SLAVERY AND THE CHURCHES

Slavery led to what historians call "the second American Revolution." America divided along sectional, cultural and social lines during the early 1800s. Controversy over slavery hit most American churches particularly hard. This material  reviews background data on slavery then shows how it affected America's development.

I. Beginnings of Slavery

America's first slaves, about 20 blacks, arrived in 1619 as "permanently indentured servants." As "indentured servants" the new residents created little difficulty throughout the 1600s. Many white colonists obtained passage to America by coming as indentured servants, thus making it acceptable to employ both Caucasians and Negroes as such. 

Slavery quickly became important to southern agriculture. Southern plantations grew three major crops: (1) tobacco, (2) rice and (3) indigo. Indigo comes from the inner core of a fibrous stalk. Planters soaked the stalks for at least two weeks to extract a rich blue dye from the pith. The British textile industry prized the dye and offered a bonus for every pound produced. Most planters hated the smelly unpleasant work with the rotted stalks so they forced slaves to handle it. In time the indigo trade depended entirely on slave labor.

Cotton was not "King" during the 1700s. Good American long staple cotton grew only on sea islands off the Georgia coast. Manual laborers easily removed seeds from long staple cotton making it highly desirable. Mainland planters only grew uneconomical short staple cotton. Its tighter bolls made seed removal difficult and workers usually tore out fibers trying to get at the seeds. When "Yankee" Eli Whitney invented the Cotton Gin, short staple cotton stock shot up rapidly. The gin made seed removal easy without damaging the fibers. Whitney's invention made cotton the south's major cash crop. Planters, those who owned at least 20 slaves, used slave labor to plant, care for, harvest and prepare the cotton crop for shipping. By the time cotton planting moved into Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and east Texas southerners viewed slavery as essential.

Northern slaves, and there were northern slaves, served as butlers, maids, valets, and cooks. Slaves rarely worked on northern farms, farms built on "subsistence agriculture." The industrial revolution's new inventions made northern slave labor uneconomical. Free labor replaced slavery in most northern states except for the border state of Delaware. Free labor emphasized the right of each individual to "sell" his labor to the highest bidder. By 1787, every state north of the Mason-Dixon line abolished slavery and the government forbade slavery in the Northwest Territory.

Small family farms made up most of the southern agricultural base, particularly in the inland highlands. Most upland whites owned few if any slaves. Whites who raised small cotton crops owned the bulk of all southern slaves although wealthy Planters owned larger numbers. Small growers usually owned fewer than five slaves. Southern slavery reached a plateau in 1800 and it became illegal to import slaves in 1808. When the "southwest" opened up new cotton lands, after depleting the upper south's soils, the slave population again increased. Upper south whites bred slaves for sale in the lower south. Larger plantations and the growth of "King Cotton" required increasingly large slave forces on plantations. Cotton production hit 150,000 pounds in 1814, but rose to 4,500,000 pounds in 1855. Slave population rose from 900,000 in 1800 to 4,000,000 in 1860.

Not long after Thomas Jefferson wrote the "Declaration of Independence," a free black wrote Jefferson asking if the "all men are created equal" phrase applied to blacks. Jefferson replied that slavery embarrassed him but he did nothing about it then or during his presidency. The Quakers spoke out against slavery during the colonial period but they were the only religious movement to do so. Anglicans worked among the slaves and attempted to Christianize them.

II. The church's stand after the revolution

Mainline Protestantism tried early on, but without success, to deal with the slavery issue. In 1784, the Methodists voted to expel members who bought and sold slaves but they decided to give slaveholders a year to free their slaves on penalty of expulsion. Methodists found such statements unenforceable and they withdrew them.

Virginia Baptists denounced slavery in 1789. Kentucky's Elkhorn Baptist Association tried to draft a resolution against slavery in 1791 but it proved a hot potato and the association dropped it.

Presbyterian synods in New York and Philadelphia as early as 1787 called for members to gradually end slavery. By 1792, the Presbyterian General Assembly voiced concern over the institution and most Presbyterians agreed slavery should end. At the same time, Presbyterians felt gradual emancipation would work best. By 1815, Presbyterians declared the buying and selling of slaves "inconsistent with the Gospel." In 1818, George Bourne, a fiery anti-slavery preacher, insisted on slavery's cessation. Bourne's Presbytery felt his attitudes degraded the minister's office and they removed him. Bourne appealed to the General Assembly. Pro-slavery men loaded the Assembly and saw Bourne expelled but that same Assembly resolved that slavery was "inconsistent with God's law."

III. Efforts to solve the problem

Americans offered several solutions to the embarrassing slavery institution.

Many of the largest Protestant denominations endorsed the American Colonization Society by 1825. Delegates from mid-Atlantic states started it in 1817 but it soon spread throughout the nation until there were 200 branches. The American Colonization Society wanted to remove the black man from America and settle him elsewhere. Some Americans saw this as a genuine solution. They believed sending Christian slaves back to African beach heads could be sound missionary strategy. A few Americans purchased slaves just to send them "home." Others just wanted the black man out of the country.

The Society sent the first boat load of slaves back to Africa in 1821. These blacks established the colony of Liberia. They promptly named their new capital Monrovia after James Monroe, the President of the United States. American-born slaves made up the new colony, there was not an African in the group. Used to southern agriculture, these former slaves discovered that crops which grew in Georgia and Virginia did not grow in Liberia. Poverty stalked the colony from its inception. Very few slaves ever returned to Africa and the project was abandoned.

William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) helped form the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. Garrison, a Massachusetts native, worked with Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker, to put out a small Baltimore newspaper. True to his Quaker principles, Lundy took a quiet opposition to slavery. Garrison grew dissatisfied with Lundy's approach and quit the paper. Returning to Boston, he began publishing The Liberator. Garrison's paper hit the streets on January 1, 1831. Garrison set the tone with a strident anti-slavery editorial. The Liberator spread around the country as the radical voice of abolition. So powerful was his message that Georgians offered a $500,000 bounty to anyone who brought Garrison south for trial. Proslavery postmasters burned copies of the paper as soon as they arrived.

Religious support for abolition came from perfectionist churches. Abolitionists were not "liberals" such as the Unitarians, Transcendentalists, and so on. Most Abolitionists belonged to strong Methodist and Baptist churches.

Theodore Dwight Weld (1803-1895) provides a good example. Weld attended Cincinnati's Lane Theological Seminary in 1833 determined to make the school an abolitionist center. Lyman Beecher, the school's president, feared such a radical course would hurt the school so he prohibited offering classes to blacks. Concerned with financial support from his constituency, he took a hard line toward white boys seen with black girls. Lane students reacted negatively and left the seminary for Oberlin College. Oberlin needed the students but the Lane students agreed to enroll provided C.G. Finney become a professor. Oberlin agreed and Oberlin became an abolitionist center.

Northerners responded to abolition in various ways. Businessmen feared abolition thinking it would harm trade with the south. Workingmen resisted abolition because they felt it would throw thousands of Negroes into the job market forcing northern laborers out of work. Northerners often mistreated, ridiculed or harassed both Weld and Garrison. No one united the abolitionist cause like Elijah P. Lovejoy. Lovejoy, an Alton, Illinois, evangelist, printer, and rabid abolitionist, operated a print shop in Alton. Mobs broke into his establishment twice to wreck his presses. Lovejoy tried to defend his property during a third attempt and he died in the effort. Lovejoy provided abolitionists with a martyr.

IV. The results

Slavery embarrassed many southerners at the beginning of the century. More southerners than Yankees called for emancipation before The Liberator began publication. Once Garrison started publication, southerners became defensive. Attempting to justify their position, they pointed out that God sanctioned slavery in the Old Testament. The Bible did not condemn slavery, they argued, so it must be all right. Northern clergymen countered that southerners based such interpretations on extreme literalism. The south reacted so strongly to radical abolitionists that when Elijah Lovejoy died--1837--anti-slavery organizations no longer existed.

Slavery continued to cause problems in mainline denominations. Methodists founded their first anti-slavery association in 1834. By 1841, Michigan Methodists grew uncomfortable with the general unwillingness to act that they withdrew to form the Wesleyan Methodist Church. Mainline Methodism faced the issue in 1844. A Baltimore Methodist minister married into a family which owned slaves. When he refused to set them free, his conference released him. At the same time, James Andrews, Georgia's bishop, also owned slaves. Northern abolitionists demanded he free them or face suspension. Southern Methodists protested but since northern Methodists saw slavery as a moral issue they demanded his expulsion. After 11 days debate, the northerners won the vote by a 2-1 margin. They won the vote but lost anyway. The southern Methodists withdrew to form the Southern Methodist Church.(1)

Baptists remained fairly independent with little structure beyond their associations. The Baptist General Assembly met regularly from 1814 on but it held little power. Baptists formed the American Baptist Anti-Slavery Society in 1840 forcing moderate Baptists to take a stand. In 1844, the Georgia Baptist Convention appointed James Reeves, a slave owner, as missionary to the Cherokee Indians. When his petition for approval came to the General Convention it was rejected. In 1845, southern Baptists withdrew to form the Southern Baptist Convention in Augusta, Georgia.

Presbyterians split into two groups over liberalism, the "Old School" and "New School," in 1837. New School Presbyterians allowed some Arminian teachings into their churches. Most New Schoolers lived in the north. In 1850, they stated that Scripture did not sanction slavery and they enforced this view in 1857. That same year, the New School Presbyterians split geographically. The Old School faction remained somewhat united until the Civil War when they, too, split. In 1864, the two southern groups united to form the Southern Presbyterian Church. When the war ended the two northern groups united. The Presbyterians divided over theology but united over social issues.

When John C. Calhoun gave an address in Congress in support of the Compromise of 1850, he said American religious bonds were broken and he pleaded that the nation's political bonds remain united. The fact that churches could not get along indicated no one else could either. Church division over slavery predicted the Civil War.

1. 1The Northern and Southern Methodist Churches reunited after the war.

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