As an example of the remarkable harmony of the Old School, in the heat of the South Carolina secession crisis of the early 1850s, the 1851 General Assembly debated where to meet in 1852. Dr. Aaron Leland of Columbia Theological Seminary nominated Charleston, South Carolina. Dr. Nathan H. Hall, pastor at Columbia, Missouri, nominated Nashville, Tennessee, instead, warning against a possible South Carolinian secession. Dr. James M. Brown, pastor of Kanawha, Virginia (now West Virginia) suggested that going to South Carolina would be an excellent means of emphasizing the General Assembly’s commitment to the perpetuity of the national Union. Dr. John Leyburn (CTS 1836), secretary of the Board of Publication (formerly a pastor in Virginia and Alabama), said that he wanted to see Charleston’s famous hospitality in action. But the final speech, from Rev. Jerome Twitchell, pastor at Lafayette, Louisiana, summarized the Old School sentiment best. Going to Charleston would show,

that we have full confidence, that she will remain loyal to this great confederacy, and thus by the strong bands of love and affection we will hold her bound to this Church and General Assembly. Even if some of her restless sons should still talk of secession, the members of the Presbyterian Church in that State can never be induced to go from under the jurisdiction of this GA. There are bonds of Union in this Church stronger than the bonds of commerce, or bands of iron. They are the bonds of love, and by these ties, so long as this Church shall hold her high conservative position shall this Union be preserved.[1]


So long as the Old School could hold together, they thought, the nation would be preserved. The vote was 127 for Charleston and 64 for New York City.


1. The Growth of Sectionalism

            But such token displays of unity could not overcome the simple reality that Old School Presbyterians were increasingly divided, both physically and ideologically. The physical division was accomplished through the development of sectional institutions. While the ecclesiastical structure of synods was regional in nature, and most newspapers had a regional circulation, Princeton Seminary, the Princeton Review, the Philadelphia Presbyterian, and the New York Observer all had national influence. But regional institutions gradually became more and more important in the life of the south.[2]

            C. C. Goen has argued that “evangelical Christianity was a major bond of national unity for the United States during the first third of the nineteenth century,” and that the division of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches along sectional lines formed “the first major national cleavage between slaveholding and non-slaveholding sections,” and that these denominational schisms “broke a primary bond of national unity, encouraged the myth of ‘peaceable secession,’ established a precedent of sectional independence, reinforced the gorwing alienation between North and South by cultivating distorted images of ‘the other side,’ and exacerbated the moral outrage that each section felt against the other.”[3] Other historians have concurred that the division of the churches presaged the division of the nation.[4] Such divisions, however, could take other institutional forms. While Old School Presbyterians remained one denomination, they developed regional networks of colleges, seminaries and newspapers that fostered strong regional identities. Most of these institutions had been formed in the 1820s and 1830s, so by the 1850s they had established their own character and influence.[5]

            As early as the middle of the 1840s communication between north and south was becoming increasingly difficult–and the most common obstacle was slavery. When the New York Observer in 1846 published and endorsed “some of the most thorough-going abolition articles,” P suggested that southerners should stop subscribing to such a paper and patronize “our own Southern Religious Papers.”[6] The essays in question consisted of a series of articles by “Philanthropos” that attempted to show that the Bible taught that “that the imposition of involuntary servitude upon the servant without his contract or consent, and the withholding or deprivation of his personal liberty by the arbitrary will and authority of the master, is necessarily and essentially, always and every where, a sin against God.” The author admitted, however, that slavery may exist without sin, if the master does all he can to “respect all the rights of his slave as a creature of God.”[7]

            The New York Observer was widely taken throughout the south, but after a year had passed, and no response had appeared (in spite of some written by southerners, but rejected by editor Samuel Irenaeus Prime because they covered only part of the original argument), “Alexander” wrote to say that “a large proportion of the subscribers in this part of Virginia to that paper have lately withdrawn their support.”[8] A few, however, were satisfied with Prime’s response, and wondered why no southerner had attempted a full reply. “A Southern Man with Northern Principles” hinted that perhaps the anti-slavery position was correct.[9]

            Moderate southerners like Benjamin Gildersleeve feared the rising southern nationalism that developed through the wrangling over the Wilmot Proviso, the Compromise of 1850, and the reaction to the fugitive slave law, and hoped to be a voice of reason and peace. When the Synod of Pittsburgh rejected 46-24 an overture condemning the fugitive slave law, the Richmond Whig wondered how Virginia Presbyterians could remain in the same denomination with even a minority of abolitionists. Gildersleeve replied that “we believe that our church is one of the great conservative elements of the Union, and that it is as sound on the whole question, as any body of men covering the same space in the country. And we believe that Henry Clay never evinced his sagacity in a profounder degree than when he said that he would not despair of the Union until our church divided on the question of slavery.” A few extremists would not dampen his confidence. Indeed, he replied that such “injurious suspicions” were “calculated to destroy our influence as one of the great girdling bonds of the Union,” and he was determined to do his best to maintain southern confidence in their northern brethren.[10]

            Thomas V. Moore and Moses Hoge agreed with Gildersleeve in 1858, after Joseph G. Monfort, editor of the Presbyter declared their views on slavery “heresy.” The Baptist paper in Richmond, the Religious Herald, wondered how southern Presbyterians could remain in the same church as Monfort. Moore and Hoge replied with a bit of a jab, “We have long since learned to make all due allowance for the weakness and prejudices of both our anti-slavery and anti-paedobaptist opponents–and we have no hesitancy in communing with either the one or the other, provided their error does not assail the essential principles of the gospel.” They were convinced of the true catholicity of their “ecclesiastical union” and were willing to maintain “Christian fellowship” even with those who considered them heretics.[11]

            But maintaining Christian fellowship did not mean remaining silent on the matter. When their ostensible friends in the North declared that slavery was a curse and delighted in the overthrow of the Missouri Compromise, Gildersleeve could only fear for the future of both the church and the nation: “Holding the power the North intends to hold it, and keep the South in perpetual subserviency to her interests.” When Samuel Irenaeus Prime of the New York Observer declared himself for free soil during the debates over the Nebraska Bill in 1854, Gildersleeve warned his readers, “And here let it be noted that the South has no better friend at the North than the Observer and the Conservative (?) party which it represents.” For Gildersleeve, as for many of his readers, this was not merely a matter of politics. “It involves all the interests of the South temporal and spiritual. It is the great question of the day.”[12]

            Two years later, as the 1856 presidential campaign began to heat up, the editor of the Central Presbyterian urged his readers to “pray for your country.” Warning that disunion would be “accompanied or followed by war,” he assured his readers that such a rupture could not “be peacefully effected.” Border disputes, navigation of the Mississippi, division of military and finances, “and above all, the seduction of fugitive slaves and their recapture, that festering sore of the body politic, will inevitably break out in to fatal mischief, just as soon as the Constitution and the Union are removed.” But he hoped that the four million Christians could do something to prevent this.[13]

            Even the resolutely conservative Presbyterian faced southern criticism. When editor William Engles ventured an off-hand comment that an essay in the Southern Presbyterian Review was “indiscreet and ill-considered” in its indiscriminate attacks on the north, a reply in the Watchman & Observer complained that the North was becoming increasingly hostile.[14]                Another writer pointed out that the laws of Mississippi made it illegal for a dying person to “will, devise, or bequeath,” money “to any Christian charity whatsoever!” Tom Beckbee, “Letter from the South-West,” Presbyterian 29.17 (April 23, 1859) 65. Engles was somewhat taken aback. Who had attacked whom? “It seemed to us that the whole North was placed in the same category with small minority of ultras, and involved in the same condemnation.” Engles reminded his southern readers that the Philadelphia-New York region tended to view the South very kindly. “We are well persuaded that had we drawn a comparison between the North and the South, as much to the disadvantage of the latter, as the article in question is to the former, we should have been charged with the highest kind of indiscretion.” He warned that such local prejudices could only result in evil.[15]

            But in the same issue “Charleston” wrote to warn Engles that the SPR article “expresses the sentiments of the great body of Southern Presbyterians, as well as of other Southern people.” These are the “well-considered views of your brethren at the South.” While they granted that “our Old school brethren” disagreed with the northern fanatics who appealed to a higher law to overturn the Fugitive Slave Law, they believed that “Northern Christians generally endorse this Jesuitical morality.” They did not doubt the North’s attachment to the Union, but they did not believe that the North would uphold the Constitution.[16]

            Predictably, Presbyterians in the deep south were more antsy than their border states brethren. While the editors of the Southern Presbyterian Review protested against the secession movement in South Carolina in 1850 as premature, they made it clear that they were prepared for that event. Acknowledging that it was possible that the “Southern States shall be driven, in vindication of their rights, their honour and their safety, to organize a distinct Government for themselves,”[17] they warned their readers that the Union could not be divided without “strong convulsions, without dangers and disasters on all sides.”[18] Therefore they urged their fellow southerners to pursue all possible means of maintaining the Union: “As long as our voice can be heard, we shall endeavour to avert calamity--but if what we regard as rash counsels finally prevail, we have made up our minds, as God shall give us grace, to take what comes.”[19]

            Washington Baird was less gentle than Gildersleeve to the minority of the Synod of Pittsburgh that protested against the fugitive slave law.[20] Baird, the editor of the Southern Presbyterian went so far as to say that those who opposed the fugitive slave law were “Traitors in heart and tongue, to the Supreme law of this Republic–open enemies to the Union–debased ingrates to the people of those States, who have so long joined with them in the support of common laws and common Institutions, and from whose labors, their immense wealth has been chiefly realized.” His only solace was that the opponents of the law were generally “low in intellect and morality.”[21] While Gildersleeve used a more moderate tone, he warned the north to rein in the abolitionists if it loved the Union. If the abolitionists seized control in the north, he feared that it would result in a battle of northern atheism and anarchy versus southern religion and order.[22]

            Charles Hodge had similar concerns. In 1851 he penned a review of Moses Stuart’s Conscience and the Constitution.[23] Stuart had written in the wake of the Compromise of 1850, urging northern Christians to obey the fugitive slave act, arguing that the preservation of the Union depended on it.[24] Hodge concurred with Stuart, recognizing that the new understanding of conscience would destroy the nation. He feared that both sides were elevating relatively trivial matters into the realm of conscience. Southerners were complaining that the admission of California destroyed the equilibrium between slaveholding and non-slaveholding states. When some southerners proposed secession as an answer, Hodge replied: “Men might as well prescribe decapitation for the head-ache, as the destruction of the confederacy as a cure for the present difficulties.”[25] But Hodge admitted that the real trouble came from the abolitionists–and especially those who were promoting open resistance to the fugitive slave law. The Constitution was designed to allow slavery. But what if a man came to believe that the fugitive slave law was unconstitutional and immoral? What was the proper response for the conscientious objector?

            Hodge replied by setting forth traditional arguments for the “divine right of government.” Since government is a divine institution, and not merely a social compact, obedience to the laws of the land “is a religious duty.”[26] Whether just or unjust, “the actual existence of any government creates the obligation of obedience,” in its proper sphere.[27] Only if the government commands something outside its proper sphere, may it be disobeyed. If it commands something contrary to the Word of God, then it must be disobeyed. Hodge admitted that conscience alone could decide when the law of the land conflicts with the law of God, or “which is to us the same thing, with our convictions of what that law demands?”[28] The proper response to an unjust law is to seek to have it repealed. Applying the old Reformed view of catholicity, Hodge argued that an executive officer of the state should only resign if he was required to sin. Likewise, private citizens could not obey commands that required them to sin, but they must still submit: “When we are required by the law to do what our conscience pronounces to be sinful, we cannot obey the precept, but we are bound to submit without resistance to the penalty. We are not authorized to abrogate the law; nor forcibly to resist its execution, no matter how great its injustice or cruelty.”[29] Hodge insisted that private individuals do not have the right of resistance. Only in their corporate nature as “the people” does the right of revolution obtain. “There is an obvious difference between these two things, viz: the right of resistance on the part of individuals, and the right of revolution on the part of the people.”[30] The people may change their government if they wish–but that does not give individuals the right to resist the laws of the land. While recognizing the rights of conscience, Hodge wished to retain a strong sense of catholicity–both in the church and in the nation.

            The seminaries were also caught up in the sectional rift. A report in the Presbyter in 1859 stated that Danville Seminary in Kentucky (which had ostensibly been formed as a seminary for the whole west) was only drawing about a quarter of its students from the free states, since northwesterners refused to have their students educated on slave soil. And while Princeton had once drawn students from all over the country (in 1851 one in three Princeton Theological Seminary graduates hailed from slave states) by 1856 only one in twenty was of southern birth. As J. G. Monfort concluded, “Princeton stood well in the South under the deliverance of the Repertory on slavery, a quarter of a century ago, and under its approbation of the action of 1845, but since the South have progressed to believe that slavery is not wrong, and that the Church has no right to recommend or promote emancipation, and Dr. Hodge has, in a new commentary, brought out very distinctly the doctrine that the gospel is opposed to slavery, and that its diffusion will bring it to an end, the figures show that Southern students are more and more disposed or advised to study at home.”[31]

            Two weeks later, “Lewis” wrote to the Central Presbyterian urging both the North and the South to support Princeton Theological Seminary on the grounds that a common seminary could help avoid sectionalism.[32] The editors replied that Union Theological Seminary in Virginia would be just as good. Besides, Virginia was a “conservative region,” and Union students would not likely encounter any of the “Fourierism, Spiritualism, Higher-lawism, Women's right-ism, Mesmerism, Free-loveism, Free-soilism, to say nothing of Beecherism, Tribuneism and the like.” Southern students did not need to go north. Rather, “let Northern men come South. Let them come to see and learn for themselves.”

            But northern students did not wish to come to the south any more than southern students wished to go to the north. The following week the Central Presbyterian noted that the University of Virginia had fewer than a dozen northerners enrolled.[33] Only four of the eighteen students at Union Theological Seminary were northern born, and only one of forty-three at South Carolina’s Columbia Theological Seminary. One writer from the deep south suggested that the reason was that the south had “inferior institutions” with poor endowments and mediocre professors. Few northerners came south, and many southerners who went north for their education wound up as pastors of northern churches. Nonetheless, this southerner feared the results of sectional education. If southerners built up their institutions “by arousing their sectional prejudices, it must injure the true spirit of affection that ought to exist between the two great divisions of our country, in the Church, where, thus far, thank God, there has been no North! No South! But all one in Christ Jesus.” The only way to avoid sectional jealousies was to develop institutions that northern men would wish to attend.[34]

            This growing institutional division both represented and encouraged a deepening ideological division between northern and southern Presbyterians. Mitchell Snay, in his study of religion and separatism in the South, has accurately depicted the development of a pro-slavery consensus in the South. As northerners and southerners became increasingly estranged institutionally, they also developed in completely different directions ideologically. In the South, “the biblical justification of human bondage, the portrayal of abolitionism as infidelity, the slaveholding ethic, and the religious mission to the slaves comprised a coherent ideology aimed at sanctifying slavery.”[35]

            In this climate, what may have seemed obvious to a northern emancipationist like Hodge was no longer making sense in the South.[36] The pro-slavery movement had gained momentum since James Smylie had articulated the divine warrant for slavery in the 1830s, and by 1850 open dissent was dying out. In the late 1830s, Virginia’s George Baxter (1771-1841)–who was considered “proslavery” in his own day–nonetheless urged slaveowners to find the “quickest and most practicable means” of eliminating slavery,[37] but within a decade even Virginia Presbyterians were becoming increasingly comfortable with Smylie’s biblical defense of slavery as a positive good.[38] While some of the older ministers could still propose emancipation in the late 1840s in the border states, such as Henry Ruffner of Virginia (1789-1861), and Robert J. Breckinridge of Kentucky (1800-1877), the next generation was developing a new model that they hoped would establish a lasting foundation for slavery in the South.


