Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow defended slavery on religious and benevolent grounds. How could the abolitionists censure what the Bible endorsed and which so benefited the slaves? His claims reached farther than that, though. Stringfellow also insisted that slavery benefited the white race. At this point, a modern reader immediately thinks that of course whites benefited. The profits made with the theft of black labor flowed into white pockets. Surely Stringfellow meant not that whites benefited in a materialistic sense. One could not defend slavery just by saying how rich one got from it or how it funded fine civic projects.
Yet he did. Abolitionist and antislavery Americans of the age viewed slavery as an economically backwards, unproductive enterprise. It retarded progress and put a millstone around the nation’s neck. Nineteenth century Americans loved progress above most other concepts. Believing in America meant believing in progress. That progress could come through territorial expansion, the opening of new lands to white settlement, or technological development, but it all fed into the spirit of the time. They rode the railroad and telegraph into the future. Calling slavery a retrograde impediment to progress also called it unpatriotic and unwelcome in the future of iron and steel that seemed just around the corner.
Stringfellow would have none of that:
We have now the statistics furnished in the census: they are in reach of all; their truth can not be disputed, and we are now enabled to determine beyond controversy the effects of negro-slavery. The men of the north are peculiarly, a “calculating” people, accustomed to deal with facts and figures; and a large majority of them we believe disposed to be just, to listen to fair argument, to yield to the force of truth: to them we submit with confidence the startling evidence furnished by the census.
Listen up, Yankees. You like your numbers and B.F. Stringfellow has some numbers for you. Taking pains to make fair comparisons, he chose to weigh the statistics for the New England states against their similarly developed slaveholding peers: Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Going through the census, Stringfellow found
These five Southern States, with a free population of only 2,198 greater than the six New England States, have nearly double the number of churches, capable of accommodating a million more worshippers, at but little over half the cost!
Godly New England seems awfully disinterested in building houses of worship, even though it had more towns in which to situate them. The slaveholding states built more churches, for more people, for less money. They surely could not have done the last without the benefit of slave labor. The blood and sweat and toil of black slaves made for godly white men. And they even let the slaves worship with them, contrary to abolitionist claims that slaveholders kept back from their property the benefits of religion:
These Southern States contain a population, including slaves, of 720,410 more than New England: yet in New England there are 200,000 more who cannot find a seat in the house of God! These Southern churches can not only accommodate every man that could be crowded into the temples of New England, but would then give room to more than a million of slaves!
The picture grew even worse for New England when accounting for the fact that more than two hundred of its churches called themselves Unitarian or Universalist, and thus not really Christian at all. In all the South, the census found only eight such dens of heterodoxy.
Something about the northern air sent people to imagining dubious religious innovations in general:
Out of the census, we can point to Mormonism with its polygamy; Millerism, Spiritualism, as taking their birth, flourishing alone where abolitionists are found. The Stowes, and Beechers, with the Fanny Wrights, and Abby Folsoms, are to be found alone in that land which produced Joe Smith, Miller, the Misses Fox.
What is it which has thus reversed the condition of these people, set at naught all our experience; has converted the indolent thoughtless Southerner into the humble orthodox Christian; while the men of the north, the world over noted for religious enthusiasts, the sons of the Puritans, have fallen from their simple stern devotion, become setters up of strange doctrines?
The abolitionist movement did draw a great deal of support from Upstate New York’s Burned-Over District, known for its religious innovations. One can’t argue with those facts, though one need not share Stringfellow’s suspicion of new, novel religious ideas.