Why Did the Reformed Presbyterian Church Oppose Slavery?
American slavery and continuing difficult relations between blacks and other Americans have been a central problem in American life from its beginning. Supporters and opponents of American slavery before the Civil War used legal, economic and scientific arguments to bolster their positions. Most of all they used Scripture. An early ecclesiastical attack on American slavery came from the Reformed Presbyterian (Covenanter) Church, the most theologically conservative descendants of the Scottish Presbyterian Reformation.1 From 1800 onward it would not permit church members to hold slaves. Citing the text “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you,” (Deuteronomy 23:15) members were later active in the Underground Railroad and its preachers were active in Abolition activities.2 The Reformed Presbyterian Testimony, adopted in 1806, stated flatly:
The holding of human beings, of whatever race or color, as slaves, being in every respect opposed to the word of God, and inconsistent with the principles of the gospel of Christ, a gross infringement upon the rights of man, and so a sin against God, should be held and treated by national authorities as a crime. Nor can any constitution of government be just or moral which does not provide against the commission of such a crime within its jurisdiction. Ex 21:16, I Ti 1:9-10, I Co 7:21, Ro 13:4, Is 58:63
How was it that a church so staunchly conservative as the Reformed Presbyterian Church so adamantly opposed American slavery? We are accustomed to thinking of supporters of slavery as conservative and its opponents as liberal, the Old South as conservative, the North as liberal. The Covenanters don’t seem to fit: they were not liberals. On what Scriptural grounds did the Covenanters oppose slavery? The Bible is full of references to slavery, rules concerning the holding of slaves, admonitions to slaves and masters about how to behave, enough so that supporters of American slavery felt confident in appealing to the Bible. How did the Reformed Presbyterians argue from the Bible that American slavery was wrong?
Christendom’s Heritage: Slavery Abolished
The Reformed Presbyterian Church in the new United States of America maintained a stubborn commitment to the ideals of European Christendom. It was devoted especially to Christ’s Kingship over the nations, a doctrine with a two-sided emphasis. On the one hand Christ alone is Head of the Church. Because the Revolution Settlement of 1689 in England acknowledged the king as titular head of the Church of Scotland, the Covenanters stayed outside of the established Church. On the other hand, Christ’s Kingship over the nations means that civil rulers owe obedience to Christ and should frame their laws according to the Scriptures. Because the new Constitution of the United States set up the People as the source of authority, even allowing infidels and atheists to hold office, the Covenanters aimed to stand outside of American civic life. They would not vote or hold office or serve on juries. A Christian nation, they insisted, should have an avowedly Christian government, not a secular one, and it should maintain the legal achievements of Christian civilization.4
One development of Christendom which settlers in the New World early jettisoned was the abolition of slavery among Christians.5 John Calvin, writing long before the first colonists had landed at Jamestown, commented in passing concerning Hagar, “The condition of servitude was then hard; and thanks are to be given to the Lord, that this barbarity has been abolished.”6 English Common Law generally assumed that conversion to Christianity should result in freedom, stating that “Villains become free many ways; some by baptism, as those Saracans [sic] who are taken by Christians or bought, and brought to Christianity by grace.”7 In 1772 English judges in the Somersett case, endorsing the ancient disappearance of slavery from Christendom, ruled that any West Indian slave setting foot in England was automatically free, because England as a Christian country was free soil. New World slavery was a bold innovation in Christendom.8
Alexander McLeod, the Covenanter minister who drafted the Reformed Presbyterian Testimony, published a pamphlet in 1802 entitled Negro Slavery Unjustifiable.9 Alongside his essentially scriptural argument, he refers to the practices of Christendom, especially England. He argues that the prevalence of Christianity ended the slave trade among European nations by the twelfth century. He notes that slaves were freed expressly that their former owners “might procure the favour of the Deity.” He cites a Council held in Westminster in 1102 that forbade parents to sell unwanted children into slavery and also the Council of Armaugh in 1171 which decreed that all English slaves should be immediately emancipated.10 In other words, American slavery, like the secular government set up by the American Constitution, was a departure from the practice of Christendom. Reformed Presbyterians rejected American slavery precisely because they were deeply conservative.11
The Covenanters were not merely conservative, however. They were deeply committed to the authority of God’s Word and knew that they had to make the case from Scripture that American slavery was immoral. We turn now to their scriptural argument as embodied in the writing of Alexander McLeod.
The Bible’s Condemnation of American Slavery
Alexander McLeod wrote his pamphlet after refusing to accept a joint pastoral call to the Reformed Presbyterian Churches of Coldenham and New York City because there were slaveholders among those who signed the call. The Presbytery upheld him, voting unanimously that “no slaveholder should be allowed the communion of the Church.”12 McLeod’s text for his pamphlet was Exodus 21:14.
He that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.
Paul’s comment that the law was made for the “lawless and disobedient, for menstealers,” (I Timothy 1:9) confirms the Mosaic precept. McLeod observes: “He who acknowledges the morality of the eighth precept of the decalogue, will not require another proof...If he who steals my purse, my coat, or my horse, be guilty of an immorality, he cannot be innocent who robs me of my father, my brother, my wife, or my child.”13 Since the receiver of stolen goods is guilty along with the thief if he knows that the goods were stolen, American Negro slavery stands condemned on both sides of the Atlantic. American slavery is contrary to the “natural rights of man.”14
Besides being contrary to the natural rights of man enshrined in the eighth commandment, slavery was contrary to the general tone of Scripture. McLeod cited Acts 17:26 that God had made “of one blood” all nations of the earth, and the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12) as general teachings of Scripture that American slavery contravened.15 He accused the slaveholder of breaking three other of the Ten Commandments: the fifth by teaching slave children that they owe the master, not their parents, unquestioning obedience; the sixth because of all the people killed in Africa by wars inspired by the slave trade, not to mention the murderous passage to the New World; and the tenth, by the slaveholder’s manifest avarice in buying and employing “servants without wages” for the sake of financial gain.16
Next, McLeod condemns Negro slavery because it is contrary to the “benevolent spirit” which the gospel of free grace produces. He recites all that Christ did for sinners to gather men from all nations, including the tribes of Africa.
“Ah! Hard-hearted Christian! is it thus you imitate his example who died for your sins? ... He proclaimed liberty to the captive... You have proclaimed bondage for life to the captive. You have even closed upon him the door of hope in his prison. You have purposed to enslave his offspring. Merciful God! how unmerciful do thy creatures act towards one another?17
Finally, McLeod argues that the pernicious results of slavery, even though they are not necessarily part of the system, should make everyone pause and look at it again. It hardens the hearts of slave owners against the suffering of slaves, their fellow men. It debases slaves by taking away any circumstance which will stimulate them to exercise their own intellectual powers. It encourages licentiousness. It destroys natural affection as the slave owner sells family members, even husbands and wives, to different masters. And it is a practice “calculated to bring down the judgments of God on societies and individuals.”18 McLeod predicts a coming judgment on America for protecting a slave trade and a slavery contrary to its own Declaration of Independence. He anticipates that slave owners will one day, by God’s judging hand, “lose, in a similar manner [to the Egyptians] as much of your property as you have withheld from them of their earnings whom you retain in bondage.”19
In the second section of his pamphlet McLeod answers objections. He denies that Africans are as inferior mentally to whites as was claimed. Even if they were inferior, that fact granted whites no right to enslave them. Life in Africa may have been miserable, but the slave trade was not the way to show friendship.20 He responded summarily to the claim that Negroes were a different race, noting, “This goes upon the footing of discrediting scripture authority.”21 To the assertion of a divine right to enslave Negroes because they were descendants of Ham, he observed that God cursed Canaan, not Ham. Canaan’s boundaries were well known and did not include the territory of the Negroes. Even if they did, the divine curse on Canaan did not validate holding Negroes in slavery. After all, God foretold the bondage of Israel in Egypt, but that did not justify the cruelty of Pharaoh.22
The next objection to his teaching that American Negro slavery was unjustifiable McLeod takes more seriously, namely, that God permitted the ancient Israelites to hold slaves. “This objection requires minute attention.” He grants, “It is, in certain cases, lawful to enslave our fellow creatures.”23 But he continues, “The application of it to justify the practices of modern nations is by no means admissible.” Hebrew slavery, both as regards fellow Jews and as regards aliens, was “essentially different from the Negro slave-trade.” First, slavery between Jews resulted either from theft or insolvency and was limited to six years. But American slavery was based on man-stealing and warfare and was not limited to six years: it was a different system than Hebrew slavery. Second, the law provided that aliens were to be under the same law as the Hebrews. (Leviticus 24:22) At a minimum that meant that if they embraced the God of Israel, they would have the same right to freedom as the Israelite after six years. The Canaanites were a special case. As an alternative to extermination, they could be held as hereditary slaves, as for example the Gibeonites were. There can be no parallel between African slaves and the Canaanites. Finally, to prove the point that Israelite slavery justified American slavery, it would be necessary to find permission for Israel “to fit out their ships...in order to steal, buy, stow away, and chain men of other nations, living, without injury to them, at a distance from their shores.” But such practice is more in keeping with the slave trade of ancient Tyre and Sidon than with the Law of Moses.24
McLeod deals more quickly with the New Testament. Certainly the Roman Empire practiced slavery and the Apostles did not condemn it. They gave slaves directions about how to live as slaves. McLeod answers that the New Testament does condemn the slave trade in I Timothy 1:10. Paul recommends that slaves take freedom if they lawfully can: (I Corinthians 7:21.) Paul tells Philemon that he could order him to free Onesimus (verse 8), but a request will be sufficient (verse 9). Besides, McLeod observes, the objection proves too much. “It would be an unreasonable mode of compiling a system of ethics, to sustain as moral every ancient usage of the Grecians and Romans which are not expressly condemned in the New Testament.”25
To the final objection of a slaveholder that he simply inherited his slaves and cannot afford to free them, McLeod answers that inheriting Negroes does not justify keeping them. Let them work long enough to earn their freedom. Then grant it!
McLeod ends his pamphlet with practical applications. Believers should lament over the sufferings of their brethren held in slavery; slaveholders should make plans to free their slaves; preachers should not neglect preaching the law regarding the slave trade and slavery; and legislators should consider how to end the evil practice of slavery. As regards legislation to deal with slavery, McLeod is reticent.
It may be difficult to point out a safe mode of redressing the evil. Every plan is accompanied with difficulties. To export them to Africa would be cruel. To establish them in a separate colony would be dangerous. To give them their liberty, and incorporate them with the whites, would be more so. The sins of the fathers, it is to be feared, will be visited on their children. But it is more safe to adopt any one of those plans than continue the evil. By a national repenting and forsaking, we may find mercy. Providence can dispose of all things in our favour.26
Slavery as a general category encompasses a huge variety of legal and social relations throughout history. In the Bible, for example, one can find debt slavery, war slavery, inherited slavery, and voluntary slavery; slavery in which the slave has no legal rights and slavery in which he has many; slavery that is temporary and slavery that is permanent. The pressing question in the United States, however, has never been what the Bible teaches about slavery in general. The question before the Civil War, and even today for Americans as we consider our past and deal with contemporary racial issues is, “What does the Bible teach about American slavery?” Long before the Civil War, Reformed Presbyterians answered that both the custom of Christendom and the Bible condemned American Negro slavery as fundamentally wrong and immoral. It was based on manstealing, a sin against the eighth commandment and a capital crime under Mosaic Law. It rested on a racial line of separation that denied the Bible’s teaching that God made all men of “one blood.” And it resulted in saints holding fellow saints in perpetual bondage. It was a system to be denounced, repented of, and turned from. The Reformed Presbyterians and Alexander McLeod were right.