2. The Defense of Slavery

            By the middle of the 1830s, southerners had begun to develop a coherent proslavery ideology–led largely by the southern clergy.[39] Their critique of northern infidelity and secularism prompted them to argue that a patriarchal slave society was superior to the northern free soil society.[40] In his essay on James Henley Thornwell, Eugene Genovese has correctly stated that the defense of slavery was constructed from a Christian foundation, including arguments from scripture and economics/sociology (what was then called moral philosophy), particularly rooted in a strict construal of both the Bible and the Constitution. Hence for Thornwell, since the Bible does not condemn slavery, neither can the church. As Genovese notes, Thornwell “recognized that the Bible sanctioned slavery in general. . . not black slavery in particular. For God had ordained slavery among the ancient Israelites without regard to race, as 'race' came to be understood.”[41] Like many southerners, Thornwell objected to the “callous disregard of the human misery inherent in capitalist economic development” and argued that slavery was a more humane system since (at its best) it provided for the well-being of the laborer better than northern factories. Nonetheless, Thornwell, like many of his colleagues, objected to many of the southern slave-laws and demanded that the institution be made to conform to biblical standards.[42]

            At the Synod of South Carolina in 1847, a committee was appointed to set forth the “position of Southern Christians” on slavery and seek to gain the confidence of evangelical Christians regarding their stance. Four years later that report, authored by Thornwell, was unanimously adopted by the Synod. In his preface, Thornwell pointed out that the situation had changed dramatically since 1847. Whereas the concern then had been the unity of the Old School in the face of abolitionist pressures, the issue in 1851 was the preservation of the national Union. Thornwell believed that the “position of the Southern, and perhaps he may say, of the whole Presbyterian Church, in relation to Slavery, is the only position which can save the Country from disaster and the Church from schism.”[43]

            The proper relation of the church to slavery, in Thornwell’s view, was simply to preach the gospel to masters and slaves. The problems of society produced by sin could not be dealt with directly by the church. Since all church power was “ministerial and declarative,” the church could not go beyond its written Constitution of the Word of God. “The Bible, and the Bible alone, is her rule of faith and practice.”[44] Therefore in a plain rejection of the 1818 General Assembly, he argued that the church had no authority to condemn slavery as a sin, or to declare that emancipation was a Christian duty. Thornwell pointed out that “The Church was formally organized in the family of a slaveholder” [Abraham], and that the apostles taught the mutual duties of masters and slaves without demanding emancipation.[45] Therefore, Thornwell concluded, “If the Church is bound to abide by the authority of the Bible, and that alone, she discharges her whole office in regard to Slavery, when she declares what the Bible teaches, and enforces its laws by her own peculiar sanctions.”[46] While Christians could debate the political expediency of slavery, the moral and religious question was answered unequivocally by scripture that slaveholding was not sinful.

            Another author in the Southern Presbyterian Review attempted to explain how slavery did not interfere with human rights. He argued that “the principle of subjection to government” was rooted in the basic doctrine of “submission to the will of God.”[47] Rejecting an idealized “state of nature,” he argued that the supposed doctrine of universal “natural rights” was also fictitious.[48] Every individual had natural rights, but those rights could vary depending upon their station in life. He pointed out that children had different rights than parents, while the rich had different rights than the poor, and slaves had different rights from masters.[49] Referring back to the American Revolution, he argued that “our fathers contended for their lawful franchises, not on abstract principles as the rights of men, but on legal principles as the rights of Englishmen, and as a patrimony derived from their forefathers.”[50]

            What, then, had created the abolitionist movement? In this author’s opinion, there were three basic causes. One was “humanity excited by exaggerated, and in a great degree, false statements,” another was “political self-interest and jugglery,” which played on those misunderstandings. But the third root cause was “the democratic principle. It is the radical doctrine of 'equal rights'--it is the idea that the slave is unjustly deprived or debarred his natural rights--that he is entitled to liberty and prepared for it.”[51] Only at the end of his essay did he acknowledge that American slavery was complicated by another factor: “a difference of race. . . . Will Christianity, that unquestionably makes masters benevolent, ever satisfy us that it is possible for two such dissimilar races to dwell together on equal terms?”[52] This author seemed to acknowledge that Christian social teaching had no place for a racially-based class system, but he could not bring himself to envision what such a society might look like.

            The practical outworking of this was that the black members of the southern churches were invariably under the oversight of white elders. At the dedication of the Zion Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1850, a building established for the African Presbyterians in the city (and the largest church building in Charleston), Thornwell restated the southern doctrine of slavery.[53] Speaking to a slaveholding audience, Thornwell insisted that slavery “stands in the same general relations to Christianity as poverty, sickness, disease or death.”[54] He went so far as to declare that “slavery is inconsistent with the spirit of the Gospel, as that spirit is to find its full development in a state of glory,” but quickly added that while it was still consistent with “the spirit of the Gospel, as that spirit operates among rebels and sinners, in a degraded world, and under a dispensation of grace.”[55] But while affirming that slavery was indeed compatible with Christianity, Thornwell insisted that the southern practice of slavery was not yet in conformity to God’s standard for slavery. He called for continued efforts to reform slavery, especially promoting the religious instruction of the slaves.[56]

            But as southern Christians attempted to conform slavery to biblical standards, some became convinced that certain religious and social practices might also need to conform to biblical standards. Whereas traditional evangelical piety emphasized personal conversion, the biblical model of covenant placed a heavy emphasis on the household.

            Therefore Thornwell and others argued at the Synod of South Carolina in 1847, that if the biblical model of slavery should be accepted, then all slave children should be baptized. Appealing to the patriarchal model, where Abraham had circumcised all the males of his household–slave as well as free–they argued that it is “the duty and privilege of Christian masters to bring their servants, while in infancy, before God, and dedicate them to him in the rite of baptism.”[57] Rejecting the individualistic model of American evangelicalism, they claimed that “The Church of God was thus established in the family; the covenant was made with the head of that family; and all whom he represented in the family relation, not only his children, but his servants also, obtained a membership in the visible kingdom of God, through the faith of Abraham.”[58] Unwilling to follow this logic entirely, they argued that adult servants could only be baptized upon profession of faith, but claimed that the covenantal promise should extend at least to the children of slaves.[59] The Synod was impressed and passed a resolution endorsing the baptism of all the children of slaves.

            But not everyone was impressed. A North Carolinian replied that while the Synod of South Carolina should be praised for its attention to the religious instruction of the slaves, the vision of household baptism was going too far. Pointing out that many in the deep South wished to bring all slaves for baptism on the ground of the master’s faith, A North Carolinian winced at the thought of “bringing forward a number of grown, and even old, wicked, and perhaps infidel negroes, and that too by 'compulsion,' to the holy ordinance of Baptism.” But even the less extreme arguments of the Synod of South Carolina were too much for him to handle. It was wrong to step in between slave parents and their children, “thus severing the connexion between those parents and their own children, in one of its most sacred and endearing ties, that of religious dedication.” Revealing his commitment to evangelical conversionist religion and common sense moral reasoning, A North Carolinian declared that “No system of slavery, either Jewish, Roman, or American can so obtain as to place the master, by virtue of his authority as master, between parents and their own offspring in matters pertaining to religion and conscience.” The master cannot be substituted for the parent. “The duty which the master owes to the infant servant of his household is mediate, or through its own natural parents.”[60] South Carolina’s embrace of the organic relations of society was too much even for many of their fellow southerners.

            The southwest responded to the new proslavery arguments with mixed voices. When the southern New School Presbyterian, Frederick Ross, published his Slavery Ordained of God insisting that slavery was ordained by God in the same sense as the parental relation, most southwestern Old Schoolers demurred. Kentuckian Lewis Green Barbour (PTS 1851), a teacher in Lexington, pointed out that Ross’s argument was based on an entirely “Paleyan doctrine of expediency” that made right and wrong a matter of “what tends to produce happiness.” Barbour rejected this sort of utilitarianism, insisting that good and evil must be defined in terms of God’s nature.[61]

            The True Witness of New Orleans argued that Ross’s book “breathes the spirit of ultraism against which our Church has stood so firm.” Ross’s position resulted in the perpetuity of slavery by divine fiat. If God had established it, “no government has the right to abolish what God has ordained,” yet both southwestern newspapers, the True Witness and the Presbyterian Herald, concurred that the civil power could abolish slavery if it so desired.[62] Even in the late 1850s the southwest had not yet entirely sided with South Carolina.[63]

            Therefore, when certain southerners began to advocate the revival of the slave trade in 1856, southern Presbyterians met it with a storm of protest. Governor Adams of South Carolina argued that if slavery was in fact a good thing, then there could be no objection to reopening the African slave trade. The entire southern Presbyterian press responded vehemently against this. George D. Armstrong wrote in the Central Presbyterian that while slaveholding was not sinful, man-stealing was contrary to the Word of God and should be soundly rejected.[64] The Southern Presbyterian warned that the political consequences “would do the work of a fire-brand in our midst, and divide our counsels.”[65]

            But the most thorough review of the issue came from John B. Adger in 1858. Adger admitted that some southerners were arguing that “slavery is the best form of society,” and that “therefore it is even impious not to enslave them,” but he emphatically denied that this was the common opinion.[66] Adger believed that the proposal to reopen the African slave trade relinquished the moral high ground that the South had taken simply for the sake of economic gain. The proponents of the trade focused on how the slave trade would provide cheaper labor in order to help the South retain its competitive edge against Europe, but Adger suggested that they had neglected the moral question. The culture of southern slavery had been insulated from fresh African arrivals, and Adger feared that the religious and moral “advances” with the slaves would be lost if new slaves were regularly pouring into the South.[67]


A. The Mission to the Slaves

            And by the late 1850s those advances were significant–even if uneven from region to region. For over twenty years Presbyterian newspapers had been filled with exhortations and anecdotes encouraging the “religious instruction of the colored people.”[68] In 1835, the Rev. Charles Colcock Jones established the Liberty County Association for the Religious Instruction of the Negroes, in his native Georgia.[69] This association was frequently held up as the model for how Christian slaveholders should behave toward their slaves, and it prompted greater efforts among Presbyterians to ensure that their slaves received sufficient religious training.[70]

            At first, opposition was common. When the Liberty County association attempted to build a church for the slaves, one Georgia correspondent told Benjamin Gildersleeve that the opposition was fierce. Gildersleeve replied “Where Religious Instruction is commenced, and opposition springs up, as it may sometimes do, never mind it: that is, do not feel yourself bound to set to work to argue or preach down your opponent. . . . It is certain he is wrong and you are right.”[71]

            I. S. K. Axson urged slaveholders to remember that their slaves were “spiritual beings,” and that the Bible required the master “to be substantially a father to his people, to give a personal attention to their spiritual interests, even as he gives a personal attention to those of his children.” For Axson, a patriarchal view of slavery required masters to treat their slaves “very much after the manner” they treat their children.[72]

            The number of ministers who worked at least part-time with the slave population is impossible to ascertain. It is easier to locate those who were identified as missionaries to the slaves. Old School Presbyterians in the South were a distant third behind the Baptists and Methodists, but they reported regular and steady growth in their slave membership.[73] The challenge for the missionary was to teach the slaves while retaining the confidence of the slaveholders. The solution was to ignore discipline (at least when it came to the masters). C. C. Jones urged missionaries to “Hear no tales respecting their owners, or managers, or drivers; and keep within your breast whatever of a private nature may incidentally come to your knowledge.”[74] At the same time that northern churches were withdrawing discipline from the realm of economic sins, divorcing spiritual concerns from economic matters, southern churches were taking a similar route with respect to the abuses of slavery.[75]

Old School Missionaries to the Slaves

Name                                                      Born                       Seminary                Served                    Years

Charles Colcock Jones                        GA                          ATS/PTS 1830      GA                          1832-1863

Cortlandt Van Rensselaer                   NY                          PTS/UTS 1833      VA                          1833-1835

Lemuel D. Hatch                                   NC                          PTS 1819                AL                          1833-1866

John B. Van Dyck                                NY                          PTS 1829                SC                           1835-1840

William McJimsey                                NY                          PTS 1823                MD                         1837-1841

James Smylie                                         NC                          Private 1810s         MS                          1841-1852

Thomas A. Ogden                               NJ                           PTS 1826                MS                          1841-1865

John K. Doak                                        TN                          PTS 1841                TN                          1844


Samuel P. Helme                   PA                          PTS 1837                LA                          1846-1847

Colin McKinney                                   KY                          LaneTS 1836         MS                          1846

James Knox                                           NC                          PTS 1844                AL                          1849-1859

Robert W. Hadden                               AL                          CTS 1848               SC                           1849

Joseph Brown                                       VA                          PTS 1835                VA                          1850-1856

James Wilson                                       Ireland                    PTS 1850                MS                          1850-1856

Edward Wurts                                      NY                          PTS 1846                LA/MS                   1850-1855

John Winn                                            GA                          Private 1830s         GA                          1851-1857

Francis R. Morton                                VA                          PTS/NATS 1850   MS                          1851-1852

William H. Roane                 AL                          CTS 1852               LA                          1854

William L. McCalla                               KY                          Private 1813           LA                          1857-1859


            While this table is incomplete, it does reflect the growing suspicion toward the north found in the southern newspapers. Of the eight missionaries who began their service prior to 1845, four were northern born, and all but one had attended Princeton Seminary. Princeton only contributed six of the eleven that came after 1845, and of those eleven, only three were not born in a slave state. Not surprisingly, those three all served in Louisiana and Mississippi, the one region that lacked its own seminary and had a stronger connection to the north through the Mississippi River.[76] An 1844 exchange reveals the increasingly sectionalist attitudes in the deep south. The Presbytery of Georgia, under the influence of Charles Colcock Jones, had urged the Board of Domestic Missions to get more involved in missions to the slaves.[77] Harmony Presbytery (in neighboring South Carolina) replied that while the Board might have “honesty of purpose and heart-felt interest in the spiritual welfare of our servants,” the presbytery could not concur with the optimism of their brethren. Because of “the nature of the institution of slavery, and the necessary results of that institution, in its influence upon master and servant,” they declared that “it is inexpedient to employ the agency of any foreign body, as the organ of the Southern church in the religious instruction of our servants.”[78] The patriarchal model of social relations did not comport well with the national vision of the Boards, so most southern Presbyterians preferred to work with other southern churches. Jones’ association in Liberty County, for instance, employed ministers from various denominations to work with the slaves.[79]

            In 1847 southern Presbyterians in Charleston began to argue publicly for the establishment of a separate building for their black members. Like most evangelical churches, Presbyterians had traditionally allowed blacks to sit only in the balconies of their churches, but those were full, and more wished to come who could not find a seat. One author in the Southern Presbyterian Review warned slaveholders that they could only claim the moral high ground if they obeyed the directives of scripture aimed at masters. “Our domestic institutions can be maintained against the world if we but allow Christianity to throw its broad shield over them. But if we so act as to array the Bible against our social economy, then our social economy must fall.”[80] Therefore, he argued, the church must provide for the regular instruction of the slaves. But only a few congregations were ever established for the blacks, and those few were led by white ministers and elders. As Thornwell put it, “Of one thing we are satisfied--their religious teachers should never be taken from among themselves. There is too great a proneness to superstition and extravagance among the most enlightened of them, to entrust them with the cure of souls.”[81]


            B. The Reform of Slavery

            Southern Presbyterians included many reformers such as Charles Colcock Jones who admitted that there were significant problems with the slave codes.[82] Jones was always careful to avoid giving offence to his slaveholding hearers, but he urged them to consider the example of one gentleman “who has educated and instructed a sensible female servant for the purpose of making her the head of his plantation-school for the young; and she daily assembles them, and hears their prayers, instructs them in the catechism , and teaches them to read the Scriptures.” Jones argued that in his extensive experience, plantation-schools “produce the most decided and beneficial changes over the whole plantation. Civilization, intelligence, manners, habits, conversation, are all improved.”[83] Jones was no radical. A practical realist, he hoped to improve conditions in the present.

