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Samuel Robert Cassius: Restoration Period Leader Essay

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Updated: Oct 13th, 2021

Samuel Robert Cassius is one of the black leaders of the Restoration period belonging to the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. Two books by E.J. Robinson show that Samuel Robert Cassius was an important figure in religious movements of his time bringing innovative ideas and values to the civil rights movement and religious movement. Robinson’s description underscores the immense popularity of Cassius, the man who rose from humble origins and achieved notoriety. It also emphasizes the fact that the narrator, a young enslaved African man, was so enthralled with other leaders of this period and preaching that he boldly ventured into a confined public setting filled undoubtedly with hundreds of white people.

Robinson portrays that it was very difficult for a black man to participate in the Restorationist Movement and proved his ability to lead and manage followers. the Restorationist Movement was a Christian movement aimed to renew the Christian church. During the 19th century, black men were perceived as slaves only deprived of human rights and freedoms1. Cassius’s willingness to labor strenuously for his cause was understandably appealing to Robinson, who had witnessed firsthand an enormous disparity between whites’ and blacks’ labor efforts. But Robinson admired Cassius for more than his energy; he also ended up subscribing to a form of Christianity that Cassius espoused2. It is this aspect of attraction to Cassius or more particularly to Protestant evangelicalism that has concerned and even baffled critics. While some have praised Cassius as an evangelical and perceived his embrace of Christianity as a positive organizing principle of his narrative and life, others have bemoaned his conversion and missionary zeal3.

Robinson attributes Cassius’s acculturation into Christianity in part to concentration psychology, wherein due to his enslavement, he made himself subservient to his white masters’ ways of thinking and control. Robinson sees it as evidence of Cassius’s maturity. He interprets his acculturation as a move of political savvy and experience, designed to assist him in persuading an audience that could strike major blows to the slave system4. Robinson recognizes Cassius’s Christian identity but has simultaneously underscored that it is only one role among many. Cassius is as much entrepreneur as evangelical as much African as Western European and as much enslaved as free5.

In both books, Robinson portrays that Cassius fits in the movement but it was difficult for him to prove his ideas and personal vision of Church restoration because of racial differences. Perhaps one reason that Cassius’s conversion, along with his subsequent missionary efforts, has proved a contestatory site for critics is that Cassius’s own actions — even after conversion — did not always follow what one might expect of a devout evangelical6. Robinson questions how can the same individual adopt such seemingly antithetical postures, displaying extreme self-abnegation on the one hand and startling self-aggrandizement on the other? Aren’t such contradictory attitudes an indication of his lack of devotional sincerity and complete acculturation? It suggests that Cassius’s first dedication was too personal enfranchisement and abolitionism rather than to Protestantism. Instead of evaluating the authenticity or magnitude of Cassius’s religious sentiment, Robinson suggests that what appears as religious backsliding or vacillation can be partially illumined by reconsidering idolization of the Church7.

Cassius’s contradictions can be explained in part by his reliance on an emergent notion of masculinity that the Church leaders, Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell cultivated and personified and that was based on the sometimes differing impulses of Calvinism and evangelicalism. According to Robinson, this new prescription for masculine selfhood the self suggesting a humility8. To enhance self-debasement, the individual endures a series of oppositions that, if surmounted successfully, leads to an assurance of salvation and a concomitant feeling of self-exaltation. Such exaltation can only be sustained, however, by reenacting, translating, and transferring this regenerative, humbling process to others. Thus, according to this ideal, the hardships and scrutinizing self-examination inherent in Calvinism can only be mitigated by experiencing one’s new birth and evangelizing successfully to others. While this conjunction of self-denigration and self-enlargement offered Cassius a means for attaining acceptable masculine selfhood and thus a certain self-empowerment, ultimately he was unable to maintain this conjunction as successfully as did Cassius9. Rather than reflect poorly on Cassius’s spiritual fortitude and self-worth, his inability to enact this form of masculinity helped to expose the dimensions of early American Protestantism.

Robinson underlines that the main strengths of Cassius were unique identity and ideas for restoration appealing to the majority. Religious values depended on the ability to display physical strength, to face and endure the risk of physical injury, and to perfect a respected skill or craft. Traditional religiosity was tested and established through competition and camaraderie with other men, participation in actual battle, or the endurance of pain, terror, or suffering10. Moreover, to maintain their religiosity, men needed to secure a family and land, produce heirs, and hold absolute dominion over wives, children, and servants. Not all men could achieve this tripartite masculine model of a warrior, patriarch, and laborer. Enslaved men, like Cassius, were typically shut out of opportunities for land ownership, marriage, family, and the acquisition of a skilled craft. Although Cassius eventually did secure his freedom, marry, and learn several trades, he never was able to attain the other requirements for manhood. Given the prevailing racism and existing slave system of the eighteenth century, enslaved men’s inability to become “men” is not surprising, but other free, white men were also excluded from this ideal11.

