Slavery in the Pulpit of the Evangelical Alliance: An Address Delivered in London, England, on September 14, 1846
London Inquirer, September 19, 1846 and London Patriot, September 17, 1846.
Mr. Frederick Douglass rose to address the audience. He said that he had determined not to speak, as he could add nothing to what had been so eloquently told them; but since they showed a readiness to hear him, he would just say a few words, and add his testimony to that already given as to the character of American slavery, and the religion of the land in which it was upheld and sustained. The slave system in America finds no stronger ally in any quarter than in the American church.
You will observe, that during the speeches of Mr. Garrison and Mr. Thompson, special reference has been made to the church in America. Why, Sir, do we so often allude to this, and make special attacks on the American church and clergy? It is not because we have any war with them as a body of Christians, not because we have any war with the ministers in America, as such,not at all; but they have thrown themselves across the pathway of emancipation, and made it our duty to make war upon them, or desert the cause of the slave. Why, Sir, the political parties in the United States that uphold the sin of slavery dwindle into insignificance, when compared with the power exercised by the church to uphold and sustain that system.
It is from the pulpit that we have sermons on behalf of slavery; it is with reasonings such as you have heard from Bishop Meade (alluding to some extracts read by Mr. Thompson, from a Book of Sermons for Slaves) that the Abolitionists have to contend. What is worse, all the religious instruction given to slaves in the United States is mingled with just such sentiments as you have heard here. The slave-holders doom the slave to ignorance first, and then take advantage of his ignorance, and that highest element of the human character, the religious sentiment, to reduce him to slavery.
I have heard sermon after sermon, when a slave, intended to make me satisfied with my condition, telling me that it is the position God intended me to occupy; that if I offend against my master, I offend against God; that my happiness in time and eternity depends on my entire obedience to my master. Those are the doctrines taught among slaves, and the slave-holders themselves have become conscious about holding slaves in bondage, and their consciences have been lulled to sleep by the preaching and teaching of the Southern American pulpits. "There is no place,'' said an Abolitionist in the United States, "where slavery finds a more secure abode than under the shadow of the sanctuary." The simple fact in itself, that three millions of slaves exist in a land where there are more than two millions of Evangelical Christians, ought to be sufficient to show that that Christianity, that Evangelical religion, is not what it ought to be(cheers).
Only think of a religion under which the handcuffs, the fetters, the whip, the gag, the thumbscrew, blood-hounds, cat-o'-nine-tails, branding-irons, all these implements, can be undisturbed. Only think of a body of men thanking God every Sabbath-day that they live in a country where there is civil and religious freedom, when there are three millions of people herded together in a state of concubinage, denied the right to learn to read the name of the God that made them,where there are laws that doom the black man to death for offences which, if committed by white men, would pass unpunished. Think of a man standing up among such a people, and never raising a whisper in condemnation of such a state of things, denouncing the slaveholders, or speaking a word of pity or sympathy with the poor slave. This in itself should have been sufficient to have led the Evangelical Alliance to have barred and bolted its gateways, to keep out from them the persons who have been here, such as Dr. Smyth, of Charleston, South Carolina. I happen to know something of him. Sir, that man stands charged, and justly charged, with performing mock marriages, in the city of Charleston, among the slaves, leaving out the most important part of the ceremony, "What God has bound together, let no man put asunder." When marriages are performed among slaves, this is left out, and for the best of reasons,when they marry them with the understanding that their masters have the right and power of tearing asunder those they have pretended to join together(cries of "Shame, shame").
I do believe the Evangelical Alliance was hoodwinked, that they were misled; I do not think they really understood the matter; they were led off by such statements as this,that the slave-holders were in such a position, that they could not emancipate their slaves if they would; and there is just enough truth in this to save it from being an absolute falsehood; there are laws in America which make emancipation depend upon expatriation; they say that unless a slave be removed from the State, his master shall not emancipate him; or if he does, he shall be reduced to slavery again by the State. Well, the slave-holders who made this law take shelter under it; and Dr. Marsh, in Newcastle, the other day, on being called on to know why, if temperance had removed intemperance from the land, why it had not removed slavery? he declared, that the slave-holders, if they emancipated their slaves, would at once be thrown into prison. Well, it is by such statements as these that the slave-holders led them astray.
