This archival analysis of 19th-century Protestant pro-slavery rhetoric shows that positive evaluations of disability concealed debilitation practices on plantations. The examination complicates a narrative in disability histories that associates Christian teaching with only a negative evaluation of disability as indexing a state of sin. Instead, the article explains how positive and negative evaluations of intellectual deficiency coalesced within a theological imaginary to shore up white Christian consciences, allowing for and encouraging the violence perpetrated against the enslaved. The article concludes, following Jasbir Puar and Julie Avril Minich, to query whether re-inscribing a positive evaluation of disability does disability justice?


This essay traces the language of disability, especially intellectual deficiency and simple-mindedness, in 19th-century defenses of slavery. By following associative connections, the archival analysis examines disability's rhetorical transportability between figures of the depraved African and the faithful servant in the Christian imagination. This article shows how dynamic imbrications of disability and race within the architecture of the Christian salvation narrative justified slavery. White Protestants borrowed from dominant medical narratives and traditions of Christian charity to imagine the movement of black flesh towards salvation. The illusion of spiritual progress legitimized the preservation of a racialized order and containment of the enslaved, a dynamic Janet Jakobsen terms "mobility for stasis" (Jakobsen, 2020).

Attending to rhetorical patterns in mid-century documents from both the North and the South illuminates how the language of intellectual disability proliferated public sermons and religious tracts to do more than link the enslaved with depravity. For example, some associated an "unsophisticated" intellect with the innocence of an "honest heart" to emphasize slavery's cultivation of pious, good-natured black souls (Rivers, ca. 1850-1860s). In his pamphlet, "The Bible View of Slavery (1861)," John Henry Hopkins, the first Episcopal Bishop of Vermont, talks about the limits of human reason and his own "weak and erring intellect" to elevate biblical authority over subjective feelings of injustice (Hopkins, 1861, p. 2). James Henley Thornwell, in his sermon "The Christian Doctrine of Slavery," described the development of states as a "slow process" marked by "ignorance and blindness" (Thornwell, 1850/1873, p. 431). Thornwell explains that, despite human limits, God works through the relative progress of society to achieve "His own great purposes" (p. 432). Weak intellects indicate a state of sin and God's providential care, a debased nature and Christ's present perfecting work. Tracing this rhetoric uncovers how disability's movement within Christian stories anchored racial inequality. Protestants deployed the language of disability to construct the fabric of a Christian moral imagination that recused slavery of its violence.

Indeed, Christians involved in the myth-making of slavery's benevolence moved disability around. They practiced transvaluation to connect intellectual immaturity with signs of sin and divine favor. Although defenders disagreed about whether slavery was a moral good or a natural evil contingent on a shared fallen state, they concurred God ordained the master-slave relation to dignify, ennoble, and sanctify human hearts. 1 Punishment, they said, guards theological and national ground under threat by cultivating virtuous habits that fit blackened humanity "for thrones in the kingdom of God" (Thornwell, 1850/1873, pp. 415-419). Disability signified that Africans were "fallen beings tainted with a curse" and that God had carved a path for blackness to make its way towards "ultimate being" (Thornwell, 1850/1873, pp. 420; 426). "Our culture," Stephen Elliott, Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Georgia, preached, "has changed them from savages into servants, from barbarians into men of Christian feeling and Christian sympathy" (Elliott, 1862, p. 21). Of course, images of human destiny also contested the extent to which salvation could ever be said to extend to the enslaved. Christian discussions of the transformation wrought by grace gestured towards a universal human destiny that included the enslaved only if conversion expunged all remnants of African heritage. 2

Exploring both negative and positive evaluations of disability in Christian pro-slavery arguments, this analysis advances three interrelated claims about Christian attempts to preserve the institution of American slavery. First, the associative link between blackness and intellectual deficiency formed the basis for two opposed symbol systems—that of the depraved African and the faithful servant. While invoking contrast to show the radical difference between the black sinner and the one saved, Christians characterized both figures as intellectually deficient to stabilize subordination. Second, Christians deployed the hermeneutic of providence to re-imagine the plantation as a technology of empowerment that strengthens the impaired black soul. God, Christians preached, works through the master-slave relationship for pedagogical purposes. Subordination and physical restraint instill virtues, like obedience and gentleness, to shape subjects into images of Christ. Third, intellectual disability joined with symbols of childlike innocence to signify black progress towards internal perfection. The language of infancy and adolescent behavior reinforced salvation's dependence upon paternalistic familial relations. Then, Christians mapped two-tiered familial relations onto theological relations, such as the God-human relation, to further legitimize differences in the distribution of power. Even though Christian discourse often privileges the position of the child, the positive associations between childlikeness, faith, and blackness worked to assuage white guilt by aligning Christian masters with fatherly benevolence. In the end, the examination complicates a narrative in disability histories that associates Christian rhetoric with only a negative evaluation of disability as indexing a state of sin. Both positive and negative valences of intellectual deficiency coalesced within a theological imaginary to shore up Christian consciences.

