The Northern Clergy

Wendell Phillips speaking against the Fugitive Act in 1850. In 1854, Douglas gave him larger crowds.

Wendell Phillips speaking against the Fugitive Act in 1850. In 1854, Douglas gave him larger crowds.

With the KansasNebraska Act Stephen Douglas, and the Southern politicians who forced his hand from David Rice Atchison and Phillip Phillips to Archibald Dixon, stood poised to split the Democracy in three, unite the North against it, and generally put to rest the last vestiges of the old political order where both parties competed in both sections and neither much cared to speak about slavery. That might seem inevitable now. Events of 1850 strained the system badly, but given time it could potentially have recovered. Though he hardly set out to do so, Douglas ensured that no such recovery would happen. The North already had a final slavery settlement that it could live with and did not take kindly to the Little Giant, on behalf of slave power oligarchs, tossing it out.

If one went back in time and visited an anti-Nebraska meeting, one would have to work hard to miss the presence of the clergy. Previously, American men of the cloth generally took pains to avoid much comment on slavery. When they had, it often meant splitting their denominations in two. Like most Americans, most clergymen cared little about slavery. They came along tardy even to the anti-Nebraska movement, only arriving in great numbers when other conservative men already had. A few years prior, they largely acquiesced even to the Fugitive Slave Act.

I don’t write that to damn them any more than to praise them, but I confess a certain dislike of the account one usually gets of American churches. To hear some tell it, one could think that the day John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence the entire American ecclesiastical community united to sign their own declaration damning slavery, from which they never faltered. With some incidental help from white laypeople, and even more trivial help from black Americans, they slew the dragon of slavery. This view rightly acknowledges the role of various religious leaders in abolitionist circles, but it also turns all American clergy into stealth Quakers. That would have stunned most of them at the time. It would have scandalized the multitudes of Southern clergymen who, like their neighbors, believed slavery good and godly. Apparently when it comes to matters of religion, only the parts of the past we find laudatory deserve recognition.

The usual answer to the example of proslavery clergy involves citing the true meaning of Christianity. I have no doubt at all that the overwhelming majority of American Christians today would condemn slavery if asked. Most certainly see it as a brutal, evil institution and so the antithesis of their faith. Those words come easily with slavery safely in the rear view mirror. We know for a fact that many Christians of the time thought quite differently. Their faith got along just fine with slavery. The Bible preached it, right up to the point of setting prices. Jesus never condemned it. Paul instructed slaves to faithfully serve their masters.

None of that means that modern Christians must go over and agree with nineteenth century proslavery clergymen. Rather we must admit that the true meaning of any religion does not present itself to us on a silver platter, plain as day. Divining it and then making judgments about what does and does not fit with the soul of one’s faith, however sincerely done, amounts to a devotional exercise. I do not think that historians have any particular expertise on this matter.

For my part, I see the question as beside the point. History concerns what happened and why, not who went to Heaven, Hell, or anywhere else. The Northern clergy had largely remained silent or preached acceptance in 1850. They did not in 1854. Though they took their time coming around to it, they joined the anti-Nebraska movement with petitions, editorials, sermons, and other acts of protest. They blessed anti-Nebraska meetings. In Douglas’ own Chicago, clergy of all faiths united to damn the bill. More than three thousand New England ministers signed a petition in the name of the Almighty against it. One Massachusetts clergyman condemned “aggression by our Southern masters.” Like the rest of the white North, they worried more about freedom for free white men than for black slaves.

In response to all of this, Douglas cried foul. The Nebraska bill involved politics, not faith. The clergy should go back to worrying about souls and let him worry about the Great Plains. Furthermore, he protested the unfairness of their speaking out on the one day of the week that secular men could not answer. The days of 1850 had not come again. Clergy who once, with little question of constitutional proprieties or their proper role, damned their abolitionist brethren found themselves suddenly on the same side. A year before, they called those same abolitionists dangerous revolutionaries.

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