Last night C-SPAN’s series on American history, American Artifacts, highlighted the Saving Slave Houses Project. These structures, which are vanishing, witness to our nation’s original sin of slavery — enshrined in the United States Constitution, where each slave was to be counted as three-fifths of a whole person for the purpose of determining the number of representatives in the United States Congress from each state. The contrast between that reality and the “self-evident” truth set forth in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal” is hard to understand.
I watched that program with great interest because I was surprised to learn, only this year, that I have slave-owning ancestors. That’s not the narrative I’ve always told people about myself: I’m the grandson and great-grandson of tobacco farmers in North Carolina. While that’s a true statement, it’s not the whole truth. Further back, some of those who came before me mentioned slaves in their wills. One person in particular stands out, although his slaves are not referenced in his will because they were presumably freed at the end of the Civil War by the Union army.
His name was Daniel Hackney, Jr., and he’s my great-great-great-grandfather. He was a politician in the General Assembly of North Carolina in the 1840s and 1850s, a member of the Whig party who became a Democrat, a slave-owning Baptist deacon who became a post-slave-owning preaching elder, and a Unionist (an as-it-was-with-slavery Unionist rather than an as-it-might-be-without-slavery Unionist) during the years before secession who would then be elected 3rd lieutenant in the Confederate Home Company for Chatham County, North Carolina, during the Civil War.
The Chatham County slave schedules from the 1860 United States Federal Census don’t include the names of Hackney’s slaves. They are simply counted as property under his name. 14 in total, most of them children, including a one-month-old baby. 13 were black, one was biracial. There were eight males and six females. None were fugitives or had been manumitted. Together they lived in three slave houses.
When I first saw this, I kept a copy of it on my beside table. I stared at it every night before trying to fall asleep, haunted by the fact that I was directly connected to the institution of slavery in America. So I’m reflecting on all of this in a series of posts.
For now, however, I’ll begin with Hackney’s strong religious identity. In 1823, at the age of 20, he was baptized as a Christian and became a follower of Jesus Christ. He was one of the first deacons for Love’s Creek Baptist Church, which is located about two miles east of Siler City, North Carolina, when that congregation was organized in 1833. After his service in the Home Guard and his former slaves were no longer his “property,” he was finally granted a license to preach in 1866 and ordained as a preaching elder in 1871 in the Sandy Creek Baptist Association.
Interestingly, in 1835, that association had opposed not the institution of slavery entirely but, specifically, “buy[ing] and sell[ing] Negros, for the purpose of speculation or merchandise, for gain” as “inconsistent with the spirit of the Gospel of Christ” and advised churches “to exclude members who will not abandon the practice.” Later, in 1847, the association was asked this question: “Is it agreeable to the gospel for members of the Baptist Church of Christ to buy and sell human beings, or keep them in bondage for life?” The only answer referred back to the minutes of the association for 1835, which ignores the part about lifelong bondage.
So it is not surprising that Hackney frequently represented his church at meetings of the Sandy Creek Baptist Association during the more than three decades between the time those first statements were affirmed 1835 and his receiving a license to preach. Clearly, owning a lot of slaves was not, in itself, a reason to be excluded.
When he died in 1884, Hackney’s will included a charitable bequest in the amount of $100 to the Baptist Foreign Missions in China. A newspaper announcement of that bequest noted that it was in fulfillment of a promise he had made 35 years earlier, which would have been in the middle of his political career and long before his slaves were set free. His obituary declared that from his baptism until his death, Hackney “made his secular interests subservient to his religious duties.” It pointed out that he had been a successful businessman earlier in his life and “accumulated a handsome estate, which he used liberally in promoting the cause of Christ.”
Like most of us to one degree or another, Hackney seems to have been a tangled knot of contradictions. For him, Asians were worthy of conversion to Christianity while Africans were bought and sold as part of chattel slavery. The latter was not seen as something contrary to his “religious duties” and provided the source of his wealth. That wealth was then used “to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love,” quoting a hymn verse that was written the same year Hackney started preaching.
One of the things I love about America is the fact that our ideals about universal human rights can be the source of a reformation from time to time. The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery in the 19th century; civil rights legislation that ended racial segregation in public places in the 20th century; and our discussions about racial discrimination, law enforcement, and the dignity of every human being in the 21st century are examples of this.
Blessedly, the same thing happens from time to time within Christianity. Christian faith can become the means by which some of those knots become untangled. As the late African-American preacher Peter Gomes, formerly of Harvard University’s Memorial Church, noted a decade ago at Trinity Episcopal Church in New York City:
[I]t is instructive to examine how the religion of white slave owners became an instrument of liberation for slaves, rather than the instrument of docility the slave owners had hoped.
“The Christian faith was stronger than the Christians who used it,” he said, because white Christians could not corrupt Jesus’ truth.
I find that to be a hopeful testimony of faith not only for myself but also for my slave-owning ancestor. Hackney, too, in words from the Book of Common Prayer that are addressed to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is “a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming.” He rests in those everlasting arms — but not because some thought he was “a man of intellect and great force of character,” as the Wilmington Morning Star newspaper said of him after his death.
No, he rests there only as a recipient of unmerited mercy.
This I believe.