            Likewise, in his final report in 1848, Jones suggested that if slaves were “allowed to plant and raise something for themselves, and if they find their little interests cared for and protected by their owners, and that there is an evident desire and effort on their owner’s part to make them comfortable, and to supply their wants, it will tend to cultivate honesty and industry among them in large measure.”[84] He suggested that the character of the slaves depended greatly “upon the character of their owners and the interests which they take in restraining vice and encouraging virtue.”[85] By comparing slavery to parenthood, Jones and other southern Presbyterians attempted to encourage slaveholders to consider the extent of their responsibility for the well-being of their slaves. The reform of slavery was a part of a coherent pro-slavery ideology designed to conform slavery to what they considered a more biblical form of patriarchy.

            But southern attitudes did not change quickly. By the 1850s, one southern Presbyterian expressed concern over the tendency of whites to criticize “the spiritual attainments of our slaves.” Revealing his own bias, he asserted that the “average of piety” was higher among whites, but he asked white southerners to consider whether there was “some poor black in my kitchen, on my farm, on my plantation, who is by all odds, a better man than myself. Is he not more faithful to Christ? Taking our relative condition into consideration, does he not stand higher. . . in the judgment of our common Master, and will he not probably occupy a higher position than myself in the world of glory?” A truly patriarchal relation would be to set an example of holiness and humility before the slaves, which would be profitable for both whites and blacks.[86]

            An anonymous 1856 article in the Southern Presbyterian Review defended the institution of slavery as less than ideal, but urged masters to train up their slaves in godliness and righteousness--treating them as they would wish to be treated if the roles were reversed.[87] One author in the Review even suggested that emancipation was desirable,[88] but most focused simply on the need for reform. Such reforms were exemplified by the conference held in 1845 in Charleston, South Carolina, under the leadership of Jones, Thornwell, John Adger, and other prominent Presbyterian pastors and theologians, which produced a movement toward the formation of separate black congregations in which the slaves could worship in their own way. Viewing the slaves as “poor brothers” in Christ, the Presbyterians sought to live up to their duties as Christian masters within the context of the “paternalistic ideal of an ordered and stable society.”[89]

            But the patriarchal model could push some southerners even further towards reform. W. F. argued as early as 1837 that not only should slaves be baptized, but also that they should be treated as members of the master’s household in other respects, such as education–including reading. He argued that

There is not one sentiment in the Bible, strictly religious, with which the servant is not as directly interested as the child–nothing good for the son which is not equally good for the servant–nothing safe for the son to know, which is not also safe for the servant–the servant has the same Heaven or Hell before him which the son has, and is stimulated to seek the one and shun the other by the same means.”


But not all were convinced. Editor Maclean thought that such instruction could be given orally, “and not by instructing them to read; to which there are, in our opinion, insuperable objections.”[90] Indeed, when one author in the Protestant and Herald advocated the education of slaves, at least one Presbyterian slaveholder canceled his subscription.[91] While oral religious instruction was flourishing among southern Presbyterians, southerners remained divided on the question of whether to teach slaves to read.[92]

            In early 1856 an article in the Central Presbyterian argued for the education of slaves as a means of perpetuating slavery. The older belief, arising after the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831, was that education would result in more uprisings, but YRN argued for what he called “the patriarchal view” and claimed that “by bestowing education on our negroes, we shall settle its foundations deeper, and strengthen its prospects for lasting until the millennium, which may God grant!” YRN claimed that the only way to perpetuate slavery was to bring it into full conformity with the biblical teaching on slavery, which required the education of slaves. He argued that “ignorance is at the bottom of nearly all the trouble you have with your negroes as a mass.” Education would produce contentment as slaves came to “know their true interests.” It would also “greatly enhance their individual value as servants.” Especially as the foreign missions movement grew, YRN doubted that the slaves could be “the only people on the globe who can be truly and permanently christianized without education.” He concluded that “a plantation settled with intelligent, pious negroes, who serve from a sense of duty, and enlightened view of interest” would be much better than the “half-taught heathen” who populated most southern plantations.[93] Blithely indifferent to questions of race (not to mention the manner of enslavement in Africa), YRN admitted that American slavery was seriously deficient. But rather than call for its elimination, he wanted to reform slavery in order to perpetuate it.

            X replied the following week by reminding Virginians of Nat Turner, and suggesting that YRN was too optimistic. “Education is not the panacea for all the ills to which flesh is heir.” Only God can change the heart, X argued, so training the mind would guarantee nothing. So long as abolitionists continued to pour their literature into the South, it would be inexpedient to teach slaves to read. X concluded with a providentialism bordering on fatalism: “I believe slavery, yes, African slavery, to be of divine appointment, that when God sees fit to break off their chains that human instrumentality cannot prevent it, that until that time comes he will keep them as he did the Israelites in Egyptian bondage.”[94] Whether intentionally or not, X borrowed a favorite image of the very Nat Turner he condemned, and compared the South to Egypt, and the slaves to the Israelites in bondage.

            Presbyterians were more favorable towards reforming slave marriage laws. Thornwell chaired a committee of the Synod of South Carolina that prepared a petition to the state legislature “to protect the family relations of the slave.”[95] When Basil Manly (a Baptist graduate of Princeton Seminary) led the Charleston Baptist Association in affirming the inviolability of slave marriages, many southern Presbyterians urged their synods and presbyteries to draw up a code on the subject.[96] Even though the church declared unequivocally that such behavior was sinful, it did not deter all masters, many of whom cavalierly appealed to the law of the land, which permitted such separations.[97] Southern Presbyterians may have wished to reform slavery, but unfortunately their wishes did not accomplish much more than the transformation of (some) church-going slaveholders.[98] Freehling correctly recognizes that southerners resolutely refused to accept any reform that would weaken the absolute control of the master over the slave.[99]


            C. The Problem of Race

            Mark Noll has suggested that the underlying issue in the slavery debates was primarily the “cultural hermeneutics.” Few whites (northern or southern) recognized that “the Bible and race was not the same question as the Bible and slavery,”[100] and therefore unconsciously imported commonsense attitudes toward race into their polemics. And indeed, for many Americans, north and south, slavery and African slavery were indistinguishable.[101] But this account does not satisfactorily explain Old School racial attitudes.

            One Presbyterian who seemed to understand the distinction between slavery and African slavery was Nathan L. Rice. When President Shannon of the University of Missouri declared that the Bible, nature and the Constitution all sanctioned slavery, Rice demurred. “May we not hold that the Bible tolerates slavery where it has become interwoven in society, as it tolerates a despotic civil government,. . . without admitting that it sanctions it as a desirable institution?” Indeed, Rice questioned whether Shannon was fit to teach moral science if he could not understand this distinction. After all, since neither the Bible nor nature sanctions “African slavery” as distinguished from white slavery, “unless our President can give us some philosophical principles which fix a limit to this thing, we must protest; for in the course of time we ourselves might be enslaved. If Mr. Shannon were likely to be carried into slavery, we think it probable, his philosophy would undergo some modification.”[102] Rice was often condemned as being pro-slavery, but he clearly saw that there was no moral or religious ground for a racially based slavery, and he earnestly desired the end of slavery.[103]

            Others recognized the connection between race and slavery, but without drawing Rice’s conclusions. In the south, many became convinced that since colonization was a practical impossibility, slavery was the “normal condition” of blacks.[104] Indeed, the editors of the Central Presbyterian suggested that the real problem in America was not slavery, but race:

“If the institution of slavery were destroyed tomorrow the real difficulties of the case would remain with vastly increased aggravation. The race would still be here, and its social and political relations must be adjusted. How would that adjustment be made? Have our Northern brethren solved this problem satisfactorily? Is this race in a desirable and comfortable condition there? Is it not notoriously otherwise?[105]


Citing racial tensions around the world, they argued that there were only four options for the interrelationship of the races: “the subjugation of the weak race to the strong, in some form of servile relations; or the extermination of the weak, either by violence as it has often been, or by slow wasting, as with the Indians, and the South sea races; or their separation, as in the cases of the Hebrews, the Moors, and others; or their amalgamation by intermarriage.” None of these alternatives seemed better than slavery to these white Virginians.[106]

            And southern Presbyterians enjoyed pointing to the problems in northern race relations. Free blacks were as unwelcome in many places in the north as they were in the south.[107] By 1851 Indiana had forbidden free blacks to enter the state.[108] Two years later the state of Illinois passed a law forbidding free blacks from settling in the state, with the penalty of a $50 fine. “In case the offender will not, or can not pay the fine, the Justice of the Peace is authorized to sell him at public auction to any person or persons who will pay said fine and costs, for the shortest time, and he shall furnish said mulatto or negro with comfortable food, clothing, and lodging, during said service.”[109] The New Orleans True Witness gleefully commented on the enforcement of this law six years later:

Last Saturday, a piece of animated property, called George Bowlin, was put up on the block at Carrollton, Greene Co , Illinois, and sold to the highest bidder. His offence was a violation of the law which prohibits the immigration of negroes into the state. Having been tried and found guilty, he was fined $63; and not being able to pay the money, he was sold to Mr. Felix Morton for sixteen months.[110]


With both northerners and southerners unwilling to accept a large free black population, colonization appeared to be the only way to proceed towards emancipation, but as southerners repeatedly argued, colonization was incredibly expensive.

            But while virtually all southern Presbyterians agreed upon the inferiority of Africans to Europeans, a few went further and attempted to justify their racial views from scripture as well.[111] Those who embraced the strict constructionist vision of biblical authority could not accept a merely cultural argument for African slavery. Lewis A. Lowry, pastor at Jackson, Mississippi, wrote a pair of articles on “Manifest Destiny” in the opening issues of the True Witness in 1854, endorsing the view that the blacks were simply reaping the curse of Ham. He argued that Genesis 9:24-27 (the curse of Ham, and the blessing of Shem and Japheth) revealed the future of the four races that dwelt in America: “the Indian–stern wild and untameable as the buffalo upon which he feeds; the Saxon, the Teutonic. . . intelligent, active and persevering in every enterprise that promises an outcome of glory or of profit; the African–dull, stupid, and submissive as the ox or the ass to the burden that is laid upon him; the Spaniard also–indolent, selfish and sensual in the extreme.” Insisting that these racial types could “never be amalgamated” without grievous consequences. Lowry argued that the Spaniard was an example of such “illegitimate origin” because he blended the Goth, the Saracen and the Moor, in which he “inherits the curse” of Ham–albeit in modified form. Therefore Lowry could claim that scripture itself supported the idea that African slavery “is destined to continue until it shall cease to contribute to the enlargement of Japheth”–namely Europeans. To seek the emancipation of African slaves was to fight against the will of God. In a breathtaking exhibition of post facto racial logic, Lowry declared that native Americans were descended from Ham rather than Japheth because the Indians had been dispossessed, which demonstrated that they were experiencing the curse of Ham. The Saxons, he triumphantly concluded, “sustain peculiar relations to the benevolent schemes of Heaven--and in those relations we have a high and important duty to discharge. The same vessel that bears upon the stream of time our political and national interests carries with it also the hopes of the world. It is freighted by Heaven itself with the richest of the sovereign gifts and purchased blessings that were promised to our race.”[112] The editor, Richmond McInnis, a native Mississippian, thought that Lowry’s interpretation was novel, but suggested that there was considerable interest in the subject.[113] More mainstream racial views were expressed by William T. Hamilton in response to Nott’s lectures on biblical and physical history of man, defending the unity of the human race,[114] but Lowry pointed the way toward the future of southern racial theory. Benjamin M. Palmer would later defend the Confederate cause by arguing that each of Noah’s sons had a particular purpose in history: “Shem as the conservator of religious truth; Japhet as the organ of human civilization; and Ham as the drudge, upon whom rested the doom of perpetual servitude.”[115] Stephen R. Haynes demonstrates that the use of the biblical argument from the curse of Ham developed in the 1850s in the southwest and became central to the racial theories of the postbellum era.[116] Thus Lowry’s article may well have been novel to southwestern ears.

            In the end, a significant portion of the southern defense of slavery became bound up explicitly with its racial theory. Forced by its strict constructionist constitutional theory either to defend racial slavery from scripture or to abandon it, many found the arguments of Lowry and Palmer attractive.


