Bernard E. Powers Jr. on Jeremy Schipper’s, Denmark Vesey’s Bible
The spring and summer months of 2022 marked two-hundred years since the discovery and suppression of the famous 1822 Denmark Vesey slave conspiracy in Charleston, South Carolina. This attempted rebellion was so consequential, it ensured Vesey’s name would long be associated with the city where the Civil War began.
Historically, most white Charlestonians only spoke Vesey’s name with revulsion. Even in recent years, he has been described as a “genocidal maniac” and as a murderer, although he never killed anyone and was executed by government authority. By contrast, to black Charlestonians familiar with his story, Vesey was a freedom fighter, a symbol of manly resistance. A controversial figure for sure, the last two decades has witnessed the proliferation of scholarship on Denmark Vesey and the world he inhabited. There has been a major documentary collection as well as biographies, comparative analyses and studies focused on memory and gender. One revisionist investigation even questioned whether the traditional conspiracy theory existed, suggesting that cunning politicians simply used Vesey as a foil to advance their political interests. Jeremy Schipper’s book, Denmark Vesey’s Bible: The Thwarted Revolt That Put Slavery and Scripture on Trial is a recent addition to this burgeoning corpus of scholarship.
While the general reader can appreciate this book, Denmark Vesey’s Bible will appeal to biblical scholars and those already generally familiar with the subject. The book opens with an annotated list of major figures and a detailed timeline. Both are essential because almost immediately afterwards, Schipper thrusts the reader into the trial and Judicial condemnation the defendants. The conspirators’ overall plans are not comprehensively explained in one place but emerge piecemeal as the author introduces testimony from the trial. Two sets of trial proceedings are the foundational evidence for scholarly research about Vesey. Schipper notes these sources must be used with great caution because of their inherent bias and because typically enslaved peoples’ testimonies were only summarized. Even Denmark Vesey’s statements appeared in synoptic form. Nor have substantial records shedding light on Vesey produced by black people from the period emerged. Based on the foregoing, Denmark Vesey a free black, collaborated with a cadre of skilled and relatively privileged enslaved men in Charleston to lead an insurrection originally scheduled for July 14, 1822. Rural slaves were enlisted to enter the city to assist Charleston’s enslaved people setting fires, invading local arsenals, and robbing a bank. The expectation was that many whites would die as the insurrectionists fought their way through the city to the wharfs from where they planned to escape to Haiti.
The central questions Denmark Vesey’s Bible seeks to answer are: “In what ways was the Bible invoked to shape how Denmark Vesey’s plot would be remembered?” In the years following its discovery “would it be remembered as the fulfillment of divine law, an example of divine deliverance, or as a cautionary tale of the consequences of improper religious instruction?” Those expecting to find a discussion of Denmark Vesey’s equivalent to Thomas Jefferson’s Bible will be disappointed. The book’s title is a misnomer and as Schipper explains, “Denmark Vesey’s Bible survives as an idea but not as a document.” Vesey’s ideas must be discerned primarily from the trial testimony of enslaved people.
In the first part of the study, the author’s goal is to explain how Vesey understood selected aspects of the Bible and used them in his organizing efforts. Firstly Vesey uses the holy scriptures to recruit supporters. Schipper shows how during clandestine meetings Vesey read from the Exodus story and likened black people to the Israelites who were delivered from Egyptian slavery. The author also includes a section populated with several well-known contemporaries of Denmark Vesey, who were famous for their biblically based opposition to slavery. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and Jonathan Edwards Jr. (a son of the famous Great Awakening divine) boldly proclaimed antislavery messages. For them, the well-known verse Exodus 21:16, which stated: “ he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death,” condemned the slave trade and slavery as diabolical crimes. In one of the most fascinating episodes in the book, Schipper reveals the words of one slave who testified that Vesey frequently opened meetings with the same scripture, Exodus 21:16. Such scriptures helped Vesey not only recruit but also justify insurrection as a direct command of God.
The Denmark Vesey that emerges from these pages is a man of action. Schipper contends that Vesey was not satisfied with merely making moral arguments demonstrating the evils of slavery. He says: “For Vesey, the Bible enjoins its readers to take on the role of biblical characters and to act as they do.” Therefore, generally Vesey and his compatriots drew heavily from Old Testament examples. To Vesey, Charleston was so thoroughly immersed in the sin of slaveholding that it, like the ancient city of Jericho and the nation of Egypt, was already living under “divine condemnation.” Schipper shows that Vesey believed the white clerics were especially culpable for the plight of the enslaved. This was because rather than preaching the scriptures’ lessons about freedom, their false teachings concealed the Bible’s antislavery message.
