Slavery and Sacred Texts
The Bible, the Constitution, and Historical Consciousness in Antebellum America
- ISBN: 9781108478144
- Published By: Cambridge University Press
- Published: July 2021
In Slavery and Sacred Texts: The Bible, the Constitution, and Historical Consciousness in Antebellum America, Jordan T. Watkins offers a chronological demonstration of the development of historical consciousness in the United States. His argument seeks to demonstrate that “antebellum Americans’ growing realization that historical changes created temporal distances from their favored biblical and founding eras” (5). Furthermore, it is the unique “religious and legal nature of American society,” one that privileged the Bible and the US Constitution as sacred texts, that “created the conditions for the nation’s profound confrontation with history” in the crisis over slavery (15).
Watkins deploys a few technical terms throughout the monograph that are important for the argument. Historical awareness and historical consciousness “signify a growing sense that historical changes have created historical distance between past and present eras, and, more specifically, between biblical and revolutionary times and nineteenth-century America” (2 n.7). Historical distance “signifies a temporal dislocation and dissonance between historical periods,” more than an acknowledgement of a passing of time, the term “refers to crucial distinctions in human experience across discrete historical eras” (4). For Watkins, the term “favored past” means “golden ages imagined as sharing a fluid relationship with the current era” (3).
The first three chapters look at a broad range of religious thinkers in the first decades of the 19th century and their confrontation with history and the Bible. In chapter 1 , Watkins investigates how historical consciousness in the study of the Bible developed in the United States through German higher criticism of the Bible, which “used philological and historical tools to ascertain the origin, context, and factual veracity of biblical narratives” (36). In chapter 2, the author argues that Transcendentalist figures contributed to the growing sense of historical distance between the biblical past and the present era. In chapter 3, he progresses into the 1830s and 1840s to show that the problem of historical distance became acute as pastors and theologians debated the legitimacy and morality of slavery in America. The author reads these debates to reveal the growing sense of awareness that the biblical past and the present era are distinct.
In the next two chapters, Watkins shifts to Americans’ other favored past and sacred text to look at how historical awareness also emerged from engagement with the United States Constitution and the founding era. He deals with the 1830s and 1840s in chapter 4. As the last living founding father, James Madison’s death in 1836 signaled a historical distance between the founders and the present era. Further, the publication of new historical sources, notably Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention published in 1840, provided Americans the opportunity to seek the original intent and meaning of the framers, most often to make an appeal to the framers’ expectations for future generations to encourage readings of the Constitution open to change. Watkins helpfully shows how different abolitionists used historical readings of the Constitution in their arguments for abolition, sometimes with quite different attitudes about the Constitution. In chapter 5, Watkins looks at the slavery debate during the 1850s and in the context of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required the enslaved person to be returned to the owner even if the enslaved person was captured in a free state. The author shows during this period “whether one used historical insight to defend or damn past actions, the attention to contextual distinctions reified the sense of historical distance” (185).
One of Watkins’ major contributions is demonstrating how historical awareness and historical reasoning came to a head in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which upheld the legality of slavery, denied United States citizenship to African Americans, and declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional. In chapter 6, Watkins looks closely at the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and the dissenting opinions of Justices John McLean and Benjamin Curtis, in order to tease out how both camps display historical awareness, but require different historical readings to arrive at their position.
The last two chapters deal with the development of historical awareness after the Dred Scott decision. In chapter 7, Watkins explains historical awareness became more widespread through the ongoing public debate about the institution of slavery in the United States. Citing Theodore Parker, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln, Watkins observes that their historical arguments against slavery continued to treat America’s sacred texts as historical and authoritative documents. In the final chapter, Watkins explores the work of William C. Nell and others to demonstrate that African American abolitionists acted as revolutionary agents who were also making historical arguments. According to Watkins, these abolitionists reveal a different view of America’s sacred past, one that had been corrupted and forgotten by Anglo-American racism. This chapter demonstrates that historical awareness is more widespread than just the sources cited by Watkins in the previous chapters, strengthening his overall argument.
As Watkins points out in his epilogue, the problem of reconciling historical distance was not solved in the 19th century, and it remains an issue in 21st century America. The author “encourages a greater awareness in which we use and abuse the American past” (351). Although outside the scope of his project, this work could be useful examples in thinking about how favored pasts and sacred texts function to legitimate social structures and institutions or to challenge existing structures and institutions.
The strength of Watkins’ work is the historical argument, which progresses chronologically throughout the book. Each new source along the way in the debate over slavery reveals that slowly but surely antebellum Americans are developing a historical consciousness. If there is one minor criticism, it would be that the archive of sources favors a few key figures, and tends to give more space to northern figures. Nonetheless, the examples are ample to show the development of historical awareness in the slavery debates.
Watkins is to be commended for his clarity of thought and the organization of his chapters. The chapters do not get bogged down in minutiae or in jargon, dense prose, or overcomplicated paragraphs. The book makes clear contributions to the study of religion in America and US constitutional history, and is readable for a wider public.
John Fadden is an adjunct instructor in religious studies at St. John Fisher University, Rochester, NY.John FaddenDate Of Review:September 26, 2023