Section #9 - Growing opposition to slavery triggers domestic violence and a schism in America’s churches

Chapter 112: The Slavery Issue Causes A Schism Within The Protestant Churches

1607 Forward

The Christian Churches Have Been A Unifying Force In America’s History

Ruined Savannah Church
Savannah Church

The notion of looking to religion and the clergy for moral guidance goes back to the colonial period.

The French visitor DeTocqueville observes this phenomenon in his journals:

America is…the place in the world where the Christian religion has most preserved genuine powers over souls; and the country where (Christianity) exercises its greatest empire is at the same time the most enlightened and most free.

Almost all Americans are active in their churches, either as formal members or as regular attendees at Sunday worship services.  

For many, these gatherings are the centerpiece of their moral, intellectual and social lives.  

Attendance cuts across a vast variety of denominations, the most dominant in the early nineteenth century being the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians.  

Number Of Churches In America 
1790 1860
Methodist Episcopalian 700 20,000
Baptist 900 12,000
Presbyterian 7006,000
Roman Catholic NA2,500
Jewish Synagogues NA77
Mark Knoll, The Civil War As Theological Crisis

The clergymen who oversee these churches are likely trained at one of the nation’s sixty universities, almost all founded and run by the clergy.

American Universities Founded By Churches 
Name YearChurch Affiliation
Harvard 1636 Congregationalist
William &  Mary 1693 Church of England
Yale 1701 Congregationalist
Princeton 1746 Presbyterian
Columbia 1754 Church of England
Penn 1757 Anglican/Methodists
Brown 1764 Baptist
Rutgers 1766 Dutch Reformed
Dartmouth 1769 Congregationalist

Each denomination develops its own doctrines, governing hierarchies, and liturgies – and each is focused on solidifying and expanding its membership rolls. 

Despite doctrinal differences, most church-goers hear a fairly common message from the pulpit. Read “the good book;” live according to the Golden Rule; band together to make America into St. Augustine’s “shining city on a hill,” a beacon of God’s light for the rest of the world to see and to emulate.  

America’s churches and divinity schools and clergymen are there to insure, as De Tocqueville says, that the “soul” of the country remains enlightened and dedicated to “essential goodness.” 

They are also there to preserve the Union. The old world has been torn apart by religious conflicts, but America has always found in its churches a powerful source of national unity.

1825 – 1840

The Second Awakening Begins To Fray Church Bonds

This church unity, however, begins to fray in response to the religious revivals of the 1825-1840  period known as the Second Great Awakening. 

At first the turmoil centers on religious doctrine, mainly within the Presbyterian denomination. It pits the so-called “Old School” minsters such as Charles Hodge and Lyman Beecher, often associated with the Princeton Theological Seminary, against the “revivalist” preachers of the  “New School,” such as Charles Finney and the Unitarians.  

At stake, according to the “Old Schoolers,” is the very essence of Calvinism, which shuns the notion of individual men interpreting the Bible on their own, “reforming their own way” to salvation, or mixing religious and secular affairs.

Doctrinal Debate Among The Presbyterians 
“Old School”“New School” 
Salvation open to: The Elect Everyman 
Based upon: Predestination Free Will
Bible interpretation: Literal Figurative
Final authority: Church Hierarchy Each Individual
Preaching style: From The Pulpit In The Crowd
Symbols: Charles Hodge  Lyman BeecherCharles Finney The Unitarians

As “New School” revival meetings win more converts, it becomes clear that differences here are irreconcilable.  

At their 1837 general assembly, the Old School faction carries a vote to oust the four main New School synods, thus effectively dividing the Presbyterians for good.  

But the effects of the Second Awakening extend far beyond internal debates over Presbyterian doctrine.  

Instead they foster a new generation who believe that every man is capable of achieving eternal salvation by striving for Christ-like “moral perfection” – reforming both themselves and their society as a whole. 

Soon enough these “reformers” band into organized movements. Some promote temperance; others try to strike down abuses directed at child labor, the indigent or the incarcerated; a few seek greater rights for women, especially related to suffrage. 

But one “cause” soon takes center stage – putting an end to slavery in America.  

In large part this results from the work of one man in particular, the Presbyterian New School preacher Charles Grandison Finney – who directly touches the hearts and minds of many of the most important white abolitionists of the time, including Lloyd Garrison, Theodor Dwight Weld,  Arthur, and Lewis Tappan, Gerritt Smith and James Birney. 

