All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
26 June, 2013
The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
In the first place, have any of these opinions
ever been treated in the church as heresies, and the teachers of them been
subjected to the censures with which it is thought proper to visit heresy?
After a somewhat extended examination upon the subject, the writer has
been able to discover but one instance of this sort. It may be possible that
such cases have existed in other denominations, which have escaped inquiry.
A clergyman in the Cincinnati N. S. Presbytery maintained the doctrine
that slave-holding was justified by the Bible, and for persistence in teaching
this sentiment was suspended by that presbytery. He appealed to Synod, and
the decision was confirmed by the Cincinnati Synod. The New School General
Assembly, however, reversed this decision of the presbytery, and restored
the standing of the clergyman. The presbytery, on its part, refused to receive
him back, and he was received into the Old School Church.
The Presbyterian Church has probably exceeded all other churches of the
United States in its zeal for doctrinal opinions. This church has been shaken
and agitated to its very foundation with questions of heresy; but, except
in this individual case, it is not known that any of these principles which
have been asserted by Southern Presbyterian bodies and individuals have ever
been discussed in its General Assembly as matters of heresy.
About the time that Smylie's pamphlet came out, the Presbyterian Church
was convulsed with the trial of the Rev. Albert Barnes for certain alleged
heresies. These heresies related to the federal headship of Adam, the propriety
of imputing his sin to all his posterity, and the question whether men have
any ability of any kind to obey the commandments of God.
For advancing certain sentiments on these topics, Mr. Barnes was silenced
by the vote of the Synod to which he belonged, and his trial in the General
Assembly on these points was the all-engrossing topic in the Presbyterian
Church for some time. The Rev. Dr. L. Beecher went through a trial with reference
to similar opinions. During all this time no notice was taken
of the heresy, if such it be, that the right to buy, sell, and hold men for
purposes of gain, was expressly given by God, although that heresy was publicly
promulgated in the same Presbyterian Church by Mr. Smylie, and the Presbyterians
with which he was connected.
If it be accounted for by saying that the question of slavery is a question
of practical morals, and not of dogmatic theology,
we are then reminded that questions of morals of far less magnitude have been
discussed with absorbing interest.
The Old School Presbyterian Church, in whose communion the greater part
of the slaveholding Presbyterians of the South are found, has never felt called
upon to discipline its members for upholding a system which denies legal marriage
to all slaves. Yet this church was agitated to its very foundation by the
discussion of a question of morals which an impartial observer would probably
consider of far less magnitude, namely, whether a man might lawfully marry
his deceased wife's sister. For the time, all the strength and attention of
the church seemed concentrated upon this important subject. The trial went
from Presbytery to Synod, and from Synod to General Assembly; and ended with
deposing a very respectable minister for this crime.
Rev. Robert J. Breckenridge, D.D., a member of the Old School Assembly,
has thus described the state of the slave population as to their marriage
relations: "The system of slavery denies to a whole class of human beings
the sacredness of marriage and of home, compelling them to live in a state
of concubinage; for, in the eye of the law, no coloured slave-man is the husband
of any wife in particular, nor any slave-woman the wife of any husband in
particular; no slave-man is the father of any children in particular, and
no slave-child is the child of any parent in particular."
Now, had this church considered the fact that three millions of men and
women were, by the laws of the land, obliged to live in this manner, as of
equally serious consequence, it is evident, from the ingenuity, argument,
vehemence, Biblical research, and untiring zeal which they bestowed on Mr.
McQueen's trial, that they could have made a very strong case with regard
to this also.
The history of the united action of denominations which included churches
both in the slave and free States is a melancholy exemplification, to a reflecting
mind, of that gradual deterioration of the moral sense which results from
admitting any compromise, however slight, with an acknowledged sin. The best
minds in the world cannot bear such a familiarity without injury
to the moral sense. The facts of the slave system and of the slave laws, when
presented to disinterested judges in Europe, have excited a universal outburst
of horror; yet, in assemblies composed of the wisest and best clergymen of
America, these things have been discussed from year to year, and yet brought
no results that have, in the slightest degree, lessened the evil. The reason
is this. A portion of the members of these bodies had pledged themselves to
sustain the system, and peremptorily to refuse and put down all discussion
of it; and the other part of the body did not consider this stand so taken
as being of sufficiently vital consequence to authorise separation.
Nobody will doubt that, had the Southern members taken such a stand against
the divinity of our Lord, the division would have been immediate and unanimous;
but yet the Southern members do maintain the right to buy and sell, lease,
hire, and mortgage, multitudes of men and women, whom, with the same breath,
they declared to be members of their churches and true Christians. The Bible
declares of all such that they are the temples of the Holy Ghost; that they
are the members of Christ's body, of his flesh and bones. Is not the doctrine
that men may lawfully sell the members of Christ, his body, his flesh and
bones, for purposes of gain, as really a heresy as the denial of the divinity
of Christ; and is it not a dishonour to Him who is over all, God blessed for
ever, to tolerate this dreadful opinion, with its more dreadful consequences,
while the smallest heresies concerning the imputation of Adam's sin are pursued
with eager vehemence? If the history of the action of all the bodies thus
united can be traced downwards, we shall find that, by reason of this tolerance
of an admitted sin, the anti-slavery testimony has every year grown weaker
and weaker. If we look over the history of all denominations, we shall see
that at first they used very stringent language with relation to slavery.
This is particularly the case with the Methodist and Presbyterian bodies,
and for that reason we select these two as examples. The Methodist Society
especially, as organised by John Wesley, was an anti-slavery society, and
the Book of Discipline contained the most positive statutes against slaveholding.
The history of the successive resolutions of the conference of this church
is very striking. In 1780, before the church was regularly organised in the
United States, they resolved as follows:--
The conference acknowledges that slavery is contrary to the laws of God,
man, and nature, and hurtful to society; contrary to the dictates of conscience
In 1784, when the church was fully organised, rules were adopted prescribing
the times at which members who were already slaveholders should emancipate
their slaves. These rules were succeeded by the following:--
Every person concerned, who will not comply with these rules, shall have
liberty quietly to withdraw from our Society within the twelve months following
the notice being given him, as aforesaid; otherwise the assistants shall exclude
him from the society.
No person holding slaves shall in future be admitted into the Society,
or to the Lord's Supper, till he previously comply with these rules concerning
Those who buy, sell, or give slaves away, unless on purpose to free them,
shall be expelled immediately.
We declare that we are more than ever convinced of the great evil of African
slavery, which still exists in these United States.
Every member of the Society who sells a slave shall immediately, after
full proof, be excluded from the Society, &c.
The Annual Conferences are directed to draw up addresses for the gradual
emancipation of the slaves, to the Legislature. Proper committees shall be
appointed by the Annual Conference, out of the most respectable of our friends,
for the conducting of the business; and the presiding elders, deacons, and
travelling preachers, shall procure as many proper signatures as possible
to the addresses, and give all the assistance in their power, in every respect,
to aid the committees, and to further the blessed undertaking. Let this be
continued from year to year, till the desired end be accomplished.
In 1836, let us notice the change. The General Conference held its annual
session in Cincinnati, and resolved as follows:--
Resolved, by the delegates of the Annual Conferences in General Conference
assembled, that they are decidedly opposed to modern abolitionism, and wholly
disclaim any right, wish, or intention to interfere in the civil and political
relation between master and slave, as it exists in the slaveholding States
of this Union.
These resolutions were passed by a very large majority. An address was
received from the Wesleyan Methodist Conference in England, affectionately
remonstrating on the subject of slavery. The Conference refused to publish
it. In the pastoral address to the churches are these passages:--
It cannot be unknown to you that the question of slavery in the United
States, by the constitutional compact which binds us together as a nation,
is left to be regulated by the several State Legislatures themselves; and
thereby is put beyond the control of the general government, as well as that
of all ecclesiastical bodies, it being manifest that in the slaveholding States
themselves the entire responsibility of its existence, or non-existence, rests
with those State Legislatures. * * * * These facts, which are
only mentioned here as a reason for the friendly admonition which we wish
to give you, constrain us, as your pastors, who are called to watch over your
souls, as they must give account, to exhort you to abstain from all abolition
movements and associations, and to refrain from patronising any of their publications,&
c. * * * *
The subordinate conferences showed the same spirit.
In 1836, the New York Annual Conference resolved that no one should be
elected a deacon or elder in the church unless he would give a pledge to the
church that he would refrain from discussing this subject.
In 1838 the Conference resolved--
As the sense of this Conference, that any of its members, or probationers,
who shall patronise Zion's Watchman, either by writing
in commendation of its character, by circulating it, recommending it to our
people, or procuring subscribers, or by collecting or remitting moneys, shall
be deemed guilty of indiscretion, and dealt with accordingly.
It will be recollected that Zion's Watchman was
edited by Le Roy Sunderland, for whose abduction the State of Alabama had
offered fifty thousand dollars.
In 1840, the General Conference at Baltimore passed the resolution that
we have already quoted, forbidding preachers to allow coloured persons to
give testimony in their churches. It has been computed that about eighty thousand
people were deprived of the right of testimony by this Act. This Methodist
Church subsequently broke into a Northern and Southern Conference. The Southern
Conference is avowedly all pro-slavery, and the Northern Conference has still
in its communion slave-holding conferences and members.
