men and women’ It was this company, which included William Campbell Preston, Benjamin Morgan Palmer, Wade Hampton and James Thornwell, that stimulated his thinking on the sectional crisis and on the service sociology could render to the Southern cause. Thornwell, because he was especially interested in LeConte’s thoughts on a new sociology for the South, solicited the essay mentioned above. (107) 

This theological and conservative organicism was then employed to defend Thornwell’s sympathies for white supremacy, as the following excerpts taken from his The Christian Doctrine of Slavery show. We see that Thornwell ties abolitionism to a larger construct of Rationalist chaos. He also claims that Christianity and affirming an organically slow-shifting society (modeled, he will say, by the slave-holding South) are ideologically inseperable:

The agitations which are convulsing the kingdoms of Europe [the revolutions of 1848— 1849], the mad speculations of philosophers, the excesses of unchecked democracy, are working out some of the difficult problems of political and social science; and when the tumult shall have subsided, and reason resumed her ascendency, it will be found that the very principles upon which we have been accustomed to justify Southern Slavery are the principles of regulated liberty; that in defending this institution we have really been upholding the civil interests of mankind… that we have been supporting representative, republican government against the despotism of the masses on the one hand, and the supremacy of a single will on the other. (Thornwell 1871-73, 404-405) 

It is not the narrow question of Abolitionism or Slavery—not simply whether we shall emancipate our negroes or not; the real question is the relations of man to society, of States to the individual, and of the individual to States—a question as broad as the interests of the human race. These are the mighty questions which are shaking thrones to their centres, upheaving the masses like an earthquake, and rocking the solid pillars of this Union. The parties in this conflict are not merely Abolitionists and Slaveholders; they are Atheists, Socialists, Communists, Red Republicans, Jacobins on the one side, and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. In one word, the world is the battle ground, Christianity and Atheism the combatants, and the progress of humanity the stake. (Thornwell 1871-73, 405-406) 

One party seems to regard society, with all its complicated interests, its divisions and subdivisions, as the machinery of man, which, as it has been invented and arranged by his ingenuity and skill, may be taken to pieces, reconstructed, altered or repaired, as experience shall indicate defects or confusion in the original plan. The other party beholds in it the ordinance of God; and contemplates ‘this little sense of human life’ as placed in the middle of a scheme, whose beginnings must be traced to the unfathomable depths of the past, and whose development and completion must be sought in the still more unfathomable depths of the future—a scheme, as Butler expresses it, ‘not fixed, but progressive, every way incomprehensible’’ in which, consequently, irregulatity is the confession of our ignorance, disorder the proof our blindness, and with which it is as awful temerity to tamper as to sport with the name of God. …  The part, accordingly, which is assigned to us, in the tumult of the age, is the maintenance of the principles upon which the security of social order and the development of humanity depend, in their application to the distinctive institutions which have provoked upon us the malediction of the world.  (Thornwell 1871-73,  406) 

Thornwell, a number of pages later, then refers to Paul’s assurances to slaves in 1 Corinthians. While Paul urged Corinthian slaves to recognize that their low position in a society obssessed with honor is not injurious to their spiritual participation in the gospel, Thornwell cruelly twists this. Fairly enough, Thornwell posits that Paul here takes ‘moral’ (spiritual) freedom to be more valuable than social honor, but he then illegitimately connects the Corinthians’ misguided desire for social status with the desire for increasing the societal freedoms of the enslaved. Paul’s text teaches slaves and masters, Thornwell proclaimed, that the societal freedoms of enslaved peoples ought not to be pursued at the cost of upending the moral instruction and rule of the civilized whites over them. White power needed to be guarded. While Thornwell admits that “slavery is inconsistent with the gospel, that it contemplates a state of things, an existing economy, which it is the design of the gospel to remove,” (Thornwell 1871-73, 420) he takes slavery to only be as offensive as any other social scheme that allows for inequality or the rule of some over others:

The distinction of ranks in society, in the same way, is an evil; but in our fallen world, an absolute equality would be an absolute stagnation of all enterprise and industry. … It can be affirmed that no form of government, and of no condition of society that it is absolutely the best or the worst; and in the inscrutable Providence of God, it is, no doubt, arranged that the circumstances of individuals, and the social and political institutions of communities, are, upon the whole, those which are best adapted to the degree of their moral progress. (Thornwell 1871-73, 421) 

Thornwell further defends this point with a racial and cultural claim that invokes manifest destiny and white supremacy: 

The free citizen of England and America could not endure the condition of African bondage; it would defeat his individual development. Neither could these nations endure the lifeless stagnation of Asiatic despotism. But the governments of Asia may be the only ones consistent with the moral development of their people, and subjection to a master, the state in which the African is most effectually trained to the moral end of his being.  When we consider the diversities in moral position, which sin has been the means of entailing upon the race, we may be justified in affirming, that, relatively to some persons and to some times, Slavery may be a good, or to speak more accurately, a condition, from which, though founded in a curse, the Providence of God extracts a blessing. (Thornwell 1871-73, 421) 

Thornwell did not see white southern society as the moral rulers par excellence over African American people alone. An 1845 letter from Thornwell to wife showcases another engagement with manifest destiny ideology and white supremacy:

The more I reflect upon the subject, the more I am satisfied that the mission of our Republic will not be accomplished, until we embrace in our Union the whole of the North American continent. … I go for Texas; I should like also to have California; we must hold on to Oregon, if we have to do it at the point of the bayonet; and I would be glad even to get Mexico itself. … “If the Yankees feel disposed to leave us, let them go; but the West and South can never be separated. There is at work in this land a Yankee spirit, and an American spirit; and the latter must triumph. (Farmer 246-247) 

Observe the distinction between a “Yankee spirit” and “American spirit.” Scholars have taken interest in how Southerners racialized Northerners; Farmer notes two exemplary contemporary publications displaying this racialization: ‘The Difference of Race Between Northern and Southern People,” published by the Southern Literary Messenger in 1860 and “A Contest for the Supremacy of Race, as between the Saxon Puritans of the North, and the Normans of the South,” by the same journal in 1861. Iliff provides more context, writing that “Southerners… drew analogies between their domestic opponents in the North and the opponents of the [German] Awakened, thus creating the perception of a transatlantic battle between infidelity and orthodoxy, of which the American sectional conflict became just one theater” (16). Let us hear from Thornwell again, this time eulogizing Senator John C. Calhoun: 

To say that this vast republick [sic] is, under god, the arbiter of the destinies of this whole continent, that it is for us to shape the character of all America—that our laws—our institutions—our manners, must tell upon the degenerate nations of the South, and sooner or later absorb the hardier sons of the North, is to take too contracted a view of the subject. …

With this dissolution of this Union, all our schemes of Christian benevolence and duty—our efforts to convert the world—to spread the knowledge of Christianity among all people, and the to translate the Bible into all languages must be suddenly and violently interrupted… (Thornwell 1850, 7) 

To fulfill the United States’ divine mission (violence coupled with ‘benevelence’), order was to be enforced by worthy white hands. While there may be nothing less ‘conservative’ or oppositional to ‘law and order’ than a revolutionary overthrow of the governance of established peoples, Thornwell’s delight at the prospect of the U.S. seizing lands belonging to Latino/a and indigenous people was not checked by his conservativism because of how he conceptualized ‘order.’ For Thornwell, not all social traditions and customs brought into existence with only minimal intervention from rationalizing humanistic schemes were created equal. There is a preference and respect for particular types of social institutions, customs, and legal traditions that is assumed in the key theoretical defenses of conservativism (Hamilton).[1] In this respect, there was (and is) a lack of sufficient safeguards in conservative ideology that has allowed for terrible consequences: antebellum Southerners were proud to point to their heritage and expertise and argue that their ‘organic’ institutions were the most morally legitimate, even while they, by means of these same institutions, engaged in the active and unjust oppression of African American people and set their eyes on extensive conquest. The primacy of conservative organicism over justice in Thornwell’s framing of socio-political events left him intellectually numb and unable to counter the idolatrous allure of white supremacy.

