Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive
 

Article Index

In earlier pages we have already traced the succession of bold protests and organized labors on the part of church and clergy against the institution of slavery.[268:1] If protest and argument against it seem to be less frequent in the early years of the new century, it is only because debate must needs languish when there is no antagonist. Slavery had at that time no defenders in the church. No body of men in 1818 more unmistakably represented the Christian citizenship of the whole country, North, South, and West, outside of New England, than the General Assembly of the then undivided Presbyterian Church. In that year the Assembly set forth a full and unanimous expression of its sentiments on the subject of slavery, addressed "to the churches and people under its care." This monumental document is too long to be cited here in full. The opening paragraphs of it exhibit the universally accepted sentiment of American Christians of that time:

     "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 neighbor 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, neighbors 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 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.

     "From this view of the consequences resulting from the practice into which Christian people have most inconsistently fallen of enslaving a portion of their _brethren_ of mankind,--for 'God hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on the face of the earth,'--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 their honest, earnest, and unwearied endeavors 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 if possible throughout the world."

It was not strange that while sentiments like these prevailed without contradiction in all parts of the country, while in State after State emancipations were taking place and acts of abolition were passing, and even in the States most deeply involved in slavery "a great, and the most virtuous, part of the community abhorred slavery and wished its extermination,"[270:1] there should seem to be little call for debate. But that the antislavery spirit in the churches was not dead was demonstrated with the first occasion.

In the spring of 1820, at the close of two years of agitating discussion, the new State of Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave State, although with the stipulation that the remaining territory of the United States north of the parallel of latitude bounding Missouri on the south should be consecrated forever to freedom. The opposition to this extension of slavery was taken up by American Christianity as its own cause. It was the impending danger of such an extension that prompted that powerful and unanimous declaration of the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1818. The arguments against the Missouri bill, whether in the debates of Congress or in countless memorials and resolutions from public meetings both secular and religious, were arguments from justice and duty and the law of Christ. These were met by constitutional objections and considerations of expediency and convenience, and by threats of disunion and civil war. The defense of slavery on principle had not yet begun to be heard, even among politicians.

The successful extension of slavery beyond the Mississippi River was disheartening to the friends of justice and humanity, but only for the moment. Already, before the two years' conflict had been decided by "the Missouri Compromise," a powerful series of articles by that great religious leader, Jeremiah Evarts, in the "Panoplist" (Boston, 1820), rallied the forces of the church to renew the battle. The decade that opened with that defeat is distinguished as a period of sustained antislavery activity on the part of the united Christian citizenship of the nation in all quarters.[271:1] In New England the focus of antislavery effort was perhaps the theological seminary at Andover. There the leading question among the students in their "Society of Inquiry concerning Missions" was the question, what could be done, and especially what _they_ could do, for the uplifting of the colored population of the country, both the enslaved and the free. Measures were concerted there for the founding of "an African college where youth were to be educated on a scale so liberal as to place them on a level with other men";[271:2] and the plan was not forgotten or neglected by these young men when from year to year they came into places of effective influence. With eminent fitness the Fourth of July was taken as an antislavery holiday, and into various towns within reach from Andover their most effective speakers went forth to give antislavery addresses on that day. Beginning with the Fourth of July, 1823, the annual antislavery address at Park Street Church, Boston, before several united churches of that city, continued for the rest of that decade at least to be an occasion for earnest appeal and practical effort in behalf of the oppressed. Neither was the work of the young men circumscribed by narrow local boundaries. The report of their committee, in the year 1823, on "The Condition of the Black Population of the United States," could hardly be characterized as timid in its utterances on the moral character of American slavery. A few lines will indicate the tone of it in this respect:

     "Excepting only the horrible system of the West India Islands, we have never heard of slavery in any country, ancient or modern, pagan, Mohammedan, or Christian, so terrible in its character, so pernicious in its tendency, so remediless in its anticipated results, as the slavery which exists in these United States.... When we use the strong language which we feel ourselves compelled to use in relation to this subject, we do not mean to speak of animal suffering, but of an immense moral and political evil.... In regard to its influence on the white population the most lamentable proof of its deteriorating effects may be found in the fact that, excepting the pious, whose hearts are governed by the Christian law of reciprocity between man and man, and the wise, whose minds have looked far into the relations and tendencies of things, none can be found to lift their voices against a system so utterly repugnant to the feelings of unsophisticated humanity--a system which permits all the atrocities of the domestic slave trade--which permits the father to sell his children as he would his cattle--a system which consigns one half of the community to hopeless and utter degradation, and which threatens in its final catastrophe to bring down the same ruin on the master and the slave."[272:1]

