The Free Church Connection With the Slave Church

Frederick Douglass

Citation Information:  Frederick Douglass, “The Free Church Connection With the Slave Church: An Address Delivered in Arbroath, Scotland, on February 12, 1846.” Arbroath (Scot.) Guide, February 14, 1846. Blassingame, John (et al, eds.). The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One–Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979. Vol. I, p. 156.

The Free Church Connection With the Slave Church: An Address Delivered in Arbroath, Scotland, on February 12, 1846.

Arbroath (Scot.) Guide, February 14, 1846.

  1. Ladies and Gentlemen,—I have come hither this evening, in the spirit of candour and fair dealing, to discuss the subject which has now called us together. I am deeply sensible of the prejudice already excited against myself and friends for daring to call attention to the present connection of the Free Church of Scotland with the slave-holding churches of America. Much of this prejudice is owing to gross misrepresentations of our motives and objects by the Free Church paper at Dundee. The Warder having taken one false step, they adopt the common, though not the most Christian, mode of defending that step, by taking a dozen more in the same direction.
  2. In rising to discuss this subject I wish to be distinctly understood. I have no war with the Free Church as such. I am not here to offer one word as to the right or the wrong of the organization of that body. I am not here to say whether Drs. Chalmers, Cunningham, and Candlish, or any of the Free Church leaders, did right or wrong in separating from the Establishment. I want no false excuse to be made, or false statements to obtain. The Warder has dared to circulate the story that myself and friends are in the pay, and under the sanction of, opposing religious denominations. As far as the charge is brought against me, I pronounce it an unblushing falsehood. I am here to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, to plead the cause of the perishing slave, and to arouse the energies, excite the sympathies, and obtain the aid and cooperation of the good people of old Scotland in behalf of what I believe to be a righteous cause—the breaking of every yoke, the undoing of heavy burdens, and letting the oppressed go free! Thank God! all religious denominations may work in this cause. The anti-slaveholders’ platform is as broad as humanity, and as strong as eternal justice; all may stand upon it and work together, without violating any Christian principle. If fewer of the Free than of the Established Church are to be found upon that platform, the fault is theirs, not mine. In a cause like this he is a mean-spirited bigot who would refuse to labour because another is labouring in the same cause whose religious opinion happens not to agree with his own. In denouncing the present connection of the Free Church with the slave-holding churches of America, I have distinguished men of different denominations—of the Established Church, Free, and Dissenters—the Rev. John Angell James of Birmingham, Independent minister, Dr. Duncan, Dr. Willis, Dr. Ritchie, and thirty-six ministers in Belfast, with a host of others, have nobly come forward and refused Christian fellowship to slave holders.
  3. I am not here alone; I have with me the learned and wise and reverend heads of the church to justify the position I have assumed. But with or without their sanction, I should stand just where I now do, maintaining to the last that man-stealing is incompatible with Christianity—that slave-holding and true religion are at war with each other—and that a Free Church should have no fellowship with a slave church;—that as light can have no union with darkness, Christ has no concord with Beelzebub; and as two cannot walk together except they be agreed, and no man can serve two masters,—so I maintain that freedom cannot rightfully be blended with slavery. Nay, it cannot, without stabbing liberty to the heart. Now, what is the character of those churches in America with which the Free Church is in full fellowship, and the Christianity of which they indorse, in the most unqualified manner? In the language of Isaiah, “Their hands are full of blood.” Their hands are full of blood. Allow me to state the case as it really exists.
  4. At this moment, there are three millions of people, for whom Christ died, in the United States held in the most abject slavery—the most galling and degrading bondage—deprived of every privilege—mental, moral, social, and political—deprived of every right common to humanity—herded together like brutes—denied the institution of marriage—compelled to live in concubinage—left to be devoured by their own lusts—raised like beasts of the field for the market—mere chattels—things—property—deprived of their manhood—they are ranked with beasts—robbed of their identity with the human family—cut off from the race—loaded with chains—galled by fetters—scarred with the whip—burnt with red hot irons. They are living without a knowledge of God, groping their way from time to eternity in the dark, the heavenly light of religion shut from their minds. A mother may not teach her own child to read our Lord’s Prayer, not even to spell the name of the God who made her. For it is a crime punishable with death to teach a slave to read. It is nothing that Christ died, it is nothing that God has revealed his will, for the black as well as the white man. It is nothing that Christ commands us to search the scriptures; it is a crime punishable with death, by American law, to teach a slave to do it.
  5. Good God! what a system! A system of blood and pollution; of infidelity and atheism; of wholesale plunder and murder. Truly did John Wesley denounce it as the sum of all villainies, and the compendium of all crime. This, Christian friends, is but a faint picture of American slavery, and this is the system upheld and sustained by the entire church in the Southern States of the American Union. It is with such a church that the Free Church of Scotland is linked, and interlinked in Christian fellowship. It is such a church that the Free Church of Scotland are trying to palm off upon the world as being a Christian church. Thus making Christianity and slaveholding compatible, thus saying that man-stealing ought not to be a barrier to Christian communion, and lowering the standard of Christianity, so that the vilest thief, the foulest murderer, the most abandoned profligate, may claim to be a Christian, and to be recognized as such.
  6. The Free Church, in vindicating their fellowship of slaveholders, have acted upon the damning heresy that a man may be a Christian whatever may be his practice, so his creed be right. So he pays tithes of mint, anise, and cumin, he may be a Christian, though he totally neglect judgment and mercy. It is this heresy that now holds in chains three millions of men, women, and children in the United States. The slaveholder’s conscience is put at ease by those ministers and churches. They tell him that slaveholding is quite consistent with a profession of religion, and thus sing his conscience to sleep.
  7. Now, let us look at the circumstances under which this deed of Christian fellowship was consummated. The Free Church had just broken off from the Established Church, as they say, in defence of Christian liberty. They professed to bring off with them nearly all that was good, pure, and holy, from the Establishment. They proclaimed themselves the true exponents of the moral and religious sentiment of Scotland. Taking their word, they are the life, the soul, the embodiment of Christianity in this country. So good, pure, and holy are they, that they would almost feel themselves contaminated by a touch of a member of the Establishment. And so free are they, that they look upon those who remain in the church as mere slaves.
  8. With all this profession of freedom and purity, they appointed a delegation to visit the slave-holding churches in the United States, to beg money to build churches and pay their ministers. The delegation went over three thousand miles of perilous deep. On their arrival at New York, they were beseeched in the name of the perishing slave not to go to the slave-holding churches of the south; that as sure as they went they would contaminate their own cause, as well as stab the cause of the slave. But reason gave way to avarice, purity yielded to temptation, and the result is, the Free Church is now wallowing in the filth and mire of slavery, possessing the bad pre-eminence at this time of being the only church in Scotland that makes it a religious duty to fellowship men-stealers as the followers of Jesus Christ. Now, you have the case before you.
  9. The Free Church stands charged with fellowshipping slaveholders as followers of Christ, and of taking the wages of unrighteousness to build her churches and to pay her ministers. Are those charges true, or are they false? The Free Church admits these truths, but denies that she has done wrong. Then the question between us is as to the rightfulness of holding Christian fellowship with slaveholders, and taking the results of slaveholding to build churches and pay ministers. The Free Church say it is right; I say it is wrong; and you shall judge between us.
  10. My first position is, that slavery is a sin, the vilest that ever saw the sun, and thus far the Free Church and myself are at agreement. If, then, slavery be a sin, those who hold slaves must be sinners. This seems to me to be the only rational and natural result to which we can come from such a premise. If lying, swearing, murder, adultery, and stealing be sin, then it is clear that the liars, swearers, murderers, adulterers, and thieves must be sinners. The argument in opposition to this is, that although lying, swearing, murder, adultery, and slaveholding be sin, yet liars, swearers, murderers, adulterers, and slaveholders may be, and are, followers of the meek and lowly Saviour; for, says Dr. Chalmers on this point, “DISTINCTION ought to be made between the character of a system and the character of the person whom CIRCUMSTANCES have implicated therewith.” The Doctor would denounce slaveholding, robbery, and murder as sin, but would not denounce the slaveholder, robber, and murderer, as a sinner: he would make a DISTINCTION between sins and the persons whom CIRCUMSTANCES have implicated therewith; he would denounce the dice, but spare the sharper; he would denounce the murder, but spare the murderer; he would denounce the adultery, but spare the adulterer; for, says the Doctor, “distinction ought to be made between the character of a system and the persons whom circumstances have implicated therewith.” “Oh! the artful Dodger.” What an excellent outlet for all sinners! Let slaveholders rejoice! Let a fiendish glee run round and round through hell! Dr. Chalmers, the eloquent Scotch divine, has, by long study and deep research, found that “distinction ought to be made between sin and the sinner”; so that, while slavery may be a heinous sin, the slaveholder may be a good Christian, the representative of the blessed Saviour on earth, an heir of heaven and eternal glory, for such is what is implied by Christian fellowship.
  11. When a man is received into the church, those who receive him say to the world, we believe this man to be a Christian, a representative of Christ, a member of his blessed body. This is most horrible doctrine, glossing over the awful sin. But there is another point in this little sentence of Dr. Chalmers; indeed, we have in this one sentence the key to the entire defence which the Free Church have made to the fellowshipping slaveholders as Christians. But to the point: He says that distinction should be made between the character of a system, and the character of the persons whom circumstances have implicated therewith. Yes, circumstances—the doctrine of circumstances. Who proclaims it? Dr. Chalmers. Yes, this doctrine, which has justly brought down upon the head of the infidel, Robert Owen, the execrations of Christendom, is now proclaimed by the eloquent Scotch divine. The Doctor has been driven to this hateful dilemma by taking a false step, in fellowshipping slaveholders as Christians. This doctrine carried out does away with moral responsibility. All that a thief has to do in justification of his theft is to plead that circumstances have implicated him in theft, and he has Dr. Chalmers to apologize for him, and recognize him as a Christian. A man thief, the worst of all thieves, has but to make this plea; nay, the Doctor makes the plea for him, and receives him to the bosom of the church as a Christian. Christ says “By their fruits shall ye know them.” Dr. Chalmers says, no, “distinction is to be made between the character of the individual and the character of his deeds.”
  12. Now, my friends, I wish to ask, do Dr. Chalmers and the Free Church represent your sentiments on this subjects.—(Here the audience loudly shouted, No!)—I am glad you speak out. I regret to find that such is the power of the Free Church in some parts of this country, and even here in Arbroath, that the Dissenters, who know the Free Church to be wrong, yet do not dare to speak out, for fear of the displeasure of that church. I am ashamed of such abolitionists, they are unworthy the name, being destitute of the spirit. They have not yet learned to value their principles. But the people will speak, they will speak in tones not to be misunderstood. They have already spoken, and, I trust, will continue to speak until they silence the arrogant pretensions of the Free Church, and cause her to send back that blood-stained money. I now propose three cheers, which shall be given in the following words:— Send back that money. (Here the audience joined with Mr. Douglas[s], making the welkin ring with ‘Send back that money,’ repeating it three times.)
  13. Mr. Douglass read a compliment to Dr. Chalmers from the New Orleans Picayune, and also two advertisements of runaway slaves, from the same paper, showing that the slaveholders were highly pleased with the Doctor’s position on the slave question. And after commenting on the character of the paper by which the Doctor was eulogized, he closed with an eloquent appeal to the Christian people of Scotland, to agitate the question of holding Christian fellowship with slaveholders, and to proclaim in the ear of the Free Church, ‘Send back that money.’ Oh! that the Free Church would send it back, and confess that they did wrong in taking it. Such a course would send slavery reeling towards its grave, as if struck by a bolt from heaven. Mr. Douglass sat down amid loud applause.