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To Snap Every Cord: The Protestant Church’s Role in Slavery and Secession

When the United States was founded, the Christian religion played little role in the controversial debate over the institution of slavery. The arguments that took place during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were surprisingly devoid of the All Mighty.

High Street, with the First Presbyterian church Philadelphia. 1841. LoC.
High Street, with the First Presbyterian church Philadelphia. 1841. LoC.

The Church’s Early Silence on Slavery

Delegates to the convention, such as Luther Martin of Maryland and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, left God out of their arguments against the slave trade. In stating his case for the trade, John Rutledge of South Carolina insisted that “religion and humanity had nothing to do with this question.” 1“Debates in the Federal Convention” August 21-22, 1787 in The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Vol. 4, ed. Johnathan Elliot, (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1832) 457.

Though even at this time many in the North were opposed to slavery and most in the South were in favor of it, the churches were more or less silent upon the matter. This was politics, and churches dealt with spiritual and lifestyle matters, venturing not at all into the realm of policy. A few decades of this apparent peacefulness passed with the three largest churches – Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian – avoiding the subject.

The Rise of the Racist Church

As the public debates heated up over slavery into the 1830s, the churches were also drawn into the fray. It was the smallest of those three churches, the Presbyterians, who broke apart first. In their schism of 1838, slavery wasn’t the main cause, but it played a vital role in severing the Old School from the New School. This split, which had more to do with being for or against revivalism, was not along geographic lines. That said, abolitionists in the North chose to attend the New School churches as they were more often in favor of revivalism. 2Henry True Besse, Church History (Clenoa, Pennsylvania: Holzapfel Publishing Co., 1908) 236-237.

The Methodists, the largest of the churches, had been founded with a stated anti-slavery bent. Established in 1784 upon the teachings of John Wesley, himself opposed to slavery, the Methodists decided from their inception that the institution would be banned. Preachers who owned slaves were to eventually free them. This didn’t set well with all, but by 1796, slavery was basically outlawed in the church. Enslavers could join, but the minister had to speak to them “freely and faithfully on the subject of slavery.” Little by little, however, the Methodist church loosened its grip against slavery. By 1804, slavery was permitted for members in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. Four years later, no rules at all existed concerning human property. Still, it was considered taboo for clergy to be enslavers.

Methodist Episcopal Church, Briar Creek, Columbia County, PA. 1936. LoC.
Methodist Episcopal Church, Briar Creek, Columbia County, PA. 1936. LoC.

From the late 1830s, cracks had been forming all through the various lines of Methodist branches. These cracks almost exclusively were brought about by pro- or anti-slavery opinions. Individual churches broke away here and there, and various conferences were held across the country in 1842 in order to deal with it. These meetings brought forward something called the Wesleyan Connection, which would, in November of that year, break off as the Wesleyan Church. 3Ibid. 27-30, 300

The Wesleyan Church was openly anti-slavery. Their argument was that the main Methodist Church was “not only a slaveholding, but a slave defending, Church.” The list of grievances against the Church was long, and the vast majority of them were about slavery. They pointed out that abolitionists had been removed from positions of authority, that the Church had “exhorted her ministers and members, throughout the country, ‘wholly to refrain’ from this agitating subject.” The Wesleyans were understandably bitter that their now-former church had “adopted a resolution on colored testimony, which disfranchises eighty thousand of her members.” This, it seems, was the final straw. 4Orange Scott, The Grounds of Secession from the M.E. Church (New York: C. Prindle, 1848) 5-7.

The last of the three to split was the Baptist Church, one of the oldest churches in the United States, having been brought from England in 1639. Unlike either the Presbyterians or Methodists, the Baptists were only loosely organized, and then only for missionary purposes. Due to this, rules for or against slavery did not exist. Still, the laws governing missionaries as established by the Home Mission Society, based in New York, prevented Baptist enslavers from being missionaries.

So when a slave-owning member from Alabama wanted to become a missionary and was denied by the Home Mission Society, the Baptist Churches in Alabama met to discuss their next move. They resolved to formally complain to the main Church board that their “social equality” was not being recognized. They also demanded that enslavers be “eligible and entitled to all the privileges and immunities” of missionaries.