3. Slavery and the Breakdown of Ecclesiastical Relations with other Denominations

            Those outside of the United States found such commonsense intuitions anything but obvious. The development of a pro-slavery consensus in the south created tensions between the Old School and other Reformed denominations in the United States and Britain. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century the Old School maintained friendly correspondence with several British churches and even after the termination of the Plan of Union, the General Assembly maintained fraternal relations with several New England Congregationalist associations.[117]

            The British churches, especially the Free Church of Scotland and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, expressed their concerns over slavery in 1845. The Free Church recognized that the Old School was in a difficult position, but urged it to deal with slavery quickly.[118] The Irish Presbyterians took a stronger stance, calling for Presbyterians to remove slaveholders from their church. The 1845 General Assembly approved the reply of the committee on foreign correspondence, chaired by Alexander T. McGill, to both bodies. The Assembly pointed out that the Presbyterian Church in America could not interfere with civil government, and therefore could take no formal action against slavery (although her members certainly could). Insisting that the church should not exclude any from her membership whom Christ and the apostles had included, they sought to encourage both British bodies to continue the correspondence.[119] The following year, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland renewed its insistence upon the abolition of slavery in the United States. The Assembly approved the response by a committee chaired by Robert J. Breckinridge, who pointed out that the Presbyterian church had no more authority over slavery in the United States, than the Irish church had “over the institution of Hereditary Monarchy, or Aristocracy, or a thousand other things, which as republicans, we unanimously condemn, but which you as loyal subjects, cordially approve.” Breckinridge objected to the repeated condemnations of “sister churches in foreign countries,” arguing that the Irish Presbyterians were relying upon a misunderstanding of the true situation in the United States.[120] In 1847 the Presbyterian Church in Ireland replied by urging American Presbyterians to take the lead in removing slavery–suggesting that the Americans’ proximity to slavery might have corrupted their “moral judgments and feelings.” The Old School Assembly of 1848 replied by courteously suggesting that further discussion on the subject would not be edifying.[121]

            Fraternal relations within the United States were also growing weaker. In the 1840s and early 1850s six congregationalist associations regularly sent fraternal delegates to the Old School General Assembly. But as New Englanders became increasingly abolitionist, these relationships began to fray. Immediately after the Old School’s decision on slavery in 1845, Presbyterian delegates to the Congregationalist associations of New England were reporting that some tension existed, but hoped that their annual visits were helping correct New England’s false impressions.[122] Indeed in 1849, the Rev. James M. MacDonald reported that he had barely persuaded the Congregational General Conference of Maine not to suspend relations with the Old School.[123] But for the next several years the Congregationalist representatives to the Old School General Assembly regularly denounced the Old School for its refusal to discipline slaveholders–even when the Assembly met on southern soil–as in Charleston, South Carolina in 1852, or Nashville, Tennessee, in 1855. And each year the Old School sat quietly and listened, the moderator responding merely with polite appreciation for their remarks.

            But not all Old School Presbyterians were content to remain silent. In 1854 Robert J. Breckinridge replied in the Presbyterial Critic with “strictures on the Congregational harangues” on slavery. The Presbyterian church, he argued, “does not believe that slaveholding is, of itself, a sin,” but neither does she believe that it is “good in itself.” The sin was the “forcible reduction of freemen into bondage,” which the Presbyterian church has resolutely opposed. But now that slavery existed, the problem was what to do with it. Until the state could remove it, the church’s job was to preach the gospel to both masters and slaves, urging both of them to live in a godly fashion toward one another. On the other hand, Breckinridge admitted that “if any one, instead of talking nonsense, and being insolent, will show her a sufficient warrant from the Word of God to preach a crusade against slavery, she will certainly preach it, if it were to cost her the martyrdom of half her ministers.” But until then, he begged the congregationalists to look at the peril of the country. “Society is wildly and universally agitated. Many of the Churches are torn in pieces. In the midst of this scene of confusion and danger, the Presbyterian Church, covering the whole nation--thinly--indeed, but yet with a real power--is calm, united and in thorough repose on the fundamental principles which must at last be accepted as the only basis upon which these fierce agitations can be composed, and the country return to peace and reason.”[124]

            New England, however, was becoming increasingly impatient.[125] In 1856 five of these Congregational associations debated whether or not to break their ties to the Old School. The Old School sent fraternal delegates to seek to persuade the New Englanders to remain in fellowship.

            Nathan L. Rice was sent to the Rhode Island Evangelical Consociation. The Rhode Island congregationalists had accused the Old School of a “romanizing spirit” because the Old School appeared to think itself infallible regarding the matter of slavery, and refused to heed the New Englanders rebuke. The previous fall Rice had authored a series of “Letters on Slavery” addressed to the Congregational delegates to the 1855 General Assembly.[126] Rice’s point was that mere denunciation of slavery was ineffective. If they wished to be useful in ending slavery, they should come up with a plan that could persuade the south. “Tell us what we are to do, and you will do us good.”[127] But Rice was convinced that “no church has done so much for emancipation as ours. Not one is doing so much at this hour.” Tired of abolitionist rhetoric that proposed no practical solution, he claimed: “We hear much declamation, but I never yet heard a man who could tell us what to do, in addition to what we are doing, and I have asked many of them to meet the facts fairly, and tell us what we can do and have not done. I suppose I dislike Slavery as much as any man, and I would canonize any man who could tell us how to remove this evil and curse from the world.”[128] Suggesting that the “romanizing” tendency went both ways, Rice suggested that “there is a little pope in every man, and none of us are too well pleased to be told of our faults.” Defending the Old School’s distinction that slavery was evil, yet slaveholding might not be necessarily sinful, he pleaded with the Rhode Island ministers to propose a way to end slavery in a just manner. Rice’s efforts had some effect: the minister who had proposed breaking ties with the Old School changed his mind, but the Rhode Island Evangelical Consociation still voted 17-14 to cut off its twenty-five year relation with the Presbyterian Church.[129]

            Alexander T. McGill of Princeton Seminary was sent to the General Association of Massachusetts. Having spent a year teaching at Columbia Seminary in South Carolina (1852-1853), McGill spoke first-hand of the progress that southern Presbyterians were making in the religious instruction of the slaves. The statement of 1845 (which McGill had helped draft) had brought peace to the church. “Every time the nation trembles with the violence of unprincipled and turbulent men, we look to the rock where a merciful heaven has planted our feet, and then look up to thank Him and take courage. . . . And long as we are allowed to keep that position unmoved, long as there is one broad national church remaining to pour oil on these troubled waters, we humbly believe the Union is safe; and no longer.” The Old School church would seek to imitate the apostles, who did not agitate against slavery, but overthrew it by “promulgating those eternal principles of love to God and love to man, which, if left to their own native tendencies. . . will achieve the overthrow of every despotism, whether petty or grand, on the face of the earth.”[130] Indeed, McGill pointed out that when Congregationalists came and spoke against the evils of slavery every year at the Presbyterian General Assembly, they were safer than if they did the same on the floor of the United States Congress (referring to the caning of Charles Sumner in the Senate in 1856). McGill, with the majority of the Old School, was convinced that the only way to end slavery was to deal with it through the preaching of the gospel. The “gradual emancipation of souls” would prepare both master and slave for “universal emancipation.”[131] Admitting that the preferred abolitionist model of New England would be faster, McGill warned that such a method could only result in war. The Massachusetts ministers were in no mood to listen, and promptly terminated relations with the Old School.

            In New Hampshire, John Krebs spoke to a state Association that had already voted to send a resolution terminating relations with the Old School to the district associations. Krebs sought to dissuade them from this action. Like McGill he pointed out that the Old School was willing to hear their rebukes year after year. Ending correspondence would do nothing to promote the end of slavery.[132] Once again, his pleas were insufficient. The New Hampshire Association terminated fraternal relations with the Old School. The following year the Vermont Association followed suit, so that no Congregationalist body remained in fellowship with the Old School. By 1858 only the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church still sent fraternal delegates to the Old School General Assembly.

            Not all were disappointed by this. The Presbyterian Herald agreed with the New Englanders that it was the occasion for too much controversy, and the discontinuance of fraternal correspondence might result in greater peace between the churches.[133]         At this point Samuel Irenaeus Prime, editor of the New York Observer, chimed in “and in the North, too.” Then feeling the tension of the moment, Prime went on to make reference to how slighted he had felt when some of his remarks had been attributed to Judge Fine–“for though the Judge Fine may be very fine, sir, he is not Prime (Laughter).” Having successfully defused a tense moment, Prime assured the Assembly that the press would correct the mistake. “General Assembly,” Presbyterian 26.22 (May 31, 1856) 85. Indeed, the Old School’s conservative stance was attractive to some Congregationalists and New School Presbyterians. While some might regard “the Old-school brother as one who makes it his principal amusement to hunt negroes with bloodhounds, and coffle them for a southern market,”[134] others had become convinced that the Old School had the only practical solution that could maintain the unity of both church and nation. Old School newspapers regularly reported on New School churches that had grown frustrated with its growing radicalism and so transferred into the Old School.[135]

            While the breaking of fraternal relations may seem of relatively minor import, it signifies the unwillingness of the majority of New England Congregationalists to remain in any sort of fellowship with southern slaveholders. The New School division of 1857, with the formation of the United Synod of the South, suggests that the polarization of the mid 1850s had reached the point that few northerners had any interest in remaining united to a slaveholding South.[136] Methodists and Baptists, with their lower ecclesiology, had reached that point in 1844-1845. The New School/Congregationalist wing of the Reformed tradition took an extra decade to reach that point, leaving only the churches with the most traditional ecclesiologies intact. Old School Presbyterians and Episcopalians were the only national churches that remained–and they were increasingly isolated. If no other denominations were willing to be in fellowship with them, then they would have to try to hold the nation together alone.


4. Van Rensselaer, Armstrong and the Deepening Chasm

            In September of 1857 George D. Armstrong of Virginia began a lengthy debate with Cortlandt Van Rensselaer of New Jersey in the pages of the Central Presbyterian and the Presbyterian Magazine.[137] This correspondence forms one of the most significant public exchanges between conservative and pro-slavery positions in the late 1850s, and reveals the growing dilemma that engaged conservative emancipationists as their southern brethren moved further and further away from the older centrist stance the Old School had tried to establish.[138]

            Van Rensselaer and Armstrong were both northern born and trained, but both had attended Union Seminary in Virginia and had significant experience in the South. Cortlandt Van Rensselaer (1808-1860) was born into a prominent Dutch family in New York. Graduating from Yale in 1827, he spent two years at Princeton Seminary before transferring to Union Seminary in Virginia in 1832, due to his desire to serve as a missionary to Virginia’s slaves. From 1833 to 1836 he preached to slaves in Virginia, and was ordained by West Hanover Presbytery in 1835. After serving churches in New Jersey and Washington, D. C., he became secretary of the Board of Education, a position he filled from 1846 until his death in 1860.

            George D. Armstrong (1813-1899) was born in New Jersey and graduated from the College of New Jersey in 1832. Also a Union Seminary graduate (1837), he spent fourteen years as a professor of physical science at Washington College in Lexington, Virginia (1837-1851), during which time he served as pastor of the Timber Ridge church outside of Lexington. From 1851-1891 he was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Norfolk, Virginia. Never himself a slaveholder, Armstrong noted that “the prejudices of my early life and education have not helped me forward towards the conclusion I have reached. Their influence was all the other way. . . . My political opinions have not helped me. Their influence, too, has been all the other way.” It was simply the “careful and prayerful study of God's word” that had led him to a pro-slavery position.[139]

            In September of 1857 Van Rensselaer reviewed Armstrong’s volume, The Christian Doctrine of Slavery, calling the Virginian, “a sound expositor of the scriptural doctrine of slavery,” with only a few exceptions. Chief among these was Armstrong’s hesitation to commit to the idea of emancipation. Armstrong had merely urged the reformation of the slave codes, but failed, in Van Rensselaer’s opinion, to “sufficiently impress upon the conscience of delinquents the duties growing out of their relation” as masters. Like most northern conservatives, Van Rensselaer was convinced that the reformation of slavery would invariably lead to its extinction.[140]

            In response, Armstrong published “Three Letters on Conservatism” in the Central Presbyterian (reprinted in Van Rensselaer’s Presbyterian Magazine) providing a critique of the conservative stance. Armstrong suggested that a calm discussion between conservatives and pro-slavery advocates was necessary to facilitate better understanding between brethren who disagreed about one of the most “exciting” subjects of the day.

            Armstrong argued that the conservatives failed to take a biblical stance toward slavery. Conservatives were better than the abolitionists, but they blended scriptural ideas with philosophical ones. Van Rensselaer had stated that “slavery is not necessarily and in all circumstances sinful.”[141] Armstrong countered with a stronger statement: “Slave-holding is not a sin in the sight of God, and is not to be accounted an 'offence' by his church (Christian Doctrine of Slavery 8). There is a different tone here. Your statement suggests that slavery is suspect, whereas scripture does not.” While admitting that there were many evils connected with slavery, Armstrong claimed that such evils could not be used to overthrow the institution, any more than the abuses of marriage should result in the abolition of marriage. He concluded that “The Word of God is the standard in Christian ethics. Its deliverances are the result of a better than human wisdom--better, not only as a superior wisdom, but as a wisdom guided and governed by perfect benevolence.”[142]

            In his second letter, Armstrong claimed that conservatives like Van Rensselaer wanted the church to engage in politics. Van Rensselaer had said that “the Christian instruction and elevation of the slaves” was a means to “the recovery of the blessings of personal liberty, when Providence opens the way for it.”[143] Armstrong repudiated this as inappropriate for the church. Further, Armstrong objected that Van Rensselaer seemed to “assume that personal freedom is an absolute good.” Instead, he argued that slavery and emancipation were political matters and that since Christ never commanded emancipation, the church had no right to encourage it. While Christian citizens may believe whatever they want on political matters, they should never confuse their political commitments with what the Word of God commands the church to do. The only goal that the church may pursue with any person is “to labor to secure in them a Christian life on earth and meetness for his heavenly kingdom.”[144]

            In his final letter, Armstrong argued that the whole anti-slavery movement was rooted in “infidel philosophy. . . which substitutes for the Bible account of the origin of civil government in the family, the theory of the 'civil compact,' as it has been called; and confounds human liberty with unbridled license.” Any argument which considered slavery to be an “evil,” he claimed, had already departed from scripture, which considered slavery to be good.[145] Armstrong revealed how southern Presbyterians were moving away from the older conception of multiple strands of authority with Scripture as the final authority, to a flatter approach which made Scripture the only authority.

