previous next

X. The churches and Slavery.

We have seen that the Revolutionary era and the Revolutionary spirit of our country were profoundly hostile to Slavery, and that they were not content with mere protests against an evil which positive efforts, determined acts, were required to remove. Before the Revolution, in deed, a religious opposition to Slavery, whereof the society of Christian Friends or Quakers were the pioneers, had been developed both in the mother country and in her colonies. George Fox, the first Quaker, bore earnest testimony, so early as 1671, on the occasion of his visit to [118] Barbadoes, against the prevalent cruelty and inhumanity with which negro slaves were then treated in that island, and urged their gradual emancipation. His letter implies that some of his disciples were slaveholders. Yet it was not till 1727 that the yearly meeting of the whole society in London declared “the importing of negroes from their native country and relations, by Friends, not a commendable or allowable practice.” Nearly thirty years before, the yearly meeting in Philadelphia (1696) took a step in advance of this, admonishing their members to be careful not to encourage the bringing in of any more negroes, and that those who have negroes be careful of them, bring them to meeting, etc., etc. It thus appears that Quakers, like other Christians, were then not only slaveholders, but engaged in the Slave-Trade. In 1754, the American Quakers had advanced to the point of publicly recommending their societies to “advise and deal with such as engage in” the Slave-Trade. Again: slaveholding Quakers were urged — not to emancipate their slaves — but to care for their morals, and treat them humanely. The British Quakers came up to this mark in 1758--four years later; and more decidedly in 1761 and 1763. In 1774, the Philadelphia meeting directed that all persons engaged in any form of slave-trading be “disowned;” and in 1776 took the decisive and final step by directing “that the owners of slaves, who refused to execute the proper instruments for giving them their freedom, be disowned likewise.” This blow hit the nail on the head. In 1781, but “one case” requiring discipline under this head was reported; and in 1783, it duly appeared that there were no slaves owned by its members.1 The coincidence of these later dates with the origin, progress, and close of our Revolutionary struggle, is noteworthy. The New York and Rhode Island yearly meetings passed almost simultaneously through the same stages to like results; that of Virginia pursued a like course; but, meeting greater obstacles, was longer in overcoming them. It discouraged the purchasing of slaves in 1766; urgently recommended manumission in 1773; yet, so late as 1787, its annual reports stated that some members still held slaves. But it is understood that Slavery and Quakerism, throughout the South, had very little communion or sympathy after the Revolution, and were gradually and finally divorced so early as 1800. Hence, as Slavery grew stronger and more intolerant there, Quakerism gradually faded out; so that its adherents were probably fewer in that section in 1860 than they had been eighty years before.

Of other religious denominations, none of the more important and popular, which date back to the earlier periods of our colonial history, can show even so fair a record as the above. By the Roman Catholics and Protestant Episcopalians, generally, Slaveholding has never been, and is not yet, considered inconsistent with piety, and a blameless, exemplary, Christian life. Individuals in these, as in other communions, have conspicuously condemned and earnestly opposed Human Slavery; but the general influence of these churches in our country, and especially of their [119] hierarchies, has been adverse to the practical recognition of every innocent man's right to his own limbs and sinews, and to sell or employ his own labor as to himself shall seem best.

The Presbyterian, Congregational, Baptist, and kindred “Orthodox” denominations, have no very consistent or luminous record on this subject. Thus, the Presbyterian General Assembly did, at its session in 1794--long before its division into Old school and New school --adopt a note to one of the questions in its longer Catechism, wherein, expounding and applying the Eighth Commandment, it affirmed that the Biblical condemnation of “manstealers

comprehends all who are concerned in bringing any of the human race into Slavery, or retaining them therein. Stealers of men are those who bring off slaves or freemen, and keep, sell, or buy them. To steal a freeman, says Grotius, is the highest kind of theft, etc., etc.

