Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America

By Dwight Lowell Dumond | Go to book overview

Chapter 41
THE CHURCHES

"The abolitionist...looks upon the institutions of his country, religious and political, as forming the character of her great men...when we have pronounced these two words [religion and politics], we have expressed every thing that gives pressure to American thought. Now, Religion is the most productive, the most efficient, the deepest idea, and the foundation of American thought and American institutions." So said Wendell Phillips in 1848.1

Repetitious examination of political and ecclesiastical literature discloses a sharp decline of spirited defense of individual freedom after 1800, in no particular more clearly evident than in the attitude of the agencies of state and church toward slavery. Slavery was a waning institution at the time of the Revolution, and it was recognized as such in the fundamental law, if indeed it was recognized at all. In a manner of speaking, it crept into the Constitutional Convention by the back door, but was held in such disrepute as not even to have been addressed by its proper name.

The lamentable fact is, however, that despite the most terrible denunciations to which the English language lends itself, by the greatest among statesmen, philosophers, and churchmen of two continents, and in the Constitutional Convention and ratifying conventions, and in the councils of the several churches, neither the government nor the church ever completely divorced itself from slavery or took an uncompromising position with regard to it.2 The great leaders in both areas were honest in their abhorrence of the institution, but they did not strike it down. They temporized. Then the fervor of their reforming zeal lessened. Their social and economic environment changed. The principle of gradualism which they applied both in state and church did not work. The spirit of liberty lessened. Sound public morality declined, and wealth became more attractive than humanity. Property rights became more important than human rights. Slavery was resuscitated, and presently represented great wealth and political power. It had a stranglehold on political parties and upon the church. It reversed national policy. Apathy toward it turned to apology and defense. The rulers in the church interpreted the Bible in the light of their own prejudices, and the rulers in the state interpreted the Declaration and the Constitution in the same manner. These great charters of human freedom and Western liberalism had to be rescued by greater men of lesser public stature or they would have been completely trampled underfoot.

William and Mary College gave a doctor of laws degree to Granville Sharp in 1791, the man who had taught the courts of England why no man could stand upon her soil and be a slave. The Sommersett decision was the greatest single personal achievement in the long struggle against slavery. In 1835 Granville Sharp's writings would have been confiscated in Virginia, and he himself might well have been hanged without indictment and without trial.

The Methodist Episcopal Church in 1780 condemned slavery as "contrary to the laws of God, man, and nature, and hurtful to society; contrary to the dictates of conscience and pure religion

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