A. F. Dickson's Sermons for slaves (1856)

A. F. Dickson's Sermons for slaves (1856)

Dickson, A[ndrew] F[linn] (1825-1879). Plantation Sermons; or, Plain and Familiar Discourses for the Instruction of the Unlearned. Philadelphia. Presbyterian Board of Publication. 1856. First Edition. xii, [13]-170pp.; 18 cm. A tight, crisp copy with some light losses to cloth and sunning to spine. Minor foxing throughout.

     Like Charles Colcock Jones (1804-1863), A. F. Dickson offered Christian slaveholders an opportunity to fulfill their religious obligation to spread the gospel without concern that they might be fostering attitudes inimical to servitude. His volume became "a standard text used by 'plantation missions' throughout the South ... from which countless Negroes absorbed their knowledge of the Bible and Christianity," in the words of one historian.

     The Reverend A. F. Dickson was born in Charleston, South Carolina, where his father was a professor at the College of Charleston. He attended Yale (class of 1845), and pursued graduate work at Lane Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School. In 1850, he took charge of the Presbyterian churches in John’s and Wadmalaw Islands on the coast of South Carolina, whose membership was overwhelmingly Gullah. As one biographer noted:

Out of a membership of 360, 330 were colored people. His sympathies became deeply enlisted in the colored race, and he devoted all his energies to their evangelization and elevation.

Dickson published this volume shortly after he left his post in the Sea Islands around 1855 to serve as district secretary for the American Sunday School Union. Returning to the ministry in Orangeburg, SC, he took a leave of absence during the Civil War to serve in the chaplaincy for the Conferacy. In 1876, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (South) installed him as the first professor of a school newly organized by Rev. Charles A. Stillman (1819-1875), the Institute for the Education of Colored Ministers, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The Tuscaloosa Institute is today Stillman College. Dickson's last published work was a series of articles for the Christian Intelligencer titled "Africa in the South."

     As Albert J. Raboteau and other scholars have observed, White ministers were concerned with the eternal souls of their Black audiences, not with their mortal condition. Their teachings stressed obedience and sedulously avoided any aspect of the Gospel that might challenge slaveholder authority. Lawrence W. Levine notes that Dickson "whose sermons served as a model for other whites ministering to the slaves, reduced the Judeo-Christian ethic to a triad stressing humility, patience and fear of sin." The irony of course is that despite the best efforts of White ministers to use Christian teaching to enforce the status quo, Black churches became the central locus for political organization and resistance among the African American population in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

     For better or for worse, an important and influential book.

Selected References

  • "Andrew Flinn Dickson" in Record of the class of 1845 of Yale college: containing obituaries of deceased, and biographical sketches of surviving members (New York: Jenkins & Thomas, printers. 1881), pp. 71-76.
  • Boles, John B.  Masters and slaves in the house of the Lord: race and religion in the American south, 1740-1870 (University Press of Kentucky, 1988)
  • Burr, Nelson Rollin. Critical bibliography of religion in America, vol IV. (Princeton University Press, 1961).
  • Creel, Margaret Washington. A peculiar people: slave religion and community-culture among the Gullah. (New York University Press, 1989)
  • Levine, Lawrence W. Black culture and black consciousness: Afro-American folk thought from slavery to freedom (Oxford University Press, 1977)
  • Raboteau, Albert J. Slave religion: the "invisible institution" in the antebellum south (Oxford University Press, 1978)

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