« Prev Chapter XVI. Conflicts of the Church with Public… Next »

CHAPTER XVI.

CONFLICTS OF THE CHURCH WITH PUBLIC WRONGS.

THE transition from establishment to the voluntary system for the support of churches was made not without some difficulty, but with surprisingly little. In the South the established churches were practically dead before the laws establishing them were repealed and the endowments disposed of. In New York the Episcopalian churches were indeed depressed and discouraged by the ceasing of State support and official patronage; and inasmuch as these, with the subsidies of the “S. P. G.,” had been their main reliance, it was inevitable that they should pass through a period of prostration until the appreciation of their large endowments, and the progress of immigration and of conversion from other sects, and especially the awakening of religious earnestness and of sectarian ambition.

In New England the transition to the voluntary system was more gradual. Not till 1818 in Connecticut, and in Massachusetts not till 1834, was the last strand of connection severed between the churches of the standing order and the state, and the churches left solely to their own resources. The exaltation and divine inspiration that had come to these churches with the revivals which from the end of the eighteenth century were never for a long time intermitted, and the example of the dissenting congregations, 262Baptist, Episcopalian, and Methodist, successfully self-supported among them, made it easy for them, notwithstanding the misgivings of many good men, not only to assume the entire burden of their own expenses, but with this to undertake and carry forward great and costly enterprises of charity reaching to the bounds of the country and of the inhabited earth. It is idle to claim that the American system is at no disadvantage in comparison with that which elsewhere prevails almost throughout Christendom; but it may be safely asserted that the danger that has been most emphasized as a warning against the voluntary system has not attended this system in America. The fear that a clergy supported by the free gifts of the people would prove subservient and truckling to the hand by which it is fed has been proved groundless. Of course there have been time-servers in the American ministry, as in every other; but flagrant instances of the abasement of a whole body of clergy before the power that holds the purse and controls promotion are to be sought in the old countries rather than the new. Even selfish motives would operate against this temptation, since it has often been demonstrated that the people will not sustain a ministry which it suspects of the vice of subserviency. The annals of no established church can show such unsparing fidelity of the ministry in rebuking the sins of people and of rulers in the name of the Lord, as that which has been, on the whole, characteristic of the Christian ministers of the United States.

Among the conflicts of the American church with public wrongs strongly intrenched in law or social usage, two are of such magnitude and protracted through so long a period as to demand special consideration—the conflict with drunkenness and the conflict with slavery. Some less conspicuous illustrations of the fidelity of the church 263in the case of public and popular sins may be more briefly referred to.

The death of Alexander Hamilton, in July, 1804, in a duel with Aaron Burr, occasioned a wide and violent outburst of indignation against the murderer, now a fugitive and outcast, for the dastardly malignity of the details of his crime, and for the dignity and generosity as well as the public worth of his victim. This was the sort of explosion of excited public feeling which often loses itself in the air. It was a different matter when the churches and ministers of Christ took up the affair in the light of the law of God, and, dealing not with the circumstances but with the essence of it, pressed it inexorably on the conscience of the people. Some of the most memorable words in American literature were uttered on this occasion, notwithstanding that there were few congregations in which there were not sore consciences to be irritated or political anxieties to be set quaking by them. The names of Eliphalet Nott and John M. Mason were honorably conspicuous in this work. But one unknown young man of thirty, in a corner of Long Island, uttered words in his little country meeting-house that pricked the conscience of the nation. The words of Lyman Beecher on this theme may well be quoted as being a part of history, for the consequences that followed them.

“Dueling is a great national sin. With the exception of a small section of the Union, the whole land is defiled with blood. From the lakes of the North to the plains of Georgia is heard the voice of lamentation and woe—the cries of the widow and fatherless. This work of desolation is performed often by men in office, by the appointed guardians of life and liberty. On the floor of Congress challenges have been threatened, if not given, and thus powder and ball have been introduced as the auxiliaries of 264deliberation and argument. . . . We are murderers—a nation of murderers—while we tolerate and reward the perpetrators of the crime.”

Words such as these resounding from pulpit after pulpit, multiplied and disseminated by means of the press, acted on by representative bodies of churches, becoming embodied in anti-dueling societies, exorcised the foul spirit from the land. The criminal folly of dueling did not, indeed, at once and altogether cease. Instances of it continue to be heard of to this day. But the conscience of the nation was instructed, and a warning was served upon political parties to beware of proposing for national honors men whose hands were defiled with blood.169169   “An impression was made that never ceased. It started a series of efforts that have affected the whole northern mind at least; and in Jackson’s time the matter came up in Congress, and a law was passed disfranchising a duelist. And that was not the last of it; for when Henry Clay was up for the Presidency the Democrats printed an edition of forty thousand of that sermon and scattered them all over the North” (“Autobiography of Lyman Beecher,” vol. i., pp. 553, 154; with foot-note from Dr. L. Bacon: “That sermon has never ceased to be a power in the politics of this country. More than anything else, it made the name of brave old Andrew Jackson distasteful to the moral and religious feeling of the people. It hung like a millstone on the neck of Henry Clay”).

Another instance of the fidelity of the church in resistance to public wrong was its action in the matter of the dealing of the State of Georgia and the national government toward the Georgia Indians. This is no place for the details of the shameful story of perfidy and oppression. It is well told by Helen Hunt Jackson in the melancholy pages of “A Century of Dishonor.” The wrongs inflicted on the Cherokee nation were deepened by every conceivable aggravation.