Signs of Sin: The Need for a Physician

The first claim of this analysis draws on the observation that the narrative of Christian salvation itself is "highly malleable" (Tanner, 2005, p. 32). In the mid-19th century, the salvation story transported blackness between two opposing symbolic fields. Christian ministers argued that divine involvement with the world through slavery caused the debased African to make the "happy change" to a faithful servant (Hopkins, 1863, p. 13). This material and symbolic transformation did not occur because Christians convinced themselves of an inherent possibility within blackness. Rather, they attributed transformation to the belief that God refuses to give up on the enslaved. Christians deployed medical imagery to exaggerate the gulf between the two figures, attesting that God condescends to the depths of fallen humanity—the African—to bridge an unbridgeable divide. And so, compared to its African antitype, the faithful servant achieves development in every aspect of life. As one newspaper editorial explained, "Wherever it exists now, the condition of the negro is superior, in a moral, social, religious and intellectual point of view, to the degraded free negroes who 'eat his yams and sniggers at Buckra'" ("The Downfall," ca. 1863). Indeed, theologians emphasized that the radical transformation of blackness witnessed to the extraordinary power of God's grace and the good that God worked through slavery.

Ideas about black deficiency and moral degeneracy have deep roots in Christian history. Long before the Enlightenment, the idea of the African was constructed from within the Christian imagination and projected onto black bodies (Jennings, 2010). Christians stitched monstrous images of presumed physical, sexual, and behavioral abnormalities with moral, spiritual, and intellectual deficiencies. They called black skin visible "badges of a fallen world" (Thornwell, 1850/1873, p. 420). As Stephanie Hunt-Kennedy argues of the Atlantic context, symbolic associations between blackness and deformity, as well as deformity and depravity, justified the institution of slavery (Hunt-Kennedy, 2020, p. 37). But by the mid-19th century, Jenifer L. Barclay (2021) explains, rhetoric that had centered on the fantastical construction of the African adopted a new façade bolstered by objectivity offered through "influential scholarly disciplines such as comparative anatomy, ethnology, and phrenology" (Barclay, p. 65). As a Presbyterian elder says in a letter to his son at college, not only "scripture and physiology," but also "history…shows that they are not, never have been, and I may add, never can be, the equals of white men" ("A Letter," 1863, p. 15). Pastors, theologians, and other church leaders used developing standards of normalization to enhance their arguments demonizing black flesh.

Following the professionalization of medicine in the 1830s-40s (Davis, 1995), theological defenses borrowed from the changing world to strengthen arguments for racial inequality. Theologians increased the salvation story's authority by drawing on diverse domains. Scales of defectiveness corroborated degrees of spiritual lack and supported the individualized treatment prescribed for progress towards eternal life. In contrast to the secularization thesis that suggests science replaced a theological framework (Baynton, 2001, p.19), ministers incorporated insights from science and medicine into their Christian stories to further shape the conscience of whites in antebellum America. Industrialization reinforced certainty in the progress offered through faith in Christ. Notions of developmental progress, American achievement, the significance of science, and the importance of empirical observation merged within the salvation narrative arch to support familiar Christian sentiments about a corrupt nature and the power of God to elevate each to glory.

Using salvation for subjugation required that Protestants grant black humanity—even as presumed deficient. This recognition allowed ministers to connect slavery with the divine will, identify slavery as a legitimate Christian enterprise, and fit those enslaved with the constraints of Christian virtue. As Saidiya Hartman puts it, "the recognition of humanity… to tether, bind, and oppress" was "one of the striking contradictions of chattel slavery (Hartman, 1997, p. 5)." Indeed, ministers defined black personhood through images of a corrupt lineage. They deployed associations between disability, illness, and sin to undermine the quality of African humanity. George Cummins, Henry Hopkins, and Samuel F. B. Morse, each paired blackness with signs of a debased and diseased nature requiring external control (Cummins, 1861; Hopkins, 1863; Morse, 1863). They claimed God ordained the institution of slavery as a corrective mechanism for the uneven distribution of natural evil in human persons expressed through racial differences. And since they believed Africans contracted and transmitted sin in the greatest measure, they argued that defective lineages required more intensive interventions for salvation.

Biblical interests in mapping progenitors magnified these racial logics of congenital contagion. Referring to a distinctly modern interpretation of Genesis 9, Christian ministers claimed the bible offered an account of the origins of racial differences that justified black subordination. 3 For them, "the curse of Ham," explained the hierarchical arrangement of persons despite common ancestry. After Ham sees his father drunk and naked, so the story went, Noah condemns Ham's son Canaan's posterity. God, then, imprints blackness on the flesh of Canaan's children to mark them as cursed. As a result, Ham's line through Canaan remains set apart, in a traceable way, as "a servant of servants." 4 One Presbyterian elder described this physical marking as "a supernatural interposition, by which a portion of the race were made negroes, specifically distinct from and subject to their white brethren" ("A Letter," 1863, p. 11). He continues to explain that "the black skin and woolly head, &c., are the miraculous attestations" of God's Divine decree through "the mouth of Noah" ("A Letter," 1863, p. 15). Here, phenotypic attributes not only index the structure of race but also gesture at God's wondrous involvement with the world. Counterintuitively, racialized signifiers combine with a positive sense of divine activity to turn physical traits into signs of God's grace. As a discursive tactic, combining racialized marks with religious sensibilities mollified ill-feeling by shifting the affective register away from negative feelings about slavery or black sinfulness, and towards positive feelings about God's goodness, mercy, and love.

