Baptists, Congregationalists, the Free Church, and Slavery

Frederick Douglass

Citation Information:   Frederick Douglass, “Baptists, Congregationalists, the Free Church, and Slavery: An Address Delivered in Belfast, Ireland, on December 23, 1845.” Belfast News Letter, December 26, 1845 and Belfast Northern Whig, December 25, 1845. Blassingame, John (et al, eds.). The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One–Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979. Vol. I.

Baptists, Congregationalists, the Free Church, and Slavery: An Address Delivered in Belfast, Ireland, on December 23, 1845

Belfast News Letter, December 26, 1845 and Belfast Northern Whig, December 25, 1845.

  1. Mr. Frederick Douglass then presented himself, and was received with loud plaudits. He spoke as follows—Ladies and gentlemen, one of the most painful duties I have been called on to perform in the advocacy of the Abolition of Slavery, has been to expose the corruption and sinful position of the American Churches with regard to that question. That was almost the only duty which, when I commenced the advocacy of this cause, I felt inclined to shrink from. Really, any attempt to expose the inconsistencies of the religious organisation of our land is the most painful undertaking. I have always looked upon these churches as possessing, in a superlative degree, the love of virtue and of justice—the love of humanity—the love of God. I had not supposed that they were capable of descending to the low and mean act of upholding and sustaining a system by which three millions of people have been divested of every right and privilege which they ought to enjoy. (Hear.)
  2. But, in examining into the character of these churches, I was led to see, that unless the deeds of these ministers were made known—unless the light of truth should be permitted to shine into their dark recesses, there will for ever be a sink of iniquity in the midst of them. The only way of purifying our church from the deep damnation into which she was plunging, was to expose her deeds to the light. But, in exposing these deeds, I do not wish to place myself in the position of an enemy.
  3. Let no man rank me among the enemies of the church, or of religion, because I dare to remove the mask from her face, and give the nations of the earth a peep at her enormities. It is for her salvation and purification I do it, and for the redemption and disenthralment of my race. (Hear.)
  4. I was exceedingly pleased to hear, at the meeting before the last, that the minister who occupies the pulpit of this house, (Mr. Hodgens,) welcomed me to this platform, within these walls—before these people, to expose the corruptions of the Congregational Church of America. It was a noble act, which must identify that rev. gentleman with the friends of truth. It displayed a conscientiousness of innocence on his part, or, at least, an openness and a magnanimity that are ever associated with innocence—(hear, hear)—and a willingness for self-examination seldom displayed.
  5. Innocence, you know, lives in the sunlight—it rushes out into the day—it asks to be examined, and searched, and tried. (Hear, hear, hear.) This is its language. You never hear it crying “Rocks, cover us; and, Mountains, on us fall, and hide us from the face of Truth and Justice!” This is the language of guilt—of those convinced of their own iniquity. Innocence never bolts and bars its meeting-house doors, to shut out the light, nor hides itself behind some “important engagement.” (Hear, and laughter.) It never does any such thing as this. It rushes forth to be seen. Its element is the light. It opens its own eyes and is willing to have the eyes of the world opened on itself. It is glorious, and I love it. The nature of guilt was never set forth more clearly in a few words than by the Blessed Redeemer, when he said, that “it hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest its deeds be revealed.” Eighteen hundred years ago, as it is now, was the reason of this obvious— because God looks on sin with no degree of allowance; and truth will not hold that man guiltless who, in the light of the nineteenth century, upholds American Slavery, in any shape or form whatever. (Cheers.)
