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Stonewall Jackson's Black Sunday School by…

Stonewall Jackson's Black Sunday School

by Rickey Pittman

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Such an unusual text. It definitely sheds a little light on the guy that comes up in the textbooks on the side of the Confederacy. The Civil War is such a confusing subject, not just because it was our country against itself, but because the reasons people chose to fight for the side they chose are so varied. It's tough to even conceive of the thinking behind each person's choices today because I don't think that we view ourselves, our states, or our country the way that people viewed them at the time. Mobility has changed us, but I tend to believe that there's a lot of grey area in the reporting. This book brings up that grey area for me. I like it for that. ( )
  matthewbloome | May 19, 2013 |
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.

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.

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.)

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.


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


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.


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? ( )
1 vote nbmars | Feb 28, 2010 |
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In 1855, people of color began attending Sunday school at the Lexington Presbyterian Church in Virginia. Stonewall Jackson himself was the first superintendent of the school. This nonfiction children's picture book tells the remarkable story.

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