Genovese’s ‘Consuming Fire’ Tracks South’s Commitment to Slavery

A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South
By Eugene D. Genovese
University of Georgia Press, 171 pages

Eugene D. Genovese’s A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South tracks the South’s commitment to slavery both before and after the Civil War, showing adherence as much more than a means to a productive economic end, but rather a steadfast devotion to the Word of God.

Delving into southern lay and clerical belief that slavery, while in need of reform, was a basic Christian right, that a master who did not spread the Word of God to his slaves or treat them as brethren, was doomed to lose both the war against the North as well as their coveted place in God’s Heaven, historian Eugene Genovese shows through personal statements and biblical text that the South did believe slavery was not merely sanctioned but encouraged by the Bible. Yet as any good historian would, Genovese also presents the converse: after all, if slavery was found in the Bible, if Christians were simply following the will of God, why after losing the Civil War did the south invoke a new racism, a new social order, separating blacks from whites in almost every possible social and political realm, especially if that was not found in the Bible?

Though slavery and southern will cannot be discussed without noting its political and economic implications, the heart of A Consuming Fire centers around two fundamental questions: “Did not the actual conditions of slave life in the south significantly lapse from biblical standards?” and “Would not the changes necessary to bring Southern Slavery up to biblical standards in fact replace slavery with a markedly different form of personal servitude?” The author answers these questions by structuring his work around biblical references, research and southern perspectives. The chapter headings, derived from biblical quotation, espouse Genovese’s theme – “Waiting on the Lord,” “Give an Account of thy Stewardship, “In your Father’s Stead,” “An Uncertain Trumpet” and “The Sixth Seal”; one can already see where the work is going and where it will end.

Genovese finds evidence to his cause from a variety of sources. “Southerners grounded the proslavery argument in an appeal to Scripture and denounced abolitionists as infidels whom were abandoning the plain words of the Bible. The Southern divines, relying on the Word, forged a strong scriptural case.” He goes on to quote clerics like Thornwell and Eliot, the latter of whom believed God used war to set his people back on the right course.

A Consuming Fire’s argument is strong, for after broaching the Southern idea that slavery was inherent to the Christian race, after discussing the failed battle to secede, and the southern belief that the South lost the war for failing to meet their ends in reforming slavery, Genovese moves on to discussing the Southern Christian implantation of a new social order – one in which newly feed blacks were seen as less than whites, where blacks were separated from schools, politics, and of all things, churches. Some southerners knew that God invoked and could revoke His sanction of slavery at any time, but others believed slavery to be absolute and binding. According to Genovese southerners did see blacks (as well as laboring whites) as racially inferior, and the divines “foresaw a stratified order based on the strict subordination of the laboring classesâÂ?¦In effect, they foresaw a transition to a different form of bound labor, whether called slaver or not.” This latter idea is crucial, for regardless of whether Christians saw slavery as God’s sanction and inherent, there can be no sense drawn from their Christian right to segregate – the South’s biblical argument rings null and void.

Genovese makes us think – was our previous conception of Southerners as wicked racists too hasty? Could Southerners have really believed that they were carrying out God’s Word? A Consuming Fire makes us ponder these questions, then interjects hard facts – racist separation held to place in the Bible. Through Genovese’s work we must ask ourselves why slaveholders thought it was a sin to treat slaves poorly and not in accordance with the Lord, but hardly thought twice about the purity in owning people as chattel.

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