Connecting the curse of Ham to divine grace, and deemphasizing punishment, affectively distanced white Christians from the enslaved. Because ministers interpreted pain as a spiritual blessing, and enslavement as a sign of God's goodwill towards the created order, they explained away white feelings of sympathy and injustice as mere confusion and ignorance. Affective distancing was further exaggerated by theological practices of temporal distancing (Jennings, 2010). Without denying black humanity, Euro-Americans imagined themselves by birth further ahead on a linear path toward salvation. Hopkins, for instance, tells the Ham story to set up such temporal relations between racialized groups:

The heartless irreverence which Ham, the father of Canaan, displayed toward his eminent parent… presented the immediate occasion for this remarkable prophecy; but the actual fulfillment was reserved for his posterity, after they had lost the knowledge of God, and become polluted by the abominations of heathen idolatry. The Almighty, foreseeing this total degradation of the race, ordained them to servitude or slavery under the descendants of Shem and Japhet, doubtless because he judged it to be their fittest condition (Hopkins, 1863, p. 118).

Hopkins's use of the curse of Ham "spatializes time" to evidence a series of linked presuppositions (Fabian, 1983/2014). For him, the narrative confirms a truly human soul in the African. By including blackness within the concept of the human, Hopkins says that the African descended from Adam, 5 but remains the furthest fallen from grace because of Ham's sin. As a result, knowledge of God is taken away from those of African descent. They revert to conditions that existed in the past—a time without the knowledge of God—which spurs generational decline and corruption through the "abominations of heathen idolatry."

Hopkins uses this appeal to a congenitally transmitted sin nature to make black people accountable to God for Ham's "original sin," and so responsible for their own enslavement. This produces both ontological justification and divine ordination for black entrapment in a subordinate position located, in a strong sense, backward in time. All the while, Hopkins plays on white sentimental feelings. He argues that despite inhabiting relations of servitude, the faithful servant (that which the African is not yet, but destined to become) is nonetheless the white master's brother. A relationship that, in its Christian form, Hopkins says, God founds on kinship ties of "mutual love" and "mutual dependence" (Hopkins, 1863, p. 120). Rhetoric of brotherhood, love, and mutual dependence protects against feelings of injustice by depicting the present social order as part of God's plan for spreading divine goodness. God's love is distributed down to those enslaved through relationships with the white master and his family. Hopkins articulates a vision in which white development places the Anglo-American in the future tasked by God with reaching into the past to pull up the diseased and blackened brother from its reverse trajectory, falling ever further into sinfulness.

"The Feeble African Parasite"

Medical imagery dramatized the Christian vision of African monstrosity caused by over-exposure to sin and the liberative healing affected by a disciplined life of faith. The language of disease, diagnosis, and cure unfurled a riveting dynamic between bondage to sin and the "freedom" accomplished by Christ through the impartation of obedience to the divine will. Degrees of degradation and the severity of the congenitally transmitted sin nature, what Episcopalian preacher George Cummins called "the feeble African parasite," required variegated prescriptive measures (Cummins, 1861, p. 20). As Willie Jennings has argued, supersessionist thinking transferred Jewish election to Anglo-American election, making the white path to salvation relatively easy (Jennings, 2010). Protestants presumed God bestowed a light formational burden upon whites. In contrast, since sin ravaged the African continent, they insisted God prescribed a harsh treatment to purge the more corrupt substance—black flesh—of its dross.

Against this background, Samuel Morse (1863), the famed inventor, painter, and developer of Morse Code, draws on a biblical image from Matthew 9:9-13 to illustrate the racial dimension of sin. 6 Referring to the passage's physician analogy, he asks: "When a physician is called to a case of disease, how does he proceed to accomplish a cure? If he be a wise man, will he not consider it essential to make himself acquainted with the nature both of the constitution of his patient and the diagnosis of the disease before he can prescribe judiciously?" (Morse, 1863, p. 4). Morse identifies Christ as the "Great Physician" who separates "a people intelligent, just, self-controlled, and truly religious" from "a people of the opposite character—ignorant, unjust, restive, factious, and irreligious (Morse, 1863, p. 11). Then, God provides a "system of restraint" adapted to the particularities of each race (Morse, 1863, pp. 7-11). According to Morse, "Disobedience was grafted into man's nature; and so, man lost the image in which he was created, and voluntarily took the image of Satan, whose whole nature is in opposition to the will of God" (Morse, 1863, p. 5). Fortunately, Morse writes, God established a plan for "elevating these degraded beings" (Morse, 1863, p. 19). God devised the institution of slavery to bring "good to the barbarous race" (Morse, 1863, p. 18).

Morse's account shifts to talk about how slavery turns a "degraded race" into "a blessing instead of a curse to the world" (Morse, 1863, p. 18). God's good will towards "the least of these," he says, transforms the slave of sin into a slave of righteousness (Morse, 1863). Unrelenting in his use of contrast as a rhetorical device, Morse further exaggerates the difference between the monstrosity that unleashed sin cultivated in Africa and the images of civility that plantation life progressively (over successive generations) produces. Morse favorably quotes George Canning saying:

…we must remember that we are dealing with a being possessing the strength of a man, but the intellect only of a child. To turn him loose in the manhood of his physical strength, in the maturity of his physical passions, but in the infancy of his uninstructed reason, would be to raise up a creature resembling the splendid picture of romance: the hero of which can sketch a human form, with all the corporeal capabilities of a man, and with the thews and sinews of a giant (Morse, 1863, p. 16).