When the insurrection began, these ministers would be confronted with their perfidy. According to Bacchus Hammet’s testimony, Vesey said “all the Ministers were to be killed except a few.” These exceptions would be shown the passages from the Bible that Vesey favored and asked, “why they did not preach up this thing,” meaning the lessons about liberty? Vesey’s theology also linked freedom with human equality. One white witness testified that when Vesey discussed slavery and religion, he “would speak of the creation of the World in which . . . all men had equal rights” regardless of race. Denmark Vesey’s radical ideas were never enacted and they doomed his life when informants notified the authorities about the nascent insurrectionary plot. One hundred thirty-one, mainly enslaved men were arrested and trials were quickly convened in the summer of 1822. Denmark Vesey was one of thirty-five men executed; thirty-seven more were sold outside the state.
The discovery of Vesey’s plot changed Charleston and South Carolina forever and most of the book examines how white Charlestonians responded to the near insurrection. In its immediate aftermath new legislation proscribed and surveilled the lives of black people as never before. Notwithstanding the generalized fears that pervaded the city, Justice William Johnson of the U. S. Supreme Court questioned the magnitude of and the propriety of the legal procedures. To demonstrate that the defendants were treated fairly Charleston’s mayor and the magistrates published the court proceedings. Schipper insightfully shows how from the beginning biblical authority was used to legitimize the court’s actions. For example, requiring multiple witnesses for capital punishment was in accordance with the Bible. In handing down sentences Magistrate Lionel Kennedy used unattributed quotations from the Bible in his verbal messages. Finally, in sentencing Gullah Jack a known conjure man to death, Kennedy admonished him to repent and recognize that his magic had been “chased away by the superior light of Truth.” Here Kennedy spoke not only as a secular judge but also as a representative of a superior Christianity, engaged in a life and death struggle with the inferior forces of African spirituality.
Schipper devotes considerable attention to prominent ministers and their responses to the Vesey scare. Despite the demand by some to control the black population by prohibiting religious instruction, Charleston ministers generally opposed such draconian measures as unwise violations of their Christian duty. Recognizing that some blacks like Denmark Vesey had wantonly abused the scriptures and misinformed others, the ministers asserted all were entitled to receive the word of God which unequivocally endorsed slavery. One group of Charleston ministers explained that teaching the Bible to enslaved people was an act of justice and pointedly warned doubters to remember “that they also have a Master in Heaven.” However, caution was required; Rev. Frederick Dalcho warned against “injudicious instruction” provided by the untrained. In his Protestant Episcopal church where worship was “sober, rational [and] sublime” there is “nothing to inflame” the passions of the ignorant enthusiast, nothing left to the crude, undigested ideas of illiterate black class-leaders.” Thus, he bragged, no Episcopalians were convicted along with the Methodist Vesey.
Schipper also shows how biblical teaching bolstered Charleston ministers’ paternalistic model of slavery. For Baptist Rev. Richard Furman and others, the slave master was analogous to the patriarchs of ancient Israel. Situated atop the household, all others i.e., wives, children and slaves were responsible to him and he was responsible for their welfare. This model emphasized hierarchy, dependence, and community all of which were reinforced by biblical scriptures. Proper religious instruction could reduce the chance of slave rebellion. Slavery could also serve a “civic good” by alleviating ills that would otherwise be borne by social institutions i.e., old folks’ homes. Schipper notes that with these arguments Charleston ministers contributed to the emerging notion of slavery as a “positive good.”
Dennmark Vesey’s Bible does not open new arguments or interpretations nor does it rely on new source material. It does identify the presence of biblical thought and elements in places heretofore under-appreciated, particularly in textual material associated with the Vesey conspiracy. Sometimes Schipper’s single-minded textual analysis could benefit from greater social or cultural context. As one example, South Carolina law limited the kinds of apparel enslaved people could wear to reinforce social and racial hierarchy. Schipper discusses the way biblical scriptures were used to reinforce this goal. However, by not using the comments of visitors who observed well-dressed enslaved people in Charleston who did not behave like slaves, his point remains a theoretical one. The book’s main contribution is its elaborate presentation of biblically based proslavery and abolitionist thought associated with Denmark Vesey’s Charleston.
Bernard E. Powers Jr. is Professor Emeritus of History at the College of Charleston and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston there. He is author of Black Charlestonians: A Social History 1822-1885 and co-author of We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel. His most recent essay “Denmark Vesey, South Carolina, and Haiti: Borne, Bound, and Battered by a Common Wind” is in James O. Spady, Fugitive Movements: Commemorating the Denmark Vesey Affair and Black Radical Antislavery in the Atlantic World (2022).