Wrestlin' Jacob: A Portrait of Religion in Antebellum Georgia and the Carolina Low Country / Edition 2

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This classic work is an important introduction to the efforts of whites to evangelize African Americans in the antebellum South.
First published in 1979, Wrestlin’ Jacob offers important insights into the intersection of black and white religious history in the South. Erskine Clarke provides two arenas—one urban and one rural—that show what happened when white ministers tried to bring black slaves into the fold of Christianity. Clarke illustrates how the good intentions—and vain illusions—of the white preachers, coupled with the degradation and cultural strength of the slaves, played a significant role in the development of black churches in the South.
From 1833 to 1847, Reverend Charles Colcock Jones served as an itinerant minister to slaves on the rice and cotton plantations in Liberty County, Georgia. The aim of Jones, and of the largely Puritan-descended slave owners, was to harvest not only good Christians but also obedient and hard-working slaves. At the same time, similar efforts were under way in cosmopolitan Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston permitted blacks to worship only under the supervision of whites, and partially as a result, whites and blacks worshiped together in ways that would be unheard of later in the segregated South.
Clarke examines not only the white ministers’ motivation in their missionary work but also the slaves’ reasons for becoming a part of the church. He addresses the important issue of the continuity of African traditions with the religious life of slaves and provides a significant introduction to the larger issues of slavery and religion in the South.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This highly readable and scholarly work adds much to our understanding of the relations between black and white Christians in the antebellum South.”—Journal of the American Academy of Religion

“Well written and provides excellent insights into relationships of Southern evangelicals to both the slave and institution of slavery.”—Bill J. Leonard, Review and Expositor

“Informative, enjoyable…Clarke is sensitive not only to the look and feel of life in Liberty County and Charleston but also to the nuances of black and white relationships under slavery.”—Church History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780817310400
  • Publisher: University of Alabama Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/1999
  • Series: Religion & American Culture Series
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Erskine Clarke is Professor of U.S. Religious History at Columbia Theological Seminary. His books include Our Southern Zion: The History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690-1990, also published by The University of Alabama Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Wrestlin' Jacob

A Portrait of Religion in Antebellum Georgia and the Carolina Low Country

By Erskine Clarke

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2000 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8846-1


The County of Liberty


Two rivers flow through Liberty County, Georgia, marking its boundaries and telling of the land. To the north, closer to Savannah, the Medway rises and spreads its dark, cypress-stained waters into a wide, almost indolent, low country river. To the south, closer to Darien, the Newport in both its branches moves quickly and often treacherously between narrow banks until it too slows and spreads out and loses itself among tidal flats before emptying in to St. Catherine's Sound. Both rivers flow out of the high sand hills of the piney woods. Here they are clean, fresh streams free of stagnant, mosquito-breeding pools; but as they move east-ward, the tall pines on their banks give way to myrtle and oak and are swallowed up by cypress swamps where the wood duck nests and deer and turkey seek refuge. Spanish moss, the enchanter, the myth bearer, hangs from outstreached limbs while within its threads "chiggers" wait for anyone tempted to get too close.

At a point along both rivers, their character changes—they become tidal, their lower sections rising and falling according to the dictates of the moon; their waters, fresh at low tide, become brackish as the tide turns and pushes upstream against the river currents. Salt marshes begin to appear, filling the air with heavy perfume while bright- colored crabs and innumerable sea birds feed along rich mud banks, and an occasional porpoise moves through tidal creeks after mullet and shrimp.

Separating the rivers and the marsh from the open ocean are the sea islands. Colonel's Island, only three miles long, is surrounded by the marsh and tidal creeks, but stands high enough to overlook the mouth of the Medway. Between it and the ocean is St. Catherine's, one of the great sea-islands of the Georgia coast. Its broad white beach welcomes the sea turtles that lay their eggs in the warm sand and in its tall pines the osprey and southern bald eagle make their nests. Enormous sea-island oaks, gnarled and twisted, stand over dense thickets of yucca and myrtle, and palmettos run to the edge of the beach.


