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09.04.01 Farmer, James O., Jr., The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values, first published 1986; paperback ed., 1999 (Mercer University Press)

About the author: James O. Farmer, Jr. is a history professor at the University of South Carolina, Aiken.

   James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862) was an influential Presbyterian minister and educator. Born in Marlboro District, he served as president of the South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) from 1851 to 1855. According to the Dictionary of American Biography:  “His article on ‘The State of the Country’ (Southern Presbyterian Review, January 1861) was published as a pamphlet and won wide acclaim as a cogent defense of the Southern point of view, and in a widely circulated address to the Southern soldiers, Our Danger and Our Duty (1862), he drew a dire picture of the fate he felt would overtake the South if the North were victorious.”


   James O. Farmer’s book is an in depth study of the thought of James Henley Thornwell, who in his time was acclaimed as “our Southern giant” and “the Calhoun of the Church.”

   Examining Southern nationalism in the 19th century, Farmer argues that “nationhood” required a zeitgeist, or worldview, “around which people can cohere.” This worldview that developed in the South he terms the “metaphysical Confederacy,” which preceded the “physical Confederacy.” The Southern worldview which, according to Farmer, “preferred stability, localism, faith, and deference” was in opposition to the North’s “dynamism, cosmopolitanism, rationalism, and egalitarianism.” Clergymen like Thornwell were some of the key architects of the Southern worldview.

   In his epilogue, Farmer offers the view that the “metaphysical Confederacy” was a “creature of paradox.”  Though based on orthodox piety, he argues, “it structured a self-image that could easily lead to arrogance.” God, Farmer contends, had a rival in Southern nationalism, a fact which “led the Southern clergy continually to caution against the idolatry and pride of nationalism, while embracing the Confederacy with a fervor surpassed by few parishioners.”

James Henley Thornwell’s views on race and slavery were complex, and he struggled with the question of the church’s involvement in politics. Like many Southerners, he cherished the Union, but came to accept the necessity of secession.  Before he died in 1862, in one of his last writings, Our Danger and Our Duty, he depicted the war between the North and the South in broad terms, asserting that “the parties in this conflict are not merely Abolitionists and Slaveholders; they are Atheists, Socialists, Communists, Red Republicans, Jacobins on the one side, and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other.”  In his foreword to the paperback edition of Farmer’s book, Eugene D. Genovese  restates this by pointing out that Thornwell and other Southerners believed that America’s sectional conflict was essentially one of orthodox Christianity (in the South) against Northern liberals “who professed Christianity while they did their best to destroy its central doctrines.” Some of the radical abolitionists in the North reviled the Bible because it did not condemn slavery, and admired John Brown for his violent, murderous raid at Harper’s Ferry.

   In a sermon of 1860 entitled The Sin and the Curse, Thomas Smyth, another prominent Presbyterian clergyman of South Carolina, put forth views similar to those found in Thornwell’s Our Danger and our Duty, writing of the Northern radicals who appealed to a “higher law” (transcending those in the Constitution and the Bible): “They pervert the great doctrines of personal responsibility, liberty of conscience, liberty of thought, liberty of opinion and liberty of action. This they do by requiring all others to adopt as God’s truth, that which is believed to be beside and contrary to Scripture; and by assuming that they are responsible for the opinions and conduct of other men…And what, we ask, could finally be the result of this higher law—that is, the majority and equality-principle—but anarchy, prodigality, profanity, Sabbath profanation, vice and ungodliness in every monstrous form, and in the end the corruption and overthrow of the Republic, and the erection, upon its ruins, of an absolute and bloody despotism, of which coercion, or in other words, force, is the vital principle. An anti-slavery Bible must have an anti-slavery God, and then a God anti-law, order, property and morality; that is no God but ‘THE GOD OF THIS WORLD.’”

   Thornwell’s Our Danger and Our Duty proved to be prophetic in many specifics. In it he warned Southerners that if their enemies prevailed, their homes would be pillaged, their property confiscated, and that the states would be converted into “subject provinces, governed by Northern rulers and Northern laws.” He depicted the war as a matter of life and death for both sides, declaring that the North had to “succeed or perish,” adding, “They must conquer us or be destroyed themselves. If they fail, national bankruptcy stares them in the face…They know they are a doomed people if they are defeated. Hence their madness. They must have our property to save them from insolvency. They must show that the Union cannot be dissolved, to save them from future secessions.” Northerners, Thornwell contended, had “put the Constitution under their feet,” and made the government “a government of force,” while the Confederacy, he argued, was struggling for constitutional freedom.

   Though Genovese offers the caveat that there is “plenty of room for disagreements over some of its specific theses,” he ranks The Metaphysical Confederacy as a first-rate and very important work, and it certainly is.

Availability of this Book

Inexpensive new and used copies versions are available through online vendors. Readers who are interested in a straightforward biography of Thornwell (which includes many of his letters and writings) should look for The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell by Benjamin M. Palmer, published in 1875 and available as a reprint.   

For more on Thornwell, see listing 09.09.02.