“In the whole history of our government’s dealings with the Indian tribes there is no record so black as the record of its perfidy to this nation. There will come a 265time in the remote future when to the student of American history it will seem well-nigh incredible. From the beginning of the century they had been steadily advancing in civilization. As far back as 1800 they had begun the manufacture of cotton cloth, and in 1820 there was scarcely a family in that part of the nation living east of the Mississippi but what understood the use of the card and spinning-wheel. Every family had its farm under cultivation. The territory was laid off into districts, with a council-house, a judge, and a marshal in each district. A national committee and council were the supreme authority in the nation. Schools were flourishing in all the villages. Printing-presses were at work. . . . They were enthusiastic in their efforts to establish and perfect their own system of jurisprudence. Missions of several sects were established in their country, and a large number of them had professed Christianity and were leading exemplary lives. There is no instance in all history of a race of people passing in so short a space of time from the barbarous stage to the agricultural and civilized.”170170   “A Century of Dishonor,” pp. 270, 271.

We do well to give authentic details of the condition of the Cherokee nation in the early part of the century, for the advanced happy and peaceful civilization of this people was one of the fairest fruits of American Christianity working upon exceptionally noble race-qualities in the recipients of it. An agent of the War Department in 1825 made official report to the Department on the rare beauty of the Cherokee country, secured to them by the most sacred pledges with which it was possible for the national government to bind itself, and covered by the inhabitants, through their industry and thrift, with flocks and herds, with farms and villages; and goes on to speak of the Indians themselves:

266

“The natives carry on considerable trade with the adjoining States; some of them export cotton in boats down the Tennessee to the Mississippi, and down that river to New Orleans. Apple and peach orchards are quite common, and gardens are cultivated and much attention paid to them. Butter and cheese are seen on Cherokee tables. There are many public roads in the nation, and houses of entertainment kept by natives. Numerous and flourishing villages are seen in every section of the country. Cotton and woolen cloths are manufactured; blankets of various dimensions, manufactured by Cherokee hands, are very common. Almost every family in the nation grows cotton for its own consumption. Industry and commercial enterprise are extending themselves in every part. Nearly all the merchants in the nation are native Cherokees. Agricultural pursuits engage the chief attention of the people. Different branches in mechanics are pursued. The population is rapidly increasing. . . . The Christian religion is the religion of the nation. Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and Moravians are the most numerous sects. Some of the most influential characters are members of the church and live consistently with their professions. The whole nation is penetrated with gratitude for the aid it has received from the United States government and from different religious societies. Schools are increasing every year; learning is encouraged and rewarded; the young class acquire the English and those of mature age the Cherokee system of learning.”171171   “A Century of Dishonor,” pp. 275, 276.

This country, enriched by the toil and thrift of its owners, the State of Georgia resolved not merely to subjugate to its jurisdiction, but to steal from its rightful and lawful owners, driving them away as outlaws. As a sure expedient for securing popular consent to the intended infamy, the farms of the Cherokees were parceled out to be drawn 267for in a lottery, and the lottery tickets distributed among the white voters. Thus fortified, the brave State of Georgia went to all lengths of outrage. “Missionaries were arrested and sent to prison for preaching to Cherokees; Cherokees were sentenced to death by Georgia courts and hung by Georgia executioners.” But the great crime could not be achieved without the connivance, and at last the active consent, of the national government. Should this consent be given? Never in American history has the issue been more squarely drawn between the kingdom of Satan and the kingdom of Christ. American Christianity was most conspicuously represented in this conflict by an eminent layman, Jeremiah Evarts, whose fame for this public service, and not for this alone, will in the lapse of time outshine even that of his illustrious son. In a series of articles in the “National Intelligencer,” under the signature of “William Penn,” he cited the sixteen treaties in which the nation had pledged its faith to defend the Cherokees in the possession of their lands, and set the whole case before the people as well as the government. But his voice was not solitary. From press and pulpit and from the platforms of public meetings all over the country came petitions, remonstrances, and indignant protests, reinforcing the pathetic entreaties of the Cherokees themselves to be protected from the cruelty that threatened to tear them from their homes. In Congress the honor of leadership among many faithful and able advocates of right and justice was conceded to Theodore Frelinghuysen, then in the prime of a great career of Christian service. By the majority of one vote the bill for the removal of the Cherokees passed the United States Senate. The gates of hell triumphed for a time with a fatal exultation. The authors and abettors of the great crime were confirmed in their delusion that threats of disunion and rebellion could be relied 268on to carry any desired point. But the mills of God went on grinding. Thirty years later, when in the battle of Missionary Ridge the chivalry of Georgia went down before the army that represented justice and freedom and the authority of national law, the vanquished and retreating soldiers of a lost cause could not be accused of superstition if they remembered that the scene of their humiliating defeat had received its name from the martyrdom of Christian missionaries at the hands of their fathers.

In earlier pages we have already traced the succession of bold protests and organized labors on the part of church and clergy against the institution of slavery.172172   See above, pp. 203-205, 222. If protest and argument against it seem to be less frequent in the early years of the new century, it is only because debate must needs languish when there is no antagonist. Slavery had at that time no defenders in the church. No body of men in 1818 more unmistakably represented the Christian citizenship of the whole country, North, South, and West, outside of New England, than the General Assembly of the then undivided Presbyterian Church. In that year the Assembly set forth a full and unanimous expression of its sentiments on the subject of slavery, addressed “to the churches and people under its care.” This monumental document is too long to be cited here in full. The opening paragraphs of it exhibit the universally accepted sentiment of American Christians of that time:

