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Christianity and human slavery

The abolition of human slavery, mostly in
the United States: Years 1800 to 1850.

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From the first half of the 19th century:

bullet 1800 +: The Roman Catholic church's Sacred Congregation of the Index continued to place many anti-slavery tracts on their Index of Forbidden Books in order to prevent the public from reading them.

Also in the early 19th century, Methodists in the state of Georgia followed John Wesley's lead and condemned slavery. Wesleyans:

"... learned to subdue their critique, in order to grow in membership...Unlike Calvinist intellectuals such as Charles Colcock Jones, Methodists rarely used the Old Testament patriarchs and their hierarchical values to buttress the pro-slavery case. Relying mainly on the letters attributed to Paul, Georgia Wesleyans argued that slavery was scripturally allowable, but not necessarily ideal. In the ante-bellum era their theoretical position was neither proslavery nor antislavery, but neutrality. Christians lived in an imperfect world where slavery was sanctioned by law; therefore, the church should coexist with slavery, just as it did in Paul's day." 1


bullet 1803: Cotton became the main U.S. export crop. This required a source of low-cost labor to maximize profit.

bullet1806 to 1811: Three bills were passed in England which progressively throttled the British slave trade.

bullet1807: The first black Methodist church, the African Union Church, was incorporated in Wilmington DE.

bullet1808: Import of slaves into the U.S. was criminalized. Some slaves were imported illegally up to 1860. Estimates of their number range from 250,000 to 1 million.

bullet1816: The African Methodist Episcopal Church is founded in Philadelphia PA.

bullet 1818: The Chief Justice in  Upper Canada (now Ontario) ruled that a runaway slave should not be returned to the U.S. This made the "Underground Railway" possible. It was a series of safe houses leading to individuals' end to human slavery in Canada.

bullet1821: Benjamin Lunday, a Quaker from Ohio, started an anti-slavery newspaper "The Genius of Universal Emancipation." 

bullet1821: The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church is founded.
 
bullet1825: Fanny Wright (1795-1852), organized Nashoba. This was a training school to help slaves handle liberation from slavery. She was a religious free-thinker (secularist), and was the first American woman to personally speak out against slavery in public.
 
bullet1829's: Congregationalists, Quakers, Mennonites, Methodists and Unitarians organized the "underground railway" to help slaves escape northward towards Canada and southward into Spanish held territories. 2
 
bullet1829: David Walker, a free-born African-American published the first major U.S. anti-slavery publication: "The David Walker's Appeal in Four Articles Together With A Preamble, To The Coloured Citizens of The World, But In Particular, And Very Expressly, To Those of The United States of America." Walker died in 1830. Some suspect that a group of slave-owning Southern governors took a contract out on his life. He criticized Christian denominations for their relative silence about slavery and racism; he condemned those among the white clergy who supported slavery. 3

bullet1830: The Plantation Mission Movement began. Methodist chapels were constructed on many plantations.

bullet1831: Nat Turner, a Baptist slave pastor, led a major sustained slave revolt in Virginia. He was inspired by the messages of the Old Testament prophets and their calls for justice.

"...the notion that slavery was God's will gained momentum after the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831. In hundreds of pamphlets, written from 1836 to 1866, Southern slaveholders were provided a host of religious reasons to justify the social caste system they had created." 4

bullet1833: Over 1,000 regional, state and city groups joined together to found the American Anti-Slavery Society.

bullet1833: The British Parliament passed a law which quickly phased out slavery in Britain and its colonies, including Canada. Slave trading by other countries was gradually snuffed out during the following 3 decades, by a series of treaties and the capture of over 1,000 slave ships by the British.

bullet1833: The Anti-Slavery Convention of 1833 was held. One of the vice-presidents was Dr. Lord, who later reversed his stance. He became an "advocate of slavery as a divine institution, and denounced woe upon the abolitionists for interfering with the will and purpose of the Creator." 4

bullet 1838: The Presbyterian church split over slavery into separate North and South denominations.

