Chapter 11: Slavery and Schisms
In January of 1817 a large group of famous men met in Washington to discuss ways and means of dealing with the slavery question. The first slaves had been brought to Virginia in 1619. Since then they had increased steadily in numbers until in 1817 there were almost 3,000,000 in America. Many Americans were bothered by the buying and selling of human beings as if they were animals or any other kind of property. Among the men concerned with the problem were the famous Senators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, and the President of the United States, James Monroe.
At the Washington meeting it was decided to form the American Colonization Society for the purpose of encouraging the emancipation of slaves and the transportation of freed slaves back to their homeland in Africa. The organization elected officers, hired missionaries, and published a newspaper. It received support from the North and the South. Clergymen preached sermons extolling the plans of the group.
But not all were happy with the Society. Many men, in both North and South, opposed it as an impracticable dream, a fantasy. How could the Society raise $300,000,000 to pay the owners for the loss of their slaves? Furthermore, the men in the deep South wanted to keep their slaves; they had no intention of losing their labor supply. Other men, in the North, opposed it as utterly unfair to the freed Negroes. Many of them had built homes and held jobs; they didn’t want to return to Africa. It was argued that the Society was only an excuse to get rid of the colored people. It was only a salve for the white man’s conscience. But enough people took it seriously so that Congress procured land in Africa and established the Republic of Liberia to be settled with freed slaves.
The activity of the Society, the opposition to it, and its inability to do much more than scratch the surface of the problem indicated how seriously slavery divided the American people. Christians and people of good will had long been bothered with the terrible evil in the midst of American life. Even Southerners such as Washington and Jefferson had been disturbed by it.
Among the earliest opponents of slavery were the Quakers. As early as 1671, when George Fox, their founder, visited America he spoke against it. But this did little good. As the eighteenth century opened, a number of Quakers as well as Puritans, Presbyterians, and Anglicans held slaves. Nonetheless, not many were kept in the North simply because it was not profitable. During that century, two great Quaker saints worked against the evils of slavery. John Woolman traveled from meeting to meeting among the Quakers to lay on their hearts the conviction of the sin of slaveholding. Anthony Benezet wrote and spoke against it and persuaded a number of outstanding people to oppose slaveholding.
Another early American Christian opponent of slavery was the follower of Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins. In 1776 he wrote to the Second Continental Congress, urging the members to take steps against this horrible evil. He argued that slavery is a social consequence of deep, depraved self-love, and that this could be overcome only by true holiness, which was a gift from God. True holiness was just the opposite of selfishness: it was selfless love, which poured itself out on all beings in general because they were the creatures of God. This meant Negroes as well as white men. In Christ all men were to be loved.
So, by the time of the Revolutionary War the Christian conscience was aroused against slavery. John Wesley wrote his treatise Thoughts on Slavery, 1774, attacking it as an evil. Few men in America were willing to defend it at that tune.
Meanwhile another movement was exerting its power against the evil. In their attempts to understand their liberties which the British were attacking, the colonists asserted the theory of natural rights. This was the belief in certain rights and liberties which every man had by birth. Among them were such things as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No state or person could abrogate these. So the Declaration of Independence stated.
What then of Negro people held in bondage as slaves? Did they not have the same rights by birth as white men? Who had taken their freedom from them and cast them in chains to be shipped across the ocean in the foul-smelling, dank, hot hold of a ship? A number of men, in both North and South, saw that these freedoms applied to all men.
James Otis, one of the leading Revolutionaries, specifically included the slave as one who possessed all such natural rights by birth. Several New England colonial legislatures were confronted with bills, at this time, to abolish slavery as contrary to the laws of nature. In the 1760’s, Arthur Lee of Virginia argued that freedom was the birthright of all men, Negroes included. But it was Thomas Jefferson who proposed the abolition of slavery to the Virginia Convention in 1774. Of course, the committee did not report the bill for action, but Jefferson was not alone in his sentiment.
A number of states had clauses in their constitutions upholding the inherent rights of all men but not specifically prohibiting slavery. Vermont in 1777 did specifically prohibit the holding of slaves. Pennsylvania made provision for gradual emancipation of slaves. In 1787, Congress prohibited it from the newly created Northwest Territory. At the time of the writing of the Federal Constitution it was determined to count slaves as two thirds of a person in computing the basis for representation. Furthermore, it was determined to abolish importation of slaves after 1808. Both Washington and Jefferson looked forward to the day when it would disappear from the nation.