But this note was directed to be erased by the General Assembly of 1816, in a resolve which characterizes Slavery as a “mournful evil,” but does not direct that the churches be purged of it. In 1818, a fresh Assembly adopted an “Expression of views,” wherein Slavery is reprobated as a

gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature, utterly inconsistent with the law of God, which requires us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and totally irreconcilable with the spirit and principles of the gospel of Christ, which enjoin that “all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them.”

But, instead of requiring its members to clear themselves, and keep clear, of slaveholding, the Assembly exhorted them to “continue and increase their exertions to effect a total abolition of Slavery, with no greater delay than a regard for the public welfare demands!” and recommended that, if “a Christian professor shall sell a slave, who is also in communion with our Church” --said slave not being a consenting party to the sale — the seller be “suspended till he shall repent and make reparation!” It need hardly be added that, with few and spasmodic exceptions, the Presbyterian Church thenceforth was found apologizing for Slavery, and censuring its determined assailants far oftener than doing or devising anything to hasten that “total abolition,” which it had solemnly pronounced a requirement of Christianity. And, though the Synod of Kentucky, in 1835, adopted a report on Slavery, which condemned slave-holding broadly and thoroughly, and reprobated the domestic slave-trade as revolting, even horrible, in its cruelty, the same report admits that “those who hold to our communion, are involved in it ;” and no action was taken whereby they should be required to choose between their connection with the Church and persistence in buying, holding, and selling men, women, and children, as slaves.

Nor did the division of this Church, which occurred not long afterward, work any improvement in this respect. A majority of the slaveholding members, doubtless, adhered to the “Old school;” but the New school did not see fit to make slaveholding a bar to its communion. On the contrary, certain Presbyteries having done so, the General Assembly of 1843 censured their action, and required that it be rescinded. And though, in 1846, the next General Assembly reiterated, in substance, the broad condemnation of Slavery [120] contained in the Expression of Views in 1818, and in 1849 proclaimed that

there has been no information before this Assembly to prove that the members of our Church, in the Slave States, are not doing all they can (situated as they are, in the providence of God) to bring about the possession and enjoyment of liberty by the enslaved,

it is as certain as that “fine words butter no parsnips,” that slaves continued to be bought, held, and sold by members of the “New,” as well as of the Old school Presbyterian Church, and that, while Abolitionists were subject to continued and unsparing denunciation in the common as well as the special organs and utterances of these rival sects, slaveholders often filled the highest seats in their respective synagogues, and Slavery regarded their aimless denunciations and practical tolerance with serene complacency.

With the Baptists and Methodists--two very numerous and important denominations — the case was somewhat different. Each of these churches was originally anti-Slavery. The Methodists, in the infancy of their communion, were gathered mainly from among the poor and despised classes, and had much more affiliation with slaves than with their masters. Their discipline could with great difficulty be reconciled with slaveholding by their laity, while it decidedly could not be made to permit slaveholding on the part of their Bishops; and this impelled the secession, some twenty years since, of the “Methodist Church South,” carrying off most, but not all, of the churches located in the Slave States. The General Conference held at Cincinnati in 1836 solemnly disclaimed “any right, wish, or intention, to interfere with the civil and political relation between master and slave, as it exists in the slaveholding States of this Union,” condemned two ministers who had delivered Abolition lectures, and declared the opponents of Abolition “true friends to the Church, to the slaves of the South, and to the Constitution of our Country.”

The Baptists of Virginia, in General Assembly, 1789, upon a reference from the session of the preceding year, on motion of Elder John Leland,

Resolved, That Slavery is a violent deprivation of the rights of nature, and inconsistent with republican government; and therefore we recommend it to our brethren to make use of every measure to extirpate this horrid evil from the land; and pray Almighty God that our honorable Legislature may have it in their power to proclaim the great jubilee, consistent with the principles of good policy.