It is worth mentioning too that Thornwell was capable of this immoral thinking all while denouncing particular biologically-based arguments for racism: 

“It is a public testimony to our faith that the Negro is of one blood with ourselves, that he has sinned as we have, and that he has equal interest with us in the great redemption. Science, falsely so called, may attempt to exclude him from the brotherhood of humanity. Men may be seeking eminence and distinction by arguments which link him with the brute; but the instinctive impulses of our nature, combined with the plainest declarations of the Word of God, lead us to recognize in his form and lineaments, in his moral, religious, and intellectual nature, the same humanity in which we glory as the image of God. We are not ashamed to call him our brother.” (Thornwell 1871-73, 404)

Our antebellum Presbyterian fathers show us that we can sin and leave our pride and self-love ripe for manipulation when principles of ‘gradual change’ are idolized, made pre-eminent at the expense of what justice and mercy demand: self-reflection and honest appraisal of the humanity, needs, and capabilities of others.What can we do today? Praying for the restoration of ‘law and order’ (an already problematic phrase with a recent and racist political history) verbally obscures the reality that some of these very ordinances of ‘law and order’ have allowed and even legalized injustices against minorities and the poor. Congregants should be equipped to think empathetically about how their neighbors’ experiences under the law may be different from their own. Our contemporary rhetoric and philosophizing should demonstrate that we are aware of how quick our tradition was to call proponents of good change ‘chaotic’ and ‘secular.’ Socio-political situations may arise that require us to act quickly or question longstanding ways of doing things: conservative impulses alone do not guarentee justice.

To repudiate Thornwell’s racism thoroughly as a denomination, we need to ensure that congregants have not fallen prey to white supremacist ideology– it is a false religion that displaces following Christ as brothers and sisters with defending the notion of morally unchallengeable white rule. The church fulfills her mission when she takes her call to discipline and instruct believers and name sin both within and outside her walls seriously. When Paul and the apostles proclaimed Christ crucified and resurrected, they didn’t articulate these claims in a way that was ‘neutral’ to the political forces and activities of the world and the sinful behavior of believers. For Paul, to preach Christ crucified in Corinth was to stand in counter-witness against the cultural idolatry of honor and status. White Supremacy is a rampant ideology that operates much like the honor idolatry in Corinth—to share how the gospel equips us to fight it and embrace biblical lament over oppression and injustice might just be to preach Christ crucified in South Carolina.


Farmer, James Oscar. The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values. Mercer University Press, 1999. 

Hamilton, Andy, “Conservatism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Iliff, Joel. The Great Communion of Scholars: The American South, Germany, and the Creation of Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. 2020. Baylor, PhD dissertation. 

Thornwell, James Henley. The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell.Edited by John B. Adger. Richmond, Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1871-1873.

Thornwell, James Henley. Thoughts Suited to the Present Crisis: A Sermon, on Occasion of the Death of Hon. John C. Calhoun, Preached in the Chapel of the South Carolina College, April 21, 1850. Columbia, The Students, 1850.

[1]“A fundamental question is how far the “prejudice” that Burke advocates is non-rational. Was he against reason, or just against abstract reason? Did he supplant individual with collective reason? For Cobban, Burke was “a philosopher of unreason in the great age of Reason” (Cobban 1960: 75). A subtler view is that for him, individual reason cannot discern fully how social and political institutions work; it cannot see the entire process of communal adaptation, or understand by itself the principles on which it is based. As Hampsher-Monk puts it, institutions result from trial and error, embodying accumulated historical experience in institutional reason—like precedent within Common Law, which Burke had studied. (Pocock 1989: 211ff. discusses Burke’s debt to this tradition; he rejected legalism, and especially—since he was a kind of relativist—the idea of the Common Law as timeless and immemorial.) Burke contrasted the wisdom of the law, with the limited reflective reason of individuals—no one person can reproduce in thought the complex train of experiences and decisions that led the law to be what it is—and he relies on the tradition of sceptical and conservative empiricism in English social thought, including Coke’s critique of the Stuart monarchs (Pocock 1989).” (Hamilton)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s