By inserting this quote from Canning, Morse rehearses the supposed difficulties associated with the expansive character of blackness. Through images of monstrosity, he reduces the problem to a basic imbalance between hyper-development at the physical level and lack of intellectual development.

The dynamic interplay between the figures of the monster and child uses otherworldliness (difference) and human sympathy (similitude) to trigger a pendular movement in the evaluation of weak intellect. In the monster, intellectual insufficiency signifies violent brutality. In the child, intellectual insufficiency signifies open receptivity to instruction and control. Morse contrasts monstrosity and childlike innocence to show the radical discontinuity between black life separated from white domination and black life joined to Christ under Christian "brotherhood." And yet, his comparison preserves intellectual deficiency as a shared element between opposed imagined subjects.

Signs of Grace: Faith Like a Child

Christian ministers offered an explanation for the institution of slavery that centered on the progressive transfiguration of the black body. They shifted between the demonization of black flesh and the glorification of the pious slave. Regarding the former, William Breckinridge said, "They are a people addicted to vices" even as "many of them are virtuous—many of them are truly religious" (Breckinridge, ca. 1860). Regarding the latter's constitution through the constellation of blackness, intellectual deficiency, childlike innocence, a Presbyterian elder wrote, "They are imitative beings… men, possessing the mental powers and capacities of white children" ("A Letter," 1863, p. 15). In this section, I analyze a newspaper clipping from the antebellum South to show how images of faithfulness, innocence, and intellectual lack characterized black salvation. Then, I turn to the magnification of telos white Christians envisioned for black life as it emerges in the Lost Cause mythology of William Boggs (1881). Boggs exemplifies how discussions of the abandonment of black achievement vilified those emancipated. In reversing the value of intellectual limitations and their significations, we'll find that, in different historical moments, white Protestants moved disability between the untamed African and the servant joined to Christ to reinforce the goodness of subordination.

While many figured the faithful servant as childlike, and so timid, hyperemotionality and physical expressivity also reinforced the sanctity of the master-slave relationship. For instance, in a newspaper editorial from around 1860, one Georgia slave owner reports attending a lecture on abolitionism with his family. He remarks to his wife, "I want to take 'Sue' [his slave] along, for I am anxious to see how it will strike the mind of an unsophisticated and honest-hearted creature such as she is" (Rivers, ca. 1850-1860s). Sue stands in for the faithful servant because of her diligent service, her "attachment" to the white family, and her Christian piety. Following the lecture, the slave owner states that Sue "in a tone of earnest inquiry" asked whether the man had been speaking about "our Georgia." Discovering that he had, Sue "with head thrown back and hands upraised exclaimed, 'Good sake, missus! Why somebody must have told him monstrous lies; for old as I am, I never heard nothing like all that in our Georgia" (Rivers, ca. 1850-1860s). Here, the author uses Sue's enthusiastic body for rhetorical emphasis, counteracting the abolitionist's "tirade" regarding the abuses of the South. Sue, the author tells us, could do nothing but speak the truth—in part because of her strong faith, and in part because of her "unsophisticated" intellect. The author indicates that Sue represents a melding together of two inheritances—one biological (her simple-mindedness) and the other adoptive (her faithfulness and pure heart). Sue reflects on the culmination that some white Christians imagined possible for black life.

Once emancipation threatened white comfort, many Protestants doubled-down on the image of the faithful servant as a relic of a bygone past. Indeed, the familiar transposition of the symbol of blackness between the African and the faithful servant inspired nostalgia for the plantation and animosity towards free blacks presumed to have fallen back into waywardness. For instance, in his address to the Annual Meeting of the Survivors' Association, William Boggs (1881), a confederate chaplain and later chancellor of the University of Georgia, uses the language of simple-mindedness and perpetual childlikeness to center faithful servants as signs of the goodness of the plantation for the distribution of God's gifts (p.52). He remembers the black body as a site for the transformative power of the Spirit. Once "debased savages," "white brothers" reformed the enslaved through the disciplinary measures of the plantation to model "order, decency, and industry" (Boggs, 1881, p. 51). Now converted through discipline, he says, the enslaved eventually became "more sinned against than sinning" (Boggs, 1881, p. 51). In the speech, Boggs artfully moves between positive and negative evaluations of blackness and intellectual deficiency, saying that "these good-natured colored men… must be either more or less than human" (Boggs, 1881, p. 51). He uses opposing associations to show that the gospel elevates the black soul and, at the same time, confines blackness to an inferior /intellectual and social position.

Boggs's sentimental rhetoric takes part in what Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (2020) calls the plasticization of blackened humanity, where "blackness is produced as sub/super/human at once" (p. 3). Constructing two diametrically opposed figures, Boggs draws out the radical difference between the "debased savages, the naked worshippers of fetishes, the dupes of Obi-men, and of Gre-gre women, some of them being eaters of human flesh" and the "faithful and kind… black servant" (Boggs, 1881, pg. 51-52). Under the tutelage of white masters, Boggs says, "they forsook their bestial idolatry" and Christ transformed them into "sincere worshippers of the God of heaven" (Boggs, 1881, pg. 51-52). Reproducing the pattern of the Christian salvation narrative, Boggs images the depraved African as disciplined into a state of childlike innocence by Christ's work through the white family's paternalistic benevolence.