Together these and other reformers begin to pressure the Protestant churches to take a stand on slavery. 

1830’s – forward

Laymen Critics Blast Church Silence Over The Slavery Issue

The only on-going church opposition to slavery has come from the Quakers and from black clergymen.

The others have simply chosen to look the other way.  

This evasion is now challenged by white reformers like Lloyd Garrison who call on the churches to play a decisive role in ending slavery. 

Nothing but extensive revivals of pure religion can save our country. Emancipation has to be from Christianity. 

By 1836, however, Garrison concludes that the institutional church has substituted “legal righteousness and ritual observance” for the true meaning of the Gospel. His wrath is particularly directed at the passivity of churchmen like his fellow Bostonian, Old School Pastor Lyman Beecher, who he says…  

Sides only with the rich and powerful, goes with the South, lulls conscience-ness, aligns with traffickers in souls. 

Garrison is not alone in his castigation of the white churches. Another very visible critic is the fiery Stephen Symonds Foster. 

Foster grows up in New Hampshire, in a family which speaks out against slavery. He decides to do missionary work and attends Dartmouth College, where he invites the abolitionist Angelina Grimke to speak to the Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Society. After graduation, he enrolls at Union Theological Seminary, but leaves when the administration tries to silence his dissent. Henceforth he will embrace the label of a “come outer,” after the biblical admonition “come out from among them…and touch not the unclean thing, and I will receive you.” 

In 1839 Foster becomes an itinerant lecturer for the New Hampshire Anti-Slavery Society, and is nearly beaten to death three years later by a mob in Portland, Maine, intent upon silencing his demand for emancipation.  

In his 1843 book, The Brotherhood of Thieves: A True Picture of the American Church and Clergy, Foster skewers the church clergy.  

Taken together they are apologists and supporters of the most atrocious system of oppression beneath which humanity has ever groaned – while Southerners perpetuate slavery for the sole purpose of supplying themselves concubines from among the hapless  victims. 

Foster is also famous for delivering his attacks by standing up during Sunday services and aiming his opinion directly at the minister in the pulpit, a practice which gets him ousted from his own Congregational church.  

Later in life, Foster marries the reformer, Abby Kelley, and together the two crusade on for abolitions and for female equality and suffrage.

1840 forward

The Anti-Slavery Societies Also Call For Church Action

Pressure on the churches also comes from the American Anti-Slavery Societies at both the local and national level. 

By 1836, the Society has grown to over 500 chapters in the three short years since its founding through the combined efforts of Lewis Tappan and Lloyd Garrison and their inner circles. 

Chapter resolutions related to church positions on slavery multiply quickly. 

A New England convention in 1836 asks whether opposition to slavery should become a necessary sign of “the true and real church of God.” A year later this same group adopts a call to “urge the necessity of ex-communication for slave owners.” 

The 1839 national convention passes a proposal to “push the slave question in churches, to abolitionize them if possible, and if not, to secede from them.” 

The Massachusetts Society in 1840 holds that “a man who apologizes for slavery, or neglects to use his influence against it, has no claim to be regarded as Christ’s minister, and churches who do not take a stand against slavery should not be supported.” 

Both the national and local groups continue to call for the hierarchy within all churches to take a formal stand in favor of abolition and to cleanse their ministries of all slave owners.  

The effects of these efforts will soon be felt in America’s two largest churches.

June 1844

The Methodist Episcopal Church Breaks Apart Over Slavery

In the summer of 1844, the Methodist Church breaks apart over a challenge to clergymen owning slaves. 

The church founder, John Wesley, speaks out against slavery way back in 1774. While his followers tend to agree, they conclude that the issue is too divisive to pursue at that time. 

This official passivity continues for six decades, until three New England ministers fire up the internal debate.

One is the Vermonter, Reverend Orange Scott, who is ordained at twenty-two, and rises steadily in the church hierarchy from then on. Scott is dedicated to reinfusing the spirit of John Wesley by founding in 1843 the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion, “a new anti-slavery, anti-intemperance, anti-every-thing wrong, church organization.” His words echo Garrison and Foster in offering a ringing indictment of those who would compromise in the presence of slavery.

…Though public opinion commanded Mr. Wesley to desist through the medium of mobs, still he stood it out! Shame on his compromising sons! The Methodists in all parts of the United States have braved, and, finally, to a considerable extent, changed public opinion. Every man’s hand has been against us, and yet we have stood firm.
But now comes up the new doctrine of compromise! Let it be banished from the breast of every patriot, philanthropist, and Christian…Shall we turn our backs upon the cause of suffering humanity, because public opinion frowns upon us? No! Never!! 
…The principle of slavery—-the principle which justifies holding and treating the human species as property, is morally wrong—-or, in other words, that it is a sin. The principle, aside from all circumstances, is evil, ONLY EVIL, and that CONTINUALLY! …no hand could sanctify it—-no circumstances could change it from bad to good. It was a  reprobate—-too bad to be converted—-not subject to the law of God, neither indeed  could be…Circumstances might palliate, and circumstances might aggravate, but no  circumstances could justify the principle.” “He who has made of one blood, all nations of  men to dwell on the earth’ [Acts 17:26] must look with disapprobation upon such a  system of complicated wrongs, as American slavery…

In 1842, Scott officially withdraws from the Methodist Episcopal Church, to protest what he considers a refusal by the bishops to even allow open discussions of slavery at annual gatherings. He is joined at that time by two other vocal anti-slavery ministers, La Roy Sunderland and Jotham Horton. 

The debate over slavery comes to a head at the quadrennial General Conference of church leaders which convenes in New York City on May 1, 1844. Three weeks into the meeting, regional tensions flare when two Northern elders offer a resolution “affectionately asking” that Bishop James Andrew of Georgia either divest his slaves or resign from the church.  

This places Andrew in the awkward position of defending himself in public. He says that he never bought nor sold a slave on his own. Instead his first slave was inherited, while another four have come his way through two marriages. While Georgia law prohibits manumission, he claims that all have been told to “live wherever they so choose.”  

After making his plea, a vote goes against Andrew – and he volunteers to resign to quell the firestorm. 

The Conference spends the next twelve days trying to find a compromise solution. Some argue that a judicial trial is needed to remove a bishop. Others propose that a final decision be delayed until the next meeting in 1848.

Along the way, however, attendees also learn that Andrew’s case is not unique, that another 1200 or so Methodist clergymen are current slave owners.  

At this point the conflict ratchets up, with Southern bishops digging their heels in to support Andrew, citing the now familiar arguments that slavery is sanctioned in the Bible and is a “positive good” for society.  

This tactic finally pushes the Northern contingent over the edge. On June 8 they offer a “Plan of  Separation” which passes, splitting the church into two wings. 

Henceforth there will be the Wesleyan Methodist Church of the North and the Methodist Episcopal Church – South.  It will be ninety-four years before this breach is finally healed for the Methodists.

May 1845

The Baptist Church Also Divides

Within a year of the Methodist schism, the Baptist Church also suffers a schism over a similar slavery-related issue. 

The Church is founded in 1638 with a strong missionary tradition that sees it expanding rapidly beyond its original home base in Rhode Island. By the 1830’s its membership ranks second in the nation, trailing only the Methodists.  

The sect becomes especially strong across the South and on plantations – where some owners regard slave baptisms as proof of their virtue in bringing salvation to their black charges. 

Because of this membership tilt toward the South, the Baptists are especially inclined to avoid controversy over slavery for as long as possible. But this strategy breaks down, as various  Northern ministers begin to attack the institution.  

One of them is Abel Brown, an intensely religious youth, who becomes a Baptist minister after studying at Hamilton College. His first cause is intemperance, and his approach to stamping out  “demon drink” is to cite the names of known offenders in a public forum. For this he is attacked  

by a mob and run out of town in Auburn, New York. He turns his attention to slavery in 1838, speaking against it from the pulpit, carrying through to action by helping run-aways escape across the Ohio River near his home in Pennsylvania. He characterizes his efforts in military  terms:  

I have been in close action with the enemy. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, was one continued row. A mob drove me from the house on Friday night. Saturday night I could not get to the house unless through showers of stones, and Sunday, the house was found  nailed up.

Brown eventually becomes a leading figure in operating the Underground Railroad, joins the Liberty Party in 1840, and serves as an itinerant lecturer on behalf of abolition before his premature death in 1844 at age thirty-four.  

A second Baptist opponent of slavery is Reverend Elon Galusha, whose father and uncle have both served as Governors of Vermont. Galusha takes up the ministry after studying law, and serves his first sixteen years in Oneida County, New York, the hotbed of early revivalism and abolitionism. In 1839 he becomes the first president of the Baptist Anti-Slavery Society, whose constitution calls for the church to repent for its participation in sin: 

Slavery is utterly at variance with the gospel of Jesus Christ….(It) is a sin in which the churches have largely and criminally participated, we feel it our duty to do all we can to induce repentance and by kind, prudent, prayerful, and persevering measures endeavor to exert a purifying influence upon the churches with which we are associated.  