I wish to undeceive them as far as I can; the slave-holders are not compelled to retain their slaves. If they will leave it to their slaves for five minutes, they will decide the question. All the slave-holders have to do, is to say to the slave, I have done with you; I cannot, with any conscience, hold you; it is true you cannot be free on this soil, but the British lion rules on three sides of us; Canada is round us; go to Canada, and be free from the talons and beak of the American eagle(loud cheers). All that the slave-holder has to do, is to say,Go. But what if the law did make it impossible for a man to emancipate his slaves; there is one outlet yet; the slave-holder himself could leave the state, and say to the state,If you will have slavery, if you will stain your soil and country with slavery, I for one will not stay among you(hear, hear). If the slave-holding Christians of the South would only take that course, and say,Unless you give up slavery, and allow us to emancipate our slaves, we will leave the state,what a sublime spectacle it would present, to see the Christians of the Southern States marching out two abreast: it would present a far sublimer spectacle than the Evangelical Alliance(loud cheers).
One word in reference to my friend Garrison's allusion to the prayers in the Evangelical Alliance: I have all my days been accustomed to prayer, in connection with slavery: my master was a praying man; the man who claims to own these hands, and who has bound himself almost with the solemnity of an oath, that if ever again I set my feet on the American soil I shall be a slave, that man prays, at morning, noon, and nights; and I have seen him tie up by the hands a female cousin of my own, and lash her with a cow-skin, till the warm blood trickled at her feet, and all the while say, "the slave that knoweth his master's will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes"(shame). I have seen my master's brother trample my own brother to the ground, and stamp on him with his boot, till the blood gushed from his nose. I have seen these things in the midst of prayer.
When the Presbyterian assembly was called on a few years ago, to say that slavery is a sin against God, it was voted by the Assembly, that it is inexpedient to take action on the subject, and as soon as that was done, Dr. Cox jumped up and clapped his hands, and thanked God that their Vesuvius was capped; and having got rid of slavery, they all engaged in prayer; while the poor heart-broken slave was lifting up his hands to them, and clanking his chains and imploring them in the name of God to aid him; and their reply was, it is inexpedient for us to do so: and Dr. Cox clapped his hands and thanked God that the Vesuvius was capped; that is, that the question of slavery is got rid of. And so it was with Methodists; and so it is with almost all the religious bodies in the United States. It was these reverend doctors who led astray the British ministers in the Evangelical Alliance, on this question of slavery; they dared not go home to America as connected with the Alliance, if anything had been registered against slavery by that Alliance; they knew who were their masters, and that they must be uncompromising(hear, hear) . . . .
I know the prayers of slaveholders. I have been the slave of religious and irreligious slaveholders, and I bear my testimony, that next to being a slave at all, I regard the greatest calamity to be that of belonging to a religious slaveholder. (Cries of hear, and cheers.) I have found them the most mean, the most exacting, the most cruel. This is a startling position, but it is true as far as my experience is concerned. I know not how to explain it, but such is the fact. The religious slaveholders are the most tenacious of slavery.
I wish the people of this country to be acquainted with the divisions that have taken place with respect to the Methodist church. It is believed here, that there is an anti-slavery and a pro-slavery Methodist Episcopalian church; that the Methodist church, north and south, differ entirely with regard to that subject; but I wish you to understand that the Methodist church south is no more pro-slavery than the Methodist church north. The former is honest in declaring its adherence to slaverythe former has been governed by expediency, and, in 1844, after the division took place, Bishop Andrew became a slaveholder by marriage. He had the power of emancipating his slaves, and, coming to the slave conference, and being called upon to do so, said he would not. (Hear, hear.) A resolution was introduced, to the following effect: "That Bishop Andrew be, and he hereby is requested to suspend his labours till he has got rid of his impediment!" (Laughter and cheers.)
We have various ways of covering slavery. We call it sometimes a peculiar institutionthe patriarchal institutionthe civil and domestic institution, but it was left for the Methodists to coin a new phrase by which to designate slavery, and it is, "The Impediment!" He was requested to suspend his labour till he had got rid of his impediment. (Laughter and cheers.) One might have thought it was his newly-married wife. (Laughter.)