“We consider the voluntary enslaving of one part of the human race by another as a gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature; as utterly inconsistent with the law of God, which requires us to love our neighbor as ourselves; and as totally irreconcilable 269with the spirit and principles of the gospel of Christ, which enjoin that ‘all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.’ Slavery creates a paradox in the moral system. It exhibits rational, accountable, and immortal beings in such circumstances as scarcely to leave them the power of moral action. It exhibits them as dependent on the will of others whether they shall receive religious instruction; whether they shall know and worship the true God; whether they shall enjoy the ordinances of the gospel; whether they shall perform the duties and cherish the endearments of husbands and wives, parents and children, neighbors and friends; whether they shall preserve their chastity and purity or regard the dictates of justice and humanity. Such are some of the consequences of slavery—consequences not imaginary, but which connect themselves with its very existence. The evils to which the slave is always exposed often take place in fact, and in their worst degree and form; and where all of them do not take place, as we rejoice to say that in many instances, through the influence of the principles of humanity and religion on the minds of masters, they do not, still the slave is deprived of his natural right, degraded as a human being, and exposed to the danger of passing into the hands of a master who may inflict upon him all the hardships and injuries which inhumanity and avarice may suggest.

“From this view of the consequences resulting from the practice into which Christian people have most inconsistently fallen of enslaving a portion of their brethren of mankind,—for ‘God hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on the face of the earth,’—it is manifestly the duty of all Christians who enjoy the light of the present day, when the inconsistency of slavery both with the dictates of humanity and religion has been demonstrated and is generally seen and acknowledged, to use their honest, earnest, and unwearied endeavors to correct the errors of former times, and as speedily as possible to efface this blot on our holy religion and to obtain the complete abolition 270of slavery throughout Christendom, and if possible throughout the world.”

It was not strange that while sentiments like these prevailed without contradiction in all parts of the country, while in State after State emancipations were taking place and acts of abolition were passing, and even in the States most deeply involved in slavery “a great, and the most virtuous, part of the community abhorred slavery and wished its extermination,”173173   Deliverance of General Assembly, 1818. there should seem to be little call for debate. But that the antislavery spirit in the churches was not dead was demonstrated with the first occasion.

In the spring of 1820, at the close of two years of agitating discussion, the new State of Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave State, although with the stipulation that the remaining territory of the United States north of the parallel of latitude bounding Missouri on the south should be consecrated forever to freedom. The opposition to this extension of slavery was taken up by American Christianity as its own cause. It was the impending danger of such an extension that prompted that powerful and unanimous declaration of the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1818. The arguments against the Missouri bill, whether in the debates of Congress or in countless memorials and resolutions from public meetings both secular and religious, were arguments from justice and duty and the law of Christ. These were met by constitutional objections and considerations of expediency and convenience, and by threats of disunion and civil war. The defense of slavery on principle had not yet begun to be heard, even among politicians.

The successful extension of slavery beyond the Mississippi 271River was disheartening to the friends of justice and humanity, but only for the moment. Already, before the two years’ conflict had been decided by “the Missouri Compromise,” a powerful series of articles by that great religious leader, Jeremiah Evarts, in the “Panoplist” (Boston, 1820), rallied the forces of the church to renew the battle. The decade that opened with that defeat is distinguished as a period of sustained antislavery activity on the part of the united Christian citizenship of the nation in all quarters.174174   The persistent attempt to represent this period as one of prevailing apathy and inertia on the subject of slavery is a very flagrant falsification of history. And yet by dint of sturdy reiteration it has been forced into such currency as to impose itself even on so careful a writer as Mr. Schouler, in his “History of the United States.” It is impossible to read this part of American church history intelligently, unless the mind is disabused of this misrepresentation. In New England the focus of antislavery effort was perhaps the theological seminary at Andover. There the leading question among the students in their “Society of Inquiry concerning Missions” was the question, what could be done, and especially what they could do, for the uplifting of the colored population of the country, both the enslaved and the free. Measures were concerted there for the founding of “an African college where youth were to be educated on a scale so liberal as to place them on a level with other men”;175175   “Christian Spectator” (monthly), New Haven, 1828, p. 4. and the plan was not forgotten or neglected by these young men when from year to year they came into places of effective influence. With eminent fitness the Fourth of July was taken as an antislavery holiday, and into various towns within reach from Andover their most effective speakers went forth to give antislavery addresses on that day. Beginning with the Fourth of July, 1823, the annual antislavery address at Park Street Church, Boston, before several united churches of that city, continued for the rest 272of that decade at least to be an occasion for earnest appeal and practical effort in behalf of the oppressed. Neither was the work of the young men circumscribed by narrow local boundaries. The report of their committee, in the year 1823, on “The Condition of the Black Population of the United States,” could hardly be characterized as timid in its utterances on the moral character of American slavery. A few lines will indicate the tone of it in this respect:

“Excepting only the horrible system of the West India Islands, we have never heard of slavery in any country, ancient or modern, pagan, Mohammedan, or Christian, so terrible in its character, so pernicious in its tendency, so remediless in its anticipated results, as the slavery which exists in these United States. . . . When we use the strong language which we feel ourselves compelled to use in relation to this subject, we do not mean to speak of animal suffering, but of an immense moral and political evil. . . . In regard to its influence on the white population the most lamentable proof of its deteriorating effects may be found in the fact that, excepting the pious, whose hearts are governed by the Christian law of reciprocity between man and man, and the wise, whose minds have looked far into the relations and tendencies of things, none can be found to lift their voices against a system so utterly repugnant to the feelings of unsophisticated humanity—a system which permits all the atrocities of the domestic slave trade—which permits the father to sell his children as he would his cattle—a system which consigns one half of the community to hopeless and utter degradation, and which threatens in its final catastrophe to bring down the same ruin on the master and the slave.”176176   “Christian Spectator,” 1823, pp. 493, 494, 341; “The Earlier Antislavery Days,” by L. Bacon, in the “Christian Union,” December 9 and 16, 1874, January 6 and 13, 1875. It is one of the “Curiosities of Literature,” though hardly one of its “Amenities,” that certain phrases carefully dissected from this paper (which was written by Mr. Bacon at the age of twenty-one) should be pertinaciously used, in the face of repeated exposures, to prove the author of it to be an apologist for slavery!

