From the Knights of the White Camelia to Secretary of Foreign Missions: Samuel Hall Chester (1851–1940), Race, and Southern Presbyterian Missions

In December 1861, at their General Assembly, Presbyterians in the South separated from their brethren in the North, and formed a new denomination: The Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (Morton Smith, Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology, 37). State presbyteries already approved this move, as had, for example, the Synod of Virginia in October 1861, under the leadership of Robert Lewis Dabney (Thomas Cary Johnson, Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 244). In 1865, after the fall of the Confederacy, they adopted the name The Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), still separate from the Northern PCUSA (the PCA would later form out of the PCUS in 1973).

But in 1861, the PCCSA, formed over the issue of slavery and “states rights,” was also interested in “foreign missions.” Morton Smith notes that “The new-born Church was especially interested in missions as the supreme work of the Church. Among the resolutions of that first Assembly regarding missions is this classic statement regarding the place of missionary work in the life of the Church”:

“Finally, the General Assembly desires distinctly and deliberately to inscribe on our church’s banner, as she now unfurls it to the world, in immediate connection with the headship of our Lord, his last command: ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature’; regarding this as the great end of her organization, and obedience to it as the indispensible condition of her Lord’s promised presence, and as one great comprehensive object, a proper conception of whose vast magnitude and grandeur is the only thing which, in connection with the love of Christ, can ever sufficiently arouse her energies and develop her resources so as to cause her to carry on, with the vigor and efficiency which true fealty to her Lord demands, those other agencies necessary to her internal growth and home prosperity.”

(Minutes, PCCSA, 1861, p. 17 — in Smith, Studies, 41).

In fact, Smith concludes that “this Assembly considered herself primarily as a witnessing instrument, a mission society” (Studies, 40).

With this context, it is fascinating to look at the man who would eventually become the Secretary of Foreign Missions for the PCUS, Samuel Hall Chester. His Memories of Four-Score Years: An Autobiography by Samuel Hall Chester, D.D. Secretary Emeritus of Foreign Missions of the Southern Presbyterian Church (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1934) is a fascinating picture of Southern Presbyterian life.

Chester was born in 1851 in the “border state” (between slave and free) of Arkansas. His family enslaved Black laborers, and Chester describes the situation through the typical “benevolent master” lens: 

“The institution as we knew it in the South was perhaps the mildest form of slavery the world has ever seen. Our slaves were the best fed and clothed and housed, and the least oppressed peasantry int he world, and the relation between good masters and good slaves was in many instances very happy and very beautiful”

(Memories, 39).

Chester experienced a typical socialization for a white son: “My special friend and playmate was a Negro boy of my own age, with whom I boxed and wrestled and roamed the fields in search of mischief and adventure” (39). Nevertheless, Chester acknowledged the harmful effects of slavery:

“Practically all intelligent southerners are now glad that the institution of slavery is seventy years behind us; even more for the slaveholders sake than for that of his former slaves. Only a small minority of mankind in any age or country have ever been good enough to be safely entrusted with the personal ownership of their fellow man. And in my opinion there is no sound reasoning and no sound interpretation of the Scriptures that can justify an institution that makes it possible under the law for men of small minds and cruel hearts, of whom there is always an oversupply in the world, to wreak their bad temper on the naked back of a helpless and unresisting fellow man, whether he be black or white.”

Memories, 41.

When the Civil War came, Chester’s brothers fought for the Confederacy, and Chester blamed the horrors of war on politicians and abolitionists:

“the unspeakable wickedness of that fratricidal strife into which the nation was dragged by selfish politicians representing supposedly clashing interests on both sides, and by fanatical moral crusaders seeking to destroy what they regarded as a criminal institution by the perpetration of one of the greatest crimes of all history.”

Memories, 45.

After the war, even as a teenage, Chester joined in the Southern hatred of Reconstruction. He complained that Black laborers were less productive (50), and that Yankees were intruding where they were unwanted. He describes the response in the form of secret white societies: 

“The response to these measures all over the south was the Ku-Klux Klan, the Pale Faces, the Knights of the White Camelia, all of them secret oath-bound organizations, differing in minor features, but with the same general character and purpose. This was to ‘protect our people from indignity and wrongs; to succor the suffering, particularly the families of dead Confederate soldiers and from trial otherwise than by jury.’”

Memories, 52.

Chester joined as a teenager:

“Our community adopted the Knights of the White Camelia, and into that order I was initiated at the age of sixteen by the pastor of our church. When the ceremony of initiation was finished and my blindfold removed, I looked around and saw all the elders and deacons of the church and every important member of the community standing around the walls of the room. Certain passwords and signs were adopted, but was understood that no meetings were to be called, except to meet an emergency.”

Memories, 52.

Chester was never aware of “costumes or raids” because “none were ever necessary” but it is possible that the Knights didn’t invite the sixteen year old to every activity. Chester does describe intimidating people to leave the community with typical Southern euphemism: 

“Messages were sent to leading Negroes assuring them that we were their friends as we had always been, and warning them against being deceived and led into any movement against being deceived and led into any movement against he white people by their false friends, the carpet baggers. A few of those who may themselves especially obnoxious received messages posted on their doors to the effect that for a certain number of days they would not be disturbed, in order that they might have an opportunity to arrange their business affairs; but that after a fixed date they were likely to find living conditions in that part of the country neither pleasant nor safe.”

Memories, 53.

As remarkable as the story itself is the fact that Chester could so casually recount these facts in his autobiography, which tells us something about the state of the country and the PCUS in 1934.

