In America, it would seem we have arrived at a moment when the “good book” has supplanted our constitution. Unambiguously conceived by the founders, once broadly considered admirable, the separation of church and state is deemed, as the supreme court justice Samuel Alito might put it, “egregiously wrong from the start”.
This is what makes reading Jeremy Schipper’s new book, Denmark Vesey’s Bible, so instructive. When religion is allowed to overcome and nullify the rule of law, Schipper shows, unless one is an adherent to “the right faith”, one is liable to be out of luck.
Beyond the sons of Ham and the people of Kush, one does not get much mention of Africans in scriptural texts. But this hardly stoped Denmark Vesey finding himself and his people there anyway.
Born either in West Africa or the Caribbean sometime around 1767, this zealous revolutionary was enslaved in his early teens by Joseph Vesey, a trafficker in enslaved people. Capt Vesey settled in Charleston. Trained as a carpenter, the enslaved man won $1,500 in a local lottery and obtained his freedom for $600.
Financially secure, proficient in several languages, Denmark Vesey’s involvement in the African Church, a forerunner of today’s Emmanuel African Methodist Church, led to his radical liberation theology. Leading evening classes, he saw an opportunity to help Black people still in bondage, including his own children, far more profoundly than by repeating the admonitions of white clergy. Not for him were paradoxical quotations like “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters” (Ephesians 6:5) or “Servants, obey in all things your masters” (Colossians 3:22).
Instead, like many Black leaders who followed, Vesey adopted the Bible as a playbook for salvation and freedom.
George Santayana had yet to warn the world that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But organizing the most ambitious grassroots armed insurrection ever planned, to free the enslaved people of Charleston, South Carolina and relocate them to Haiti, Vesey and his collaborators knew this lesson well. Their’s was a test which still resounds.
A late friend, the Harlem sage Grafton Trew, said: “Frederick Douglass told my grandfather it was plain to Vesey that in Biblical times, God’s chosen people, the Jews, were Niggers. Privileged elites, back then, the Romans and Egyptians, they were the masters and tyrants. He figured it was the same in his day, that slave masters were God’s enemies.”
Vesey read the exodus story of Israelite slaves triumphing over their Egyptian masters as mandate and compact. At Mount Sinai, Moses declared: “He that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 21: 16).
As Trew said Douglass put it, “For Vesey, more than any mere directive, this was a Divine injunction.”
He took particular note of a biblical command for the annihilation of Jericho’s residents, in Joshua 6:21: “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.”
Thomas Jefferson had warned of such a calamitous chain of events.
“And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”
Engineered with the strictest discipline and a tightly organized leadership, Vesey’s planned rebellion was nonetheless betrayed by two men not even at the periphery of the plot. So beguiled were so many self-satisfied masters by their presumed benevolence and their slaves’ corespondent “loyalty”, that had they fled, the plotters might have gotten away. Hastily arrested, trials swiftly followed. On 2 July 1822, Vesey and five alleged ringleaders were hanged. By summer’s end, 29 more enslaved men were executed.
How quickly many lessons of America’s revolution were lost. Without the delusional-seeming examples of entreatments by George and Martha Washington and others, beseeching “well-cared-for … and much esteemed” escaped enslaved people to return “home”, one could hardly believe the attitude of Charleston’s elite. Assuming that the Bible endorsed slavery, many seemed to regard Black people they held in bondage as not so different from dogs they might keep as pets. In this they were as much avowedly imperialist as King George III.
What vexed them most seemed to be the ingratitude of these men, enslaved and formerly enslaved. Sentencing Vesey and his co-conspirators to death, the magistrate Lionel Henry Kennedy railed at their risk of “everything” for a hopeless cause. Condemning them, he took particular exception to their “perversion of the holy word of God”.
If among all its excellence Denmark Vesey’s Bible has one fault, it is, I’m afraid, an unavoidable one. Unable to consult the long-lost papers of Vesey and his colleagues, their letters or diaries, Schipper must simply draw them out from the shadows of time as best he can.
In 1863, recruiting Black men for the Union army during the civil war, Douglass declared “Remember Denmark Vesey of Charleston!” In our time of trouble, Schipper bids us also to recall Vesey’s worthy example. Concluding his work, he asserts: “The enduring but contested question of what the Bible implies in the context of American white supremacy continues to be a matter of life and death.”