In 1840 the Society turns up its rhetoric:  

As Christians we can have no fellowship with those who, after being duly enlightened on the subject, still advocate and practice its abominations and thus defile the church of God. 

In response, Southern Baptist ministers fire back. 

Our brethren at the South with great unanimity deprecate the discussion as unwarranted, the measures pursued as fatal to their safety and complain of the language occasionally employed as cruel and slanderous.  

An immediate crisis is delayed by the fact that governance of the Baptist Church is far less centralized than in other denominations. Each local church is free to operate as it chooses, as long as the principle of “baptism of professed believers through total immersion” is maintained.  

The closest thing to a forum on national policy is a triennial “General Convention of the Baptist  Denomination in the United States.” It is formed to seek consensus on which missions – both domestic and foreign – the membership wishes to fund in the next three-year period. 

In 1841 the anti-slavery forces try to force the Triennial body to ban slaveholders from holding missionary positions, but their pleas are brushed aside as too inflammatory. In 1843 a Northern Baptist Missionary Society is formed to continue to agitate for change. 

As the 1844 cycle rolls around, Southern members decide to “test” the will of the Triennial board. They do so in April of that year through a Georgia Convention recommendation to appoint Elder George Reeves to a Home Missions position. The application states that Reeves is a current slave-owner.

The Alabama Convention follows by demanding a Triennial policy making slave-owners eligible for any missions being funded in part or whole by Southern members.  

The Home Missions council is now forced to make a decision – and they choose to ignore the  Reeves nomination on the basis that their policy is to remain neutral on any and all controversies over slavery. 

This deflection hardly satisfies the Southern contingent.  

In May 1845, they gather in Augusta, Georgia, and vote to abandon the Triennial Convention for good. Gentler souls depart in sadness:  

With no sharpness of contention, with no bitterness of spirit, . . . we part asunder and open two lines of service to the heathen and the destitute. 

Others depart in anger:  

We are no longer willing to work in societies where slave holders are called sinners and reviled as thiefs. 

Further efforts to repair the breech, fail, and future governance of the church is split between The  Southern Baptist Convention and the North’s Triennial Convention. 


The Church Schisms Preview The Growing North-South Divide

By 1845 all of the dominant Protestant denominations have divided over slavery.  

While the Methodists and the Baptists are most visibly split along North–South lines, similar tensions also strike the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists.  

Even families and friends diverge.

Beecher Family
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lyman
Beecher, and Henry Beecher

The conservative “Old School” Presbyterian icon, Lyman Beecher, witnesses his son and daughter, swing sharply to the abolitionist cause. The Unitarians are aligned in their opposition to slavery, but not on the remedy. The abolitionists are “too showy, too noisy” for Ellery Channing, and “they would jeopardize peace with the South.” Meanwhile, younger hardliners such as Theodore Parker and Thomas Higginson begin to line up alongside those calling for effective, even violent, action over mere intellectual hand-wringing.

All of the church schisms have been played out in a relatively short time, largely between the 1833 founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society and the national convocations of 1844.

All appear to be over relatively minor policy matters.

It is not as if the Northern churchmen are demanding that the South free its slaves.  

Nor does it signal any wish in the North to invite freed slaves into their midst, to embrace them and make them citizens. The schisms are not about abolition and assimilation. They are not about abandoning the anti-black stereotypes entrenched in American culture since Jamestown. 

Instead they are more about appearances than substance. Perhaps the churches should not seem to be condoning ownership of slaves by its officials. So say the Northerners. 

This is a subtle shift, but still sufficient in the climate of 1844 to blow apart the bonds of goodwill that have held the three major churches together.  

As such, the church break-up presages the eventual collapse of the political Union. Both Henry Clay and John Calhoun sense this outcome.  

Clay says at the time: 

The sundering of the religious ties which have hitherto bound our people together, I consider the greatest source of danger to our country.  

Calhoun’s observation is even more ominous:  

Now nothing will be left to hold the states together except force. 

Twenty years later, Abraham Lincoln wonders how the war has come when…

Both sides read the same Bible and pray to the same God.

If the churches cannot hold, the political center cannot. It is now just a matter of time.