On Tuesday 2 June, the four abolitionists – Frederick Douglass, James Buffum, George Thompson and Henry Clarke Wright – appeared before a packed meeting at the Music Hall on George Street. It was their first chance to give their impressions on the debate on slavery at the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, which they had attended on Saturday 30 May.
The topic was a controversial one. Ever since sending a deputation to the United States in 1843–44, and receiving donations from churches in the slave-holding states, the Free Church’s willingness to maintain relations with its American counterparts was much criticised, even by some ministers and congregations within the Free Church itself. The matter was discussed at the General Assembly of 1844, but rather than giving in to demands that it withdraw fellowship from the American churches, the leadership insisted that the Assembly should seek clarification of the position of their transatlantic colleagues. The matter was referred to a committee, which submitted an interim report in September 1844, and a copy was sent to the United States.
The compromise already conceded too much for some of the Southern Presbyterians, notably Dr Thomas Smyth of Charleston, South Carolina, who corresponded with Thomas Chalmers, berating him for hesitating to defend the slaveholding churches. But the official response to the report did not arrive until May 1845, too late to be debated at the General Assembly that year. And so the matter had to wait another twelve months before it could be debated again, after overtures on the subject of slavery were presented by the Synods of Sutherland and Caithness and of Angus and Mearns, as well as a petition from elders and other members of the Church in Dundee.
On 30 May 1846, Chalmers’ younger colleagues, Robert Candlish and William Cunningham, made it clear that they believed there were definite shortcomings in the attitude of the American Presbyterian Churches. However, they were not so serious as to warrant the Free Church severing all connection with them. The Free Church adopted the view that while slavery was a sin, being a slaveholder was not, and was content to urge its American counterparts to recognise that slaveholding carried with it a range of moral obligations.
Not surprisingly, the abolitionists were dismayed by the way this compromise succeeded in marginalising the critics within the Free Church such as James MacBeth, ‘who,’ as Douglass put it, ‘had the courage to stand forth and face the triumvirate’ of Chalmers, Candlish and Cunningham. MacBeth and others would go on to form the Free Church Anti-Slavery Society, which would attempt to revive the discussion at the General Assembly in 1847, but with little success.1
For an overview of Douglass’s activities in Edinburgh during the year, see Spotlight: Edinburgh.
AMERICAN SLAVERY & THE FREE CHURCH
A public meeting was held in the Music Hall on Tuesday evening, for the purpose of hearing the Anti-Slavery deputation enter into a review of the proceedings of the Assembly of the Free Church on Saturday, in reference to communion with slaveholders. Councillor Stott occupied the chair, and the hall was densely crowded, many being unable to obtain admission.
The Chairman stated, that he had proceeded to the Free Assembly with the address which he had been voted at a previous meeting upon the subject of slavery, but that rev. body had declined to receive it.
Mr Buffum addressed the meeting at some length. He said, the leaders of the Free Church had attempted to make the people believe that the deputation held extreme and extravagant views; but the views they entertained were, that they believed that God had created all men equal, and endowed him with certain inalienable rights, and that immediate emancipation, without regard to circumstances, was the duty of the master, and the right of the slave. (Applause.) They had been charged with disturbing the peace of the Free Church, but they were not the aggressors. That body had sent out a deputation to the United States and when there they met them with earnest entreaties not to interfere in their endeavours to establish the principle that Christianity had nothing to do with slavery, and that the slaveholder should not be allowed to connect himself with it; but the Free Church disregarded their remonstrances, and came in and sanctioned the opposite principle.
Mr Douglass said, the tone of the speeches delivered in the Free Assembly was far more in favour of slavery than he had any idea they would be; and he had never heard, even in the United States, more open and palpable defences of slaveholding than those he listened to on Saturday. He never heard anything more calculated to steel the consciences of slaveholders than the remarks then made, and the spirit manifested on that occasion in favour of holding Christian communion with them; and the best way possible for maintaining slavery in the United States, was to make out a case of excellence of character for the slaveholders. He could not help remarking the manner in which the leaders of the Free Assembly treated those who differed from them, as was evinced in the case of Mr Macbeth, who had the courage to stand forth and face the triumvirate. (Applause.) They treated him as if he had been a dog; and when they rose to reply to him, they treated him in the most contemptible manner.