Into this rich coastal strip came Puritan settlers establishing a remarkable community. It seemed a strange place for Puritans—one usually thinks of them along New England's rocky shore or among snow covered valleys—but these Puritans had been wanderers, restlessly seeking the right place for their commonwealth. Their ancestors had left Dorchester, England, in 1630 for Massachusetts, settling there for five years before moving on to Connecticut where they had remained for sixty years. In 1695 a colony had left for South Carolina. There beneath the great oaks and beside the black waters of the Ashley River they had laid out their village and built their meetinghouse. As with most good Puritans, they had prospered—in spite of a sickly climate—so that within two generations there had been a need for new land. Commissioners were sent to Georgia and, after some negotiations, a grant of over 31,000 acres had been secured. In this way a colony of 350 whites accompanied by their 1,500 slaves began in 1752 a southward trek to what would become Liberty County.

These wandering Puritans found the Georgia coast a good place to settle and to at last send down deep roots. The rich soil and the tidal rivers offered ample opportunity for the cultivation of rice and sea-island cotton. Yet as God-fearing Calvinists, they were aware of the seductions of such a rich wilderness, and they immediately set about establishing an organized community. They declared that they had a "greater regard to a compact Settlement and Religious Society than future temporal advantages." "We are sensible," they wrote in their Articles of Incorporation, "to the advantages of good order and social agreement, among any people, both for their Civil and Religious Benefit...." They would not be lonely pioneers facing the wilderness on their own, but members of a well-ordered community. For these Puritan settlers, the government of such a community would consist of two coordinate branches: the Church and the Society. The Church would be governed by the male communing members who would administer spiritual affairs; the Society would be composed of all males who would subscribe to the Articles of Incorporation, whether they were communing members of the Church or not, and would administer temporal affairs. If this were not a "Holy Commonwealth," it was clearly a Christian Society they wished to establish on the Georgia coast—and, not incidently, it was just as clearly a society to be governed by white males.

At the center of this community stood the church. Almost as soon as they arrived, the settlers built a meetinghouse in the most central location—halfway between Savannah and Darien. They named it Midway Congregational Church, although it was Presbyterian in everything but name (all but two of their ministers would be Presbyterians, and commissioners would be sent to Presbyterian courts). In 1792 a permanent church building was erected. It was a handsome meetinghouse with cypress siding. Two rows of windows, one high above the other, lined each side of the building to flood it with light and, in the spring and summer, with cool air. Inside, everything was orderly and harmonious. Straight-back pews ran in three sections across polished, heart-of-pine floors. At the end of each pew a small swinging door reminded all that these pews were rented, bought and sold, and were not available to just anyone seeking a place to sit. A graceful circular balcony supported by eight wooden columns supplied the seating for black slaves. Here there were long rows of open benches with only one raised board for a back. On the north side of the building a central pulpit was raised high off the floor so that even from the back of the balcony one could see at least the preacher's head. While the Baptists would later build one church at Sunbury and another by the waters of the Newport, and the Methodists would have a chapel not far away, this Midway Church was clearly the church of the district. For over a hundred years it would be a dominant influence in the community shaping its piety and perspective until Sherman's army shook the land.

Close by the church, beneath great oaks with thick, heavy branches reaching down toward the ground, a cemetary was laid off and later surrounded by a high brick wall. Here during the coming generations, the community would bury its dead and record on stone monuments an astonishing record of achievement by the sons and daughters of Midway: two sons, Lyman Hall and Button Gwinnett, would be signers of the Declaration of Independence; and two, Daniel Stewart and James Scriven, generals in the American Revolution; four would be early governors of the state; one daughter of Midway would be the grandmother of Theodore Roosevelt, and one granddaughter would be the wife of Woodrow Wilson. Six Georgia counties would bear Midway names: Hall, Gwinnett, Stewart, Screven, Baker, and Bacon. One scientist, Louis LeConte, would be famous for his magnificent botanical garden growing in the rich Liberty County soil and be remembered for his two sons, John and Joseph, outstanding scientists and founding fathers of the University of California. Writing over two hundred years after the establishment of Midway, a distinguished historian would marvel at the achievements of this small community:

It would be impossible to name or even to number here the countless clergymen, doctors, lawyers, professors, teachers, scientists, judges, legislators, and soldiers who have left this tiny church to assume positions of influence and distinction throughout the nation and the world. For a rural community which at no time boasted more than a few hundred souls, and which was dispersed only a little more than a century after it was settled, such a record is indeed astonishing if not unique.