273

The historical value of the paper from which these brief extracts are given, as illustrating the attitude of the church at the time, is enhanced by the use that was made of it. Published in the form of a review article in a magazine of national circulation, the recognized organ of the orthodox Congregationalists, it was republished in a pamphlet for gratuitous distribution and extensively circulated in New England by the agency of the Andover students. It was also republished at Richmond, Va. Other laborers at the East in the same cause were Joshua Leavitt, Bela B. Edwards, and Eli Smith, afterward illustrious as a missionary,177177   “Christian Spectator,” 1825-1828. and Ralph Randolph Gurley, secretary of the Colonization Society, whose edition of the powerful and uncompromising sermon of the younger Edwards on “The Injustice and Impolicy of the Slave Trade and of the Slavery of the Africans” was published at Boston for circulation at the South, in hopes of promoting the universal abolition of slavery. The list might be indefinitely extended to include the foremost names in the church in that period. There was no adverse party.

At the West an audacious movement of the slavery extension politicians, flushed with their success in Missouri, to introduce slavery into Illinois, Indiana, and even Ohio, was defeated largely by the aid of the Baptist and Methodist clergy, many of whom had been southern men and had experienced the evils of the system.178178   Wilson, “Slave Power in America,” vol. i., p. 164; “James G. Birney and his Times,” pp. 64, 65. This last-named book is an interesting and valuable contribution of materials for history, especially by its refutation of certain industriously propagated misrepresentations. In Kentucky and Tennessee the abolition movement was led more distinctively by the Presbyterians and the Quakers. It was 274a bold effort to procure the manumission of slaves and the repeal of the slave code in those States by the agreement of the citizens. The character of the movement is indicated in the constitution of the “Moral Religious Manumission Society of West Tennessee,” which declares that slavery “exceeds any other crime in magnitude” and is “the greatest act of practical infidelity,” and that “the gospel of Christ, if believed, would remove personal slavery at once by destroying the will in the tyrant to enslave.”179179   “Birney and his Times,” chap. xii., on “Abolition in the South before 1828.” Much is to be learned on this neglected topic in American history from the reports of the National Convention for the Abolition of Slavery, meeting biennially, with some intermissions, at Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington down to 1829. An incomplete file of these reports is at the library of Brown University. A like movement in North Carolina and in Maryland, at the same time, attained to formidable dimensions. The state of sentiment in Virginia may be judged from the fact that so late as December, 1831, in the memorable debate in the legislature on a proposal for the abolition of slavery, a leading speaker, denouncing slavery as “the most pernicious of all the evils with which the body politic can be afflicted,” could say, undisputed, “By none is this position denied, if we except the erratic John Randolph.”180180   Wilson, “The Slave Power,” vol. i., chap. xiv. The conflict in Virginia at that critical time was between Christian principle and wise statesmanship on the one hand, and on the other hand selfish interest and ambition, and the prevailing terror resulting from a recent servile insurrection. Up to this time there appears no sign of any division in the church on this subject. Neither was there any sectional division; the opponents of slavery, whether at the North or at the South, were acting in the interest of the common country, and particularly in the interest of the States that were still afflicted with slavery. But a swift change was just impending.