  6. Before entering on the subject of my discourse at large, I beg to say a few words as to my own position among you. One among the many means taken to destroy the influence of these lectures, has been that of circulating insidiously a suspicion, that I am not a really sincere person—that my character is not good. “He may be an impostor,” has been the word. I am not an impostor. If those who insinuate that I am one can prove it, I shall be as ready as any one to give way. Besides, I would inform this audience that the story that I am here without credentials is absolutely false. I have any quantity of testimonials you may demand from the most distinguished Abolitionists of the day. I have no fears of being examined. I have been in Ireland four months, and have delivered upwards of fifty lectures in different parts of the country, and it was not until I reached Belfast, that I had been even asked for credentials. No enquiries were made of me in Dublin, for I had been known to the Abolitionists of that city for the last four years, through the American papers. They knew me, and understood me, and had heard all about me, and I had no need of showing to them even a letter of introduction. I had no need of one. But, what sensible people you are in Belfast! (Laughter.) How cautious lest they should make a mistake! How prudent they are, and how desirous of being placed on a sure footing, lest they should take into fellowship such characters as won’t bear examination—especially how they receive a fugitive slave. But when the Free Church of Scotland is—(hear, hear.)—Well, I won’t say another word about them.
  7. One of the prevalent apologies for the American slave-holders is, that the laws of the States, or at least of several of them, are such as to deprive the masters of the privilege of emancipating the slaves. This is the objection made by every apologiser for Christian union with the slave-holders. My motto is, “No union with the slave-holder.” (Cheers.) Because, I believe there can be no union between light and darkness. You cannot serve God and Mammon. Justice can have no fellowship with injustice. Liberty can have no fellowship with slavery. But those who go for uniting with slave-holders, must always have some strong cause for their conduct. Such as this—there are, it appears, a number of good Slave-holders in the States, whose breasts are overborne with sorrow on being placed in such an unhappy relation to their slaves—(hear)—and there are “circumstances over which they have no control,” and so forth, and so forth. (Laughter at the droll manner in which the speaker intonated his words.) “Persons situated as these slave-holders are,” and so forth—(laughter)—”cannot be held accountable for the evil, when they cannot help themselves,” and so forth; “but they would very gladly get rid of it if the laws——,” and so forth. (Continued laughter.)
  8. I pronounce this apology to be a falsehood. There is not a slaveholder in any State, who may not, if he will, emancipate his slaves, by taking them across Mason’s and Dixon’s line, and all the apologies built upon this supposition—all the arguments founded upon it—must fall to the ground. When they presume to offer this excuse, tell them of Brisburn of South Carolina, who, when he became sensible of the guilt of holding slaves, took them to Ohio, and went to work with his own hands, like an honest man. (Cheers.) If any other instances are required, take that of James G. Birney, who emancipated his slaves, and a hundred of others. But, besides this, there are, in fact, only two or three States in which it is necessary to remove slaves which are emancipated. There are twelve States in which the master may emancipate his slaves on the spot. Another system is, the slave-holder is responsible for the future maintenance of the emancipated slave. There is no such thing. It is not true; and they who tell you so ought to know better, for the facts are all on the other side. (Hear.)
  9. They are always glad to receive emancipated slaves in New England, and even if the Northern States were not disposed to take them, thank God, the British lion asserts dominion in the Western hemisphere. (Cheers.) Canada is open to them, and, I am sure, will not charge brother Jonathan with the expense of their keeping. So much for the story that these men cannot get rid of their slaves. Oh, what a vast amount of reasoning it takes to uphold a bad cause.
  10. Truth needs but little argument, and no long drawn metaphysical detail to establish a position. There is something in the heart which instantly responds to its voice. You feel differently when even the term slavery is mentioned, from the way you feel when the word freedom salutes your ears! Freedom! the word produces a thrill of joy even in the bosom of the slave-holder himself—in the absence of his slaves. Then the term is musical to his ear, but when it is mentioned in the slaves’ presence, then is the slave-holder stung to the very quick, and he behaves more like a demon than a man. Oh, yes—our hearts leap up to the very name of freedom, while we recoil with horror at the sound of slavery. We feel, then, that the slave-holder is a wrong-doer, and we know that wrong-doers can have no fellowship with the meek and lowly Jesus.