Of the Northern Conferences, one of the largest, the Baltimore, passed
Resolved, That this Conference disclaims having any fellowship with abolitionism.
On the contrary, while it is determined to maintain its well-known and long-established
position, by keeping the travelling preachers composing its own body free
from slavery, it is also determined not to hold connexion with any ecclesiastical
body that shall make non-slaveholding a condition of membership in the church,
but to stand by and maintain the discipline as it is.
The following extract is made from an address of the Philadelphia Annual
Conference to the societies under its care, dated Wilmington, Del., April
If the plan of separation gives us the pastoral care of you, it remains
to inquire whether we have done anything, as a conference, or as men, to forfeit
your confidence and affection. We are not advised that even
in the great excitement which has distressed you for some months past, any
one has impeached our moral conduct, or charged us with unsoundness in doctrine,
or corruption or tyranny in the administration of discipline. But we learn
that the simple cause of the unhappy excitement among you is, that some suspect
us, or affect to suspect us, of being abolitionists. Yet no particular act
of the Conference, or any particular member thereof, is adduced as the ground
of the erroneous and injurious suspicion. We would ask you, brethren, whether
the conduct of our ministry among you for sixty years past ought not to be
sufficient to protect us from this charge? Whether the question we have been
accustomed, for a few years past, to put to candidates for admission among
us, namely, Are you an abolitionist? and, without each one answered in the
negative, he was not received, ought not to protect us from the charge. Whether
the action of the last Conference on this particular matter ought not to satisfy
any fair and candid mind that we are not, and do not desire to be, abolitionists?
* * * * We cannot see how we can be regarded as abolitionists, without the
ministers of the Methodist Episcopal Church South being considered in the
same light. * * * * * *
Wishing you all heavenly benedictions, we are, dear brethren, yours, in
J. P. DURBIN, J. KENNADAY, IGNATIUS T. COOPER, WILLIAM H. GILDER, JOSEPH CASTLE,
These facts sufficiently define the position of the Methodist Church. The
history is melancholy but instructive. The history of the Presbyterian Church
is also of interest.
In 1793, the following note to the eighth commandment was inserted in the
Book of Discipline, as expressing the doctrine of the church upon slaveholding:
1 Tim. i. 10. The law is made for MAN-STEALERS.
This crime among the Jews exposed the perpetrators of it to capital punishment,
Exodus xxi. 15; and the apostle here classes them with sinners of the first
rank. The word he uses, in its original import, comprehends all who are concerned
in bringing any of the human race into slavery, or in retaining them in it.
Hominum fures, qui servos vel liberos, abducunt, retinent,
vendunt, vel cmunt. Stealers of men are all those who bring off slaves
or freemen, and KEEP, SELL, or BUY
THEM. To steal a free man, says Grotius, is the highest kind of theft.
In other instances, we only steal human property; but when we steal or retain
men in slavery, we seize those who, in common with ourselves, are constituted
by the original grant lords of the earth.
No rules of church discipline were enforced, and members whom this passage
declared guilty of this crime remained undisturbed in its communion, as ministers
and elders. This inconsistency was obviated in 1816 by expunging the passage
from the Book of Discipline. In 1818 it adopted an expression of its views
on slavery. This document is a long one conceived and written
in a very Christian spirit. The Assembly's Digest says, page 341, that it
was unanimously adopted. The following is its testimony
as to the nature of slavery:
We consider the voluntary enslaving of one part of the human race by another
as a gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature;
as utterly inconsistent with the law of God, which requires us to love our
neighbour as ourselves; and as 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 even so to them." Slavery
creates a paradox in the moral system--it exhibits rational, accountable,
and immortal beings in such circumstances as scarcely to leave them the power
of moral action. It exhibits them as dependent on the will of others, whether
they shall receive religious instruction; whether they shall know and worship
the true God; whether they shall enjoy the ordinances of the gospel; whether
they shall perform the duties and cherish the endearments of husbands and
wives, parents and children, neighbours and friends; whether they shall preserve
their chastity and purity, or regard the dictates of justice and humanity.
Such are some of the consequences of slavery--consequences not imaginary,
but which connect themselves with its very existence. The evils to which the
slave is always exposed often take place in fact, and in their very worst
degree and form; and where all of them do not take place--as we rejoice
to say that in many instances, through the influence of the principles of
humanity and religion on the minds of masters, they do not--still the
slave is deprived of his natural right, degraded as a human being, and exposed
to the danger of passing into the hands of a master who may inflict upon him
all the hardships and injuries which inhumanity and avarice may suggest.
This language was surely decided, and it was unanimously
adopted by slaveholders and non-slaveholders. Certainly one might think
the time of redemption was drawing nigh. The declaration goes on to say:
It is manifestly the duty of all Christians who enjoy the light of the
present day, when the inconsistency of slavery both with the dictates of humanity
and religion has been demonstrated, and is generally seen and acknowledged,
to use honest, earnest, unwearied endeavours to correct the errors of former
times, and as speedily as possible to efface this blot on our holy religion,
and to OBTAIN THE COMPLETE ABOLITION of slavery throughout
Christendom and throughout the world.
Here we have the Presbyterian Church, slaveholding and non-slaveholding,
virtually formed into one great abolition society,
as we have seen the Methodist was.
The Assembly then goes on to state that the slaves are not at present
prepared to be free--that they tenderly sympathise with
the portion of the church and country that has had this evil entailed upon
them, where, as they say, "a great and the most virtuous part of the
community ABHOR SLAVERY and wish its extermination." But they exhort them
to commence immediately the work of instructing slaves, with a view to preparing
them for freedom; and to let no greater delay take place than "a regard
to public welfare indispensably demands." "To
be governed by no other considerations than an honest and
impartial regard to the happiness of the injured party, uninfluenced by the
expense and inconvenience which such regard may involve." It warns
against "unduly extending this plea of necessity," against making it a cover for the love and
practice of slavery. It ends by recommending that any one who shall sell
a fellow-Christian without his consent be immediately disciplined and suspended.
If we consider that this was unanimously adopted
by slave-holders and all, and grant, as we certainly do, that it was adopted
in all honesty and good faith, we shall surely expect something from it. We
should expect forthwith the organising of a set of common schools for the
slave-children; for an efficient religious ministration; for an entire discontinuance
of trading in Christian slaves; for laws which make the family relations sacred.
Was any such thing done or attempted? Alas! Two years after this came the
ADMISSION OF MISSOURI, and the
increase of demand in the Southern slave-market and the internal slave-trade.
Instead of school-teachers, they had slave-traders; instead of gathering
schools, they gathered slave-coffles; instead of building
school-houses, they built slave-pens and slave-prisons,
jails, barracoons, factories, or whatever the trade pleases to term them;
and so went the plan of gradual emancipation.
In 1834, sixteen years after, a committee of the Synod of Kentucky, in
which State slavery is generally said to exist in its mildest form, appointed
to make a report on the condition of the slaves, gave the following picture
of their condition. First, as to their spiritual condition, they say:--
After making all reasonable allowances, our coloured population can be
considered, at the most, but semi-heathen.
Brutal stripes, and all the various kinds of personal indignities, are
not the only species of cruelty which slavery licenses. The law does not recognise
the family relations of the slave, and extends to him no protection in the
enjoyment of domestic endearments. The members of a slave-family may be forcibly
separated, so that they shall never more meet until the final judgment. And
cupidity often induces the masters to practise what the law allows. Brothers
and sisters, parents and children, husbands and wives, are torn asunder, and
permitted to see each other no more. These acts are daily occurring in the
midst of us. The shrieks and the agony often witnessed on such occasions proclaim
with a trumpet-tongue the iniquity and cruelty of our system. The cries of
these sufferers go up to the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. There is not a neighbourhood
where these heartrending scenes are not displayed. There is
not a village or road that does not behold the sad procession of manacled
outcasts, whose chains and mournful countenances tell that they are exiled
by force from all that their hearts hold dear. Our church, years ago, raised
its voice of solemn warning against this flagrant violation of every principle
of mercy, justice, and humanity. Yet we blush to announce to you and to the
world that this warning has been often disregarded, even by those who hold
to our communion. Cases have occurred, in our own denomination, where professors
of the religion of mercy have torn the mother from her children, and sent
her into a merciless and returnless exile. Yet acts of discipline have rarely
followed such conduct.
Hon. James G. Birney, for years a resident of Kentucky, in his pamphlet,
amends the word rarely by substituting never. What could show
more plainly the utter inefficiency of the past
act of the Assembly, and the necessity of adopting some measures more efficient?
In 1835, therefore, the subject was urged upon the General Assembly, intreating
them to carry out the principles and designs they had avowed in 1818.
Mr. Stuart, of Illinois, in a speech he made upon the subject, said:--
I hope this assembly are prepared to come out fully and declare their sentiments,
that slaveholding is a most flagrant and heinous SIN.
Let us not pass it by in this indirect way, while so many thousands and tens
of thousands of our fellow-creatures are writhing under the lash, often inflicted,
too, by ministers and elders of the Presbyterian Church.