We have already recognized the Methodist organization as the effective pioneer of systematic abolitionism in America.181181   See above, pp. 204, 205. The Baptists, also having their main strength in the southern States, were early and emphatic in condemning the institutions by which they were surrounded.182182   Newman, “The Baptists,” pp. 288, 305. Let me make general reference to the volumes of the American Church History Series by their several indexes, s.v. Slavery. But all the sects found themselves embarrassed by serious difficulties when it came to the practical application of the principles and rules which they enunciated. The exacting of “immediate emancipation” as a condition of fellowship in the ministry or communion in the church, and the popular cries of “No fellowship with slave-holders,” and “Slave-holding always and everywhere a sin,” were found practically to conflict with frequent undeniable and stubborn facts. The cases in which conscientious Christians found themselves, by no fault of their own, invested by inhuman laws with an absolute authority over helpless fellow-men, which it would not be right for them suddenly to abdicate, were not few nor unimportant.183183   One instance for illustration is as good as ten thousand. It is from the “Life of James G. Birney,” a man of the highest integrity of conscience: “Michael, the husband and father of the family legally owned by Mr. Birney, and who had been brought up with him from boyhood, had been unable to conquer his appetite for strong liquors, and needed the constant watchful care of his master and friend. For some years the probability was that if free he would become a confirmed drunkard and beggar his family. The children were nearly grown, but had little mental capacity. For years Michael had understood that his freedom would be restored to him as soon as he could control his love of ardent spirits” (pp. 108, 109). In dealing with such cases several different courses were open to the church: (1) To execute discipline rigorously according to the formula, on the principle, Be rid of the tares at all hazards; never mind the wheat. This course was naturally favored by some of the minor Presbyterian sects, and was apt to be vigorously urged by zealous people living 276at a distance and not well acquainted with details of fact. (2) To attempt to provide for all cases by stated exceptions and saving clauses. This course was entered on by the Methodist Church, but without success. (3) Discouraged by the difficulties, to let go all discipline. This was the point reached at last by most of the southern churches. (4) Clinging to the formulas, “Immediate emancipation,” “No communion with slave-holders,” so to “palter in a double sense” with the words as to evade the meaning of them. According to this method, slave-holding did not consist in the holding of slaves, but in holding, them with evil purpose and wrong treatment; a slave who was held for his own advantage, receiving from his master “that which is just and equal,” was said, in this dialect, to be “morally emancipated.” This was the usual expedient of a large and respectable party of antislavery Christians at the North, when their principle of “no communion with slave-holders” brought them to the seeming necessity of excommunicating an unquestionably Christian brother for doing an undeniable duty. (5) To lay down, broadly and explicitly, the principles of Christian morality governing the subject, leaving the application of them in individual cases to the individual church or church-member. This was the course exemplified with admirable wisdom and fidelity in the Presbyterian “deliverance” of 1818. (6) To meet the postulate, laid down with so much assurance, as if an axiom, that “slave-holding is always and everywhere a sin, to be immediately repented of and forsaken,” with a flat and square contradiction, as being irreconcilable with facts and with the judgment of the Christian Scriptures; and thus to condemn and oppose to the utmost the system of slavery, without imputing the guilt of it to persons involved in it by no fault of their own. This course commended itself to many lucid and logical minds and honest 277consciences, including some of the most consistent and effective opponents of slavery. (7) Still another course must be mentioned, which, absurd as it seems, was actually pursued by a few headlong reformers, who showed in various ways a singular alacrity at playing into the hands of their adversaries. It consisted in enunciating in the most violent and untenable form and the most offensive language the proposition that all slave-holding is sin and every slave-holder a criminal, and making the whole attack on slavery to turn on this weak pivot and fail if this failed. The argument of this sort of abolitionist was: If there can be found anywhere a good man holding a bond-servant unselfishly, kindly, and for good reason justifiably, then the system of American slavery is right.184184   “If human beings could be justly held in bondage for one hour, they could be for days and weeks and years, and so on indefinitely from generation to generation” (“Life of W. L. Garrison,” vol. i., p. 140). It is not strange that men in the southern churches, being offered such an argument ready made to their hand, should promptly accept both the premiss and the conclusion, and that so at last there should begin to be a pro-slavery party in the American church.

The disastrous epoch of the beginning of what has been called “the southern apostasy” from the universal moral sentiment of Christendom on the subject of slavery may be dated at about the year 1833. A year earlier began to be heard those vindications on political grounds of what had just been declared in the legislature of Virginia to be by common consent the most pernicious of political evils—vindications which continued for thirty years to invite the wonder of the civilized world. When (about 1833) a Presbyterian minister in Mississippi, the Rev. James Smylie, made the “discovery,” which “surprised himself,” that the system of American slavery was sanctioned and approved 278by the Scriptures as good and righteous, he found that his brethren in the Presbyterian ministry at the extreme South were not only surprised, but shocked and offended, at the proposition.185185   “New Englander,” vol. xii., 1854, p. 639, article on “The Southern Apostasy.” And yet such was the swift progress of this innovation that in surprisingly few years, we might almost say months, it had become not only prevalent, but violently and exclusively dominant in the church of the southern States, with the partial exception of Kentucky and Tennessee. It would be difficult to find a precedent in history for so sudden and sweeping a change of sentiment on a leading doctrine of moral theology. Dissent from the novel dogma was suppressed with more than inquisitorial rigor. It was less perilous to hold Protestant opinions in Spain or Austria than to hold, in Carolina or Alabama, the opinions which had but lately been commended to universal acceptance by the unanimous voice of great religious bodies, and proclaimed as undisputed principles by leading statesmen. It became one of the accepted evidences of Christianity at the South that infidelity failed to offer any justification for American slavery equal to that derived from the Christian Scriptures. That eminent leader among the Lutheran clergy, the Rev. Dr. Bachman, of Charleston, referred “that unexampled unanimity of sentiment that now exists in the whole South on the subject of slavery” to the confidence felt by the religious public in the Bible defense of slavery as set forth by clergymen and laymen in sermons and pamphlets and speeches in Congress.186186   Ibid., pp. 642-644.

The historian may not excuse himself from the task of inquiring into the cause of this sudden and immense moral revolution. The explanation offered by Dr. Bachman 279is the very thing that needs to be explained. How came the Christian public throughout the slave-holding States, which so short a time before had been unanimous in finding in the Bible the condemnation of their slavery, to find all at once in the Bible the divine sanction and defense of it as a wise, righteous, and permanent institution? Doubtless there was mixture of influences in bringing about the result. The immense advance in the market value of slaves consequent on Whitney’s invention of the cotton-gin had its unconscious effect on the moral judgments of some. The furious vituperations of a very small but noisy faction of antislavery men added something to the swift current of public opinion. But demonstrably the chief cause of this sudden change of religious opinion—one of the most remarkable in the history of the church—was panic terror. In August, 1831, a servile insurrection in Virginia, led by a crazy negro, Nat Turner by name, was followed (as always in such cases) by bloody vengeance on the part of the whites.