Across the archive, the faithful servant, saved by grace, stands in contrast to the African corrupted by sin. Christians animated both figures through imagistic renderings that amplified physical characteristics to illuminate an internal character. 7 They added fantastical elements of anatomical monstrosity extracted from giants and wild beasts to the African body (Barclay, 2021). They described the faithful servant attending Sunday school with well-kept hair and shoes on her feet (Morse, 1863; Boggs, 1881). In each case, outward signs indexed an internal moral and intellectual state. African nakedness connects with idol worship and murderous lawlessness. Skull shape and jaw placement "proved conclusively," according to Bryan Tyson (1863), "inferior intellectual endowments on the part of the black race" (p. 40). 8 In contrast, well-dressed slaves testified to a newfound mild demeanor, virtuous character, and enhanced quality of life, despite their "pitiable" level of intellect (Rivers, ca. 1850-1860s). Racialized hierarchies of sentimental religious feeling imagined the redemption of blackness through an affective register of white Christian charity that reinforced the perceived ontological inferiority of black being. But black flesh also functioned in the Christian imagination as a gesture towards the idea that God's grace extends to "the least of these" (Matt 25:40). And that notion made possible white comfort and complacency.

In sum, comparative thinking within the framework of salvation stretched blackness between opposed symbol systems. Christian defenses of slavery emphasized a range of movement permitted to [forced upon] blackened humanity. There was no fixity of signification; the symbolic field expanded from the demonic to the undeveloped child. Christians strategically shift between negative and positive associations to exaggerate the possibilities of transformation for the human form joined to Christ. Union with Christ does not detract from blackness and its association with intellectual deficiency. Instead, intellectual deficiency moves fluidly between the two forms to maintain the logic of subordination, no matter one's location on the path towards salvation.

A School of Virtue

Historians of American religious thought underscore the significance of Christian belief in divine providence for the defense of slavery (Stowell 1998; Noll, 2006). Since providence indicates God's continuous involvement with the world and governance over human history, if slaveholding Christians construed a modicum of certainty in the visibility of divine activity in their homes and communities, then Christian ministers could comfortably locate the plantation inside a divine plan for the world. They used statistical evidence to support their contentions, such as the number of slaves who converted to Christianity or worshiped in American churches (Morse, 1863). They compared the rate of violent crime in slaveholding states to crime among white northerners in metropolitan areas like New York City (Hopkins, 1863). And they supplemented statistics (that which was measurable) with anecdotal evidence, confirming divine presence through sensible experience and human relationships. As Thornwell demonstrates in his romanticization of the relationship between the enslaved and the white family, "We have seen them [the enslaved] rejoice at the cradle of the infant, and weep at the bier of the dead; and there are few amongst us, perhaps, who have not drawn their nourishment from their generous breasts" (Thornwell, 1861, p. 38). Staunch defenders invoked providence and the distribution of God's grace through relationship to confirm the social, moral, and spiritual benefits of the structure of the plantation for individuals. Crucial to their argument was an image of the plantation as a necessary pedagogical tool that leads individuals out of sin and into the freedom promised by Christ's death and resurrection. Describing the plantation as a school that helped nurture black life prompted white satisfaction in their own charitable gift-giving.

Like a classroom of school-aged peers, ministers explained that God set each individual within a unique set of relationships to aid one's growth in virtue towards eternal life. As Thornwell proclaimed, "let him [the individual/the slave] feel that he is placed in community, not to part with his individuality, or become a tool, but that he should find a sphere for his various powers, and a preparation for immortal glory" (Thornwell, 1850/1873, p. 426). Thornwell affirms the unique capacities of the individual, as well as the fit between the individual and the plantation, for expressing one's powers. The institution becomes a useful regulating mechanism that God can work in and through for "preparation for immortal glory." God arranges unique roles within a complex social-economic network for the benefit of both the individual and universal humanity (Thornwell, 1850/1873, p. 406). Events in human lives, especially those involving pain and suffering, became part of God's intricate, pedagogical plan for quelling tendencies towards sin, promoting the formation of virtuous habits, and encouraging the Spirit's movement in human hearts.

With this, we arrive at the next claim of the analysis. Protestants deployed the connection between the universal and the particular within the doctrine of providence to confound obvious hierarchical arrangements. As Robyn Wiegman argues, a rhetorical emphasis on racial particularity obscures how whiteness regulates the universal (Wiegman, 1999). Protestant defenses of slavery confirmed God's ordering of the whole with God's establishment of the unique conditions of possibility for each individual to make their way out of sin and back "home" to God (Morse, 1863). Of course, because of a belief in black intellectual inferiority, theologians like Thornwell called "subjection to a master, the state in which the African is most effectually trained to the moral end of his being" (Thornwell, 1873, p. 423). Intellectual deficiency features prominently in these discussions as the reason behind the presumed fact that "liberty has failed to benefit the negro," but proved successful for the white master (Hopkins, 1863). By transferring the hermeneutic of providence to the site of the particular, white Protestants aligned God's care with racialized narratives about intellectual abilities that then determined the unique pedagogical requirements for the transformation of each soul. A focus on the individual within a universal narrative allowed Christian ministers to return to the idea that divine love extends to the same degree towards each human person. Despite differences in circumstances and different degrees of developmental progress, God calls each to the same ultimate destiny. The discourse about race, disability, and the spiritual benefits of debilitation in Christian defenses of slavery centers the racialized particular as driving towards a common destiny in response to special duties arranged by God according to one's capacity. Racial particularity helped Christian ministers construct divergent paths for moral and spiritual progress that culminated in a singular, universal goal.

