Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

"Calm Yet Earnest Attention"-The Richard Fuller-Francis Wayland Slavery Debate of 1844-45, Baptist Denominational Division, and the Coming of the Civil War

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

"Calm Yet Earnest Attention"-The Richard Fuller-Francis Wayland Slavery Debate of 1844-45, Baptist Denominational Division, and the Coming of the Civil War

Article excerpt

In November 1844, The Christian Reflector, a Baptist newspaper in Boston, invited South Carolina's famed preacher Richard Fuller to compose a brief argument for why slavery was not a moral evil.

The request could hardly have come at a more tumultuous moment in Baptist denominational life. The Triennial Convention, the primary national Baptist body, had recently concluded its meetings in Philadelphia amid unprecedented turmoil over slavery. Long-simmering tempers flared, derailing normal missionary work. Most delegates left either bitter or fearful for the future of the Convention. Deep South Baptists set in motion plans to withdraw and form a new convention explicitly affirming the rights and righteousness of pious slaveholders.

Fuller, opinionated yet agreeable, welcomed the opportunity to set forth the biblical justifications for his belief that slavery was not a necessary evil, everywhere and at all times a sin. (1) Readers of the 7 November 1844 edition of the Christian Reflector found Fuller sparring with the arguments of several prominent antislavery voices, such as Francis Wayland, a leading northern Baptist and current president of Brown University. Upon reading Fuller's letter, Wayland felt compelled to reply. So began one of the antebellum era's most extended and notable biblical debates over slavery. Over the course of nearly four months the Christian Reflector published fifteen letters comprising the Fuller-Wayland debate. (2)

Wayland and Fuller were not strangers meeting for the first time in the pages of the Christian Reflector. For the past fifteen years, they had watched the Triennial Convention descend into bitter infighting over slavery. They believed the national Baptist body would be best served by recognizing the limits of its authority and avoiding the slavery issue altogether. But by 1844 this policy of tactful avoidance proved wholly impractical.

Meetings over foreign and domestic missions deteriorated into quarrels over slavery, which in turn portended sectional division--hardly an auspicious moment for two Baptist leaders to debate publicly the morality of slavery. What could possibly have motivated these two men, seemingly committed to preserving harmony and cooperation within their denomination, to debate slavery publicly at such a hostile moment? They did so not because the swelling spirit of partisanship had finally consumed them, but instead because they sought to model how Baptists who differed sharply in their opinions on slavery could still sincerely esteem one another as fellow followers of Christ.

Historians often look to the sectional split of the three dominant Protestant denominations (Presbyterians, 1837; Methodists, 1844; Baptists, 1845) on the eve of the Civil War as a way of accounting for religion's role in causing the conflict. As Charles Sydnor memorably wrote, "The division of the churches was something more than an ecclesiastical event." It was a rupturing of one of "the great cohesive forces in America," that placed greater strain on the other national institutions, namely the Whig and Democratic parties. (3) Religious historians have been even bolder in their conclusions.

William Warren Sweet believed "there are good arguments to support the claim that the split in the churches was not only the first break between the sections, but the chief cause of the final break." (4) C. C. Goen, in his influential Broken Churches, Broken Nation, insisted that the "denominational schisms, as irreversible steps along the nation's tortuous course to violence, were both portent and catalyst of the imminent national tragedy." (5)

The conventional wisdom has hardened. When church leaders dissolved their sacred bonds, they alienated northern and southern churchgoers and escalated the possibility of violent sectional conflict. With the church divisions set deep within the long shadow of the Civil War, the evangelical clergy suddenly appear to be the chief abettors of the mid-nineteenth-century woe. …

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