"The Worst Kind of Slavery": Slave-Owning Presbyterian Churches in Prince Edward County, Virginia

Article excerpt

IN 1851 PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER WILLIAM HILL LOOKED BACK OVER HIS LONG life of service to his faith and wrote his autobiography. Hill spent part of his ministry at Briery Presbyterian Church in Prince Edward County, Virginia, between 1834 and 1836. In the autobiography, he recounted that his time at Briery was so brief because of "the state of slavery, as connicted with this cong'n. Their minister was supported by a fund which consisted of Slaves, who were hired out from year to year, to the highest bidder, which I considered the worst kind of slavery." (1) Briery Presbyterian Church had been an institutional owner of slaves since the 1760s. As Hill lamented, the congregation annually hired out its slaves at auction. This variant of slavery was particularly difficult for the Briery slaves because they were hired out every year of their lives, from birth to death, often to different masters; slaves owned by individuals were also hired out but rarely for their entire lifetime. Further, because the Briery slaves were owned by a congregation rather than an individual, they lacked the basic protections that a master's self-interest usually brought. In an era when many southerners--and the Presbyterian Church leadership in particular--vigorously defended slavery with images of benign slaveholders protecting the bondpeople, the slaves of Briery Presbyterian Church had no such paternal, identifiable master.

Hill was not the only one to consider slaveholding by congregations "the worst kind of slavery." Many other Presbyterian ministers and church members felt uncomfortable about slave owning by their churches, even while defending slavery itself as an institution sanctioned by God as part of the natural, hierarchical order of human domestic relations. Slavery was, however, so deeply embedded in Presbyterian culture in the American South by the antebellum period that it was very hard for churches to rid themselves of the practice. Slave ownership by congregations was profitable; it paid the minister's salary and provided for other needs of the church. In many cases the slaves were the only endowment the congregation required. This freed members from the necessity of making financial contributions to their church--a substantial benefit. Slaves were a good investment; they often improved on the original outlay through childbearing, so that in a few generations, a humble purchase of a handful of slaves might result in a substantial endowment of forty or fifty slaves. Congregational slave owning made all members of the church beneficiaries of slavery whether or not they owned slaves themselves or even approved of slavery.

For these reasons, slave owning by Presbyterian churches in antebellum Virginia created a paradox by simultaneously strengthening and weakening slavery. On the one hand, the practice strengthened the commitment of whites to the slave regime both economically and philosophically. First, it increased the number of individuals who were economic beneficiaries of slavery to include all the members of the congregation. Second, it bolstered the members' willingness to accept slavery: if God prospered their church's investment in slaves and used slavery to promote the Presbyterian faith, could slavery be wrong? On the other hand, Presbyterian slave owning undermined one of the most significant defenses of slavery--the paternalist ideal of the caring master. Thoughtful church members recognized this contradiction.

This study of Presbyterian congregations in Prince Edward County, Virginia, examines how the tensions evident in this paradox played out. After tracing the congregations' policies and sometimes contentious debates from the 1760s to the 1840s, the article details how hiring out affected Briery slaves in the 1840s. They succeeded in maintaining some family ties in spite of separation, high infant mortality, and frequent moves among hirers whose temperament and social class varied widely. Nevertheless, slave owning by churches could truly be called "the worst kind of slavery. …