* * * * * * * * *
In this church a man may take a free-born child, force it away from its
parents, to whom God gave it in charge, saying, "Bring it up for me,"
and sell it as a beast or hold it in perpetual bondage, and not only escape
corporeal punishment, but really be esteemed an excellent Christian. Nay,
even ministers of the gospel and doctors of divinity may engage in this unholy
traffic, and yet sustain their high and holy calling.
* * * * * * * * *
Elders, ministers, and doctors of divinity, are, with both hands, engaged
in the practice.
One would have thought facts like these, stated in a body of Christians,
were enough to wake the dead; but, alas! we can become accustomed to very
awful things. No action was taken upon these remonstrances, except to refer
them to a committee, to be reported on at the next session, in 1836.
The moderator of the Assembly in 1836 was a slaveholder, Dr. T. S. Witherspoon,
the same who said to the editor of the Emancipator,
"I draw my warrant from the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament
to hold my slaves in bondage. The principle of holding the heathen in bondage
is recognised by God. When the tardy process of the law is too
long in redressing our grievances, we at the South have adopted the summary
process of Judge Lynch."
The majority of the committee appointed made a report as follows:--
Whereas the subject of slavery is inseparably connected with the laws of
many of the States in this Union, with which it is by no means proper for
an ecclesiastical judicature to interfere, and involves many considerations
in regard to which great diversity of opinion and intensity of feeling are
known to exist in the churches represented in this Assembly; and whereas there
is great reason to believe that any action on the part of this Assembly, in
reference to this subject, would tend to distract and divide our churches,
and would probably in no wise promote the benefit of those whose welfare is
immediately contemplated in the memorials in question.
1. That it is not expedient for the Assembly to take
any further order in relation to this subject.
2. That as the notes which have been expunged from our public formularies,
and which some of the memorials referred to the committee request to have
restored, were introduced irregularly, never had the sanction of the church,
and therefore never possessed any authority, the General Assembly has no power,
nor would they think it expedient, to assign them a place in the authorised
standards of the church.
The minority of the committee, the Rev. Messrs. Dickey and Beman, reported
1. That the buying, selling, or holding a human being
as property, is in the sight of God a heinous sin, and ought to subject the
doer of it to the censures of the church.
2. That it is the duty of every one, and especially of every Christian,
who may be involved in this sin, to free himself from its entanglement without
3. That it is the duty of every one, especially of every Christian,
in the meekness and firmness of the Gospel, to plead the cause of the poor
and needy, by testifying against the principle and practice of slaveholding,
and to use his best endeavours to deliver the church of God from the evil,
and to bring about the emancipation of the slaves in these United States,
and throughout the world.
The slaveholding delegates, to the number of forty-eight,
met apart, and Resolved--
That if the General Assembly shall undertake to exercise authority on the
subject of slavery, so as to make it an immorality, or shall in any way declare
that Christians are criminal in holding slaves, that a declaration shall be
presented by the Southern delegation declining their jurisdiction in the case,
and our determination not to submit to such decision.
In view of these conflicting reports, the Assembly resolved as follows:--
Inasmuch as the constitution of the Presbyterian Church, in its preliminary
and fundamental principles, declares that no church judicatories ought to
pretend to make laws to bind the conscience in virtue of their own authority;
and as the urgency of the business of the Assembly, and the shortness of the
time during which they can continue in session, render it impossible to deliberate
and decide judiciously on the subject of slavery in its relation to the church,
therefore Resolved, that this whole subject be indefinitely postponed.
The amount of the slave-trade at the time when the General Assembly refused
to act upon the subject of slavery at all may be inferred from the following
items. The Virginia Times, in an article published
in this very year of 1836, estimated the number of slaves exported for sale
from that State alone, during the twelve months preceding, at forty thousand.
The Natchez (Miss.) Courier
says that in the same year the States of Alabama, Missouri, and Arkansas imported
two hundred and fifty thousand slaves from the more Northern States. If we
deduct from these all who may be supposed to have emigrated with their masters,
still what an immense trade is here indicated!
The Rev. James H. Dickey, who moved the resolutions above presented, had
seen some sights which would naturally incline him to wish the Assembly to
take some action on the subject, as appears from the following account of
a slave-coffle, from his pen.
In the summer of 1822, as I returned with my family from a visit to the
Barrens of Kentucky, I witnessed a scene such as I never witnessed before,
and such as I hope never to witness again. Having passed through Paris, in
Bourbon County, Kentucky, the sound of music (beyond a little rising ground)
attracted my attention. I looked forward, and saw the flag of my country waving.
Supposing that I was about to meet a military parade, I drove hastily to the
side of the road; and, having gained the ascent, I discovered (I supposed)
about forty black men all chained together after the following manner: each
of them was handcuffed, and they were arranged in rank and file. A chain,
perhaps forty feet long, the size of a fifth-horse chain, was stretched between
the two ranks, to which short chains were joined, which connected with the
handcuffs. Behind them were, I supposed, about thirty women, in double rank,
the couples tied hand to hand. A solemn sadness sat on every countenance,
and the dismal silence of this march of despair was interrupted only by the
sound of two violins; yes, as if to add insult to injury, the foremost couple
were furnished with a violin a-piece; the second couple were ornamented with
cockades, while near the centre waved the republican flag carried by a hand
literally in chains. I could not forbear exclaiming to the lordly driver who
rode at his ease alongside, "Heaven will curse that man who engages
in such traffic, and the government that protects him in it." I pursued
my journey till evening, and put up for the night, when I mentioned
the scene I had witnessed. "Ah!" cried my landlady, "that
is my brother!" From her I learned that his name is Stone, of Bourbon
County, Kentucky, in partnership with one Kinningham, of Paris; and that a
few days before he had purchased a negro-woman from a man in Nicholas County.
She refused to go with him; he attempted to compel her, but she defended herself.
Without further ceremony he stepped back, and, by a blow on the side of her
head, with the butt of his whip, brought her to the ground; he tied her, and
drove her off. I learned, further, that besides the drove I had seen, there
were about thirty shut up in the Paris prison for safe-keeping, to be added
to the company, and that they were designed for the Orleans market. And to
this they are doomed for no other crime than that of a black skin and curled
locks. Shall I not visit for these things? saith the Lord. Shall not my soul
be avenged on such a nation as this?
It cannot be possible that these Christian men realised these things, or,
at most, they realised them just as we realise the most tremendous truths
of religion, dimly and feebly.
Two years after, the General Assembly, by a sudden and very unexpected
movement, passed a vote exscinding, without trial, from the communion of the
church, four synods, comprising the most active and decided anti-slavery portions
of the church. The reasons alleged were, doctrinal differences and ecclesiastical
practices inconsistent with Presbyterianism. By this act about five hundred
ministers and sixty thousand members were cut off from the Presbyterian Church.
That portion of the Presbyterian Church called New School, considering
this act unjust, refused to assent to it, joined the exscinded synods, and
formed themselves into the New School General Assembly. In this communion
only three slave-holding presbyteries remained; in the old there were between
thirty and forty.
The course of the Old School Assembly, after the separation, in relation
to the subject of slavery, may be best expressed by quoting one of their resolutions,
passed in 1845. Having some decided anti-slavery members in its body, and
being, moreover, addressed on the subject of slavery by associated bodies,
they presented, in this year, the following deliberate statement of their
policy. (Minutes for 1845, p. 18.)
Resolved, 1st. That the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in
the United States was originally organised, and has since continued the bond
of union in the church, upon the conceded principle that the existence of
domestic slavery, under the circumstances in which it is found in the Southern
portion of the country, is no bar to Christian communion.
2. That the petitions that ask the Assembly to make the holding of slaves
in itself a matter of discipline do virtually require this judicatory to dissolve
itself, and abandon the organisation under which, by the Divine blessing,
it has so long prospered. The tendency is evidently to separate
the Northern from the Southern portion of the Church--a result which
every good Christian must deplore, as tending to the dissolution of the Union
of our beloved country, and which every enlightened Christian will oppose,
as bringing about a ruinous and unnecessary schism between brethren who maintain
a common faith.
Yeas, Ministers and Elders, 168
Nays Ministers and Elders, 13
It is scarcely necessary to add a comment to this very explicit declaration.
It is the plainest possible disclaimer of any protest against slavery; the
plainest possible statement that the existence of the ecclesiastical organisation
is of more importance than all the moral and social considerations which are
involved in a full defence and practice of American slavery.
The next year a large number of petitions and remonstrances were presented,
requesting the Assembly to utter additional testimony against slavery.
In reply to the petitions, the General Assembly re-affirmed all their former
testimonies on the subject of slavery for sixty years back, and also affirmed
that the previous year's declaration must not be understood as a retraction
of that testimony; in other words, they expressed it as their opinion, in
the words of 1818, that slavery is "wholly opposed
to the law of God," and "totally irreconcileable
with the precepts of the gospel of Christ;" and yet that they "had
formed their Church organisation upon the conceded principle that the existence
of it, under the circumstances in which it is found in the Southern States
of the Union, is no bar to Christian communion."
Some members protested against this action. (Minutes, 1846. Overture No.
Great hopes were at first entertained of the New School body. As a body,
it was composed mostly of anti-slavery men. It had in it those synods whose
anti-slavery opinions and actions had been, to say the least, one very efficient
cause for their excision from the Church. It had only three slaveholding Presbyteries.