This astonishing record was based not only upon the virtues of God-fearing Calvinists, but also upon the labors of black slaves. Over 1,500 had been brought from South Carolina with the first settlers. By 1845 Liberty County would have a population of 5,493 slaves, 24 free blacks, and 1,854 whites. The slaves who labored along the rice canals and in the cotton fields provided the economic base for the community, for from their toils and sorrows the whites would draw the necessary economic resources to establish their remarkable "County of Liberty."

Of particular importance to both master and slave was the absence of owners from their plantations during a substantial part of the year. Swamps, marshes, and flooded rice fields made the region notorious for its deadly fevers. During the malarial season from May until autumn's first frost, many planters fled with their families to summer homes. Clustered in villages among the pine forests where the soil was sandy and dry, these summer homes provided not only an escape for the whites from the hazards of disease, but also an opportunity for a more active social life than the lonely plantations afforded.

Because blacks outnumbered whites by almost three to one, and because whites were absent from the plantations during a substantial part of the year, there was less interaction in Liberty County between blacks and whites than in most parts of the South. For this reason slaves were slow to assimilate the whites' culture, and race relations were less intimate than in those areas where masters lived year around on their plantations. Freed from the constant presence and pressures of an overwhelming white culture, blacks in Liberty County, as in other coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina, were able to maintain important links with their African heritage. Myths and traditions, voodoo and Geechee dialect, all pointed to the isolation of Liberty County blacks and to the tenacity of their fragile African legacy.

There were, for example, the "root doctors," powerful men and women who were both feared and respected for their secret knowledge of medicines and charms and conjures. And there were the drums that beat at funerals and dances, wood carvings that were clearly African in their beauty and design, and reed baskets and mats whose patterns reflected the art of Ashanti or Dahomey. And there were the Africans themselves, men and women who had been captured in Africa and smuggled in through islands and marshes long after the African slave trade had been outlawed. They remembered their homes, carried on their bodies the long or round marks of their tribes, and prayed at dawn with their heads bowed to the ground. There was old Ben and Sally who would say when it thundered "maulin a bumba," and Golla Sylvie and Golla Tom, and the famous Belali Mohamet who was known up and down the coast for his Islamic faith and his efficiency as a slave driver on Thomas Spaulding's plantation. And there was Dublin Scribben who lived at Sunbury and taught his black neighbors an African dance song that would be remembered years later:

Rockah mh moomba
Cum bo-ba yonda
Lil-aye tambe
I rockah mh moomba
(Cum) bo-ba yonda
Lil-aye tambe
Ashawilligo homasha banga
L'ashawilligo homasha quank!
Ashawilligo homasha banga
L'ashawilligo homasha quank!

In spite of this isolation of blacks, there were important aspects of Liberty County that would lead white masters to that concern for the religious instruction of blacks that Olmsted praised so highly. Charles Colcock Jones listed six advantages in Liberty County for such a work. First, said Jones, the white population was noted for its "general piety and good order," and the people were ready to support movements for the public good. Second, the masters had the reputation of being "kind and liberal" toward their slaves, allowing them to hold plantation prayers, attend church, raise livestock and crops for themselves, trade at local stores, and visit in various parts of the county. While the community was not without its "severe masters," the discipline of the slaves was generally mild. Third, the whites felt at home here and shared a significant sense of place. Unlike many white Americans, they were, after they became established, "strangers to that restlessness, and indifference and negligence consequent upon the impression that they were settled but for a little while." Fourth, there was a strong sense of family among both the free and the slave that bound people together. "A result of this long settlement and association has been, that the white families and the Negroes with them, have become extensively connected by marriage and family ties, so that there is perhaps not another community of like size, in the world, in which there is a more perfect connection by family relations, in one form or another." Fifth, communications were easy. The plantations were not far apart, roads were good, and churches accessible. Finally, Liberty County was "far removed from the contaminating influence of any large town or city," and in 1829, with beginning of the Temperance Reformation, the supply of alcohol had been restricted.

Liberty County was, reflected Jones, "one of the most favorable locations for an attempt at the systematic instruction of the Negroes." Jones was no doubt correct. Religious instruction of slaves was most successful in the settled areas of the Old South where stability and order characterized community life. In a community such as Liberty County where both the black and white populations were relatively stable, it was possible to instruct slaves concerning their religious and moral lives with little disruption of the social and economic relationships between owner and owned.

In listing Liberty County's advantages for the religious instruction of slaves, Jones failed to mention, no doubt from modesty, his own life and work among the coastal blacks. Yet without his tireless labors, there probably would have been little such work to excite the admiration of Olmsted and others.


Charles Colcock Jones was eminently suited to be a white preacher to the plantation slaves of Liberty County. Born in 1804 on his father's plantation, Liberty Hall, he and his family were known and respected by the planters of the area. Through a bewildering web of connections, he was related to many of the most prominent families of the community. Moreover, he was himself a wealthy planter coming to own, with his wife, three plantations: Arcadia which stretched from the Midway Church to McIntosh station and comprised 1,996 acres; Montevideo, a rice and sea-island cotton plantation of 941 acres whose plantation house overlooked the North Newport River and was the winter residence of the Jones' family; and Maybank, a 700 acre sea-island cotton plantation located on Colonel's Island where the Jones' summer retreat overlooked the mouth of the Medway River. To work these plantations and serve as family "servants," Jones owned over one hundred black slaves. With such family connections and planting interests, it is not surprising that the slaveholders of Liberty County regarded Jones as one of their own—and that would be a vital factor for the delicate task of providing Georgia slaves with religious instructions.

Jones, however, was not simply Liberty County "born and bred." As a young man, he had followed the trail of his Puritan ancestors back to New England, back to Massachusetts, for a proper education. He had entered Phillips Academy, Andover, and two years later he had moved across the street to Andover Theological Seminary which had been established by Jedidiah Morse, a former pastor of Midway. This was the place, Jones was sure, for a proper theological education: there were no slow, cypress-stained rivers or balmy breezes carrying the taste of salt from the marsh, but cold winters that left the mind clear and sharp, and pure snow that called for the reformation of the heart. And, most important of all, there was no slavery. "Were you my dear," he wrote to his first cousin and fiancée Mary Jones, "to reside a few months only in a free community you would see more clearly than you now do the evil of slavery. There is a calmness, an order, a morality, a general sentiment of right and wrong which is not to be looked for in ours." Just the right atmosphere, he thought, for studying theology.

But Andover was no bastion of liberalism. It was rather a protest against Harvard and its liberalism—the theological, not social variety—and had become a rallying point for orthodoxy. It had a brilliant and aggressive faculty including Leonard Woods, in whose home Jones was fortunate enough to find a room, and Ebenezer Porter, who became Jones' close friend and advisor. The student body was large and enthusiastic and carried the influence of the school throughout the country and into the growing mission fields abroad. These Andover student and faculty members were orthodox, but they were also reformers: zealous, committed reformers, who were, nevertheless, prudent and cautious, for their orthodoxy had taught them to treasure harmony, balance, and reason. And so they had formed great voluntary societies to accomplish benevolent ends. There had been the American Tract Society, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the American Home Missionary Society, the American Education Society, and the American Temperance Society—all non-denominational and voluntary, all powerful instruments of an aggressive American evangelicalism, and all intimately connected with Andover's students and faculty. For the young seminary student from Liberty County, the structures and goals of these voluntary societies would become important sources for his work as a preacher to black slaves.


Excerpted from Wrestlin' Jacob by Erskine Clarke. Copyright © 2000 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction to Reprint Edition ix
Preface xix
Acknowledgment xxi
Introduction xxiii
1 The Plantation 1
1. The County of Liberty 3
2. "They Lifted Up Their Voices and Wept" 20
3. More Than Guards, Guns, and Bayonets 35
4. A Plantation Pastor 59
2 The City 83
5. The Capital of the South 85
6. "If These Be Brothers ..." 100
7. A Slave's Sabbath 113
8. A Charleston Zion 140
Conclusion 159
Epilogue 171
Notes 181
Index 199
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