Another point, he remarked, was their entire silence in regard to the money. They pretended that the money question was not connected with the discussion of the subject, but he maintained that it was, and he charged them anew with having gone to a slaveholding country and taken the price of human flesh, having in return given to slaveholders the right hand of Christian fellowship.
Mr Douglass then proceeded to combat the argument, that because slaveholding was recognised by the law, it extenuated the guilt of the slaveholder, and went on to remark that he was surprised at the power which the leaders of the Free Church Assembly exercised. He could easily see in Dr Candlish a degree of self-confidence, of self complacency, of pride, and a manifest spirit of domination over men, and a determination to lash every one who differed from him in reference to this question. His indignation was not only kindled against him for his conduct to the slave, but he was indignant to see such a measure of moral and religious intelligence as was presented on that occasion bowing submissively to the pontifical dictation of that gentleman.
He concluded by calling upon all other churches to decline communion with the Free Church unless she at once disavowed fellowship with the slaveholding churches of America. (Applause.)
Mr Wright said he wondered at the recklessness and impudence of the leaders of the Free Church in persisting in denying facts which have been repeatedly laid before the people of Scotland. It had been said that slavery existed only in a small portion of the United States. Now, there were fourteen slaveholding states, each of which is nearly as large as Great Britain, and in all of which the system of slavery exists in all its features. The political influence of those slaveholding states is so powerful, that they have always exercised a strong control over the Government; and as to their ecclesiastical influence, it was so powerful as to compel the repeal, in 1816, of an Act passed by the Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America in 1794, declaring that every slaveholder was a man-stealer. With reference to the law of the state, and the argument attempted to be founded thereon, all he could was, that when God told him to do one thing, and the state another, he put his heel upon the state. There was a spirit of slavery lurking in the hearts of the leaders of the Free Church – they were linking the destiny of that Church with man-stealers, and they would assuredly meet the doom of man-stealers if they continued to hold connection with them. (Applause.)
Mr George Thompson was received with much applause. He said, the question before Scotland, before Great Britain, and before the Christian world at this moment was, the dogmas and doctrines of the Free Church of Scotland, versus the law of God, the spirit and prospects of Christianity, and the claims of universal humanity. He had been told that he had no right to interfere in this question; that it was one of intercommunion between church and church – and question of ecclesiastical polity and discipline. Had the Free Church not meddled with slavery, gone beyond the confines of this kingdom, quitted the shores of England, traversed the blue waves of the Atlantic, fraternized with the slaveholders the right hand of fellowship, called them Christians on the spot, and mingled with them around that table on which were placed the elements, the symbols of the Saviour’s passion, and of his universal love for men – had they not come home again, bringing with them the supplies which they had gathered in these States from slaveholders, and had they not on their return fellowshipped these men, treated them as Christians before the world, demanded for them admission into the churches of this country, and recognition there as standing types of Christ – and had they not by these acts injured the cause of humanity, libelled that gospel which he had been preaching (though not in the pulpit) for the last fifteen years, and a period of that time at the hazard of his life – had he not perceived the slaveholder elevated to the communion table of the Free Church, he never would have been there to review the conduct of that body. (Applause.)
Their object that night was to review the proceedings of that Church; they had now no other object. He was now done with masked and unmasked pamphleteers; and the one issued would never have been replied to by him, but that he might by doing so expose, by writing up the man, what sort of people his masters were. (Applause.) Their object was with the Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland – with those 300 or 400 men calling themselves ministers of Christ, the champions of independence, the opponents of Erastianism, the professed successors of John Knox, who cowered in the presence of Messrs Cunningham and Candlish, for there was not a Knox among them who had this courage in his soul for once to come forward and offer one word in reply. (Applause.)