            Van Rensselaer responded with “Three Conservative Replies” in early 1858. Realizing for the first time that Armstrong was in fact thoroughly pro-slavery, Van Rensselaer hoped that their exchange would show southerners the danger of such radical views.[146] He claimed that scriptural teaching, “as well as the Presbyterian testimony founded upon it,” cut a middle way between pro-slavery and abolitionist doctrines. The fact that scripture enjoins “slaves to obey their masters does not approve of slavery, any more than the command to submit to 'the powers that be' implied approbation of Nero's despotism.” So while agreeing that slaveholding was not necessarily sinful, Van Rensselaer insisted that it is a relation that may be justified by circumstances.”[147] While Armstrong claimed that the relationship of master and slave was of the same sort as the parent-child relation, Van Rensselaer pointed out that this missed the fundamental difference between these two relations in redemptive history:

The marriage relation is divinely constituted; it existed anterior to sin; it is normal in its character and permanent in its duration; and it is honourable in all. Whereas the relation of master and slave cannot be said to be more than providentially permitted or sanctioned; it originated, as you admit, by the wickedness of 'manstealing,' and by a violation of the laws of God; it implies an abnormal condition of things, and is therefore temporary; and it must be acknowledged, that it is in discredit generally throughout Christendom.[148]


Van Rensselaer believed that Armstrong and the pro-slavery authors had flattened scripture and neglected relevant parallels. Polygamy, for instance, was also tolerated in the Old Testament, and despotism was never condemned as sinful. But, Van Rensselaer argued, “the general spirit of the doctrines and precepts of the Bible operate unequivocally and decidedly against the permanence of slavery in the household, or of despotism in the state.”[149] Recalling his own years of service in Virginia as a missionary to the slaves, Van Rensselaer noted that as late as the mid-1840s, he had never heard any overtly pro-slavery sentiment in Virginia. He urged Armstrong to avoid the incursions of “ultraism” into the southern wing of the church. “We at the North are able, with God's blessing, to maintain the scriptural ground against anti-slavery fanaticism; and we ask our brethren at the South to repel the irruptions of pro-slavery fanaticism with equal determination. In order to do this successfully, the South needs a more guarded statement of doctrine than the one you have propounded.”[150]

            While agreeing with Armstrong that the church should not address the question of slavery in its political relation, Van Rensselaer nonetheless insisted that emancipation also had a moral relation, and in this sense the church had full authority “to contemplate emancipation as a righteous and lawful end.”[151] Finding Armstrong’s biblicism too restrictive, Van Rensselaer insisted that “the Church has a right to expound, and to apply, the word of God, in reference to all the relations of life and to all the changing aspects of society. . . . The Church has, in every age, the right to expound the sacred Scriptures according to the light granted by the Holy Spirit, and to apply its interpretation to all cases, judged to be within its spiritual jurisdiction.”[152]

            Further, Van Rensselaer argued that the fact that the apostle Paul encouraged Christian slaves to seek emancipation, if within their reach, demonstrates that slavery is not a desirable relation. He pointed out that Paul had taught “the Corinthian slaves that liberty is a higher and better condition than bondage.”[153] Were southern slaveholders willing to do the same? Therefore, “if emancipation be a good which slaves may lawfully desire, it is a good which all Christians may lawfully desire, and labour, according to their opportunity, to confer upon them.”[154] Noting the disdain for any sort of “natural rights” in Armstrong’s biblicism, Van Rensselaer freely utilized historical as well as biblical arguments to buttress his case for maintaining what he considered the biblical and historic view of the Presbyterian church.[155]

            In his final letter, Van Rensselaer repudiated the charge that the anti-slavery movement was wholly rooted in infidel philosophy. Citing patristic evidence that spoke of churches redeeming slaves, Van Rensselaer argued that the weight of the Christian tradition was against slavery. Indeed, Van Rensselaer suggested that pro-slavery was equally indebted to “infidel philosophy,” noting that the work of Gliddon and Agassiz, “one of whose principal aims is to prove that the negro is not a descendant of Adam,” was gaining “extensive circulation in the Southern States.”[156] If both extremes have been influenced by infidelity, Van Rensselaer suggested, then perhaps southern Presbyterians should return to the center.

            In an attempt to claim that center for himself, Armstrong replied by suggesting that the he and Van Rensselaer were perhaps not so far apart as they seemed. They agreed that domestic slavery and civil despotism were in the same category. “It is expedient or inexpedient, right or wrong, according to the circumstances.” The difference, in Armstrong’s view, was that Van Rensselaer wanted to suggest that slaveholding could be sinful under certain circumstances. Armstrong insisted that his approval of the relation of slaveholding did not “imply a sanction of the incidental evils, attaching to slavery in Paul's day, or as it exists now.” The master must provide “kind treatment,. . . adequate compensation for service,” and may not perpetuate the slave’s “ignorance and debasement.”[157] Indeed, if a person attempted to hold slaves contrary to the law of the land, then he would be guilty of the sin of resisting lawful authority.[158]

            Van Rensselaer was troubled by this statement. If scripture approves of an action (as Armstrong said that it approves of slaveholding), then it cannot be a sin–even if the state forbids it, or vice versa. “If a community, in their political capacity license gambling, or prostitution, the act of granting the license, or using it, is none the less sinful in both parties, because it is done politically.. . . . If the constitution of Virginia should be so altered as to prohibit masters from teaching their slaves to read the Bible, all parties to such a proceeding would be guilty of sin.”[159] Armstrong’s attempt to divide the political from the spiritual resulted in moral anarchy, with the decisions of civil government binding the conscience.

            Again Armstrong tried to close the gap, suggesting that they agreed that the church should not make binding deliverances on the subject of slavery, and that the real difference was whether the question of emancipation was a purely political question. Armstrong argued that it must be considered purely political because slavery does not “immediate concern the interests of the life to come” and “the word of God, when fairly interpreted,” does not address the subject.[160] Rejecting Van Rensselaer’s appeal to 1 Corinthians 7, Armstrong argued that this passage referred merely to particular circumstances in the Corinthian church. Rejecting Van Rensselaer’s appeal to the history of the church, Armstrong argued that the union of Church and State throughout church history had poisoned the purity and spirituality of the church.[161] The church had no business meddling with the political question of slavery. But, Armstrong hastened to add, that did not mean that Christian citizens could sit idly by. Christians should “promote the well-being, temporal and eternal, of the slave race which in God’s providence is among us.”[162]

            Armstrong argued that in his experience, slaves did not have “any intelligent desire for freedom.” Most of those who claimed to want freedom simply wanted “exemption from labour.” Further, he argued that they had no right to freedom until they were capable of exercising it for the common good. “Present emancipation would be a curse, and not a blessing to our slaves,” and without colonization, it could not work “unless the slave race could be greatly elevated above their present position before obtaining their freedom.”[163] But forced colonization, he declared, was cruel, “sundering ties both of kindred and affection,” reviving “under another name, one of the harshest features of slavery, a feature which has now, practically, almost disappeared from the slavery existing in our country.”[164] Voluntary colonization might be effective, but Armstrong suggested starting with free blacks, whom he considered to be in a worse condition than slaves. Once the north had finished improving the condition of their own free blacks, then the south may be willing to listen to northern suggestions regarding slavery. Until then, he argued that the south’s duty was to improve the condition of the slaves–which might someday result in emancipation.[165]

            Van Rensselaer was unwilling to allow Armstrong’s claim that emancipation was entirely a political question. “No slaveholder has the moral right to keep his slaves in bondage, if they are prepared for freedom, and he can wisely set them free.” Certainly the slaveholder may claim fair compensation for the cost of manumission (either from the State or from the slave), but emancipation may be a moral duty. Further, Van Rensselaer argued that slavery had reduced hundreds of thousands of blacks to “hopeless ignorance, denying the privileges of the gospel to many.”[166] While he admitted that slaves often had confused ideas about freedom, he insisted that they still had natural rights which could not be ignored. And if they had been kept in ignorance of how to exercise freedom, who was to blame? Van Rensselaer again suggested that it was an infidel doctrine to regard Africans as fit only for slavery.

            While reluctant to engage on the issue of colonization, Van Rensselaer defended Liberian colonization as the best plan available for the prosperity and self-government of the blacks. A thorough plan of emancipation that provided for the training of a generation of colonists would be of great benefit to Africa, as well as to the colonists–for Van Rensselaer feared that free blacks would continue to languish in America due to the strong prejudice against them.[167] The church’s role is to “enjoin the performance of all the relative duties specified in the Scriptures, and to give general counsel, or testimony, in regard to the termination of the relation itself, as a moral and lawful end.” Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians applied equally to slaves today–and therefore to slaveholders as well. “The Church has simply the right to advise and urge her members to prepare their slaves for freedom, as soon as Providence shall open the way for it.”[168]

            Armstrong provides an excellent example of the new common sense literalism that was emerging in the antebellum era. For Armstrong, if the Bible did not contain a clear statement that emancipation was a duty, then the church could not speak on the subject. Van Rensselaer, on the other hand, maintained a stronger sense of the equity of biblical teaching. For those simply looking for proof-texts, Armstrong appeared to have the stronger exegetical arguments, but as Van Rensselaer pointed out, Armstrong’s literalism resulted in a truncated view of the sufficiency of scripture. Convinced that the Bible contained principles that spoke to all of the moral issues that humanity would ever face, Van Rensselaer engaged in a more nuanced analysis of biblical teaching, also drawing on the historic understanding and practice of the church in coming to the conclusion that the church should encourage emancipation as soon as practicable. Indeed it is no accident that Van Rensselaer championed this sort of nuanced center. It was the same sort of reasoning that resulted in his vision of a pluralistic system of public education. But the older notions of equity were quickly eroding both in the north and in the south, and Van Rensselaer realized that he was a beleaguered minority both in educational and social theory. With the rhetoric of both extremes evaporating into Higher Law and proslavery, few moderates could hold onto the middle ground.[169]

            During the sixteen months of the published debate, most Presbyterian periodicals made passing comments on its significance.[170] But while Van Rensselaer received praise from many northern Presbyterians for his defense of the duty of emancipation, the abolition-minded objected that he did not go far enough. Joseph G. Monfort, editor of the Presbyterian of the West, predictably thought that Van Rensselaer had not sufficiently emphasized the sinfulness of slavery.[171]

            Perhaps the most interesting response came from Edward W. Blyden, principal of Alexander High School in Monrovia, Liberia. Blyden, himself a Liberian colonist from the West Indies, had just been ordained by the West Africa Presbytery. After reading the exchange between Van Rensselaer and Armstrong, he rejoiced “that there exists in our church that degree of candour and enlightened liberality, which will allow of discussions, in a friendly and edifying manner, on that vexed question, between parties representing opposite views in the Church.”[172] Blyden suggested that if more of these sorts of discussions had happened earlier, “the institution of slavery. . . would no doubt have long since disappeared from North America.” But Blyden chastised his white colleagues by claiming that “a delusive sophistry has been prevalent, palliating the evil, and stifling convictions which else had fastened themselves upon reflective minds.” In particular, Blyden focused on the issue of race, and the widespread “notion of the negro's absolute inferiority,” which resulted in only half-hearted efforts to remove slavery.[173]

            Blyden strongly objected to Armstrong’s claim that “the effect of slavery is elevating, not degrading” to Africans, but admitted that most slaves were not yet ready to exercise republican freedom–mainly because they were refused any significant preparation for it. Based on his own experience as a Liberian colonist, Blyden thought that it provided opportunities not available to Africans in the united States, and encouraged a “general exodus to Liberia, or other portions of this continent.”[174] White prejudice in America simply could not be overcome quickly. In a stinging indictment of American racism Blyden argued that those who were trying to change American prejudices “are wasting their physical and intellectual energies in resultless endeavours to achieve a moral impossibility.” Liberia offered African-Americans an opportunity to prove to the Europeans that they possessed “all the political, industrial, intellectual, and moral susceptibilities that Europeans possess.”[175]

            Van Rensselaer frequently published evidence that African-Americans could excel when given sufficient opportunity. In 1857 he published the inaugural address of the Rev. John P. Carter, the first president of Ashmun Institute (later known as Lincoln University–an Old School college for blacks). Carter stated that the object of Ashmun Institute was “to educate coloured young men, with the view to their usefulness among their own people in the United States and in Africa.”[176] Convinced that blacks were capable of the highest intellectual attainments, Carter suggested that medieval Saxon savages would have done worse than the Africans if placed in a similar situation. Encouraging emancipation and colonization, Carter argued that his fledgling institution could train a generation of leaders for Liberia–as well as for those who chose to stay in America.[177]

            In January of 1860 Van Rensselaer reprinted a letter from a Maryland gentleman to Gerard Hallock of the Journal of Commerce, pointing to the talented ex-slave Benjamin Bradley (who had built steam engines for the Naval Academy as a slave on loan from his master). Van Rensselaer also used this to urge northerners to be patient. The South, he believed, was improving in its treatment of the slaves, and emancipation could yet be attained by gradual measures.[178]

            Not surprisingly, this called forth a violent response from the South–in this case by a ruling elder from Georgia:

We, Old School Presbyterians, have agreed to differ on this question of Slavery; and at a time of such excitement as the present, anything apparently sympathizing with the enemies of the South (for we know them only as such) is not closely scanned, but immediately condemned, even by moderate men. Now I know you too well to suspect such sympathy; and really the article in question only announces a conviction or the final emancipation of our slaves, and their capacity to improve such emancipation. And for these opinions, we possibly ought not to complain. But at this time, any expression of opinion against the permanence of our social system is distasteful.[179]


This ruling elder argued that nothing in history suggested that Africans could attain “full mental growth,” except through mingling with whites–which was not only repulsive to him but impossible to sustain, due to the “diseased and short-lived” character of the “mongrel, or hybrid race.”[180] Claiming the superiority of many years of personal experience with slaves, this ruling elder doubted that Africans could ever overcome their natural tendencies toward “lust. . . sloth. . . [and] deceit.”[181] After several pages of utter pessimism, he admitted that if Van Rensselaer proved to be correct, then “we are morally bound to enfranchise a race who are fit to be free,” but he made it clear that he would take no steps to encourage such an outcome.[182] Van Rensselaer replied that the annals of Roman historians made similar claims about “our Saxon, Celtic and Teutonic ancestors.” Present character, he argued, was an insufficient ground to make claims regarding the future.[183]



            With southern Presbyterians departing from the Old School center, northern Presbyterians faced a dilemma of their own. Abandoned by Congregationalists, New School Presbyterians, and now their own southern brethren, the emancipationist vision grew ever more bleak. Common sense moral reasoning could only work if the entire nation shared a common moral compass. Since it assumed that all normally functioning people should come to the same conclusion if they were given the same evidence, the fact that the “other side” failed to come to the “right” conclusion could be taken as proof that they were moral deviants. And given the inviolable rights of conscience, once conscience was enlisted–as it was both in the abolitionist and pro-slavery camps–moderation appeared as nothing less than sniveling cowardice.

[1]“Debate over where to have the 1852 General Assembly” W&O 6.33 (June 5, 1851) 169. “Immediate Secession” W&O 7.5 (September 11, 1852) 17, suggested that there was little fear of immediate rash secession of South Carolina, due to the fact that considerable preparation would be needed.

[2]James Oscar Farmer, Jr., has spoken of a “metaphysical confederacy” preceding the physical Confederacy, The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986). Predictably generational politics also played a role. David T. Bailey reports that from 1815-1829, 65 percent of those holding leading ministerial positions in the southwest were eastern born. Cited in Randy J. Sparks, “‘To Rend the Body of Christ’: Proslavery Ideology and Religious Schism from a Mississippi Perspective,” Religion and the Antebellum Debate over Slavery, edited by John R. McKivigan & Mitchell Snay (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1998) 276.

[3]C. C. Goen, Broken Churches, Broken Nation (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press) 13.

