Edinburgh: 7 May 1846

Heriot’s Hospital, from the Grass-Market, engraved by W. J. Linton , drawn by H. O. Smith, in The Land We Live In: A Pictorial and Literary Sketch-Book of the British Empire, Vol II (London: Charles Knight, [1848?]), p. 98
As Douglass explains, the meeting held on Thursday 7 May at Mr M’Gilchrist’s Church on Rose Street, was prompted by ‘various ministers’ of the United Secession Church. This was because the next evening, on the fifth day of the half-yearly meeting of its Synod, was reserved for a debate on slavery, responding to ‘overtures’ condemning the Free Church for ‘accepting money from the slave states’ . It would also discuss a motion to ‘withhold Christian fellowship from the Presbyterian Church of America while they continue in that system’.

Despite the headlines of the reports in the Caledonian Mercury and Edinburgh Evening Post (reprinted below), it seems clear that Douglass avoided directly attacking the Free Church on this occasion, adopting a more conciliatory approach in order not to unduly antagonise those in the audience who would be taking part in the debate. Even James Buffum, who could not refrain from passing comment on the Free Church minister George Lewis, confined his remarks to the book he had written of his travels in the United States, Impressions of America and the American Churches (1845).

For an overview of Douglass’s activities in Edinburgh during the year, see Spotlight: Edinburgh.


On Thursday night, another meeting was held in Mr M’Gilchrist’s Church, Rose Street, on the subject of the connection of the Free Church with American slavery. Admission was by tickets issued at a small charge, and the attendance was exceedingly numerous.

Mr Douglas addressed the audience at great length. He commenced by stating, that the meeting was suggested by various ministers of the United Secession. They desired him to express his views on the character of American slavery, together with the means which are adopted for sustaining the system. He would endeavour to put them in possession of as many facts as their time would allow.

The principle of slavery is defended by the laws of the United States. The principal point is that the slave is a thing, a chattel personal, under the entire dominion and control of his master. He may not decide for himself; the master is the sole disposer of his time, his strength, his power of body and mind. The master decides for him as to what is right and what is wrong. The slave may not decide in his affections. The master decides for him even in marriage. Let them but reflect on that state of society where the marriage vow is not respected. That state of things is in the Southern States of America; there, the slave has been forced to put in practice the abominable doctrines of Socialism. There are to be found three millions of human beings compelled by law to live practically in a state of absolute concubinage; and he here could not forebear saying that Christians have gone into the midst of that pollution without raising a word against it – (shame.)

The duty of the slave, then, is unlimited submission to his master; the will of God is set entirely aside when that of his master comes in competition with it; no matter at what sacrifice of conscience – no matter how bad the master may be – the slave is bound to obey in all things. The moral evils that result from slavery are incomparably greater than are the physical. The slave’s mind is either darkened or enlightened just in so far as his master thinks proper.

But a word about the cruelties. He would not speak of those he endured himself. He would not show them the stripes on his own back; but he would read them a number of advertisements daily inserted in the newspapers by the masters themselves, which may lead to the detection of the runaway slaves. Mr Douglass then read a great number of these, from which it appeared that the runaway slaves, when recovered, are branded and mutilated in a horrible manner. Some had pieces of chains on their legs, attached to which were heavy bars of iron to prevent them from escaping, while others (and these were chiefly women) were decorated with iron collars.

Mr Douglass next gave a detail of the punishment that were inflicted upon the slaves, for the slightest offence, or (as more frequently happened) for no offence at all. Lashing, of course, was general, while some of the slaves had their ears cropped off, others were branded on the skin with hot irons, and numerous other mutilations were inflicted. Outlawry, he said, was very general amongst the slaves, and in these cases people, if they were so disposed, might shoot them at pleasure without any fear of punishment. Blood-hounds are trained to run after slaves.

He described a Baptist clergyman who had whipped his slave to death, unpunished; so horrible was the fatal punishment that the slave was beat to jelly, so that no one, when they saw the man after death, could recognise him. Women at auction stalls, when being sold, are there exposed and examined by the slaveholders in the most indelicate way.

He described the case of man and wife who were thus exposed to sale. His wife was sold first; the man beseeched that he should also be bought by the same party in order that he might not be severed from the wife he loved. Unfortunately, however, he was sold to another. After he saw his fate, he rushed forward to take one last embrace from his wife, but this he was prevented from doing by the hard-hearted slaveholder. In the struggle that ensued, the poor slave fell down a corpse. His heart was broken – (great sensation.) No woman slave was allowed to defend her person against the evil wishes of her master, for the moment she did so her master had the power to strike her dead.

There was another case of extreme cruelty which Mr Douglass depicted, namely, that of a young man who had previously met with much ill usage, and who wished to escape; in his endeavours he ran into a creek up to the neck. He was told immediately to come out; but he had counted the cost – he refused, and for his refusal he was immediately shot dead by his master.

Mr Douglass stated another case, which, from its barbarous details, created a feeling of horror amongst the audience. It was the case of Mackintosh, who defended himself against the assaults of a white man; in this attempt he was caught by the mob, taken by them to a wood, and burnt. When the lower half of his body was burnt away, and his murderers thought he was dead, he shrieked out ‘shoot me.’ ‘No,’ said his murderers, ‘we shall lower the intensity of the fire in order that you may be slowly consumed.’