Just when slavery seemed to be coming under control something happened that changed the entire picture! In 1793, Eli Whitney, a New Englander, invented the cotton gin, which made it possible to use a type of cotton that had not formerly been used, and which freed labor for work in the fields. Suddenly a new demand for slave labor was produced. The cotton gin made it possible to double, triple, and far surpass previous production. As production rose, greater supplies of labor were required. The older sections of the South turned to the business of breeding slaves for the newer, more fertile fields of the deep South. What now was to happen to the antislavery movement?
Thus, when the American Colonization Society was founded in 1817 it was already facing a situation with which it could not cope. The Churches could easily stand against slavery in the days when nobody defended it, but now that it was the basis of the Southern economic empire what would they do? Many Churches had regulations against the holding of slaves, but the question of enforcement raised a real problem.
As a matter of fact, many in the South began to defend slavery as a positive good for American society. Suggestions for any radical solution of the problem, such as emancipation, had never been seriously considered, and now that slaveholders had the cotton gin, and cotton ruled as king of their economic life, they felt that they had to maintain slavery.
The first indication of the sensitive feeling of the South was evidenced in the debate to admit Missouri as a state. When it was proposed that slavery be prohibited by law before Missouri was admitted as a state, the reaction was immediate. Southerners defended slavery and claimed that Congress had no right over it. This was to be decided by every state. Furthermore, they argued that slavery was good for society. Northern representatives replied that it was contrary to the democratic principles on which the nation was founded, and it went contrary to the laws of nature and of God which were against all forms of human slavery. The result was the Missouri Compromise of 1820, in which Missouri was admitted without prohibition of slavery and Maine was admitted to the Union with an antislavery clause.
So the battle was joined. It involved politics, religion, economics, and all the vested interests of individuals and society. The political and economic arguments of the South stressed the fact that this was purely a state issue in which the Federal Government had no right to interfere. Also, Southerners argued that a slave society was the best form of society, and that "the division of mankind into grades, and the mutual dependence and relations which result from them, constitutes the very soul of civilization." Hence, finally, any attempt to undermine the system was an attempt to undermine the culture of the South.
The Southerner believed that he lived in a well-ordered society that was comparable to a body in which each living part played a certain role or performed a particular function. Somebody must do the dirty work or society would collapse. As one man said: "In all social systems, there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life . . . a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill Its requisites are vigor, docility, and fidelity."
There could be no real progress and security unless such a class could be maintained in society. This, they argued, the slave system guarantees. It allows freemen to work in trust at tasks of skill, and it permits the proper people to function as masters This was supposed to be a government by the best people of brains, talent, courage, and virtue. Such an arrangement, they maintained, made possible the existence of free institutions. Only when all sections of society perform their proper functions can there be freedom. Only when the lower ranks of society are kept busy at their true tasks can the outstanding citizens find the security and time to work within free institutions. They said that "public liberty and domestic slavery were cradled together."
As politicians, publishers, and educators stepped forward to defend slavery so too did clergymen in the South. Some of the most able defenses of slavery were written by ministers. It was only natural that they would attempt to reply to the accusation that slaveholding was a sin in itself. Their defense could be one of two types. Either they could argue that slavery was at times an unavoidable evil but not essentially a sin. Or they could argue that it was not a sin but actually a positive good which was acceptable to God. They argued both ways. Great Southern churchmen such as Dr. James Thornwell, Presbyterian, Dr. Richard Furman and Dr. Fuller, Baptists, Bishop Stephen Elliott, Episcopalian, and Bishop James O. Andrew, Methodist, led the fight in favor of slavery.
The Southern churchmen based their argument squarely on Scripture. They pointed out that the Old Testament specifically advocated slavery both on the basis of sin and on the basis of relations with the heathen. These are the Scripture texts used:
"And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren." (Gen. 9:25.)
"Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover, of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigor." (Lev. 25:44-46.)
Thus, they argued that the Bible upheld the buying, selling, and possession of slaves so long as they were not Christian and of a different race. In vain did the Northern Christians argue that the passage applied only to the Jewish people in their particular condition. The Southerners replied that Jesus nowhere condemned slavery nor ever spoke a word against it. Paul went so far as to send a slave back to his master. If slavery was an evil or sin, would not Jesus or Paul have condemned it by name?
Other Christians argued that it was not necessary to condemn it by name as the whole spirit of Jesus’ life and teaching was opposed to it. The basis of all Christian life was to love God with your whole heart, mind, and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself. How could one love his neighbor as himself while he held that neighbor in slavery as a piece of property?