How long do you think it took the Conference to settle this question? Just three times as long as it took the Evangelical Alliance to settle the compromisethree weeks. They had prayers for the Committee to examine the matterthey had Conferences that they might be brought to an harmonious resolution. They fasted and prayed, and had communion and prayed, and had love-feasts and prayed. They held class-meetings and prayed, and held all kinds of meetings for three weeks, and came to the determination that Bishop Andrews be, and hereby is what?suspended? No; but requested to suspend himself till he got rid of his impediments,only requested! He was left to determine how he should get rid of the slaves. Had the bishop become a sheep-stealer instead of a man-stealer, he would have been cut off at once. Had the Evangelical Alliance the other day had to do with sheep-stealing, had they known how much better a man is than a sheep, they would at once have declared against the slaveholders. (Loud cheers.)
Now, I want to say a word to you of grave importance, as Christians, as friends of the spread of the Gospel and the circulation of the Bible; I want you to remember, that there are three millions of people, within fourteen days' sail of your own green isle, unable to read the name of the Almighty. These are men; I hope you will consider them as such(hear, hear). These are beings redeemed by the blood of Christ; I hope you will consider them as such(hear). They are your brethren; I hope you will consider them as such(loud cheers). They have no Bible; it is a crime to instruct them to read. I have a proposition for British Christians, and, by the help of God, I will go through the length and breadth of this land, calling on people to aid me in what I am about to propose; it is, that a large sum of money be raised in England to procure Bibles, that they shall be placed on shipboard, to supply the Negroes, not in a heathen land, but in Christian America, with Bibles(great applause). I want you to think of this. I should like to see that ship laden with the Gospel, her sails spread to the breeze, manned by a Christian captain and crew, having on board true Christian missionaries to expound the words of inspired wisdom to those slaves. I should like to see that ship sailing before the gentle gale, to see her freighted with light and love to those benighted bondsmen in the United States.
And I should like to see another sight, which I know would follow, that the slave-holders, and among them Christians, would shoulder their muskets and buckle on their swords, to fight away the Bible and Christianity. They dread the spread of the Gospel among the slaves (cheers). But let the thing be tried; the experiment is worth trying. What a spectacle for men and angels to look upon,Christian England demanding the right to preach the Gospel in America. Let it be tried, and it will wake the attention of the civilised world to the position of the American people.
The Americans have again and again declared they would not entertain the proposition of giving the Bible to the slaves; yet I say they are men; they are just as I am. I am a human being. I know I am. I have all the feelings of a man(cheers). What I claim for myself I grant to the blackest slave on the American plantations, many of whom are my superiors, many of whom are but poorly represented here in my person. I have, when a slave, stolen away, Sabbath after Sabbath, spent in the woods, with two or three coloured people,slaves,stealing a little knowledge of the letters which would enable them to read the Scriptures, and I have the pleasing reflection of having been able to teach three or four of them to read, before I left slavery(cheers). Be it known to you, British Christians, that there is not a rood of land in America on which I can stand with any degree of safety("shame"). I am overshadowed in every part with the expectation of being snatched from my wife and children, and hurled back into the jaws of that slavery from which I have escaped, and I am everywhere pressed by the Christians in this land to stay here(hear, hear).
I thank you; I feel mighty glad to be in England(great applause). I thank such as invite me to stay. The Rev. Dr. Campbell, in another place in this city, formed a proposition to raise an amount of money, in order to bring my family to this land(great cheering). The money was raised, and I thought, at the time, I would bring my family to this country; but, on reflection, I was fearful, if I settled here, I might forget my brethren in bonds, and I have resolved not to bring my family to England, but to return to America,to go back, whether in slavery or freedom, and do what I can in that land to aid those in slavery; and I will continue to protest against Christian slavery, and man-stealing, woman-whipping, cradle-plundering religion(great applause).
I will now close by thanking you for the manner in which you have received the various propositions contained in these resolutions. I tell you, your meeting to-night will do more good than all the meetings of the Evangelical Alliance together(loud cheers). Nobody will care what the Evangelical Alliance has done, while the slave-holders will see in this demonstration the concentration of the anti-slavery sentiment in England, and they will not dare to venture here again(cheers). I hope that the Anti-Slavery League, of which this is the first demonstration, may grow and prosper, till every slave throughout America, and all other lands, shall have been freed from his chains. Mr. Douglass resumed his seat amidst loud and long-continued cheering.