For Professor Jeremy Schipper, a Chance Discovery Wins a Guggenheim Fellowship
By: Nick Santangelo
For Religion Professor Jeremy Schipper, “it really hasn’t sunk in yet.” But if the magnitude of being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study 19th-century slave turned free man Denmark Vesey hasn’t yet fully settled in for the professor, it certainly has around the College of Liberal Arts. About a week after receiving the fellowship on April 4, he can’t even make the short trip up to Anderson Hall’s eighth floor from his office on the sixth to talk about the award without being stopped and congratulated along the way. He remembers what it was like the moment he was notified of the award.
“It caught me by surprise,” he said. “I had applied for a couple of external grants in order to fund my sabbatical this coming year, and I really thought the Guggenheim was a longshot. I went for it on a whim, thinking there’s no way it’s going to work out. And lo and behold, it did. So it really did catch me off guard, by surprise.”
A Dead End with an Opening
Something else that surprised and amazed Dr. Schipper ended up being the impetus for the research project the Guggenheim Fellowship will help make possible. While working on the book Black Samson: The Untold Story of an American Icon with Religion Assistant Professor Nyasha Junior, Dr. Schipper received some feedback from publisher Oxford University Press. An Oxford reviewer encouraged Drs. Junior and Schipper to explore possible connections between Samson and Denmark Vesey. While they didn’t find much framing Vesey as a Samson-like figure, they did uncover a trove of biblical interpretations relating to the subject.
In 1822 in South Carolina, Vesey was accused, convicted and executed for plotting what would have been the largest slave insurrection in United States history. At the trial, witnesses testified that Vesey invoked the Bible, claiming certain Biblical passages justified his attempted rebellion because they speak of the Israelites’ liberation from their Egyptian slave masters.
Vesey even took it a step further, citing Exodus 21:16, which reads, “he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.” This, unsurprisingly, did not go over well in the antebellum South. Magistrate Lionel Henry Kennedy, who sentenced Vesey to death, said that in addition to plotting a treasonous act, Vesey had been “attempting to pervert the sacred words of God into sanction for crimes of the blackest hue.” Dr. Schipper was fascinated by this and other versions of the trial transcripts and their lasting imprint on the pro and anti-slavery movements for decades to come.
“Once I started reading these trial transcripts,” Dr. Schipper recalls, “there is so much use of biblical literature, and it was amazing to me how both sides—both Vesey who was using the bible to justify this uprising against white slaveholders and then the court which was stacked against him—these white slaveholders said, ‘Hey, you’re interpreting the bible wrong. In fact, if you look at this passage, it says slaves should be obedient to their masters.’ It kind of got into this interpretative battle about who’s correct in terms of reading the Bible and to me that was absolutely fascinating.”
One Book, Many Readings
So, who is correct in their reading of the Bible? Slavery is obviously abhorrent, but does the Bible say as much? According to Dr. Schipper, it depends. Today, Americans are criticized for using their pre-existing beliefs to interpret modern media in ways that reinforce those beliefs. This hardly differs from how Americans interpreted the bible in 1822.
“What fascinates me about this case is the way of interpreting it—in a way you could make the Bible say almost anything,” says Dr. Schipper. “Be it a verse reference or something else. Not only were both sides using the Bible, but they were also using different lenses to read it and both were presenting it as objectively reading the Bible.”
As an example, the professor explains that when Kennedy claimed in 1822 that a Bible passage supported slaves being obedient to their masters, he should have stopped to consider the differences in cultural and political structures from the Roman Empire during the first century CE and those of the antebellum South. Meanwhile, the Bible may very well say that those who kidnap and sell other humans for money should be executed. But Vesey would have known that the South Carolina courts of his time were not going to support this reading.
In 2018, it’s obvious how awful that reality was, but in 1822 it was reality nonetheless. Underscoring this, Dr. Schipper explains that Kennedy owned 23 people at the time of his death. Perhaps even worse, Vesey’s own lawyer was pro-slavery.
Justice for None
African American slaves realized the context of the situation they were in at the time. So scared of what might happen were the rebellion to take place, some of them turned Vesey in before it could get started. The trial that followed was largely a sham.
“As a slaveholder in Charleston, you would want the appearance of due process,” says Dr. Schipper. “If white slaveholders started to say, ‘Well, I heard accusations against this enslaved person,’ and they got lynched, for instance, that’s actually a monetary loss to a white slaveholder.”