[4]Mitchell Snay, Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997); Kenneth Startup, “‘A Mere Calculation of Profits and Loss’: The Southern Clergy and the Economic Culture of the Antebellum North,” God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 217-235. John R. McKivigan has pointed out while Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun thought that these divisions represented a sectional crisis over slavery, the abolitionists generally believed that the divisions were more pragmatic than principled. He shows that even the northern Baptists and Methodists permitted border states slaveholders to remain within their communions, and that most “northern denominations. . . tempered their criticism of the institution of slavery by absolving slaveholders of any individual guilt.” John R. McKivigan, The War against Proslavery Religion: Abolitionism and the Northern Churches, 1830-1865 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984) 15, and chapter 4. He points out that the radical abolitionists in each denomination withdrew to form “comeouter sects” such as the Wesleyan Methodist Connection, the American Baptist Free Mission Society, the Free Presbyterian Church, the Franckean Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends, and the Progressive Friends, which formed as “a dramatic protest against the churches’ failure to correct their proslavery and racist practices.” (93)

[5]Southern editors noted that more southerners took northern papers, than vice versa. Few outside of the southwest paid much attention to the True Witness. The editor, Richmond McInnis often complained loudly that other Old School editors ignored his paper, and only a dozen northerners even bothered to subscribe to his paper. Cf. “Too Southern” True Witness 3.42 (January 22, 1857). McInnis had bought out the Mississippi Presbyterian after the death of editor H. J. Bardwel in 1853. Bardwel had started the paper in Mississippi in 1853 after the failure of the New Orleans Observer (1837-1840) and the New Orleans Presbyterian, formerly the New Orleans Protestant (1844-1851). Bardwel’s idea was that New Orleans papers did not attract sufficient interest from Presbyterians outside of Louisiana, so he started the paper in Kosciusko, Mississippi in the hope that he could develop a large circulation there, before moving the paper to New Orleans in order to attract the large Presbyterian population there. McInnis followed this strategy rather successfully as the True Witness moved to New Orleans in 1857 and continued to flourish in the southwest until the Federal Army shut it down in 1862.

[6]P, “The New York Observer and Abolitionism” W&O 2.2 (August 27, 1846) 5.

[7]Philanthropos, “The New Testament View of Slavery,” 34.29 (July 18, 1846) 114; the series ran through most of July and August.

[8]Alexander, “The Milk and Water Paper, or the New York Observer and Slavery” W&O 2.47 (July 8, 1847) 186.

[9]A Southern Man with Northern Principles, “Communications” W&O 3.6 (September 23, 1847) 21.

[10]“Synod of Pittsburg” W&O 6.13 (November 7, 1850) 50. “The Synod of Pittsburg and the Richmond Whig” W&O 6.15 (November 21, 1850) 58. As late as 1859, Richmond McInnis of the True Witness in New Orleans agreed. “The Slavery Question and Our Church” True Witness 6.6 (April 30, 1859). “W” wrote of a recent visit to the northwest where he claimed that Old School churches welcomed him warmly. The Old School was still bond of union that could hold the country together. “W” warned, though, that the Old School could not do it alone. Without a significant revival of religion, the Union could not stand. “The haste to get rich has banished religion” from the minds of most–both north and south. W, letter to the editor, CP 2.43 (October 24, 1857) 169.

[11]CP 4.31 (July 30, 1858) 122. Moore and Hoge took over the editorial reins of the Watchman and Observer in 1856, renaming it the Central Presbyterian.

[12]Benjamin Gildersleeve, “The New York Observer and American Slavery--The American Board--the Combination of Heterogeneous Elements Hostile to the South” W&O 9.34 (March 30, 1854) 134.

[13]Editorial, “Pray for Your Country,” CP 1.13 (March 29, 1856) 50. This may be Gildersleeve, or it could be Thomas V. Moore or Moses Hoge who had taken over most of the editorial duties. The 1850 census revealed that four million Americans (out of a total population of 26 million) were communicant members of Protestant churches.

[14]The essay in question was “North and South,” SPR 3.3 (Jan 1850) 337-380. The author claimed that the South has proved the moral, religious and political point on every field for twenty years but that the North refused to listen. Since natural law and justice allowed society to “deprive of all political rights and of liberty, to imprison, or to put to death, those whose citizenship, liberty, or life would endanger the rights, property, or lives of the community.” Likewise females and minors were restricted in their rights. “If the South, then, judges the civil and social equality, and personal liberty of the blacks, incompatible with the well being, rights, property or lives of the community, she has the right to deny them that equality and liberty--in other words to keep them in a state of slavery.” (339) Insisting that “the Christian people of the South are the South” and that “they embrace the greater part of the wealth, influence, and intelligence of the country,” (378) he declared that the North was falling under anti-Christian forces.

             Other southern authors were less sanguine about the state of affairs at the south. One South Carolinian rejected the common claim that the south had a lower crime rate than the north. Besides the crimes committed by slaves, “If there is any one thing which more than almost any other is a curse, and the mother of curses in the Southern and Southwestern States, it is a lax administration of the criminal law–allowing wealthy offenders and those having influential friends to defeat and often to spurn its demands.” B., Southern Presbyterian 7.43 (August 17, 1854) 174. (He hastened to add that South Carolina had not been as guilty as other states, and the editor, John L. Kirkpatrick attempted to soften the blow by reminding his readers of the horrible crimes of the north, suggesting that if they had kept slavery it might have been better for them.


[15]Editorial, “North and South,” Presbyterian 20.11 (March 16, 1850) 42. Washington Baird commented “This flippant condemnation of opinions in which the great mass of Southern Presbyterians are known to be unanimous, looks a little ominous.” Editorial, “North and South,” Southern Presbyterian 3.29 (March 15, 1850) 114.

[16]Charleston, “North and South,” Presbyterian 20.11 (March 16, 1850) 42. As an example of northern attitudes, the New York Independent initially urged fleeing slaves to kill those who tried to apprehend them, and urged bystanders to resist those who sought to enforce the law, but Engles noted that they had retracted that statement. Editorial, “A Charge of Slander,” Presbyterian 21.4 (January 25, 1851) 14.

[17]“Short Notices,” SPR 4.3 (December, 1850) 444.

[18]“Short Notices,” SPR 4.3 (December, 1850) 447.

[19]“Short Notices,” SPR 4.3 (December, 1850) 452.

[20]“Pittsburgh Synod,” Presbyterian 20.44 (November 2, 1850) 174. The Fugitive Slave Law raised serious constitutional questions for many, since it gave federal commissioners “the sole right to judge whether or not an alleged slave was a runaway and authorized him to make his decision based on evidence provided only by the master. The alleged fugitive could not testify on his own behalf and was denied a jury trial.” Laura L. Mitchell, “‘Matters of Justice between Man and Man’: Northern Divines, the Bible, and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850,” Religion and the Antebellum Debate over Slavery, edited by John R. McKivigan & Mitchell Snay (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1998) 134-135.

[21]Editorial, “The Union and Its Enemies,” Southern Presbyterian 4.9 (October 24, 1850) 34; Editorial, “The Higher Law,” Southern Presbyterian 4.15 (December 5, 1850) 58. Occasionally a calmer voice could be heard in South Carolina: one southerner reviewed Moses Stuart’s Conscience and the Constitution, with remarks on the recent speech of the Hon. Daniel Webster, on the subject of slavery. (Boston, 1850), by remarking that southerners could forgive Stuart’s castigation of the south in return for his exposition of the abolitionists and their “perversions of scripture and not a few of their false political positions, and visited them with severe but merited rebuke.” Therefore, “in spite of certain mistakes and errors which we could mention” this reviewer expressed appreciation for dropping a bomb “into the camp of our and our country's worst enemies.” “Short Notices,” SPR  4.2 (October 1850) 304.

[22]“North and South” W&O 6.6 (September 19, 1850) 22.

[23]Moses Stuart, Conscience and the Constitution, with Remarks on the Recent Speech of the Hon. Daniel Webster in the Senate of the United States on the Subject of Slavery (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1850); Charles Hodge, “Civil Government,” BRPR 23.1 (January, 1851) 125-158. John C. Lord and Henry A. Boardman preached sermons that covered the same themes in December of 1850. Lord, “The Higher Law,” in its Application to the Fugitive Slave Bill: A Sermon on the Duties Men Owe to God and to Governments (Buffalo: George H. Derby and Co., 1851); Boardman, The American Union: A Discourse Delivered on Thursday, December 12, 1850, the Day of the Annual Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo and Co., 1851). Both covered the same themes of the crisis over the Fugitive Slave Law and the disunionist radicals in both north and south.

[24]For reactions to Stuart, see Laura L. Mitchell, “‘Matters of Justice between Man and Man’: Northern Divines, the Bible, and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850,” Religion and the Antebellum Debate over Slavery, edited by John R. McKivigan & Mitchell Snay (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1998)139-149. Mitchell provides a helpful perspective on the question by examining how northerners attempted to answer the question, “who is my neighbor?” Most conservatives followed Stuart in using the Constitution to define their symbolic “neighborhood,” while abolitionists insisted that the escaped slave was more analogous to the wounded man in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.

[25]Charles Hodge, “Civil Government,” BRPR 23.1 (January, 1851) 127.

[26]Hodge, “Civil Government,” 133.

[27]Hodge, “Civil Government,” 134. The de facto understanding of civil government would play a large role in Hodge’s opposition to the Spring Resolutions in 1861 (see chapter eleven).

[28]Hodge, “Civil Government,” 149.

[29]Hodge, “Civil Government,” 151.

[30]Hodge, “Civil Government,” 152.

[31]“Princeton Theological Seminary” Presbyter 18.16 (January 6, 1859). Princeton had formerly been the school of choice for Kentucky students.

[32]Lewis, “Princeton Seminary” CP 5.3 (January 21, 1859) 10. This is most likely Lewis Warner Green, former president of Hampden Sydney College, Virginia, (1848-1856), and from 1857-1863, president of Centre College in Kentucky. Green (1806-1863) was a native Kentuckian who had studied at Centre College and Princeton Seminary, and had served both north and south. Before his presidencies, he served as professor at Centre College, Danville, Kentucky (1832-1836), Hanover Theological Seminary, Indiana, 1834-1839, and Western Theological Seminary, Allegheny, Pennsylvania 1840-1847.

[33]CP 5.4 (January 28, 1859).

[34]More Anon, “Our Theological Seminaries in the South,” Southern Presbyterian 8.12 (January 6, 1855) 46.

[35]Mitchell Snay, Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997) 99. Ironically, though, Edward R. Crowther has argued that it was that same evangelicalism that permitted southerners to accept the providence of God in the defeat of the Confederacy and the end of slavery. Crowther, Southern Evangelicals and the Coming of the Civil War (Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2000) 221-222.

[36]And as Mark Noll has pointed out, the southern defense of slavery made no sense, even where their Reformed hermeneutic was appreciated, largely due to the lack of the commonsense literalism in Scotland and Canada. Mark A. Noll, “The Bible and Slavery,” Religion and the Civil War edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout and Charles Reagan Wilson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 52-53.

[37]Quoted in Larry E. Tise, Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840 (Athens, GA, 1988) 329. Due to his standing as professor of theology in Virginia’s Union Theological Seminary from 1832-1841, Baxter’s position was often debated by later Virginians due to his emancipationist statements (e.g., the Armstrong/Van Rensselaer debate discussed below).

[38]For anti-slavery southerners after the 1840s, see David B. Chesebrough, Clergy Dissent in the Old South, 1830-1865 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996); George Troxler, “Eli Caruthers: A Silent Dissenter in the Old South,” JPH45:2 (1967): 95-111; Timothy F. Reilly, “Robert L. Stanton, Abolitionist of the Old South,” JPH 53:1 (1975): 33-49. Stanton was from Connecticut, and graduated from Lane Theological Seminary in 1836. He then went south and was licensed and ordained in Louisiana and Mississippi presbyteries respectively. After two brief pastorates in Mississippi he spent eight years as pastor of the 2nd Presbyterian Church in New Orleans (1843-1851), and three years as president of Oakland College in Mississippi before moving to the north in 1854 and becoming pastor of the most abolitionist church in the Old School in Chillicothe, Ohio. During his southern sojourn he remained cautious about promulgating his abolitionist views, but Reilly demonstrates that he was the author of New Orleans As It Is (1849), an anonymous antislavery book published in Utica, New York, while Stanton was a commissioner at the General Assembly in Pittsburgh.

[39]Larry Tise claims that almost half of the proslavery tracts in the United States were written by ministers. And Eugene Genovese suggests that the same is true of antislavery literature. Larry E. Tise, Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840 (Athens, GA, 1988) xiii; Eugene Genovese, “Religion in the Collapse of the American Union,” Religion and the Civil War edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout and Charles Reagan Wilson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 75. Tise’s definition of proslavery, however, encompasses a large number of antislavery emancipationists, and perhaps would be better titled “antiabolitionism.” A somewhat more nuanced study is John Patrick Daly, When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002)–though Daly makes the same error and considers antiabolitionists like Charles Hodge and Nathan Rice to be proslavery (38, 46).

[40]Eugene D. Genovese, The Slaveholders’ Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820-1860 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992) 36-38. Genovese suggests that while northern conservatives shared the southern critique of infidelity and secularism, and “the mounting assaults on the family and upon the very principle of authority,” southerners scored them for failing “to identify the root of this massive theological, ecclesiastical, social, and political offensive against Christianity and the social order: the system of free labor that breeds egotism and extols personal license at the expense of God-ordained authority.” (37) Southern patriarchal social theory provided a coherent alternative to the free-soil ideology of the north. Drew Gilpin Faust has argued that the expansion of the proslavery argument into a “comprehensive social and moral philosophy” imparted “meaning to the regional way of life” and provided for “an essential role for thought in the South.” A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University, 1977) 131.

[41]Genovese, The Southern Front: History and Politics in the Cultural War (University of Missouri, 1995) 44.

[42]Genovese, The Southern Front, 38-39.

[43]James Henley Thornwell, “Report on Slavery,” SPR 5.3 (January 1852) 380-394. The report was reprinted in the Southern Presbyterian 5.22 (January 29, 1852) 85, and is included in Thornwell’s Collected Writings (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1986/1873) 4:381-397. Page numbers will come from the Collected Writings since it is the most accessible version. CW 4:382.

[44]CW 4:383-384.

[45]CW 4:385.

[46]CW 4:385.

[47]“The Christian Doctrine of Human Rights and Slavery,” SPR 2.4 (March, 1849) 569.

[48]“The Christian Doctrine of Human Rights and Slavery,” 570.

[49]“The Christian Doctrine of Human Rights and Slavery,” 573.

[50]“The Christian Doctrine of Human Rights and Slavery,” 575.

[51]“The Christian Doctrine of Human Rights and Slavery,” 583.

[52]“The Christian Doctrine of Human Rights and Slavery,” 584.

[53]“Slavery and the Religious Instruction of the Coloured Population,” SPR 4.1 (July 1850) 105-141. Reprinted as “The Christian Doctrine of Slavery,” in the Collected Works of James Henley Thornwell (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1986/1873) 4:398-436. The dedication of the building was attended largely by whites.

[54]“Slavery and the Religious Instruction of the Coloured Population,” 127.

[55]“Slavery and the Religious Instruction of the Coloured Population,” 129.

[56]“Slavery and the Religious Instruction of the Coloured Population,” 139-141. Thornwell agreed with Hodge (and through him with Paley) that slavery merely gave the master the right to the slave’s labor (116-120).

[57]“The Baptism of Servants” SPR 1.1. (June, 1847) 68. The report had its origin in the Presbytery of Charleston, and was reprinted as “Baptism of Slaves” W&O 2.12 (November 5, 1847) 45. The patristic citations and style of writing suggests that Thomas Smyth was either the author or a contributor. The SPR article, however, has a somewhat different style.

[58]“The Baptism of Servants,” 73. There are some exegetical howlers, such as the claim that “trained servants” in Genesis 14:14 means that they were trained religiously before they were circumcised. Since circumcision is not introduced until Genesis 17, and the “training” of Genesis 14 is plainly military training, it is obvious that the author is barely even reading the biblical text.

