This dissertation demonstrates the central role of proslavery theology in the politics and collective identity of white American southerners---not just before, but also during and after the Civil War. It examines, more generally, the way that nineteenth-century Americans used evangelical religion to legitimate, defend, and debate political and social arrangements. Through an analysis of sermons, evangelical newspapers, and ministers' correspondence in Kentucky, this study contends that proslavery theological arguments formulated before the war were recast in the post-slavery era as justifications for Jim Crow and as sources of neo-Confederate identity.
Recent studies of the interface between religion, politics, and culture in the postbellum South acknowledge that proslavery ideology continued to exert enormous influence on the shaping of the late nineteenth-century South's segregationist order. Yet most histories, by positing the Civil War as a period divide, overlook important continuities that spanned the era. If historians are aware that proslavery ideology remained vital after the Civil War, scholars have yet to explain precisely how that thought evolved and survived, especially after the death of legal slavery. The key to the persistence of proslavery ideology, this project argues, lies in the persistent power of proslavery theology.
Kentucky, the geographic focus of this dissertation, offers an ideal opportunity to explore the long life of proslavery religious thought. As a border slave state, it remained with the Union during the Civil War. However, after the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery in 1865---eight months after Confederate surrender---white Kentuckians embraced a decidedly pro-Confederate stance. White religious understandings of slavery and racial difference were key to the forging of Confederate identity in the postbellum Bluegrass State. Kentucky's postbellum white population, led by clergy and laity who rejected civil rights for African Americans, came to a broad embrace of Confederate ideas and paved the way for the emergence of a dominant white Democratic political bloc in the state.