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Denmark Vesey’s Challenge to a Biblically Literate Nation

Denmark Vesey’s Challenge to a Biblically Literate Nation


As Christians in America seek to think carefully and faithfully about racial issues in the culture and in their churches, good historical understanding must be a part of that process. Such understanding should include the reality of slavery, not just as a hypothetical institution but as a lived experience of image-bearers of God.

When I teach classes about slavery, I emphasize the existence of several large conspiracies against slavery, plots that give the lie to the myth of happy and contented slaves. The largest uprising, carried out in Virginia, was led by Nat Turner in 1831.

A decade prior, Denmark Vesey, a free African American in Charleston, South Carolina, laid the groundwork for his own slave revolt. This year marks the bicentennial of his eventual execution. Vesey first appears in the historical record as an enslaved teenager in Bermuda, although it’s possible he was born in West Africa, kidnapped, and brought to the Caribbean. A failed sale led the ship’s captain, Joseph Vesey, to bring the young man to Charleston. Vesey developed a trade in carpentry, and in 1799 he won a major lottery, allowing him to purchase his freedom.

Vesey could have continued plying his profession peacefully, but he rankled under the injustice of slavery, a burden he still felt as several of his children remained enslaved. He was also inspired by the American Revolution’s promise of equality, rooted in a divine creation of all. So he began plotting an uprising, enacted mostly by enslaved men, to set fire to Charleston, kill as many whites as resisted, and escape to Haiti.

When recruitment reached too far, however, the conspiracy was discovered. Vesey and the other plotters were arrested. After trials, they were executed in the summer of 1822. Then retribution expanded to others with any connection to the leaders. In all, 35 African Americans were executed, with one group of 22 hanged at the same time.

Through the drama of that year, the Bible loomed large. The place of the Bible for Vesey, for opponents of slavery, and for white Southerners who developed a proslavery Christianity is the central concern of Denmark Vesey’s Bible, a new book from religion professor Jeremy Schipper.

We know Vesey read from the Bible—by himself, in large groups, and when recruiting for the uprising. He was a class (small group) leader at the African Church, a congregation associated with what would become the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Vesey knew both the political and biblical arguments against slavery. He was particularly moved by the condemnation of “man stealing” in Exodus 21:16. Not only those who kidnapped slaves but those who purchased them came under God’s judgment.

Vesey thus believed and taught that violent uprising was a righteous cause. He and his followers would be reenacting the path of ancient Israel, both in desiring release from Egyptian bondage and in waging war against the Canaanites to gain a promised land.

In the wake of Vesey’s conspiracy, three prominent Christian leaders in Charleston published works advancing a proslavery biblical interpretation. Benjamin Morgan Palmer, a pastor and vice president of the Charleston Bible Society, drafted a public statement claiming Paul’s letter to Philemon endorsed slavery as part of the natural order. Richard Furman, a prominent Baptist pastor, portrayed slavery as a justifiable domestic institution. Emphasizing the positives of paternalism, he pictured slave owners as patriarchs with obligations to their slaves. Finally, Frederick Dalcho of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church advanced a contorted argument that the “curse of Ham” justified slavery. Meanwhile, he defended teaching religion to enslaved people but suggested they not have direct access to the Bible.

In tracing these arguments, Schipper tracks down the references, quotations, and biblical allusions that make sense of the internal logic of both antislavery and proslavery arguments. I was struck by how biblically literate the culture was—many writers assumed their readers or hearers would automatically understand references to Scripture.

At the same time, the book misses a real opportunity to speak to broader developments in American Christianity. Schipper provides close readings of the main documents growing out of the conspiracy, but these largely focus on a mere handful of interesting works. As a result, the book doesn’t give any sense of the larger impact these debates had on the country or its churches.

Fortunately, another work focused on the Bible and American culture has just come out: Every Leaf, Line, and Letter, an outstanding essay collection edited by Wheaton College professor Timothy Larsen. In this book—I’ve been reading it alongside Denmark Vesey’s Bible—Mark Noll traverses some of the same ground as Schipper, but he provides additional insights to understand Vesey, his use of the Bible, the context of the debates, and their larger impact.

Noll points to the window of 1820–1821 as a defining moment, when the controversy over Missouri statehood and Vesey’s revolt crystallized proslavery and antislavery logic for the next four decades. Noll shows how Vesey’s biblical interpretation drew on a broader antislavery argument, concluding that the biblical debate over slavery formed a crisis for the popular understanding of “sola scriptura.” How were Bible-believing Americans to react if Scripture was sufficient yet interpreters came up with diametrically opposed understandings of what it demanded? And if the appeal to Scripture was insufficient to resolve the nation’s knottiest issue, where did that leave the country?

Schipper and Noll, then, both place the problem of biblical interpretation—and its ties to race and slavery—front and center. Those who love the Bible should acknowledge the problem. There are, however, several correctives to a narrow, “my Bible and me” mentality.

First, let’s ensure we’re wrestling with Scripture as a whole, rather than cherry-picking passages to support a personal or cultural agenda. Second, our readings should happen in conversation with the Great Tradition of Christian interpretation, which means listening to voices from all periods and places to avoid getting trapped in our own interpretive bubbles. Finally, we need to emphasize letting Scripture read us, transforming our thoughts and behaviors.

These approaches can help us all better read the God’s Word without bias or distortion.

Jonathan Den Hartog is professor of history at Samford University in Birmingham. He is the author of Patriotism and Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation.

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