They have done, then, with anonymous writers or any writers. Their course was this – and till that Assembly met again it would be their course – to denounce through the length and breadth of the land, the horrid, God-denying, man-enslaving theology which was preached to the Assembly on Saturday, and to which an assembly of 2000 persons said amen.
It was a vital question. He asked, for what purpose did the Free Church preach the Gospel? They maintained that the streams they sent forth throughout Scotland were pure and healthful; but if those streams were impure, they had to do with the Free Church of Scotland, for a man may not drink of those streams without injury to his morality, his Christianity, his humanity, and they should try to roll them back to their fountain, or stop up the fountain itself. (Applause.) He would ask if it was a just exposition of the law of Christ to teach the horrid doctrine that ‘God has placed men in circumstances in which it would be sin to give liberty to their captives,’ and that ‘the Apostles welcomed to the Lord’s table,’ and to the privileges and ordinances of religion, men whose hands were imbrued in the blood of their fellowmen? (Applause.)
That was the question; and when those men went to London, the walls of London should be covered with that specimen of their theology, as were those of this city.
They told him that he preached a new doctrine, a strange doctrine; when, they sat at his feet in 1836, and heard the doctrine and applauded it.
The Free Church leaders talked of a kind of slavery which had no existence, but they talked of slaveholders now living, they stated where they lived, how they became possessed of their slaves, and the manner in which they treated them. Mr Thompson then read copious extracts from decisions given in the courts of the United States in reference to the power of the master over the slave, in which it was laid down by the Judge, that the authority of the master could not be permitted to be discussed – that he must have absolute control over his slaves to extort obedience, and that there is no limitation to the punishment which a master may inflict upon his slave.
He then referred to the fact of his having placed a volume in the hands of Dr Cunningham some years ago on the subject of slavery in America; after perusing which the Reverend Doctor declared to him that it had placed that subject, and especially the slaveholding Churches of America, before his eyes in such a light that he was filled with indescribable horror, and recommended the circulation of the work throughout Scotland. That work recommended the excommunication of every slaveholder from the Church of Christ, to which the Rev. Doctor assented.2
He continued – If the Free Church had considered it neccesary to send a deputation to America, they might have visited the other states of the Union, where they would have received a warm sympathy; but they who, for twelve years, had been unceasingly pouring out their invectives upon the American slaveholders, kicking to the winds the remonstrances put into their hands against holding fellowship with the slave states, proceeded to the Southern States, and to the very churches whom they had been overwhelming with their anathemas.
Did they take a deliverance with them upon the subject of slavery? No; but they sent one when they got home. They ought to have proclaimed their creed when there. That they did not; for when they visited those states they became dumb, that they might win gold; they passed through the plantation where the slaves were toiling for their tyrants, and were dumb; they heard the cracking of the whip, and were dumb; passed the slave-pens and auction blocks and prison-houses, and were dumb; and they sat in the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America, and were dumb. These successors of Knox were dumb. (Applause.) ‘We have stood in the presence of Kings,’ say they, ‘and have spoken out;’ but they stood in the presence of the slaveholder, and were dumb. They spoke out when their own liberties were attacked, and yet were dumb when three millions of helpless human beings appealed to them. (Applause.)
Not until Dr Candlish assumed a little more humility, until he ceased to ride rough-shod over the Assembly, he should very strongly suspect that if he lost his stipend, he gained what to him might be better than money – the gratification of his ambition. (Applause.)
He could not look without loathing upon the proceedings of that Assembly, previous to the meeting of which every man that was suspected was curry-combed in private; and if the secrets of the manoeuvres practised for the last twelve months, to bring about the result of Saturday last could be known, the people of Scotland would regard the people of that Church with pity, and overwhelm their leaders with scorn and indignation. (Great applause.) There were men in that Assembly who had stood on the same platform with him, and spoken against the accursed system of slavery and whose hearts, he was convinced, were burning to speak out on Saturday; and why did they not? He commended them for not quailing before these men; but the men who brought about that result, by whatever means, whether by motives of a temporal character, or threats of spiritual discipline, – the result was brought about, and he said and held that it was not done honestly, but dishonestly, and furtively, and tyrannically. (Immense applause.)