In addition, Christians used providence to reverse the associations that juxtapose slavery and freedom. By talking about slavery in terms of a mechanism for spiritual liberation, Christian ministers articulated a theological vision that pictured God administering physical discipline and restraint to free the black soul held captive by sin. Importantly, Christians did not primarily frame slavery as a punishment for African depravity. Rather, they argued God ordained slavery for pedagogical purposes—the "training up" of black flesh—for the freedom made possible by incorporation into Christ's body. Educational metaphors of human growth and development as blossoming under strict tutelage influenced talk about the goodness of slavery. Drawing on quaint schoolhouse images helped Christians replace negative feelings with positive associations tied to chalkboards, wooden desks, adoring teachers, and intimate friendships. Just as educators argued that intellectual and behavioral growth at times necessitated physical disciplinary measures, Christian defenses of slavery wrote off the violence of the plantation as necessary for moral and spiritual development.

For instance, Stephen Elliott, an Episcopalian bishop in Georgia, depicted divine activity through educational metaphors to capture the supreme graciousness of God. Comparing Israelites' enslavement in Egypt to American slavery, Elliott writes, "as Egypt was the land of refuge and the school of nurture for the race of Israel, so were these Southern States first the home and then the nursing mother of those who were to go forth and regenerate the dark recesses of a benighted Continent" (Elliott, 1862, p.11). Believing that the divine purpose of American slavery was to return those enslaved to Africa as missionaries, Elliott preaches the responsibility of white people to "rise up, in a true Christian temper, to the sublime work which God has committed to us of educating a subject nation for his divine purposes" (Elliott, 1862, p.11). Elliott's sermon demonstrates how the extended metaphor of schools, teaching, and tutelage softened the severities of plantation life in the Christian moral imagination.

Thornwell is an excellent case study in this regard. Thornwell imagined racially divided subjects slotted into pedagogical systems fitted to their particular, racially marked ability statuses. Divine power, for him, was dispersed downward through an educational and racial hierarchy. Slavery, he explained, "is [just] one of the schools in which immortal spirits are trained for their final destiny" (Thornwell, 1873, p. 430). Although there are diverse possibilities within the pedagogical matrix, eternal "merit," Thornwell argues, "depends not so much on the part which is assigned, as upon the propriety and dignity with which it [the part] is sustained" (Thornwell, 1873, p. 430). In this spiritual "training" system, the individual learns how to inhabit ordinary occupations. Formation by grace primarily changes one's attitude and disposition. Any task or social status, Thornwell supposed, can be equally undertaken with the glory of God in mind.

After he professes the benefits of such individualized crafted instruction, Thornwell details the humane conditions of the education network. He explains this treatment saying, "The Christian beholds in him [the slave], not a tool, not a chattel, not a brute or thing, but an immortal spirit, assigned to a particular position in this world of wretchedness and sin, in which he is required to work out the destiny which attaches him, in common with his fellows, as a man" (Thornwell, 1873, p. 430). Thornwell uses this familiar Protestant logic to emphasize not just that God functionalizes mundane situations, but that God ordains each individual's situation in its full scope. The theological implication here is that one need not remove oneself from one's lot to benefit from Christian formation; doing so, according to Thornwell's view, will only hinder the Spirit's progress. Dissatisfaction in one's role disrupts, he thinks, the inner workings of a system divinely arranged to distribute God's grace.

Rhetorically, however, Thornwell's suggestion that the plantation was a school for spiritual maturation reimagined the debilitation of American slavery as a means of spiritual empowerment. In so doing, it accomplished symbolic reversal on a grand scale. In his Address to all Churches of Christ, Thornwell develops this pedagogical framework for divine providence, further saying:

The truth is, the education of the human race for liberty and virtue is a vast providential scheme, and God assigns to every man, by a wise and holy decree, the precise place he is to occupy in the great moral school of humanity. The scholars are distributed into classes according to their competence and progress (Thornwell, 1861/1873, p. 461).

By reversing the logic that puts freedom and subordination at odds, Thornwell's educational metaphor exemplifies a pattern of argumentation in Christian defenses of slavery that appeals to American sensibilities. Thornwell, Morse, Cummins, and others argued that only through subordination and submission to ordained social structures could one achieve genuine freedom. In other words, they believed the institution of slavery created the conditions of possibility for black freedom. Because sin had corrupted the black body, such that there were longer "elements within it from which to form a government," the African needed "a government imposed upon it from without" (Morse, 1863, p. 17). Crucially, by framing the plantation as a site of spiritual education and growth, Christians developed a theological strategy that associated enslavement with spiritual freedom and physical freedom with captivity to sin. The rhetorical emphasis on the particularities of black disability obscured how whiteness and able-bodiedness regulate the universal.

Mutual Dependence and Childlike Innocence

Many and diverse theologians criticize the modern ethos for its reliance on independence and self-sufficiency, but discussions of mutual dependence, mutual love, and relational reciprocity did just as much to perpetuate racial subordination by concealing the violence of slavery. Christian ministers compounded the good of slavery's debilitation by mapping familial relations (parent-child; brother-brother) onto master-slave relations. For instance, in "Slavery a Divine Trust (1860)," Presbyterian minister Benjamin Palmer writes:

In our mutual relations we survive or perish together…My servant, whether born in my house or bought with my money, stands to me in the relation of a child. Though providentially owing me service, which, providentially, I am bound to exact, he is nevertheless, my brother and my friend; and I am to him a guardian and a father (pp. 66-67).