1 The “Covenanters,” nicknamed also the Society People from their organization into societies during the Stuart persecution, and also called the Cameronians, after their most fiery leader, refused to accept the Revolution Settlement of 1689. In the New World they continued the simple a capella Psalm singing in worship from the Westminster Directory for Worship, and they maintained the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms without amendment.
2 N.R. Johnston in Looking Back from the Sunset Land, Oakland, 1898, records his active part as a Reformed Presbyterian minister in Abolition. He was “anxious that Covenanters might be associated with the Abolitionists” to counteract “the infidel influence” and make it clear, especially in New England, “that there was an orthodox church in the United States that had no union with slaveholders.” pp. 261-2.
3 “Of Civil Government,” ch 29:4 of Declaration and Testimony of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America, adopted 1806.
4 W. Melanchthon Glasgow, History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America, Hill & Harvey, Baltimore, 1988. David Carson, A History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America to 1871, Ann Arbor, University Microfilm, 1975.
5 American “biblical” feminists regularly compare the church’s attitude toward women with that of its attitude toward slaves. They argue that the church was blind to the evil of slavery for nineteen centuries, until the Holy Spirit gave it better insight into the Scriptures. In like fashion, so they say, the Holy Spirit is now enlightening the church with regard to women. The works of Presbyterian theologians like Charles Hodge in the North and James Thornwell and Robert Dabney in the South, who attempted Scriptural defenses of slavery, give some support to the feminist position. It should be noted that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1818 unanimously adopted a clear denunciation of American slavery and called for its abolition. (reprinted in The Annals of America,Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1976, vol. 4, pp. 507-09.) The feminists are quite wrong in general about the church’s historic attitude toward slavery: it was recognized from the time of the ancient church to be an undesirable social relationship to be diminished as much as possible, and it was especially abhorrent when Christians held Christians as slaves.
6 John Calvin, Genesis, Banner of Truth Trust, 1975, p. 431. Calvin goes on to note that God’s command to Hagar to return to Sarai shows how strongly God insists that we are to obey lawful rulers.
7 quoted in J. Oliver Buswell III, Slavery, Segregation, and Scripture, Eerdmans, 1964, p. 30.
8 The practice of Christendom allowed for the holding of heathen slaves, but by analogy with the Mosaic rule that Jews could hold fellow Hebrews only for six years and then had to set them free, the practice in Europe was to free converted slaves. The greatest innovation in the New World was the denial of freedom to converted black slaves as well as a slavery based on racial differences. In 1667 Virginia lawmakers provided that “Baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom,” quoted in Sidney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, Yale University Press, 1972, p. 191. Buswell, op. cit., pp 30-35 discusses the dilemma felt by many slaveholders that if they evangelized their slaves they would then be obliged to free them. Maryland, Virginia and New York passed laws similar to the Virginia statute, in part so that their slaveholders would feel free to evangelize their slaves without fear of losing them to freedom.
9 For Alexander McLeod’s life see his entry in the Dictionary of American Biography.
10 Alexander McLeod, Negro Slavery Unjustifiable, New York, 1802, p. 33.
11 There is an interesting parallel with the former Prime Minister of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk. De Klerk does not belong to the dominant Reformed Church, but to a small denomination that never accepted the policy of apartheid as moral. His denomination, like the Reformed Presbyterian Church holds to exclusive Psalmody in its public worship of God.
12 Glasgow, op. cit, p. 609. McLeod then accepted the call. Because of the Church’s refusal of communion to slaveholders, the sizable Covenanter colony in South Carolina soon moved west and north in a migration that took them to Illinois and then eventually to Kansas.
13 op. cit., p.6.
14 McLeod used the Enlightenment language of “natural rights” then current, but the content he gave them was drawn from the Bible. Here he refers to the “natural right” not to have things stolen from you.
15 ibid., p.11.
16 ibid., p. 11-12.
17 ibid., p.12-14
18 ibid., p. 18
19 ibid., p. 20
20 ibid., pp. 21-23
21 ibid., p. 24
22 ibid., pp. 26-28
23 ibid., p. 28
24 ibid., pp.28-32
25 ibid., p. 34
26 ibid., p. 41