This did not stop the Southerners. They argued that full love of the neighbor as the self was not possible in this life. Because of sin there was inequality, and slavery was just one of the necessary forms of inequality. They never stopped to ask if some forms of inequality were worse than others, nor did they ever understand that man was constantly to strive under love to overcome all forms of inequality. The gospel gave nobody the right to rest in such terrible injustices, simply because there would always be some form of injustice.
Again the Southern men replied that slavery was not really an injustice but a good for the Negro. Did it not enable Christians to take heathens from barbaric conditions in order to civilize and missionize them? Furthermore, the Church had no right to try to overcome the evils of society, but it had every right to direct the personal relations between masters and slaves. So argued the Presbyterian, Dr. Thornwell. Only when masters and slaves acted toward each other as the Bible instructed, did God approve of it.
The relation between the two was patriarchal. The slaves were to obey the master as their elder or parent, and the master was to treat the slave in all justice as his dependent or child. The Church’s task was to make certain that this relationship prevailed. Furthermore, the Church was to instruct and baptize the Negroes in order to make them Christian. It was the duty of the master to see that the slaves had the opportunity to become and remain Christian. Thus, both would understand and appreciate their relation to each other.
This type of life was approved by the Bible, argued the Southern churchmen. In this way alone could one express true love to the Negro as his neighbor. The Negro was created to serve in the ranks of slavery, and to tempt him to do anything else was contrary to God’s will. But to care for the Negro in that station by instructing both him and his master was to express real love toward him. Thus, his bondage would be softened and lightened.
Ministers were convinced of this argument by the further assertion of the inferiority of the Negro. He did not have the capacities or the possible talents of the white man. He was not capable of thinking through any complex problem or of being trained to do difficult tasks. It was not by chance that the Negro was in this condition -- he was so by nature, by creation. He was an inferior creature made to serve his superiors. Any attempt to discredit this was flying in the face of Biblical revelation and the findings of science. So the Southern pastors and educators argued. They alone understood the Negro and how he best could be assimilated into society -- by means of slavery.
Meanwhile, Northern antislavery sentiment was on the march. It had a glorious precedent before it in the British example. Just a the many reform and benevolence societies of the British people provided a master plan for their American brethren, so their antislavery work stood as a challenge and a pattern. Step by step the evangelical churchmen in parliament had forced the retreat of the slave system.
Legislation was passed that was intended as preparation for the emancipation of slaves, but the slave-owners would not co-operate. By 1825 it became evident to the British reformers that only immediate abolition of slavery, by law, would extirpate the evil. In place of gradualism they advocated immediatism. Antislavery societies were founded with the express purpose of bringing about the abolition of slavery. Men and women poured money and effort into the project. Pamphlets and newspapers flooded the empire and descended on American shores.
The American reformers were not unaware of the British activity. They watched with great interest the progress of the British example. By 1828 a number of presses were pouring out literature condemning the slave system. Many of these were operated by Quakers. One of the most famous publications was the Genesis of Universal Emancipation, published by Benjamin Lundy.
In 1828, William Lloyd Garrison, Lundy’s assistant editor, wrote a violent and uncompromising attack on slavery advocating the new British approach of immediate unconditional abolition. He was jailed when a Southern slave trader brought a libel suit against him in Baltimore. But in 1831 he started to publish his paper, the Liberator, in Boston. In his first issue he proclaimed his intent:
"I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject I do not wish to think, speak, or write, with moderation . . . . I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD."
Garrison’s activity met with little approval even in Boston. While New Englanders looked to Great Britain with respect, they could not understand the transplanting into the American scene of English slogans and phrases, born after years of frustrating work there. Garrison had no patience with anyone who disagreed with him, whether the Government, or the people. Either they followed his principles or they were wrong.
The consequence was that his paper had little influence in New England. It required men like Theodore Parker, the Unitarian minister, later to domesticate the antislavery sentiment in the Boston area. Ministers and Church reacted against Garrison’s statement that they were "blind leaders of the blind, dumb dogs that cannot bark, spiritual popes -- that they love the fleece better than the flock -- that they are mighty hindrances to the cause of freedom."
While Garrison vented his wrath against slavery, the Colonization Society, and the Northern clergymen, another man, Theodore D. Weld, Presbyterian minister, was quietly building a vast reservoir of antislavery sentiment. While Garrison shouted what should be done, Weld quietly went about doing it. Of the two men, Weld was the one primarily responsible for the marshaling of the forces against slavery.