The power was all in its own hands. Now, if ever, was their time to cut this
loathsome encumbrance wholly adrift, and stand up, in this age of concession
and conformity to the world, a purely protesting Church, free from all complicity
with this most dreadful national immorality.
On the first session of the General Assembly this course was most vehemently
urged, by many petitions and memorials. These memorials were referred to a
committee of decided anti-slavery men. The argument on one side was, that
the time was now come to take decided measures to cut free wholly from all
pro-slavery complicity, and avow their principles with decision,
even though it should repel all such Churches from their communion as were
not prepared for immediate emancipation.
On the other hand, the majority of the committee were urged by opposing
considerations. The brethren from slave States made to them representations
somewhat alike to these: "Brethren, our hearts are with you. We are
with you in faith, in charity, in prayer. We sympathised in the injury that
had been done you by excision. We stood by you then, and are ready to stand
by you still. We have no sympathy with the party that have expelled you, and
we do not wish to go back to them. As to this matter of slavery, we do not
differ from you. We consider it an evil. We mourn and lament over it. We are
trying, by gradual and peaceable means, to exclude it from our Churches. We
are going as far in advance of the sentiment of our Churches as we consistently
can. We cannot come up to more decided action without losing our hold over
them, and, as we think, throwing back the cause of emancipation. If you begin
in this decided manner, we cannot hold our Churches in the union; they will
divide, and go to the Old School."
Here was a very strong plea, made by good and sincere men. It was an appeal,
too, to the most generous feelings of the heart. It was, in effect, saying,
"Brothers, we stood by you, and fought your battles, when everything
was going against you; and, now that you have the power in your hands, are
you going to use it so as to cast us out?"
These men, strong anti-slavery men as they were, were affected. One member
of the committee foresaw and feared the result. He felt and suggested that
the course proposed conceded the whole question. The majority thought, on
the whole, that it was best to postpone the subject. The committee reported
that the applicants, for reasons satisfactory to themselves, had withdrawn
The next year, in 1839, the subject was resumed; and it was again urged
that the Assembly should take high, and decided, and unmistakeable ground;
and certainly, if we consider that all this time not a single Church had emancipated
its slaves, and that the power of the institution was everywhere stretching
and growing and increasing, it would certainly seem that something more efficient
was necessary than a general understanding that the Church agreed with the
testimony delivered in 1818. It was strongly represented that it was time
something was done. This year the Assembly decided to refer the subject to
Presbyteries, to do what they deemed advisable. The words employed were
these: "Solemnly referring the whole subject to the lower
judicatories, to take such action as in their judgment is most judicious,
and adapted to remove the evil." The Rev. George Beecher moved to insert
the word moral before evil; they declined.
This brought, in 1840, a much larger number of memorials and petitions;
and very strong attempts were made by the abolitionists to obtain some decided
The committee this year referred to what had been done last year, and declared
it inexpedient to do anything further. The subject was indefinitely postponed.
At this time it was resolved that the Assembly should meet only once in three
years. Accordingly, it did not meet till 1843. In 1843, several memorials
were again presented, and some resolutions offered to the Assembly, of which
this was one (Minutes of the General Assembly for 1843, p. 15).
Resolved, That we affectionately and earnestly urge upon the Ministers,
Sessions, Presbyteries, and Synods connected with this Assembly, that they
treat this as all other sins of great magnitude; and by a diligent, kind,
and faithful application of the means which God has given them, by instruction,
remonstrance, reproof, and effective discipline, seek to purify the Church
of this great iniquity.
This resolution they declined. They passed the following:--
Whereas there is in this Assembly great diversity of opinion as to the
proper and best mode of action on the subject of slavery; and whereas, in
such circumstances, any expression of sentiment would carry with it but little
weight, as it would be passed by a small majority, and must operate to produce
alienation and division; and whereas the Assembly of 1839, with great unanimity,
referred this whole subject to the lower judicatories, to take such order
as in their judgement might be adapted to remove the evil;--Resolved,
That the Assembly do not think it for the edification of the Church for this
body to take any action on the subject.
They, however, passed the following:--
Resolved, That the fashionable amusement of promiscuous dancing is so entirely
unscriptural, and eminently and exclusively that of "the world which
lieth in wickedness," and so wholly inconsistent with the spirit of
Christ, and with that propriety of Christian deportment and that purity of
heart which his followers are bound to maintain, as to render it not only
improper and injurious for professing Christians either to partake in it,
or to qualify their children for it, by teaching them the "art,"
but also to call for the faithful and judicious exercise of discipline on
the part of Church Sessions, when any of the members of their Churches have
Three years after, in 1846, the General Assembly published the following
declaration of sentiment:--
1. The system of slavery as it exists in these United
States, viewed either in the laws of the several States which sanction it,
or in its actual operation and results in society, is intrinsically unrighteous
and oppressive; and is opposed to the prescriptions of the law of God, to
the spirit and precepts of the Gospel, and to the best interests of humanity.
2. The testimony of the General Assembly from A.D. 1787 to A.D.
1818, inclusive, has condemned
it; and it remains still the recorded testimony of the Presbyterian Church
of these United States against it, from which we do not recede.
3. We cannot, therefore, withhold the expression of our deep regret
that slavery should be continued and countenanced by any of the members of
our Churches; and we do earnestly exhort both them and the Churches among
whom it exists to use all means in their power to put it away from them. Its
perpetuation among them cannot fail to be regarded by multitudes, influenced
by their example, as sanctioning the system portrayed in it, and maintained
by the statutes of the several slaveholding States wherein they dwell. Nor
can any mere mitigation of its severity, prompted by the humanity and Christian
feeling of any who continue to hold their fellow-men in bondage, be regarded
either as a testimony against the system, or as in the least degree changing
its essential character.
4. But while we believe that many evils incident to the system render
it important and obligatory to bear testimony against it, yet would we not
undertake to determine the degree of moral turpitude on the part of individuals
involved by it. This will doubtless be found to vary, in the sight of God,
according to the degree of light and other circumstances pertaining to each.
In view of all the embarrassments and obstacles in the way of emancipation
interposed by the statutes of the slaveholding States, and by the social influence
affecting the views and conduct of those involved in it, we cannot pronounce
a judgment of general and promiscuous condemnation, implying that
destitution of Christian principle and feeling which should exclude
from the table of the Lord all who should stand in the legal relation of masters
to slaves, or justify us in withholding our ecclesiastical and Christian fellowship
from them. We rather sympathise with, and would seek to succour them in their
embarrassments, believing that separation and secession among the Churches
and their members are not the methods God approves and sanctions for the reformation
of his Church.
5. While, therefore, we feel bound to bear our testimony against
slavery, and to exhort our beloved brethren to remove it from them as speedily
as possible by all appropriate and available means, we do at the same time
condemn all divisive and schismatical measures, tending to destroy the unity
and disturb the peace of our Church, and deprecate the spirit of denunciation
and inflicting severities, which would cast from the fold those whom we are
rather bound, by the spirit of the Gospel, and the obligations of our covenant,
to instruct, to counsel, to exhort, and thus to lead in the ways of God; and
towards whom, even though they may err, we ought to exercise forbearance and
6. As a court of our Lord Jesus Christ, we possess no legislative
authority; and as the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, we possess
no judiciary authority. We have no right to institute and prescribe a test
of Christian character and Church membership not recognised and sanctioned
in the sacred Scriptures, and in our standards, by which we have agreed to
walk. We must leave, therefore, this matter with the sessions, presbyteries,
and synods--the judicatories to whom pertains the right of judgment to
act in the administration of discipline as they may judge it
to be their duty, constitutionally subject to the General Assembly only in
the way of general review and control.
When a boat is imperceptibly going down stream on a gentle but strong current,
we can see its passage only by comparing objects with each other on the shore.
If this declaration of the New-School General Assembly be compared with
that of 1818, it will be found to be far less out-spoken and decided in its
tone, while in the meantime slavery had become four-fold more powerful. In
1818, the Assembly states that the most virtuous portion of the community
in slave States abhor slavery, and wish its extermination. In 1846, the Assembly
states with regret that slavery is still continued and countenanced by any
of the members of our Churches. The testimony of 1818 has the frank out-spoken
air of a unanimous document, where there was but one opinion. That of 1846
has the guarded air of a compromise ground out between the upper and nether
millstone of two contending parties--it is winnowed, guarded, cautious,
Considering the document, however, in itself, it is certainly a very good
one; and it would be a very proper expression of Christian feeling, had it
related to an evil of any common magnitude, and had it been uttered in any
common crisis; but let us consider what was the evil attacked, and what was
the crisis. Consider the picture which the Kentucky Synod had drawn of the
actual state of things among them:--"The members of slave-families
separated, never to meet again until the final judgment; brothers and sisters,
parents and children, husbands and wives, daily torn asunder, and permitted
to see each other no more; the shrieks and agonies, proclaiming as with trumpet-tongue
the iniquity and cruelty of the system; the cries of the sufferers going up
to the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth; not a neighbourhood where those heart-rending
scenes are not displayed; not a village or road without the sad procession
of manacled outcasts, whose chains and mournful countenances tell they are
exiled by force from all that heart holds dear; Christian professors rending
the mother from her child to sell her into returnless exile."
