God’s Plantation: Vision Forum and the Old South
About the Author: Jonathan Wilson is a Ph.D. student in American intellectual history at Syracuse University. An earlier version of this article was posted in November at The Junto: A Group Blog in Early American History. It is reprinted in a modified version here with permission.
Late last year, Doug Phillips, the president of Vision Forum Ministries, publicly admitted to an inappropriate extramarital relationship and resigned. Shortly afterward, the Vision Forum board of directors decided to shut down the San Antonio ministry. In the months since then, World Magazine has reported additional terrible details about Phillips’s alleged behavior toward a woman under his care.
The story made even secular news. For years, Vision Forum and Doug Phillips had enjoyed oversized influence in homeschooling circles as leaders of the “Quiverfull” movement, encouraging Christians to have (and homeschool) large families as a way of exercising influence in the world.
They were champions of “biblical patriarchy,” the principle that family life (and ultimately society at large) should be organized under the authority of divinely ordained fathers and husbands. According to one manifesto prepared by Vision Forum, “the erosion of biblical manhood and leadership,” caused by modern ideologies that undermine God’s authority, “leads to the perversion of the role of women, the destruction of our children, and the collapse of our society.”
To be fair, Vision Forum’s view originated in a specific theological tradition to which most members of the “Religious Right” probably do not belong. And it leads to some conclusions that many Christian conservatives find repellent. Yet some of Vision Forum’s teachings have been disproportionately influential in the American homeschooling movement. And they are especially important for understanding the movement’s relationship to the painful history of American racism.
What sorts of conclusions did Vision Forum draw from its theology? First, there are the obvious ones.
Vision Forum advocated very well-defined gender roles. Through its for-profit merchandise catalog aimed at homeschooling families, it distributed books like an updated version of William Gouge’s Of Domesticall Duties, a 1622 treatise on family life. (A sample of the original wording: “Mildness in a wife hath respect also to the ordering of her countenance, gesture, and whole carriage before her husband, whereby she manifesteth a pleasingness to him, and a contentedness and willingness to be under him and ruled by him.”) The online store sold a two-DVD set called “Tea and Hospitality with Michelle Duggar,” inviting viewers to “celebrate the fruit of the womb with [mother-of-nineteen] Michelle!”
Vision Forum also sold homeschooling families highly gender-specific toys like an “all-American boy’s crossbow” and a “Princess Virginia” dress meant to encourage a girl as she “identifies with Mommy and experiences how unique and wonderful it is to be a girl, to be a daughter of the Most High King—to be His little princess!” Vision Forum’s entire merchandise catalog encouraged as much differentiation as possible between boy leaders and girl followers.
Interestingly, there was also a pronounced nationalistic dimension to gender in this catalog. Vision Forum boys and girls were always American boys and girls. Although many evangelical bloggers and journalists have been highly critical of Vision Forum’s attitudes toward gender, they have often overlooked this.
Vision Forum promoted American nationalism on the basis of their brand of Calvinist covenant theology, which implied that an authoritarian family structure would regenerate God’s special covenant with the United States of America. Yet militant identification with the United States—and especially with its early history—is evident everywhere in Vision Forum’s catalog, especially in its merchandise for boys.
Even more important, however, is that Vision Forum promoted a vision not just of male leadership in the family and the nation, but more specifically a vision rooted in an ideology of white male mastery. And it promoted not just American nationalism, but Southern nationalism—the nationalism of the Confederacy.
To be clear, Vision Forum was not an avowedly racist organization. It did not directly or consciously advocate white supremacy. But it did deliberately promote nostalgia for the white supremacist social order of the Old South.
In fact, one of Doug Phillips’s first books, published in 2003, was a short edited collection of writings by Robert Lewis Dabney, a Southern Presbyterian theologian. Its subtitle is The Prophet Speaks. Dabney, though technically an opponent of secession, was an enthusiastic defender of southern slavery. He served in the Confederate army as a chaplain and as an aide to Stonewall Jackson, and after the war, he published A Defence of Virginia, and through Her, of the South. This book defended human slavery, endorsing the notion that God instituted black slavery through the “curse upon Canaan” after Noah’s flood. Dabney also published an admiring Life of General Jackson and later a pamphlet denouncing racial integration in Presbyterian churches.
None of this meant that Doug Phillips consciously endorsed white supremacy. In his collection, instead, Phillips printed excerpts of Dabney’s later diatribes against public education and feminism. Yet Phillips was clearly enamored of Dabney as a person and as a cultural figure.
“Perhaps no Christian leader of the nineteenth century,” Phillips wrote about Dabney, “filled the role of prophet with greater proficiency.” He even wrote that “for those individuals who long for the days in which a gentleman could hold the door for a lady without some indignant feminist snorting at him, Dabney’s writings will seem refreshingly virile.” As for Dabney’s pro-slavery views? Phillips just coyly asked his readers to consider “the context of the War itself.”
Indeed, the depth of Phillips’s personal admiration for Dabney—and for Stonewall Jackson—was evident in several of the items for sale by Vision Forum. They included a reprint of Dabney’s biography of Jackson, a collection of Jackson’s letters, and even a doll meant to remind girls of Stonewall Jackson’s “godly wife.”
With this doll, Vision Forum strayed deep into what I call “Plantation Chic”—nostalgia for the prewar, slaveowning South. “Stately homes, horse-drawn carriages, and beautiful dresses were special delights for Southern young ladies,” sighed the catalog. “Now you can attire your doll in the feminine and delightfully flouncy styles of the mid-1800s!”
Even more revealing was the Vision Forum “Beautiful Girlhood” doll collection. It featured four dolls—two black and two white. The white dolls were both named after the ideal of freedom; Vision Forum called them Liberty and Jubilee. One of the black dolls was simply named Abigail. And the other black doll? Her name was Fidelia, helpfully translated as “Faithful One.”
Meanwhile, Vision Forum sold various history books and audio albums that discussed the Civil War itself. The online descriptions were vague, but these materials had the usual earmarks of what historians call the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the war—the discredited claim that secession was not about slavery, that the North was oppressive, and that most African Americans actually preferred to be slaves.
For example, Vision Forum’s books sometimes referred to the war as “the War between the States,” a term preferred by many Confederacy defenders. They fixated on the supposed nobility of southern “Christian warriors” like (of course) Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. And they seemed to imply that slavery’s role in the war was not what most historians say. (One blurb in Vision Forum’s print catalog warned that “most of what we ‘know’ about it is actually revisionist history.”)
As an American historian, I can say with confidence that Vision Forum was wrong about this. In the 1860s, Confederate leaders said without any hesitation that their goal was to protect slavery.
According to its official secession declaration, South Carolina left the Union because northerners called slavery “sinful” and had elected a president (Abraham Lincoln) “whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” My home state seceded because its leaders thought the federal government was “destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slave-holding States”—specifically, the institution of slavery. Mississippi seceded in order to defeat “negro equality,” declaring that “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.”
Confederate leaders talked a lot about how the federal government was supposedly taking away their rights. But the key right they had in mind, according to their own words, was the right to own black people. They insisted that white men had this right not only in their own states but also in free states and territories, even if the whites there objected. To protect this “right,” they not only decided to leave America but also deliberately fired on a U.S. military post. In the American Civil War, the Confederacy formed to defend slavery, and then it fired the first shot.
But Vision Forum’s pro-Confederate position probably shouldn’t be surprising, given Vision Forum’s close resemblance to (and relationship with) the better-known ministry of Idaho pastor Douglas Wilson.
Douglas Wilson, an unbelievably prolific writer, may be the best-known advocate today of a conservative Calvinist vision for patriarchal family life and gender roles. He is still quite influential in the homeschool movement. He’s also notorious for writing two books on slavery, Southern Slavery: As It Was and Black & Tan, both of which are available online.
These two books about the Old South include condemnations of racism. But they deny that slavery is wrong. “Was slave ownership malum in se, an evil in itself?” Wilson asks at one point in Black & Tan. “The answer to that question, for anyone who believes the Bible, is that it was possible for a godly man to own slaves, provided he treated them exactly as the Scripture required.” Wilson also calls proslavery theologian Robert Lewis Dabney a “virtually prophetic” man, just as Doug Phillips did. Wilson acknowledges and condemns Dabney’s racism, but he apparently has almost nothing to say about Dabney’s views on slavery itself.
All of this leaves us with an important question. Why would Christian homeschooling advocates who claim not to be racist promote this kind of nostalgia for the antebellum South? Why would they encourage us to idolize the Old South’s slavery-based plantation culture, its slaveowning white men, and its self-serving views about the federal government?
Oddly enough, it seems fairly clear that racism isn’t the place to start. Although fondness for the antebellum South often does result from racism, I don’t think it would be helpful to assume that’s the key reason for Vision Forum’s views. There is little direct evidence that Vision Forum was consciously racist, and there’s quite a bit of evidence that they didn’t want to be racists. If nothing else, blaming racism is the least interesting thing we could say about what was going on in their ministry.
But we need to recognize that in real-life America, slavery is inextricable from racism, and so is the history of the Confederacy. The association between slavery and racism isn’t accidental or irrelevant. When you claim the right to own an entire category of people as slaves, you cannot see them as equal human beings.
And we also need to see that Vision Forum’s nostalgia for a white slaveowning society was directly related to its nostalgia for an authoritarian code of sexual ethics. The right to own slaves may not have been the point of Vision Forum’s preaching, but the nearly absolute authority of the male householder, commanding all other members of the family, certainly was.
No amount of talk about “complementary” roles for men and women can conceal what Vision Forum was actually eager to announce: that its key concern was patriarchy—a system of governance, not just a distribution of responsibilities. From that perspective, the Old South represented a convenient image of white manhood and womanhood. To Vision Forum, the Confederacy’s fate served as perhaps a hint of why authoritarian manhood seems endangered today.
In addition, the failure of the Confederacy may be a convenient explanation for the supposed decline of Christian civilization in what Vision Forum claims was a providentially founded Christian nation. For them, the Civil War can serve as the moment when God chastised his people in America (just as he did the ancient Hebrews) for straying from their appointed course. It also seems to represent what can happen when a society fails to cohere—when its authority structures, and thus its values, fail. It explains what went wrong in God’s own nation.
We need to recognize that this authoritarianism is a vision of slavery and death. We can empathize with people who yearn for a lost culture. We can try to understand their anxiety and alleviate their fears. But we must call their vision what it is and offer another way.
- See the introduction, especially pages 8-10.
- Though this name has highly offensive proslavery implications, Vision Forum seems not to have realized it. In fact, the doll seemed to be designed with freedom in mind. Fidelia, the online catalog said, “can brave the voyage to New England as Priscilla Mullins, help Lewis and Clark find the Northwest Passage as Sacagawea, serve tea at the White House as Dolley Madison, and stroll the deck of the Titanic as Nan Harper.”
- Here’s Wilson’s comment in fuller context: “The issue is whether a Christian man could have lawfully owned a slave in 1850 America without being necessarilyguilty of a moral outrage. Was slave ownership malum in se, an evil in itself? The answer to that question, for anyone who believes the Bible, is that it was possible for a godly man to own slaves, provided he treated them exactly as the Scripture required. In a sinful world, slave ownership generallyis sinful, and it is a system that invites abuse. Over time the gospel will overthrow all forms of slavery. But again, the kingdom arrives like yeast working through the loaf, and not like a coup de main. In the meantime, to have the likes of the abolitionist Charles G. Finney (who said that it is impossible to be on the right side of God and the wrong side of the slavery issue) hurling his taunts at Abraham and Philemon is a bit thick.” Douglas Wilson, Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America(Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2005), 69. For Wilson’s remarks about Dabney, see pp. 79-94.