“The Southampton insurrection, occurring at a time when the price of slaves was depressed in consequence of a depression in the price of cotton, gave occasion to a sudden development of opposition to slavery in the legislature of Virginia. A measure for the prospective abolition of the institution in that ancient commonwealth was proposed, earnestly debated, eloquently urged, and at last defeated, with a minority ominously large in its favor. Warned by so great a peril, and strengthened soon afterward by an increase in the market value of cotton and of slaves, the slave-holding interest in all the South was stimulated to new activity. Defenses of slavery more audacious than had been heard before began to be uttered by southern politicians at home and by southern representatives and senators in Congress. A panic seized upon the planters in some districts of the Southwest. Conspiracies 280and plans of insurrection were discovered. Negroes were tortured or terrified into confessions. Obnoxious white men were put to death without any legal trial and in defiance of those rules of evidence which are insisted on by southern laws. Thus a sudden and convincing terror was spread through the South. Every man was made to know that if he should become obnoxious to the guardians of the great southern ‘institution’ he was liable to be denounced and murdered. It was distinctly and imperatively demanded that nobody should be allowed to say anything anywhere against slavery. The movement of the societies which had then been recently formed at Boston and New York, with ‘Immediate abolition’ for their motto, was made use of to stimulate the terror and the fury of the South. . . . The position of political parties and of candidates for the Presidency, just at that juncture, gave special advantage to the agitators—an advantage that was not neglected. Everything was done that practiced demagogues could contrive to stimulate the South into a frenzy and to put down at once and forever all opposition to slavery. The clergy and the religious bodies were summoned to the patriotic duty of committing themselves on the side of ‘southern institutions.’ Just then it was, if we mistake not, that their apostasy began. They dared not say that slavery as an institution in the State is essentially an organized injustice, and that, though the Scriptures rightly and wisely enjoin justice and the recognition of the slaves’ brotherhood upon masters, and conscientious meekness upon slaves, the organized injustice of the institution ought to be abolished by the shortest process consistent with the public safety and the welfare of the enslaved. They dared not even keep silence under the plea that the institution is political and therefore not to be meddled with by religious bodies or religious persons. They yielded to the demand. They were carried along in the current of the popular frenzy; they joined in the clamor, ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians;’ they denounced the fanaticism of abolition and 281permitted themselves to be understood as certifying, in the name of religion and of Christ, that the entire institution of slavery ‘as it exists’ is chargeable with no injustice and is warranted by the word of God.”187187   “New Englander,” vol. xii., 1854, pp. 66o, 661.

There is no good reason to question the genuineness and sincerity of the fears expressed by the slave-holding population as a justification of their violent measures for the suppression of free speech in relation to slavery; nor of their belief that the papers and prints actively disseminated from the antislavery press in Boston were fitted, if not distinctly intended, to kindle bloody insurrections. These terrors were powerfully pleaded in the great debate in the Virginia legislature as an argument for the abolition of slavery.188188   Wilson, “The Slave Power,” vol. i., pp. 190-207. This failing, they became throughout the South a constraining power for the suppression of free speech, not only on the part of outsiders, but among the southern people themselves. The regime thus introduced was, in the strictest sense of the phrase, “a reign of terror.” The universal lockjaw which thenceforth forbade the utterance of what had so recently and suddenly ceased to be the unanimous religious conviction of the southern church soon produced an “unexampled unanimity” on the other side, broken only when some fiery and indomitable abolitionist like Dr. Robert J. Breckinridge, of the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky, delivered his soul with invectives against the system of slavery and the new-fangled apologies that had been devised to defend it, declaring it “utterly indefensible on every correct human principle, and utterly abhorrent from every law of God,” and exclaiming, “Out upon such folly! The man who cannot see that involuntary domestic slavery, as it exists among us, is founded on the principle of taking by force that 282which is another’s has simply no moral sense. . . . Hereditary slavery is without pretense, except in avowed rapacity.”189189   “Biblical Repertory,” Princeton, July, 1833, pp. 294, 295, 303. Of course the antislavery societies which, under various names, had existed in the South by hundreds were suddenly extinguished, and manumissions, which had been going on at the rate of thousands in a year, almost entirely ceased.

The strange and swiftly spreading moral epidemic did not stop at State boundary lines. At the North the main cause of defection was not, indeed, directly operative. There was no danger there of servile insurrection. But there was true sympathy for those who lived under the shadow of such impending horrors, threatening alike the guilty and the innocent. There was a deep passion of honest patriotism, now becoming alarmed lest the threats of disunion proceeding from the terrified South should prove a serious peril to the nation in whose prosperity the hopes of the world seemed to be involved. There was a worthy solicitude lest the bonds of intercourse between the churches of North and South should be ruptured and so the integrity of the nation be the more imperiled. Withal there was a spreading and deepening and most reasonable disgust at the reckless ranting of a little knot of antislavery men having their headquarters at Boston, who, exulting in their irresponsibility, scattered loosely appeals to men’s vindictive passions and filled the unwilling air with clamors against church and ministry and Bible and law and government, denounced as “pro-slavery” all who declined to accept their measures or their persons, and, arrogating to themselves exclusively the name of abolitionist, made that name, so long a title of honor, to be universally odious.190190   The true story of Mr. William Lloyd Garrison and his little party has yet to be written faithfully and fully. As told by his family and friends and by himself, it is a monstrous falsification of history. One of the best sources of authentic material for this chapter of history is “James G. Birney and his Times,” by General William Birney, pp. 269-331. I may also refer to my volume, “Irenics and Polemics” (New York, the Christian Literature Co.), pp. 145-202. The sum of the story is given thus, in the words of Charles Sumner: “An omnibus-load of Boston abolitionists has done more harm to the antislavery cause than all its enemies” (“Birney,” p. 331).