But he would proceed to the consideration of their proceedings. After the deputation came home from America, the Assembly in 1844 adopted a deliverance denouncing slavery in as mild a manner as possible, and which as sent out to America. In the following year they came to another deliverance upon the same subject, condemning it in sufficiently strong terms, yet it now turns out that it was never sent to America. Dr Candlish wrote it, he passed it through the Commission, and through the Assembly, and yet he stood upon and said, ‘I am not aware of its having been sent to America.’ He did not say that he did not know, but he was not aware – no other man but Dr Candlish would have used the expression. (Applause.)
Why was it not sent? Again, they said that they were compelled to state the sentiments they uttered, because men out of the Church have taken up an extravagant ground. You never would have said these things if you had not been driven to it! If it was the Gospel, why did you not preach it? I declared those views in 1836 in your hearing, and you did not contradict me – it is a gold pill that has so much enlightened you? (Applause.) Would it not be more honest to say, you have convicted us of these things, you call upon us to renounce these slaveholders and their money, but we will preach these doctrines rather than send back the money. (Applause.)
They had made us poor abolitionists responsible for the ebullition of feeling manifested for the slaveholder, and they sympathise with them because they themselves know what was the annoyance, irritation, and indignation occasioned by the treatment they had received at the hands of the abolitionists of Scotland. They urged them to leave the abolition of slavery to the silent, gradual, and almost imperceptible influence of Christianity – Christianity is to do it, but it is not to be pointed at – Christianity is to sweep slavery from the face of the earth, but Christianity and slavery are to be united together. That is their doctrine. Granting that slavery existed in the primitive Churches, he found that in two and a half centuries after the propagation of Christianity slavery had disappeared. Why does not Christianity in the present day sweep away slavery? Why is it found, 1600 years after the period spoken of, existing as an institution in America? Who planted the tree? – Christians, nominally; who waters the root of that tree from age to age – who prunes the branches and gives luxuriance to the fruit? – Christians; and yet Dr Candlish told them they were to leave it to Christianity to get rid of the system.
The Free Church professed to have a great interest in the Gaelic schools, and a ball was lately held, the surplus funds arising from which were offered to that body, but not one farthing would they take of it. No; they were as pure as the snow on the summit of Benlomond. ‘Know you not,’ said they, ‘we are the Free Church of Scotland, we may have to beg from door to door, but we shall not take money arising from balls.’ The ball took place in Edinburgh, and it might have brought a scandal upon the Church to take its proceeds; but they went to America and took money there, and that they might keep it, represented the slaveholder as a saint, while they denounced the beautiful girl dancing on the floor of the Assembly Rooms as a sinner whose contributions could not be received. (Applause.) ‘Ye hypocrites, ye strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.’
Mr Thompson then read a number of extracts from the constitution of the primitive churches in the third century, one part of which prohibited contributions being taken from those who used their domestics badly. He also showed that St Cyprian caused a collection to be made in order to purchase the freedom of some Numidian slaves in Alexandria.
He then proceeded – Be prepared for some new juggle. The deliverance adopted in 1845, and presented to Scotland as the opinion of the Free Church on American slavery, was never sent; an answer has been received to a former epistle, but it is not replied to. They have shirked the whole question – they never mentioned the money, nor spoke of slaveholding as a sin; and they misrepresented the extent of the system. Beware of a new juggle; as soon as this is exhausted, they will invent something else to deceive the people of Scotland. I put it to your consciences if you will accept of this theology? (Cries of ‘No.’)
Will you, upon Dr Cunningham’s dictum, that Philemon was a slaveholder, have fellowship with American slaveholders? You need not perplex yourself with the meaning of Greek words; you need not go beyond your own hearts to settle this question; and most sure am I, that you will reject every doctrine as impious and blasphemous that is most consistent with the mind of God, and opposed to the dictates of humanity. (Great applause.)