Mr Douglass detailed a great many cases of a like nature.

You ask me, continued Mr Douglas, is there no religion in the United States? Yes, there never was a more professing people on the face of the globe – but it is a slaveholding religion – (cheers.) The people there take up the ground that their slaveholding, with all its cruelties, is sanctioned by God Almighty. They take it for granted, like the Free Church, that it is of Divine origin. They say if it is a moral evil, why does it exist? man did not create it, therefore he cannot destroy it.

Now, said Mr Douglass, if stealing is a crime, so is slaveholding, for it is the highest species of stealing. The liberty of the human being is stolen, not to speak of his energies and labour – (cheers.) All religion there was interwoven with slaveholding. But they might ask him, was there no Christianity there at all? This was best known to the Searcher of Hearts. As for himself, he would say that so far as he understood Christianity, it was not preached there. If the gospel in its native purity and freeness was preached as liberty to the captive, then slavery would cease. But its supporters take care of that. The slaveholder and the minister are combined in one and the same individual, and thus they make the whole religion of Christianity to sanction slavery. But are there no revivals? Yes! but they go hand in hand with slavery. The slave-prison and the meeting-house stand side by side with each other; in short, the enormities of slavery are all covered with the holy garb of religion.

But it is asked, what do the abolitionists want? They want to establish the principles of the meek and lowly Jesus. We do not believe that his followers exist there. We do not say, like some, that the slaveholders may be Christians; we deny that they can be so. But some say, ‘Mr Douglass, the crime is in the United States, not here; here we all remonstrate against it.’ He admitted all that. He was there to thank them for the exertions they had already made; but although they had thus spoken, they must speak again. If they had whispered before, they must now speak aloud. Let their voice be carried across the blue waves of the Atlantic to cheer the depressed heart of the slave and fill with alarm and dread the heart of the slaveholder. Public opinion in this country was against slavery, and what he wanted was that all denominations should combine in pronouncing that the slaveholders should be excommunicated from the privileges of Christians. The slaveholders do not wish enlightenment on the subject, they know it in its true bearings with Christianity; all they want is the support of the Christians in this country in their horrid traffic.

To say that a slaveholder can be a Christian is a contradiction, an anomaly. We might as well say, that a man may be a Christian who does not believe the fundamental principles of the gospel. If a man preaches and prays well here, and cheats in Liverpool, will we exclude him? Yes, says any one – (cheers.)

Let us apply this rule to the slaveholder; he cheats and steals every day from his poor slaves, and therefore, although he may preach and profess as he may, he could not be fellowshipped with as a Christian. After detailing the heavy punishments (in some cases death) inflicted for attempting to teach negroes to read and write, or even to instruct them in the Christian religion in the Southern States, Mr Douglass gave a very interesting detail of the manner in which he stole his education.

Mr Buffum followed in a quaint and graphic speech, commenting on Mr Lewis’s work, and exposing the horrors of slavery.

Mr Jack, who was in the body of the meeting, questioned some of the statements of Mr Buffum, which caused considerable excitement.

Councillor Blyth was then called to take the chair, in order that both parties might be fairly heard, but on Mr Jack reaching the platform, he said he would not at present enter into any argument on the question, as he understood another opportunity would be afforded him of doing so.

The Rev. Mr Arthur then appeared on the platform, and (having obtained liberty from the chairman) proceeded to address the meeting. He said that the body with which he was connected (the Baptists) had determined to renounce all fellowship with the abettors of slavery, which seemed to give great satisfaction. The meeting then dispersed.

Caledonian Mercury, 11 May 1846

AMERICAN SLAVERY AND THE FREE CHURCH. – On Thursday night another meeting was held in Mr M’Gilchrist’s Church, Rose Street, on the subject of the connection of the Free Church with American slavery. Admission was by tickets issued at a small charge, and the attendance was exceedingly numerous.

Mr Douglass addressed the audience at great length. He stated at the outset that the meeting had been held in consequence of a request from several ministers belonging to the United Secession Church, to hear the deputation from America previous to the Synod of that body entering upon the consideration of the question themselves.

Mr Douglass’s speech was chiefly composed of a statement of facts in the form of extracts from the laws of the Slave States, for regulating slavery; of advertisements in newspapers for the recovery of runaway slaves, containing descriptions of their deformities, and disfigurement by the lash, as a guide to their identification, and of the excruciating torture to which they were subjected – many of the statements being so harrowing as to excite a feeling of horror in the minds of the audience.

He likewise read extracts from the proceedings of several of the religious bodies in the Southern States to show their connection with slavery, and stated that a great many of the ministers were slaveholders.

Mr Douglass, in conclusion, said that all he wanted the United Secession and other denominations of Christians in this country to say was, not that the slaveholder cannot be a Christian, but to abstain from acknowledging that he is one.

Mr Buffum also addressed the meeting. He confined his remarks mainly to the book written by the Rev. Mr Lewis on the subject, and showed that the gentleman, while he had denounced the Established Church of Scotland as Erastian, had shaken hands and entered into communion with those who were guilty of Erastianism far more palpable.

Though the proceedings were prolonged to a late hour, the interest of the audience was kept up unabated till the close.

Edinburgh Evening Post, 9 May 1846 (also, with minor variations in Scotsman, 9 May 1846)