This was the language of the Kentucky Synod fourteen years before; and
those scenes had been going on ever since, and are going on now, as the advertisements
of every Southern paper show; and yet the Church of Christ since 1818 had
done nothing but express regret and hold grave metaphysical discussions as
to whether slavery was an "evil per se,"
and censure the rash action of men who, in utter despair of stopping the evil
any other way, tried to stop it by excluding slaveholders from
the Church. As if it were not better that one slaveholder in a hundred should
stay out of the Church, if he be peculiarly circumstanced, than that all this
horrible agony and iniquity should continually receive the sanction of the
Church's example! Should not a generous Christian man say, "If Church
excision will stop this terrible evil, let it come, though it does bear hardly
upon me! Better that I suffer a little injustice than that this horrible injustice
be still credited to the account of Christ's Church. Shall I embarrass the
whole Church with my embarrassments? What if I am careful and humane in my
treatment of my slaves--what if, in my heart, I have repudiated the wicked
doctrine that they are my property, and am treating them as my brethren--what
am I then doing? All the credit of my example goes to give force to the system.
The Church ought to reprove this fearful injustice, and reprovers ought to
have clean hands; and if I cannot really get clear of this, I had better keep
out of the Church till I can."
Let us consider, also, the awful entrenchments and strength of the evil
against which this very moderate resolution was discharged. "A money
power of two thousand millions of dollars held by a small body of able and
desperate men; that body raised into a political aristocracy by special constitutional
provisions; cotton, the product of slave-labour, forming the basis of our
whole foreign commerce, and the commercial class thus subsidised; the press
bought up; the Southern pulpit reduced to vassalage; the heart of the common
people chilled by a bitter prejudice against the black race; and our leading
men bribed by ambition either to silence or open hostility."
And now, in this condition of things, the whole
weight of these Churches goes in support of slavery, from the fact of their
containing slave-holders. No matter if they did not participate in the abuses
of the system; nobody wants them to do that. The slave power does not wish
professors of religion to separate families, or over-work their slaves, or
do any disreputable thing--that is not their part. The slave power
wants pious, tender-hearted, generous and humane masters,
and must have them, to hold up the system against the rising moral sense of
the world; and the more pious and generous the better. Slavery could not stand
an hour without these men. What then? These men uphold the system, and that
great anti-slavery body of ministers uphold these men. That is the final upshot
of the matter.
Paul says that we must remember those that are in bonds, as bound with
them. Suppose that this General Assembly had been made up of men who had been
fugitives. Suppose one of them had had his daughters sent to the New Orleans
slave-market, like Emily and Mary Edmondson; that another's daughter had died
on the overland passage in a slave-coffle, with no nurse but a slave-driver,
like poor Emily Russell: another's wife died broken-hearted when her children
were sold out of her bosom; and another had a half-crazed mother, whose hair
had been turned prematurely white with agony. Suppose these scenes of agonizing
partings, with shrieks and groans, which the Kentucky Synod says have been
witnessed so long among the slaves, had been seen in these ministers' families,
and that they had come up to this discussion with their hearts as scarred
and seared as the heart of poor old Paul Edmondson, when he came to New York
to beg for his daughters. Suppose that they saw that the horrid system by
which all this had been done was extending every hour; that professed Christians
in every denomination at the South declared it to be an appointed institution
of God; that all the wealth, and all the rank, and all the fashion in the
country were committed in its favour; and that they, like Aaron, were sent
to stand between the living and the dead, that the plague might be stayed.
Most humbly, most earnestly, let it be submitted to the Christians of this
nation, and to Christians of all nations, for such an hour and such a crisis
was this action sufficient? Did it do anything? Has it had the least effect
in stopping the evil? And, in such a horrible time, ought not something to
be done which will have that effect?
Let us continue the history. It will be observed that the resolution concludes
by referring the subject to subordinate judicatories. The New-School Presbytery
of Cincinnati, in which were the professors of Lane Seminary, suspended Mr.
Graham from the ministry for teaching that the Bible justified slavery; thereby
establishing the principle that this was a heresy inconsistent with Christian
fellowship. The Cincinnati Synod confirmed this decision. The General Assembly
reversed this decision, and restored Mr. Graham. The delegate from that presbytery
told them that they would never retrace their steps, and so it proved. The
Cincinnati Presbytery refused to receive him back. All honour be to them for
it! Here, at least, was a principle established, as far as the New-School
Cincinnati Presbytery is concerned, and a principle as far as the General
Assembly is concerned. By this act the General Assembly established
the fact that the New-School Presbyterian Church had not decided the Biblical
defence of slavery to be a heresy.
For a man to teach that there are not three Persons in the Trinity is heresy.
For a man to teach that all these three Persons authorise a system which
even Mahometan princes have abolished from mere natural shame and conscience,
is no heresy!
The General Assembly proceeded further to show that it considered this
doctrine no heresy, in the year 1846, by inviting the Old-School General Assembly
to the celebration of the Lord's Supper with them. Connected with this Assembly
were not only Dr. Smylie, but all those bodies who, among them, had justified
not only slavery in the abstract, but some of its worst abuses, by the word
of God; yet the New-School body thought these opinions no heresy which should
be a bar to Christian communion!
In 1849 the General Assembly declared
that there had been no information before the Assembly to prove
that the members in slave States were not doing all that they could, in the
providence of God, to bring about the possession and enjoyment of liberty
by the enslaved. This is a remarkable declaration, if we consider that in
Kentucky there are no stringent laws against emancipation, and that, either
in Kentucky or Virginia, the slave can be set free by simply giving him a
pass to go across the line into the next State.
In 1850 a proposition was presented in the Assembly by the Rev. H. Curtiss,
of Indiana, to the following effect: "That the enslaving of men, or
holding them as property, is an offence, as defined in our Book of Discipline,
ch. i., sec. 3; and as such it calls for inquiry, correction, and removal,
in the manner prescribed by our rules, and should be treated with a due regard
to all the aggravating or mitigating circumstances in each case." Another
proposition was from an elder in Pennsylvania, affirming "that slaveholding
was, prima facie, an offence within the meaning of
our Book of Discipline, and throwing upon the slaveholder the burden of showing
such circumstances as will take away from him the guilt of the offence."
Both these propositions were rejected. The following was adopted: "That
slavery is fraught with many and great evils; that they deplore the workings
of the whole system of slavery; that the holding of our fellow-men
in the condition of slavery, except in those cases where it is unavoidable
from the laws of the State, the obligations of guardianship,
or the demands of humanity, is an offence, in the proper import of that
term, as used in the Book of Discipline, and should be regarded and treated
in the same manner as other offences; also referring this subject to sessions
and presbyteries." The vote stood eighty-four to sixteen, under a written
protest of the minority, who were for no action in the present state of the
country. Let the reader again compare this action with that of 1818, and he
will see that the boat is still drifting--especially as even this moderate
testimony was not unanimous. Again, in this year of 1850, they avow themselves
ready to meet, in a spirit of fraternal kindness and Christian love, any overtures
for re-union which may be made to them by the Old-School body.
In 1850 was passed the cruel Fugitive Slave Law. What deeds were done then!
Then to our free States were transported those scenes of fear and agony before
acted only on slave soil. Churches were broken up. Trembling Christians fled.
Husbands and wives were separated. Then to the poor African was fulfilled
the dread doom denounced on the wandering Jew: "Thou shalt find no ease,
neither shall the sole of thy foot have rest; but thy life shall hang in doubt
before thee, and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have no assurance
of thy life." Then all the world went one way--all the wealth,
all the power, all the fashion. Now, if ever, was a time for Christ's Church
to stand up and speak for the poor.
The General Assembly met. She was earnestly memorialised to speak out.
Never was a more glorious opportunity to show that the kingdom of Christ is
not of this world. A protest then, from a body so numerous and respectable,
might have saved the American Church from the disgrace it now wears in the
eyes of all nations. Oh that she had once spoken! What said the Presbyterian
Church? She said nothing, and the thanks of political
leaders were accorded to her. She had done all they
Meanwhile, under this course of things, the number of
presbyteries in slaveholding
States had increased from three to twenty! and
this Church has now under its care from fifteen to twenty
thousand members in slave States.
So much for the course of a decided anti-slavery body in union with a few
slaveholding Churches. So much for a most discreet, judicious, charitable,
and brotherly attempt to test by experience the question, What communion hath
light with darkness, and what concord hath Christ with Belial?
The slave system is darkness--the slave-system is Belial! and every attempt
to harmonise it with the profession of Christianity will be just like these.
Let it be here recorded, however, that a small body of the most determined
opponents of slavery in the Presbyterian Church seceded and formed the Free
Presbyterian Church, whose terms of communion are, an entire withdrawal from
slaveholding. Whether this principle be a correct one or not, it is worthy
of remark that it was adopted and carried out by the Quakers--the only
body of Christians involved in this evil who have ever succeeded in freeing
themselves from it.