The large meeting then dispersed.
Edinburgh Evening Post, 6 June 1846
AMERICAN SLAVERY AND THE FREE CHURCH. – On Tuesday night another enthusiastic meeting was held in the Music Hall. It had been previously announced that ‘the Free Church theology, on the subject of American slavery, as propounded in the Free Assembly on Saturday last,’ would be handled. The crush was great – so much so, that one shilling was repeated offered for admission and refused. The speakers were Mr Buffum, Mr Douglass, Mr Wright, and Mr Thompson. All of them dwelt more or less on the reception they met with on Saturday at the Canonmills Hall, and on the ‘pro-slavery’ views advocated on that occasion.
Mr Douglass spoke at considerable length, and in very severe terms, of the conduct of the Free Church leaders. He had read the speeches of these leaders, but their exhibition on Saturday was far more pro-slavery than even he anticipated. Their whole soul, he asserted, seemed to be engrossed about the condition of the slaveholder, but never a syllable of sympathy in regard to the unhappy slave. Dr Cunningham had contended that slavery was the law of the land, and therefore those who held slaves could not be looked upon as sinners; but he (Mr Douglass) would say to Dr Cunningham, ‘Why not set the law at defiance?’ He had done so before, at the late disruption in the Establishment, but it did not suit his purpose to do it now. He (Mr Douglass) firmly believed that if polygamy was the law of the land, Dr Cunningham was the man who would countenance it; and had he been called on to fall down and worship the image at the sound of timbrel, sackbut, and psaltery, he would have done so.
At great length, Mr Douglas, and also Mr Thomson, who followed him, condemned what they called the ‘miserable sophistry and casuistry of Candlish, Cunningham, & Co;’ and that they were hoodwinking, cajoling, and playing the part of jugglers to their deluded followers.
It was announced there would be another meeting this week, and a soiree next week.
Caledonian Mercury, 4 June 1846
AMERICAN SLAVERY AND THE FREE CHURCH. – Another public meeting on this subject, specially to consider the speeches delivered by Drs Cunningham and Candlish in the Free Church Assembly on Saturday, was held in the Music Hall last night – Councillor Stott in the chair.Long before the commencement of the proceedings, the hall was crammed in every corner, and many hundreds surrounded the doors, unable to gain admittance.
The meeting was addressed in succession by Messrs Buffum, Douglas, Wright and Thompson, in speeches which elicited enthusiastic applause; but from the late hour at which the proceedings terminated, and the want of space, we cannot to-day attempt anything like a report. In the course of his speech, Mr Thompson stated, by way of showing the progress of the opinions he advocated, that Mr Begg, who had said that the agitation was ‘a nine-days’ wonder which would soon be put down,’ had had to bid good-bye to his elders, in consequence of the proceedings of the Assembly on Saturday. This announcement was received with immense applause; but we did not exactly catch whether Mr Thompson said elders or only elder.
Another meeting for the same purpose was announced to be held in the same place on the evening of Thursday.
Scotsman, 3 June 1846
- For an in-depth coverage, see Iain Whyte, ‘Send Back the Money!’: The Free Church of Scotland and American Slavery (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2012); also Richard Blackett, Building an Anti-Slavery Wall: Black Americans in the Atlantic Abolitionist Movement, 1830–1860 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983) and Alasdair Pettinger, Frederick Douglass and Scotland, 1846 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), pp. 46–75.
- Thompson is referring here to A Picture of Slavery in the United States of America (Glasgow: University Press, 1835). The Preface to this Scottish edition was unsigned. At a speech in Paisley on 25 April, Thompson claimed that Cunningham wrote the Preface. However, according to a report of a meeting on Thursday 30 April at South College Street Church, Edinburgh, Thompson remarked that he had received a letter from Dr Cunningham which stated ‘that he was not the author of the preface to the book “A Picture of American Slavery,” which was republished in this country in 1835’: Scotsman, 2 May 1846.