283

These various factors of public opinion were actively manipulated. Political parties competed for the southern vote. Commercial houses competed for southern business. Religious sects, parties, and societies were emulous in conciliating southern adhesions or contributions and averting schisms. The condition of success in any of these cases was well understood to be concession, or at least silence, on the subject of slavery. The pressure of motives, some of which were honorable and generous, was everywhere, like the pressure of the atmosphere. It was not strange that there should be defections from righteousness. Even the enormous effrontery of the slave power in demanding for its own security that the rule of tyrannous law and mob violence by which freedom of speech and of the press had been extinguished at the South should be extended over the so-called free States did not fail of finding citizens of reputable standing so base as to give the demand their countenance, their public advocacy, and even their personal assistance. As the subject emerged from time to time in the religious community, the questions arising were often confused and embarrassed by false issues and illogical statements, and the state of opinion was continually misrepresented through the incurable habit of the over-zealous in denouncing as “pro-slavery” those who dissented from their favorite formulas. But after all deductions, the historian who shall by and by review this period with the advantage of a longer perspective will be compelled to record not a few lamentable defections, both individual and corporate, from 284the cause of freedom, justice, and humanity. And, nevertheless, that later record will also show that while the southern church had been terrified into “an unexampled unanimity” in renouncing the principles which it had unanimously held, and while like causes had wrought potently upon northern sentiment, it was the steadfast fidelity of the Christian people that saved the nation from ruin. At the end of thirty years from the time when the soil of Missouri was devoted to slavery the “Kansas-Nebraska Bill” was proposed, which should open for the extension of slavery the vast expanse of national territory which, by the stipulation of the “Missouri Compromise,” had been forever consecrated to freedom. The issue of the extension of slavery was presented to the people in its simplicity. The action of the clergy of New England was prompt, spontaneous, emphatic, and practically unanimous. Their memorial, with three thousand and fifty signatures, protested against the bill, “in the name of Almighty God and in his presence,” as “a great moral wrong; as a breach of faith eminently injurious to the moral principles of the community and subversive of all confidence in national engagements; as a measure full of danger to the peace and even the existence of our beloved Union, and exposing us to the just judgments of the Almighty.” In like manner the memorial of one hundred and fifty-one clergymen of various denominations in New York City and vicinity protested in like terms, “in the name of religion and humanity,” against the guilt of the extension of slavery. Perhaps there has been no occasion on which the consenting voice of the entire church has been so solemnly uttered on a question of public morality, and this in the very region in which church and clergy had been most stormily denounced by the little handful of abolitionists 285who gloried in the name of infidel191191   Birney, p. 321. as recreant to justice and humanity.

The protest of the church was of no avail to defeat the machination of demagogues. The iniquitous measure was carried through. But this was not the end; it was only the beginning of the end. Yet ten years, and American slavery, through the mad folly of its advocates and the steadfast fidelity of the great body of the earnestly religious people of the land, was swept away by the tide of war.

The long struggle of the American church against drunkenness as a social and public evil begins at an early date. One of the thirteen colonies, Georgia, had the prohibition of slavery and of the importation of spirituous liquors incorporated by Oglethorpe in its early and short-lived constitution. It would be interesting to discover, if we could, to what extent the rigor of John Wesley’s discipline against both these mischiefs was due to his association with Oglethorpe in the founding of that latest of the colonies. Both the imperious nature of Wesley and the peculiar character of his fraternity as being originally not a church, but a voluntary society within the church, predisposed to a policy of arbitrary exclusiveness by hard and fast lines drawn according to formula, which might not have been ventured on by one who was consciously drawing up the conditions of communion in the church. In the Puritan colonies the public morals in respect to temperance were from the beginning guarded by salutary license laws devised to suppress all dram-shops and tippling-houses, and to prevent, as far as law could wisely undertake to prevent, all abusive and mischievous sales of 286liquor. But these indications of a sound public sentiment did not prevent the dismal fact of a wide prevalence of drunkenness as one of the distinguishing characteristics of American society at the opening of the nineteenth century. Two circumstances had combined to aggravate the national vice. Seven years of army life, with its exhaustion and exposure and military social usage, had initiated into dangerous drinking habits many of the most justly influential leaders of society, and the example of these had set the tone for all ranks. Besides this, the increased importation and manufacture of distilled spirits had made it easy and common to substitute these for the mild fermented liquors which had been the ordinary drink of the people. Gradually and unobserved the nation had settled down into a slough of drunkenness of which it is difficult for us at this date to form a clear conception. The words of Isaiah concerning the drunkards of Ephraim seem not too strong to apply to the condition of American society, that “all tables were full of vomit and filthiness.” In the prevalence of intemperate drinking habits the clergy had not escaped the general infection. “The priest and the prophet had gone astray through strong drink.” Individual words of warning, among the earliest of which was the classical essay of Dr. Benjamin Rush (1785), failed to arouse general attention. The new century was well advanced before the stirring appeals of Ebenezer Porter, Lyman Beecher, Heman Humphrey, and Jeremiah Evarts had awakened in the church any effectual conviction of sin in the matter. The appointment of a strong committee, in 1811, by the Presbyterian General Assembly was promptly followed by like action by the clergy of Massachusetts and Connecticut, leading to the formation of State societies. But general concerted measures on a scale commensurate with the evil to be overcome must be 287dated from the organization of the “American Society for the Promotion of Temperance,” in 1826. The first aim of the reformers of that day was to break down those domineering social usages which almost enforced the habit of drinking in ordinary social intercourse. The achievement of this object was wonderfully swift and complete. A young minister whose pastorate had begun at about the same time with the organizing of the national temperance society was able at the end of five years to bear this testimony in the presence of those who were in a position to recognize any misstatement or exaggeration:

“The wonderful change which the past five years have witnessed in the manners and habits of this people in regard to the use of ardent spirits—the new phenomenon of an intelligent people rising up, as it were, with one consent, without law, without any attempt at legislation, to put down by the mere force of public opinion, expressing itself in voluntary associations, a great social evil which no despot on earth could have put down among his subjects by any system of efforts—has excited admiration and roused to imitation not only in our sister country of Great Britain, but in the heart of continental Europe.”192192   Sermon of L. Bacon (MS.), New Haven, July 4, 1830.