Whether Church discipline and censure is an appropriate medium for correcting
such immoralities and heresies in individuals or not, it is enough for the
case that this has been the established opinion and practice of the Presbyterian
If the argument of Charles Sumner be contemplated, it will be seen that
the history of this Presbyterian Church and the history of our United States
have strong points of similarity. In both, at the outset, the strong influence
was anti-slavery, even among slaveholders. In both there was no difference
of opinion as to the desirableness of abolishing slavery ultimately; both
made a concession, the smallest which could possibly be imagined; both made
the concession in all good faith, contemplating the speedy removal and extinction
of the evil; and the history of both is alike. The little point of concession
spread, and absorbed, and acquired, from year to year, till the United States
and the Presbyterian Church stand just where they do.
Worse has been the history of the Methodist Church. The history of the Baptist
Church shows the same principle; and as to the Episcopal Church, it has never
done anything but comply, either North or South. It
differs from all the rest in that it has never had any resisting element,
except now and then a Protestant, like William Jay, a worthy son of him who
signed the Declaration of Independence.
The slave power has been a united, consistent, steady, uncompromising principle.
The resisting element has been, for many years, wavering, self-contradictory,
compromising. There has been, it is true, a deep and ever-increasing hostility
to slavery in a decided majority of ministers and Church-members in free States,
taken as individuals. Nevertheless, the sincere opponents
of slavery have been unhappily divided among themselves as to principles and
measures, the extreme principles and measures of some causing a hurtful reaction
in others. Besides this, other great plans of benevolence have occupied their
time and attention; and the result has been that they have formed
altogether inadequate conceptions of the extent to which the cause of God
on earth is imperilled by American slavery, and of the duty of Christians
in such a crisis. They have never had such a conviction as has aroused, and
called out, and united their energies, on this, as on other great causes.
Meantime, great organic influences in Church and State are, much against their
wishes, neutralising their influence against slavery--sometimes even
arraying it in its favour. The perfect inflexibility of the slave-system,
and its absolute refusal to allow any discussion of the subject, has reduced
all those who wish to have religious action in common with slaveholding Churches
to the alternative of either giving up the support of the South for that object,
or giving up their protest against slavery.
This has held out a strong temptation to men who have had benevolent and
laudable objects to carry, and who did not realise the full peril of the slave-system,
nor appreciate the moral power of Christian protest against it. When, therefore,
cases have arisen where the choice lay between sacrificing what they considered
the interests of a good object, or giving up their right of protest, they
have generally preferred the latter. The decision has always gone in this
way: The slave power will not concede-- we must. The South
says, "We will take no religious book that has
anti-slavery principles in it." The Sunday-school Union drops Mr. Gallaudet's
History of Joseph. Why? Because they approve of slavery? Not at all. They
look upon slavery with horror. What then? "The South will not read our
books, if we do not do it. They will not give up, and we must. We
can do more good by introducing gospel truth with this omission than
we can by using our Protestant power." This, probably, was thought and
said honestly. The argument is plausible, but the concession is none the less
real. The slave power has got the victory, and got it by the very best of
men from the very best of motives; and, so that it has the victory, it cares
not how it gets it. And although it may be said that the amount in each case
of these concessions is in itself but small, yet, when we come to add together
all that have been made from time to time by every different denomination,
and by every different benevolent organisation, the aggregate is truly appalling;
and, in consequence of all these united, what are we now reduced to?
Here we are, in this crisis--here in this nineteenth century, when
all the world is dissolving and reconstructing on principles of universal
liberty--we Americans, who are sending our Bibles and missionaries to
christianise Mahometan lands, are upholding with all our might
and all our influence, a system of worn-out heathenism which even the Bey
of Tunis has repudiated!
The Southern Church has baptised it in the name of the Father, the Son,
and the Holy Ghost. This worn-out, old, effete system of Roman slavery, which
Christianity once gradually but certainly abolished, has been dug up out of
its dishonoured grave, a few laws of extra cruelty, such as Rome never knew,
have been added to it, and now, baptised and sanctioned by the whole Southern
Church, it is going abroad conquering and to conquer! The only power left
to the Northern Church is the protesting power: and will they use it? Ask
the Tract Society if they will publish a tract on the sinfulness of slavery,
though such tract should be made up solely from the
writings of Jonathan Edwards or Dr. Hopkins! Ask the Sunday-school Union if
it will publish the facts about this heathenism, as it has facts about Burmah
and Hindostan! Will they? Oh that they would answer Yes!
Now, it is freely conceded that all these sad results have come in consequence
of the motions and deliberations of good men, who meant well; but it has been
well said that, in critical times, when one wrong step entails the most disastrous
consequences, to mean well is not enough.
In the crisis of a disease, to mean well and lose the patient-- in
the height of a tempest, to mean well and wreck the ship--in a great
moral conflict, to mean well and lose the battle--these are things to
be lamented. We are wrecking the ship--we are losing
the battle. There is no mistake about it. A
little more sleep, a little more slumber, a little more folding of the hands
to sleep, and we shall awake in the whirls of that maėlstrom which has
but one passage, and that downward.
There is yet one body of Christians whose influence we have not considered,
and that a most important one--the Congregationalists of New England
and of the West. From the very nature of Congregationalism, she cannot give
so united a testimony as Presbyterianism; yet Congregationalism has spoken
out on slavery. Individual bodies have spoken very strongly, and individual
clergymen still stronger. They have remonstrated with the General Assembly,
and they have very decided anti-slavery papers. But, considering the whole
state of public sentiment, considering the critical nature of the exigency,
the mighty sweep and force of all the causes which are going in favour of
slavery, has the vehemence and force of the testimony of Congregationalism,
as a body, been equal to the dreadful emergency? It has
testimonies on record, very full and explicit, on the evils of slavery; but
testimonies are not all that is wanted. There is abundance of
testimonies on record in the Presbyterian Church, for that matter, quite as
good and quite as strong as any that have been given by Congregationalism.
There have been quite as many anti-slavery men in the New-School Presbyterian
Church as in the Congregational--quite as strong anti-slavery newspapers;
and the Presbyterian Church has had trial of this matter that the Congregational
Church has never been exposed to. It has had slaveholders in its own communion;
and from this trial Congregationalism has, as yet, been mostly exempt. Being
thus free, ought not the testimony of Congregationalism to have been more
than equal? ought it not to have done more than testify? ought it not to have
fought for the question? Like the brave three hundred in Thermopylę
left to defend the liberties of Greece, when all others had fled, should they
not have thrown in heart and soul, body and spirit? Have they done it?
Compare the earnestness which Congregationalism has spent upon some other
subjects with the earnestness which has been spent upon this. Dr. Taylor taught
that all sins consist in sinning, and therefore that there could be no sin
till a person had sinned; and Dr. Bushnell teaches some modifications of the
doctrine of the Trinity, nobody seeming to know precisely what. The South
Carolina presbyteries teach that slavery is approved by God, and sanctioned
by the example of patriarchs and prophets. Supposing these, now, to be all
heresies, which of them is the worst?--which will bring the worst practical
results? And, if Congregationalism had fought this slavery heresy as some
of her leaders fought Dr. Bushnell and Dr. Taylor, would not the style of
battle have been more earnest? Have not both these men been denounced as dangerous
heresiarchs, and as preaching doctrines that tend to infidelity? And pray
where does this other doctrine tend? As sure as there is a God in heaven is
the certainty that, if the Bible really did defend slavery, fifty years hence
would see every honourable and high-minded man an infidel.
Has, then, the past influence of Congregationalism been according to the
nature of the exigency and the weight of the subject? But the late convention
of Congregationalists at Albany, including ministers both from New England
and the Western States, did take a stronger and more decided ground. Here
is their resolution:--
Resolved, That, in the opinion of this convention, it is the tendency of
the Gospel, wherever it is preached in its purity, to correct all social evils,
and to destroy sin in all its forms; and that it is the duty of Missionary
Societies to grant aid to Churches in slaveholding States in the support of
such ministers only as shall so preach the Gospel, and inculcate
the principles and application of Gospel discipline, that, with the blessing
of God, it shall have its full effect in awakening and enlightening the moral
sense in regard to slavery, and in bringing to pass the speedy abolition of
that stupendous wrong; and that wherever a minister is not permitted so to
preach, he should, in accordance with the directions of Christ, "depart
out of that city."
This resolution is a matter of hope and gratulation in many respects. It
was passed in a very large convention--the largest ever assembled in
this country, fully representing the Congregationalism of the United States--and
the occasion of its meeting was considered, in some sort, as marking a new
era in the progress of this denomination.
The resolution was passed unanimously. It is decided in its expression,
and looks to practical action, which is what is wanted. It says it will support
no ministers in slave States whose preaching does not tend to destroy slavery;
and that, if they are not allowed to preach freely on the subject, they must
That the ground thus taken will be efficiently sustained may be inferred
from the fact that the Home Missionary Society, which is the organ of this
body, as well as of the New-School Presbyterian Church, has uniformly taken
decided ground upon this subject in their instructions to missionaries sent
into slave States. These instructions are ably set forth in their report of
March, 1853. When application was made to them, in 1850, from a slave State,
for missionaries who would let slavery alone, they replied to them, in the
most decided language, that it could not be done; that, on the contrary, they
must understand that one grand object in sending missionaries to slave States
is, as far as possible, to redeem society from all forms of sin; and that,
"if utter silence respecting slavery is to be maintained, one of the
greatest inducements to send or retain missionaries in the slave States is
The Society furthermore instructed their missionaries, if they could not
be heard on this subject in one city or village, to go to another; and they
express their conviction that their missionaries have made progress in awakening
the consciences of the people. They say that they do not suffer the subject
to sleep; that they do not let it alone because it is a delicate subject,
but they discharge their consciences, whether their message be well received,
or whether, as in some instances, it subjects them to opposition, opprobrium,
and personal danger; and that where their endeavours to do this have not been
tolerated, they have, in repeated cases, at great sacrifice, resigned their
position, and departed to other fields. In their report of this
year they also quote letters from ministers in slaveholding States, by which
it appears that they have actually secured, in the face of much opposition,
the right publicly to preach and propagate their sentiments upon this subject.
One of these missionaries says, speaking of slavery, "We are determined
to remove this great difficulty in our way, or die in the attempt. As Christians
and as freemen, we will suffer this libel on our religion and institutions
to exist no longer."
This is noble ground.
And while we are recording the protesting power, let us not forget the
Scotch seceders and covenanters, who, with a pertinacity and decision worthy
of the children of the old covenant, have kept themselves clear from the sin
of slavery, and have uniformly protested against it. Let us remember, also,
that the Quakers did pursue a course which actually freed all their body from
the sin of slaveholding; thus showing to all other denominations that what
has been done once can be done again. Also, in all denominations, individual
ministers and Christians, in hours that have tried men's souls, have stood
up to bear their testimony. Albert Barnes, in Philadelphia, standing in the
midst of a great, rich Church, on the borders of a slave State, and with all
those temptations to complicity which have silenced so many, has stood up,
in calm fidelity, and declared the whole counsel of God upon this subject.
Nay, more; he recorded his solemn protest that "no influences out
of the Church could sustain slavery an hour, if it were
not sustained in it;" and in the last session of the General Assembly,
which met at Washington, disregarding all suggestions of policy, he boldly
held the Presbyterian Church up to the strength of her past declarations,
and declared it her duty to attempt the entire abolition of slavery throughout
the world. So, in darkest hour, Dr. Channing bore a noble testimony in Boston,
for which his name shall ever live. So, in Illinois, E. P. Lovejoy and Edward
Beecher, with their associates, formed the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society,
amid mobs and at the hazard of their lives; and, a few hours after, Lovejoy
was shot down in attempting to defend the twice-destroyed anti-slavery press.
In the Old-School Presbyterian Church, William and Robert Breckenridge, President
Young, and others, have preached in favour of emancipation in Kentucky. Le
Roy Sunderland, in the Methodist Church, kept up his newspaper under ban of
his superiors, and with a bribe on his life of fifty thousand dollars. Torrey,
meekly patient, died in a prison, saying, "If I am a guilty man I am
a very guilty one: for I have helped four hundred slaves to
freedom, who but for me would have died slaves." Dr. Nelson was expelled
by mobs from Missouri for the courageous declaration of the truth on slave
soil. All these were in the ministry. Nor are these all. Jesus Christ has
not wholly deserted us yet. There have been those who have learned how joyful
it is to suffer shame and brave death in a good cause.
Also there have been private Christians who have counted nothing too dear
for this sacred cause. Witness Richard Dillingham, and John Garret, and a
host of others, who took joyfully the spoiling of their goods.
But yet, notwithstanding this, the awful truth remains, that the whole
of what has been done by the Church has not, as yet, perceptibly abated the
evil. The great system is stronger than ever. It is confessedly the dominant
power of the nation. The whole power of the government, and the whole power
of the wealth, and the whole power of the fashion, and the practical organic
workings of the large bodies of the Church, are all gone one way. The Church
is familiarly quoted as being on the side of slavery. Statesmen on both sides
of the question have laid that down as a settled fact. Infidels point to it
with triumph; and America, too, is beholding another class of infidels--a
class that could have grown up only under such an influence. Men whose whole
life is one study and practice of benevolence are now ranked as infidels,
because the position of Church organisations misrepresents Christianity, and
they separate themselves from the Church. We would offer no excuse for any
infidels who take for their religion mere anti-slavery zeal, and, under this
guise, gratify a malignant hatred of real Christianity. But such defences
of slavery from the Bible as some of the American clergy have made, are exactly
fitted to make infidels of all honourable and high-minded men. The infidels
of olden times were not much to be dreaded, but such infidels as these are
not to be despised. Woe to the Church when the moral standard of the infidel
is higher than the standard of the professed Christian! for the only armour
that ever proved invincible to infidelity is the armour of righteousness.
Let us see how the Church organisations work now, practically. What do
Bruin and Hill, Pulliam and Davis, Bolton, Dickins, and Co., and Matthews,
Branton, and Co., depend upon to keep their slave-factories and slave-barracoons
full, and their business brisk? Is it to be supposed that they are not men
like ourselves? Do they not sometimes tremble at the awful workings of fear
and despair and agony which they witness when they are tearing
asunder living hearts in the depths of those fearful slave-prisons? What,
then, keeps down the consciences of these traders? It is the public sentiment
of the community where they live; and that public sentiment is made by ministers
and Church members. The trader sees plainly enough a logical sequence between
the declarations of the Church and the practice of his trade. He sees plainly
enough that, if slavery is sanctioned by God, and it is right to set it up
in a new territory, it is right to take the means to do this; and, as slaves
do not grow on bushes in Texas, it is necessary that there should be traders
to gather up coffles, and carry them out there; and, as they cannot always
take whole families, it is necessary that they should part them; and, as slaves
will not go by moral suasion, it is necessary that they should be forced;
and, as gentle force will not do, they must whip and torture. Hence come gags,
thumb-screws, cowhides, blood--all necessary
measures of carrying out what Christians say God sanctions.
So goes the argument one way. Let us now trace it back the other. The South
Carolina and Mississippi Presbyteries maintain opinions which, in their legitimate
results, endorse the slave-trader. The Old-School General Assembly maintains
fellowship with these Presbyteries without discipline or protest. The New-School
Assembly signifies its willingness to re-unite with the Old, while, at the
same time, it declares the system of slavery an abomination, a gross violation
of its most sacred rights, and so on. Well, now the chain is as complete as
need be. All parts are in; everyone standing in his place, and saying just
what is required, and no more. The trader does the repulsive work, the Southern
Church defends him, the Northern Church defends the South. Everyone does as
much for slavery as would be at all expedient, considering the latitude they
live in. This is the practical result of the thing.
The melancholy part of the matter is, that while a large body of New-School
men, and many Old-School, are decided anti-slavery men, this denominational
position carries their influence on the other side. As goes the General Assembly,
so goes their influence. The following affecting letter on this subject was
written by that eminently pious man, Dr. Nelson, whose work on Infidelity
is one of the most efficient popular appeals that has ever appeared:--
I have resided in North Carolina more than forty years, and been intimately
acquainted with the system, and I can scarcely even think of its operations
without shedding tears. It causes me excessive grief to think of my own poor
slaves, for whom I have for years been trying to find a free home. It strikes
me with equal astonishment and horror to hear Northern people
make light of slavery. Had they seen and known as much of it as I, they could
not thus treat it, unless callous to the deepest woes and degradations of
humanity, and dead both to the religion and philanthropy of the Gospel. But
many of them are doing just what the hardest-hearted tyrants of the South
most desire. Those tyrants would not, on any account, have them advocate or
even apologise for slavery in an unqualified manner. This would be bad policy
with the North. I wonder that Gerritt Smith should understand slavery so much
better than most of the Northern people. How true was his remark on a certain
occasion, namely, that the South are laughing in their sleeves to think what
dupes they make of most of the people at the North in regard to the real character
of slavery! Well did Mr. Smith remark that the system, carried out on its
fundamental principle, would as soon enslave any labouring white man as the
African. But, if it were not for the support of the North, the fabric of blood
would fall at once; and of all the efforts of public bodies at the North to
sustain slavery, the Connecticut General Association has made the best one.
I have never seen anything so well constructed in that line as their resolutions
of June, 1836. The South certainly could not have asked anything more effectual;
but, of all Northern periodicals, the New York Observer must have the
preference as an efficient support of slavery. I am not
sure but it does more than all things combined to keep the dreadful system
alive; it is just the succour demanded by the South. Its abuse of the abolitionists
is music in Southern ears, which operates as a charm; but nothing is equal
to its harping upon the "religious privileges and instruction"
of the slaves of the South, and nothing could be so false and injurious (to
the cause of freedom and religion) as the impression it gives on that subject.
I say what I know when I speak in relation to this matter. I have been intimately
acquainted with the religious opportunities of slaves--in the constant
habit of hearing the sermons which are preached to them, and I solemnly affirm
that, during the forty years of my residence and observation in this line,
I never heard a single one of these sermons but what was taken up with the
obligations and duties of slaves to their masters; indeed, I never heard a
sermon to slaves but what made obedience to masters by the slaves the fundamental
and supreme law of religion. Any candid and intelligent man can decide whether
such preaching is not, as to religious purposes, worse than none at all.
