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Review: 'Denmark Vesey's Bible' considers how religion was used to justify slavery

Denmark Vesey's Bible

DENMARK VESEY’S BIBLE: The Thwarted Revolt That Put Slavery and Scripture on Trial. By Jeremy Schipper. Princeton University Press. 216 pages. $26.95.

In his book, “Denmark Vesey’s Bible,” Jeremy Schipper does something I have never seen before. Every time he mentions an enslaved person, he follows with the name of the enslaver. For example, the first time Schipper mentions a man named Rolla Bennett, he refers to him as “Rolla Bennett, who was enslaved by South Carolina Governor Thomas Bennett, Jr.”

The effect throughout the book is powerful. As Schipper tells the story of Charleston 200 years ago, he includes not only the names of those who were held in bondage, but the names of those who held them. In so doing, he humanizes people like Rolla Bennett and reminds us that their enslavement wasn’t an abstraction. One man actually kept another man from being free. In saying the names of both men, Schipper is telling a truth that is often avoided.

“Denmark Vesey’s Bible” is an exercise in such truth-telling. It revisits the story of Vesey, a free Black man who was executed for conspiring with enslaved Black Charlestonians to revolt and win their freedom. As a professor of religion, Schipper takes particular interest in the uses of scripture by Vesey and those who opposed him. His book is a remarkable work of scholarship that unearths trial records, published sermons, and personal letters as it documents how the Bible was used to justify both the Black freedom struggle and the efforts of Whites to maintain the practice of slavery.

In an opening discussion of his method, Schipper admits that the historical record consists primarily of White voices, testimonies, and impressions. Few of the words of Vesey and his co-conspirators were recorded and passed down. Even so, Schipper finds and amplifies Black voices as best he can.

What stands out in the book is its radical contrast. Vesey referred regularly to the Bible as he organized people to rebel. In house meetings and hushed tones, he preached from the Book of Exodus, which told the story of the Israelites’ liberation from their Egyptian overseers.

Vesey preached that Black people in America were the new Israelites and that God was on their side as they struggled to throw off the yoke of oppression. He also preached that there was no sin in taking up arms to fight White enslavers. The sin, according to Vesey, was to be found in the evil of slavery itself, not in those who sought to overturn it. The White community in Charleston, however, saw it very differently.

White magistrates, politicians, and clergy used the Bible to justify a social and economic order that benefited them. Schipper guides readers through their arguments that Charleston’s racial hierarchy was divinely ordained and every person should gratefully and obediently fulfill their role. He gives particular time and attention to the role of Charleston’s White clergy, including the pastors of Circular Congregational Church, First Baptist Church, and St. Michael’s Episcopal Church.

As the current pastor of Circular Congregational Church, I read these sections of the book with great interest. Schipper shows Charleston’s White churches to be deeply invested in the social structure of the time and unwilling to challenge it. All of the pastors wrote in defense of slavery and used the Bible to justify its violence, though they quoted different chapters and verses than Vesey had.

It is sometimes said that we should not look back on previous eras and judge them by our standards. What Schipper documents so well, however, is that in 1822 there was an ongoing debate over slavery. Each side used scripture to preach its view. Northern abolitionists, itinerant ministers, and Black freedom fighters like Vesey invoked the Bible to condemn slavery as a sin just as White Southerners appealed to the Bible to support the violence of a social order predicated on forced labor.

This contradiction was so well-known at the time that one of Vesey’s co-conspirators even mentioned that they planned to round up White clergy and demand an explanation. In his confession, Bacchus Hammet said that they intended to show the pastors passages from the Book of Exodus and ask, “Why they did not preach up this thing?” Put another way, why did they preach that enslaved people should be obedient instead of preaching that it was God who brought people out from bondage?

Bacchus’ question, which he meant to put to Charleston’s White clergy 200 years ago, still resonates. Why do so many churches fail to preach liberation from the oppressive systems and structures of their day?

Jeremy Schipper has given us a great gift with this book. He has uncovered the truth of Denmark Vesey’s day and brought it to bear on our own. Perhaps most importantly, he has shared with us names we did not know. After I set the book down, I thought of the names of White clergy who were on the wrong side of history, in their time and ours. Yet the names I’ll remember and carry forward are of those not so well-known in Charleston.

Our freedom fighters, including Denmark Vesey, Batteau Bennett, Ned Bennett, Rolla Bennett, Peter Poyas, and Jesse Blackwood.

I’m grateful to Schipper for giving us their names.

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Reviewer Jeremy Rutledge is senior minister at Circular Congregational Church in Charleston.