Rather than blame God for not guaranteeing everyone’s salvation or for creating sin in the first place, Cassius revered Him all the more for His awesome power. Cassius experiences a humbling sense of awe when listening to a sermon in the chapel, Beyond locating it in sermons and scripture12, Cassius detected and admired God’s fearsome wrath against sin in the forces of nature, especially in the sea. One of the most insidious consequences of the slave system was that even when freed, black men were still not accorded respect, considered truly free, or assigned a recognizable social role. After he is manumitted, Cassius continually has to confront whites unconvinced of his status. Moreover, the only time he is beaten or faces extreme personal injury comes after he attains freedom. With no master present to protect him (as “property”) or to grant him a recognized social role (albeit a subservient one), Cassius was vulnerable to literal and symbolic annihilation13.

Thus, in a rigidly hierarchical culture that typically erased the possibility of a respectable identity for nonwhite, enslaved, and lower-class individuals, the Restoration movement provided those same subordinated individuals two recognizable positions: that of the saved or the damned. Although the reprobate position was not ideal, it, along with the saved one, nevertheless lent its subjects an identifiable social and psychological role14. Moreover, while far from a loving, all-accepting, and nurturing parent, the Church divinity did recognize everyone, was worthy of respect given its commanding power, and offered its subjects at least some chance for a victory — which was better than most could hope for in an unforgiving the-American world.

The second reason that Cassius could enjoy self-enlargement was that predestination or providence did not entirely preclude the possibility of individual agency. In fact, predestination cannot be fully equated with determinism or fatalism, both of which deny the efficacy of volition. The leaders of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement believed that humans are predestined because they possess free will, but their free will differs fundamentally from God’s will15. Prior to conversion, humans’ will is fallible and limited by external natural and material forces, while God’s will is immutable both externally and internally. Only through the sanctification of the heart does the will become truly free, although paradoxically the free will is joined to God. The elect then is the only ones who possess free volition. However, not all members of the elect realize their freedom to enjoy, Cassius could not, of course, afford to be as self-promoting16.

Thus, Cassius had to invent strategies to endow their stories with the appearance of authenticity or to make certain that the stories they chose to tell did not surpass their white readers’ limited expectations for what constituted the “truth” about slavery. Because followers of this movement believed that providence signified the unfolding of God’s plan and glory, their autobiographers could focus on the self and on their mundane existence without appearing self-centered. Such an ability was particularly key for Cassius, who needed to detail certain facts of his life not only to affirm his own worth but also to relate the terrors of slavery. Robinson underlines that for Cassius, a new religion represents new birth, and the defining feature of evangelicalism enabled them to overcome interior or bodily struggles as well as exterior obstacles.

In sum, Robinson portrays Cassius as a real fighter and leader of the black minority. Rather than promote a cultural order based on greater mutuality and respect for the connection between two equal but differing subjects, this movement reinforced new relations. The only escape from the passive role was through the impersonation of the dominating Church. Cassius’s desire to fit into this movement not have been a failure at all but instead a realization of the personal implications. He served to inspire other non-dominant Christians to adopt different strategies of resistance and empowerment. Cassius’s nontraditional view of religion and providence coupled with his cultural relativism and his reluctance or inability to impersonate God not only impeded his ability to gain an appeal but also precluded his ability to personify the new Christian man. Confronting the rigid oppositions inherent in this movement — between good and evil, the elect and the reprobate — may have served as the first step toward acquiring manliness, but true masculinity could only be achieved if those oppositions could be surmounted and then transcended.

Bibliography

Robinson, E.J. To Save My Race from Abuse: The Life of Samuel Robert Cassius. University of Alabama Press, 2007.

Robinson, E.J. To Lift up My Race: The Essential Writing of Samuel Robert Cassius. Univ Tennessee Press; 1 edition, 2008.

Footnotes

  1. Robinson, E.J. To Save My Race from Abuse: The Life of Samuel Robert Cassius. (University of Alabama Press, 2007): 23.
  2. ibid., 25.
  3. Robinson, E.J. To Save My Race from Abuse: The Life of Samuel Robert Cassius. (University of Alabama Press, 2007): 34.
  4. Ibid., 45.
  5. Ibid., 46.
  6. Robinson, E.J. To Lift up My Race: The Essential Writing of Samuel Robert Cassius. ( Univ Tennessee Press; 1 edition, 2008); 72.
  7. Robinson, E.J. To Lift up My Race: The Essential Writing of Samuel Robert Cassius. ( Univ Tennessee Press; 1 edition, 2008); 71.
  8. Robinson, E.J. To Save My Race from Abuse: The Life of Samuel Robert Cassius. (University of Alabama Press, 2007): 29.
  9. Ibid., 44.
  10. Robinson, E.J. To Save My Race from Abuse: The Life of Samuel Robert Cassius. (University of Alabama Press, 2007): 82.
  11. Ibid., 22.
  12. Ibid., 45.
  13. Robinson, E.J. To Save My Race from Abuse: The Life of Samuel Robert Cassius. (University of Alabama Press, 2007): 98.
  14. Ibid., 43.
  15. Robinson, E.J. To Lift up My Race: The Essential Writing of Samuel Robert Cassius. ( Univ Tennessee Press; 1 edition, 2008): 12.
  16. Robinson, E.J. To Save My Race from Abuse: The Life of Samuel Robert Cassius. (University of Alabama Press, 2007): 42.
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