But no similar declaration has been made by any Southern Baptist State Convention since field-hands rose to $1,000 each, and black infants, at birth, were accounted worth $100. On the contrary, the Southern Baptists have for thirty years been among the foremost champions of slaveholding as righteous and Christian, and the Savannah River Baptist Association in 1835 gravely decided that slave husbands and wives, separated by sale, should be at liberty to take new partners; because

such separation, among persons situated as our slaves are, is civilly a separation by death, and they believe that, in the sight of God, it would be so viewed. To forbid second marriages, in such cases, would be to expose the parties not only to greater hardships and stronger temptations, but to church censure for acting in obedience to their masters, etc., etc.


Thus adapting Christianity to Slavery, instead of requiring that Slavery be made to square with the requirements of Christianity. And this is a fair specimen of what has passed for religion at the South for the last thirty or forty years.

In full view of these facts, the Northern and Southern Baptists met for thirty years in Triennial Convention, over which slaveholders usually presided, and wherein the righteousness of slaveholding could not, therefore, without seeming rudeness, be questioned. Abolition might be freely stigmatized; slaveholding was tacitly admitted to be just and proper by the very constitution of the body. And by no sect or class have anti-Slavery inculcations been more virulently reprobated than by the Baptists of the South.

The Free-Will Baptists, several bodies of Scottish Covenanters, and other offsets from the original Presbyterian stock, with certain of the Methodist dissenters or seceders from the great Methodist Episcopal organization, have generally maintained an attitude of hostility to Slavery. So, of late years, have the greater number of Unitarian and Universalist conventions. But all these together are a decided minority of the American People, or even of the professing Christians among them; and they do not at all shake the general truth that the anti-Slavery cause, throughout the years of its arduous and perilous struggle up from contempt and odium to respect and power, received far more of hindrance than of help from our ecclesiastical organizations. And this fact explains, if it does not excuse, the un-Orthodox, irreverent, and “infidel” tendencies which have been so freely, and not always unreasonably, ascribed to the apostles of Abolition. These have justly felt that the organized and recognized religion of the country has not treated their cause as it deserved and as they had a right to expect. The pioneers of “modern Abolition” were almost uniformly devout, pious, church-nurtured men, who, at the outset of their enterprise, took the cause of the slave2 to the Clergy and the Church, with undoubting faith that it would there be recognized and by them adopted as the cause of vital Christianity. Speaking generally, they were repulsed and resisted, quite as much to their astonishment as their mortification; and the resulting estrangement and hostility were proportioned to the fullness of their trust, the bitterness of their disappointment.3 It would have been wiser, doubtless, to have forborne, and trusted, and reasoned, and remonstrated, and supplicated; but patience and policy are not the virtues for which reformers are apt to be distinguished; since, were they prudent and politic, they would choose some safer and sunnier path. No insurance company that had taken a large risk on the life of John the Baptist would have counseled or approved his freedom of speech with regard to the domestic relations of Herod.

1 Clarkson's History.

2 Witness Lundy and Garrison at Boston, 1828.


Alas! they had been friends in youth;
But whispering tongues can poison truth,
And constancy lives in realms above;
And life is thorny and youth is vain:
And to be wroth with one we love,
Doth work like madness on the brain.

--Coleridge's Christabel.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Baptist (2)
Unitarian (1)
Benjamin Lundy (1)
John Leland (1)
Herod (1)
Grotius (1)
William Lloyd Garrison (1)
George Fox (1)
Coleridge (1)
Christian (1)
Jesus Christ (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1835 AD (2)
1818 AD (2)
1860 AD (1)
1849 AD (1)
1846 AD (1)
1843 AD (1)
1836 AD (1)
1828 AD (1)
1816 AD (1)
1800 AD (1)
1794 AD (1)
1789 AD (1)
1787 AD (1)
1783 AD (1)
1781 AD (1)
1776 AD (1)
1774 AD (1)
1773 AD (1)
1766 AD (1)
1763 AD (1)
1761 AD (1)
1758 AD (1)
1754 AD (1)
1727 AD (1)
1696 AD (1)
1671 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: