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came petitions, remonstrances, and indignant protests, re-
inforcing the pathetic entreaties of the Cherokees them-
selves to be protected from the cruelty that threatened to
tear them from their homes. In Congress the honor of
leadership among many faithful and able advocates of right
and justice was conceded to Theodore Frelinghuysen, then
in the prime of a great career of Christian service. By the
majority of one vote the bill for the removal of the Chero-
kees passed the United States Senate. The gates of hell
triumphed for a time with a fatal exultation. The authors
and abettors of the great crime were confirmed in their de-
lusion that threats of disunion and rebellion could be relied


on to carry any desired point. But the mills of God went
on grinding. Thirty years later, when in the battle of
Missionary Ridge the chivalry of Georgia went down be-
fore the army that represented justice and freedom and the
authority of national law, the vanquished and retreating
soldiers of a lost cause could not be accused of superstition
if they remembered that the scene of their humiliating
defeat had received its name from the martyrdom of
Christian missionaries at the hands of their fathers.

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.^ 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 open-
ing paragraphs of it exhibit the universally accepted senti-
ment 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 in-
consistent with the law of God, which requires us to love
our neighbor as ourselves ; and as totally irreconcilable
1 See above, pp. 203-205, 222,


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 ra-
tional, accountable, and immortal beings in such circum-
stances 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 inconsist-
ently 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 pres-
ent 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 hon-
est, earnest, and unwearied endeavors to correct the errors
of former times, and as speedily as possible to eflface this
blot on our holy religion and to obtain the complete abo-


lition of slavery throughout Christendom, and if possible
throughout the world."

It was not strange that while sentiments like these pre-
vailed 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," ^ 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

In the spring of 1820, at the close of two years of agi-
tating discussion, the new State of Missouri was admitted
to the Union as a slave State, although with the stipula-
tion 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 op-
position to this extension of slavery was taken up by
American Christianity as its own cause. It was the im-
pending danger of such an extension that prompted that
powerful and unanimous declaration of the Presbyterian
General Assembly in 181 8. 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 pohticians.

The successful extension of slavery beyond the Missis-

1 Deliverance of General Assembly, 1818.


sippi 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 Mif^sonri
Compromise," a powerful series of articles by that gr&at
religious leader, Jeremiah Evarts, in the " Panoplii^t "
(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 na-
tion in all quarters.^ In New England the focus of anti-
slavery effort was perhaps the theological seminary at
Andover. There the leading question among the stu-
dents 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 col-
lege where youth were to be educated on a scale so liberal
as to place them on a level with other men";- and the
plan was not forgotten or neglected by these }'oung 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 anti-
slavery address at Park Street Church, Boston, before
several united churches of that city, continued for the rest

1 The persistent attempt to represent this period as one of prevailing
apathy and inertia on the subject of slavery is a very flagrant falsification of
history. And yet by dint of sturdy reiteration it has been forced into such
currency as to impose itself even on so careful a writer as Mr. Schouler, in
his " History of the United States." It is impossible to read this part of
American church history intelligently, unless the mind is disabused of this

- "Christian Spectator" (monthly), New Haven, 1.S2?), p. 4.


of that decade at least to be an occasion for earnest ap-
peal 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 Popu-
lation of the United States," could hardly be characterized
as timid in its utterances on the moral character of Ameri-
can 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 popu-
lation 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 lialf
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." ^

1 "Christian Spectator," 1823, pp. 493, 494, 341; "The Earlier Anti-
slavery Days," by L. Bacon, in the " Christian Union," December 9 and 16,
1874, January 6 and 13, 1875. It is one of the " Curiosities of Literature,"
though hardly one of its " Amenities," that certain phrases carefully dissected


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 mission-
ary,^ and Ralph Randolph Gurley, secretary of the Coloni-
zation Society, whose edition of the powerful and uncom-
promising 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 cir-
culation at the South, in hopes of promoting the universal
abolition of slavery. The list might be indefinitely ex-
tended 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 Metho-
dist clergy, many of whom had been southern men and
had experienced the evils of the system.^ In Kentucky
and Tennessee the abolition movement was led more dis-
tinctively by the Presbyterians and the Quakers. It was

from this paper (which was written by Mr. Bacon at the age of twenty-one)
should be pertinaciously used, in the face of repeated exposures, to prove the
author of it to be an apologist for slavery!

1 "Christian Spectator," 1825-1828.

2 Wilson, " Slave Power in America," vol. i., p. 164; "James G. Birney
and his Times," pp. 64, 65. This last-named book is an interesting and
valuable contribution of materials for history, especially by its refutation of
certain industriously propagated misrepresentations.


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 indi-
cated in the constitution of the " Moral Religious Manu-
mission 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 slav-
ery at once by destroying the will in the tyrant to enslave." ^
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." -
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.

1 " Birney and his Times," chap, xii., on " Abolition in the South before
1828." Much is to be learned on this neglected topic in American history
from the reports of the National Convention for the Abolition of Slavery,
meeting biennially, with some intermissions, at Philadelphia, Baltimore, and
Washington down to 1829. An incomplete file of these reports is at the
library of Brown University.

2 Wilson, " The Slave Power," vol. i., chap. xiv.


We have already recognized the Methodist organization
as the effective pioneer of systematic aboHtionism in
America.^ The Baptists, also having their main strength
in the southern States, were early and emphatic in con-
demning the institutions by which they were surrounded. -
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 popu-
lar cries of "No fellowship with slave-holders," and
" Slave-holding always and everywhere a sin," were found
practically to conflict with frequent undeniable and stub-
born facts. The cases in which conscientious Christians
found themselves, by no fault of their own, invested by
inhuman laws wuth an absolute authority over helpless
fellow-men, which it w'ould not be right for them suddenly
to abdicate, were not few nor unimportant.^ In dealing
with such cases several different courses were open to the
church: (i) 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 natu-
rally favored by some of the minor Presbyterian sects, and
was apt to be vigorously urged by zealous people living

1 See above, pp. 204, 205.

2 Newman, " The Baptists," pp. 288, 305. Let me make general refer-
ence to the volumes of the American Church History Series by their several
indexes, s. v. Slavery.

3 One instance for illustration is as good as ten thousand. It is from the
" Life of James G. Birney," a man of the highest integrity of conscience:
" Michael, the husband and father of the family legally owned by Mr. Birney,
and who had been brought up with him from boyhood, had been unable to
conquer his appetite for strong liquors, and needed the constant watchful care
of his master and friend. For some years the probability was that if free he
would become a confirmed drunkard and beggar his family. The children
were nearly grown, but had little mental capacity. For years Michael had
understood that his freedom would be restored to him as soon as he could
control his love of ardent spirits " (pp. 108, 109).


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
fidehty in the Presbyterian " deHverance" of 18 18. (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 sys-
tem of slavery, without imputing the guilt of it to persons
involved in it by no fault of their own. This course com-
mended 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
ever>' 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. ^ It is not strange
that men in the southern churches, being offered such an
argument ready made to their hand, should promptly ac-
cept 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 Smy-
lie, made the " discovery," which " surprised himself," that
the system of American slavery was sanctioned and ap-

l " If human beings could be justly held in bondage for one hour, they
could be for days and weeks and years, and so on indefinitely from genera-
tion to generation" (" Life of W. L. Garrison," vol. i., p. 140).


proved by the Scriptures as good and righteous, he found
that his brethren in the Presbyterian ministry at the ex-
treme South were not only surprised, but shocked and
offended, at the proposition.^ 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 prev-
alent, 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 Prot-
estant opinions in Spain or Austria than to hold, in Caro-
lina or Alabama, the opinions which had but lately been
commended to universal acceptance by the unanimous
voice of great religious bodies, and proclaimed as undis-
puted 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.^

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. Bach-

1 "New Englander," vol. xii., 1854, p. 639, article on " The Southern

- Ibid.y pp. 642-644,


man 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 institu-
tion ? Doubtless there was mixture of influences in bring-
ing 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 judg-
ments 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, 1 83 1 , a servile insurrection
in Virginia, led by a crazy negro, Nat Turner by name,
was followed (as always in such cases) by bloody venge-
ance 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 legis-
lature of Virginia. A measure for the prospective aboli-

Online LibraryLeonard Woolsey BaconA history of American Christianity → online text (page 22 of 34)