Palmer and his contemporaries celebrated the paternal compassion cultivated under imbalanced power relations. They argued that human relationality mirrors divine relationality towards the created world. But given the recurring insistence on black intellectual inferiority, blessed ignorance, and childlikeness, Christians perceived even the black slave who inhabits an angelic spiritual status as possessing only a simple mind, and therefore confined to a lesser position within the body politic. Ministers did not malign this subservient position. Rather, they recognized it as an equal station for God's glorification and for habituating oneself to the divine will. And so, the final claim of this analysis is that despite attributing fidelity and an affectionate character to blackness, positive evaluations moved through the figure of the child to incorporate ideas about the innocence and ignorance of children within the concept of the faithful servant. This allowed Christian ministers to further legitimize subordination and cast physical violence as a suitable disciplinary tactic, so long as it was administered by a wise and generous father.

For the Christian defense of slavery, the household was the basic unit of human life. Its codified arrangement of constitutive relations, ministers argued, contributed to the regulation and development of human hearts. The master-slave relation, of course, was thought of as an essential aspect of the household that instructed both sides in responsibility and obedience, bringing about an "elevation of mind," a "high sense of honor," and responsibility before God. Thornwell, for example, described the master-slave relation "on the same footing as other relations" ("The Church and Slavery, 1851, 386). Master-slave, parent-child, husband-wife, he explained, are relational pairings that are "essential to good order and promote material, social, and spiritual well-being." Using medical metaphors, he emphasizes that slavery is a "healthful operation" of the body politic. Whereas abolition would be a "violent and hasty amputation" that inflicts "a fatal stroke upon vital organs of the system" (p. 394).

Morse offered a similar vision of the household as a set of cooperative relationships in which individuals find themselves nested. But for him, each of the household relations (husband-wife; parent-child; master-slave) was modeled after the more primary relation of ruler-ruled (Morse, 1863, p. 8). While Morse included civil government under the primary relation, the meaning of ruler-ruled referred directly to the God-human relationship or God's organization of the human species for their own fulfillment. Morse described the absolute power of God as raining down goodness to the lowly. In response, the human side responds to God's love in tribute, trembling, praise, and thanksgiving. Abiding by the primary relation was to "comprehend that slavery to God" is "Man's highest freedom," and obedience by which all good things flow (Morse, 1863, p. 7). Indeed, Morse argues that "the essential idea of Slavery, Obedience to a superior, is inherent" to the structure of each familial relation. According to Morse, God "perfectly adapted" this "system of restraints to human nature for a unified purpose of inspiring cooperation for the conjoint replacement of our disobedient selves with Christ's own obedient nature. The removal of any one divinely instituted restraint, Morse says, would be to "venture upon" a "glaring mutilation" (Morse, 1863, p. 8).

In both cases, the language of disability—amputation, mutilation, fatal stroke—vivifies the risk of white injury in order to obscure the transference of symbols between relational pairs. For instance, after Thornwell calls abolition a "hasty amputation" of the order of society, he explains that the enslaved are like one's own children. God charges the master to "care for his [the slave's] soul" in ways suitable to the unique circumstances and particularities of each (Thornwell, 1850/1873, p. 396). Thornwell then lists black intellectual inferiority, childlikeness, and "proneness to superstition and extravagance," as reasons why Christian masters must feel themselves responsible for the religious education of the enslaved—what he calls "the cure of souls." Morse goes further still. Following his remark about abolition as a glaring mutilation, he argues that slavery is not just one element within familial relations. In a strong sense, he calls it fundamental to the structure of all ordained social relations. So "when the child is willful, headstrong, stubborn, unruly, then it is that the Slavery element of the [parental] relation asserts its power and brings its severities to bear, to subdue the native disobedience of the young heart…" (Morse, 1863, p. 12). In contrast, when "obedience is cheerfully rendered by the Slave," then one witnesses "some of the most beautiful examples of domestic happiness and contentment that this fallen world knows" (Morse, 1863, p. 12). For Morse, all "healthful" relations are patterned on the more basic master-slave relation. He worries that to undo the master-slave relation would be an irreparable tear into the constructed system.

Reversal and transposition strategies work to avert white injury. These Protestant defenses render faithful servants as children; they render disobedient children as slaves. As Cummins conveys the matter, after he displaces Christian responsibility for the institution of slavery onto both God and the African, "God has brought these people to our doors and placed them in our homes, and said to us by His Providence, 'take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give thee wages'" (Cummins, 1861, p. 20). He continues:

Nothing so powerfully nourishes the Christian graces of the parent, as the responsibilities of his relation to the children whom God has given him. To a Christian slaveholder, his slaves occupy to him a relation scarcely less inferior to that of children; they form a part of his household, and for their temporal and eternal welfare he feels himself responsible to God (Cummins, 1861, p. 25).

Cummins not only held God and the African responsible for slavery, he also made white Christians responsible for slavery's maintenance. He called maintenance a moral good—necessary for the proper functioning of the household. What's more, the white master owed his protection of enslavement to God. "The temporal and eternal welfare" of slaves, Cummins claimed, could only be fulfilled through containment in a subordinate position and the benevolent enforcement of moral restraints. The collapse of children with slaves conceals that Cummins's rhetoric permits violence against both subjects (children and slaves) for the sake of eternal salvation.