The historical value of the paper from which these brief extracts are given, as illustrating the attitude of the church at the time, is enhanced by the use that was made of it. Published in the form of a review article in a magazine of national circulation, the recognized organ of the orthodox Congregationalists, it was republished in a pamphlet for gratuitous distribution and extensively circulated in New England by the agency of the Andover students. It was also republished at Richmond, Va. Other laborers at the East in the same cause were Joshua Leavitt, Bela B. Edwards, and Eli Smith, afterward illustrious as a missionary,[273:1] and Ralph Randolph Gurley, secretary of the Colonization Society, whose edition of the powerful and uncompromising sermon of the younger Edwards on "The Injustice and Impolicy of the Slave Trade and of the Slavery of the Africans" was published at Boston for circulation at the South, in hopes of promoting the universal abolition of slavery. The list might be indefinitely extended to include the foremost names in the church in that period. There was no adverse party.

At the West an audacious movement of the slavery extension politicians, flushed with their success in Missouri, to introduce slavery into Illinois, Indiana, and even Ohio, was defeated largely by the aid of the Baptist and Methodist clergy, many of whom had been southern men and had experienced the evils of the system.[273:2] In Kentucky and Tennessee the abolition movement was led more distinctively by the Presbyterians and the Quakers. It was a bold effort to procure the manumission of slaves and the repeal of the slave code in those States by the agreement of the citizens. The character of the movement is indicated in the constitution of the "Moral Religious Manumission Society of West Tennessee," which declares that slavery "exceeds any other crime in magnitude" and is "the greatest act of practical infidelity," and that "the gospel of Christ, if believed, would remove personal slavery at once by destroying the will in the tyrant to enslave."[274:1] A like movement in North Carolina and in Maryland, at the same time, attained to formidable dimensions. The state of sentiment in Virginia may be judged from the fact that so late as December, 1831, in the memorable debate in the legislature on a proposal for the abolition of slavery, a leading speaker, denouncing slavery as "the most pernicious of all the evils with which the body politic can be afflicted," could say, undisputed, "_By none is this position denied_, if we except the erratic John Randolph."[274:2] The conflict in Virginia at that critical time was between Christian principle and wise statesmanship on the one hand, and on the other hand selfish interest and ambition, and the prevailing terror resulting from a recent servile insurrection. Up to this time there appears no sign of any division in the church on this subject. Neither was there any sectional division; the opponents of slavery, whether at the North or at the South, were acting in the interest of the common country, and particularly in the interest of the States that were still afflicted with slavery. But a swift change was just impending.

We have already recognized the Methodist organization as the effective pioneer of systematic abolitionism in America.[275:1] The Baptists, also having their main strength in the southern States, were early and emphatic in condemning the institutions by which they were surrounded.[275:2] But all the sects found themselves embarrassed by serious difficulties when it came to the practical application of the principles and rules which they enunciated. The exacting of "immediate emancipation" as a condition of fellowship in the ministry or communion in the church, and the popular cries of "No fellowship with slave-holders," and "Slave-holding always and every where a sin," were found practically to conflict with frequent undeniable and stubborn facts. The cases in which conscientious Christians found themselves, by no fault of their own, invested by inhuman laws with an absolute authority over helpless fellow-men, which it would not be right for them suddenly to abdicate, were not few nor unimportant.[275:3] In dealing with such cases several different courses were open to the church: (1) To execute discipline rigorously according to the formula, on the principle, Be rid of the tares at all hazards; never mind the wheat. This course was naturally favored by some of the minor Presbyterian sects, and was apt to be vigorously urged by zealous people living at a distance and not well acquainted with details of fact. (2) To attempt to provide for all cases by stated exceptions and saving clauses. This course was entered on by the Methodist Church, but without success. (3) Discouraged by the difficulties, to let go all discipline. This was the point reached at last by most of the southern churches. (4) Clinging to the formulas, "Immediate emancipation," "No communion with slave-holders," so to "palter in a double sense" with the words as to evade the meaning of them. According to this method, slave-holding did not consist in the holding of slaves, but in holding them with evil purpose and wrong treatment; a slave who was held for his own advantage, receiving from his master "that which is just and equal," was said, in this dialect, to be "morally emancipated." This was the usual expedient of a large and respectable party of antislavery Christians at the North, when their principle of "no communion with slave-holders" brought them to the seeming necessity of excommunicating an unquestionably Christian brother for doing an undeniable duty. (5) To lay down, broadly and explicitly, the principles of Christian morality governing the subject, leaving the application of them in individual cases to the individual church or church-member. This was the course exemplified with admirable wisdom and fidelity in the Presbyterian "deliverance" of 1818. (6) To meet the postulate, laid down with so much assurance, as if an axiom, that "slave-holding is always and everywhere a sin, to be immediately repented of and forsaken," with a flat and square contradiction, as being irreconcilable with facts and with the judgment of the Christian Scriptures; and thus to condemn and oppose to the utmost the system of slavery, without imputing the guilt of it to persons involved in it by no fault of their own. This course commended itself to many lucid and logical minds and honest consciences, including some of the most consistent and effective opponents of slavery. (7) Still another course must be mentioned, which, absurd as it seems, was actually pursued by a few headlong reformers, who showed in various ways a singular alacrity at playing into the hands of their adversaries. It consisted in enunciating in the most violent and untenable form and the most offensive language the proposition that all slave-holding is sin and every slave-holder a criminal, and making the whole attack on slavery to turn on this weak pivot and fail if this failed. The argument of this sort of abolitionist was: If there can be found anywhere a good man holding a bond-servant unselfishly, kindly, and for good reason justifiably, then the system of American slavery is right.[277:1] It is not strange that men in the southern churches, being offered such an argument ready made to their hand, should promptly accept both the premiss and the conclusion, and that so at last there should begin to be a pro-slavery party in the American church.

The disastrous epoch of the beginning of what has been called "the southern apostasy" from the universal moral sentiment of Christendom on the subject of slavery may be dated at about the year 1833. A year earlier began to be heard those vindications on political grounds of what had just been declared in the legislature of Virginia to be by common consent the most pernicious of political evils--vindications which continued for thirty years to invite the wonder of the civilized world. When (about 1833) a Presbyterian minister in Mississippi, the Rev. James Smylie, made the "discovery," which "surprised himself," that the system of American slavery was sanctioned and approved by the Scriptures as good and righteous, he found that his brethren in the Presbyterian ministry at the extreme South were not only surprised, but shocked and offended, at the proposition.[278:1] And yet such was the swift progress of this innovation that in surprisingly few years, we might almost say months, it had become not only prevalent, but violently and exclusively dominant in the church of the southern States, with the partial exception of Kentucky and Tennessee. It would be difficult to find a precedent in history for so sudden and sweeping a change of sentiment on a leading doctrine of moral theology. Dissent from the novel dogma was suppressed with more than inquisitorial rigor. It was less perilous to hold Protestant opinions in Spain or Austria than to hold, in Carolina or Alabama, the opinions which had but lately been commended to universal acceptance by the unanimous voice of great religious bodies, and proclaimed as undisputed principles by leading statesmen. It became one of the accepted evidences of Christianity at the South that infidelity failed to offer any justification for American slavery equal to that derived from the Christian Scriptures. That eminent leader among the Lutheran clergy, the Rev. Dr. Bachman, of Charleston, referred "that unexampled unanimity of sentiment that now exists in the whole South on the subject of slavery" to the confidence felt by the religious public in the Bible defense of slavery as set forth by clergymen and laymen in sermons and pamphlets and speeches in Congress.[278:2]

The historian may not excuse himself from the task of inquiring into the cause of this sudden and immense moral revolution. The explanation offered by Dr. Bachman is the very thing that needs to be explained. How came the Christian public throughout the slave-holding States, which so short a time before had been unanimous in finding in the Bible the condemnation of their slavery, to find all at once in the Bible the divine sanction and defense of it as a wise, righteous, and permanent institution? Doubtless there was mixture of influences in bringing about the result. The immense advance in the market value of slaves consequent on Whitney's invention of the cotton-gin had its unconscious effect on the moral judgments of some. The furious vituperations of a very small but noisy faction of antislavery men added something to the swift current of public opinion. But demonstrably the chief cause of this sudden change of religious opinion--one of the most remarkable in the history of the church--was panic terror. In August, 1831, a servile insurrection in Virginia, led by a crazy negro, Nat Turner by name, was followed (as always in such cases) by bloody vengeance on the part of the whites.

     "The Southampton insurrection, occurring at a time when the price of slaves was depressed in consequence of a depression in the price of cotton, gave occasion to a sudden development of opposition to slavery in the legislature of Virginia. A measure for the prospective abolition of the institution in that ancient commonwealth was proposed, earnestly debated, eloquently urged, and at last defeated, with a minority ominously large in its favor. Warned by so great a peril, and strengthened soon afterward by an increase in the market value of cotton and of slaves, the slave-holding interest in all the South was stimulated to new activity. Defenses of slavery more audacious than had been heard before began to be uttered by southern politicians at home and by southern representatives and senators in Congress. A panic seized upon the planters in some districts of the Southwest. Conspiracies and plans of insurrection were discovered. Negroes were tortured or terrified into confessions. Obnoxious white men were put to death without any legal trial and in defiance of those rules of evidence which are insisted on by southern laws. Thus a sudden and convincing terror was spread through the South. Every man was made to know that if he should become obnoxious to the guardians of the great southern 'institution' he was liable to be denounced and murdered. It was distinctly and imperatively demanded that nobody should be allowed to say anything anywhere against slavery. The movement of the societies which had then been recently formed at Boston and New York, with 'Immediate abolition' for their motto, was made use of to stimulate the terror and the fury of the South.... The position of political parties and of candidates for the Presidency, just at that juncture, gave special advantage to the agitators--an advantage that was not neglected. Everything was done that practiced demagogues could contrive to stimulate the South into a frenzy and to put down at once and forever all opposition to slavery. The clergy and the religious bodies were summoned to the patriotic duty of committing themselves on the side of 'southern institutions.' Just then it was, if we mistake not, that their apostasy began. They dared not say that slavery as an institution in the State is essentially an organized injustice, and that, though the Scriptures rightly and wisely enjoin justice and the recognition of the slaves' brotherhood upon masters, and conscientious meekness upon slaves, the organized injustice of the institution ought to be abolished by the shortest process consistent with the public safety and the welfare of the enslaved. They dared not even keep silence under the plea that the institution is political and therefore not to be meddled with by religious bodies or religious persons. They yielded to the demand. They were carried along in the current of the popular frenzy; they joined in the clamor, 'Great is Diana of the Ephesians;' they denounced the fanaticism of abolition and permitted themselves to be understood as certifying, in the name of religion and of Christ, that the entire institution of slavery 'as it exists' is chargeable with no injustice and is warranted by the word of God."[281:1]

There is no good reason to question the genuineness and sincerity of the fears expressed by the slave-holding population as a justification of their violent measures for the suppression of free speech in relation to slavery; nor of their belief that the papers and prints actively disseminated from the antislavery press in Boston were fitted, if not distinctly intended, to kindle bloody insurrections. These terrors were powerfully pleaded in the great debate in the Virginia legislature as an argument for the abolition of slavery.[281:2] This failing, they became throughout the South a constraining power for the suppression of free speech, not only on the part of outsiders, but among the southern people themselves. The régime thus introduced was, in the strictest sense of the phrase, "a reign of terror." The universal lockjaw which thenceforth forbade the utterance of what had so recently and suddenly ceased to be the unanimous religious conviction of the southern church soon produced an "unexampled unanimity" on the other side, broken only when some fiery and indomitable abolitionist like Dr. Robert J. Breckinridge, of the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky, delivered his soul with invectives against the system of slavery and the new-fangled apologies that had been devised to defend it, declaring it "utterly indefensible on every correct human principle, and utterly abhorrent from every law of God," and exclaiming, "Out upon such folly! The man who cannot see that involuntary domestic slavery, as it exists among us, is founded on the principle of taking by force that which is another's has simply no moral sense.... Hereditary slavery is without pretense, except in avowed rapacity."[282:1] Of course the antislavery societies which, under various names, had existed in the South by hundreds were suddenly extinguished, and manumissions, which had been going on at the rate of thousands in a year, almost entirely ceased.

The strange and swiftly spreading moral epidemic did not stop at State boundary lines. At the North the main cause of defection was not, indeed, directly operative. There was no danger there of servile insurrection. But there was true sympathy for those who lived under the shadow of such impending horrors, threatening alike the guilty and the innocent. There was a deep passion of honest patriotism, now becoming alarmed lest the threats of disunion proceeding from the terrified South should prove a serious peril to the nation in whose prosperity the hopes of the world seemed to be involved. There was a worthy solicitude lest the bonds of intercourse between the churches of North and South should be ruptured and so the integrity of the nation be the more imperiled. Withal there was a spreading and deepening and most reasonable disgust at the reckless ranting of a little knot of antislavery men having their headquarters at Boston, who, exulting in their irresponsibility, scattered loosely appeals to men's vindictive passions and filled the unwilling air with clamors against church and ministry and Bible and law and government, denounced as "pro-slavery" all who declined to accept their measures or their persons, and, arrogating to themselves exclusively the name of abolitionist, made that name, so long a title of honor, to be universally odious.[282:2]

These various factors of public opinion were actively manipulated. Political parties competed for the southern vote. Commercial houses competed for southern business. Religious sects, parties, and societies were emulous in conciliating southern adhesions or contributions and averting schisms. The condition of success in any of these cases was well understood to be concession, or at least silence, on the subject of slavery. The pressure of motives, some of which were honorable and generous, was everywhere, like the pressure of the atmosphere. It was not strange that there should be defections from righteousness. Even the enormous effrontery of the slave power in demanding for its own security that the rule of tyrannous law and mob violence by which freedom of speech and of the press had been extinguished at the South should be extended over the so-called free States did not fail of finding citizens of reputable standing so base as to give the demand their countenance, their public advocacy, and even their personal assistance. As the subject emerged from time to time in the religious community, the questions arising were often confused and embarrassed by false issues and illogical statements, and the state of opinion was continually misrepresented through the incurable habit of the over-zealous in denouncing as "pro-slavery" those who dissented from their favorite formulas. But after all deductions, the historian who shall by and by review this period with the advantage of a longer perspective will be compelled to record not a few lamentable defections, both individual and corporate, from the cause of freedom, justice, and humanity. And, nevertheless, that later record will also show that while the southern church had been terrified into "an unexampled unanimity" in renouncing the principles which it had unanimously held, and while like causes had wrought potently upon northern sentiment, it was the steadfast fidelity of the Christian people that saved the nation from ruin. At the end of thirty years from the time when the soil of Missouri was devoted to slavery the "Kansas-Nebraska Bill" was proposed, which should open for the extension of slavery the vast expanse of national territory which, by the stipulation of the "Missouri Compromise," had been forever consecrated to freedom. The issue of the extension of slavery was presented to the people in its simplicity. The action of the clergy of New England was prompt, spontaneous, emphatic, and practically unanimous. Their memorial, with three thousand and fifty signatures, protested against the bill, "in the name of Almighty God and in his presence," as "a great moral wrong; as a breach of faith eminently injurious to the moral principles of the community and subversive of all confidence in national engagements; as a measure full of danger to the peace and even the existence of our beloved Union, and exposing us to the just judgments of the Almighty." In like manner the memorial of one hundred and fifty-one clergymen of various denominations in New York City and vicinity protested in like terms, "in the name of religion and humanity," against the guilt of the extension of slavery. Perhaps there has been no occasion on which the consenting voice of the entire church has been so solemnly uttered on a question of public morality, and this in the very region in which church and clergy had been most stormily denounced by the little handful of abolitionists who gloried in the name of infidel[285:1] as recreant to justice and humanity.

The protest of the church was of no avail to defeat the machination of demagogues. The iniquitous measure was carried through. But this was not the end; it was only the beginning of the end. Yet ten years, and American slavery, through the mad folly of its advocates and the steadfast fidelity of the great body of the earnestly religious people of the land, was swept away by the tide of war.