During one of Charles G. Finney’s revivals near Utica, New York, an outstanding young student from Hamilton College was converted. The young man was Theodore Dwight Weld. He accompanied Finney as one of a "Holy Band," who labored with sinners under the pains of conviction during revivals. He was a magnificent speaker, a warmhearted, friendly man with boundless energy. He was easily interested in reforms of all types, and was not bound to conventional methods. One of his innovations was to give women equal right to pray and to exhort at a revival meeting. For a short time he also traveled about as a temperance speaker.
Weld became the leader of a whole band of Finney converts because of his natural abilities and his slightly older age. Though members of this band often worked in different parts of the nation, they kept in contact and agreed to attend a theological school someday. First, they all enrolled at Oneida Institute to complete their pre-theological training. Then they all went west to the newly founded Lane Theological Seminary of which Lyman Beecher had recently become president.
Meanwhile the American Anti-Slavery Society had been founded. When the glorious news of British emancipation arrived in 1833, a number of New York reformers met and founded the New York City Anti-Slavery Society, which stood for immediate abolition, but they interpreted this differently from the way Garrison interpreted it. They recognized that preparation was necessary, so they urged immediate emancipation as a gradual process to begin immediately. As they put it, "In fine, it is immediate emancipation which is gradually accomplished." In December of 1833 a national organization, the American Anti-Slavery Society, was founded in Philadelphia, largely under Garrison’s direction and domination.
At Lane Seminary, Weld soon won a position among the students almost equal to that of a faculty member, but his humility was so genuine and so deep that he disturbed nobody. Rather, he was slowly winning everybody to his side on the matter of abolition of slavery. In 1834 the student body met for eighteen nights in a revival atmosphere to discuss the pros and cons of the slavery question. When the meetings were finished almost the entire student body was converted to an antislavery position, and they determined to do something about it.
These young men were converted to the New York Society idea of gradual emancipation immediately begun, and they worked hard to help the Negro people in and about Cincinnati, Ohio. They urged people to love the Negroes as themselves. News of the Lane activity spread throughout the city, the state, and the whole nation. Beecher was faced with a problem that was aggravated by the trustees’ harsh decision to ban all antislavery activity on the part of the students.
While Beecher was gone on a protracted trip, the board of trustees proceeded to enforce their regulations. A great proportion of the seminary’s student body withdrew and went to Oberlin College. There they were allowed to pick their president, and they selected Asa Mahan, ardent antislavery pastor. They also brought John Morgan, a professor from Lane, to Oberlin with them. Finally, Charles G. Finney was induced to come as professor of theology. Colored students were to be admitted as equals in all things. Suddenly Oberlin grew from an unknown, almost extinct, struggling, backward college to an institution of international reputation. Under Finney and his converts it became the center of the antislavery movement and a host of other reform enterprises.
In the fall of 1835, Weld, commissioned as an agent for the national Anti-Slavery Society, proceeded to gather some of his band for an assault on Ohio. For several weeks he trained them in tactics. Then he visited Oberlin for three weeks, where he converted the entire community to the idea of immediatism.
Then the army marched on Ohio. Where Garrison had shouted in violence and had reaped hatred, they preached in love and reaped confidence and converts. Going was not easy. People were suspicious of all the talk about immediatism. But the young students endured "hard words . . . stale eggs and brickbats and tar." Nothing could deter their love and gentle spirit. They were heard in spite of Garrison.
Weld was the general and the leading spirit of the movement. He set the pattern for the others. Contrary to Garrison’s methods and that of many easterners, he did not depend on the violent blast of an editorial or a single well-worked-out address. He used the method of the Great Revival. Just as at Lane, Weld used the technique of protracted meetings, in which he quietly and earnestly showed the evils of the slave system. Sometimes this took six or eight meetings; sometimes as many as thirty. His aim was to make clear the evils of slavery, to get people converted to oppose it as a sin, and to get them to take a definite stand against it.
Weld met with opposition wherever he went. He usually faced shouting, angry mobs, sticks and even stones. At times his audience would shout against him for hours before he could begin his address, but when a silence came he launched forth into his appeal. At the conclusion of his meetings he asked those who believed in immediate abolition to stand. Usually the entire audience would respond.
In this fashion he swept through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, leaving behind thousands of convinced antislavery members who organized local societies. Perhaps it was impossible to do away with slavery by immediate legislation, but it was not impossible, nay, it was absolutely necessary, to repent of the sin of slavery immediately! This was what Weld and his followers preached. Against all the rationalization of the Southern clergymen they argued that buying and selling human beings was a sin against God. The first step was immediate repentance for the sin and a decision to work for its elimination. Before sin could be removed it had to be recognized as such and repented for. People were willing to do this whereas they were not willing to listen to the ravings of Garrison.
Weld organized a band of seventy men to be sent by the national Society to employ his methods. This was not difficult for them because they too were converts from the Great Revival. With great astuteness, Weld saw that not New England or Boston but the rural west had to be won, so thorough attention was paid to that section. Under Weld’s leadership pamphlets were written, petitions were sent to Congress, a deep-rooted, genuine agitation built on religious conviction ensued. John Quincy Adams presented to Congress the flood of antislavery petitions that poured in from the west. He made the right of petition a central issue through which to agitate against slavery. The South was furious. Weld later devoted his time to research for Adams and other antislavery Congressmen so they might be armed with powerful arguments in debate.
So the revivals produced the real opposition against slavery and provided the grass-roots strength to fight it. Men convinced of the sin of slavery could not be persuaded by the peculiar Southern Biblical arguments. Converts of revivalism clearly saw that the law of love, the highest demand and greatest gift of the gospel, was being violated by slavery. They had to act against it.
The Churches did not go unscathed by the slavery controversy. Almost every Church had a bitter fight over it, and the three largest and most influential groups split over it. The first schism occurred in the Presbyterian Church in 1837. On the surface this was made to appear as purely a theological and practical argument, but slavery also played its role.
For quite some time the Presbyterians had been agitated over the differences between the revivalists, called the "New School," and the antirevivalists, called the "Old School." Not only was this evident in the schism that occurred in Kentucky, but it was also a problem in their co-operation with the Congregationalists on the frontier under the Plan of Union.
The Congregationalists were largely products of Yale and Andover, both of which were strongly influenced by revivalism. They preached a doctrine that appeared wrong to the Old School Presbyterians because it seemed to deny God’s absolute power in determining, apart from any human action, who would be saved and who would be damned. Revivalism appealed to the response of man in accepting or in rejecting salvation, but in reality, argued the Old School, God uses the regular means of his Church to effect salvation at any time he pleases.
In 1837 at the meeting of the General Assembly the Old School delegates were in control. They elected to break with the Plan of Union, to support only Presbyterian societies for missions and reform, and to cut off four large New School synods that they considered heretical. With one stroke the great Presbyterian Church was cut in two.
The slavery issue was kept out of the picture, but it had certainly played its part. The New School was the center of the antislavery agitation. It included men such as Charles G. Finney and Theodore D. Weld. Their methods and theology were those against which the Old School protested. So intent were the Southern delegates to avoid the appearance that slavery was involved that the Synod of North Carolina presented a resolution denying that slavery was involved.
New School delegates were shocked, but they wanted to remain within the Church, so they held a special meeting in which they voted to uphold the Plan of Union, maintained their orthodoxy, and determined to attend the next General Assembly.
In 1838 the schism was shown to be final. The New School had to organize separately into a Church of one hundred thousand members as over against one hundred and eight thousand Old School members. Within the Old School the slavery question could not even find a hearing. There was constant agitation but no discussion on the floor. This was to be expected as some of the great leaders of the Old School were Southerners, such as the famous defender of slavery, Dr. James Thornwell. After the start of the Civil War, however, the Southern branch of the Old School with. drew, leaving a Northern antislavery and Southern proslavery Old School Presbyterian Church.
In the New School, the slavery issue was constantly debated and discussed. Several strong resolutions were passed condemning slavery, and finally in 1857 a split between the Northern and Southern branches of the New School occurred. In 1836 there was one very large and influential Presbyterian Church in America in addition to several smaller ones, but by 1861 the large Church had split into four Churches.
The Baptist was the second of the great Protestant denominations to split over the slavery issue. The only way the Baptists could separate was through their missionary conventions. As the work of Weld and the Lane band spread throughout the North, a number of Baptist ministers and a large number of Baptist laymen became convinced of the need for immediate repentance of the sin of slavery.
In 1836 the Maine Baptist Association declared slavery a vile sin and questioned whether they should retain relations with slave-holders. Southern Baptists, on the other hand, defended the institution of slavery and attacked the Northern abolitionists. The officers of the mission boards wanted to avoid all such controversy so the mission work of the Baptist churches would not be impaired. They determined in 1840 not to discuss the question.
The Northern antislavery men kept agitating, and the Southerners set out to make certain of their safety. The moderates and Southerners combined before the triennial convention of 1841 to keep the slavery question off the floor and to replace a Northern abolitionist board member with a Southern proslavery man. Victory appeared to be theirs.
Agitation continued among the Baptists until the next national meeting of the convention in 1844. Once more the moderates controlled the sessions, but this time some Baptists were growing uneasy at the method of handling the problem. Everything was left to the decision of the mission boards. The Southerners still were not certain of the good faith of their Northern brethren, so they proposed a Southern slaveholding pastor for an appointment as a home missionary. After protracted debate, the board turned him down. The Southerners immediately withdrew their support, and turned their attention to the foreign mission board. They asked outright if the board would appoint a slaveholder as missionary, and they were told no!
In the spring of 1845 the Southern associations gathered together and formed a Southern Baptist Convention to carry on the benevolent and missionary work of the Southern Baptist churches. The second great American Protestant denomination had split over slavery.
The third large Protestant denomination to split over the slavery issue was the Methodist. In their early days the Methodists had stringent rules against slaveholding, but by the early nineteenth century they had shelved those regulations. Meanwhile a large number of Methodists, particularly in New England, were influenced by the abolition movement. They published an abolition newspaper, the Zion Herald, and a number of Methodist antislavery societies developed. By 1836 a large number of Methodist pastors and people were convinced abolitionists.
At the General Conference of 1836 it became evident that no definite action for or against slavery could be taken, though the subject provided a good deal of heat and discussion. The battle scene then shifted to the local annual conferences where various antislavery resolutions were introduced, but they were ruled out of order by the presiding bishop and a "gag rule" was applied. The consequence was the withdrawal of some antislavery men.
By the time of the General Conference of 1844, held in New York, opinion in the North had coalesced against the gag of silence placed on the slavery question. Many felt that such action only evaded the real question and drove good Methodists into schism. So when the conference met, a new spirit was evident. Furthermore, the case of Bishop James O. Andrew of Georgia, a slave-holder, came up. Could a slaveholding bishop who had to preside at conferences all over the nation preside at a New England conference? After long debate and many discussions it was decided that he could not perform the functions of a Methodist bishop.
During the dispute the question of separation became acute, and after the decision against Andrew a committee of nine was given the task of drawing up a plan of separation in case it became necessary. In perfect good will and harmony they presented the plan. Two years later the Southern brethren followed the plan, separated, and formally founded the Methodist Episcopal Church South. The break was inevitable.
However, some Northern men were dissatisfied and declared the action unconstitutional, and when the next General Conference met in Pittsburgh, in 1848, they declared the act null and refused to accept the Southern fraternal delegates. Legal warfare over property, press, churches, and institutions resulted. Hatred and bitterness reigned supreme. Cases could not be amicably settled, and the courts of the nation had to decide. In the border states between North and South, the dispute was particularly bitter. Separation appeared inevitable, but in place of a peaceful settlement of differences, there resulted a heated battle that largely ignored Christian charity and forbearance.
So the Churches of the nation were torn by slavery. Not all separated, but all felt its effects. The Episcopalians met as separate Churches during the war. The Lutherans split after the war had started. Even the Roman Catholic Church experienced some unrest, but it could not split because of its allegiance to the pope. One diocese could he proslavery and another antislavery. The Disciples of Christ had no national organization to rupture. The Congregationalists had but few Southern members and so did not have the necessary conditions for a schism.
Protestantism in America was capable of producing a new spirit in missions and reform, but it could not hold the Churches together when the nation was divided over slavery. Feelings ran high. It was the old question of the gospel against entrenched social evil. Many men thought they knew the will of God for the moment. Each group felt that it had found more light yet in God’s Word either to defend slavery or to condemn it.
It is good that some men in the Church such as Theodore D. Weld could attack the evils of slavery and yet maintain a Christian spirit of compassion and mercy toward both master and slave. It was not a simple matter of standing up and self-righteously condemning an evil which one actually never had to face. It was, rather, a matter of both sides standing under God’s mercy and judgment.
The pity was that Northern churchmen were so intent on attacking the obvious sin of their Southern brethren that they did not see their own pharisaical sins of self-righteousness and vindictiveness. The consequence was that a deep cleavage was produced between Christians, Northern and Southern, that is not completely healed even to this day.