[59]“The Baptism of Servants,” 88. Three years later Washington Baird, editor of the Southern Presbyterian authored a series in defense of slavery, following the patriarchal vision. “How God’s Views and Teachings Differ from those of Men, Number Two,” Southern Presbyterian 3.47 (July 18, 1850) 186.

[60]A North Carolinian, “The Southern Presbyterian Review” W&O 3.21 (January 6, 1848) 81.

[61]LGB, “Review of Slavery Ordained of GodPH 27.28 (January 7, 1858). Though a Princeton graduate, Barbour cited Robert J. Breckinridge’s recently published systematic theology to defend his claims. For more on Ross see Tommy W. Rogers, “Dr. Frederick A. Ross and the Presbyterian Defense of Slavery,” JPH 1967 45(2) 112-124.

[62]An article from the True Witness reprinted in the PH 27.18 (October 29, 1857). John Patrick Daly argues that most antebellum southerners rejected both the “positive good” defense as well as the “necessary evil” compromise. See Daly, When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002) 35ff. Daly suggests that only a “small minority” of proslavery evangelicals went so far as to endorse the perpetuity of slavery, including Ross and Old School ministers George D. Armstrong, John B. Adger and James Sloan (109). The only James Sloan in the Old School was privately trained in Washington Presbytery in western Pennsylvania and served as pastor in that presbytery until his death in 1870.

[63]Ross was widely considered an “ultraist” in the southwest. Engles reported that a distinguished minister in the southwest had written that no one from his region “concurs in Dr. Ross’s views.” Editorial, “Dr. Ross’s Slavery Views and the Old-school,” Presbyterian 27.39 (September 26, 1857) 154. Drury reports that the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans, William A. Scott, wrote in his diary for 1846 that he had told British questioners that he favored gradual emancipation, including the statement: “I believe that a century hence the United States will stretch from sea to sea & the same glorious stars & stripes wave over a hundred free and sovereign states.” Clifford Merrill Drury, William Anderson Scott: “No Ordinary Man” (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1967) 117. Drury reports that Scott emancipated all of his slaves in 1854 when his family moved to California, and paid their way either to the north or to Liberia, depending upon their preference. (121-122)

[64]A. D. G., “The Re-Opening of the African Slave Trade” CP 2.1 (January 3, 1857) 1; PH 29.12 (September 29, 1859); “Revival of Slave Trade” Presbyterian Magazine 9.11 (November, 1859).

[65]“The Revival of the Slave Trade,” Southern Presbyterian 9[10].6 (December 6, 1856).

[66]John B. Adger, “The Revival of the Slave Trade,” SPR 11.1 (April, 1858) 103.

[67]John B. Adger, “The Revival of the Slave Trade,” SPR 11.1 (April, 1858) 100-135. Ed. B. Bryan, the author of the majority report of the South Carolina House Committee, replied to Adger’s essay by arguing that they had no intention of enslaving Africans, but merely to buy those that were already slaves. Adger pointed out that “All must admit that it is not possible to regulate the trade in Africa itself. For us to reopen the slave trade, would be for us to set on fire a large part of that whole continent, and to give up once more to savage warfare whole tribes of that people.” Notice of the Rev. John B. Adger's article on the Slave Trade, by Ed. B. Bryan Esq. (chairman of the majority of the House Committee--and author of the report on the Slave Trade) SPR 11.3 (October 1858) 501.

[68]“Religious Instruction of the Colored People” W&O 1.26 (Feb 12, 1846).

[69]Janet Duitsman Cornelius, Slave Missions and the Black Church in the Antebellum South (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999). Cornelius provides a summary of Jones’ work in chapters 1, 4 and 7. For a treatment of the evangelical mission to the slaves throughout the South see Mathews, Religion in the Old South and Anne C. Loveland, Southern Evangelicals and the Social Order, 1800-1860 (Baton Rouge: Lousiana State University Press, 1980).

[70]“Memorial Of the Presbytery of Georgia to the Presbyteries of the Southern States on the Religious Instruction of the Negroes” Watchman of the South 8.1 (August 22, 1844) 1. This consisted of a letter from the Rev. Charles Colcock Jones encouraging greater activity in ministry to the slaves. “No law forbids their oral instruction. . . . We need more of the humble, self-denying fervent spirit of our Divine Lord.” The southern newspapers echoed this call, encouraging further work. Cf. Protestant and Herald (August 29, 1844). Throughout the 1850s Presbyterian newspapers gave periodic progress reports.

[71]“Correspondence on the Religious Instruction of the Negroes,” CO (December 12, 1840) 171

[72]I. S. K. Axson, “Extract of an Address before the Liberty County (Ga.) Association for the religious instruction of the Negroes–at their Eighth Anniversary,” CO 17.27 (July 8, 1843) 105.

[73]The chart is woefully incomplete, due to the unfinished character of the database. By 1860 there were seventy Old School churches that had a “colored” membership of fifty or more. All but four were in the South, including thirty in South Carolina alone. Of the more than 14,000 “colored” communicants on the roll of the Old School in that year, around 5,000 resided in South Carolina. For a list of ethnic churches in the Old School in 1860, along with those churches that had a significant “colored” communicant membership, see appendix five.

[74]Charles Colcock Jones, Suggestions on the Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the Southern States (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1847) 28. Duke University Special Collections Library.

[75]This is particularly ironic given the traditional Presbyterian emphasis on the three marks of the church: the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of discipline. In order to establish the first two, they had to sacrifice the third.

[76]William Latta McCalla (1788-1859) is perhaps the most interesting of these missionaries. He had served as a chaplain for Andrew Jackson in New Orleans during the War of 1812, and after a four year pastorate in Kentucky served several pastorates in the Philadelphia area from 1823-1854 (with a two year sojourn as a chaplain in Texas from 1839-1841). Then, at the age of 66 he decided to retire to the west. He served as a missionary to the boatmen in St. Louis in 1855, before moving to Louisiana to serve as a missionary to the slaves on the plantation of the wealthy Old School ruling elder Judge Perkins.

[77]From 1850-1853 Jones would serve as the secretary of the Board, as northern Old Schoolers sought to encourage the mission to the slaves by calling its leading advocate to this post.

[78]“Presbytery of Harmony,” CO 18.49 (December 7, 1844) 194. John C. Coit was one of the leading ministers in Harmony Presbytery. See chapter ten.

[79]Eighth Annual Report of the Association for the Religious Instruction of the Negroes in Liberty County, Georgia (Savannah: Thomas Purse, 1843) 12. Duke University Special Collections Library.

[80]“The Religious Instruction of the Black Population,” SPR 1.3 (December, 1847) 108.

[81]James Henley Thornwell, “Report on Slavery,” SPR 5.3 (January 1852) 394; Collected Writings 4:397.

[82]Donald G. Mathews, "Charles Colcock Jones and the Southern Evangelical Crusade to Form a Biracial Community," in Religion and Slavery, 489-510; Eugene D. Genovese has documented various calls for reform in chapter 1 of, A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1998).

[83]Charles Colcock Jones, Suggestions on the Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the Southern States (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1847) 28. Duke University Special Collections Library

[84]Thirteenth Annual Report of the Association for the Religious Instruction of the Negroes in Liberty County, Georgia (Savannah: Edward J. Purse, 1848) 20. Duke University Special Collections Library

[85]Thirteenth Annual Report of the Association for the Religious Instruction of the Negroes in Liberty County, Georgia (Savannah: Edward J. Purse, 1848) 23. Duke University Special Collections Library

[86]“Influence of the Gospel on the Coloured People,” Southern Presbyterian 9.37 (July 12, 1856)

[87]"Slavery," SPR 9 (1856) 345-362

[88]ibid, 361

[89]T. Erskine Clarke, "An Experiment in Paternalism: Presbyterians and Slaves in Charleston, South Carolina," JPH 53:3 (1975): 230.

[90]W. F., “A Master’s Duty to His Servant,” Southern Christian Herald 3.48 (February 24, 1837) 191. If W. F. are his initials, and if he is a minister, then it is most likely William Frierson (1801-1863), a pastor in Cedar Grove, Alabama.

[91]Protestant and Herald 2.24 (March 14, 1844).

[92]One author in the SPR suggested that the literacy laws were counterproductive because they could not stop an unscrupulous or dangerous slave, and forced many of “our best citizens” to disregard the law. “The Christian Doctrine of Human Rights and Slavery,” SPR 2.4 (March, 1849) 582.

[93]YRN, “Can It be True?” CP 1.12 (March 22, 1856) 45. Though his identity is unknown, his reference to actions of the Synod of Virginia suggests that he was probably a minister or elder in Virginia.

[94]X, “Some Questions and Reflections for YRN” CP 1.13 (March 29, 1856) 50.

[95]Thornwell to R. J. Breckinridge, October 20, 1847, quoted in Palmer, Thornwell, 301. Thornwell also endorsed the repeal of anti-literacy laws. William W. Freehling has pointed out that Thornwell insisted that “crimes against Christian marriage and education must be outlawed, even assuming (and Thornwell denied the assumption) that the outlawing would necessarily lead to total abolition.” William W. Freehling, The Reintegration of American History: Slavery and the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) 73.

[96]“Marriages of Slaves,” Southern Presbyterian 9[10].10 (January 3, 1857).

[97]T. Erskine Clarke, "An Experiment in Paternalism: Presbyterians and Slaves in Charleston, South Carolina," JPH 53:3 (1975): 235-236.

[98]The failure to create a truly patriarchal slave system caused Thornwell and some others to briefly wonder whether American slavery could endure. William W. Freehling has suggested that Thornwell feared that “merely potential paternalism” was inadequate. At one point in 1860 Thornwell even hinted that he would prefer emancipation to unbiblical slavery. William W. Freehling, The Reintegration of American History: Slavery and the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) 60.

[99]Freehling, 74

[100]Mark A. Noll, “The Bible and Slavery,” Religion and the Civil War edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout and Charles Reagan Wilson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 61; Eugene Genovese, “Religion in the Collapse of the American Union,” ibid., 77.

[101]For the development of American racial views see Winthrop D. Jordan, The White Man’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974); Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1968); Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[102]“President Shannon's Card” St Louis Presbyterian 12.3 (July 19, 1855).

[103]JAW replied from the south, thanking Rice for his balanced position, and insisting that “most stand with you.” Blaming abolitionism for the laws against teaching slaves to read, JAW complained that fear of “agents of an underground railroad” had made it very difficult to “employ Northern ministers as missionaries among the slaves.”“Letter from JAW” St. Louis Presbyterian (December 27, 1855).

[104]Editorial, “Theories and Facts” CP 5.5 (February 4, 1860) 18.

[105]Editorial, “The True Problem,” CP 4.53 (December 31, 1859) 210.

[106]Editorial, “The True Problem,” CP 4.53 (December 31, 1859) 210. John Stauffer recognizes that the vision of his interracial friends was rare in The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002).

[107]For northern racial views see David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991); Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995/1970) chapter 8.

[108]“Indiana and the Free Blacks,” Southern Presbyterian 5.1 (September 4, 1851) 2. The editor commented that this was good news for the future of the blacks, since they would be better off under the care of whites–in slavery. Northwestern Presbyterians were not particularly interested in having the African race in their churches either. Of the more than 14,000 “colored” communicants on the roll of the Old School in that year, around 5,000 resided in South Carolina. The entire northwest reported 80, and no northwestern church reported more than seven colored members. For a list of ethnic churches in the Old School in 1860, along with those churches that had a significant “colored” communicant membership, see Appendix 5.

[109]The law defined mulatto as one-fourth black. “Negro Law of Illinois from the Journal of CommercePW (May 26, 1853). The law prompted editor Nathan L. Rice to comment: “One extreme begets another. . . . The first blush of this new law would lead us to think that Illinois so detested slavery, as to eschew the very color of it; but how are we stunned on discovering that the law enacts slavery itself!”

[110]“Selling a Negro in Illinois” True Witness (September 17, 1859).

[111]Mark Noll claims that this was common “among the people at large, but was largely passe among intellectual elites.” Mark A. Noll, “The Bible and Slavery,” Religion and the Civil War edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout and Charles Reagan Wilson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 62-63. But there is no need to “imagine counter-factually” that they could have “mounted arguments from the Bible to justify the enslavement of Africans, and only Africans,” because that is exactly what they did. Eugene Genovese rightly points out that such luminaries as James Henley Thornwell, Robert L. Dabney and George Howe (three of the leading southern theologians of the Old School) “rejected it as a rationale for slavery,” but many continued to use it in their sense that they needed some biblical justification for enslaving only blacks. Eugene D. Genovese, A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1998) 4. Genovese points out that with a number of secular theorists, such as George Fitzhugh, James H. Hammond and George Frederick Holmes, these theologians constructed social arguments to justify racial slavery. While not commonly used in Presbyterian discourse prior to the 1850s, a version of the curse of Ham is found in [Robert J. Breckinridge], “Hints on Colonization and Abolition,” BRPR 5.3 (July, 1833) 280-281. Breckinridge suggested that the American Indians were descendants of Shem, and declared that “we think we see in the very state of things which are passing before us, the evidence of the truth of God, in the exact fulfilment of a prophecy, which, from the distance of forty‑two centuries, seem to point steadfastly to us. ‘God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem, and Canaan shall be his servant.’ This is very remarkable; and as far as we know, has been true no where else but here; and true no where, if its statements were reversed. Shem has not ruled Ham in the tents of Japheth; nor Ham either of them in the tents of the other; nor Japheth, been served by Ham in the tents of Shem, any where but in this western hemisphere. God enlarged Japheth, until he hath stretched him over the tents of Shem, and the liberties of Ham; the double plunderer of both his brethren.” (280-281) Since the origins of the American Indians were somewhat mysterious in the nineteenth century, they could be made to fit virtually any scenario.

[112]L. A. Lowry, “Manifest Destiny,” True Witness 1.1 (March 2, 1854). Lowry (????-1855) had been ordained in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1842, but spent a year each at Centre College and Princeton Seminary before being received by the Old School Redstone Presbytery in 1849.

[113]Indeed, three months later Lowry published a second installment, this time considering the manifest destiny of Russia. “Manifest Destiny of Russia,” True Witness 1.15 (June 15, 1854). Since they were also of the line of Japheth, they also belong to the blessed line and must experience great prosperity. Stephen R. Hayes points out that those who adopted this stance were often explicitly indebted to the historicist racial thought of German philosophers Schlegel and Herder, with their conviction that each race had its own distinctive characteristics and purposes. Stephen R. Haynes, “Race, National Destiny, and the Sons of Noah in the Thought of Benjamin M. Palmer,” JPH 78:2 (Summer 2000) 125-143; see also his Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) . David Brion Davis, Slavery and Human Progress (New York, 1984) 21-22, 36, 39, 42-43, 83, 86-87.

[114]William T. Hamilton, “Thoughts on Man, and the Bible,” Southern Presbyterian (July-September, 1850). The series was initially published in the New Orleans Presbyterian, but after it went out of business, he turned to the Southern Presbyterian and engaged further with Nott’s replies. For more on the debate over the unity of the human race, see Edward R. Crowther, Southern Evangelicals and the Coming of the Civil War (Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2000) 97-100.