Again: it is wonderful how the credulity of the North is subjected to imposition
in regard to the kind treatment of slaves. For myself, I can clear up the
apparent contradictions found in writers who have resided at or visited the
South. The "majority of slaveholders," say some, "treat
their slaves with kindness." Now, this may be true in certain States
and districts, setting aside all questions of treatment except such as refer
to the body. And yet, while the "majority of slave-holders" in
a certain section may be kind, the majority of slaves in that section will
be treated with cruelty. This is the truth in many such cases; that while
there may be thirty men who may have but one slave a-piece, and that a house-servant--a
single man in their neighbourhood may have a hundred slaves, all field-hands,
half-fed, worked excessively, and whipped most cruelly. this is what I have
often seen. To give a case, to show the awful influence of slavery upon the
master, I will mention a Presbyterian elder, who was esteemed one of the best
men in the region--a very kind master. I was called to his death-bed
to write his will. He had what was considered a favourite house-servant, a
female. After all other things were disposed of, the elder paused,
as if in doubt what to do with "Sue." I entertained pleasing expectations
of hearing the word "liberty" fall from his lips; but who can
tell my surprise when I heard the master exclaim, "What shall be done
with Sue? I am afraid she will never be under a master severe enough for her."
Shall I say that both the dying elder and his "Sue" were members
of the same Church--the latter statedly receiving the emblems of a Saviour's
dying love from the former?
All this temporising and concession has been excused on the plea of brotherly
love. What a plea for us Northern freemen! Do we think the slave-system such
a happy, desirable thing for our brothers and sisters at the South? Can we
look at our common schools, our neat, thriving towns and villages, our dignified,
intelligent, self-respecting farmers and mechanics, all concomitants of free
labour, and think slavery any blessing to our Southern brethren? That system
which beggars all the lower class of whites, which curses the very soil, which
eats up everything before it, like the palmer-worm, canker, and locust--which
makes common schools an impossibility, and the preaching of the gospel almost
as much so--this system a blessing! Does brotherly love require us to
help the South preserve it?
Consider the educational influences under which such children as Eva and
Henrique must grow up there! We are speaking of what many a Southern mother
feels, of what makes many a Southern father's heart sore. Slavery has been
spoken of in its influence on the family of the slave. There are those who
never speak, who could tell, if they would, its influence on the family of
the master. It makes one's heart ache to see generation after generation of
lovely, noble children exposed to such influences. What a country the South
might be, could she develop herself without this curse! If the Southern character,
even under all these disadvantages, retains so much that is noble, and is
fascinating even in its faults, what might it do with free institutions?
Who is the real, who is the true and noble lover of the South?--they
who love her with all these faults and encumbrances, or they who fix their
eyes on the bright ideal of what she might be, and say that these faults are
no proper part of her? Is it true love to a friend to accept the ravings of
insanity as a true specimen of his mind? Is it true love to accept the disfigurement
of sickness as a specimen of his best condition? Is it not truer love to say,
"This curse is no part of our brother; it dishonours him; it does him
injustice; it misrepresents him in the eyes of all nations. We love his better
self, and we will have no fellowship with his betrayer." This is the
part of true, generous Christian love.
But will it be said, "The abolition enterprise was begun in a wrong
spirit, by reckless, meddling, impudent fanatics?" Well, supposing that
this were true, how came it to be so? If the Church of Christ had begun it
right, these so-called fanatics would not have begun it wrong.
In a deadly pestilence, if the right physicians
do not prescribe, everybody will prescribe-- men, women, and children
will prescribe; because something must be done. If the Presbyterian Church,
in 1818, had pursued the course the Quakers did, there never would have been
any fanaticism. The Quakers did all by brotherly love. They melted the chains
of Mammon only in the fires of a divine charity. When Christ came into Jerusalem,
after all the mighty works that he had done, while all the so-called better
classes were non-committal or opposed, the multitude cut down branches of
palm-trees, and cried Hosanna! There was a most indecorous tumult. The very
children caught the enthusiasm, and were crying Hosannas in the temple. This
was contradictory to all ecclesiastical rules. It was a highly improper state
of things. The chief priests and scribes said unto Jesus, "Master, speak
unto these that they hold their peace." That gentle eye flashed as he
answered, "I tell you, if these should hold their
peace, the very stones would cry out."
Suppose a fire bursts out in the streets of Boston while the regular conservators
of the city, who have the keys of the fire-engines and the regulation of fire-companies,
are sitting together in some distant part of the city, consulting for the
public good. The cry of fire reaches them, but they think it a false alarm.
The fire is no less real for all that. It burns, and rages, and roars, till
everybody in the neighbourhood sees that something must be done. A few stout
leaders break open the doors of the engine-houses, drag out the engines, and
begin, regularly or irregularly, playing on the fire. But the destroyer still
advances. Messengers come in hot haste to the hall of these deliberators,
and, in the unselect language of fear and terror, revile them for not coming
"Bless me!" says a decorous leader of the body, "what
horrible language these men use!"
"They show a very bad spirit," remarks another; "we can't
possibly join them in such a state of things."
Here the more energetic members of the body rush out, to see if the thing
be really so; and in a few minutes come back, if possible more earnest than
"Oh! there is a fire!--a horrible, dreadful fire! The city is
burning--men, women, and children, all burning, perishing!
Come out, come out! As the Lord liveth, there is but a step between us and
"I am not going out; everybody that goes gets crazy," says
"I've noticed," says another, "that as soon as anybody
goes out to look, he gets just so excited; I won't look."
But by this time the angry fire has burned into their very neighbourhood.
The red demon glares into their windows. And now, fairly aroused, they get
up and begin to look out.
"Well, there is a fire, and no mistake!"
"Something ought to be done," says another.
"Yes," says a third; "if it wasn't for being mixed up
with such a crowd and rabble of folks, I'd go out."
"Upon my word," says another, "there are women
in the ranks, carrying pails of water! There, one woman is going
up a ladder to get those children out. What an indecorum! If they'd manage
this matter properly, we would join them."
And now comes lumbering over from Charlestown the engines and fire-companies.
"What impudence of Charlestown," say these men, "to be
sending over here--just as if we could not put our own fires out! They
have fires over there, as much as we do."
And now the flames roar and burn, and shake hands across the streets. They
leap over the steeples, and glare demoniacally out of the church-windows.
"For Heaven's sake, do something!" is the cry. "Pull
down the houses! Blow up those blocks of stores with gun-powder! Anything to stop it."
"See, now, what ultra radical measures they are going at!"
says one of these spectators.
Brave men, who have rushed into the thickest of the fire, come out, and
fall dead in the street.
"They are impracticable enthusiasts. They have thrown their lives
away in foolhardiness," says another.
So, Church of Christ, burns that awful fire! Evermore burning, burning,
burning, over church and altar; burning over senate-house and forum; burning
up liberty, burning up religion! No earthly hands
kindled that fire. From its sheeted flame and wreaths of sulphureous smoke
glares out upon thee the eye of that enemy who was
a murderer from the beginning. It is a fire that burns to the lowest hell!
Church of Christ, there was an hour when this fire
might have been extinguished by thee. Now, thou standest like a mighty man
astonished--like a mighty man that cannot save. But the
Hope of Israel is not dead. The Saviour thereof in time of trouble is yet
If every church in our land were hung with mourning--if every Christian
should put on sack-cloth--if "the priest should weep between the
porch and the altar," and say, "Spare thy people, O Lord, and
give not thy heritage to reproach!"--that were not too great a
mourning for such a time as this.
O Church of Jesus! consider what hath been said in the midst of thee. What
a heresy hast thou tolerated in thy bosom! Thy God
the defender of slavery!--thy God the patron
of slave-law! Thou hast suffered the character of thy God to be slandered.
Thou hast suffered false witness against thy Redeemer and thy Sanctifier.
The Holy Trinity of heaven has been foully traduced in the midst of thee;
and that God, whose throne is awful in justice, has been made the patron and
leader of oppression.
This is a sin against every Christian on the globe.
Why do we love and adore, beyond all things, our God? Why do we say to
him from our inmost souls, "Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there
is none on earth I desire beside thee?" Is this a bought-up worship?--is
it a cringing and hollow subserviency, because he is great, and rich, and
powerful, and we dare not do otherwise? His eyes are
a flame of fire; he reads the inmost soul, and will accept no such service.
>From our souls we adore and love him, because he is holy, and just, and good,
and will not at all acquit the wicked. We love him because he is the father
of the fatherless, the judge of the widow; because he lifteth all who fall,
and raiseth them that are bowed down. We love Jesus Christ, because he is
the Lamb without spot, the one altogether lovely. We love
the Holy Comforter, because he comes to convince the world of sin, and of
righteousness, and of judgment. O holy Church, universal throughout all countries
and nations! O ye great cloud of witnesses, of all people, and languages,
and tongues! differing in many doctrines, but united in crying Worthy is the
Lamb that was slain, for he hath redeemed us from all iniquity! awake!
arise up! be not silent! Testify against this heresy of the latter
day, which, if it were possible, is deceiving the very elect. Your God, your
glory is slandered. Answer with the voice of many waters and mighty thunderings!
Answer with the innumerable multitude in heaven, who cry, day and night, Holy,
holy, holy, just and true
are thy ways, O King of saints!