While the focus of the abolitionist speeches in Edinburgh was on the forthcoming General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, other Scottish Churches were also preparing to make important decisions on their relationship with their American counterparts. The governing bodies of the The United Secession and Relief Churches both met in May. The main subject of discussion was the proposed merger of the two churches (the two denominations united the following year to form the United Presbyterian Church) but they also discussed slavery.
Douglass attended the evening session of the fifth day of the United Associate Synod at Broughton Place Church which unanimously approve a motion to withdraw Christian fellowship with the Presbyterian Churches in the United States. The official proceedings of the Synod did not acknowledge Douglass’s presence,1 but newspaper reports did. And although he was not permitted to address the assembly, the manner in which he was referred to is not without interest.
According to the Greenock Advertiser (12 May), during the afternoon session, Dr John Ritchie, of the United Secession Church, Potterow,
having asked when the subject of American slavery was to be brought on, and having been told that it would taken up in the evening, asked the Synod if it would invite a black, at present in the town, to address them on the subject. (Cries of ‘No, no.’)
That the ‘black’ in question was Douglass is confirmed by his subsequent appearance at the assembly in the company of Dr Ritchie, as the report, reproduced below, confirms. But clearly, the hostility of some of the delegates, while it did not prevent him attending the proceedings, persisted, for Ritchie’s request that Douglass be permitted to express his thanks, was denied. A less detailed report, in the Caledonian Mercury, is appended.
The Relief Church following suit, approving a similar resolution at its Synod the following week.2
There is no record of Douglass’ activities the following week. There is some evidence that he was not feeling well. On 16 May, in a letter to the woman he knew as ‘Harriet Bailey’ who lived with his family in Lynn, Massachusetts, Douglass wrote:
[L]et me say a word about my health. It is only tolerable. I never feel well in the Spring. I however think I feel as well this Spring as I remember to have felt at any time in the Spring during the last five years. Harriet I got real low spirits a few days – ago – quite down at the mouth. I felt worse than ‘get out.’ My under lip hung like that of a motherless colt[.] I looked so ugly that I hated to see myself in a glass.
There was no living for me. I was snappish. I would have kicked my grand ‘dadda’! I was in a terrible mood – ‘dats a fac! ole missus – is you got any ting for poor nigger to eat!!![‘] Oh, Harriet, could I have seen you then. How soon would I have been releived from that Horrible feeling. You would have been so kind to me. You would not have looked cross at me. I know you would not. Instead of looking cross at me, you would have with your own Dear Sisterly hand smoothed, and stroked down my feverish fore head – and spoken so kindly as to make me forget my sadness.
He goes on to tell her how he raised his spirits by buying an ‘old fiddle’ from a ‘large store’. Back in his hotel room he played ‘The Campbells Are Coming’ and in minutes he ‘began to feel better and – gradually I came to myself again and was as lively as a crikit and as loving as a lamb.’3
The snub he received at the Synod can’t have helped matters. But as he suggests, he was soon ready to return to the fray. Despite being advertised to speak in Kirkcaldy and Edinburgh on 19 and 20 May, he left for London on Monday 18 May for the annual meeting of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and did not return to Edinburgh until the following weekend.
For an overview of Douglass’s activities in Edinburgh during the year, see Spotlight: Edinburgh.
UNITED ASSOCIATE SYNOD.
FRIDAY, MAY 8. EVENING SEDERUNT.
The Synod, at the beginning of the evening sederunt, appointed a Committee to prepare a formula, which is to be laid before the October meeting of the Synod.
Dr Young made a motion to the effect – ‘That without recognising anything in the overtures which referred to the Free Church of Scotland, the Synod should express its sentiments against the system of American slavery, and appoint a Committee to draw up a deliverance on the subject, to be produced at a subsequent meeting.
Mr Pringle of Newcastle submitted a motion, which after being repeatedly altered, was to the following effect: – That this synod, regarding the system of slave holding, in any circumstances, as a heinous sin, and that of America as a sin of a peculiarly heinous and exaggerated character; and having with this conviction on former occasions addressed the Presbyterian Churches of America in the language of faithful and earnest remonstrances hitherto without the desired effect, the Synod now feel it to be their imperative and solemn duty to refuse Christian fellowship with any Church which was sanctioning that system of iniquity; and appoint a Committee to prepare a memorial embodying these sentiments, to be addressed to the Presbyterian and other Churches in America which sanctioned slave-holding, remonstrating against the unholy thing, and entreating them to put it away.
Dr Ritchie said he was always against slavery, and complained that Christianity was conventionalized, and made to accommodate itself to various latitudes and longitudes.
Dr Young withdrew his motion.
While the motion of Mr Pringle was undergoing correction to make it stand as above, and as it seemed to be understood that it was to be unanimously agreed to, Dr Ritchie said, that without any preconcert on his part, his friend (Mr Douglas), who was present, begged that he might be allowed, if the Synod thought proper, to return thanks to them, in the name of himself and of three millions of fellow-slaves.
Mr Johnston of Limekilns objected to this, on the grounds that it set a precedent that might lead to very grievous abuse and be begged as a favour that Dr Richie would not insist in his request.
The feeling of the Court being against the suggestion made by Dr Ritchie, it was fallen from.
The Synod then took up the various overtures and memorials which had been presented by the Presbyteries and congregations on the subject of American slavery.
Mr Jaffray, who spoke in support of an overture from the Presbytery of Glasgow, addressed the meeting at considerable length. He noticed, first, the state of slavery in America, and showed not only the cruelties to which the negroes were subjected, but the gross immorality which was interwoven with the system as regarded the social and moral condition of the unfortunate slave. He then showed the connection of all the Presbyterian Churches in America, except the Cameronians, with slavery, – most of which Churches not only tolerated the system, but permitted ministers and office-bearers to remain within their pale who were engaged in slave-breeding, slave-holding, and slave-trading. He said it was the duty of the Secession Church, and every Christian Church, to lift up a testimony against this wicked system, by refusing to hold fellowship or communion with the Churches of the United States, so long as they continued in this sin. In giving utterance to this sentiment, Mr Jaffrey was led to point out the difference between holding intercourse with slaveholders as men, and communion with them as Christians. He concluded by saying that the Synod should consider the subject entirely with reference to the Secession Church, as he considered that a reference to other Churches was entirely away from the question.
During Mr Jaffray’s address, Mr Douglas, the runaway slave, entered the Synod in company with Dr Ritchie, and was applauded by the audience in the gallery.
Mr Pringle of Auchterarder, after cautioning the Synod against the exhibition of any excited feeling in coming to a decision on this subject, went into a long and elaborate exposure of the system of slavery in America, and the duty of the Secession Church to renounce the fellowship with all Churches who either tolerated or encouraged the system.
At this stage, Mr Ellis of Saltcoats, begged to dissent from the motion of Mr Pringle. He said that he abhorred slavery as much as any man could do, and he disapproved of the conduct of the American Churches; but he would say that they were stirring up a question which, in the present state of ecclesiastical connections in Scotland, might do a great deal more injury than it was likely to do good. (Hisses from the gallery.) He would dissent from the motion, and would give in his reasons afterwards for so doing.
Some confusion arose, in the course of which Dr Beattie also stated that he would dissent, and was followed by another member. This gave rise to some discussion. On Dr Beattie saying that this motion would amount to a sentence of excommunication against the American Churches, he was met by cries of ‘No, no, but unwillingness to have fellowship.’ He said that if that was what was meant, he had not the slightest objection, and he would withdraw his dissent.
Mr Ellis and other gentlemen also withdrew their dissent; and the motion was declared to be unanimously carried, after a good deal of discussion.
After appointing a Committee to draw up the address, the Synod adjourned till Monday evening at half-past six.
Greenock Advertiser, 12 May 1846
UNITED ASSOCIATE SYNOD.
FRIDAY, MAY 8. EVENING SEDERUNT.
Overtures and memorials on the subject of American slavery from the Presbyteries of Perth and Dundee, and congregations of Galashiels and Selkirk, having been read, all of them condemnatory of the practice of slavery, and some condemning and lamenting the conduct of the Free Church, in accepting money from the slave states.
Mr Jeffery, Glasgow, said, there were two considerations in the case – first, the state of the American churches in regard to slavery in that country; and next, their duty towards those churches while occupying that position. Amidst all the abuses of the system, the American churches had not only overlooked these evils, but ministers, office-bearers, and members of these churches were engaged in the sin of slave-breeding, slave-holding, and slave-trading. He therefore charged upon them all the evils of the system, because they sanctioned by communion those who were engaged in slaveholding. As to the duty of the Synod, then, in these circumstances, they had merely to go to the Scriptures for the ground of the settlement of this question, where they were told to have no fellowship with the unprofitable works of darkness. They could have no fellowship with men engaged in sinful practices; and while he would not pronounce upon their Christianity, he saw only one course while they continued in their sin, to decline holding communion with them, and to accompany it with admonition and reproof.
Mr Pringle, Auchterarder, said their decision should have no reference, direct or indirect, to any Church in this country. it would have been unnecessary to disclaim such an intention, had not some of the memorials presented alluded to another church. If they had any fault to find with the churches around them, they should speak openly and plainly, and not in indirect insinuation.
Dr Young, Perth, moved, that without recognising anything in these overtures which refers to the Free Church, the Synod agree to adopt them simply as against the continuance of American slavery, and appoint a committee to prepare a brief and explicit declaration upon the subject, to be submitted at a subsequent meeting of Synod.
Mr Pringle of Newcastle held that the motion left the question open as to the great principle that slavery, in all its respects, is a sin, and that when any party is found to be connected with it, and, after admonishment, still continue their course, we should withdraw from their communion. He moved, that seeing the system of slavery still continued in America, notwithstanding the repeated remonstrances of the Synod, the Synod declare they feel themselves shut up to withhold Christian fellowship from the Presbyterian Church of America while they continue in that system; and appoint a committee to prepare a remonstrance to that body.
Mr Renton objected to the clause in the first motion referring to the Free Church; and he considered that if anything had hampered the members of the court, either there or elsewhere, in freely declaring their opinions, it was the knowledge of the connection of a sister church, in the minds of the public, with the question.
Ultimately, Dr Young consented to withdraw his motion, and that by Mr Pringle was agreed to most unanimously.
A proposal to allow Mr Frederick Douglass, a fugitive slave, then in the church, to be heard in returning thanks for the decision of the Synod, was rejected.
The Synod then adjourned till Monday evening.
Caledonian Mercury, 11 May 1846
- ‘Proceedings of Synod’, United Secession Magazine (June 1846), pp. 250–285. The debate on ‘American Slavery’ on Friday 8 May was summarised on pp. 271–73.
- See eg. Scotsman, 16 May 1846.
- Frederick Douglass to Ruth Cox, [Edinburgh], 16 May 1846 in The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series Three: Correspondence, Volume 1: 1842–52, edited by John R. McKivigan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 124–25.