It is worthy of remark, for any possible instruction there may be in it, that the first, greatest, and most permanent of the victories of the temperance reformation, the breaking down of almost universal social drinking usages, was accomplished while yet the work was a distinctively religious one, “without law or attempt at legislation,” and while the efforts at suppression were directed at the use of ardent spirits. The attempt to combine the friends of temperance on a basis of “teetotal” abstinence, putting fermented as well as distilled liquors under the ban, dates from as late as 1836.

288

But it soon appeared that the immense gain of banishing ardent spirits from the family table and sideboard, the social entertainment, the haying field, and the factory had not been attained without some corresponding loss. Close upon the heels of the reform in the domestic and social habits of the people there was spawned a monstrous brood of obscure tippling-shops—a nuisance, at least in New England, till then unknown. From the beginning wise and effective license laws had interdicted all dram-shops; even the taverner might sell spirits only to his transient guests, not to the people of the town. With the suppression of social drinking there was effected, in spite of salutary law to the contrary, a woeful change. The American “saloon” was, in an important sense, the offspring of the American temperance reformation. The fact justified the reformer in turning his attention to the law. From that time onward the history of the temperance reformation has included the history of multitudinous experiments in legislation, none of which has been so conclusive as to satisfy all students of the subject that any later law is, on the whole, more usefully effective than the original statutes of the Puritan colonies.193193   “Eastern and Western States of America,” by J. S. Buckingham, M. P., vol. i., pp. 408-413.

In 1840 the temperance reformation received a sudden forward impulse from an unexpected source. One evening a group of six notoriously hard drinkers, coming together greatly impressed from a sermon of that noted evangelist, Elder Jacob Knapp, pledged themselves by mutual vows to total abstinence; and from this beginning went forward that extraordinary agitation known as “the Washingtonian movement.” Up to this time the aim of the reformers had been mainly directed to the prevention 289of drunkenness by a change in social customs and personal habits. Now there was suddenly opened a door of hope to the almost despair of the drunkard himself. The lately reformed drunkards of Baltimore set themselves to the reforming of other drunkards, and these took up the work in their turn, and reformation was extended in a geometrical progression till it covered the country. Everywhere meetings were held, to be addressed by reformed drunkards, and new recruits from the gutter were pushed forward to tell their experience to the admiring public, and sent out on speaking tours. The people were stirred up as never before on the subject of temperance. There was something very Christian-like in the method of this propagation, and hopeful souls looked forward to a temperance millennium as at hand. But fatal faults in the work soon discovered themselves. Among the new evangelists were not a few men of true penitence and humility, like John Hawkins, and one man at least of incomparable eloquence as well as Christian earnestness, John B. Gough. But the public were not long in finding that merely to have wallowed in vice and to be able to tell ludicrous or pathetic stories from one’s experience was not of itself sufficient qualification for the work of a public instructor in morals. The temperance platform became infested with swaggering autobiographers, whose glory was in their shame, and whose general influence was distinctly demoralizing. The sudden influx of the tide of enthusiasm was followed by a disastrous ebb. It was the estimate of Mr. Gough that out of six hundred thousand reformed drunkards not less than four hundred and fifty thousand had relapsed into vice. The same observer, the splendor of whose eloquence was well mated with an unusual sobriety of judgment, is credited with the statement 290that he knew of no case of stable reformation from drunkenness that was not connected with a thorough spiritual renovation and conversion.

Certainly good was accomplished by the transient whirlwind of the “Washingtonian” excitement. But the evil that it did lived after it. Already at the time of its breaking forth the temperance reformation had entered upon that period of decadence in which its main interest was to be concentrated upon law and politics. And here the vicious ethics of the reformed-drunkard school became manifest. The drunkard, according to his own account of himself (unless he was not only reformed, but repentant), had been a victim of circumstances. Drunkenness, instead of a base and beastly sin, was an infirmity incident to a high-strung and generous temperament. The blame of it was to be laid, not upon the drunkard, whose exquisitely susceptible organization was quite unable to resist temptation coming in his way, but on those who put intoxicating liquor where he could get at it, or on the State, whose duty it was to put the article out of the reach of its citizens. The guilt of drunkenness must rest, not on the unfortunate drunkard who happened to be attacked by that disease, but on the sober and well-behaving citizen, and especially the Christian citizen, who did not vote the correct ticket.

What may be called the Prohibition period of the temperance reformation begins about 1850 and still continues. It is characterized by the pursuit of a type of legislation of variable efficacy or inefficacy, the essence of which is that the sale of intoxicating liquors shall be a monopoly of the government.194194   By a curious anomaly in church polity, adhesion to this particular device of legislation is made constitutionally a part of the discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In most other communions liberty of judgment is permitted as to the form of legislation best fitted to the end sought. Indications begin to appear that the 291disproportionate devotion to measures of legislation and politics is abating. Some of the most effective recent labor for the promotion of temperance has been wrought independently of such resort. If the cycle shall be completed, and the church come back to the methods by which its first triumphs in this field were won, it will come back the wiser and the stronger for its vicissitudes of experience through these threescore years and ten.

292
« Prev Chapter XVI. Conflicts of the Church with Public… Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version





Advertisements



| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |