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From Abolitionists to Supporters: a Historical Evaluation of the Relationship between Southern Baptists and Slavery

During the earliest period of their history in America, Southern Baptists questioned the morals of slavery, but over time they became a denomination that largely ignored or even supported it. Why did this change occur?

Nathan Bruce is a guest writer at the Journal on World Affairs. The opinions offered in this article do not necessarily reflect that of the Journal’s.

The relationship between Christianity and African Americans is long, complex, and highly varied, with some denominations such as Quakers having been staunch abolitionists, while others were even more staunch apologists for slavery. Southern Baptists provide an interesting look into this complex relationship. During the earliest period of their history in America, Southern Baptists questioned the morals of slavery, but over time they became a denomination that largely ignored or even supported it. One might question why this change occurred, and the purpose of this article will be to put the timeline of Southern Baptists into historical context in order to answer that question.

There are numerous examples of some early Southern Baptists being highly critical of slavery, as well as others who were very much active participants in it. The two sides would often come into conflict about the matter, but anti-slavery sentiment amongst Southern Baptists was more common in their early history. In fact, the earliest known instance of Baptist commentary on slavery (which dates all the back to 1710) was when a congregation in South Carolina questioned the cruelty of punishments allowed by the slave code. Many Southern Baptists freed their enslaved people during the American Revolution, and there is a record of Virginia’s General Committee of Baptists deeming slavery as a “violent deprivation of the rights of nature” and suggesting that Baptists should “make use of every legal measure to extirpate the horrid evil from our land.”1 Unfortunately, none of these arguments were effective at actually preventing the Baptist community as a whole from continuing to enslave individuals.

Early Baptists were very different from the mainstream denomination that they are today. They were also quite distinct from other Protestant denominations of the 1700’s in their manner of dress, speech, and in their values. Baptists believed it was godly to live minimalistic, austere lives – to work hard, and to speak and dress plainly. Conversely, they also believed that wealth and leisure were distractions that would lead to ungodly behavior, which thereby conflicted with wealthy slave owners who were able to live in comfort due to enslaved labor.2 As a result, Baptists viewed slave owners as sinners, and by extension they viewed slavery as something that could lead one towards an impure path.

Another factor which made early Baptists more opposed to slavery was that Baptists were a persecuted minority during this time (at least by white Protestant standards), due to the favoritism that was given to the Anglican Church. This persecution led to Baptists feeling like they had some commonality with the oppression of enslaved people, to whom they often preached and proselytized, a practice which they continued all the way through the end of American slavery. The evangelization of enslaved people was strongly opposed by many non-Baptist slave owners.3 

By the late 1700’s, however, Baptists had become a more mainstream denomination, gaining more religious freedom, as well as wealthier members, which ultimately led to a shift away from their traditional values and practices. Many ministers abandoned the practice of having plain speech and clothing,4 and it became increasingly common for Baptists to be slave owners. Internal division still occurred, and ministers such as John Asplund and John Leland maintained opposition to ownership of slaves. They viewed the normalization of their denomination as a spiritual rotting, and urged Baptist slave owners to liberate their enslaved people in order to return to the old simplistic Baptist lifestyle.5

Leland had a resolution passed at the Baptist General Committee to condemn slavery and urge Baptists to try to rid the world of it. However, this resolution was not universally supported by individual Baptist congregations, who were resistant to any overarching mandate that the committee tried to force upon them.6  In acknowledgment of the resistance to the anti-slavery resolution, the General Committee voted in 1793 to dismiss the subject regarding it as a political issue that should not be dictated by the church.7

A few individual Baptists continued to be staunch abolitionists; however, David Barrow (who did work in both Virginia and Kentucky) denounced slavery as a “fashionable sin” and stated that he believed the main cause of people’s objection to abolition was “the love of money.”8 Additionally, Carter Tarrant pointed out that Baptists de-prioritizing slavery by using the excuse that the government allowed it showed their belief that “the policy of a nation supersedes the law of God.”9

Despite the existence of outspoken abolitionists like Tarrant and Barrow, opposition to slavery was scarce amongst white Southern Baptists. In 1813, a man from New England named David Benedict travelled around the South, and reported that the prevailing opinion on slavery amongst Baptists in the South was that it was an inherited institution and that scripture supported it. The opinions of Richard Furman (a Charleston pastor) were much closer to that of the average Southern Baptist at the time than the opinions of Tarrant and Barrow were. In 1823, Furman wrote a piece that was critical of the laws which prohibited giving religious instruction to enslaved people. Furman stated that such instruction was harmless because the Bible supported slavery, and that as long as enslaved people were treated with humanity, they would be better off than the poor in many other countries. This sentiment was widely echoed by slavery apologists all throughout the antebellum period.10

There was a significant amount of variation on the favorability towards slavery between different parts of the South. In the “Upper South” (Tennessee and Kentucky) it was more common to support abolition because slavery was less important to the economy than it was in the “Deep South.”11 Baptist ministers in 1700’s Kentucky almost universally regarded slavery as evil;12 however, they could not agree on on how to make peace between the opposing beliefs held by members of the Baptist church. Over time this shifted to indifference, and anti-slavery resolutions were delayed and eventually dismissed by the Kentucky Baptist Association.13

David Barrow was expelled from his association for his hardline stance on emancipation when most of the other ministers were content to allow it to be a political issue. Barrow then formed his own anti-slavery association, which immediately passed a resolution declaring slavery to be abhorrent. Barrow also wrote a sixty-four page pamphlet dedicated to his condemnation of slavery. Unfortunately, his fellow Kentuckians did not match his passion, and his association dwindled. Barrow’s own passion, however, did not dwindle, and he continued to work towards abolition until his dying days. Before he died in 1819, he wrote a final message- “I have no more doubt that God will one day deliver the African from slavery, than that he once rescued Israel…. Poor Kentucky! Poor Kentucky!”14

In the early 1800’s, Baptists in the “Deep South” did not seem to have any qualms about slavery itself, but they did make a show of being compassionate for enslaved people at times. In 1808, the Mississippi Baptist Association recommended that its members “deal with them in brotherly love, according to the rules of the gospel” rather than treating enslaved people cruelly.15 If one were to look at that recommendation with an even slightly critical eye, however, one might come to the conclusion that it is vague and toothless. The resolution most likely would not benefit any enslaved people nor change the behavior of any slave owners who were inclined towards cruelty. Today, a gesture like that might be called “virtue signaling,” which is when one does some moralistic grandstanding in order to convince others that they are of good character.

At their annual meetings in 1835 and 1837, the Alabama and Mississippi Baptist Conventions declared that abolitionism would create instability in the nation, that it was contradictory to the teachings of Jesus, and that it would negatively affect the well-being of enslaved people.16 The former opinion arguably had some truth to it, as evidenced by the fact that three decades later, the Civil War would be fought over the issue. The latter two arguments, however, are yet more examples of the mental gymnastics that pro-slavery Christians performed in order to convince themselves that it was not only acceptable, but noble and holy to continue owning human beings as property. The level of disconnection between their conception of the world and the reality of the world is remarkable. To claim that the most Christian way that they could treat Black people was to keep them in chains and deny them basic liberties is a sign of either tremendous delusion or tremendous lack of regard for non-whites, or most likely a combination of both.

John M. Peck was a prominent figure in the Baptist church in the 1800’s who lived in Illinois. In 1841-42, he traveled to the South and witnessed the sale of a young slave in Nashville. He was appalled by what he had seen, writing that “slavery in its best state is a violation of man’s nature and of the Christian law of love.”17 Naturally, the reaction to his statement in the South was negative. The editor of a Shelbyville, Kentucky-based publication known as the Baptist Banner pushed back on the “meddling” of abolitionists in the Southern economy and culture, claiming that although slavery was evil, abolitionists were not working towards a practical solution because they were speaking to the enslaved people, rather than the masters.18 Seemingly, this editor was less sympathetic towards the people who were suffering than he was towards the people who were inflicting the suffering. This only serves to further demonstrate the egocentricity and lack of empathy or even genuine concern for Black people that was rampant in the South amongst those claiming to be “good Christians” at the time, even including some who claimed that they were not pro-slavery.

In 1844, the General Board of Baptist Foreign Missions (a national organization) was accused by a group of Southern Baptists of having relieved a preacher named John Bushyhead of his duties. The Southerners felt that Bushyhead had been persecuted for his status as a slave owner. They threatened to withhold sending any future payments to the Board, unless the Board made an explicit declaration that slave owners were equally entitled to perform all duties within the organization. The Board refused to make such a policy, saying that their anti-slavery stance would not waver from a decrease in funding. All of these decades of regional tensions within the Baptist church finally resulted in the South separating and forming their own organization. The Southern Baptist Convention was officially formed on May 8th, 1845.19

By the mid-1800’s slavery was no longer considered to be a controversial issue amongst Southern Baptists, but rather an establishment that already existed, and which they did not question. Some Northern Baptist ministers thought that slavery was a sin, while their Southern counterparts did not. If Southerners considered slavery a sin, they would not be able to compromise with it.20 The more neutral “moderates,” who were neither pro-slavery nor in favor of abolition, made up the majority of the clergy in the South.

One interesting argument against abolition was from Dr. Richard Fuller of Baltimore. He stated that Jesus had witnessed an abundant amount of slavery in his life, but that he never tried to use force to end it. Other arguments against abolition were that that they were ignorant of the reality of slavery, that many enslaved people would not want to be free if they were presented with the option, and that Northerners would not be against slavery if it had been profitable for them.21 The latter argument likely had some truth to it, as it has been historically accurate that white Americans tend to be much less selfless when it comes to making life better for Black people if it comes at a personal cost to them. The latter argument may have had some truth to it, considering the recurring pattern of white people being more accepting of slavery if they directly benefit from it, e.g. Baptists becoming more tolerant of it when they became a wealthier denomination, or the fact that abolitionism was more popular in the Upper South than the Deep South. In retrospect, however, the rest of the arguments can be considered twisted rationalizations. The sheer number of slave rebellions and escapes throughout history are evidence enough that enslaved people were very much not content with their position, and often took every opportunity that they could to attain freedom.

Another popular Southern Baptist defense of slavery was that it was not harmful to enslaved people, but beneficial. Slave owners claimed that the people they enslaved would not be capable of functioning in society if they were free,22 and publications often cited examples of former enslaved people voluntarily returning to their former masters. The slaveholding Baptists also considered it their holy duty to bring their enslaved people to salvation though religious education, believing that God wanted them to bring the Gospel to those whom they did not consider able to fend for themselves spiritually.23 By this logic, Southern Baptist believed that abolition would render them unable to fulfill this duty. This paternalistic sentiment all serves to demonstrate that as much as the Southern Baptists wanted to view themselves and their justifications for slavery as noble, they also held deeply rooted white supremacist views.

Some Southern Baptists publications, such as the Southwestern Baptist Chronicle, criticized England for participating in the international slave trade, which they considered inhumane.24 It is difficult to not see the irony and hypocrisy in this, as even though America’s participation in the international slave trade had significantly decreased at this point, the domestic slave trade was very much still thriving. They seemed to only think that slavery was a condemnable act if it was someone else doing it or doing it in a different way. It is noted that the majority of Southern Baptists did not ardently defend slavery, so much as they dismissed it as a political issue that should not be a matter of controversy on the grounds of religion.25 This stands in contrast to religious institutions in the present day, when it is quite common for them to openly align themselves with politics, even endorsing candidates.

Although most Southern Baptists were either indifferent about slavery or ardent defenders of it, there was one way that they were more progressive than most of their fellow Southern Protestant slave owners ─interracial churches. It was common for them to worship in the same church as enslaved people or with free Black people, which was not the norm in other denominations.26 One may be inclined to give a small amount of credit to the Baptists for doing this, but upon closer inspection it seems much less commendable. This worship was naturally very much controlled by the masters. Although Black Baptist preachers were not unheard of, it was typically white people who were doing the preaching. Black and white worshippers also normally sat in different areas of the church,27 with the areas for Black people being located more on the periphery of the church.28 All of these things served to reinforce white supremacy, in both the physical space of the churches and in the minds of the worshippers.

During the Reconstruction Era, the separate seating in churches took the next logical step of segregation through segregated  churches. This separation was not entirely the decision of the white Baptists, however. The freedmen also preferred to go establish their own churches, as they felt they would not be able to establish any meaningful autonomy if they remained in the white-run churches that they used to worship in.29 The membership of Black Baptist organizations exploded during Reconstruction. By 1882, statewide Black Baptist conventions had been created in every southern state, and the collective membership of these organizations was an astounding 800,000. In 1886, a national body was created ─ the American National Baptist Convention.30 This and other historically Black churches to this day still play a central part in the lives of many Black Americans.

Although racially segregated churches did become the norm for Baptists during Reconstruction, that was not the desired outcome for many white Southern Baptists in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. This might be surprising, because one might think that former slave owners would have been in favor of racist policies like segregation, but there is a very cynical and racist explanation for why they were not. The former slave owners believed that if freedmen went off and formed their own churches, it would allow them to gain a degree of spiritual independence and self-determination from white people. Thus, the former masters had selfish reasons to want to keep the Black population dependent on them and subservient to them. This included keeping them in the same churches, and in the same roles in those churches. Southerners also feared that “meddling” Northern white people would flood into the South after the war and would “infiltrate” the churches, schools, and political offices in an attempt to incite racial conflict.31 Naturally, Southern white people were very much interested in maintaining the existing racial order of the time in order to maintain their dominant position.

There is a less cynical (but still very racist) explanation for the desire of white Southern Baptists to keep freedmen worshipping at the same churches. They believed that Black people did not have the requisite financial means or intelligence to be able to be successful on their own. They believed that because many Black ministers were illiterate, that worshippers at Black churches would be misinformed on the scripture and become superstitious. They thought it would be in Black peoples’ best interests if the churches remained integrated and the freedmen could remain under the paternalistic white guidance.32 While it is possible that white Baptists may have felt some genuine concern for the spiritual well-being of formerly enslaved people; but, in keeping with their previous behavior, the reasoning for their concern was deeply rooted in a sense of white supremacy.  

A recurring theme that can be observed in this timeline is that the majority of white Southern Baptists of the time were only concerned with the welfare of Black people if it benefitted their own welfare. They used Christianity as a tool to justify the oppression of Black Americans, whether it was in the form of slavery or segregation, and they were not inclined to be open-minded towards those who challenged their norms. Southern Baptists of today may want to focus more on the members of their church who were abolitionist mavericks, such as Asplund, Leland, and Barrow. While those men should be recognized as being relatively virtuous for white men of their time, that is a very low bar to surpass. It cannot be forgotten that their views were not shared by the majority of their church, and that they were ostracized for what they believed. Modern Southern Baptists may find it difficult to reconcile with the reprehensible past of their denomination, but one should not ignore an unsavory part of history for the sake of their own comfort.


Endnotes

[1] John Lee Eighmy. “The Baptists and Slavery: An Examination of the Origins and Benefits of Segregation.” Social Science Quarterly 49, no. 3 (1968): 666.

[2] James David Essig. “A Very Wintry Season: Virginia Baptists and Slavery, 1785-1797.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 88, no. 2 (1980): 174.

[3] James David Essig. “A Very Wintry Season: Virginia Baptists and Slavery, 1785-1797.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 88, no. 2 (1980): 175.

[4] James David Essig. “A Very Wintry Season: Virginia Baptists and Slavery, 1785-1797.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 88, no. 2 (1980): 177-178.

[5] James David Essig. “A Very Wintry Season: Virginia Baptists and Slavery, 1785-1797.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 88, no. 2 (1980): 180.

[6] James David Essig. “A Very Wintry Season: Virginia Baptists and Slavery, 1785-1797.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 88, no. 2 (1980): 181-182.

[7] James David Essig. “A Very Wintry Season: Virginia Baptists and Slavery, 1785-1797.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 88, no. 2 (1980): 182-183.

[8] James David Essig. “A Very Wintry Season: Virginia Baptists and Slavery, 1785-1797.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 88, no. 2 (1980): 183.

[9] James David Essig. “A Very Wintry Season: Virginia Baptists and Slavery, 1785-1797.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 88, no. 2 (1980): 184.

[10] John Lee Eighmy. “The Baptists and Slavery: An Examination of the Origins and Benefits of Segregation.” Social Science Quarterly 49, no. 3 (1968): 667.

[11] Walter B. Posey. “The Baptists and Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley.” The Journal of Negro History 41, no. 2 (1956): 117.

[12] Walter B. Posey. “The Baptists and Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley.” The Journal of Negro History 41, no. 2 (1956): 118.

[13] Walter B. Posey. “The Baptists and Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley.” The Journal of Negro History 41, no. 2 (1956): 119.

[14] Walter B. Posey. “The Baptists and Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley.” The Journal of Negro History 41, no. 2 (1956): 120.

[15] Walter B. Posey. “The Baptists and Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley.” The Journal of Negro History 41, no. 2 (1956): 123.

[16] Walter B. Posey. “The Baptists and Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley.” The Journal of Negro History 41, no. 2 (1956): 126.

[17] Walter B. Posey. “The Baptists and Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley.” The Journal of Negro History 41, no. 2 (1956): 127.

[18] Walter B. Posey. “The Baptists and Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley.” The Journal of Negro History 41, no. 2 (1956): 128.

[19] Walter B. Posey. “The Baptists and Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley.” The Journal of Negro History 41, no. 2 (1956): 128-129.

[20] Glen Jeansonne. “Southern Baptist Attitudes Toward Slavery, 1845-1861.” The Georgia          Historical Quarterly 55, no. 4 (1971): 510.

[21] Glen Jeansonne. “Southern Baptist Attitudes Toward Slavery, 1845-1861.” The Georgia          Historical Quarterly 55, no. 4 (1971): 511.

[22] Glen Jeansonne. “Southern Baptist Attitudes Toward Slavery, 1845-1861.” The Georgia          Historical Quarterly 55, no. 4 (1971): 515.

[23] Glen Jeansonne. “Southern Baptist Attitudes Toward Slavery, 1845-1861.” The Georgia          Historical Quarterly 55, no. 4 (1971): 516.

[24] Glen Jeansonne. “Southern Baptist Attitudes Toward Slavery, 1845-1861.” The Georgia          Historical Quarterly 55, no. 4 (1971): 513.

[25] Glen Jeansonne. “Southern Baptist Attitudes Toward Slavery, 1845-1861.” The Georgia          Historical Quarterly 55, no. 4 (1971): 514.

[26] John Lee Eighmy. “The Baptists and Slavery: An Examination of the Origins and Benefits of Segregation.” Social Science Quarterly 49, no. 3 (1968): 669.

[27] John Lee Eighmy. “The Baptists and Slavery: An Examination of the Origins and Benefits of Segregation.” Social Science Quarterly 49, no. 3 (1968): 671.

[28] John W. Storey. “Southern Baptists and the Racial Controversy in the Churches and Schools During Reconstruction.” The Mississippi Quarterly 31, no. 2 (1978): 211.

[29] John W. Storey. “Southern Baptists and the Racial Controversy in the Churches and Schools During Reconstruction.” The Mississippi Quarterly 31, no. 2 (1978): 214.

[30] John Lee Eighmy. “The Baptists and Slavery: An Examination of the Origins and Benefits of Segregation.” Social Science Quarterly 49, no. 3 (1968): 673.

[31] John W. Storey. “Southern Baptists and the Racial Controversy in the Churches and Schools During Reconstruction.” The Mississippi Quarterly 31, no. 2 (1978): 212-213.[32] John W. Storey. “Southern Baptists and the Racial Controversy in the Churches and Schools During Reconstruction.” The Mississippi Quarterly 31, no. 2 (1978): 212.




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By Nathan Bruce

Nathan is a 4th year student at UCLA, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Study of Religion. He graduated in 2013 from Brashear High School in his hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, and then served on active duty in the U.S. Navy for four years. In 2019, he graduated magna cum laude from San Diego City College. He intends to become a public policy attorney, helping to push the government towards more progressive agendas.

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