[115]Quoted in Haynes, “Race, National Destiny. . . ” 131. Haynes points out that Palmer would use similar reasoning to endorse segregation after the war, arguing from Genesis 9-11 for the need for racial purity.

[116]Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[117]One little known fact is that the Old School had better ecclesiastical relations with the Congregationalists than the New School after the division. This is partly due to the regular turf squabbles between the New School and the Congregationalists in New York and the west.

[118]The Old School newspapers explained to their readers the background for this exchange. After the Free Church Disruption of 1843, several American churches sent money to assist the fledgling Free Church. Some of that money came from the slave states, especially from Thomas Smyth’s congregation in Charleston. British abolitionists pressured the Free Church to return the money, but Dr. William Cunningham defended the American churches, urging the Scots to be patient with the Americans who were in a difficult situation. “The Slavery Question,” CO 15.18 (May 3, 1845) 69. For more on the situation, see George Shepperson, ed., “Thomas Chalmers, the Free Church of Scotland, and the South,” Journal of Southern History 1951 17(4) 517-537. Scottish opposition to slavery remained strong. Fifteen years later Dr. Guthrie of the Free Church published a vigorous denunciation of slavery. William Engles commented that Guthrie had failed to recognize that the abolition movement was the true culprit for the failure of emancipation. Further, he pointed out that slavery had been introduced by the British, so it seemed somewhat ironic that they would now condemn America for not eliminating it quicker. In light of Guthrie’s condemnation of southern ministers, Engles wondered what the Scottish ministry was doing for the black race. Finally he expressed astonishment that Guthrie had said, “the next negro insurrection, may it be successful!” Did he really desire the murder of women and children? In the light of the violence in British India and Ireland, Engles wondered whether Guthrie would be consistent in other cases of “oppression.” Editorial, “Dr. Guthrie’s Reply,” Presbyterian 30.12 (March 24, 1860) 46.

[119]Minutes (1845) 44-46.

[120]Minutes (1846) 223-224. The 1847 Assembly received even stronger letters, but the answers were not published in the Minutes, due to a motion that required the clerk to print only those items that he was specifically requested to print. Minutes (1847) 386.

[121]Minutes (1848) 19, 43-45, 174-177. John M. Krebs was the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Correspondence that authored the reply.

[122]Minutes (1846) 225-227; Minutes (1847) 409-411.

[123]Minutes (1849) 394-395.

[124]Reprinted in the W&O 11.12 (Oct 25, 1854)

[125]It is worth noting that the Old School had a growing presence in New England during these years. In 1840 the Old School reported ten congregations and twenty-two ministers in Londonderry Presbytery (mostly in New Hampshire), with six ministerial members serving Congregationalist churches. In 1850 the numbers were about the same (eleven congregations and twenty-eight ministers–nine serving Congregationalist churches in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine). By 1860, Londonderry’s numbers remained the same, but the Old School had added a new Connecticut Presbytery with five churches and nine ministers–only two of which had existed in 1850 (not including another half dozen ministers from other New York presbyteries who labored in Congregational churches in Connecticut). Minutes 1840, 1850, 1860. As conservative New Englanders were attracted to the Old School, the Congregational Associations became more and more radical.

[126]“Letters on Slavery” St. Louis Presbyterian (September 20-November 22, 1855).

[127]“Dr Rice's Speeches Before the Rhode Island Evangelical Consociation (from the New York Observer)” Presbyterian Magazine 6.7 (July, 1856) 313.

[128]“Dr Rice's Speeches Before the Rhode Island Evangelical Consociation (from the New York Observer)” Presbyterian Magazine 6.7 (July, 1856) 311.

[129]“Dr Rice's Speeches Before the Rhode Island Evangelical Consociation (from the New York Observer)” Presbyterian Magazine 6.7 (July, 1856) 313-315.

[130]“Dr McGill's Address before the General Association of Massachusetts (from the New York Observer)” Presbyterian Magazine 6.8 (August, 1856) 453-454.

[131]“Dr McGill's Address before the General Association of Massachusetts (from the New York Observer)” Presbyterian Magazine 6.8 (August, 1856) 455.

[132]“Dr Krebs' Speech before the New Hampshire Association (from the New York Observer)” Presbyterian Magazine 6.10 (October, 1856) 543-544.

[133]PH 26.38 (May 21, 1857). As an example of the tension that could build through these exchanges, in 1856 the Congregational Delegate from Maine expressed the decided opinion that slavery was sinful. The Moderator (Dr. Francis MacFarland of Virginia) replied that “he had never heard man or woman in the South maintain that slavery was not an evil, until the rise of the Abolitionists. But since then he had heard them maintain that slavery was the very perfection of civilization (laughter).” MacFarland was misquoted in the Commercial Advertiser of New York, which reported that he had said, “As to slavery , sir, I never heard remarks upon the evils of the system which I could not subscribe to.” Recognizing that such a statement (even if erroneous) from the Moderator of the General Assembly could create problems (especially in an election year), MacFarland asked the Assembly to verify that he had been misquoted: “Had I uttered such a sentence the Assembly would have taken me out of this chair. . . . If it were believed that any minister had uttered this sentiment, it would destroy his influence in the South.”


[134]Calvin, “A Week in an Exscinded Synod,” Presbyterian 30.36 (September 8, 1860) 145.

[135]For instance, Presbyterian 27.34 (August 22, 1857).

[136]For the New School division see Parker, United Synod; Hugh Davis, “The New York Evangelist, New School Presbyterians and Slavery, 1837-1857,” American Presbyterians 68:1 (Spring 1990) 14-23. Davis suggests that with the defection of many abolitionists to Congregationalism and the Free Presbyterian church, the New School moved more toward the conservative center in the late 1840s. Davis admits that northwestern New Schoolers tended to be more radical, suggesting that the New School experienced some of the same geographical tensions as the Old School.

[137]Of the sixteen Old School periodicals, only Monfort’s Presbyterian of the West was interested in pursuing the slavery question. “The Slavery Agitation” CP 2.9 (February 28, 1857) 34. Van Rensselaer’s letters were republished as Presbyterian Views on Slaveholding: Letters and Rejoinders to George D. Armstrong (Philadelphia: M. J. Milson, 1858). This public correspondence is remarkable for the late 1850s. The Baptist debate between Francis Wayland of Brown University and Richard Fuller took place in the 1840s. See Eugene D. Genovese, A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1998) 8.

[138]This exchange between Van Rensselaer and Armstrong mirrors the argument of David F. Ericson’s “Liberal Consensus Thesis.” Ericson argues that “antislavery and proslavery arguments unsettled the public mind into believing that the nation was a house divided against itself that could no longer stand.. . . . Because the two sides applied liberal ideas to the particular circumstances of their own society with such diverse results, it became more and more difficult to dismiss the conflict between them as peripheral to the future of a nation conceived in liberty.” Ericson, The Debate over Slavery: Antislavery and Proslavery Liberalism in Antebellum America (New York: New York University Press, 2000) 3. While not convinced by his “single-tradition approach,” I would suggest that Van Rensselaer and Armstrong were certainly drawing on the same traditions in reaching diametrically opposed conclusions.

[139]“Dr Armstrong's First Rejoinder” Presbyterian Magazine 8.8 (August, 1858) 358.

[140]Van Rensselaer, “Review of The Christian Doctrine of Slavery (Armstrong), Slavery Ordained of God (Ross), and Slavery and Its Remedy (Samuel Nott)” Presbyterian Magazine 7.9 (September, 1857) 421-422. Armstrong’s volume had previously received notice in the Presbyterian of the West, where editor Joseph G. Monfort called upon other Presbyterian newspapers to reject it. PW 16.44 (July 23, 1857). It also was reviewed in Kentucky’s PH 26.36 (May 7, 1857), where editor William Hill utilized it in an ongoing debate with the Congregationalist on the question of whether the New Testament excluded slaveholders from the church. Hill had proposed a debate between Armstrong and Dr. Dexter (the editor of the Congregationalist), where both papers would publish both sides, but the negotiations failed.

[141]Presbyterian Magazine 7.9 (September, 1857) 422.

[142]Geo. D. Armstrong, “Three Letters on Conservatism,” CP 2.39 (September 26, 1857) 153. Reprinted in the Presbyterian Magazine 8.1 (January, 1858) 8-12.

[143]Presbyterian Magazine 7.9 (September, 1857) 422.

[144]Geo. D. Armstrong, “Three Letters on Conservatism,” CP 2.40 (October 3, 1857) 157. Reprinted in the Presbyterian Magazine 8.2 (February, 1858) 65-70. The last quotation he cited from his own Christian Doctrine of Slavery 131.

[145]Geo. D. Armstrong, “Three Letters on Conservatism,” CP 2.41 (October 10, 1857) 161. Reprinted in the Presbyterian Magazine 8.4 (April, 1858) 151-156.

[146]Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, “Three Conservative Replies, Letter I” Presbyterian Magazine 8.1 (January, 1858) 13.

[147]Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, “Three Conservative Replies, Letter I,” 16.

[148]Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, “Three Conservative Replies, Letter I,” 16.

[149]Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, “Three Conservative Replies, Letter I,” 19.

[150]Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, “Three Conservative Replies, Letter I,” 26.

[151]Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, “Three Conservative Replies, Letter II” Presbyterian Magazine 8.2 (February, 1858) 72. He cited the Rev. John Robinson, The Hand Book of Slavery (Cincinnati: John D Thorpe, 1852) as one of the best books on the subject. Robinson (1814-1888, WTS 1839) was pastor at Ashland, Ohio, from 1844-1884. The publisher, Thorpe, was one of the leading Old School ruling elders in Cincinnati (and for a brief time the editor of the Presbyterian of the West, one of two ruling elders to hold the distinction of editing an Old School newspaper–the other being M. Mclean of the Christian Herald of Cheraw, South Carolina in the late 1830s.

[152]Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, “Three Conservative Replies, Letter II,” 77.

[153]Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, “Three Conservative Replies, Letter II,” 79, citing 1 Corinthians 7:21.

[154]Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, “Three Conservative Replies, Letter II,” 80.

[155]Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, “Three Conservative Replies, Letter II,” 70-85.

[156]Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, “Three Conservative Replies, Letter III” Presbyterian Magazine 8.4 (April, 1858) 157-168, quote from 167.

[157]George D. Armstrong, “Dr Armstrong's First Rejoinder” Presbyterian Magazine 8.8 (August, 1858) 359.

[158]George D. Armstrong, “Dr Armstrong's First Rejoinder,” 359.

[159]“Dr Van Rensselaer's First Rejoinder on the Proper Statement of the Scriptural Doctrine of Slavery” Presbyterian Magazine 8.8 (August, 1858) 364. Both Armstrong and Van Rensselaer appealed to the writings of Charles Hodge on the subject of slavery, but as Van Rensselaer pointed out, Hodge defended and supported both 1818 and 1845, while Armstrong ignored all testimony except 1845, which resulted in a distortion even of that document.

[160]“Dr Armstrong's Second Rejoinder” Presbyterian Magazine 8.11 (November, 1858) 482.

[161]“Dr Armstrong's Second Rejoinder,” 484.

[162]“Dr Armstrong's Second Rejoinder,” 485.

[163]“Dr Armstrong's Second Rejoinder,” 488.

[164]“Dr Armstrong's Second Rejoinder,” 490.

[165]“Dr Armstrong's Second Rejoinder,” 494.

[166]“Dr Van Rensselaer’s Second Rejoinder” Presbyterian Magazine 8.12 (December, 1858) 532.

[167]“Dr Van Rensselaer’s Second Rejoinder,” 540-546.

[168]“Dr Van Rensselaer’s Second Rejoinder,” 554.

[169]This fits well with Ericson’s argument that the debates “increased pressure on the middle in both sections of the country to move toward either a more antislavery or a more proslavery position by portraying, on contextualist grounds, the status quo of a nation half free and half slave as an unsustainable situation.” The rhetoric helped create a truly unsustainable position by eliminating the possibility of remaining moderate. See Ericson, The Debate over Slavery, 161.

[170]The two northwestern editors, David McKinney and Joseph G. Monfort, declared that this sort of discussion was exactly what the church needed, and praised Van Rensselaer for his clear stand. Presbyterian Banner 6.17 (January 16, 1858); PW 17.7 (November 5, 1857). The Central Presbyterian and the Southern Presbyterian predictably sided with Armstrong. CP 4.5 (January 29, 1858) 18. Somewhat surprisingly, few papers copied the whole exchange. The Central Presbyterian had published Armstrong’s letters months before Van Rensselaer replied, and the Presbyterian of the West published a couple of Van Rensselaer’s articles, but many editors (north and south) feared the repercussions of publishing even a calm discussion of slavery for fear of losing subscribers.

[171]PW 17.19 (Jan 28, 1858). Monfort insisted that slavery was always sinful, but that slaveholding might be a necessary evil–but only so long as necessary to eliminate the sinful institution. See the following chapter where Monfort’s views are discussed in greater detail.

[172]Edward W. Blyden, “An African's Views of the African Question. In a letter from Liberia” Presbyterian Magazine 9.12 (December, 1859) 539-540. Blyden, who had been reared in the Dutch Reformed church in the West Indies, had been appointed principal of Alexander High School, his alma mater, in 1858. In 1861 he was appointed professor of Greek and Latin at the College of Liberia. He later served as president of the college 1880-1884. In 1886 he demitted the Presbyterian ministry, voicing a severe critique of the traditional missionary approach in his Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race (1885). Moses N. Moore, Jr. points out that he also feared that his presbytery would not forever tolerate his polygamous lifestyle. Moses N. Moore, Jr., “Edward Wilmot Blyden: From Old School Presbyterian Missionary to ‘Minister of Truth,’” JPH 75:2 (Summer 1997) 103-118.

[173]Blyden, “An African's Views,” 540. In order to demonstrate the falsity of such notions, Blyden gave a quite respectable Hebrew and Latin exegesis of Psalm 68:31 (which speaks of the future salvation of Cush–modern Ethiopia), showing that Africans were capable of the highest intellectual refinement.

[174]Blyden, “An African's Views,” 542.

[175]Blyden, “An African's Views,” 543.

[176]“Address of the Rev. John P. Carter A. M.” Presbyterian Magazine 7.7 (July, 1857) 296.

[177]“Address of the Rev. John P. Carter A. M.” Presbyterian Magazine 7.8 (August, 1857) 342-344.

[178]“Freedom, When Attainable, to be Preferred” Presbyterian Magazine 10.1 (January, 1860) 21.

[179]A ruling elder in Georgia, “Strictures Concerning Ultimate Emancipation” Presbyterian Magazine 10.2 (February, 1860) 64.

[180]“Strictures Concerning Ultimate Emancipation,” 65.

[181]“Strictures Concerning Ultimate Emancipation,” 65.

[182]“Strictures Concerning Ultimate Emancipation,” 66.

[183]Editorial comment, Presbyterian Magazine 10.2 (February, 1860) 66.