From 1869–1872 he attended Washington College which was then under the presidency of Robert E. Lee, “our greatest southern hero” (55). He was a student there when Lee died in 1870 and describes several encounters with him before then in reverential terms.

After college, he entered Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, where he studied under Benjamin M. Smith  (Hebrew and Old Testament), Thomas E. Peck (Church History), Henry C. Alexander (New Testament), and Robert Lewis Dabney (Systematic Theology). His anecdotes about Dabney are interesting. Here is his assessment of Dabney as a theologian:

“Dr. Dabney, our professor of theology, had such insatiable curiosity on all subjects, both sacred and secular, and such a phenomenal memory that he came to know more things and to know them more thoroughly than any man I ever knew. I am satisfied he could have filled a chair in history or chemistry or biology or English literature in any university. He planned and largely built his own houses. He played no mean part in the Civil War as Stonewall Jackson’s chief of staff, serving much of the time also as brigade chaplain. He filled successively several of the chairs in Union Seminary. His great work, how- ever, was done in the Chair of Theology. His contemporary, Dr. Wm. G. T. Shedd, of Union Seminary, New York, once told me that he regarded Dr. Dabney as the greatest of our American theologians. His theological views on some of the higher points of Calvinism were broader and more liberal than those of Dr. Hodge or Dr. Warfield.”

Memories, 77.

Chester recounts an interesting incident which shows Dabney’s deep-seated animosity toward the North which stayed with him his entire life:

“In one matter only did he finally become narrow and, one might say, implacable. During the war and its aftermath of reconstruction, he became so embittered by the ruthless meth- ods of Federal officers like Sheridan and Sherman, and the efforts of Congress to impose Negro rule on the South that he almost went off his mental balance. Being once taken to task for the violence of his denunciation of these leaders, he made no reply, but preached the following Sunday on the text, “Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate Thee?”

Memories, 77.

Despite the interest in foreign missions indicated by Smith above, Chester describes the state of things while he was in seminary:

“In the years 1872-75 the foreign missionary work of our church had hardly more than made a beginning, and the missionary spirit was largely undeveloped. Since the close of the war our people’s attention had been too much taken up with carpet- baggers and Freedman’s Bureau agents and armies of occupation to give much thought to things in foreign lands. There were two missionary volunteers in the senior class of 1872. There were none in either the middle or junior classes of that year. Our course in church history, under which the study of missions would have fallen, was largely concerned with questions of creed and church polity and the ancient heresies that had vexed the church. Missionary interest among the students was represented by a band of about a dozen of our student body of sixty-five, which we called “The Society of Missionary Inquiry,” which met every two weeks at nine o’clock Saturday” (78–79).

Memories, 78–79.

Dabney himself was deeply interested in “foreign missions”:

“Dr. Dabney became deeply interested in the opening of our mission to Brazil, and was instrumental in raising a special fund for sending Rev. Edward Lane and Rev. G. Nash Morton as our first missionaries to that field. Mission work had made a small beginning in Greece and in Mexico, but it was not until years afterward that our great missions to Japan, Korea and Africa were opened.”

Memories, 79.

Chester pastored Presbyterian churches for nearly two decades in North Carolina and Tennessee. In 1884 he was married, and in 1893 he was named secretary of Foreign Missions of the PCUS. He continued in this role for thirty years and saw the work of Southern Presbyterian missionaries grow from 143 missionaries with a budget of $143,000 to 517 and $1,400,000. 

Interestingly, the autobiography includes a number of letters, and Chester recounts one from Robert E. Lee’s daughter, Mildred, in October 1894: “We were then living in Nashville, Tennessee, and Mrs. Chester invited her to visit us and attend a United Daughters of the Confederacy Convention that was expected to be held in Nashville” (62). Active participation in Lost Cause organizations was part and parcel of Southern life for those in high levels of leadership, even (or especially), ecclesiastical.

In 1923, he was granted “optional retirement,” until the Committee of Foreign Missions could find a replacement. “What happened was that I went right on for the full three-years term conducting the foreign correspondence, and also filling Dr. Smith’s place as Executive Secretary during his visit of nearly a year to our missions in the far east” (Memories, 231). He actually retired in 1926.

Observations

A few things are noteworthy here. One is an observation of the type of racial sensibilities found in the highest levels of Southern Presbyterian leadership. A man who was a member of the Knights of White Camelia was Secretary of Foreign Missions over 500+ foreign missionaries. That he speaks so candidly about these things shows how normal they were in the institution.

Second, this shows how these things were not relegated to the ancient past of 1860, but demonstrates how they carried on to the next generation, and generations after that. Chester brings the legacy of Robert Lewis Dabney (and Southern Presbyterianism as a whole) all the way into the 1930s. When Sean Michal Lucas claims that Dabney “set the racial orthodoxy for the church for the next hundred years” (Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 148–49), this is a concrete example of how that worked.

Third, Chester is an example of a first-hand source for Dabney’s teaching. The anecdote about preaching “Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate Thee?” is only found, so far as I can tell, here in Chester.

Finally, Chester, and the Southern Presbyterians as a whole, are just one example of white American Christianity’s unceasing ability to hold the grand ideals of “foreign missions” at the very same time as holding deep seated white-supremacy. In fact, the white supremacy can even serve as a motivation for missions, to “civilize” the barbarous non-white heathen. “From Knights of the White Camelia, to Secretary of Foreign Missions” may sound strange to our ears, but it was the established norm at the time.

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