bullet1839: Pope Gregory XVI wrote in Supremo Apostolatus that he admonishes and adjures "in the Lord all believers in Christ, of whatsoever condition, that no one hereafter may dare unjustly to molest Indians, Negroes, or other men of this sort;...or to reduce them to slavery..." The operative word is unjustly. The Pope did not condemn slavery if the slaves had been captured justly -- that is, they were either criminals or prisoners of war. Roman Catholic Bishops in the Southern U.S. determined that this prohibition did not apply to slavery in the U.S. To their credit, various other popes did order or otherwise influence the emancipation of slaves that they considered to be unjustly enslaved.

bullet 1840: By this time, the United States had developed an obvious north/south split over slavery. The cotton-based economy of the Southern states depended largely on the low cost labor provided by the slave population. In the industrialized North, slavery had become only marginally economic. This split was reflected in the views of the various Christian denominations with respect to abolition. Many Christians in the Southern states saw abolition as a massive threat to their culture and economy. They did not view slavery as a sin; their leaders were able to quote many Biblical passages in support of slavery. Many Christians in the northern states had gradually built up a revulsion towards the "peculiar institution." In opposition to slavery, they frequently quoted Jesus' statements about treating others with respect, love and justice.
 
bullet 1841 to 1844: The Baptist movement in the U.S. had maintained a strained peace by carefully avoiding discussion of the topic. The American Baptist Foreign Mission Board took neither a pro nor anti-slavery position. An American Baptist Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840 brought the issue into the open. Southern delegates to the 1841 Triennial Convention of the Board "protested the abolitionist agitation and argued that, while slavery was a calamity and a great evil, it was not a sin according to the Bible." 5 The Board later denied a request by the Alabama Convention that slave owners be eligible to become missionaries. In a test case, the Georgia Baptist nominated a slave owner as a missionary and asked asked the Home Missions Society to approve their choice. No decision was made. Finally, a Baptist Free Mission Society was formed; "it refused 'tainted' Southern money." The Southern members withdrew and formed the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which eventually grew to become the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. They no longer support slavery, although they continue to oppress women, lesbians, gays, transgender persons and transsexuals.

bullet1843: Clergy and laity of the Methodist Episcopal Church left to form the Wesleyan Methodist Church in America. The split was caused primarily by the slavery issue. The church had reneged on an earlier decision to forbid members to own slaves. Church teaching and practices were two additional points of friction. The Wesleyan Methodist Church continues today as the Wesleyan Church.

bullet1843: "In 1843, 1,200 Methodist ministers owned 1,500 slaves, and 25,000 members owned 208,000 slaves...the Methodist Church as a whole remained silent and neutral on the issue of slavery." 5

bullet 1844: The General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church split into two conferences because of tensions over slavery and the power of bishops in the denomination. The two General Conferences, the Methodist Episcopal Church (North) and Methodist Episcopal church, South remained separate until a merger in 1939 created the Methodist Church. The latter became the present United Methodist Church as a result of subsequent mergers. 6

bullet1851: J.F. Brennan published "Bible defense of slavery." He claimed that Cain's parents were Eve and the serpent. 7

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This topic continues in the next essay with events after 1855.

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References used:

  1. Eddie Becker, "Chronology on the history of slavery and racism," at: http://innercity.org/holt/slavechron.html 
  2. William Still, "The Underground Railway," Ayer Co. May be ordered at: http://www.scry.com/ayerctlg/4416487.htm
  3. Haroon Kharem, "David Walker: Pioneer of Black Nationalist Thought 1785-1830"; a website at http://squash.la.psu.edu/~plarson/smuseum/americas/ (site no longer available)
  4. Eddie Becker, "Chronology on the history of slavery and racism: 1830 - The End," at: http://innercity.org/holt/chron_1830_end.html 
  5. J.G. Melton, "The Encyclopedia of American Religions," Volume I, Triumph Books, (1991), Volume II, Page 5
  6. J.G. Melton, op. cit., Volume II, Page 185
  7. Dan Rogers, "The evidence of black people in the Bible," at: http://www.wcg.org/wn/98May/all.htm 

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Copyright © 1999 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2013-FEB-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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