  11. It is said, we ought not to enter into peoples motives. I don’t want to do so. I only speak what I know. I may be told, “judge not, that ye be not judged?” I admit the truth of this part of Scripture, but those who read it to me, should read a little further, where it is said, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” (Cheers.) I do not judge you when you cut me, if I cry out that you hurt me. (Hear.) It is not judging the state of your soul, when I tell you, that you have done me an injury. I know that, by injuring me, you are acting contrary to Christianity, and when you tell me that there are some Christian slave-holders in the States, I tell you, as well might you talk of sober-drunkards. (Laughter.) Just as if the lash in the hands of a Christian is not as injurious to my back as it would be in the hands of a wicked man. (Hear, hear.) As far as my experience goes, I would rather suffer under the hands of the latter, and, I tell you, as I have mentioned in my narrative, that next to being a slave, there is no greater calamity than being the slave of a Christian slave holder. (Hear.) I say this from my own experience, and it is further proved by theory. There is a reason for it. When the finest—the most excellent bodies are decomposed, they become the most corrupt and offensive. So, when the most excellent element is perverted to a base use, it becomes the basest and most hateful in itself—so the religious element raises up and stamps man with the image of God, when pure—but, when perverted, it makes him a fallen angel and sinks him among demons. A man becomes the more cruel the more the religious element is perverted in him. It was so with my master.
  12. Some persons have taken offence at my saying that Slaveholders become worse after their conversion, and it was thought that I was thereby injuring the cause of religion; but I say this is the same principle upon which Christ denounced the Scribes and Pharisees, when he said that they would compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and after they had made him he was ten times the Child of Hell that he was before. They do make proselytes, and convert men to what they call religion, but their converts are still in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity. Why is it, if this be not the case, that if they are women-whippers, cradle-plunderers, and man-stealers before their conversion, they are women-whippers, cradle-plunderers, and man-stealers after it—(hear)—and that “religion” is to them but an additional stimulant to re-enact these atrocious deeds? The “religious” slaveholder is a man from whom I have been myself happily delivered,” so that I am not to be told that it is a good thing to have a “religious” slaveholder for a master.
  13. I beg now to introduce to your notice a little of the doings of one or two of the Churches of America, and I shall begin with the Baptist Church. (Hear.) This Church is congregational in its organization and government, but its congregations are united by what is called a Triennial Convention, the object of which is to spread the Gospel among the heathen. At the last but one of these conventions, in the City of Baltimore, the Rev. Dr. Johnston, of South Carolina, presided, and he on this occasion asserted the doctrine that when any institution becomes established by law, a Christian man may innocently engage to uphold it. The President of the Baptist convention is a slaveholder himself. He is a man-stealer. (Hear.) The Secretary of the convention is another man-stealer, and most of the other office-bearers were manstealers—were thieves. During the progress of the business, there was one man in one of the committees, who was found to be an Abolitionist—Elon Galusha. This man is now, I trust, in Heaven. He dared to say that a slave was a man, and that slavery ought to be abolished. For this, the members of his church cut him off—(hear)—though he was a man of talent and of unblemished character, and, as a minister of the gospel, unparalleled. Another great Baptist minister, the Rev. Lucius Bowles, congratulated his brethren that there was “a pleasing degree of unity among the Baptists through the land, for the southern brethren were all slave-holders.”
  14. Slave-holders! Oh, my friends, do not rank the slave-holder as a common criminal—as no worse than a sheep-stealer or a horse stealer. The slave-holder is not only a thiever of men, but he is a murderer; not a murderer of the body, but, what is infinitely worse, a murderer of the soul—(hear, hear, hear)—as far as a man can murder the soul of his fellow-creature, for he shuts out the light of salvation from his spirit. (Mr. Douglass then read an advertisement which appeared in the American papers, by the legal representatives of the Rev. Dr. Furman, another eminent Baptist minister, who, in his lifetime, had asserted that the Scriptures warranted the holding of slaves. The advertisement was to the effect, that, on a certain day, would be put up to auction the property of the late Dr. Furman, consisting of land to a certain extent, “together with twenty seven negroes—some of them very fine—a library chiefly theological—two mules and an old waggon!” The reading of this advertisement created considerable merriment.) Mr. Douglass proceeded— Oh, my friends, instead of smiling and laughing at this, we should be sadly weeping to think that such a man ever lived as this Dr. Furman— this “Doctor of Divinity”—to think that Christianity should be so degraded by one of its professing ministers! Yet, that man was reckoned among the pious of the earth, and would have been received among the Baptists here as a good Christian minister. What a shame! but I must hasten.
  15. We have here a specimen of the Baptist Church of America in one quarter. I have now to speak of them in the State of Virginia, where men regularly enter into the raising or breeding of slaves, as a business, (hear), just as cattle are raised for the Smithfield market; and where the marriage institution is set aside. In some cases it becomes the interest of the slave holder to separate two slaves (male and female) already married. When the question was proposed to the Baptist Society there, whether parties thus separated might marry again, the answer was, that this separation being tantamount to the civil death of either of the parties, to forbid the second marriage in either case, would be to expose to Church censure those who did so for disobedience. (Great sensation.) Here we find a deliberate setting aside of the Marriage Institution, and the deliberate sanction of a wholesale system of adultery and concubinage; and, yet the persons who authorise and enforce such wickedness calling themselves Christians! (Hear, hear.) I might go on, giving fact after fact, relative to the doings of the Christian slaveholders in America; but, after what I have said, I wonder who will say in Belfast that a Christian can innocently associate with these men? (Hear.)
  16. The Rev. Doctor S—— has been over here a few months. He is one of those who, like Dr. Chalmers, looks on slavery as an evil, that though wrong in itself, nevertheless, is not sufficiently important to exclude persons from Christian Union. He finds it necessary to keep communion with slaveholders, because he gets not a little of his support from them. These people “feel that they must live.” George Bradburn tells an excellent thing illustrative of his apology. Bradburn was very deaf, and one of these apologists said to him, “you seem to overlook the fact that ministers must live.” Said Mr. Bradburn, (Here the speaker imitated the nasal twang of the old man, in a style curiously characteristic of the negro passion for mimicry.) “I deny any such necessity—I dispute your premises. I deny that it is necessary for any man to live, unless he can live honestly.” These slave-holders ever urge this overwhelming argument of necessity. But they are under a great mistake. What should render it necessary for a man to live by plunder? (Hear.) Why, the very watches in the pockets of these men—the very coats on their backs are the price of blood. (Hear.) And they know this.
  17. We understand their difficulty about getting rid of their slaves; it means that they are afraid of getting rid of their fat salaries. (Hear.) And yet, it is my belief, that a minister will be better paid, when there are no slaves. (Cheers.) It is curious, that the higher we go in ecclesiastical rank, in the churches, the colder we find the ministers in the cause of freedom. The most ardent friends of the slaveholders are in the highest grade of church office, while those in an inferior station, are invariably on the side of humanity and Christianity…. But he wanted to say a few words with regard to the Congregational denomination, or Independents, as they were called here. They were mostly to be found in the Northern States. But the way in which they were implicated in the crime of slavery was the same as that in which the Free Church of Scotland was implicated. A large number in the New England States had taken a good stand as to slavery; but the leading Ministers and the leading papers all took the side of slavery. And was it not a singular fact, that the farther they went up, the higher grades of ecclesiastical officers were almost invariably to be found the most ardent defenders of the slaveholder; while the brethren that were below them were on the side of humanity and Christianity? It was so, even in the days of our Saviour. They read of a man that fell among thieves, and was wounded, and left on the road-side, half dead; that a Priest, high in ecclesiastical distinction was journeying along the road where the man was lying; and that he passed by without noticing him; that a Levite came up after, who adopted a middle course. He went and looked on the wounded man,— and no doubt there was a struggle in his breast between humanity and office; the latter, however, prevailed, and he followed the footsteps of his illustrious predecessor,—and he (Mr. Douglass) was sorry it turned out that he was willing to follow the Priest, rather than to interfere in the cause of humanity. But they read of another who was journeying the same way, not of the school of the Priesthood, but rather a worshipper in what they believed in a wrong place—a Samaritan; and, when he heard the groans of the poor man, he had compassion upon him, bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, set him on his own beast, and took him to an inn; gave the host two pence, and told him to take care of him, and that whatever he spent more, when he returned he would repay him. So it was even in Belfast; the people were on the side of the slave,—there would be no difficulty in getting from them an expression of their feelings in favour of the slave—(hear)—it was only in the higher or upper classes—the class [of] “Civis”—(alluding to a writer in The Banner) that such a difficulty would arise.
  18. The leading Doctors of Divinity in America, and the Professors in the Colleges, were in favour of slavery. There was Professor Stewart, of the Andover seminary, one of the first Biblical schools in New England—that gentleman had committed to him the instruction of the Ministers of a large portion of the congregational denominations, and he was an advocate for slavery. The Rev. Dr. Fisk, who some time ago, was welcomed by the Methodist Church, in Dublin, though they had shut him (Mr. Douglass) out,—this Doctor Fisk became uneasy, when he heard it said that slavery was a sin, and, not willing to commit himself on the question, wished to have the opinion of Doctor Stewart on the subject. This man, who would have said that sheep-stealing was a sin, and would have decided so at once, had to consult a learned Doctor as to whether man-stealing was a sin—(hear, hear)—but, then, they knew that it was necessary that he should live, and he could not do so, independent of his Congregation. (Laughter.) Doctor Stewart sent him a reply, in which he referred to the case of Onesimus, whom he stated Paul had sent back to Philemon for life.
  19. He (Mr. Douglass) would be glad to know where Dr. Stewart learned that Onesimus was sent back into slavery for life; was it, he would ask, from the law? If it was, he (Mr. Douglass) would tell him, that Jewish slavery was not for life; there was no such thing known among the Jews as slavery for life, except it was desired on the part of the servant himself. What did the Apostle say himself? He said, he sent back Onesimus greater than a servant; and told Philemon to receive him as he would receive him, Paul; not as a slave who could be sold in the market, but as a brother beloved.
  20. After alluding to the case of a Mr. Jonathan Walker and a Mr. Tory, who were branded and cast into prison, for aiding some slaves to escape; and to the case of John L. Brown, who was sentenced to be executed for a similar offence against American law, but which sentence the voice of Great Britain prevented from being carried into effect, he observed, with regard to Brown it was said, there stood Brown, and there stood the law; and did not Brown know that he was violating the law? He (Mr. Douglass would answer, that Daniel knew he was breaking the law, when he would not worship as he was desired—(hear, hear) and so did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, when they refused to worship the golden image which the King had set up. He was sometimes led to think, that if some of the Clergymen of the present day had been their advisers, they would have advised them to bow down, but not to worship the image; they would have told them that they had to live; that they should be very cautious, being the only Ministers among the heathen; that if they lost their lives there would be no Minister of the Lord among them, and that then they would be left in the dark, to grope their own way. (Hear.) Such was the kind of wisdom they saw displayed by the Free Church of Scotland; but God was confounding the wisdom of the crafty, he was exposing the sophism of the worldly.
  21. He hoped the unanimous cry of the people of Belfast, to the Free Church of Scotland, and all the other Churches, would be, “Have no communion with the American slaveholders;” and that the next thing the Free Church should do would be to send back the blood-stained money which they had received. That was the only safe course. They should tell the Americans that they saw the slave at their feet, they saw him dying, and divested of every religious opportunity; and that, therefore, they could not fellowship with them; that they would gladly do so, but that the blood of the slaves forbade them to do so. If they would do this, they would give slavery a blow that it would stagger under, among a large class of religionists in America. Mr. Douglass then resumed his seat, loudly cheered.)