In response, the board refused to accept the application, hoping to avoid taking a stand for or against slavery. But when pushed, they laid down the law: “If, however, any one should offer himself as a missionary, having slaves, and should insist on retaining them as his property, we could not appoint him. One thing is certain, we can never be a party to any arrangement which would imply approbation of slavery.” 5“The Baptist State Convention of Alabama” in Baptist Missionary Magazine, Vol. 25 (Boston: Press of John Putnam, 1845) 220-225.

Fredericksburg, Virginia. View on Princess Anne Street showing Baptist church and 6th Corps hospital. 1864. LoC.
Fredericksburg, Virginia. View on Princess Anne Street showing Baptist church and 6th Corps hospital. 1864. LoC.

Around the same time, Georgia Baptists also nominated a slave-owner for missionary, and met with the same results. Both the Alabama and Georgia members held that if the main church claimed to be neutral on slavery and yet denied enslavers the right to become missionaries, then their claims of neutrality were false.

While Alabama stewed, Georgia acted. In May of 1845, they established the Southern Baptist Convention. Their letter announcing the group’s formation explained their secession. The main Baptist Church, they said, had “expressly given its sanction to anti-slavery opinions, and impliedly fixed its condemnation of slavery….” For this reason and this reason alone, the Southern Baptist Convention was established. 6R. Babcock, J.O. Choules, J.M. Peck, eds. The Baptist Memorial and Monthly Record, Vol. 4 (New York: John R. Bigelow, 1845) 219-222.

As With the Church, So With the State

By 1845, the three largest churches in the country had torn themselves asunder over the issue of slavery. It’s hardly any wonder, then, that those on both sides of the slavery issue saw dark portents in these schisms.

The South Carolina politician, John C. Calhoun, had long-before given his slavery as a “positive good” speech, when in 1850, he noted that the “spiritual or ecclesiastical” cords which bound North to South were some of the strongest. Now that the biggest churches had split, he foresaw that “the same force, acting with increased intensity, as has been shown, will finally snap every cord, when nothing will be left to hold the States together except force.” 7John C. Calhoun, “Speech on the Slavery Question,” Marcy 4, 1850, in The Papers of John C. Calhoun, Volume 27 (University of South Carolina, 2003) 199-200.

One of Calhoun’s greatest opponents, Henry Clay, the politician from Kentucky, agreed. “I tell you this sundering of religious ties which have hitherto bound our people together,” he told an interviewer in 1852, “I consider the greatest source of danger to our country. If our religious men cannot live together in peace, what can be expected of us politicians, very few of whom profess to be governed by the great principles of love?” 8Presbyterian Herald, January 5, 1860. As cited in Varieties of Southern Religious Experiences ed. Samuel S. Hill (Louisiana State University Press, 1988).

With both sides understanding that the schism in the churches would lead to the schism of the nation, it was probably not a surprise when religious leaders heralded the call for secession after the election of 1860. The churches called various conventions across the South, voting whether or not to demand that their home states secede from the Union. Though it was mostly Baptists from Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi who led the cry, Methodists from Georgia, and Episcopalians from South Carolina also joined the growing chorus. 9David B. Chesebrough, Clergy Dissent in the Old South, 1830-1865 (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996) 6-7.

From the founding of this nation, the main Protestant churches, though originally against slavery, willingly chose to remain silent, wishing not to add their voices to those of the opposition.
This, along with the refusal to even discuss it among themselves, led to divisions within their ranks, as well as the severing of the nation itself. Wishing to remain neutral, they became divided against themselves, and the nation as a whole followed their lead.

Massaponax Baptist Church, Va. View of the church, temporary headquarters of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, surrounded by soldiers. 1864. LoC.
Massaponax Baptist Church, Va. View of the church, temporary headquarters of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, surrounded by soldiers. 1864. LoC.

Note: I realize that I over-simplified the various fractures and splits in all of the Protestant churches throughout the pre-war period. I didn’t even mention the Lutherans (who avoided the question of slavery and didn’t have any major fractures because of it). Also, I didn’t enter into the reasoning and philosophy surrounding the arguments various churches made for and against slavery. The former will have to be left to larger church histories, and the latter will be addressed shortly.

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

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