Slaveholders also wanted to set an example for other African American slaves if ever they considered rebellions of their own. Five supposed co-conspirators were hung alongside Vesey, and dozens more, including some white people, were hung in the aftermath.
“The trial could serve many other purposes than justice,” explains the professor. “Justice is probably low on the list of reasons to have a trial.”
Nevertheless, Vesey was not only brave enough to plan his own revolt but to invoke the Bible in justifying the freeing of slaves and the killing of their masters. A controversial figure, Vesey didn’t leave any writings behind when he died. That means scholars must rely on his Biblical interpretations from the trial.
“It wasn’t just that he was using the bible to say or suggest that slaves should be liberated,” says Dr. Schipper. “That’s pretty common of—a lot of folks would take that from the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Vesey took it a step further and looked at some laws in the Bible, like if you kidnap a person and sell them for money, you should be put to death. He said that should justify his very violent revolt against the folks.
“He also compared Charleston to the city of Jericho—there’s a story in the bible how Joshua and the Israelites conquered Jericho and destroyed the walls and they killed all the residents of Jericho. He said the modern-day Jericho residents are the folks of Charleston. And [slaves are] the Israelites. So he used certain ideas of liberation in the Bible, but he also used stories that had a very violent undertone.”
This created quite the controversy. Among whites, Vesey’s defense was “not well received at all” says Dr. Schipper. Vesey did, however, become a hero among African Americans. Further, he got his own statue in Charleston in 2014. Dr. Schipper thinks those who study Vesey today should consider this development in the context of the movement to remove Confederate statues that followed a few years later.
Back in the early 19th century, some parties began a push to outlaw teaching slaves to be literate. The thinking was they wouldn’t be able to “misinterpret” the Bible if they couldn’t read it. Others, however, wanted to continue giving slaves a religious—meaning Christian—education and teaching them to read the book. This wasn’t for their own benefit, of course. The thinking was that they would be more docile servants if they were able to follow the Bible’s teachings.
A church that Vesey was involved with, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was also destroyed after his trial. But it was rebuilt in 1865. One hundred and fifty years later, it was tragically the sight of a white supremacist shooting that took the lives of nine people.
“My initial thinking of the project was actually in the aftermath of that shooting in Charleston in 2015,” says Dr. Schipper. “There was a bit of a renewed interest in Vesey. Both the heroic and tragic narrative of this church—Vesey became part of that history. That church in Charleston has an incredible history.”
Once he dug into the project, the professor realized there was a direct tie between the research and how he likes to teach his College of Liberal Arts students in the classroom. Going beyond just the Bible’s composition and historical questions about the book’s origins, Dr. Schipper challenges his students to examine how people have invoked the Bible.
“This is a great example how the Bible is used and how in a particular historical moment and cultural context the Bible can be interpreted differently,” he says. “But it also gives students a chance to sort of reflect on what their own presuppositions are when they read the Bible.”
Dr. Schipper points to how vague the Bible is and how this has made various parties feel empowered to fill in the blanks. For instance, he teaches his students about how some white supremacists today cite the Bible as being against interracial marriage when the authors never gave enough descriptive text to justify this view. In fact, Dr. Schipper thinks students would probably fail a creative writing course if they turned in a description of the start of the universe that was as short and detail-light as the Bible’s.
“Think about how when you are reading the story what are you imagining,” he says. “Like what is the color of the sky? Are there clouds? Is the grass green? The only thing the Bible tells you about Adam and Eve descriptively is that they are naked. But they don’t actually tell you what their bodies actually look like. So just starting with that and just being aware of even little details like what we are imagining while we are reading the Bible.”
A Team Effort
Speaking of imagining, Dr. Schipper credits both the Religion Department and the College of Liberal Arts with encouraging the faculty to dream up big ambitions and chase them down.
“I’ve had an ambitious research agenda while I’ve been here at Temple,” he says. “A lot of that has to do with the support of the department and the College as well. You don’t do your research without a huge amount of support from your colleagues, both in the department and at the College level. I very much think this is a team effort.”
The next time someone congratulates Dr. Schipper on his Guggenheim while he’s walking the halls and he replies, “thank you,” they’ll know it’s not just for offering congrats. It’s also for being part of the Temple team that made it possible.