Conclusion: Christian Stories

In response to those who view intellectual disability primarily in terms of lack, theologians today overcorrect for presumptive deficits by attaching spiritual gifts, vocations, and callings to those marked intellectually disabled. Some recover the language of weakness and its correlation with the indwelling of Christ in 2 Cor. 12:9-10 (Macaskill, 2019). Others recover the Christian use of disability to signify regeneration and divine sovereignty (Brock, 2019). These reparative projects helpfully outline Pauline and Augustinian strands of the Christian tradition that positively value disability and its normative associations as signs of God's faithfulness. Each assumes that by elevating disability, making disability a positive signifier, and incorporating disability into ideas about divine will for human lives, Christians will take part in bringing justice to their communities. If Christians view the disabled as equal recipients in the gift of God's grace, then together disabled and non-disabled church-goers will find novel ways to include the disabled in Christian worship. Indeed, Christians hope to tell a new story about the location of disability in the theological imaginary in order to effect real material change. 9

But this theological strategy seems to me insufficient. Incorporation rarely works. Following Julie Avril Minich's warning regarding the position of disability studies in the neoliberal academy, my sense is that positive absorption of disability into dominant Christian discourses "might foster complacency about ongoing injustices faced by disabled people" (Minich, 2016). And as Roderick Ferguson shows, discursive and material absorption too often occurs because institutions seek to avoid injury produced by external resistance (Ferguson, 2012). When institutions include minoritized bodies in a homogenous vision, he says, movement towards justice ceases. Moreover, as Jasbir Puar convincingly argues, positive signification lends itself to overlooking the racially based hierarchical arrangement of people and lands that undergird the marking of a subject or place as particularly well-suited and open for debilitation (Puar, 2017).

This archival analysis follows the language of disability, in part, to challenge the strategy of recuperating positive evaluation. I've shown how incorporating positive evaluations into self-same narratives obscures the expansion of structures of subordination. In mid-19th century Christian stories about salvation positive associations between intellectual disability, childlikeness, and the reception of grace contributed to the justification of black subordination. Tracing this rhetoric illuminates how disability functions in Christian defenses of slavery to link opposed symbol systems. Black imbecility characterized both the debased African and the faithful servant. Then, I argued that Christians recast the plantation as a divinely ordained, pedagogical mechanism that empowers those supposedly cursed with weak intellects. Finally, I turned to the deployment of disability rhetoric as a means to strengthen commitments toward averting white injury. Images of white injury elicited fear that primed Christians for acceptance of the mapping of familial relations onto master-slave relations. By associating the faithful servant with childlikeness, innocence, and ignorance, Christians heightened the moral standing of the black slave and retained the necessity for social structures of subordination. In the end, and this is the crucial point, the language of intellectual deficiency enabled blackness to move within the architecture of a nineteenth-century Christian imagination without upsetting a presumed racialized order of humanity.

Christianity's use of the symbol of intellectual deficiency structured an intricate theological imaginary, not limited to the connection between disability and sin. In fact, Christian ministers used disability as a sign of the wonders affected by a transformation of grace to justify the discipline and containment of black bodies on plantations. An archival analysis of Christian defenses of slavery makes plain the fluid use of disability as a symbol to ensure that blackness indicates bodies divinely ordained for subordination—no matter their position on the path to eternal life. The plantation, Christian ministers argued, is a healthful social operation because it trains the intellectually deficient for a life of Christian piety and moral decency. Indeed, in this framework, white Christians imagined themselves educators responsible for the development of black life. Christians elevated the image of the faithful servant as blessedly ignorant in order to feel better about their own life-denying behavior.


My sincerest gratitude to Linn Tonstad, Kathryn Tanner, Wendy Mallette, Emilie Casey, Eric Gluck, and the two anonymous reviewers for feedback on earlier drafts of this essay. I also need to express my appreciation for the Political Theology Network. The argument benefited from the brilliant observations of my colleagues during the PTN summer workshop series.


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  1. Expanding on this point of the "virtues of slavery," Ted Booth (2019) explains Christian ministers argued that slavery had a sanctifying effect on white slaveholders too, teaching them responsibility and care.
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  2. For a rejection of this view, see Boynton (1867).
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  3. See Braude (1997).
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  4. See Hunt-Kennedy (2020).
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  5. Thornwell (1861) makes a similar claim regarding the humanity of the African: "No Christian man, therefore, can give any countenance to speculations which trace the negro to any other parent but Adam. If he is not descended from Adam, he has not the same flesh and blood with Jesus, and is therefore excluded from the possibility of salvation" (p. 36).
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  6. In Matthew, after being questioned about sharing a meal with sinners, Jesus responds "it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick."
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  7. As Benjamin Palmer (1861) puts it "By nature, the most affectionate and loyal of all races beneath the sun; they are also the most helpless" (pp. 65-66).
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  8. The best discussion of how distorted perception of racialized bodies shaped the "scientific" analysis of skull, jaw, and bone structure is still Stephen Gould's The Mismeasure of Man.
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  9. Brian Brock (2019), for example, argues that God's work through those with intellectual disabilities and those without leads to more than infrastructural improvements, like ramps and lifts, but has the capacity to deconstruct ideas about personhood, the Western medical gaze, and even the organization of society.
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